Leaning on the Everlasting Arms

Leaning, leaning, safe and secure from all alarms,
Leaning, leaning, leaning on the everlasting arms!

If I ever learned the old hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” it had slipped from my conscious memory decades ago. Even now it does not seem like the sort of thing we would have sung very often in my childhood church: too gentle, too soft, too welcoming; not enough fire or brimstone or blood or guilt or anger. So I encountered it this summer as a new song, new to me at least – first during the short time I spent in CPE, in a morning devotional service led by a student from another tradition, and then unexpectedly some weeks later in the opening service of this year’s UUA General Assembly, held in Providence, RI.

The UUA archives video of General Assembly services and this year’s opening session (celebration and business) can be found here. (Link goes to a webpage with video and partial transcript. I haven’t figured out how to embed other people’s video yet. The GA business ends and the opening worship starts at 1:09:00. “Everlasting Arms” is the closing hymn at about 1:58:00)

It’s become the recurring theme, the sound track for this summer’s work. The majority of my own work has been personal in nature, uncovering and attending to old wounds of the soul and learning to develop the materials I have, as a lapidary or wood carver works with the natural material as it comes, including its weaknesses and idiosyncracies. My own, as it turns out, include some hard knots around vulnerability and trust, a deep old wariness rooted in things unformed that have no names.

I am told, and I believe that it is true, that this deep mistrust of the world in general and authority in particular is not uncommon. How many of us live without a feeling of security? How many of us trust that the system will work – if not always the way we want it to – at least in a way that is fair and transparent and intending the greatest possible good and the least possible harm? The truth, in our wider world, is that these things are not always true – not at the macroeconomic level, or the geopolitical one. For many of us even our smaller systems – schools, neighborhoods, families, churches – have their own built-in hazards. Survive long enough and you learn… survival.

When we experience external authority as arbitrary, capricious and controlling, when others’ power negates our own, when we learn to trade identity for affection or self-worth for survival, then it makes sense that we develop “issues” with authority: mistrust, defensiveness, subterfuge and rebellion. If this is what we know, if this how we have learned the system works, then we react to a new authority or structure according to the pattern we have internalized, which can then provoke the response we expect – and the pattern perpetuates itself. Thus, the fundamental concept behind systems theory.

They say that when the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

But not everything is a nail. And so the first baby step is to realize that some of these nails are kind of funny looking. And then the next step is to realize that pounding on these funny-looking nails isn’t working terribly well. And somewhere along the way we realize, dimly, that maybe we need a different technique… or maybe a different kind of hammer. We start to imagine possibility.

How do we imagine authorities and structures that we can lean on, “safe and secure from all alarms” as the old hymn says? For those of us who are wounded and wary, what does trustable authority look like? How might we recognize it? How might we react to it? And the risky experimental part – are there existing authorities and structures which we dare to test by behaving as if they were nurturing and supportive instead of coercive and adversarial?

The answer for many of us is “Not yet,” and sometimes with very good reason. Opaque systems and inadequate resources are a fact of the human condition; layering the imperfect “best we can manage under the circumstances” onto a brittle foundation of suspicion and reactivity leads to collapse under the weight of frustration and disappointment when everything does not go exactly according to plan. And things eventually don’t.

If we are lucky, we learn – to stumble, to fall, to land hard, maybe to shatter. But we also learn to be a net for one another, catching each other as we lose our balance, creating little systems where those of us who need to can practice trusting and being trusted, in the company of those who have just enough more experience to make them seem like experts.

It is a bewildering transition to make, this learning to trust and be trusted, which seems to me the foundation for developing an authority that is not situated in power and control. I only recognize how much I have changed in the last year through interacting with the incoming students who will be starting later this month. I see so much of myself in their questions and reactions that it is very hard for me not to project my own experience over theirs. I have not yet learned to distill this particular shift in understanding and distribute it; maybe eventually I will, or at least I will keep trying.

We need it.

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2 Responses to Leaning on the Everlasting Arms

  1. irrevspeckay says:

    This offers astute psychological insight to many, across a wide range, and also speaks to a very relevant issue among UUs in congregational settings, up and down and all around the ways we have structured our interactions. Thanks for taking this issue to this deep level.

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