On the afternoon of my seventeenth birthday, I walked out of my seventh period art class and headed for my car, not stopping to retrieve books from my locker, all but shoving aside anyone who tried to talk to me. As Cities Burn’s Come Now Sleep had been released that day, and though I’d received my preordered copy in the mail the night before, I couldn’t wait to listen to the album again. When I arrived at my car, taped to my windshield was a copy of the CD, dressed in lime green ribbon and accompanied by a note. My friend Brian, who worked at a record store down the street, and with whom I played in a punk band, had bought the album for my birthday. I never told him he was too late, that I’d already gotten a copy. Today, buried in a box beneath the stairs in my apartment are both copies, each plastic case barely held together by broken hinges, each disc riddled with scuffs and scratches.
As teenagers, the lyrics to our favorite albums have a way of summing up the whole of our experiences, speaking to the joys, and more often, the emotional depths of adolescence. On Come Now Sleep, lead singer and lyricist Cody Bonnette wrestles with the standards necessary to maintain a Christian life, often questioning whether God’s grace is enough to save him from the most deplorable sins. In most cases, he arrives at a clear answer—it is:
We’re going to sink for our sins
Unless grace be the wind
Bonnette’s lyrics were, for me, an inoculation to guard against outbreaks of teenage heartache. When, for instance, my best friend called one afternoon to say he’d asked out a girl I believed I was in love with, and that she’d said yes, I sped through the tree-lined back roads of east Memphis, heading nowhere, as Bonnette’s screams sailed through the open windows. Those songs did not offer the kind of solidarity we often seek in music—the idea that because someone else so eloquently expressed an experience similar to our own, we feel they are able to share the weight of our intimate burdens. Instead, the current that runs beneath many of the songs on Come Now Sleep is the constant need for sanctification, that the underlying cause of Bonnette’s pain—and mine—is that something has made its way between him and God, and the only remedy is to do away with the something. In my car that afternoon, instead of singing along with the emo bands I often listened to, lamenting a love that never was, I belted the words to “New Sun,” in which Bonnette describes how lust for a woman had withered his relationship with God.
Soon she’ll become dim, reflected love to light my way
After I trade loving you for loving to obey
On an August morning seven years later, I texted one of my friends, Ben, to see if he wanted to get lunch. When he didn’t respond, I called him, and got his voicemail. I stepped out for a smoke and the thick Memphis heat settled on my skin like glue. I got a call from a mutual friend, who didn’t wait for a hello before asking if I’d heard what happened. I hadn’t. “You know Ben’s nephew? The adopted one?” he asked. I said yes, and by that I meant I knew of him, that his name was Tyler, that Ben’s brother and sister-in-law, James and Miranda, had adopted him from South Korea, as a baby, three years before. “He died last night.”
There hadn’t been an accident, he told me. The doctors didn’t yet know what had happened. We hung up.
My roommates were gone at the time. Most often, I do not speak when I am alone. That morning I sat on the couch and said Oh my God. I said it aloud, again and again, Oh my God.
The wake was held in the Lutheran church where James, Tyler’s father, had trained to become a pastor. After hugging Ben and James’s parents, who had always treated me like one of their children, I stood in a long, meandering line of family and friends to offer my condolences to James and Miranda. James smiled and thanked me for coming. Miranda, though, just before I got to her, had to sit down on the pew, exhausted from having to stand and accept a hundred sympathies.
The boy lay in an open casket no larger than the secretary desk where I sit and write these words. Ben had told me so many stories about him, about the way he’d laugh at funny faces, about his love for fire trucks, and it occurred to me, looking down on him in his blue polo, that this was the first time I had met him. I turned and faced the pews, standing in the same place James would address his congregation, and watched people trickle in and out of the room, their eyes red and swollen. I had not listened to Come Now Sleep in over a year, but a line to one of the songs came to mind. I tried to shake it, because though it rang so true, I did not want to believe it.
And brother, have you felt the great peace that we all seek?
You say “Take a look around. If there’s a God, then he must be asleep.”
