It is still hard to fathom how I could have attended my 50th high school reunion last week! Some of my classmates had to take a good look at the yearbook picture on my name tag to figure out who I was. I hardly remember who I was myself. If you did not know me then, you probably can’t spot me above in the El Chasqui (yearbook)!
Just like in high school, Jo Glidewell (cheerleader, choreographer, enthusiast) and Kim Tomlinson (childhood buddy, artist, hambone) got me to do a song at the reunion. I reluctantly complied, just like I always did, and pulled out my big hit of 1971: “I Believe in You” from How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying. Here is Robert Morse, who originated the role of J. Pierpont Finch, singing it and acting kind of cringy. (You can also hear Ferris Bueller and Harry Potter give it a go on YouTube).
My reunion performance was not a triumph. My wife tried to save me some embarrassment by complaining that it was just a bad song. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the experience.
I liked some of the interjections with which I decided to annotate the song. So I thought I would replay them for you. They speak of love and acceptance. It might encourage you to know that believing and community still exist. I found them in many places among the Chino High School Class of 1972.
A surprisingly meaningful song
When I played the part of Finch in our very own high school musical, I sang “I Believe in You” while staring straight into a spotlight which was supposed to represent a mirror. When my father saw that spotlight flash on my face, I imagine him thinking, “You still have time to get off that stage. Run before this song begins!” Meanwhile, I imagine my mother thinking, “ Finally, my years of living vicariously through this child are coming to fruit!” I found out later that sophomore girls were enjoying my star turn, as well, which was an unexpected bonus. BTW – The character I was playing was conceited, too.
Now there you are.
Yes, there’s that face.
I still remember how terrified I was to sing that line. But it was exhilarating too – like an acrophobe skydiving.
Now there you are.
Yes, there’s that face.
That face that somehow I trust.
All my acting skill was applied to looking smooth, since, for sure, I had absolutely no trust in that young man crooning to himself in the pretend mirror.
Now there you are.
Yes, there’s that face.
That face that somehow I trust.
It may embarrass you too hear me say it.
Even though I was performing an embarrassing and badly organized reunion skit in poor circumstances (like Whoopi in Vegas), I was not really embarrassed, which says something about singing to a community which pretty much unconditionally accepts everyone at this point. The old people at the 50th loved their small town and were no longer divided up by clique and race so much. They would have applauded any and all in the clan and not felt hypocritical at all (and clap they did).
It may embarrass you too hear me say it.
But say it I must,
Say it I must
Kim was sitting up front as I did my thing holding her guitar (“I Believe in You” is not a guitar song) and chiming in on her kazoo a bit. In sixth grade we also sang a song at our commencement. It feels very warm to be doing something silly with an old friend for the umpteenth time. I think we all felt we could use more of that kind of thing. You probably do, too.
You have the cool clear
Eyes of a seeker of wisdom and truth,
Yet, there’s that up turned chin
And the grin of impetuous youth.
At this point in the performance, I was already realizing that although there was plenty of song left, I was not going to sing it. But I told them how these lines ended up being surprisingly accurate. Maybe I was type cast: Seeker, yes. Impetuous, yes.
The following summer I would be an exchange student in Indonesia. Once there. my seeking fueled a major turn in my life’s direction. In my senior year, I became fully depressed and a full-on adult Christian. By the time I “came out” as a Jesus follower in college, I was well on my way to becoming a pastor and church planter. That seems impetuous even now.
Oh, I believe in you,
I believe in you.
I did not believe in me. But I certainly came to know who I could believe in, and still do.
I grabbed Kim’s hand as a symbol of what these final lines meant to me.
And when my faith in my fellow man
Oh but falls apart,
I’ve but to feel your hand grasping mine
And I take heart,
I take heart.
I have mostly lived in cities my whole life. But scrappy, relatively poor, small-town Chino, before it was gobbled up by the mega L.A., did me a lot of long-lasting good. They are my fellow people. And my people were at this reunion. Some had gone on to become very successful and wealthy. Most of us were glad we kept a job. Many of my people had deepened their faith, like me, which made the community even sweeter. I told them folks all over the country had heard stories about them and envied my sweet upbringing. I think our time together was the classic, “We don’t have much, but we have each other” kind of experience we did not know we were having when we first lived it.
In the fractious, perilous world my generation has given humanity, it is good to know that people can still love each other and focus on the community which binds them together rather than the powermongering that tears them apart. It might be a good idea to look around in your past too, and see all the good that might be hidden under the debris of all your worry and troubles. It was good for me. The goodness I found is a nice place to come from.
At 28, Harry Styles has plenty of time to become the most influential person on the planet. Already, people in India argue whether his Vogue cover in a dress (above) is appropriate — you can buy a copy for $300 on Ebay, in case you missed it. No matter where he shows up these days, he will probably be prominently featured in the photo history. His stint at modeling for the rebranded Gucci catapulted him into a fashion icon whose willingness to play in public makes him hard not to look at. People and GQ have both collected his best fashion moments for you.
After Christopher Nolan cast Styles in Dunkirk in 2017 he admitted he was unaware that Harry was so famous – and now worth over $100 million. Nolan just turned 52, so you also might be too old to be fully aware of the singer, songwriter, actor, activist, and fashionista. But you might benefit from getting to know him. I think his latest hit song “As It Was” is worth pondering.
“As It Was” was released on April 1 and spent 10 weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100. It is the lead single of the Album Harry’s House. Like his fashion sense, the lyrics are more about ambiguous impressions than direct statements. The first impression you get comes from Styles’ now-five-year-old goddaughter, Ruby Winston, introducing the song with, “Come on Harry, we want to say goodnight to you.” Harry impresses me as pretty clean. He’s notorious for not partying on tour because it diminishes the energy he needs for his manic performances. I hope he and Ruby are spreading kindness. At least I felt sincerely invited into Harry’s House — I imagine him at the door wearing one of his signature sweater vests (my only fashion connection to him).
Ambiguity is closely seconded by melancholic nostalgia these days as the most popular post-pandemic outlooks in art and daily relationships. Harry is looking around his house, like your probably are, wondering what happened to his life.
After mask mandates were recently reinstated in some places, I heard people groan about never getting over the virus crisis. We groan about children who don’t have memories of a time before pandemic procedures and caution. We groan about losing a world in which we could feel safe from gunfire and free from climate-change induced deluge or drought. Most Christians are so deeply in bed with capitalism that they can’t imagine what to say about the mess we are in. But Harry is working on it. He asks, “What used to be in the house? What has changed? Who am I now?”
An Apple Music interview with Styles suggests “As It Was” is about a metamorphosis that occurred during the pandemic. As he was forced to slow down and he wasn’t as wrapped up in his music performances, he remembered he was also a friend, a brother, and a son. Even more he realized, “Everything that happened in the pandemic, it’s just never going to be the same as before. All of the things happening in the world, it’s so obvious that it’s just not going to be the same. You can’t go backward, whether that’s us as a people or me in my personal life or any of those things.”
Holdin’ me back
Gravity’s holdin’ me back
I want you to hold out the palm of your hand
Why don’t we leave it at that?
