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August 8, 2004

The First Time

Warning! What follows is my first sermon! Sometimes Sundays have that effect on me.

One of the neat things about having a blog are all the comments I receive concerning the stuff I write. Sometimes the comments are nasty. Sometimes I have to delete them. But most of the time the comments are really nice, and even give me the opportunity to meet new people and correspond a little bit. As many of you know, I've been writing about my "Songs for a Desert Island" for a while now (under the category music) in which I've been picking songs that I would want to have with me if I was stranded on a desert island. One of the songs I wrote about was U2's I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For. Well, on July 21 I received a comment from "Beth" where she said:

Hey, late noticing this, but great take on the song. Shameless self-promotion: Steve Stockman has a sermon on this song in Get Up Off Your Knees where he reads it side by side with Philippians 3. He sees it very much the way you do, I think.

Cool. First of all I met a new person, Beth Maynard, rector of the Church of the Good Shepherd in Fairhaven, Massachusetts; secondly, she liked what I had to say and that is pretty neat; and thirdly she is the co-editor for a book of sermons based on the music of U2 called Get Up Off Your Knees. I have been waiting for a book like this for a long time. So, after reading her message I quickly filled out an Inter-Library Loan request for the book and waited patiently for it. It arrived two weeks later and I have been reading it ever since. What a wonderful book. U2 has certainly impacted a wide variety of people, and pastor's and priests are no exception. The book is full of sermons on social justice and the power of God's grace, and it powerfully demonstrates how popular culture and religion can intersect in a positive way. One thing that disappointed me, though, was none of the sermons dealt with the song "The First Time" off of the album Zooropa. This song, I feel, is ripe for a thought provoking sermon and I can't believe someone didn't tackle it's subject matter. So I'd like to attempt to write my interpretation of "The First Time" by U2. What I have found by reading Get Up Off Your Knees, though, is that I am not a pastor. Some of these sermons are so deep and passionate I almost talked myself out of even attempting to walk in their shoes. But I'll give it my best shot.

Attempts at interpreting "The First Time" have been published before. Most of the interpretations on the previous link are good, but I feel they miss the boat on what Bono is really trying to say. The subject matter is difficult, to be sure, and many Christians have interpreted this song as a sure fire example of Bono renouncing his faith. Again, try to understand that everything a song writer writes is not autobiographical. There could be elements of Bono's life in these lyrics, but to me I think Bono is doing little more than asking some simple questions through this song. What are those questions? Be patient! The lyrics start:

I have a lover, a lover like no other
She got soul, soul, soul, sweet soul
And she teach me how to sing.
Shows me colours when there's none to see
Gives me hope when I can't believe
That for the first time I feel love.

I agree with those people who write that this first stanza is about the Holy Spirit. The giveaway is Bono's reference to the Holy Spirit as a woman, something he also did in the song "Mysterious Ways." Bono expresses his love, and sings that she "teach me how to sing." The Holy Spirit is the giver of gifts, and there is little doubt who Bono credits with his own voice. The next stanza starts:
I have a brother, when I'm a brother in need
I spend my whole time running
He spends his running after me.
I feel myself goin' down
I just call and he comes around.
But for the first time I feel love.

This stanza is obviously, to me at least, about Jesus. Is there little doubt that Jesus is running after us, always ready to help us, always ready to be there when we need him most? Much like the first stanza, though, the singer sings that in spite of all of this, for the first time he feels love. It would seem that the singer has had a more powerful encounter with Jesus this time. That this time he finally understands what it means that Jesus is running after him. Jesus doesn't want a relationship with us only when we need him. He wants to be a part of every aspect of our lives, from sun-up to sun-down and everything in between. Is the singer ready to truly sacrifice himself for that kind of relationship?
My father is a rich man, he wears a rich man's cloak.
He gave me the keys to his kingdom (coming)
Gave me a cup of gold.
He said "I have many mansions
And there are many rooms to see."
But I left by the back door
And I threw away the key
And I threw away the key.

This song springs to mind the story of the Prodigal Son told in Luke 15:11-32. You know the story, the son asks for his inheritance, takes it and spends it all on women and wine, falls upon hard times (to say the least) and comes crawling back to his father thinking that he will become a servant of his father as he is no longer worthy of being his son. The father, however, is overjoyed that the son has returned. His father kills the "fatted calf" and they have a feast of thanksgiving that his son has come home. Jesus told this story to illustrate the love God has for us. What a powerful story of redemption and grace!

Check out Bono's lyrics again, though. The person in this story has returned again to his father's many roomed mansion, and has been given a "cup of gold" and the keys to the kingdom. But what does he do? He leaves by the back door and throws away the key! How heart-breaking! Why in the world did he do this? What is Bono trying to say?

