When I was a teenager, there was a song that I learned in a youth ministry program that stuck in my head. The song Draw Me Close by Kelly Robert Carpenter spoke to me on an emotional level.
Draw me close to you
Never let me go
I lay it all down again
To hear you say that I’m your friend
In college, I encountered other songs. My church was Mt. Zion Baptist in Sioux City, Iowa. At Mt. Zion, music was one big emotional ball of cathartic energy. People cried, shouted, danced, laughed, applauded, and sang like their lungs might explode in five seconds. I loved it.
O what fellowship, o what joy divine, leaning on the everlasting arms…I sing because I’m happy, I sing because I’m free…what a friend we have in Jesus…
Take a listen…..
I felt that at Mt. Zion, no one cared what kind of emotional response you had to the music. Everyone had space to express themselves as they wished. If you wanted to be quiet, you could, but your neighbor just might be shouting and dancing next to you. Even the minister, while he was preaching, if he detected a tired atmosphere in the congregation, that people were bored or at least ready for lunch to begin, he’d start singing. And then the choir would join in. And then we joined. And we were back. And before we knew it, lunch was served.
Then, in graduate school. I started interning in churches. For the first time, I encountered a lot of people who participated regularly in church activities and worship, and who claimed to be Christians, but who did not care for songs like Draw Me Close or the gospel songs of Mt. Zion. In fact, I discovered early on in my professional vocation as a music and worship leader that this opposition was strong and loud.
Even church musicians and pastors didn’t want to sing these songs because, according to them, they were too emotionally-charged.
At first, I got defensive and didn’t know how to respond. But the more I researched the history of music used in services of worship [not just in Christianity, but in other religions, too]—I discovered that their argument was a reaction to changes they didn’t like. You see, music has been and always will be, emotionally-charged.
If a song doesn’t move you in some way, you don’t really remember it.
Some people, for example, claim that their hair stands up on the back of their neck when they hear certain symphonies of Mozart. Others fall into a rhythmic trance when they listen to particular hip hop songs. Still others are mesmerized by pop choruses; and some cannot get enough of the twang of country music or the hard-driving guitars and drums of heavy metal.
The fact is, music is emotional.
Now I fully admit that some songs are cheesy and annoyingly repetitive—in every genre. But our reaction to types of music is based on our social conditioning and our tastes. And so, one song that brings about a great emotional response in someone may not do the same for another person.
In spite of this, much of the Western Christian church [specifically mainline denominations with European heritage] continues to say that emotional songs are inferior to say, songs in the Reformed tradition that require an organ and were written during a certain time period and, according to them, are reverent songs that fit into 4-5 stanzas.
Again—don’t get me wrong. Reverence certainly has its place—in music, prayer, etc. I’ve been to prayer services at Sikh Gurdwaras, for example, and the songs they sing [based on their scriptures], certainly exhibit reverence for the divine presence. At the same time, though, emotion is involved. The divine is not aloof and far off, but here, in this moment, in relationship with all humankind. They use different instruments and vocal styles to reflect that. Consider also that I’ve participated in Hindu songs and prayers that follow meditative moments and then break out into celebratory clapping with cymbals. And I’ve been to plenty of live, secular music concerts during which people broke down in tears or looked like they were at Mt. Zion the way they danced and joyfully sang along.
Music, regardless of religious background, is often a bridge for us to see that humanity and the divine are connected.
That brings me to this saying in John’s Gospel, a continuation of the vine and branches metaphor. Jesus has just finished describing the beautifully-connected relationship between vinegrower, vine, and branches. Now, Jesus gives a simple command: love one another as I have loved you. And then this: no one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
But we need to know that laying one’s life down is not about dying. I have heard this phrase misquoted to explain why missionaries die in other countries or why Iraqi or Kenyan Christians are killed or why women and men of the military die at war.
I think this shows great disrespect—both to those who die, but also to those who are living. In John, Jesus doesn’t ask people to die for a religion.
If we say that and believe that, we are no different than any religious fanatics in the U.S. or around the world who hide behind religion in order to commit violent acts.
No, Jesus says, in the Greek, lay down one’s psuche. Psuche is roughly translated into English as breath, life-being, or soul. Apply that to the phrase and here are some possibilities:
- lay down (or set aside) your heart
- lay down your mind
- lay down your soul
- lay down your being
Keep in mind that Jesus of Nazareth and the writers of John’s Gospel were all influenced by Eastern philosophy. Psuche is a holistic word to represent our humanity—including our ego.
Ego means “I” in Eastern philosophy. It is the the named self, self-consciousness of self-recognition.
When you say: “I am.”
Ego is preoccupied with our future existence; ego helps us survive sometimes.
But ego also can distract us from simply knowing our own selves, i.e. being present in this very moment, and then knowing the people around us.
Jesus’ teachings, and many of the teachings of the apostle Paul, were about the spiritual goal of attaining self-knowledge of one’s own true nature to become experienced and enacted in the world. Some called this enlightenment [like John’s Gospel] and others called this salvation.
Simply put—it’s about knowing yourself fully, as you are.
Keeping this in mind helps us to better understand the meaning behind these Jesus words of laying down one’s life for one’s friends. We are commanded to love each other in a better way, and this love involves knowing ourselves in the present moment, and knowing those around us. It means setting aside that which would prevent us from truly loving others as they are.
The vinegrower God is a relatable divine presence. Jesus called his followers friends. The command here is not to be religious or to believe certain things; the command is to love in a certain way.
Consider Lean on Me and the great Bill Withers:
Please swallow your pride
If I have things you need to borrow
If there is a load you have to bear That you can’t carry
I’m right up the road, I’ll share your load
If you just call me
We all have loads that we carry in life, and our pride can get in the way of admitting how we feel in the present moment.
We’re meant to lighten our own loads, and the loads of others.
This is how God is a friend. God is not meant to be heavy at all. Jesus, a good friend, said if your load is heavy, come to me, and I’ll give you rest, because my load is light.
This is how much we are loved.
And this is how we are supposed to love others.
It is possible—it really is—to meet people where they are and as they are. If we push aside our pride and the things that distract us, we can become aware of your own prejudices or any other obstacles that keep us from loving others.
Can you accept it?
The divine is a friend.
That’s music to the ears!
Embrace friendship with your Creator; see and accept yourself as you are, in this moment; seek out and nurture divine friendship with your brothers and sisters of the world.