Safe and Secure from All Alarms

Dick Staub | Religion News Service | Friday, January 07, 2011

Safe and Secure from All Alarms


(RNS) --
Where to turn for comfort when tormented by your enemies?

Islamic militants bombed an Iraqi church last October, killing 60 worshippers. Iraqi Christians cancelled Christmas Eve services after receiving bomb threats. That night, 10 bombs went off in Christian districts, killing two and wounding 21.

On the first day of the New Year, 1,000 Christians gathered for worship in Alexandria, Egypt, when a suicide bomb detonated, killing 21 worshippers.

As I reflected on these tragedies, my thoughts were drawn to an old familiar hymn. The hymn had been on my mind ever since seeing the Coen brothers' new movie, True Grit.

The film, based on the 1968 Charles Portis novel, tells the story of a tough U.S. marshal helping a stubborn young woman track down her father's murderer.

A haunting and beautifully orchestrated melody plays in the background throughout the film, and though I knew the source immediately, it occurred to me that many in the audience might not recognize the old gospel hymn, "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms."

The hymn provides an eerie backdrop for this film about lawlessness and disorder in the wild West.

"What a fellowship, what a joy divine, leaning on the everlasting arms," it goes. "What a blessedness, what a peace is mine, leaning on the everlasting arms."

The hymn was written by music professor A.J. Showalter in response to troubled times. In 1887, he received two letters on the same day from former students in South Carolina.

The first letter brought the tragic news that one student's wife had suddenly died. Showalter set the letter aside and decided to answer it later. The second letter brought news identical to the first. Both students had been plunged into tragedy through the same circumstances on the same day.

Wanting to console the men, Showalter wrote down a phrase from Deuteronomy, "The eternal God is your refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms." He decided to write a song instead of a letter and started with the chorus.

"Leaning, leaning, safe and secure from all alarms; Leaning, leaning, leaning on the everlasting arms."

He sent the melody and lyrics for the chorus to Elisha Hoffman, who completed the lyrics, writing these verses:

O how sweet to walk in this pilgrim way, leaning on the everlasting arms;
O how bright the path grows from day to day, leaning on the everlasting arms.

What have I to dread, what have I to fear, leaning on the everlasting arms;
I have blessed peace with my Lord so near; leaning on the everlasting arms.

That old hymn doesn't focus on eliminating or ignoring hardship in our lives but instead emphasizes the comfort of God's presence through them.

Rabbi Harold Kushner, most famous for his book, Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People? put it this way: "To philosophers and theologians, God may be the first cause, the unmoved mover. But to people like us, what is most important about God is that he is the presence that makes the world seem less frightening."

It's worth noting that the hymn focuses on God's availability to provide comfort, without reference to the religious affiliation of the recipients. Muslims, Jews, Christians and nonbelievers alike fall victim to tragedy, and this old hymn offers the comfort of the Lord to any who ask for it.

The lyrics reveal a Lord who comforts weary humans without reference or regard to our worthiness to receive it, which is why it was such a good match for True Grit.

The film's central characters possess their own forms of grittiness, but are also deeply flawed. They are more then ready to give the man who murdered the girl's father what he deserves, but none seem to see their own foibles.

Films by the Coen brothers delight in the universality of human failing, but this film is their best articulation of hopefulness. One line appears in the original 1968 novel, its 1969 film adaptation with John Wayne, and this year's Coen remake, "You must pay for everything in this world one way and another. There is nothing free with the exception of God's grace."

God's grace -- and the everlasting arms -- bring a subtle and sustained warmth to this gritty film. And it can do the same for each of our gritty lives.

Dick Staub is author of the just-released "About You: Fully Human and Fully Alive" and the host of The Kindlings Muse (www.thekindlings.com). His blog can be read at www.dickstaub.com). 
c. 2011 Religion News Service. Used with permission.

Publication date: January 7, 2011

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