Songwriting often becomes a way of problem-solving. Or if not solving a problem, pulling it apart to see its parts. Sometimes the best a song can do is steep me in the problem – hold me in the mystery – long enough to hear something new. Wherever You Are is this type of song.
The problem is the wrenching tension between faith and doubt.
My problem was just forming when I wrote this song and I barely understood it. Even now that I think I understand it well enough, I’m not sure I can communicate it to you. That’s what this song is for.
Here is my best try explaining the problem. I have never felt as secure in the Christian faith as I do today. At the same time, I’ve never felt closer to walking away.
How is this possible? How can one feel faith and doubt intensely at the same time?
Is this faithful submission or faithless resignation?
I’m gonna be / wherever you are
tremble and quake / wherever you are
I sing this because it is true and because I want it to be true.
I sing this to God. Jesus. The Spirit. This is, for me, a deeply religious song.
I wrote Wherever You Are (the first version, at least) around 2007 in the early days of a church I was helping plant. We were a group of hip zealous young people and world-wizened elders wanting to change the world. Or at least the Church. Or at least our selves. I think we succeeded in that last part.
I was confused, coming unmoored from the constraints of my fundamentalist evangelical upbringing. It felt like a drift and I wondered if I would be OK. How far could I wander and still come home? But then I thought heard a Voice call from somewhere out in the fog.
Tremble and quake / wherever you are
That line used to read “I’ll come back to / wherever you are”, but a songwriter retreat in Santa Fe felt some of my lyrics lacked teeth. They were right. “Tremble and quake”, written several years later, brings in a new set of images. My Pentecostal past. The strange beauty of the Quakers who have a little meeting house in Santa Fe I’ve always been curious about. The “fear of the Lord”. Fear.
Wherever you are / you’ve brought me this far
But you’re leaving a scar / fromwherever you are
The chorus came in New Mexico.
I presented an earlier version of the song where the final section (“I’m tied to you …”) was the chorus. It was repeated throughout the song and the group felt that took away its punch. The song didn’t have a true chorus yet, they said. They were right.
I wrote this new chorus from a different place than the rest of the song. I’m less of an idealist now. Older. Maybe colder. Faith and doubt live more comfortably inside my heart. I’ll stick by God’s side, but I want him to know it hurts. Faithfulness leaves scars.
The earliest version of Wherever You Are drew lines from an encounter between Peter and Jesus in the Gospels. Jesus is getting popular and then he says something awkward. Unless his followers eat his flesh and drink his blood, they cannot follow him. Crazy. So they leave. Almost all of them turn around and walk away. But not Peter. Jesus asks him if he’s going to take off, too. He responds so honestly. “Where else would I go? You have the words of life.”
This was not Peter's full-hearted profession of faith, but rather a rejection of the alternatives. A realization that a life needs a purpose, even when that purpose makes life so much harder.“
Where else would I go?” I used to sing in a now-cut bridge. I used to build up and yell it. "WHERE ELSE WOULD I GO?!" That bridge gave too much away. Its sentiment folds back into the rest of the lyrics now. Out on a highway past the cell phone towers. Broken down and needed a reset. “In seas and in stars”. “In the smoke and the dark”. And so the answer this song offers is a question – “where else would I go?”
I’m tied to you
I’m a sail just waiting on your wind
I can’t see through you
and that is enough now to keep me in