Nothin’ to say
When everything gets in the way
Seems you cannot be replaced
And I’m the one who will stay, oh
In this world, it’s just us
You know it’s not the same as it was
In this world, it’s just us
You know it’s not the same as it was
As it was, as it was
You know it’s not the same
The video gives more than an impression that things are spinning and what will remain is uncertain. All we have, really, is us. That sentiment is so popular that Jesus followers despair over whether they can even talk anymore about not being “just us” in the universe. Humankind has a special relationship with their Creator which is elemental to making us an “us.” But has Jesus spun off the wheel of time?
Regardless, things are changing. Harry is pushing some of that change. He is an influential advocate for gender assumptions to “not be the same as it was.” In a 2022 interview with Better Homes and Gardens (I told you he was everywhere), Styles objected to the expectation he should publicly label his sexual orientation as “outdated.” (I’ve been on his wavelength for a long time). He said, “I’ve been really open with it with my friends, but that’s my personal experience; it’s mine,” and “the whole point of where we should be heading, which is toward accepting everybody and being more open, is that it doesn’t matter, and it’s about not having to label everything, not having to clarify what boxes you’re checking.” Meanwhile, whole denominations are splitting up over getting the labels right.
Styles’ parents divorced when he was seven. He claims to have had a good childhood with supportive parents. But his lyrics suggest he’s still working out his attachment issues. Again, the lyric has just enough personal-sounding elements to make it relatable for all of us — feeling alone, self-destructive behavior, an absent father, a broken marriage. Someplace in our family systems, all those things probably exist and make an impact.
Answer the phone
“Harry, you’re no good alone
Why are you sittin’ at home on the floor?
What kind of pills are you on?”
Ringin’ the bell
And nobody’s comin’ to help
Your daddy lives by himself
He just wants to know that you’re well, oh
I’ve been pondering the person who questioned me last week when I was generalizing from the people I had talked to: “You mainly see people who are traumatized, right?” They had a point. I hope I don’t assume everyone is in trouble just because I hear about troubles every day! — so don’t let me mislabel you. But I still think many of us are “sittin’ at home on the floor” and many of us are spinning. I’ve talked to many Christian leaders this year, and I know they resemble that impression. Only they are not getting checked up on, they are being criticized and cast off.
Styles has been pondering how to have a healthy life in this mess. In October 2019, teaser posters for his world tour concerts included the phrase “Do you know who you are?” and the acronym “TPWK” (later made into a song). To mark World Mental Health Day, Styles launched a website bot called “Do You Know Who You Are?” that gives users positive randomised messages using words such as “bright, determined, loving,” and “wonderful,” and ending with “TPWK. LOVE, H”
In an interview with The Guardian in 2019, Styles said “If a song’s about someone, is that fine? Or is that gonna get annoying for them, if people try to decipher it?” He has no intention of being normal. But he would like to be normal. He’s the master of fame culture on most platforms but he would like to be private. So “Do you know who you are?” must be an important question. And “Will you every have a lasting relationship?” must be a close second. Many of his fans think his former girlfriend, Olivia Wilde, inspired the following part of “As It Was.” Wilde, ten years older than Harry, has two children.
Go home, get ahead, light-speed internet
I don’t wanna talk about the way that it was
Leave America, two kids follow her
I don’t wanna talk about who’s doin’ it first
As it was
You know it’s not the same as it was
As it was, as it was
I think one of the reasons Harry Styles is so popular is because his songs speak to everyday circumstances. His lines are ambiguous in fact but clear in meaning. Perhaps it is truthiness. Or maybe we are all truly running in circles, never keeping up with what the internet is making us, and never able to keep up our relationships.
I think Styles is managing to be kind about who he sees in the looking glass and how he sees and relates to others. At the same time, he is trying to make a difference in hard times. He said “We’re in a difficult time, and I think we’ve been in many difficult times before. But we happen to be in a time where things happening around the world are absolutely impossible to ignore. I think it would’ve been strange to not acknowledge what was going on at all.”
Jesus followers could learn a few things from Harry Styles. He seems to have a lot fun with is art. He seems honest. He’s alive in his moment. He is serious about kindness and mental health. That’s not usually our reputation — even though Paul tells us, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.”
I am not a big Spotify user. I first downloaded the app so I could listen to the Tea Club’s latest album (still highly recommended). I made a visit to the site recently and discovered the lists. I love “top 100” lists of most kinds. And there was the most-streamed songs list on Spotify — and there was Adele with Easy On Me, still on the list after six months. She put out the album, 30, just after the deadline for the 2022 Grammys, so she didn’t get any awards last night. But she might still be in the top 50 in 2023.
On YouTube the official video for the song has 261 million views. I know a couple of people who had it on repeat as soon as they heard it. I caught on to it because one of the repeaters was a client who could relate to her lament of breakup and liberation. As a result, I got interested in Adele for the first time. I even found myself watching her as Oprah dug into what was happening during her years of recording silence.
Mental health issues
She’s been depressed. She’s been anxious. She got a divorce. She became a single mom spending half-time with her child; she had to think about whether to buy a 9 million dollar home in Beverly Hills.
I wonder if she has also been interested in her role as the unofficial poster-person for mental health issues. Like I was saying last time, the WHO says depression is the #1 disability in the world. You may be feeling it yourself right now. It has been a hard two years; go easy on yourself, baby. Adele’s album is all about her pain and recovery; she’s a forthright woman.
I have to admit, I suggested to one client that listening to her might not be a road to wellness for them. It was more likely a way to keep the trauma fresh and deepen the narrative of despair which was creating a canyon in their brain from which it might be hard to deviate when they wanted to move on.
But I might be wrong about Adele being a bad influence. Music is such a natural cathartic and integrative experience. If one sang along with Adele rather than just being formed by her, Easy On Me might be useful.
If we look at the words, I think we can find some takeaways that might help us on our own tragic journeys.
Go easy on me, baby
I was still a child
Didn’t get the chance to
Feel the world around me
I had no time to choose
What I chose to do
So go easy on me
Adele probably said what the words of this famous chorus mean during her extensive publicity tour. I did not hear about it. But here is why I think people love them so much. We feel them. Even if you want to get out of a relationship, breaking up feels terrible: “Please don’t make this any harder than it already is, baby,” And if your marriage or other relationship is breaking down and you can’t see your way back, “Please, baby, go easy on me. I can’t stand any more criticism, contempt, defensiveness or withdrawal” (the four main relationship poisons).
Every one of the couples I counsel are experiencing the childhood wounds with which they arrived when they were married. We could all say “I was still a child” in one way or another, and our inner child is still with us! Adele had the common experience of significantly growing up in her 20something marriage, alongside her young child, Angelo (who will be 10 this year). Many young mothers are depressed after giving birth, and feeling constrained by a child can be a shock to their system. “Where are my choices?” and “Did I choose this?”
There ain’t no gold in this river
That I’ve been washin’ my hands in forever
I know there is hope in these waters
But I can’t bring myself to swim
When I am drowning in this silence
Baby, let me in
I’ve met with many individuals and couples over the years who sang this verse. “Where we are at feels intolerable. I can’t see any hope, even though I hope there is some.” They’re too depressed or otherwise upset to swim. “I’m sinking. We can’t talk. The isolation and loneliness I feel is overwhelming.”
