Recently some friends and I got to talking about hymns we sang as children — in particularly, “Onward Christian Soldiers.” Despite finding ourselves in a much different place spiritually than our early church days, we all agreed many traditional church songs hold special memories.
Stacey spent her childhood virtually without supervision. “We were feral,” she said. ” We were the wild children on our street.” When her parents divorced, her mother worked and left Stacey and her siblings to fend for themselves. A number of years ago, Stacey went home and visited with some of her former neighbors. “I learned many on the street were deeply concerned for our safety.”
As a child, Stacey found her “home” in church. For one thing, her Baptist church offered snacks and often what she ate at church was all had to eat for the day. Stacey grew to love the sense of community she felt at church — a place where people cared for her and nurtured her. When she was old enough, Stacey joined the choir and sang her heart out. The words of the hymns she sang on Sunday mornings lodged deep in her brain. She particularly remembers facing the congregation and singing the lyrics to “Onward Christian Soldier” with great pride. She felt part of something, connected to others, fully supported and cared for.
Stacey and I could not have more different backgrounds.
My parents, Watson and Mary, were too strict, too strong and much-too-present for me to go wild. They structured my days, beginning to end. We rose to Dad’s wake up call and shared breakfast around the small round oak table in the kitchen. We gathered for Bible reading (each person reading two verses each until one or two chapters were completed) and prayers in the music room every day before school. As a minister and a teacher, I could not get away from his presence.
The summer of my 10th year, I was sitting in church one hot Wednesday evening and thinking how much I wanted to be wild. I longed to be anywhere but where I was — sitting on a hard wooden pew, staring out the open window onto the lawn of the house next to the church. The setting sun streamed through the trees and created lovely shadows on the grass. I heard the neighbor kids playing in the nearby park. I felt real life — the giggling, running about, shouting and playing hard life — resided outside my small church.
Just about the only thing I liked inside church were the hymns. I listened to Mama play with passion the requested songs. I sang along from memory. We Thorntons had very little need of the hymnal because we knew the lyrics by heart. The words flowed with ease and they connected me on some deep level with the men and women in the pews around me.
My personal belief had not yet become an issue with me. All I knew was that singing “Rescue the Perishing,” “Count Your Many Blessings,” “Onward Christian Soldiers” and many other songs that represented the faith of my parents helped lift my spirits, soothe my anger and spoke to my soul on some level.
I left home for college when I was 17. There, a boyfriend introduced me to Johnny Got His Gun and Malcom X. I began to question blind patriotism and American Christianity. As more and more male students dropped out, were drafted or signed up for the Vietnam war, I grew more and more uncomfortable seeing the American flag and the Christian flag together on the same podium — especially in church.
Stacey moved away from traditional organized Christianity, as well. Despite going to seminary and earning an M.Div., she does not preach nor does she attend an organized church. She’s found her place and peace in Wisdom theology and contemplative prayer. Stacey structures her life around meditation. She and her partner open their home to people in need of quiet and rest. They offer retreats, courses and counseling to those in search of inner healing.
Stacey’s a far cry from that feral child who roamed the streets. And me? The girl raised in church who went in search of living wild and outside? I’m quieter now. Stacey and I are both discovering more and more about living faith that nurtures hope and love.
I struggle to live like Jesus did. At time I wish I were more like Stacey with her peaceful aura and kind spirit.
However I know she, too, has her personal struggles. We both continue to take steps towards peace, not war, to pursue love not engage in battles.
I feel we’re part of a growing corp of enlisted people of faith who are marching onward, just not to war.
Onward Christian soldiers,
Marching as to war
With the cross of Jesus
Going on before
Onward then, ye people
Join our happy throng
Blend with ours your voices
In our triumph song
Christ the royal master
Leads against the foe
Forward into battle
See His banners go
Crowns and Thrones may perish
Kingdoms rise and wane
But the cross of Jesus
Constant will remain
**This post appeared the other day under on a different site: First & Third Verse. I launched a second blog (which I now think may be a mistake) to provide space for a bigger project: First & Third Verse This site looks at traditional hymns and how they impacted my spiritual development and how they continue to be meaningful even as I’ve moved from a traditional way of thinking to a much more progressive viewpoint. If you have a love for the old church hymns, I hope you’ll visit the site.***
I feel I was predestined to be smiling and joyful for Jesus, whether I liked it or not.
Not only me, but all nine of my siblings were programmed to be sunbeamers from the minute we were born. And of course we could and would be because, well, we had the joy, joy, joy, joy down in our hearts.
Jesus wants me for a sunbeam,
To shine for Him each day;
In every way try to please Him,
At home, at school, at play.
A sunbeam, a sunbeam,
Jesus wants me for a sunbeam;
A sunbeam, a sunbeam,
I’ll be a sunbeam for Him.
