Two years ago Andrew Peterson posted an essay here on the Rabbit Room in which he describes the experience of reading Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’s novel The Yearling.
I sat on the front porch at the Warren on a rainy day, read the last sentence, turned my head so my children wouldn’t see my face, and wept. I asked God, aloud, “Why must it be so? Why must it be so?” Why must the bright wonder and innocence of youth be shot and killed? Why must the little boy in me pass into the night, gone like a ghost? Why must I spend the second half of my life grieving that boy’s departure from the world, always seeking him, always wishing for a world untainted?
Soon, however, Andrew found that he was no longer grieving his own past, but his children’s future.
I thought of all my children, and the loneliness that will dog them all their days, and how I long to protect them from it. But the world is drenched in sorrow. For in these precious few days of childhood the Lord grants us a glimpse of Eden, and as we age we are called back again and again to remember what was lost, and to reclaim it, to tell its story. We weep for the death, and hope in the resurrection, when Christ’s Kingdom of wise, old children may walk a healed world unharried by the looming certainty of death and more death.
Light for the Lost Boy, one suspects, was born in that moment on the porch where AP sat surrounded by children fast approaching adolescence, The Yearling still fresh and raw in his heart. He explores the aching truth that the fully alive heart of a child must always come to terms with a broken world stalked by death and sorrow. And he lets us sit in it a while and wonder, not rushing to a solution.
The first words of the first song, “Come Back Soon,” drop us into a swirling chaos where a boy is forced to deal with death:
I remember the day of the Tennessee flood
The sound of the scream and the sight of the blood.
My son, he saw as the animal died
In the jaws of the dog as the river ran by.
One of the many things I love about Light for the Lost Boy is the fact that the light it offers is light for this world—the one in which we are so often confused and doubtful. AP tells the truth about what it is like to live here. The son who sees the animal die beside the flood-swollen river doesn’t get a pat explanation from his father. Rather, the boy’s experience is a comment on the man’s:
If nature’s red in tooth and in claw,
Then it seems to me that she’s the outlaw.
Cause every death is a question mark
At the end of the book of a beating heart.
And the answer is scrawled in the silent dark
On the dome of the sky in a billion stars
But we cannot read these angel tongues,
And we cannot stare at the burning sun,
And we cannot sing with these broken lungs,
So we kick in the womb and we beg to be born.
As the old saying goes, “For every difficult question there is an easy answer. And it’s wrong.” AP wrestles with exceedingly difficult questions in this record, and he resists the temptation to offer any easy answers. We live a world full of sin and hurt and sadness and confusion; the gospel answers all of it, but it doesn’t twinkle it away like pixie dust. The angel at the gate of Eden doesn’t step aside. He doesn’t sheathe the flaming sword.
The hope of the gospel is not clarity in our confusion, but the knowledge that God is at work in spite of the fact that we don’t understand what he is up to. Consider these lines from “The Cornerstone,” in which AP describes his boyhood experience of God:
I read about the God of Moses
Roaring in the holy cloud,
It shook my bedroom window panes.
I did not understand then,
I do not understand now.
I don’t expect you to explain.
I don’t mean to suggest that these songs are without hope. There is plenty of hope throughout Light for the Lost Boy, but it is hard-won, born out of an honest wrestling. Rather than anesthetize the discomfort of this world, AP treats that discomfort as a clue to a deeper truth.
Light for the Lost Boy is literally a nostalgic record. We think of nostalgia as a longing for the past, but etymologically speaking, it’s a painful longing for home–nostos (homecoming) + algos (pain). What often passes for nostalgia is sentimental and naive, not idealizing a past that is gone, but a past that never existed. In its desire to go back, most nostalgia is not especially productive. The home-pain of Light for the Lost Boy is another thing altogether. It is a spur to look ahead to the New Heaven and the New Earth, as AP puts it in “Day by Day”:
And it hurt