In high school, Come Now Sleep’s themes of God’s unconditional mercy, and the struggle to remain faithful in the throes of temptation, were certainly relevant to me, a middle-class teenager wandering the halls of a small Evangelical school, surrounded by well-meaning friends who had Bible verses locked and loaded for whatever I might be going through. Though members of As Cities Burn, in interviews, refused their label as a “Christian band,” the album was released on Solid State Records, an offshoot of the Christian rock label Tooth & Nail. Still, the album is bookended by songs that explore heavy doubt in the existence of God and the uncertainty surrounding the afterlife.
It wasn’t until years after that humid afternoon on my seventeenth birthday that these songs, in particular, began to resonate with me. I listened to the album’s opening song, “Contact,” on the way home from that three-year-old boy’s funeral, having long ago embraced a theology that, to my understanding, declared that those who didn’t believe in Jesus wouldn’t go to heaven. Bonnette’s voice rose over layers of melodic guitar:
Oh, my heaven, why do you have doors to close,
Why do you have clouds to stop his voice?
I wondered if God would send a child to hell simply because he did not believe, ignoring the fact that he was incapable of believing almost anything. Was this who I had praised all my life, arms stretched high in acrid gymnasiums and moonlit sanctuaries and overcrowded living rooms, waiting for the spirit to move?
In the album’s closing track, the catalyst for Bonnette’s doubting, for the first time, has a name. The song is called “Timothy,” named after a friend of the band who died by suicide in 2005. The lyrics to the lengthy track rarely drift into sentimental territory—perhaps the only line that borders it is the refrain “tell me I’m only dreaming / tell me he’s just sleeping.” Instead, Bonnette describes the thoughts that haunt his sleep in the wake of Timothy’s death—images of souls lost in the ether, and the Bible’s promise of hell for nonbelievers.
The same year Tyler died, I met a man named Dan at a local dart league I’d joined with a friend. The league was full of rowdy, hulking men with goatees, men who occasionally wore matching shirts and more than occasionally started fistfights with opposing players. Dan, like me, didn’t fit in. He and I would sit in the corner and talk about NBA basketball or the books we were reading, each of us pausing frequently to adjust our thick-rimmed glasses. Some nights, he would talk about moving back to Utah to be with his wife and twelve-year-old son, whom he bragged about constantly. Other nights, after shooting several whiskeys, he would tell me about arguments he’d had with his wife, about how she wanted a divorce. It was during those late nights, when the ashtrays were emptied and the dartboards were quiet, that Dan would dump his life’s complications on the table between us, as though they were pieces to a puzzle he needed help assembling. I wondered, then, why he sought the advice of a twenty-two-year-old college student, but now I can’t shake the thought that I was the only person in the city who knew enough about him to offer any.
We talked about God sometimes. He asked me what I believed, once, and I told him I believe God is real, and that God cares about our lives. He said: I wish I could believe in all that, really. But I don’t think I can.
By the end of the season, instead of taking deep swigs of whiskey when he got up to throw, Dan would limit himself to a couple beers during our matches. I learned he’d separated from his wife and met another woman, and that they planned to buy a house together, one with a large backyard in a gated community where he and his son could play soccer during visits. He seemed happy, and he was happy for me when I told him I’d been accepted to an MFA program in Chicago, and would be moving four months later.
In the spring of 2014, nearly eight years after Come Now Sleep was taped to my windshield, a friend from Memphis called during one of my classes. When I ignored it, he sent a text: “Give me a call man. Got some bad news about a friend.” I spent the remaining hour of class trying to narrow down the list of our mutual friends, hoping against what I feared was true, because of a similar phone call one year before: that one of them had died.
I dialed my friend’s number from the train and watched the buildings grow smaller the further we moved from downtown. He told me that Dan had hung himself in his home. I thought of that conversation Dan and I had, about God, about hell. I thought of the pastors I’d listened to years before, sweating through their suits under bright lights, barking about where people go when they do not believe. I wish I could believe. But I don’t think I can. What about those who wish they could? What about those who can’t? What about Dan?
I walked off the train, down the stairs and onto the street, bracing myself against Chicago’s biting wind, which had lingered into the spring. The lyrics to “Timothy” cycled through my mind again, like a forgotten note that lingers under a dusty cabinet, waiting to be rediscovered.
I think I’d rather believe in some imaginary place
Made up to make children behave
So our souls are safe to wander off wherever they might please
And your soul is safe wherever you might be