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  • Susan Powell

Hymn Texts are My Language

Last week I began this little project of introducing myself by sharing some of my origin story. This week I'd like to take the the very first Join My Song hymn to introduce who I am these days.


To begin with, I treasure the origins of this hymn: not only a Catholic community devoted to common life shared among uncommon people (L'Arche), but also "Les Petites Sœurs de Jesus." I haven't even Googled these sisters, but the name alone attracts me, and it inspires me. I wish to be a Little Sister of Jesus. These days I welcome all opportunities to hear from small voices, minority voices, oppressed voices, voices that are used to being quiet. I especially love to listen for the voice of any sister of Jesus. And these sisters did not disappoint; I love the childlike quality of these lyrics--the simplicity and humility and candor. Nothing lofty; beautifully honest.


In college I had a reputation for always singing. Hymns have been my prayers--my "way of being in the world"--since before adolescence. I haven't met a truth that couldn't be (better) expressed in the words of a song, right down to the amazing line by Sara Groves: "So much can go wrong, and still there are songs."


I've had my fair share of things going wrong. From long seasons like chronic pain in college to quick disasters like flu on vacation and basement floods, always there have been lines that I've breathed like oxygen:

"One word of your supporting breath drives all my fear away."

"Blest is the fruit of thy womb Jesus."

"Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow."


So when I found a hymn that began, "Lord Jesus, you shall be my song as I journey," I signed up. And then I got to the second stanza: "May all of my joy be a faithful reflection of you." I was not in a terribly joyous time, but neither was that time in college when my roommate warmed to Christ because she saw how much I was struggling and she saw my joy. That line has been a reminder fifteen years later to be that person still: the one who can still savor the steadfast lovingkindness of God even when things are very bad.


And things do get very bad, but now we arrive at the artwork that hangs above my kitchen counter: the work of a sister I wish I could meet, whose art is the visual kind instead of the audible performances that are my craft. (Check out Paper Monastery.) Two prints of hers sit at the center of our home on purpose: Below, Mary, in an evocative expression of joyful submission: "Be it unto me according to your word." Above, Jesus, on his way up the hill, bent halfway to the ground, cross on his back. This is the Christian project. "As long as I live, Jesus, make me your servant, to carry your cross and to share all your burdens and tears."


This is enough, it turns out: the companionship of Jesus, the model of Mary. Each of us suffers, and our highest hope might be to "fill up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ"--"the fellowship of his sufferings," to be "the handmaiden of the Lord." Last fall I walked alongside a handful of friends through a painful ordeal, summoning more courage than we thought we had to speak on behalf of the oppressed--including ourselves. We testified to what we had witnessed, and it cost us. At the most exhausting moment (the week of the trial) the last stanza of this hymn became vivid while I sang it each morning with my kids before school. "I fear in the dark and the doubt of my journey, but courage will come with the sound of your steps by my side." I believe this. I believe that all we need is Jesus walking beside us. Courage did come. It does. I had a professor who said "Heaven is wherever Jesus is."


I chose to begin with this hymn because of the words "Join My Song," which is a perfect articulation of what drives me. I chose to begin with this hymn because it sources from the place in Christendom where I now find myself: the Roman Catholic Church. And I chose to begin with this hymn because of the last two lines, descriptive of my passion, dense and surprising with their imagery. My passion is that all of the family saved by the love of Jesus will sing together. YouTube is certainly one meager avenue for this project. Better yet, your local congregation (if you are lucky enough to have one). Best of all, the songs we'll sing at the end of our journey. A journey that ends not in a sunset, but in a Dawn.


This journey we are on (with Jesus beside us) is all just a beginning.


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