Sunday after Sunday I gathered with a handful of other children in the damp, cool basement of First Presbyterian Church in Greenfield, Illinois. Together we filled the lower level with loud, off-key voices and occasional outbursts of giggles. We moved in close to the piano and acted out our happy verses, arms to the sky, hands cupped around our cheeks, fingers wiggling in the air. We climbed climbed up sunshine mountain with faces all aglow and, like that wee little man, Zacheus, we climbed up in a Sycamore tree then plopped down on the floor when he dropped down from the tree to eat dinner with Jesus.
Those melodies were campy, peppy and repetitive and the lyrics– definitely long-term memory material. All memories of church were.
Church was my second home. As the preacher, dad was required to be there whenever the doors opened. When he doubled as the janitor, we got there early to open the doors and stayed until the halls were empty.
Sunday morning and Sunday night we were present. No exceptions. Wednesday night prayer meeting was also mandatory. And one Tuesday a month we visited the Prairie Home, the local nursing home, bringing songs, a short message and good cheer to the old folks of our little town.
How I dreaded those evenings.
I cared about the elderly and their loneliness. I often left the building with tears rolling down my face because of the sorrow I sensed and felt within those wall. I ached for the women and men who sat by themselves in their rooms, day after day, without visits from their children.
I just didn’t know what to say.
I felt uncomfortable holding their shaky hands and feeling their paper-thin skin. Shouting to be heard embarrassed me (I mean, what doesn’t embarrass a teenager?) Pervasive smells of disinfectant and urine made me gag. Yet, going there was my duty. A rigorously enforced duty. By the time I reached 16, I had counted the number of Tuesdays I had to go before high school graduation. Freedom couldn’t come too soon.
At the nursing home, at school, at play, I wasn’t much of a sunbeam. I tried. When the music played, my voice rang out clear and strong. During prayer time my head remained bowed , and neither of my eyes would look around. I memorized verses and taught the little kids in Sunday School. With other kids in the youth group, I attended Youth for Christ rallies in St. Louis. I raised my hand countless times for this joy, joy, joy thing to take root in my heart.
But (and there’s always a but in life) faith for me hasn’t been sunny. Over the years the path I’ve walked has been some sun and partly cloudy. Overcast days followed by serious thunderstorms. Maybe it’s the way I viewed them — glass half-empty kind of thing. My dear friend Lauralee has never met a day that wasn’t filled with something good. She sees her glass filled to overflowing in even the darkest circumstance.
Varying levels of serotonin in my brain have created mood swings. That’s a fact. Or it could be I was born with my stars out of alignment. Whatever the cause, I’ve had as many weepy, tear-filled days as I have joy-filled ones. I have grown comfortable with angst.
In the past my gray-sky outlook has left me with a sense of being less than. Not a good Christian. Letting down the Lord. Failing the family. Not giving God God’s due.
So guilt on top of my Eeyore-like world view has done a number on me.
Until this past year.
Moving to South America, a new continent, far removed from family and the land that formed me, I’m discovering a new freedom. Here we experience rain almost everyday and the clouds hang very low. Some mornings, so low I feel I can almost touch them. But in this high place in the Andes, sunshine manages to burst through at least once a day. And those rays are brilliant, warm, energizing and potent. I feel my cells waking up. I feel my spirit come to life.
No longer do I feel I ought to be a sunbeam, much less a sunbeam for anyone.
But I have grown to celebrate and love the sun.
An author wrote, “The real state of our spiritual life is best revealed late on some Tuesday or Thursday afternoon after a rough day.”
Whoever he or maybe she is. I find the statement scrawled in pencil on a scrap of lined paper stuck in the spine of an old sketch book. The name of the work has faded from the torn sheet…and even from my memory.
But her words they stand strong. They resonate. They punch me soundly in the gut on this late afternoon.
It is on a Tuesday after a very rough day.
And the real state of my spiritual life has been revealed so very clearly.
With impatient words and gruff voice. Jagged nerves. Too little charis, too much malice in my thoughts, words and deed.
Not such a pleasing sight. Not right, not right.
Oh, there are reasons. Always reasons.
A conversation that opened up old wounds and prompted the flow of tears from deep within. Jaw muscles tensed, clenched and locked to keep the feelings in and pain from spilling out. I worked to get them free–the muscles and the memories. And oh the bitter feelings flowed. Spirit-breaking remembrances that are as old as I am. They are too long with me and they have kept me from…
From experiencing a constant connection of the soul. A comfortable place of rest for my spirit. A centeredness and settled-ness that creates a sense of being all right with the world, with myself and with God.
So what now?
I sit and silence the commotion of spinning thoughts inside. I ease into quiet. I let go of the wrestling with and blocking out of all that once hurt and allow it to flow into the stillness. I sense the vastness of God and the goodness as well.
Tomorrow is Wednesday. Another day to allow a more relaxed and gentle spirit to be revealed.