There ain’t no room for things to change
When we are both so deeply stuck in our ways
You can’t deny how hard I have tried
I changed who I was to put you both first
But now I give up
Adele spent years trying to figure out what to do. Her song is not about a snap judgment! She finally gave up. Sometimes you have to give up. I sometimes think people hold on too long, and sometimes if feel they gave up right when they were dealing with reality for the first time. But when enough is enough will never be my call to make. If you are walking with Jesus, the Lord could turn your greatest loss into your greatest growth. It happens all the time. That miracle could happen in a renewed marriage or a divorce. Either way, there will be pain.
Four takeaways for people who don’t want to give up
Adele gives beautiful voice to our pain and that’s why Easy on Me keeps being streamed. But what if you don’t want to give up? What if you don’t want your partner to give up? Adele alludes to some roads not taken in her song.
1) Go easy on your partner. If you feel bad, they probably do too. Learn how to be taken care of by God and cooperate with his care. Depression is a fight. If you go easy on your partner and yourself, it might make you easier to live with and might give you some space to see some good in your partner — and yourself. You might be able to do something good for the relationship, not just feel bad about what it is right now.
2) It’s a river. If you aren’t finding gold the way you are panning or not finding it where you think it should be, move down the river. Adele can sense hope in the water because things changed. She changed. Relationships can change and grow when one person has the courage, like Adele, to grow up. No one needs to drown in a relationship. But it is likely the relationship will drown unless both partners are going for gold. There is often a way.
3) Keep talking. It sounds like Adele feels like she did a lot of talking, but her husband withdrew — “Baby, let me in.” When he did that, she got more aggressive and he built more of a stone wall to protect himself and the relationship. This may have made her feel abandoned and made him feel rejected. It is hard to talk about feelings as deep as abandonment and rejection, but marriages are built on the love we make when we keep talking.
4) If you are defensive, your shame button may have been pushed. When she says, “You can’t deny how hard I have tried,” I am sure I believe her. But life is not failure proof if you just try hard enough. Behind that defensive statement there might be some shame about not being good enough, capable enough, lovable enough, or not trying hard enough and failing — any of which is intolerable to feel. It is easy to imagine her partner saying, “I can surely deny how you tried hard enough. What is your standard? Are you blaming me for what you have done?” Now he’s defending against feeling shameful.
I hope Adele and her husband got the best marital therapy money can buy, since she’s worth $190 million. Having a third party listening with compassion and noting the unique patterns of your relationship can help. Most of the time a therapist helps partners “go easy” on someone who has hurt them whether they make it through to the next steps of the marriage or go their separate ways. Many times the therapist helps them build something new, now that they are over thirty, or starting from wherever the river has taken them.
Singing is one of the most integrative activities we can do. It uses heart, soul, mind and strength to express our desire and open us to receive good things from God and others. When we sing in a group (and we will again, some day) it is often a unitive experience. So let’s sing with Mahalia Jackson . I think she can help with 2022.
When Jackson was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997 in the category of “Early Influences,” even their watered-down bio said her “voice hit audiences with the force of a hurricane.” That hurricane did not just emanate from her birthplace of New Orleans, it came from God and her own suffering. The opposite of a storm that knocks down, Mahalia is a storm that lifts up.
As such a faithful and troubled woman she is a great guide to yet another troubled year. Trouble and faith go together. We are all suffering the pandemic and the uncertainty of our politics. And Black people, in particular, are still suffering the burden of needing to “get over,” as institutions highlight their struggle and this week the media reports the instant barrage of defamation hurled at any prospective Black, woman Supreme Court justice.
When I remembered Mahalia Jackson last week on her death day (January 27) [song link], I was once again moved by her iconic rendition of “How I Got Over.” She most famously sang this song [song link] after Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington in 1963. And she’s been singing it in my head and heart since last Thursday, which I greatly appreciate.
She wanted her music to be for everyone. She told a reporter, “I have hopes that my singing will break down some of the hate and fear that divide the white and Black people in this country.” That’s a work for Jesus. People try to do it without Him, but they rarely get very far. Jackson took songs other people just sang and she filled them with spirit and The Spirit in a way that made them a force for good, and a force for change. When I listen to her, even now, after she’s been dead for fifty years, she changes me. She does me good.
A transformation meditation
That experience of transformation is why I wanted to remind you of her today and give us all a chance to lodge her song “How I Got Over” into some sturdy place in our memories. We can come back to places where we have met God again and again. Those places comfort our troubled souls; they give us a place to stand when we are under attack; and they create a solid place from which to launch into whatever will require our courage and passion. This song is such a place for me, maybe it will be for you, too.
Here are some annotated lyrics. My idea is to expand what the lyrics could mean for us and lead us into meditation as we face what we will face today. I think Mahalia Jackson intends to lead us through our deep struggle into a place where we give thanks. Just like she got over and is getting over, she wants us to “get over” into our re-birthplace in Jesus. Let’s use the song for all it is worth.
How I got over
How did I make it over
You know my soul look back and wonder
How did I make it over
How I made it over
Going on over all these years
You know my soul look back and wonder
How did I make it over
I don’t speak Jackson’s vernacular or sing well in her musical style. So what? I don’t think she cares, and neither should I. She is turning my heart toward wonder. That’s what she cares about and so should I. All day I am tempted to attend to the forces and voices that put me under their malign control; this song is about turning away from those powers and seeing what is good. The question is, “How did all this life happen and how does it keep happening? How did all this good happen? How did the Lord bring me to this place where I would be meditating on this song and looking for meaning and hope?” It is a wonder.
Tell me how we got over Lord
Had a mighty hard time coming on over
You know my soul look back and wonder
How did we make it over
Tell me how we got over Lord
I’ve been falling and rising all these years
But you know my soul look back and wonder
How did I make it over
When Jackson turns the subject to “we,” I think she is first referring to the Black struggle which she felt as an abandoned child in the Jim Crow South of her youth and then felt in new ways after she joined the “great migration” to Chicago where she struggled to survive. She’s singing about the terror of facing down white supremacy and the capricious violence of the United States as the Civil Rights movement progressed. “How did we get here telling our story on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial among all these politicians and movie stars? How did we stay so resilient and faithful though all our struggle, all our falling and rising?” It is a wonder.
It is a rich stanza full of Bible imagery. Jesus is falling and rising as we observe the stations of the cross on our way to our own death and rising with him. In like manner, the song alludes to the promise we will “get over” the Jordan River and into the promised land. Jesus is baptized into, identifies with, our sin and death in the Jordan. Like the Israelites passed over on dry land, we follow Jesus through death into life, a death now made impermanent by his gracious work. “How did we make it over?” Only by the Lord’s grace. It is a wonder.
So Mahalia unveils the wonder and invites us into it.
