Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Faith and the New Year

I wrote this originally for my Meeting, but felt that it had application beyond Quaker eyes. 

Hello Friends,

Christmas over, we now prepare for the arrival of another year. New Year's resolutions of any stature are routinely made, then broken. Sometimes they take the form of an intended regular exercise routine. Sometimes they are a vow to avoid unhealthy excess, like junk food or needless consumerism. Some concerns center on the question of faith and belief. The last of these rely highly on the usage and development of spiritual muscles. Like many other areas in our lives, spiritual muscles must be built with up with practice, repetition, and observance.

I am fairly certain I've used the lyrics of a specific song in this forum once before. I do remember that the context was a little different. In any case, I can't recall for certain, so forgive me for any overlap. I may have even mentioned a line or two during a vocal ministry. No matter. The name of the song is "Sympathy", performed ably by the indie rock group Sleater-Kinney.

"Sympathy" stands alone in the Washington State group's canon. Topics usually focused on leftist politics and Feminism. As you will see, this one could not be more different.

The song seeks to document a very emotionally intense situation, this being the premature birth and fight for life of the songwriter's son. I doubt, based on its lyrics alone, that the idea of belief wasn't important to her. Rather, she was far more comfortable writing about activism and all its permutations. "Sympathy" stands out for this reason, possessing as it does a kind of bittersweet beauty. It is the story of someone whose life is, at least for the immediate short term, dramatically changed by a traumatic situation. The potential for disaster is grave enough that the panicked mother reaches out for God. And as she does, she speaks for all of us. I think it would be safe to say that we have all formed these thoughts in a crisis.

I know I come to you only when in need
I’m not the best believer, not the most deserving
but all I have, all I am, all I can…for him
I’d beg you on bended knees for him

I have thought identically on more than one occasion. Here, a mother, fearful for the survival of her child turns automatically to prayer. For all of our own skepticism, for all the reasons to otherwise hold doubts, we might very well respond the same way. Some will say that we are only embracing a less evolved part of our brains. This might be so on some level, but I think the need for God would not persist as it does if this were the case. The limitations of human comprehension are vast.

Precious baby, is your life hanging by a thread?
A thread I’m standing on, praying on today
all I have, all I am, all I can...for him
I’d beg you on bended knees for him

I don’t like the doctor with the deep long face
only wants to give us the very worst case
I’d rather shout out and shake him and do anything for him
I’d beg you on bended knees for him

when the moment strikes
it takes you by surprise and
leaves you naked in the face of death and life
there is no righteousness in your darkest moment
we’re all equal in the face of what we’re most afraid of

These, the most profound lyrics of all. There is no righteousness in your darkest moment. We're all equal in the face of what we're most afraid of. The song's lyricist believes that our times of trial and pain do not deserve commemoration. She refuses to romanticize them as brave or as moments of valor. To her, they are only confirmation of our fragile, brittle humanity. We are all unified on some level by that which terrifies us. These two lines have application well beyond its immediate context. For instance, they could be applied to war, to politics, to environmental issues. They would work for any number of other aspects of human life.

and I’m so sorry
for those who didn’t make it
for the mommies who are left
with their hearts breaking

I search for meaning in sores
the sentences they might form
it’s the grammar of skin
peel it back, let me in

look for hope in the dark
the shadow cast by your heart
it’s the grammar of faith
no more rules, no restraint

Without the comfort of comprehensible information and no certainty upon which to rely, we look for meaning in other avenues. We scour for meaning in that which lies in front of us. We analyze sores, skin, body parts. The grammar of faith, as we understand it, is not a system of rules and regulations. The grammar of faith is a mystery.

How angry I would be if
you’d taken him away
I wish I was wiser
but instead I’ll be grateful, I’ll say

thanks for the love, for the joy,
for the smile on his face

’cause I would beg you on bended knees for him
I would beg you on bended knee

It is easy to turn to anger, should the unthinkable strike. Many of us would turn to anger if our partners, our children, our loved ones were taken from us. The songwriter recognizes that she would also have held the same automatic response. The crisis over, she might not be as wise as she could be, but she does recognize that she is very lucky.

Her child survived an awful, emotionally wrenching ordeal. And yet, the trial could not be more commonplace. Regardless of where we look, this same motif shows up time and time again. And we consistently find that struggle a fascination, be it in books, movies, songs, or other artistic works.

As I conclude, I leave you with a bit of reflection. I wish I was wiser, but instead I'll be grateful.

In the Light,


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