Hymns Revisited

Part of me loves the hymns I grew up with. Part of me tries to escape them, scrambling backwards and knocking stuff over.

I’ve got reasons for my reaction, which possibly isn’t as measured and reasonable as it could be.

For one thing, some of the words of these “hymns” are incredibly insipid. For instance, the bouncy little song  “At the Cross,” which took a weighty Isaac Watts poem:

Alas, and did my Savior bleed,
And did my Sovereign die?
Would He devote that sacred head
For such a worm as I?

And stuck a catchy gospel chorus to it:
At the cross!
At the cross!
Where I first saw the light,
And the burden of my heart was rolled away!
It was there by faith I received my sight
And now I am happy all the day!

Yeah, so, you know — the ultimate sacrifice of a sinless God to save wretched sinners… it sure does make me happy all the day!

For another thing, I can’t stand some of the tunes. A Mighty Fortress Is Our God has fantastic words. But good heavens, who wrote that tune and thought, “Yeah! This is IT! Congregational singing, HERE WE COME!”? You start off at a full run and don’t even get to pause for breath between the first and second phrases:

“AmightyfortressisourGodabulkwarneverfailing!”

It’s like an entire hymn in hashtag form.

Other tunes are so locked in their nineteenth- and twentieth-century sound that they’re almost painful to twenty-first century ears. Sweet Hour of Prayer, Blessed Be the Tie, What a Friend We Have in Jesus, Softly and Tenderly. They drag. They whine. I cannot stand those tunes.

But so what? Big deal. Everybody who ever attended church likes some songs and not others. Why does that qualify me to run in the other direction?

Well, because for years I was taught by a now-discredited teacher that these hymns were the only acceptable music to listen to. He did allow some classical music (except for Stravinksy, and Debussy was suspect too, and if he’d ever heard of Gershwin then that would have been off-limits as well). Some Celtic and bluegrass slipped under the line, too. (I practically overdosed on Ungar&Mason’s album, The Lover’s Waltz.) But mostly my available music consisted of hymns arranged in an approved style.

So my life was filled with these hymns. The beautiful (Praise to the Lord the Almighty; Holy, Holy, Holy); the fluffy (Victory in Jesus; Lily of the Valley); and the insipid or annoying (see above).

I couldn’t pick and choose to like them because my options were so limited.Besides, there’s no room in a Godly life to say that you don’t like Godly music.

Once I realized that I could step beyond those artificial boundaries, I walked away from hymns. I liked listening to DJ play and sing at the piano, but I was angry that they had been forced on me as “the only good” music when some of it was patently not good.

Yet part of me still loves many of those songs.

A few months ago, I discovered Chris Rice’s song “Untitled Hymn (Come to Jesus)”. It’s written in the style of an old mountain hymn, very simple words* and tune; but all the verses together trace a thread through the life of a Christian, from “sing to Jesus” to “fall on Jesus” to “dance for Jesus,” and finally death — “fly to Jesus.” It’s surprisingly touching, especially since Rice doesn’t try to make it fancy. He just sings.

When I found a 2007 album by Rice called “The Hymns Project,” I thought maybe he could salvage some of those old songs I really want to love. He didn’t disappoint me.

He liberates a couple of hymns from their swingy-slidey rhythm (“Rock of Ages” and “The Old Rugged Cross”). He takes one song that drags like a toddler going to bed, and gives it energy (“O Love That Will Not Let Me Go”). And he included one hymn that I love almost no matter how it’s arranged, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing”:

O to grace how great a debtor
Daily I’m constrained to be
Let thy goodness like a fetter
Bind my wandering heart to thee

Prone to wander, Lord I feel it
Prone to leave the God I love;
Here’s my heart, oh, take and seal it
Seal it for thy courts above.

I used to dislike this verse — that whole thing about the “fetter.” But now I deeply appreciate the idea that I can’t wander away from God. He lets me walk away, but never so far that I can’t find him again.

