"There's a place in the world for a Christian
There's a burden that only he can bear
There's a place in the world for a Christian
And he sees...oh, yes he sees...
And he sees...oh, yes he sees.."
But Dan didn’t write those lyrics…oh, he wrote the song alright. And it has been a song that I have long loved since the first moment I heard his “Souvenirs” album from the front seat of an old Jeep while driving with the windows wide open through the hills of northern West Virginia in the fall of 1974.
Those were the days when singer/songwriters like Dan Fogelberg and Carole King, James Taylor and Carly Simon, John Lennon and Joni Mitchell wrote the sermons that fed my deepest spiritual hunger. That year of my life had been one day after another of just getting through…just making it to the end of the day without having the power turned off, the food run out, or the rent check bounce.
My dad had passed on in June of the previous year and we had all been through hell. But that weekend I felt uncaged. My sister had offered to help our mother care for the six youngest children, two of which were still not even old enough to be in school, so that I could go visit a friend who was away at college. I hadn’t been away from job, school, or the demands of helping mother raise my siblings in eleven months, and I was like a bird set free. I wanted to drive until I reached the horizon and couldn’t find my way back.
I don’t think I ever really knew Fogelberg’s actual first verse lyrics for this song until I looked them up for writing this post tonight. I have always sung that verse with the word Christian in place of what Fogelberg intended in his line, “There’s a place in the world for a gambler”…which I now know is also the title of the song. But for me on that day in 1974 I heard “Christian” and I’ve been singing it that way ever since.
When I first realized tonight that I have been singing it incorrectly, I was stunned. I am a lyric-aholic. I eat, drink, dream, breathe and bleed lyrics. But now that I’ve sat here for the last hour or so thinking about that first listen through on a winding road just north of Morgantown West Virginia, I think it was God who recast the lyrics in my heart that day.
I was tired. I was so bone tired of being responsible, strong, and resilient. I wanted to be a kid. I didn’t want to be working three jobs, clipping grocery coupons, negotiating a payment plan with the utilities company. I was twenty years old and I wanted to be in college like the rest of my friends. I wanted to go to concerts and football games. I wanted to live in a dorm and buy textbooks, not toilet paper in bulk. I wanted to be…what…a senator, a lawyer, the editor of Mother Jones magazine, or in time…my time…a mother. I wanted to be reporting on Watergate, not reading about it in the New York Times. I wanted to be a teacher, not attending parent/teacher conferences for my siblings.
These thoughts were providing sympathetic company as I tapped out the rhythm from each song on the steering wheel. I had listened to the car radio all along the turnpike, but once I left it for the final leg of my journey through the twists and turns of rural back roads, there was nothing but static to tune in to. I found the cassette a friend had loaned me for my drive on the seat beside me. I had forgotten it was there and was excited to be able to hear Fogelbergs’s newly released “Souvenirs” album now that the radio had gone silent. I popped it into the cassette player and cranked the volume as high as I could. I wanted to feel the cool mountain air blowing through my hair and hoped Fogelberg’s always inspiring lyrics and hauntingly beautiful melodies would clean the cobwebs of resentment and frustration out of my head and, more importantly, out of my heart. I had been mulling over my sad plight while listening to the first tracks and by the time this final song came on, my self-pity had reached a fevered pitch and I was ready for its message .
Hadn’t I been on my way to a prestigious university, hadn’t I gotten the grades that afforded me a full ride scholarship so that my parents wouldn’t have to bear the burden of my educational goals, hadn’t I always been obedient and cooperative? Then why me? Why was I bearing the burden of a widowed mother and her seven children.
When I heard (or at least thought I heard) Dan sing that line…
“There’s a place in the world for a Christian
There’s a burden that only he can bear…"
…something in it struck a chord. I was very familiar with the behavioral standards for a Christian. I had been exposed to the Gospels and the writings of Mary Baker Eddy since the age of eleven. I had heard over and over again that the goal was to do unto others as ye would have done to you, to love your enemies, to give of your cloak and coat when asked. My dad had been a dyed-in-the-wool socialist. “Nobody wins until everybody wins” was a frequent maxim woven into every family decision and consequent action. It permeated everything from who got the first shower (and consequently the only real hot water) to everyone keeping only 10% of their income—from my little brother’s paper route, to the $135.76 paycheck I collected each week from my job at the A&P, all the way up to Dad’s own modest salary from the two jobs he always held—while the rest, 90% of each person’s earnings, went into the family pot.
But in that moment I didn’t want to be a Christian. I wanted to be a kid. Hadn’t I eschewed the trappings of organized religion and all things "churchy"? What good had any of that done to save my dad from the accident that left his young family of nine near destitute? Why did I have to be burdened by the lyrics of a song? But I was. Especially when, after listening to it a few more times, I began making a connection between that first verse and the next:
“There's a song in the heart of a woman
That only the truest of loves can release
There's a song in the heart of a woman
Set it free...oh, set it free
Set it free...oh, set it free
Set it free...oh, set it free”
This really got me. I wanted nothing more in life than to have the song in my heart set free by a true love…the truest of loves. I wanted to be free to sing songs that I had written…songs of love and devotion. Could this truest of loves actually be the love that I felt for my mother, brothers and sisters…and not just love from a boy/man… and could this be the love that would set the song in me free? Or might it even lead me to a truest of loves, a husband or partner, that would help me find the deepest of songs in my heart? I wanted it so desperately. I wanted to be someone who had sung a song so true that it would bring peace and kindness to the world. I imagined that if I started singing my song of peace and social justice that others would begin humming along and without even realizing it they too would be singing an “ohm” of global responsibility and kindness.
But I had given up on myself as someone who could make a great difference. People who made a great difference in this world went to prestigious universities like the one I had been enrolled in before my dad had been killed. Didn’t it take a PhD. from Harvard or Yale? Columbia or at the very least UCLA to really have a voice anyone would listen to? How could I have great thoughts unless I sat in classes with other SAT high scorers, and was taught by noted great thinkers?
But this song was saying that all I needed was to be a Christian and to have the truest of loves. “Look at Jesus”, the voice was saying. He never went to university, but he sat with the rabbis and lawyers at twelve, and not only listened but spoke. He had the truest of hearts and his love-based legacy is still making a difference 2,000 years later. That’s when the last verse kicked into third gear for me.
“There's a light in the depths of your darkness
There's a calm at the eye of every storm
There's a light in the depths of your darkness
Let it shine...oh, let it shine
Let it shine...oh, let it shine
Let it shine...oh, let it shine
Let it shine”
I don’t know that I really fully “got it” back then. But it was enough to give me the resolve I needed to go back home at the end of the weekend and continue to do my best as a daughter, sister, employee, student, and yes, global citizen.
And eventually I did become a teacher, a mother, and have an office as a Christian Science practitioner where I am privileged to be in the practice of spiritual law. I have campaigned and voted for senators I believe in and I have subscribed to Mother Jones. I read the New York Times each Sunday and have written for an international daily newspaper whose mission it is to bring a spiritual perspective to bear on subjects I care about and am committed to. I have loved with a true heart and written songs with the truest of loves.
It’s taken me 33 years to discover that what I had actually heard that day, as I drove through the changing colors of an Indian summer afternoon just outside of the Monongahela State Forest, was God’s voice…his song. I had been given a gift…the gift of hope where all seemed lost…and the promise that when we love with the truest of hearts we can each make a difference. I am still learning that if we are true to our song…the song we are hearing and singing in the deepest regions of our own heart…we may just find ourselves humming along with others who are looking to make a difference.
And who knows…before long maybe we’ll all learn the words….His words