But, soon as I can see Jesus
The man that died for me
Man that bled and suffered
And he hung on Calvary
And I want to thank him for how he brought me
And I want to thank God for how he taught me
Oh thank my God how he kept me
I’m gonna thank him ’cause he never left me
Then I’m gonna thank God for old time religion
And I’m gonna thank God for giving me a vision
One day, I’m gonna join the heavenly choir
I’m gonna sing and never get tired
We can use a song like we use an icon. It gives us a musical vision of Jesus and we experience that connection heart, soul, mind and strength. It is worth singing this song with Ms. Jackson enough times to feel it more than think it, sink into it and sense all the nuances and even beyond them — “Jesus brought me to this place, taught me, kept me, never left me.”
When she thanks God for “old time religion” it is not just religion that used to be popular but isn’t; I think she means the Spirit-filled experience that transcends time and culture. We are one with the first disciples of Jesus. Being in God’s presence gives us a vision beyond the boundaries of our humanity. As a result, we can let loose our innate imagination and be part of the choir of all beings who see the face of God, however dimly, in this darkness. Let your tiredness lift as you tell it all to Jesus who walked with us and on our behalf in history and walks with us now.
Meditation that leads to connection is good for whatever ails us in this hard time! Sister Mahalia has led us to the altar, now she calls us to worship
And then I’m gonna sing somewhere ’round God altar
And I’m gonna shout all my trouble over
You know I’ve gotta thank God and thank him for being
So good to me, Lord yeah
How I made it over Lord
I had to cry in the midnight hour coming on over
But you know my soul look back and wonder
How did I make it over
Tell me how I made it over Lord God Lord
Falling and rising all these years
You know my soul look back and wonder
How did I make it over
We are joining with the huge crowd John sees gathering from the four corner of the earth in the age to come. From that place, we are looking back on all the trouble that is now over, all that crying in the midnight hour we had to endure. Looking back on what we’ve already gone through creates wonder — if we celebrate how we are alive and don’t fixate on how we’ve been dying. Try it. Maybe you can start a vision history in your “wonder journal.”
The Bible has a lot to say about the “midnight hour.” The first born are killed in Egypt before the slaves are set free at midnight. Paul and Silas are singing hymns to God in prison about midnight before they are miraculously released. Martin Luther King Jr. gave a great sermon about “A Knock at Midnight.” Through the vulnerable moments, sleepless, anxious moments, tell me Lord, “How did I make it? How can I believe I will make it right now when I still feel scared and ashamed, and when I am still threatened and scorned? But I do believe. Help me where I don’t.”
Mahalia puts on her new self like she belongs at the coronation.
I’m gonna wear a diadem
In that new Jerusalem
I’m gonna walk the streets of gold
It’s in that homeland of the soul
I’m gonna view the host in white
They’ve been traveling day and night
Coming up from every nation
They’re on their way to the great Coronation
Coming from the north, south, east, and west
They’re on their way to a land of rest
And then they’re gonna join the heavenly choir
You know we’re gonna sing and never get tired
And then we’re gonna sing somewhere ’round God altar
And then we’re gonna shout all our troubles over
You know we gotta thank God
Thank him for being so good to me
Rest in the “homeland of the soul” might feel hard to grasp, but we know what she is singing about. A little bit of that rest seems fleeting and even paltry, but how odd it is that such a little bit goes such a long way! We can’t forget about it and we long for rest for our souls all day.
I don’t know what I love more, the picture Jackson paints of the age to come, or the picture I imagine of her in her diadem. Some people hear the lyric as “diamond dress,” which is also great. Everyone has traveled a long way, but here we all are. We are looking good, feeling happy, and dancing down the street in the New Jerusalem [like a NOLA funeral]. If you can’t sing this song, just play it, and let yourself move at least a little during this part. Feel at home in your new self and feel the energy of renewal remaking you. God is good to you. It is a wonder. “Maybe I should strut like the wonder I am!”
Now Mahalia goes into the part that probably made her famous. She started out calmly, but as the song goes on, she can’t help feeling it. She is not just performing it, she is inhabiting it. She is an incarnation and, as such, an invitation to everyone to enter in with all the gifts, services and energies we bring.
You know I come to thank God this evening
I come to thank him this evening
You know all, all night long God kept his angels watching over me
Early this morning, early this morning
God told his angel God said, “Touch her in my name”
God said, “Touch her in my name”
I rose this morning, I rose this morning, I rose this morning
I feel like shouting, I feel like shouting, I feel like shouting
I feel like shouting, I feel like shouting, I feel like shouting
I feel like shouting, I just got to thank God, I just got to thank God
I just got to thank God, I just got to thank him
Thank God for being so good, God been good to me
I put this song up in some chat the other day and someone said, “That is a long song!” We’re mainly used to 2 1/2 minute pop songs and jingles. I said, “She can sing it all day and I will sing it with her.” Turning into “I just got to thank God” is a lot better than resenting some fragment from a 70’s song stuck in the crevices of my brain. Turning into thanks, feeling gladness well up, and letting it loose with a shout, a dance, a hug, or some tears is the kind of integration we need to open us up to wonder.
An angel wakes up Zechariah and Elijah in the old Testament. But I think this final picture Mahalia paints is about how we get over. Just like an angel apparently woke Jesus up from his slumber in death, just so will we be awakened on the last day. And as long as we are in the age before death, that is every day. Every day is as good as our last day. Every day of life is gift. We are raised up into it. Relying on an angel to follow orders to “Touch her in my name” is a wonder. I want to live constantly touched by God.
I pray for us all to wake up today touched by Mahalia Jackson who is much like an angel sent to open us to new life. She was a struggling, Black woman who went with her gift in faith and kept turning away from her trauma, and then turned others away from theirs. I hope this meditation helped you turn away from yours and into wonder.
More and more clients seem to come into a session feeling overwhelmed. In fact, they use the word in the new way we have begun to use it to describe their feeling: “overwhelm.”
I can relate to experiencing overwhelm. The last few years have been the most overwhelming I can remember — maybe for you, too! As for me, I transitioned out of my long-time pastoring work – that would cause anyone some trouble. I was defrauded by a contractor. I moved to a new home. I lost my church community. And, of course, we are still in a pandemic and the country is unraveling – at least that’s what David Brooks says. And then the next climate disaster is in the offing! I have had my peculiar version of the overwhelm most of us are experiencing.
I am feeling OK now, but I am really concerned about those who don’t feel OK. I think they are multiplying and their feeling of overwhelm might be deepening. We have had two years of pandemic isolation to heighten issues we might normally handle well. We need to check on each other. Check on the vulnerable even if you feel vulnerable. We all need to find more community life.
Royal & the Serpent gets it
In June of 2020 Royal and the Serpent recorded a song which depicts the feeling of overwhelm just right. I can’t help but believe the 11 million people who have viewed it feel some kind of community with each other as an artist musically names what they are experiencing.
FYI, Royal and the Serpent’s stage name translates to “Me + My Ego.” Her given name is Ryan Santiago. She struck a chord with many of her listeners on YouTube:
Youraverageartist commented: “I feel like the beat represents the buildup to an anxiety attack. The beat gets faster and more intense as they sing about being overwhelmed, and then when the beat drops into the wild electric music, that represents the anxiety attack. Then everything is calm and back to normal. You realize that everything around you isn’t any different. These attacks normally aren’t very physical, they happen in your head, although it doesn’t always show to the outside.”
