Sept 17th-Green Grass Reflections-Steve Jungkeit
Texts: “Let the Trees Be Consulted,” and “We Have Forgotten Who We Are”
Stand by Me
I’ll conclude our series of reflections with what, to me, seems an improbable but true occurrence. One of the traditions that’s emerged in our Green Grass visits these past several years is to host a karaoke night. We set up a tent just beside the little church, and then someone arrives with sound equipment and a database of several thousand songs. As dinner is served, people take turns at the microphone. Some take the task of singing very seriously. Some treat it lightheartedly. Some have good voices. Some have less than good voices. But it doesn’t really matter. It’s become an annual, and improbable, ritual of connection, where folks from a Connecticut village and those from a Native American Reservation sing Johnny Cash and Elvis and Guns n Roses songs together. People drift in and out of the tent over the course of the evening, kids are run around outdoors, and some folks listen from their cars, honking their horns at the end of each song as a means of applause. The crazy thing about it is that it works. Karaoke helps a group of disparate people with widely varying stories to find their commonalities, and to find joy with one another. I give props to Stephanie Kenny for hatching such an idea.
But this year a very poignant moment took place during the karaoke night. One of the residents of Green Grass, a woman who’s been with the partnership for many years, dedicated a song to all of us here in Old Lyme. It was Ben E. King’s classic song “Stand by Me,” from 1961. “When the night has come, and the land is dark,” the song begins, “and the moon is the only light we’ll see. I won’t cry, I won’t cry, no I won’t, be afraid, just as long as you stand, stand by me.” In its original form, it had been a gospel song, a plea to God to stand by some lonely soul. King’s version took it out of the church, and turned it into a love song between individuals. But on the Dakota Plains, it took on another meaning entirely. It became a plea. It became a declaration of fidelity. It became an acknowledgment of pain. And it became a touching testimony to what our partnership has become over the years. I stood in the doorway of the Green Grass church, just listening, and marveling at the relationship that so many of you have cultivated over the years. Stand by me was the plea, for the land is dark, and the moon is the only light we see. Stand by me.
It’s a theological virtue embedded in that song. To stand by someone is to exhibit what some of the biblical writers call steadfastness. It has to do with a kind of steadiness and unwavering commitment. It has to do with a sort of longsuffering. It has to do with accompaniment, being willing to live and operate amidst challenges. It has to do with having the interests of the other at heart. To stand with someone, in the sense implied by Ben E. King’s song, is to exist in lonely and dark spaces with another, and to find mutual reassurance and comfort that the other is present, is there. That’s what it means, I think, to be steadfast. In places throughout the Bible, the writers describe the presence of God with each one of us as precisely that, as steadfast. Those same writers often celebrate those who possess a steadfast heart. To be steadfast, I believe, is to be one who stands with another. “When the night has come, and the land is dark…stand by me.”
We’re called to do that, to continue to do that, with our friends from Green Grass. But we need them to stand with us every bit as much as they need us to stand with them. It might be that we need them more. We tend to see the world through the lens of material goods and either abundance or privation of those goods. But I think we tend to forget how spiritually and culturally thin our lives are. We don’t remember, or have never learned, the power of ceremonies and of ritual. We don’t remember, or have never learned, the power and art of storytelling, of living by stories. We don’t remember, or have never learned, what it is to be people of prayer and sacrifice. We don’t remember, or have never learned, what it is to honor land and trees and ancestors as living presences within our lives. We don’t understand what it is to encounter the world from the underside of history, to encounter the world as the vanquished, the forgotten, and the overlooked – such realities open an entirely different perception of the world. When we visit Green Grass, or any of our partnerships, we must never forget that as often as not we are the impoverished ones, poor in spirit, poor in soul, poor in understanding. It is a great gift that our friends at Green Grass have stood with us, even as we’ve stood with them. We’ll continue to do that, I hope for a long time to come.
Let me finish with a more general, and perhaps also a more particular question, for each of you. Where are you being asked to stand right about now? Who in your life needs you to stand by them in the dark of night, when the moon is the only light you see? Where are you being asked to exhibit steadfastness, in the biblical sense of that word? There are, at times, relationships or settings that require us to part ways for the sake of health and well being. I recognize that and offer no judgment about it. But I’m interested in the opposite of that these days. Where are you being asked to double down right now? With whom, or with what, are you being asked to stand? Maybe you’re a parent, wishing you could escape the confines of your domestic life. Maybe you’re a spouse, tasked with caring for an ailing partner. Maybe you’re in a job that’s burdening you, but at which you’re needed. Maybe it’s to a project or to research that you’re asked to stand. Maybe it’s to this church, to this community, and to the precious work that’s been entrusted to us, that you’re being asked to stand. I don’t know, and I won’t answer for you. But to stand by someone, or something, the way our Green Grass friends have stood by us, the way we’ve stood with them, is to slowly become fully formed as human beings, to slowly become formed as people of faith, shaped and molded by this reality we dare to name God. With whom, or with what, are you being asked to stand?
“When the night has come, and the land is dark, and the moon, is the only, light we’ll see. We won’t cry, we won’t cry, no we won’t, shed a tear, just as long, as we stand, stand by one another.”