The best thing about this album is that Rice just sings. He doesn’t try to make the hymns more than they are. That’s when I realized there’s actually a lot to them.

I didn’t like every song (even Rice couldn’t mellow out A Mighty Fortress). That made me happy, too, since it reminded me that I’m free to pick and choose.

So if you’re like me and wary of hymns, give this one a try.

Source: Amazon.com: Peace Like A River: The Hymns Project: Chris Rice: MP3 Downloads

*The lyrics “Like a newborn baby/Don’t be afraid to crawl” is a slight jar, I admit. Newborn babies don’t crawl, and the only thing they’re afraid of is starving to death immediately right now even while a nipple is being inserted into their screaming mouths. But it’s minor. Just go with it.

 

 

 

The Good Patriarchy

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Patriarchists aren’t all bad.

Statements like that sound charitable, but they’re usually not. For one thing, as soon as I start thinking of people as a generic group– “Fundamentalists” “Liberals” “Right-Wingers” “The Gays” “Rednecks” — I stop seeing them as real people. They (plural) become a faceless figure (singular) imbued with everything I dislike about their particular set of ideas.

So to say that Patriarchists aren’t all bad, I’m basically conceding that they might have some actual human qualities.

My point here is much more generous, I hope.

People embrace a Christian patriarchal worldview for real reasons. The world has problems, and everyone is looking for solutions. As I once heard it said, “I like the questions they ask. I just don’t like all their answers.”

Here are some good reasons why people are “Patriarchists”:

Men need respect. (Yes, and also love.)  This is especially true for that almost invisible population of men who aren’t particularly handsome or flashy, nor are they violent and oppressive. They’re devoted to those they love. They work hard, worry a lot, do the best they can to provide and protect. You will find these men all through the ranks of the patriarchy camp. They’re sincere and faithful. They deserve respect. In a patriarchal system, they get it.

Women should plan their futures with motherhood in mind. Obviously I’ve got strong opinions about women’s education and future. But if a woman has any desire at all to have children, she needs to factor that into her plans. She has no idea beforehand how pregnancy will affect her. She could be on bedrest for six months, throwing up for nine, or simply too sleepy to function after 5pm. And it’s simple fact that mothers usually take on most of the work during the baby and toddler years.It’s smart to learn time management, childcare, and cooking. It’s also smart to look for a man who will be able to provide for the family if motherhood knocks her off her feet for a while. Patriarchy has this foresight built into its system.

Structure provides security. Life is scary and unpredictable. If you’ve already got a framework for handling decisions and expectations, it gives you something to fall back on. My dad died when I was three, leaving my mother with five children. But in that small Southern society thirty years ago, it was understood that the men of the family would do all they could to take care of the women. My grandfather and uncle stepped in and filled up a huge, gaping hole in our lives until my mom got back on her feet. In patriarchy, the men are accustomed to stepping up.

Men and Women (in general) are different and need one another for balance. I know, I know, not all women are highly emotional, and some men stop and ask for directions. Male/female stereotypes cease to be helpful very quickly. Still, there are obvious biological differences, and as a group, women and men approach life differently. A world with both masculine and feminine influence is a rich one. Patriarchy recognizes these differences in a positive light.

God pervades everything. In Christian patriarchy, there is no real distinction between secular and sacred. Everything you do is in service to God. You eventually go through everyday life in a constant awareness and communion with God.

I sincerely believe these things are good. So why don’t we want to return to the world of patriarchy?

Because it is not a self-correcting system.

As long as you get good people who are willing to compromise, be flexible, and understand other points of view — patriarchy can function very well for the people involved.

But if things go bad, the people under authority have no way to check or challenge the people in control. And it’s not really an “if”– when humans are involved, things will go wrong.

So Patriarchists aren’t all bad. I fight against the error of villainizing those who don’t see things my way. But I can look at a system that allows bad people to stay in control, and I can say: That is not good.

 

The Patriarchy Shop

The smiling man, dressed in a tailored dark suit, leaned over the polished oak and marble counter. “Welcome to the Christian Patriarchy Market! How can I help you?”

