"In mercy, in goodness, how great is our King;
Our tribute, thanksgiving, with glad hearts we bring.
Thou art the Renewer, the Ancient of Days,
Who givest, for mourning, the garment of praise..."
- William P. MacKenzie
I think I must have been a pollster in a former life. And before you "mute" this post because it talks about reincarnation, or get your knickers in a twist, I do not believe in past lives…I do believe in eternal life. I believe in the seamlessness of being which death neither interrupts nor sidetracks. That said, I will go back to my original statement…I think I must have been a pollster….
It's not that I love polls. I love polling. I love asking a broad spectrum of people the same question and watching patterns emerge. Sometimes these patterns support a thesis, sometimes they are arrestingly contrary to what I assumed, and often they indicate what works…and doesn't work…in our relationships with one another, our schools, our places of commerce, our businesses, and in our communities of faith.
Over the years, especially since launching my website and this blog, I have had the privilege of talking with many people who have left their faith traditions to explore other worship communities or to go solo in their journey towards a deeper relationship with the inner unseen…the spiritual.
One question, of the many that I pepper my new friends with is, "While you were 'away' from your former faith tradition, what did you miss the most?" There have been many answers, but the one that surfaces over and over again is:
The hymns, songs, chants…choir…the music about God. Responses overwhelmingly support the important role that music plays in the spiritual lives of children…men and women.
I get this.
Readers of this blog know that I left my own childhood faith at 19 after the sudden passing of my father. At first I thought it was because I was angry with God…"how could You, a loving Parent Yourself, so thoroughly let down a good and kind woman like my mom…a woman who now has to raise eight children with only a teenager (me) to help her?", I fired off in an angry prayer. But I quickly acknowledged that I was praying, so I still had some faith, and hadn't completely given up on God. So secondly, I thought I must be angry, hurt and frightened by the way my parents' church had retreated from our family following dad's passing. But even that yielded with the realization that the church members really didn't know how to behave when facing a widow with eight young children in their midst…there was really no model in their culture for responding and that if they had known how to do it better, I was absolutely certain that they would have.
Hmmm…that left me with only one option in considering the cause for my rather tangential journey -one that took me away from my childhood faith tradition - and it was, and could only be, God...since He is the only, omnipotent Cause and Creator. He had created me to be a thinker who asks a lot of questions. Someone who loves research and reason, therefore I deduced, my path needed to include a broader exploration of spiritual ideas in order to harvest out what worked for me.
So, for over a decade I explored many different churches, religions, belief systems and faiths. I learned so much about humanity and how much we have in common. I also learned that each path towards a greater understanding of God is perfect for the person who is led to choose that path, at that moment. The destination, and how we treat eachother along the way, is all that matters.
And even though my path always felt like hunger and longing, it was rich and full of new landscapes to explore and new cultures to assimilate. I loved all that I discovered as a Buddhist, a protestant, a Rastafarian…but for me, there was a song that kept calling me home…calling me back to the familiar and well-tested, the proven and foundational in my life. Quite literally. It was a song…a hymn that continually poked at my heart when I prayed, or walked past a Christian Science Reading Room, or sought comfort in a moment of fear.
While I was in high school Larry Groce released an album (yes, Virginia there really were vinyl albums with square cardboard covers once…those aren't just props in a Pottery Barn catalog) titled, Peace, and Joy, and Power, and on it was the song, "In mercy, in goodness". It was a radical departure from the "church music" I was used to. It was all folk. Guitar, flute…rich vocals, gentle messages. And I loved it. I couldn't get enough of it. Playing it on our old portable record player with the maroon fake leather finish made me feel closer to my God, the one who made sense to me, more than anything else in my church…or my life.
When I left my daily practice of Christian Science I somehow thought I couldn't listen to it anymore. This worked for a while. I was okay with the gospel choir at the Baptist church I attended with my friend Benita. I like meditating with a recording of Tibetan monks at the "reformed" temple I visited in LA. I played tapes by contemporary Christian artists, swayed with "born agains," and moved rhythmically to a Rastafarian beat with my Jamaican friends as we prayed together, but when I was alone it was "In mercy, in goodness, how great is our King…" that played through my heart and made me weep with longing for something I couldn't put my finger on.
And to make matters worse, whenever I moved…which was a lot…I always ended up living near a Christian Science Reading Room. On the way to the market or to the dance studio I would pass plate glass windows filled with books and imagine that somewhere in the back of a quiet room was a cassette player with a copy of "Peace, and Joy, and Power" just waiting to be played. And I wanted to listen so badly. I wanted to walk boldly through the door and right past the woman at the desk and find that tape player and sit in a big comfy chair and just drink it all in. But I couldn't.
I would certainly think about it. I would imagine myself opening the door with the little bell attached to the inside. I would say hello to the Librarian and….well, that was where I would stop. You see, I was a school teacher and principal during the day…a respectable profession, but a few evenings a week and on weekends, I was a freelance sommelier…a wine expert. My expertise was in the French reds and the exciting, new world of Californian wines...just beginning to blossoming in the 1970s. I consulted with high-end restaurants (that couldn't justify a full-time sommelier) on a per diem basis and wine had become my culture, beautiful wineries and crystal stemware defined my world, my perfectly-tuned palate was "a gift". And I was afraid…afraid that if I walked into a Reading Room I could never be sure that the person behind the desk wouldn't be able to detect wine on my breath and then what…what if they knew my family. What if I brought shame on my mother, a wonderful woman who was still very active in her church community. So, I would walk on.
This went on month after month, year after year…in one neighborhood, city, state after another.
It's a long story…most some of it's chapters are buried in the archives of this blog in stories that have already been told. This post isn't about those stories of how I finally found my way back into my childhood faith community, it is about the power of a spiritual song, a hymn, a musical prayer…to penetrate our fears of rejection or disappointment, reach deeply past hurt, and tenderly touch the heart of one who longs to feel fellowship in grace.
The first thing I asked for, when I did find my way back, was…"can we sing 'In mercy, in good, how great is our King'…" Really. My family looked perplexed, but no one hesitated. And I will never forget how good it felt to sing it with my family and a few friends that first day. The joy and warmth I felt as the words poured out of our hearts, over and around me and those I loved…wrapping us in a Comforter of fellowship…was priceless.
Is there a hymn, a song of praise…a spiritual lullaby you've missed singing lately…
…then sing it! Don't let anything stop you.
Mary Baker Eddy tells us, in Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures that:
"Whatever inspires with wisdom, Truth, or Love —
be it song, sermon, or Science — blesses the human
family with crumbs of comfort from Christ's table,
feeding the hungry and giving living waters to the thirsty."
The song you are singing, may just be what someone else is longing to hear.
And if you happen to be one of those generously wonderful and dear person(s)-behind-the-desk at a Reading Room in the heartland…or in a big city…don't hesitate to get up, go around to the other side of the desk, open the door and talk to the person who doesn't seem to have the courage to come in. It might just be all the encouragement they need. And who knows…you may just have someone new to sing hymns of praise with!