Stronger Back

I am a fan of country music. I am not ashamed of that in any way. It is the music of my people. When I was very young, I heard the music and the words on the radio, but I was not a listener. In fact, when I was fairly young, I really didn’t like it at all. It was the age of twangy honky-tonk, divorce and cheating songs. I didn’t get it, and I guess for the most part, I still don’t today.

But when I was in college, I took a job one summer in a sewing factory in the town where my parents lived, and in fact, it was the town where my dad had grown up. (I don’t always think of it as my hometown, because I had lived so many places in my life. I feel rather “rootless” at times, but such is the state of person whose childhood bordered on the nomadic.) The first summer I worked second shift, something like 3:30 to midnight, doing really menial tasks—I trimmed fuzzy belt-loops on blue jeans for a major national label. I learned from a couple of summers of working there that I was not cut out for factory work, and this made me focus more on what would one day be my profession. 

In that hot, dusty sewing factory, the music playing over the PA system was quite democratically selected: one night it was country, the next it was top 40 pop/rock. It was there I grew to really love country music. I listened to artists like Gary Morris, whose song, “See the Love She Found in Me” made me view country music in a different light. That year, George Strait’s “Amarillo by Morning,” was popular. If I had to pinpoint the moment I became a country music fan, it was probably somewhere in one of those two songs.

I was a close follower of country music in the ‘90’s. Since I lived in Nashville, I might have even run across a star or two then. I came to enjoy songs by some of the old guard, like Conway Twitty and George Jones. I enjoyed the music of women like Kathy Mattea and Suzy Bogguss. I enjoyed the complexity of music by artists like Ronnie Milsap (“Smokey Mountain Rain” is still one of my all-time favorites.)  

Country music was on the rise in the ‘90’s, and with increased popularity came lots of pretenders. I lost interest in the current country scene when it became  populated by “cookie-cutter cowboys,” each one sounding exactly like his identical, short duration predecessor. I heard one old hand describe some of these guys as “hat acts,” but being “all hat and no cattle.”

I haven’t completely abandoned country music; but a lot of country music has abandoned me. And although I don’t listen to it as much as I used to, I’m a lot more selective about what I do listen to. I still keep up with some of the “new traditionalists,” like Alan Jackson and George Strait. And any time I see that the Gentle Giant, Don Williams, has new music, I have to check it out.

On several albums in the past few years, I have heard some very profound lines. George Strait’s, “Where Have I Been All My Life?” comes to mind here, but more recently, on the just released Don Williams’ album, “Reflections,” Don sings Doug Gill’s song, “Stronger Back.” The chorus of that song says,

“I pray for a stronger back
I pray for a bigger heart
I pray for the will to keep on walking
when the way is dark
I follow that winding road
I just try to stay on track
I don’t pray for a lighter load
I pray for a stronger back”

Now when I heard those words, they immediately struck a chord with me. I tried to find the lyrics online, but since the album is so new, none had been posted. So I queued up the song and listened in phrases until I got the words down. And I was struck by just how profound they were, and how they echoed themes from the Bible.

Immediately, Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane comes to mind, where he prayed to the Father that the cup of anguish and sacrifice be taken from him. That sounds like he was asking for a “lighter load.” But then, he offered the resolute alternative, “Not my will but yours be done.” There’s the “stronger back.”

Paul reflected in I Corinthians 10.13, “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it,”—there’s the provision for the “stronger back.” Similarly, in Philippians 4.11(b)-13, he says, “…I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. 12 I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” God provides that “stronger back.”

That’s a message I need to remember each and every day. Dealing with a child on the autism spectrum is about as trying as anything I think I have ever encountered. Every time a new issue arises, my first inclination is to ask for a “lighter load” even though I know others have far heavier loads than mine. Rationally, I know that short of some absolute miracle, whether wrought by modern medicine or by a higher power, there will be no “lighter load.” All I can really ask for is the ability to deal with the problems that may arise, and to do so resolutely with that “stronger back.” That is within my control. I can only deal with my own state and my own attitude. I may need reminding and I may need some shoring up, but I know who has promised to do that, and who can provide the “way of escape” when I am tempted or tried beyond what I thought I could handle.

There are passages in the Bible that do promise a lighter load, too. Jesus’ great invitation says his yoke is easy and his burden light. Peter reassures his readers that we can cast our anxieties on God because he cares for us. If that isn’t load-lightening language, I’m not sure what would be.

The second line of the chorus really can’t be underestimated, either. To “pray for a bigger heart” means greater capacity to love and help and serve others. I have often dreamed of what good I could do if only [fill in the blank]…” But I’m missing the boat on that one. Although figuratively posed, the heart in the song is a lot like the physical heart, a muscle, and that gets stronger by exercise. The more we love, the more we serve, the more we care about others the bigger and stronger the heart becomes.

A lot of songs just seem to let you down: they are 2:57 of commercial fluff that fills the silent void and maybe give us something to hum absent-mindedly as we go about other things. But the best songs lift you up, give you something to think about, and maybe even a goal to aspire to. “Stronger Back” is that kind of song. I think we need more music like this that isn’t just ear candy but reminds us of more important things and maybe even challenges us to become better people.   

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