One Sunday morning a couple of weeks ago, I posted a video on my Facebook page of a group called The Lone Bellow singing their cover of John Prine’s “Angel From Montgomery,” which is my favorite song. I captioned the post, “Here is our invocation for the morning.” A friend wrote back questioning the hope in the song, saying all he could hear was an old woman who had lost the love of her life and was now trapped in a mundane existence.
Tonight — this darkest of in between days — seems like a good time to explain what I hear in the song. My friend is listening well to Prine’s words. The woman is voicing her grief eloquently. What she had once is long gone, whether the old man is gone or they both have just grown weary of all of the losses that life inflicts. The first couple of verses give a quick topographical map of both her sadness and tenacity — and it’s right there I hear the first haunts of hope in the midst of all that feels so heavy. She has lost much and she is still here. The losses are not the last word, even if stammering out something of substance is hard to do. The chorus seems like something the disciples could have sung together as the cowered in the despair on this very night:
make me an angel that flies from montgomery
make me a poster of an old rodeo
just give me one thing that I can hold on to
to believe in this living is just a hard way to go
The song is an invocation — a call to trust and live out loud — because I head a grit and determination in the darkness. She is joining the chorus of poets, prophets, and peasants all the way back to the psalmist:
For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song;
and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion.”
How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? (PS. 137:3-4)
In her own way, the old woman in the song is answering the psalmist’s question: you just sing, strange land or not. Sing as though the darkness will last only as long as the night, and grief for a season. Let’s keep singing as though we were going to live through this. “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen,” said the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews (11:1). Yes. Just give me one thing I can hold on to.
As I age, I appreciate what it takes to stay alive, to keep going. I joked with Ginger yesterday that as wearying as this Lenten season has been I imagined Mary getting to the tomb and finding Jesus only to have him say, “Could I have just one more day of rest? Come back in the morning and I’ll be ready.”
“Just give me one thing that I can hold on to,” Mary answered. And Jesus got up.
Perhaps what pulls me most in the song are the imploring requests of the chorus — make me, give me. It’s a prayer aimed in every direction — at God and anyone else who will listen, and as such is an invocation for us to do the same. God has given us to one another that we might lead each other through the darkness and doubt, through the grind and the grief, together.
We are saved by grace together. Now let us sing.