I think Bono is asking some simple questions through this song: how long does God wait for us? How long does he keep running for us? How many times can we expect to be welcomed back into the kingdom after sqaundering our inheritance, after losing sight of him, after turning our back on him? Just how much grace does God really have for us? Bono could have ended the song by staying in the mansion, but he isn't going to make things that easy. Life is not so cut-and-dry. Faith is a constant struggle with peaks and valleys, overwhelming love and terrifying despair. Sometimes we leave the kingdom all together, we come back, and as Bono writes we leave again. How many times can we expect God to put up with this cycle?

I've got good news. God's grace is infinite. As difficult as it is to understand, God is always waiting for us, always willing to wash our sin away and make us into new people. It is mind-boggling to think about, yet beautiful in its simplicity. U2 wrote a song about grace called "Grace" in which Bono sings:

Grace, she takes the blame
She covers the shame
Removes the stain
What once was hurt, what once was friction
What left a mark no longer stains
Because Grace makes beauty out of ugly things

One of the best sermons in Get Up Off Your Knees deals with this amazing grace and is called "Grace the Beauty-Maker" by Wade Hodges. In it Pastor Hodges writes:

Our sin is huge. Its consequences are massive. Our rebellion has made a terrible mess of this world. But as large as our sin is, it cannot overshadow the grace of God. There is nothing we can do to make God stop loving us. There is no sin so great as to disqualify us from the opportunity to be reconciled. As our sin increases, God's grace increases all the more. God will not let sin have the last work in His story. No matter how far and wide the stain spreads, or how ugly it gets, God's grace is always big enough to cover the blemish and creative enough to make beauty out of something ugly.

So, to answer Bono's questions, God's grace never ceases. It is a gift we don't have any right to ask for, and yet it is freely given without any strings attached. All we need to do is accept it. "The First Time" is a difficult song that ends with pain and questions, but for me it illustrates the power of God's never-ending love for us. It is a love so powerful, that every time we leave the kingdom of God and return it will feel like the first time we felt God's love.

Posted by snackeru at August 8, 2004 10:28 PM


Good stuff for a first-time sermonizer. "Get Up Off Your Knees" sounds like a good enough book to consider purchasing.:-)

"I spend my whole time running
He spends his running after me."

I wonder if Bono was influenced there by the book of prayers, "Are You Running with Me, Jesus?" by Malcolm Boyd, published in 1965.

Posted by: oldstuffer at August 9, 2004 10:52 AM

Yes, purchase the book if you must. That would undoubtedly make the editors very happy! Bono is very well read so it wouldn't surprise me at all if he has read the text you mention above. And thanks for the kinds words towards my meager ramblings!

Posted by: Shane at August 9, 2004 11:14 AM

Shane, excellent job on the dissertation of the song. The very ending though of he throws away the keys and leaves through the back door, I have a diffenent take on. I believe that he is saying that he is not worthy of the kingdom. It is comparable to someone who is constantly told that they are nothing, turning to drugs, alchohol or other destructive means. Then, they are embraced by a person or group of people, accepted how they are and encouraged to change for the better with no strings attached. Many times, that person cannot deal with that kind of love and runs away believing that they are not worthy of that unconditional love. Everyone has this type of attitude in them, some more or less than others, as it is hard to believe that someone would love this greatly, regardless of the constant disobeying. We all do not feel worthy, and by our sinning we feel that we are throwing away the keys to the kingdom of God on a constant basis. Just doing a lyrical analysis as I have not heard this song.

By the way, what types of comments are you getting that you have to delete? I gotta see some of those.

Posted by: Cheesehead Craig at August 9, 2004 3:44 PM

Oooo ... I like your interpretation Craig. That would jive with the Prodigal Son story as the son also felt he was very unworthy. Sometimes grace is hard to accept. A person could almost feel that nothing is so freely given and even that there is something wrong with the gift, that it just doesn't make any sense. Nicely done.

Most of the time I have to delete comments dealing with my stadium ramblings.

Posted by: Shane at August 9, 2004 4:02 PM

Brilliant stuff! I hadn't realised that the song was so Trinitarian!
You say:
Check out Bono's lyrics again, though. The person in this story has returned again to his father's many roomed mansion, and has been given a "cup of gold" and the keys to the kingdom. But what does he do? He leaves by the back door and throws away the key! How heart-breaking! Why in the world did he do this? What is Bono trying to say?

Well maybe the answer is in the other song about a mansion - Playboy Mansion. See my sermon in the book!
Grace and Peace

Posted by: Derek at August 11, 2004 6:12 PM

Derek, yes I read your sermon and I was impressed. I didn't think you would be able to pull off a "double-meaning" to the Playboy Mansion, but it actually turned out very good. I think you are right, "It really is who you know who gets you through the gates." Very well done.

Posted by: Shane at August 12, 2004 9:39 AM

Me thinks you are being spammed!

Posted by: Dianna at February 23, 2005 8:54 AM

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