Check up on people who might be feeling this. They might like to talk to you rather than a YouTube audience.
booksandboots commented: I’m 28 and I’ve known about my anxiety since I was 8. This is the first song I’ve ever heard that really captures what it feels like. For me, it’s never gone away. It’s a part of who I am, for whatever reason. Perhaps an evolutionary response to a threat that isn’t there?…
I’m happy to say I haven’t had a true panic attack in over a year, something I never, ever thought would be possible. I had just accepted that was my life: panic attacks every day or multiple times a day. Frozen. Silent….
It also helps to listen to your anxiety, as strange as that sounds. To ask it questions like, “What are you really upset about? Is it that person standing too close, can you do something about it? If you can’t, can you breathe slowly and deeply and try some grounding exercises? If that doesn’t work, can you try to drink some water to occupy your mind in this moment, focusing on nothing else but the water? You can do this. I believe in you.”
And, as juvenile as it sounds, I speak to my anxiety as if it were a child. In a good way. I don’t think of my anxiety as some monster in the closet. It’s just a chemical imbalance that believes it’s helping me stay safe. I explain what reality is to my anxiety and comfort it the same way I would my own child. If my anxiety is here to stay, then we better get used to each other. I can’t walk around hating that part of myself because it doesn’t make the anxiety go away, it makes it worse.
Tender people who are bravely looking OK might not be. Given what we are all facing, who isn’t feeling a bit overwhelmed? I know I have needed to tell my story to people who care about me. Telling it diminished the power of the loss and the trauma. But more loss and trauma is likely to come my way. We need community to face it all.
Signs of overwhelm
Sometimes (and maybe over a period of time), the intensity of our feelings outmatches our ability to manage them. At some point you will probably feel overwhelmed by negative emotions, such as anger, fear, or guilt. Some of us will experience mania and be overwhelmed by euphoria.
If you feel overwhelm, it might be hard to pinpoint why. Usually a collection of stressors contributes rather than one particular event. Your emotions may bleed into seemingly unrelated parts of your life until you are “all stirred up.” Emotional overwhelm may be caused by stress, traumatic life experiences, relationship issues, and much more.
Here are some common signs of overwhelm:
You have a big reaction to a small situations. For example, you may panic when you can’t find your keys.
You feel physically ill or fatigued and don’t know why.
You have trouble focusing or completing simple tasks.
You find yourself withdrawing from friends and family.
Your emotions color your perception of everything. For example, your grief may keep you sad even during pleasant occasions.
Causes of overwhelm
When we are stressed by the small things in our collection, we might say to ourselves, “This is dumb!” Nevertheless, small things often add up to overwhelm. For instance, it is common for a simple things-to-do list to hijack someone’s brain. That’s because your brain might not see a to-do list, but see the threat of scarcity: not enough time, not enough energy, not enough magical ability to fit everything into 24 hours. Or it might see the threat of failing, the threat of disappointing others, the threat of feeling like you’re not doing enough or might not even be enough.
We react to these feelings the same way we do with other threats. We fight, flee, or freeze. That’s true whether the threat is a bus hurtling toward us or our responsibilities make us feel like we can’t catch our breath.
Usually, we land somewhere between freeze and flight, numbed out. We avoid. We dig in our heels and resist. If we’re at work we might procrastinate: make a call, do tasks that don’t matter, call in sick. If we are at home we might binge-watch Netflix, stay up late reading things that don’t require thought, sneak off for some porn, buy something on Amazon, or scroll through Instagram.
Remember, your emotions may get overloaded by a single stressor, like surviving a traumatic accident or violence, or losing a loved one. But overwhelm can also occur due to the pile up of many smaller stressors. For example, missing your bus may not feel like too big of a deal by itself. But if you’ve been fighting with your family, having trouble sleeping, and are hungry from skipping breakfast, a missed bus can be the proverbial “last straw” of the day.
A therapist can be a big help. Even if you are in therapy, everyone still needs some community. Check up on people. We are all experiencing the same big things bearing down on you. What’s more, the latest trauma may have dislodged some unprocessed memories. Everyone needs a safe place to tell their story.
Six ways to deal with overwhelm right now.
Ground yourself in the present using the 5-4-3-2-1 technique.
When your emotions are flooding, your mind is getting foggy, or your skin is getting clammy, this technique could be a way to get your feet back on the ground and your mind cleared. It’s a classic tool everyone needs in their backpack. Donate it to someone who needs it.
5 – Look around and name five things you can see, right now, from where you are.
4 – Listen and name four things you can hear.
3 – Notice three things you can touch, like the pages of a nearby book or the feeling of your feet on the carpet.
2 – Next come two smells: Breathe in the pages of a book or the citrus scent of the candle you lit.
1 – Finally, name something you can taste: a sip of cold water will do, or even just the taste of your own mouth.
This does two things to interrupt the overwhelm. First, it grounds you in your senses and, more importantly, the present moment. Second, keeping track of the counting and working your way through your senses interrupts spinning thoughts.
Clean up your immediate surroundings.
The phrase “outer order, inner calm” is popular for a reason. When you’re feeling overwhelmed, tidying the area around you restores order to a little corner of your universe and allows you to move forward.
You don’t need to redo the office or redecorate the house. Restrict yourself to things within arm’s reach. Stack loose papers, put caps on rogue pens, wipe away dust or grime. The resulting order will help you feel like you’ve accomplished something and allow you to focus. One time we all went over and cleaned someone’s whole house with them just to give them a boost and allow their emotions to settle and let them feel part of the friendship circle.
Cut everything that should be done and stick to things that need to get done now. This is harder than it looks for some people since if they change their “shoulds” they will feel disloyal to their family or feel like they are condemning their past self. If someone trusts you, they might let you help them sort.
Stop accidentally multitasking
Trying to work from home and simultaneously keep an eye on the kids, holding a conversation while the TV is on, eating lunch at your desk, leaving your email open while you work, or simply keeping your smartphone at hand 24/7 are examples of things that force you to transition your attention (and then transition it back) hundreds of times a day.
Multitasking works about as well as texting while driving—which is to say, it doesn’t. So if your nerves are frayed, mend them by doing a singular thing at a time. When you’re feeling less frantic, you can go back to googling Beyonce’s net worth while making a sandwich. But until then, single-task, single-task, single-task. You might help your friend do this by asking them to take a walk around the block with you or eat lunch together — community building is also a single-minded task; giving someone else attention and receiving it is a natural way to heal from the pressures of life.
Take the next tiny step.
When you feel frozen in the proverbial headlights of what is bearing down on you, think only of the next tiny step. The next step can be very tiny—only you have to know that you’re inching forward by thinking “Okay, now click on the folder. Now open the document. Now start reading.” Or “Sit up, Put your feet on the floor. Breathe in goodness. Stand up. Stretch slowly” all on the way to starting your day. I am often grateful when someone calls me and I get a chance to tell them what I am planning to do. Just talking to them gets me out of whatever rut I am in and often encourages me to take the next step.
Radically accept what you cannot do or control.
