Your Background Tape
On road trips in the 80’s, we’d push a cassette tape into the console, hit rewind, then play an entire album over and over again. None of this MP3 song-by-song stuff. We listened track by track, and in this way, entire records became the backdrop of our lives.
So it's kind of funny now to sit at Chilis and watch the faces of my friends when Metallica, Randy Travis, Billy Joel, Erasure, or Bon Jovi, start playing. We don't just hear a song; we hear a record. We don't just hear a record; we hear an era. We get flashbacks of high school dances; crazy summer nights with friends; sitting in our bedrooms whispering into a phone with a long, twisted cord.
Some of those memories are good. Some we wish we could erase.
I was twenty the summer I spent exploring London while listening to Enya’s Shepherd Moons on a Walkman. Two-and-a-half decades later, the buoyant ache of these haunted vocals still makes me smell the diesel of double-decker buses. I taste Earl Grey with milk, hear my own footsteps in the Tate, and feel the thrill of two beautiful older men from France asking me for a phone number I refused to give them. That summer was exhilarating, dangerous, and beautiful, and so that record knocks down a domino train inside me. It pulls me back through time and revives old joys and old temptations.
Repetition gets in our bones, see. It links us to experiences, to values, to desires; and I think about this a lot when I consider how the enemy of our souls works.
A few weeks ago, I was talking to a group of young friends about how scary it is to grow up. My heart grew soft listening to their concerns because I have felt so many of these struggles myself over the years.
“I’m not the sort of person anybody could love.”
“Something is wrong with me.”
“The world is too messed up for my generation to live a good life.”
“Everybody is just grabbing what they can get. There’s nobody left who would wait for me.”
“Nobody could want me as I am—I have to find an angle.”
These weren’t small, passing concerns—they were hard confessions of silent threats that had been spoken in the background of their young lives over and over again. These young people were brave enough to verbalize the amorphous but particular sense of doom that hung about them: You’re alone. You’re ugly. You’re incompetent. You’re a fake. If anyone could see the real you, he would hate you.
Here were tapes that had been rewound and restarted over and over again. Each conclusion began as a single suggestion on some hard, past day long forgotten. A twinge of doubt had grown there, and that doubt had repeated itself until “What if” became “This is who I am. This is where my whole life is going.”
As I listened, I began to think about the strategies of darkness—about how important it is for our enemy to create negative records to rewind and replay over our lives. He knows how ideas get stuck in our guts, so he works to knit little events together that cause us to define ourselves and our possibilities, note by note, phrase by phrase, creating choruses that eventually become so common to us that we live by them.
I encouraged my young friends to take a moment and stare even more directly at the tapes that were being played behind the scenes of their own hearts. Why were these words being repeated? Why would a spiritual enemy work like a military general seeking weak spots that maximize attack? I encouraged them to name what has become subconsciously accepted even behind their felt doubts and to take each assumption back to Jesus, asking him directly if it were true.
I wanted them to do this because when we let such tapes drone in the background unchallenged, we are carried into more decisions than we realize. If we will only take a straight, hard look into what the hater of our souls is trying to use to paralyze and discourage us, we can uncover so much. What insecurities is he using? What fears is he using? How is he attempting to monopolize loneliness and shame? How has he tried to hit the root of our identity, and what is he doing with the names he has assigned to us? What labels has he tried to write upon us and our world?
This morning I read the story in Luke about Mary and Martha. It’s almost embarrassing to see Martha’s internal tape exposed by Jesus. While Mary sat at Christ’s feet listening, Martha was up doing all the hard work until the responsible sister finally cracked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.”
How many years of being “the good one” had gone into that single complaint? Martha assumes that Christ couldn’t possibly disagree, and that’s telling. This is the confidence that grows after many years of self-righteous martyrdom. How often had Martha harbored silent criticism of her daydreamy sister? How many times had little bits of random praise affirmed her internal narrative? Since childhood, she had been the sister who kept things in line.
But in an instant, this old recording of pride was exposed by a sharp rebuke. “'Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.'”
Ouch. Just like that, the tape was ripped out and shredded. Here’s your heart in the bare light, Martha. You’re nervous. You’re unsettled. You’re trying to get your worth through performance.
It’s emergency surgery on the part of Jesus. He’s able to look at the core of the records we play and call a spade a spade so that we can get out of a bad rut. It had to sting to hear what Martha heard, but what freedom was waiting for her after the truth settled? Was she finally able to feel loved for who she was instead of for what she did? Was she able to serve from that moment onward with a heart that was giving instead of trying to fill her own cup?
It's a little bit unsettling to think about the tapes running in the background of our lives. There's no telling what we might learn. But when we identify the whispers that drive us, bonds can fall off, and we can begin to know freedom of the good portion that cannot be taken away.