I Want to Live

Thirty-six years ago this month, John Denver released the album, “I Want to Live.”  Its title song has often played across my mind.  Oddly enough, although John was a talented and prolific songwriter in his own right, this song that so perfectly fit his views on humanity and the environment was actually written by the team of Melvern Rivers Rutherford II and Brett James.

The song opens with a plaintive piano intro, then compares the condition of people “raised in sorrow, on a scorched and barren plain” with “children raised beneath the golden sun.”  While their estates may be very different, “they cry out through the universe, their voices raised as one.”

The chorus echoes the aspiration; the deep and yearning need of all of these children of the universe:

“I want to live, I want to grow

I want to see, I want to know

I want to share, what I can give,

I want to be, I want to live”

In the second verse, Denver’s love for the environment and nature shines through as he asks the questions about seeing and hearing the great sea-faring whales, in what is reminiscent of the queries God forced Job to endure at the end of that moral drama.

The bridge brings the focus home in a very personal way.  We can see ourselves in at least one of the roles listed as parts of the human family.  Perhaps it is no coincidence that the Randian titles of “maker” and “user” are merged in this paean to unity.

“For the worker and the warrior, the lover and the liar

For the native and the wanderer in kind

For the maker and the user and the mother and her son

I am looking for my family and all of you are mine”

The final verse of the song, now no longer a plaintive cry, but a firm resolution, presents a means to a achieve so many things that have long eluded us: unity, prosperity, peace.

“We are standing all together, face to face and arm in arm

We are standing on the threshold of a dream

No more hunger, no more killing, no more wasting life away

It is simply an idea and I know it’s time has come”

Here, the writers’ words, brought forcefully to life by Denver, tell us that we can overcome suffering, whether poverty or famine or war, by becoming one in purpose, by looking each other in the eye and facing the weakness born of our differences and moving from that confrontational posture to the strength of linked arms and unified purpose.  It is a powerful image in a masterfully written song, performed by a singer whose sincerity was evident in the causes he championed.

I love this song for so many reasons.  It is not only beautiful and beautifully performed as recorded in 1977, it is both a prayer and an anthem for peace among mankind, and indeed, among all creation. I am not so naïve as to think that this can magically occur.  There will never come a time when all people everywhere will share such a vision.  Nowhere is this more evident than in the religious world today.  Where Jesus prayed for the unity of all his believers, we continually find ways to obscure and distort that divine vision and ideal.

I have been thinking about a scene recorded in Mark 9.  In verse 38, John reports to Jesus that he had seen someone casting out demons in Jesus’ name, and tried to stop him, since he was not numbered among the disciples, “he was not following us.”  In the next verses, Jesus lays out a fundamental truth and its explanation—a truth that we would prefer not to accept:  “39 But Jesus said, “Do not stop him, for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.  40 For the one who is not against us is for us.”

Just the other day, an old friend who has accepted a distinctly different faith tradition, posted this verse on a social network site, with the sentiment that at the end of the day, Christians, despite the variance in our religious traditions, all serve the same master.  He asserted that we should join forces against the real enemy rather than quarrel and bicker and condemn each other.  I was a little stunned to see this, because I had been pondering this very verse earlier that day, thinking about the writings of several men whom I admire for their depth and clarity, and I have slowly come to the realization that the things that unite us are indeed greater than the things that divide us.  With so much variation both among and even within faith traditions, it is not likely that any single group has cornered the market on all truth.  No matter who we are, no matter which faith tradition we espouse, if any of us are to be saved, we  shall be debtors to the only thing that can save us: grace.

Grace.  Those five letters strike fear into the hearts of people who see faith as a burden of law-keeping, but bring the only relief to seekers who truly know their own weaknesses and limitations.  I believe in Jesus’ power to save.  To demonstrate that I accept this gift of grace, I do as he commands, because he told his disciples that, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”  I follow them to the best of my knowledge and understanding.

But what if my knowledge and understanding are flawed?  Paul provides the remedy in Ephesians 2:

“4  But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5  even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— 6  and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7  so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.  8  For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9  not a result of works, so that no one may boast.  10  For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”

Someone may say, “But Jesus wasn’t that much into grace, like Paul.  He didn’t talk about it much, if he was.”  Really?  Author and apologist Philip Yancey wrote, “Aware of our inbuilt resistance to grace, Jesus talked about it often. He described a world suffused with God’s grace: where the sun shines on people good and bad; where birds gather seeds gratis, neither plowing nor harvesting to earn them; where untended wildflowers burst into bloom on the rocky hillsides. Like a visitor from a foreign country who notices what the natives overlook, Jesus saw grace everywhere. Yet he never analyzed or defined grace, and almost never used the word. Instead, he communicated grace through stories we know as parables.” (What’s So Amazing About Grace?)

Taken this way, we are inundated daily by grace.  But if grace were so commonplace, it must be of little value.  So, maybe there should be a distinction between “everyday” grace and the “extraordinary” grace that saves us through faith.  One should be “little g” grace, and the other “big G.”  To make that distinction, however, is to belittle the concept altogether.  Why?  Because these “degrees” of grace have a common source—that being God.  The dispensing of “little g” grace is but a microcosm of the grander form.  In fact, “everyday” grace should prepare us to receive the “extraordinary” kind, if we but see it, accept it, and recognize its source.  If God supplies the stuff of physical life, how much more will he supply the means to attain eternity and be restored to the glory for which we were made?

So, returning to the lyrics that started this wandering track, the universal cry of humanity is, “I want to live!”  Through grace, God supplies the means with which to accomplish that, whether physically or spiritually.  We may accept or reject those means, but the latter to our obvious peril.  If we accept the grace that is so freely offered, we will grow, and see and know, and ultimately, we can channel that grace toward others, so that we share all we can give.  This is beyond mere existence, beyond mere being; it is truly living in all the dimensions in and for which we were formed.  “I want to live.”  And by God’s grace, I will, both abundantly now and in gratitude forever.

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