This is the basic stance of faith. We stand in grace and we can turn into the reality of it at any time. God is with us and loves us. You can strategize, organize, and hack all you want, but at some point, you will run into something you can’t do or control. When you do, the only thing to do is to radically accept. Trust Jesus and be one of those good people who can be trusted to listen and care.
Radical acceptance doesn’t mean throwing in the towel. It means allowing for uncertainty and uncontrollability, without struggling like you’re trapped or complaining as if bad things should never happen to you. It is keeping on with what you can do instead of dwelling on what you can’t. (Thanks to Jade Wu).
When you get behind the wheel of a car, you radically accept that a reckless driver may hit you no matter how well you drive. Yet you still do it because you want to get from point A to B quickly. When you fall in love, you radically accept that your heart may get trampled on. Yet you do anyway because love is worth the risk. When you simply can’t meet a deadline without compromising your mental health, you can radically accept you’ll have to be late and you may disappoint someone, because your well-being is worth it.
Just telling a story, thinking things through, letting some feelings settle down or pass through might be enough to deal with overwhelm. Doing it together with Jesus is undoubtedly even better. There are a lot more resources to apply to feeling overwhelm, of course. Your therapist or trusted friend or mentor can help. This post was mainly a means to give you some space to feel some hope and experience some care. I write because I care. I think we need to keep finding ways to check in on each other and build some community. It is an overwhelming time.
Before she ever met Loretta Lynn or sang Willie Nelson’s song “Crazy,” Patsy Cline was in a head-on collision. Last week marked the 60th anniversary of that rainy day in Nashville when she was riding with her brother John on a two-lane road and a passing car came roaring toward them as they topped a hill. Cline was thrown through the windshield onto the hood, while John, who had been at the wheel, ended up with a puncture in his chest and cracked ribs. In the other car, a woman and her six-year-old son were killed. Unaware of how badly she was injured, Cline told the EMTs at the scene to take care of the others.
The admitting physician said she was a “gory mess” when Patsy arrived at the hospital. Her scalp was peeled back; she had a deep gash across her forehead from temple to temple, crossing her right eyebrow, the bridge of her nose, and her left eyebrow; she also had a dislocated hip, a broken wrist, and enormous blood loss. Twice, the doctors thought they lost her. She told a visiting minister about her near-death experience, “All my life I have been reaching for God and today I touched him.”
Looking beyond despair
Patsy Cline had a complicated relationship with God and everyone else, as most people do who have been sexually-abused by a parent and raised by a raging alcoholic. Singing seemed to save her, even though she put some distance between herself and Jesus. She loved to sing gospel music as a child and recommitted herself to it after the crash.
I have often found her music to be something of a spiritual experience. The pain in her voice keeps me grounded and her perfect-pitch genius transports me. Long after her death in a plane crash in 1963 (a bad year: Aldous Huxley, C.S. Lewis, JFK, and Patsy Cline), I bought her Greatest Hits album on vinyl in 1992 and about wore it out. That album camped at No. 1 on Billboard‘s chart for 165 weeks. In 1995, along with Peggy Lee , Henry Mancini, Curtis Mayfield, and Barbra Streisand, Patsy Cline was inducted into the Grammys Hall of Fame.
The other day I recorded her first hit, “Walkin’ After Midnight,” on the international karaoke app, Smule, and have been singing it ever since. I realized the way she sings it turns a clever little song about a lost romance into her own song of longing for love and even searching for God in the mysteries of the night. I think fans love her because they yearn like her, at least I do.
You can get a worship song out of most pop love songs — or at least a song of salvation or damnation, because most of us have jettisoned God and put our poor love-mate in God’s place, which often works out rather poorly. I think Patsy moves the other direction; she puts a little gospel into whatever she sings. You probably do too.
We’re all wandering around in the dark
Right now, the world is definitely “out walkin’ after midnight!” Many of us still feel anxious and bereft – it became a habit last year. We can’t sleep. We are still desperately searching around in a lingering darkness. I can’t talk to anyone without feeling their palpable loss of 2020. One in four of us are mourning the loss of a loved one or acquaintance. The U.S. has lost 600,000 people to the virus! The number of deaths will likely surpass the previous record of loss to the Spanish Influenza. All over the world the stats tell a terrible story, but the grief gives us the true picture. We lost a year, kids lost school, we lost jobs and we lost each other. The church was shown to be a crucial community, since many of us lost Jesus without it.
So this little Patsy Cline song turns out to be a good God song to sing as we are walkin’ after the midnight of the world.
I go out walkin’ after midnight,
Out in the moonlight,
Just like we used to do. I’m always walkin’
After midnight searchin’ for you
I just want to affirm your search. Yes, it feels dark for a lot of us. People are piling into restaurants, but we still feel depressed. It comes in waves. We got disconnected. We’re searching. God sees.
I walk for miles along the highway.
Well, that’s just my way
Of sayin’ “I love you.” I’m always walkin’
After midnight, searchin’ for you.
We’re on a new journey. I love the faith of taking a step in the dark as a way to say, “I love you.” I am taking many steps in just that way since I ended my long work as a pastor in my beloved church. We are all stepping out into what seems at least a foggy future every day. God hears. Jesus is searching for us.
I stop to see a weepin’ willow
Cryin’ on his pillow.
Maybe he’s cryin’ for me.
And as the skies turn gloomy,
Night winds whisper to me.
I’m lonesome as I can be.
I love the picture of the willow crying on his pillow! Night winds are whispering in the gloomy, dim, moonlit skies. We’re lonely. I often feel lonely after a day of seeing people! I’m carrying some residual loneliness from my isolation and I sometimes feel like a stranger in the new place of the summer of 2021. I don’t think we can underestimate how long our recovery from the pandemic might take. For one thing, people are still dying of the latest coronavirus variant all over the world! What’s more, there are after effects which are yet to be seen. We’re grieving. We’re afraid. God knows.
I am glad Patsy Cline gave me a song to help me sing out all this trouble before I tried to control it all or just distract myself from it. Maybe she will bless you too on your way into the dawn.
First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.
For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all
— this was attested at the right time. For this I was appointed a herald and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying), a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth. – 2 Timothy 2:1-7
More thoughts for meditation
I honor of the 2021 Grammys the New York Times published a compendium of the “19 Songs that Matter Now” celebrating the artists who “got us through a pandemic year.” These artists may not have done anything for you and you might not even know who they are. Most, if not all of them, were not trying to use their talents to reveal Jesus or worship God. So what are they doing in Daily Prayer?
Today’s reading gives a good reason to listen to them. We should pray for everyone. There is one God and one mediator who wishes everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. The seven of the nineteen artists the Times noted this week represent humanity in a pandemic. They are influencers who have a message in a time of great change. For the first time, people who are religiously affiliated in the U.S. dipped below 50% this year — that makes for 52% of the population who could use our prayers.
What’s more, these artists inform our prayers. Music is usually quite visceral, so they may cause your “fight or flight” instinct to kick in. Christians are well known in the U.S., after all, for fueling a culture “war” — they fight. And they are also known for being avoidant, ignorant, and unrelatable — since they took flight. So you may feel like exercising either response when you hear these songs. But let’s try praying the truth in love in response to them, instead. This week of daily praying together could hone our love into a confident response to a world that is newly challenging.
