One of the things I love about poetry and music is that they continue to reveal new truths and beauty as we move through life. In fact, we never encounter the same poem or song twice. Every time we read it or sing it or play it, we bring with us all of the life experiences we’ve had since the last encounter. That changes the poem or music and how we respond to it. The text and notes may remain the same, but the message is ever evolving and expanding.
This is not the first time I’ve written about “How Firm a Foundation”. It’s one of those songs that I fell in love with early on and it has grown and changed with me. At first I had the understanding that I think the author intended: No matter what happens, Jesus has your back and it will all be OK.
A few years ago, it occurred to me that this song isn’t just about Jesus being there, it’s about our callings to be there for each other. It challenged me to re-evaluate how I was creating firm foundations for others. Then I realized that although it speaks of Jesus and may hint at Heavenly Father, it also is filled with imagery of the Feminine Divine.
As you know if you’ve read my previous posts, I’m in the complicated position of trying to hold both my Mormon heritage and be fully engaged with my relatively new spiritual home in a Unitarian Universalist church. It is that wrestling and balancing act, that brought another understanding of this text to my mind. Viewing “How Firm a Foundation” through the lens of the UU Principles and my experiences with my own congregation took me once again to the place of seeing the song as an expression of my understanding that someone has my back.
But here’s the thing: It’s not just Jesus, or Heavenly Father, or Heavenly Mother. “How Firm a Foundation” is a reminder of the community that I am a part of and how my community has my back.
“How firm a foundation… is laid for your faith”
How firm a foundation, ye Saints of the Lord,
Is laid for your faith in his excellent word!
What more can he say than to you he hath said,
Who unto the Savior, who unto the Savior,
Who unto the Savior for refuge have fled?
The gospel of Jesus Christ is the firm foundation that I believe the author was referring to, but I think it also refers to those who have gone before us, building the communities of faith. As a Mormon, I was taught that the church is the same church as that of the Old Testament prophets and the same church that Jesus established and his disciples continued during New Testament times. The prophets and pioneers of the Restoration are another part of that foundation. UU history is equally rich and filled with people willing to stand firm in their beliefs even when oppressed. Early 19th-century New England and all that was going on there shaped both denominations. (Their histories are intertwined in this period as well, but we’ll save that for another time.)
“For refuge have fled”
I wasn’t exactly fleeing when I walked through the doors of Unity Church-Unitarian that first Sunday. The fleeing had already occurred a few months before when I determined that for the sake of my spirit, I needed to take a break from the Mormon church. When I chose to try out Unity, I don’t know that I was really seeking refuge as much as I just knew that I needed community of some kind. From that first Sunday, I felt at home. I felt seen and heard, and most importantly, I felt safe. The song “Under this Tree” with text by a member of my congregation beautifully describes what I found there. “And under this tree… You are loved as you are.” In so many ways, this church has been the refuge I needed.
My UU congregation is in the process of becoming a Sanctuary congregation, meaning that we may soon be housing (in the church) an individual or family that is in danger of deportation. We are opening our home (the solid stone walls and foundation of the church) for those in need of refuge. As I watch the plans unfold for this, for welcoming someone who may be very different from us, I am reminded that if these people will do this for someone we don’t even know yet, they will certainly be there for my much smaller needs.
“As thy days may demand, so thy succor shall be.”
In ev’ry condition–in sickness, in health,
In poverty’s vale or abounding in wealth,
At home or abroad, on the land or the sea–
As thy days may demand, as thy days may demand,
As thy days may demand, so thy succor shall be.
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 righteous, upheld by my righteous,
Upheld by my righteous, omnipotent hand.
This is the verse that I have hanging next to my bed. For many years, I hoped it was true. I hoped that no matter how hard things got, there was a God that would support me through it. But I wasn’t sure I actually felt it. Maybe God was there.
Now I know it is true. God is here in the friends and community and grace that I know will fill in all the gaps. I recently had car trouble that took about 4 days to resolve. A co-worker gave me a ride home from work that night. Other friends were quick to respond when I asked for help with rides. I missed singing with the choir at church, but there were enough people there that they could sing without me. Everything that was essential was taken care of, even if I wasn’t the one that could do it.
“And sanctify to thee…”
When through the deep waters I call thee to go,
The rivers of sorrow shall not thee o’er flow,
For I will be with thee, thy troubles to bless,
And sanctify to thee, and sanctify to thee,
And sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.
When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie,
My grace, all sufficient, shall be thy supply.
The flame shall not hurt thee; I only design
Thy dross to consume, thy dross to consume,
Thy dross to consume and thy gold to refine.
I am called. By life. By God. By my church community. I am reminded that there are hard or scary things that must be done. I am asked to leave my comfort zone. But I am never asked to do it alone.
To bless or to sanctify means to make sacred or holy. I’ve always believed it, and now I’ve found people that agree with me that all things are already sacred and holy. We don’t have to make it happen. We just need to remind each other, often. That is the blessing.
My deepest distress, whether a result of my calling or something else, is also sacred and holy. I don’t think it is designed by anyone or anything, but I do believe that it is one of the ways that I am offered opportunities to let go and shed the things that are not necessary or that are getting in the way of expressing who I really am and living into my calling.
“E’en down to old age…”
E’en down to old age, all my people shall prove
My sov’reign, eternal, unchangeable love;
And then, when gray hair shall their temples adorn,
Like lambs shall they still, like lambs shall they still,
Like lambs shall they still in my bosom be borne.
Many congregations have old people and my current church is no exception. Now when I read this verse, I think of the love and care that I’ve witnessed as I watch the staff and congregation interact with our elders. They are held close and valued and loved.
“No never forsake”
The soul that on Jesus hath leaned for repose
I will not, I cannot, desert to his foes;
That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,
I’ll never, no never, I’ll never, no never,
I’ll never, no never, no never forsake!
I will not, I CANNOT turn my back on one who needs rest and safety. My Mormon roots and my UU branches call me to more than that. The experiences of the past year and the words of this hymn have taught me that although some might not offer the rest and safety that I need, there are others that will be there, that will fill in the gaps, that will help me get through. I have the firm foundation of my faith. I see that foundation and God in the faces of all of those around me.
I was listening to this recording of “How Firm a Foundation” as I was writing these final paragraphs. The song ended and moved on to the next song in the queue, and by some divine grace (or YouTube algorithm, and who knows, grace may be involved in that too), I heard the words that sum up all of this:
Grace shall be as your day.
May it be so.