His new customer, a young woman, smiled tentatively back. “Hi. I’m looking for a new one of these, and I was told I had to get it here.”

She laid a large purse on the counter top. It was dark leather with “life” stamped on it in faded yellow letters. “I just turned twenty-two. I feel like I’m ready for a bigger one.”

His smile broadened. “I’ve got exactly what you need!” He opened a cabinet and withdrew another bag. It was much larger, and engraved into its smooth leather surface in flowing silver letters was Life.

“This is ideal for a woman in your situation,” he explained. “See how much bigger it is. You’ve got a lot more space to serve others. There’s a special pocket here to store your heart — I assume you’ve got it locked away in a box and you’ve given the key to your father?”

“Well…” she said hesitantly.

“Because you’re ready for a lot more responsibility, you’ll see that this one has lots of different sections. Here’s where you put your church ministry, here’s where you add your advanced homemaking skills, and don’t forget to fill up this baby pocket with lots and lots of longing! You’d be surprised at how many women in your stage of life don’t give any thought to wanting babies, but you can’t start too soon.”

She examined the bag with interest. “It’s really lovely, but I’m not sure it’s everything I need. I really, really love working in the yard…”

“You can put that with homemaking skills!”

“… and I’m really good at organizing events…”

“Church ministry! But you’ll need to tuck it way down so it doesn’t spill over into all the rest of the bag.”

“And… to be honest, I really want to learn to fly a plane. I’ve kind of looked into being a private pilot.”

The man paused. Then he cleared his throat. “I don’t think there’s really room for something like that. You could get your father to authorize an add-on for missions, but I’ll be honest with you, it’s bulky and doesn’t really fit.”

“But my brother’s accommodates all of that!”

“The men’s line is designed a little differently, of course.”

She fingered the soft leather. “I’d noticed that. Well, anyway, this won’t really work for me, because I’m getting married this summer.”

The clerk’s face lit up with excitement. “Really? Oh, you should have told me that to start with! You don’t need this old thing.” He swept the bag off the counter. Opening another cabinet door, he withdrew a leather bag so large that it took two arms to lift it onto the counter top.

It was made of leather, dyed deep red and purple, and fastened with brass. Surrounded by intricate scrollwork were real gold letters spelling out LIFE.

“This is everything you need!” the clerk exclaimed. “Look at this capacity–you’ll never run out of space for your desires! Lots of room for serving, huge section here for children, just look at your household work space! And right here–almost the entire middle section–is dedicated to your husband. You’ll have a lifetime job just filling this up!”

He looked at her expectantly, but she didn’t seem to share his enthusiasm. “There’s no room here for piloting a plane. Or organizing events. What about knowing God? I was hoping that my new bag would have a lot of space for that.”

“That’s the great thing about the patriarchy design,” the salesman said. “Watch this.”

He walked around to the front of the counter and opened two large double doors on the front. Using both hands, he extracted a rolling leather bag, reinforced with steel and decorated with images of swords. “This is the married man’s bag. It’s extra-double capacity because once a man is married, he’s basically responsible for everything relating to his wife and family. Pretty hefty weight to carry. Aren’t you glad you don’t have to worry about all this?”

“Well, I could help carry it.”

“Oh, no! This isn’t designed for a woman! But let me show you the best feature here.” He opened the man’s bag. Then he picked up the woman’s bag and tucked it inside. “See? It fits right there in the section for ‘spiritual maturity.’ As long as you keep all your things there, you’ll know everything you need to about God.”

She pointed to a small zip pocket on the side of the woman’s leather bag. “What’s that for?”

The salesman’s smile was bright. “You just stuff all your bad feelings in there and zip it up. That’s the feature that makes our design workable.”

The woman stood silently, taking it all in. Then she burst out, “But I don’t want to put all my stuff in there! And that’s way too heavy for my fiance! What happens if I have too much to fit? Or if his bag tears open?”

The clerk was no longer smiling. “I thought you were a serious customer.”