Suggestions for action
Sophie died in Athens in January after climbing up on a rock to watch the full moon and accidentally fell. After that, her influential dance/electronic album, “Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides” again began to climb the popularity charts.
In the song “Immaterial” Sophie declares gender as a material form to be a dead concept, one defined in one’s mind, rather than by any biological construct. She says once we get away from the dysphoria, the years of feeling “wrong,” the thoughts of never being happy, we are entirely our own mold to design, regardless of any concept handed down by Western European standards of living. Some people embrace her song as the anthem of a whole new world.
Pray for people who believe everyone is entirely their own mold to design. Being free of Eurocentric domination is good for Jesus followers, too. But we don’t need to throw out the baby Jesus with the bathwater of worn out philosophy, do we?
Pray for love that creates an atmosphere in which everyone can work their difficult way through life with Jesus in the center of the journey, not just themselves.
I have enjoyed getting to know spiritual direction students and teachers over the past semester. My cohort is a diverse, sincere bunch of people that always remind me of God’s goodness and humanity’s capacity for compassion and hope.
There is only one thing about my new group of friends that is funny. Many of them remind me a lot of the old SNL skits about NPR.
Sometimes that NPR voice is such a wonder, like on my favorite WHYY voice, Jennifer Lynn. Other times the special character of that voice makes me wonder if the sincerity of it is just another act of branding. With everything on ZOOM now, a lot of us now have ring lights and new microphones. And I think a lot of us have started to wonder how to act on screen, including how to sound.
What does the voice mean, now? My spiritual direction teachers and many of their students seem to have learned to speak with an NPR voice. Is that a thing, or is it just me? I know I’ve been tagged with a “Mr. Rogers” voice, so maybe I learned it a long time ago.
Our voice is a powerful instrument. We had four children before the oldest turned 4. I developed their attention to my voice as a high priority, especially my command voice: “Do not step off that curb!” and “Let go of your brother’s neck, now!” Since we were often in a church meeting, I could turn the command volume down very low, “Give me that marker!”
Humanity continues to prove it is hell-bent on emulating the perceived power of God through its own control and manipulation. This is kind of a leap, but I think the medium of radio does its control and manipulation via voice command. As my children tell me I did, I think NPR commands with an iron fist in a velvet glove. By this time, many of us fans can seem very empathetic and nonthreatening while advancing the same old domination.
I bring this up because my teachers, and most of the authors they suggest, basically move with Eurocentric, privileged assumptions that leak out as “best practices” for spiritual formation and direction. There is usually a candle. There is often Taize music (from France) or classical music (based in Europe), there is aloneness and silence, which, in themselves, are often hard-to-find luxuries. There is often a call to “let go,” which is hard to do if your are barely hanging on. There are often calls to “submit” or “surrender” since they are in charge and conquering something by nature. And when they speak it could be right out of NPR.
I have spent decades perfecting all the spiritual practices practices that come with the dominant culture – and to a good end. I think my teachers last semester were great. Candles, Taize, silence in solitude, and submission are all elemental to my spiritual practice.
There is another side
I also have enjoyed the luxury of getting to know other ways to contemplate contributed by the nondominant cultures around me. Fortunately for me, my parents came from the U.S. underclass and felt blessed to have clawed themselves into the lower middle class. So when I brought classical music home from college as the first to attend one, it did not go over well. I was called on to let go of the pride of thinking I was better than someone else, rather than called on to let go of the assumption I was better than most of the world, like most world-dominating Americans assume.
Many people from nondominant cultures are invited into contemplation by Eurocentric people and the “hospitality offered may be more stifling than respiting, more harm than blessing…The ways that marginalized groups answer the question of who God is needs to be contemplated in a more authentic way than the ‘average’ contemporary expression of spirituality might expect” (Ruth Takiko West*). So true. Besides, members of the so-called “dominant culture” are also very diverse, so forcing them into learning the Eurocentric practices as if they are “best practices” could be a mistake. Leaders need a lot of intentional introspection if they hope to alleviate the problem of merely dominating instead of liberating. The image of God does not just reside in people such as oneself.
Your culture is fine, as is mine. But Jesus is transcultural, even though he comes from a culture, in a gender, and is born into a family system. He experienced the dominant culture providing some kind of general order. But he insisted on enacting the liberative, reconciling work of the Spirit by giving preference to the poorer or more distant, as well as those yet to be included.
The ever-accepting Savior calls us into a mutually accepting relationship with Him and everyone else. Jesus is the Spirit in a body, the body of Christ is the Spirit making all of us into family: the body of Christ. This works out in all cultures. One does not need to look outside of one’s culture or outside of oneself to meet God. Henri Nouwen said, “Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that declares we are loved. Being the beloved expresses the core truth of our existence” (see Spiritual Direction).
The presence of the Spirit transcends and infuses culture
We don’t need to act one way or another to develop intimacy with God, and though Jesus came one way, the Spirit of God with which he graced us is as multifaceted as the Creator. If God speaks to you in an NPR voice, wonderful; it is a sweet voice. But it can be a dominating voice, especially when white teachers unwittingly erase other sounds by making it prescriptive.
The rich experience of Black Americans, even those who understand Taize, Thomas Merton, and such, is often run over by the soft tones of people in charge, even though they have a rich tradition of their own that might be even better. James Cone writes, “The spirituals were a ritualization of God in song. They are not documents for philosophy; they are material for worship and praise for the One who had continued to be present with black humanity despite European insanity” (in The Spirituals and the Blues). Solitude in silence is to be treasured but contemplation is bigger. It is purpose, intention and deep consideration. As such it comes in many forms in as many cultures. Takiko West describes the Black experience in community where contemplation is exercised in the singing and the hearing of songs like the spirituals:
The presence of God is evidenced by the movement of the Spirit that causes one to jump to their feet, hands thrown up in the air when the soloist hits that one note and sustains it as if he/she needed to make sure the sound would reach heaven. It is within that moment that there is communal solidarity around the awareness of God’s grace.*
Cone writes, “The certain fact is always that God is present with them and trouble will not have the last word.”
I’ve had the privilege of being invited into this kind of contemplation in cultures other than my own all over the world. I have a feel for NPR’s more Eurocentric contemplation and I have also been blessed by Aretha Franklin’s. In the following video from Franklin’s 1972 live album, Amazing Grace, she manages to lead the moment of contemplation in a setting of a live recording. In it she bridges the societal divides, as she was so good at, by taking a Carol King song and combining it with a familiar gospel tune, in a South LA church. The album is in the Grammy Hall of Fame.
Aretha Franklin demonstrates how the nondominant find their place in the culture and how they keep a hold of their dignity and affirm their identity as the beloved. The contemplative scene she leads is just as useful as the singular, quiet, secure-that-your-body-will-be-there-when-you-get-back-to-it, Eurocentric contemplation. We don’t need to choose. There is one body, one faith, one Lord. No one is excluded.
* From her essay in Kaleidescope: Broadening the Palette in the Art of Spiritual Direction. Ineda P. Adesanya, editor.
