All That You Have Is Your Soul

It’s now more than a week past Tracy Chapman’s incredible performance at this year’s Grammy Awards Show. I can’t stop thinking about it. And it’s reminded me of my favorite Tracy Chapman song.

Most people’s favorite is likely the big hit she performed at the Grammy’s. But mine has always been “All That You Have Is Your Soul.”

This song is, unquestionably, one of my top ten favorite songs of all-time. A “desert island” song. I’d like to tell you why because I think it helps us set the table for our Lenten Journey and week one of the Lenten season, which starts this Sunday…

I was in my last year of seminary when this song was released. That was, in fact, the year I first met Dennise. I was so inspired by Tracy Chapman and her story. But THIS song…it spoke deeply to my heart and spirit.

The chorus is what you see in the picture here:

Soon after graduation, our Bishop appointed me to the staff of the largest United Methodist Church in the country (at the time). This chorus came back to me. I saw this new job was both an opportunity and a danger; and that it might be very easy to be seduced by power and control.

I typed out this chorus and taped it to my desktop at church. I looked at it every morning, day after day, as a reminder to watch my power and privilege. Tracy’s words convicted me over and over. They still do. Frankly, our world (Church and Politics, specifically) would be immeasurably better if we kept these words in mind.

Check out Tracy’s version of the song…

On Sunday, we’ll read the story of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness. (The assigned lectionary text for the day…)

Jesus is tempted three times to turn his back on his path, turn away from his calling, and embrace worldly power. He’s promised “all the kingdoms” of the earth by Satan.

Readers of the text should, of course, remember that –whatever you think about “personified evil” in the form of a “Satan”– the character of Satan is always portrayed as a liar. (Note: I do not believe in personified evil. But I do believe this story is extremely helpful to us in understanding how evil comes to us…)

My strong hunch is: “Satan” is offering something he cannot “deliver,” when he promises all earthly kingdoms. But Jesus stays true to his path, and true to his calling. He won’t divert from his mission to open God’s table to all people, regardless of their race, economic circumstance, or orientation. I would guess he also knows Satan is a liar.

I am very confident that I have made moral compromises in my life, and been tempted to veer from my path. But ever since it was first released, this chorus plays like a moral ear worm in my head. Time and again, it calls me back to my path when I think about straying.

I know this:

Whomever we are, and whatever our calling, God needs us to be servants, not those who seek power for power’s sake. None of us are ever perfect. Nor does God expect the trap of perfectionism from us. But God does push us, like this song does, to stay on a path of seeing justice and truth.

For twenty years I’ve had an upfront seat to see under the hoods of the separate worlds of Church and Politics. Sometimes –OK, often— in both worlds, I am disappointed by what I see.

As we survey the general scene of both worlds today, we all see far too much seeking of power for power’s sake. Far too much belief that life is a “zero sum game” and that our calling is to control as much as we can. Pastors and politicians, privately and publicly, make far too many compromises with their core values, and get tempted by power. I’ve seen it. I’ve watched friends and acquaintences do it, over and over again.

But God would call us back to servanthood, to remember that power is an illusion, and control is a danger.

Tracy Chapman’s song actually mirrors Jesus’ story in powerful ways. The first two verses speak of a woman who compromises her values in order to please a man and have children. She comes to understand that this is mirage, that she can’t control either, really. Controlling others, even our closest family, is an illusion.

But I like to imagine the last two verses are Chapman speaking to our whole society. And it’s likely also a message to herself at exactly moment in her life she released the song:

“I thought, thought that I could find a way
To beat the system
To make a deal and have no debts to pay
I’d take it all, I’d take it all, I’d run away
Me for myself first class and first rate
But all that you have is your soul.”

Understand that when she released this song, Chapman had achieved success. In the very moment, she’s a Grammy winning artist, selling out arenas, and one of the most lauded of singer-songwriters in the world. But she knows the dangers too.  And she’s self-reflective enough to admit them outloud.

Like Jesus and his temptation, she feels tempted to make the deal…to take the power… to “take it all,” and “run away.”

But also like Jesus, she understands this is an illusion and a trap. Because, ultimately, all we have is our soul.

The final verse perhaps speaks to all of us in terms of a vision we could all use in our world today:

“Here I am, I’m waiting for a better day
A second chance
A little luck to come my way
A hope to dream, a hope that I can sleep again
And wake in the world with a clear conscience and clean hands
‘Cause all that you have is your soul.”

A pretty good barometer for your own moral compass is: Can you awake in the morning with a “clean conscience and clean hands?”

I won’t sugarcoat it…this is always challenging. I’ve come to believe it’s not possible to live as an adult and not come face-to-face with moments that test our resolve, and whisper seductively to us to cut moral corners, and make deals we imagine won’t have cost to our spirit.

But Jesus in the desert, and Tracy Chapman in this song, call me back time and again…and remind me that power is always a seductive illusion. And after all is said and done, all we have is our soul.

(revised and reprinted from a post at the KPUMC blog)

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