Sacred Music: How Firm a Foundation
It was a few years ago, when I lived an hour’s drive from the nearest church branch (we joked that it was a “twig”), that I started to download and listen to General Conference. It seemed rather pointless to me to drive for an hour to sit on uncomfortable, cheap chairs in a room with maybe 4 other people to watch the conference that the rest of the world has seen 2-3 weeks earlier. So I began the habit of listening to the talks online as I did dishes, folded clothes or worked otherwise on an almost daily basis.
As an audio learner, this turned out to improve the conference experience for me, and probably for the first time in my life, I really heard the layers of meaning in each of the speakers’ talks. But this experience was not limited to the talks.
This one morning, I was ridiculously stressed. It really was nothing new. I was undergoing IVF for either the 3rd of 4th time in preparation for a surrogate to hopefully carry my child. IVF itself was no easy task with my complicated medical conditions. And we lived rurally, purposefully so, for the job there would pay enough for us to undergo IVF and surrogacy. So I was preparing for a 2-day, 20-hour drive to the city where I actually undergo the IVF surgery. My surrogate lived even further away, and was having family and fertility problems of her own. On top of that, we needed to arrange for post-IVF transfer of the live embryos to the surrogate, which involved a number of additional governmental bureaucratic authorities that required additional medical test results from all of us.
I was ridiculously stressed. I cried daily, several times a day, often bitterly, sometimes for reasons I still can’t understand. Sometimes I cried tears of joy from General Conference e talks. Other times, I cried uncontrollably because of General Conference talks.
And I felt completely alone.
Or so I thought. Because, on this one day, as I half-listened to an old General Conference intermediate hymn, I heard in my soul– the lyrics to “How Firm a Foundation.” It was sudden, and profound. I was nearly thrown to my knees, hearing the words that I needed right then. It was specifically the verse that echoes Isiah 41:10:
“Fear not, I am with thee, oh, be not dismayed,
For I am thy God, and will still give thee aid;
I’ll strengthen thee, help thee, and cause thee to stand,
Upheld by My gracious, omnipotent hand.”
It literally brought me to the ground, sobbing. Because at that time, I really, really felt alone. Feeling alone had become so common that I had numbed, then forgotten that I felt alone.
I needed to know I wasn’t alone, but I didn’t know I needed to know that. Because I was not alone. Not by a long shot.
That time in my life is so far removed from where I am today. I have just moved continents with my husband and darling daughters, and one might think that as Mother’s Day nears, I might not fret in the way I did in the past.
But I do.
Because I refuse to forget the lessons I learned in being childless at church on Mother’s Day.
And now, my heart is opened to other kinds of pain. Pain about life, about motherhood, about childlessness, and still, about Mother’s Day in general. This song still comes to my mind as I face friends whom I know have miscarried, had stillborn children, are still childless, are unhappy with themselves as mothers, are frustrated in general with life sans child-issues, or those of us who just. feel. alone.
A friend recently expressed an almost silent exasperation regarding her stillborn. “My bishop said maybe he didn’t have a spirit because he never breathed. But I looked him (as I held him in my arms), and all I could think of was how the babe leapt in Elisabeth’s womb— what was she?* Three months along? And Mary would have just been pregnant. And Christ’s spirit was there, too. They had spirits, but no breath. To say my son didn’t have a spirit was to tell me he wasn’t ever there. It was as if I am not allowed to mourn. Like I should act like nothing happened.”
“When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie,
My grace, all-sufficient, shall be thy supply;
The flame shall not harm thee; I only design
Thy dross to consume and thy gold to refine.”
No, the words don’t make it all go away. But I find calm and empathy in the phrase describing, “fiery trials.” By virtue of the fact that trials laid upon us are burned into our skins by well-meaning church members who toss out words that can crush us to deathly oblivion. Or for the spirits that leap within us– be it the spirit of a dream to finish high school when you face an unexpected pregnancy, be it the spirit of the dream to serve a mission, be it the spirit of a dream to attend a certain university (or not), be it the dream of losing weight, running a marathon, visiting Paris…. you are not alone, even when you fear to dream alone. You are not alone.
“The soul that on Jesus doth lean for repose,
I will not, I will not, desert to his foes;
The line about not deserting to foes is powerful to me. Sometimes my foes have been family members, church members. Sometimes I have been my own foe in allowing myself to feel inadequate, too imperfect, too…. me. But for me, the words in this hymn remind me that Christ will not forsake me as I seek to accomplish my dreams. Sure, there are other interpretations for this song. But for me, this means that no matter where I am, Christ is with me. Even if I am staring down a Deacon who is thrusting a flower at me, triggering every feeling of worthlessness that ever befell me on Mother’s Day…. even though I am a mother now.
“That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,
I’ll never, no never, no never forsake.”
He can keep that flower.
This hymn is for me. This hymn I for you. Because we are not alone. No matter where you are. No matter how you feel, no what you are going through. You pain is real. Your situation is known. Christ will not forsake you. Or me. I just needed this hymn to soak this doctrine into the lifeblood of my soul. Because none of us is alone. Really.
*She was speaking in reference to Luke 1:41: “And it came to pass, that, when Elisabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elisabeth was filled with the Holy Ghost”