Almost nine years ago, I bid a bittersweet farewell to my twenties. I see the progress won in the intervening years, though I often measure it with inches, not miles.
But the quest to put childish ways behind us never really ends; it merely changes shape, becomes more scalable. A few means of self-expression survived the move from boyhood into a bigger place. Pick a social-media platform—from idle college days spent on Xanga to my present-tense presence on Facebook and Twitter. Wherever I digitally roam, I eventually leave a trail of song lyrics, presented without comment, as markers of identity and emotion.
Certainly the style and substance of these cryptic posts changed over time. In college, I drew deep from the wells of bands such as Jimmy Eat World—a couplet like “I can’t help it baby / This is who I am / Sorry but I can’t just go turn off how I feel” packs all the power of vague emotionalism.
Star-crossed eyes examine a Juliana Theory lyric like “We’ve got a lot of time / And it sure feels right / ‘Cause you reached in your pocket / And pulled out a pass / You can take me anywhere” and find the perfect hidden-in-plain-sight message, a public signal of private feelings intended for their beloved.
These days, my love is more likely to alight on a Shins stanza: “Love’s such a delicate thing that we do / With nothing to prove / Which I never knew.”
Navigating my shortcomings, and perpetual need for restoration, I’m prone to send Bruce Springsteen’s admission into the atmosphere: “Yeah, I know I ain’t nobody’s bargain / But hell, a little touchup and a little paint.” Jason Isbell faithfully answers the call when the dissonant demands of manhood require a disarming response mixing kindness and resolve.
My cache of verses grows, and hopefully matures, with time.
Sometimes I experience a shiver of embarrassment after volleying another person’s verse back into the world. Mostly I feel the warmth of gratitude. Compelling art lends us language for what once seemed inexpressible; we handle untouchable feelings with care, and reach across the void to share something of ourselves with anyone kind enough to pay attention. Nothing replaces an honest accounting of our emotions in our own words. But at worst, someone else’s poetry serves as a placeholder until we make more sense of ourselves; at best, they function like a Biblical Ebenezer, a monument built to a meaningful season.
All writing, whether bona fide or borrowed, transmits aspiration. We embrace thoughts, or express our own, which testify to who we want to be. So often, what we enter into the record represents our purest hopes for ourselves, the faint light of home somewhere in the distance.
Within Christian culture, it is common to select a “life verse,” a passage of Scripture meant to define or describe your spiritual journey. For years, if you asked, I would underline Philippians 3:10-11. Following Paul’s counterintuitive statement that, in the economy of Christ, loss is gain, these verses express the depth of his desire to identify with his savior in all things.
The whole passage is soulful and challenging, but I especially love the first five words of verse 10: “that I may know him.”
Those five words, then and now, seem to express the very crux of the Christian life: to know Jesus deeply and intimately, and lose ourselves in the joy of knowing him. Several Christmases ago, my wife’s parents asked my brothers-in-law and me for our life verses; they had the references carved into the grain of walking sticks placed around the tree. Indeed, Philippians 3:10-11 makes a welcome traveling companion.
Yet the more miles I walk, I find various verses animating my faith, depending on the scenery or season. The drive to know Christ feels preeminent for a time, then gives way to the pleading of the Psalmist; now there’s a guy who would spend the 21st century delivering lyrical longings via social media.
Throughout the last decade or so, Jeremiah 29’s entreaty to make the most of your exile stays close to my mind, nudging me out of bed and into my neighborhood. Depending on the day, my motivation might differ by just a few verses. On Monday, I might beg God to touch my unclean lips like Isaiah; by Wednesday, I voice his terms of surrender: “Here I am! Send me.”
I understand the appeal of settling on one verse, but we all know that no single chapter or book—let alone a verse—fully explains or expresses our spiritual sojourn. These verses stitched together create a garment for the journey; they lay down in front of me, like a trail of breadcrumbs leading home.
I need David and Solomon, Isaiah and Micah, Jesus’ red-letter conversations, Peter and James. Just like I need Jeff Tweedy, Nina Simone, The National and Julien Baker to speak for me sometimes. I need the whole counsel of rock and roll and the breadth of Scripture to tell me where I’ve been, who I am and who I want to be.
So if you catch me quoting Elliott Smith or Ephesians without expectation of a reply, please understand what’s happening. I’m not trying to be vague or indulge my dramatic side. I’m building bridges—back to myself and toward the God who breathes life into all these verses.
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