“I am! There’s just some serious flaws in your design.”

“Excuse me. It’s not my design. It’s God’s design. This is the way it works. You can go shopping at some other bag shop, but I warn you, those are badly-made and will rip open at a moment when you’re least expecting it. You’ll lose everything.”

She cleared her throat. “Just curious… have you ever used the woman’s bag to see how it really works?”

The salesman gave a short, derisive laugh. “Well, no. I don’t think God even uses it. He’s male too, you know. So, can I ring you up?”

“I… think I need to think about it.”

“I warn you, if you walk out of here, you walk away from this exclusively-designed line and away from the God who designed it!”

The woman shouldered her small bag again. “I think I saw God in some other places. He really seems too big to fit in here, actually. And so am I.” She turned and walked out of the shop.

Speaking of College

Allison from Presentmindedly just read The Fellowship and commented with the perspective of an “outsider.” I asked if I could turn her comment into a post.

For a little background, Allison and I grew up in the same hometown–attended the same church, in fact–but our paths didn’t cross too much. Public schooled while I was homeschooled, she was a few years ahead of me: always determined, ambitious, and very kind to the younger girls. Recently I was thrilled when she said she was reading the novel, and as usual I find her perspective very valuable.

Her words are in bold, and I’ve added my own observations in plain text. I’m not commenting to disagree, but to discuss two sides of the question. It’s a sort of call-and-response post, I guess.

Allison:
I understand how young people told that they can’t attend college and having that option for their future totally removed from them would want to explore the option of going to college, and how women might see a need for college so that they have a way to support their families should their husbands pass away (or leave).

Sara:
In the Fellowship, Bekah knows that college is not an option if she wants to remain in good standing with the church. This aspect of the Fellowship reflects my own experience with IBLP, which discouraged both young women and young men from seeking higher education. (But it was especially forbidden for women.) A lot of heavily-controlled religious systems push the line of thought that college introduces young people to worldly ideas, which shipwrecks their faith. When it comes to questions about their future, these groups insist that God will provide whatever training is necessary to make a living as an adult.

Most of us spend our 30s scrambling to catch up, or living with the insecurity that one twist of fate could leave us unable to support ourselves and our families (again, especially women).

And we think, if only we’d been allowed to go to college…

Allison:
In my experience and observation, though, college is not necessarily an avenue for job training or even job preparation. I write this as a summa cum laude graduate of the Honors College at University of Southern Mississippi, with a degree in Environmental Biology and a minor in Chemistry.

All those A’s, all that studying, all those classes and labs, and all it really prepared me for was–wait for it–more school. I had no desire to go to grad school and wanted to be a missionary at that point, anyway. At Awards Day at the end of my senior year, my father asked (with slight disappointment), “You’ve never wanted to go to med school, have you?” Nope, never had. Got accepted to grad school but declined it because I went to Romania to serve for a year.

Many people I know graduated with degrees that, while perhaps fulfilling on personal levels, didn’t necessarily prepare them for a job. I had a delightful professor who once quoted somebody else (no idea who now) in one of our classes… “College is the babysitter for tomorrow’s workforce.” I took offense at the time, but I kind of get it now.

Sara:
Although it doesn’t come through strongly in my novel, I’m very disenchanted with the college system. I love the idea of alternative training and seeking knowledge outside the approved channels of learning. But that’s a harder road to walk, and most of us weren’t actually given the choice. We were forced to walk it… often by men who were actually interested in keeping their empires going.

It’s also easier to have the degree and say, “I didn’t need it,” than feel trapped by a life where you can’t seem move ahead without that degree.

Allison:
College did give me opportunities to grow personally and spiritually and to grow up. To discover more about myself, to learn more about how to think critically and to engage in the world. But it wasn’t particularly fun, and although I met great people, I don’t have lifelong close friends from college (and I had counted on that). It was honestly often lonely and lots of hard, hard work. So it provided opportunities for personal challenge and development.

Sara:
This right here is part of what many of us feel we missed out on–some much more extremely than I did.