While I was sinking into contemplation, my attention was invaded by an old song lyric. That isn’t unheard of, but it seemed unusual. I turned my attention away from it and back to the breath of life I often experience in the Jesus Prayer. But the lyric would not go away. So I followed it:
Hear my cry, O God; …..give heed to my prayer.
From the end of the earth I call to You when my heart is faint; …..Lead me to the rock that is higher than I.
For You have been a refuge for me, — Psalm 61:1-3 (NASB)
I used to sing this song on the way from San Diego to Pasadena for my last year of seminary at Fuller. I about wore out the 4-track tape. The song, based on Psalm 61, often arises when I need it the most.
I searched myself to figure out why I had been led to that old path. I did not feel like I was in danger. I was not faint. My heart was actually full, affirmed by many voices during the Sunday meeting, among other things. So the usual uses for the song were unnecessary. So I searched the psalm again and this line caught my eye:
Lead me to the rock that is higher than I.
The original song is a prayer for help from the God who provides a stronghold in the face of the enemy. The Candle song is a sweet plea, full of yearning and assurance, knowing that Jesus is that refuge.
I decided the one line that caught my attention was about all the ways I had experienced “spiritual” or “good-hearted” people weighing down conversations with their immanent frame [see the end of this post] — people with no rock higher than the one they can learn, label or own. I discovered how weighed down I felt from recent experiences with:
Evangelicals schooled to pray right, to pray for things and to suspect relating to the Spirit who is unbound by their theology and emanating from, not trapped in, the Bible.
good-hearted poets finding spiritual experiences in nature without the Spirit, luring the unsuspecting into their salvation by aesthetics.
psychology researchers leading people to solve their grief by accepting ambiguity and relying on their capacity to choose something better than meaningless suffering.
I don’t think I realized just how weighed down I was under the pressure of the anti-Christ movement in our polluted air. I was going with a flow that did not feel joyful. The Spirit was gently leading me toward recognition and renewed hope.
I am sure you may feel hemmed in by lies, by confidence in illusions, by outright hostility undoing love every day. I feel hemmed in by Christians with a morality of anger who are willing to kill relationships for their righteousness, both left and right. Thank God for this sweet, humble song, ancient and new, which quietly lifts up a faint heart from the end of the earth to Someone greater than their heart and larger than the understanding of humans.
There is a rock higher than than mine, a love wilder, a truth larger and a hope eternal. In Jesus we meet such love in our history and by the Spirit he is even larger, reaching to the ends of the earth and into my meditation.
Careful the things you say Children will listen Careful the things you do Children will see And learn
Children catch wonderful things from being around their parents. They have an uncanny ability to strain out the best in us. But sometimes they miss what you wish they’d catch while they are acquiring all your bad traits. Sometimes they catch psychological diseases you caught from your parents. Yet, quite often, there is enough love and trust in the family for them to become someone much finer than who could have been predicted, given their environment.
The environment matters
You may have seen the poster above titled “Children Learn What They Live.” I admit I chose that particular rendition out of hundreds in the image search, for one main reason. I like the fish trying to get some attention. What’s more, there are chicks swimming around, which intrigued me, since their feathers get saturated and they drown quite easily, and if they survive their swim, they are likely to catch hypothermia.
Converse with fish, if you must, but do not throw your chicks in the water.
Careful the posters you put on you walls Children will inspect them
Or at least their grandfather might.
The beginning reads If children live with criticism, they learn to condemn. If they live with hostility, they learn to fight. We know that is true, at some level. If we did not learn it at home, we were certainly taught it in school or at work. It would not be surprising if your well-schooled inner critic were at work right now. Whatever psychological machinery monitors your hostility is probably at work in the background, too. Maybe you scorned Barbra and hated the poster — you can tell I have gone through a bit if I imagined that!
You could sum up the rest of the poem with: If children live with kindness and consideration, they learn respect. If they live with friendliness, they learn the world is a nice place in which to live. Most of us also know this is true at some level, even if the feeling seems like it is a fish trying to get some attention, meaning kindness seems a bit imaginary, but somehow very important. If we were making a poster, we’d want to include it. Our love relationships in the family and otherwise tap into our spiritual memory of creation as being a nice place to live. Hopefully, such love softens our hearts so we can be saved from the world as it is, which might get even less kind in 2020.
As soon as the children leave our loving embrace, they will walk outside, or watch The Avengers, or listen to the President, or learn that they are just a data point on the spreadsheet of corporate stockholders. People are not picking up kindness and respect from the environment right now. To the contrary, people keep telling me they are running into the inner Trump-demon in people.
We create an alternative
The children of God also catch things from their environment. They live in a spiritual ecosystem called the church. Even though the church teaches all the time, I think most people are moving with what they catch. Like it or not, faith is more caught than taught. We wish everyone were listening to their pastors and other teachers (I’m writing a blog post, for Christ’s sake!), and that happens. But if any true reshaping is going on it is going to look a lot like the social system in which people are swimming.
Since we know faith is caught as much as taught, if not moreso, Circle of Hope has always described how we develop Jesus followers like this: We create an environment where people can connect with God and act for redemption.
We are an alternative environment to the one where Donald Trump can move everyone with a Tweet barrage and where fear dominates most of the hours people aren’t sleeping. It is a lofty goal to think we can create an environment that images God like we do, but it is absolutely crucial to keep trying. God’s children also learn from from living with their spiritual parents and siblings in Christ. Who we are and what we do probably has more influence than what we say.
The Bible includes dialogue about “caught, not taught” in many places. In the following examples from the Old and New Testaments you can see parents wrestling with children who forsake their history and families, and see parents who are doing a terrible job at creating an environment of love.
Hear, my son, your father’s instruction and forsake not your mother’s teaching (Prov. 1:8).
Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord (Eph. 6:4).
Mother’s teaching should be about the mystery of God’s wisdom. The main instruction of the Lord is to “love one another as I have loved you.”
As the church, we are often the first place someone is invited into a love that holds them and a wisdom that launches them. Our environment is a place of living water into which people can dive or just get their toes wet as they navigate their spiritual journey. Just being dipped in it changes one’s view of destiny.
How do we respond to our deteriorating social system?
We need to create an alternative environment. Americans often begin and end with fighting over their democracy as if it will save them and the world. That delusion might be the main problem for Christians growing up in the U.S. Empire. We think and feel power, or the loss of it, all the time. Everyone needs to learn something else.
Especially during Advent, we should all try on the new clothes of our new lives in Christ:
“Our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Philippians 3:20).
We are citizens of the kingdom of God, right now, and the fullness of heaven will be ours before long; that is our hope. We are a circle of that hope, and you are probably part of a Jesus-environment where you are, too.
If we are products of our environment, then shouldn’t we do all we can to make that environment nourishing and not negative? Of course! Don’t give up. People need an alternative. We all learn what we live. And, in word and deed, we teach what we learn. The children we raise and the children of God Jesus has raised will mimic the model they are supplied. At the very least they should have the opportunity to catch some wisdom and love from someone bravely tending a garden (complete with demanding fish and endangered chicks, perhaps) in which to walk with Jesus and from which to bless creation.