My parents didn’t forbid college; we sure didn’t have a lot of extra money and I wasn’t gung-ho to go. They believed that the program we were in was a viable alternative (It looked very good on paper, as the saying goes.) So we all bought into the idea that traditional college wasn’t worth considering.

So all that growing, figuring out who we are, what we believe, thinking critically, and engaging in the world — that’s part of the “college experience” that we feel we were denied.

The truth is, of course, that you don’t need college for any of that. But in our subculture, the reason that college was discouraged or even denied to us was to keep us from developing, exploring, and engaging. So that’s how we think of it: if I had been allowed to choose higher education, I might have been allowed to grow.

Allison:
But what college did not give me was what I expected going in–-training, credentials, and an open door to a career of helping protect God’s green earth in some way. God used college in my life, certainly; but I don’t think of my degree as something to fall back on. And I’m not alone in that.

I suppose I’m just bringing this up because I sensed several times that there was a thought in the story [of The Fellowship] of college giving women (and men, too) abilities to provide for and support their families that they couldn’t get without a degree.

Sara:
This was my personal insecurity shining through. I’m entirely dependent on my husband’s ability to bring in income. I consider myself very well-educated; but I don’t have the degree and work experience for a decent job. We do have life insurance (again, possible because of DJ’s money, not mine); but still, if something happened to DJ, I’d be trying to find a minimum-wage job to support myself and my four children.

My dad died when I was three, and my stepdad died when I was twenty. I have no illusions that God keeps men alive just to support their families. For those who have read the novel, this situation is spelled out pretty clearly in the story.

Allison:
Certainly some degrees are necessary for certain jobs–social work, teaching school, physical therapy. But most degrees don’t carry with them an accompanying certification.

Because I’ve been to college, I think “It’s not all it’s cracked up to be.” But if I hadn’t been to college, I’d probably think, “I wonder what I missed.”

Sara:
I didn’t have enough room in the novel to explore college vs. alternative education. My point wasn’t that Everyone Should Go To College, but that the Fellowship limited and controlled the lives of its people by refusing to let them make their own way in life.

I posted Allison’s comment here as encouragement to those of us who have come out of a controlling system. College wouldn’t have eliminated our struggles, just given us a different set of problems. It’s tough living with the consequences of a choice we didn’t really get to make. But once we’re free from whatever “Fellowship” once controlled us, we really do have the freedom to make our own choices, learn from our own mistakes, and build our own lives.

Good Things, God Things

My novel opens with:

A virtuous heart keeps an orderly home. 

I made up that quote. But the idea that a good Christian woman will keep a good Christian house is pretty common even out of Fellowship-like circles. Witness this quote from a couple of Elizabeths:

“I love what author Elisabeth Elliot said, ‘A sloppy life speaks of a sloppy faith.’ We’re careful in our faith…careful to tend to our spiritual growth, careful to obey God’s Word, and careful to maintain the spiritual disciplines of prayer, worship, and giving. So why shouldn’t we also be careful of how we manage our homes? That’s not a put-down. Far from it! Creating a safe and comfortable place for your family and yourself is a privilege and significant accomplishment.” –Elizabeth George

Do I enjoy a clean house? Yes. Do I want my home to be safe and comfortable for my family? Yes. Do I consider it a reflection of my spiritual state if I let clutter build up on the table, don’t vacuum the floor, and don’t clean the pencil marks off the wall?

NO.

I’m sorry, Elisabeth Elliot and Elizabeth George, but you’re wrong. You’re taking a societal standard and making it a spiritual requirement.

The standards of society change, but every generation has its own set of “virtue indicators.” These days, it’s more along the lines of eating “clean,” avoiding classist/racist sentiments, and accepting everyone’s choices as a universal good. Nobody actually does this perfectly, but the better show you put on, the more virtue you seem to have.

But just like having a clean house doesn’t get you anywhere closer to God, neither does avoiding processed foods or using the term “First Peoples.”

Good things are good. Do them. God things are God’s. Do those. Sometimes there will be an overlap. But I’m all done letting anyone — revered Christian writer or not — tell me that I have to live up to the standards of modern America in order to please the God of all Eternity.

Words of Art

“She had not known the weight, until she felt the freedom.”

Several years ago, I finally got too tired of being good enough. I gave up. I told God, “If you’re so big, you can handle all this yourself. I’m done.” I did the spiritual equivalent of shrugging off my backpack, peeling off my restrictive clothes, crawling into bed, and pulling the covers up over my head.

And God said, “Good. You just rest. I’ll pick all this up. Do you need anything right now? I’ll check in on you.”

As I lay with that blanket over my head, I gradually realized that I could breathe again. It didn’t hurt as much to move. For the first time since I was a teenager, the fear of punishment and God’s wrath receded. The feeling was both exhilarating and painful, like when you flex your fingers after you put down a strap that’s been biting into your hand.

Sometime during that spiritual sabbath, I discovered  JA Photography & Design. Jenn creates and sells letter art, and I was especially caught by this piece:

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I teared up when my print arrived. My faith is a lot wobblier than it was years ago when I knew all the answers. Life is a lot messier. But this word represents the hope that keeps me going.

Deep spiritual moments aside, I just plain love Jenn’s eye for seeing shapes in everyday life and making sense out of them. Since my decorating style is basically, “Hang stuff up on my wall,” art-into-words is pretty much everything I need.

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Is my S upside down? It routinely gets knocked off the wall.

In a shameless plug for this art, let me also add that it’s inexpensive (about $4 per letter) and easy to customize.

Tired of pre-printed signs urging you to “Live, Laugh, Love”? (I am.) Get in touch with Jenn and create one that spells out your name, a personally-inspiring word, or “Live More, Die Less.” *

Or, you know, “grace” — a word I’ve got up on my wall to remind me of the incredible freedom that comes when you finally let God carry the weight.

*”The more you live, the less you die.” That’s a line in the song “Raise the Roof” by Carbon Leaf, the band whose music got me through the final shattering illusions when the “truths” of my teenage years were revealed for certain as a sham.

The Inner Dialogue of an Indie Author

Me: There are errors in the novel.

InnerMe: Errors? Like what? You accidentally killed off somebody in Chapter 16? “Everything came to a screeching halt when, the next morning, Bekah woke up dead…”

Me: Aren’t you funny. No, the story’s solid. I mean formatting errors. And some typos.

InnerMe: You knew that would happen.

Me: But that doesn’t mean I wanted it to.

InnerMe: And you’re going to get them corrected.

Me: But there will still be copies floating around with errors!

InnerMe: But your whole story is about how you don’t have to be perfect!

Me: Well, yeah, but I’m not selling these copies to God. People are notoriously lax when it comes to extending grace toward novels.

InnerMe: Ahem. Like… you?

Me: What?

InnerMe: Let’s discuss the books you’ve verbally shredded over the years because they didn’t meet your exalted standards…

Me: Let’s don’t.

InnerMe: Twiiiiliiiight….

Me: Shut up! I said my story is solid! Twilight has some serious plot problems, like…

InnerMe: Forget I mentioned it. Please. All I’m saying is that you might be dreading a taste of your own medicine.

Me: That’s a cliche.

InnerMe: If the shoe fits…

Me: I can’t believe my inner voice speaks in cliches!

InnerMe: Seriously, are you just going to sit around stewing about some errors that you’re going to fix but can’t right at this moment?

Me: Well… I could stew about the fact that the house is a wreck too.

InnerMe: The house is always messy.

Me: I know, and I’m fine with that in general. But it’s reached a unacceptable level of messy.

InnerMe: We can fix that! Right now!

Me: Yes! You are totally right! CONQUER THE MESS!

InnerMe: And… sorry about the cliches.

Me: It’s okay. It’s the thought that counts. Oh my gosh, did I just…

InnerMe: Grab a scrubby. We really need to get to work.