73: Song of the Heart
Stories in this episode: Steve gets to choose the song at his mission farewell and discovers pirates in the hymnal; Lillie finds herself leading a choir of cloistered nuns in singing her least favorite hymn; The last few lines of a treasured song turn out to be Holly’s only solace as she faces heart-wrenching disappointment in her journey to adopt.
Check out more info about Deseret Book's on-demand concert sessions, including the one with the Bonner family: deseretbookpresents.com
See BYU's virtual production of North Star: arts.byu.edu
President Nelson's devotional about the power and protection of music: "Power and Protection Provided by Worthy Music," May, 2008.
See the video of Steve telling his pirate hymn experience:
If you want to see more of Steve check out his special on Dry Bar Comedy's website: drybarcomedy.com
Lillie with her husband, they spent time doing volunteer dental work in Ecuador:
See a video of the choir of nuns that Lillie taught in Ecuador: Ecuador Nuns Choir
See a video of the convent Lillie and her husband visited in Quito: Iglesia y Convento De Santa Clara - Quito Ecuador
Holly has welcomed multiple children into her family through adoption:
The CD that includes the track "I Stand All Amazed" by the Bonner family, see the whole album here:
Welcome to "This Is the Gospel," an LDS Living podcast where we feature real stories from real people who are practicing and living their faith every day. I'm your host, KaRyn Lay.
I am really excited because we have something so fun to introduce our theme today. I was scrolling through my social media feed–as one does–and this comedy bit from Steve Soelberg popped up. And as I was watching it, I was like, "Oh, my gosh, he's read my diary about some of the hymns that we sing on Sundays." So I thought there was no better way to get us talking about music and our gospel practice than to start by having a good laugh together. Here's Steve.
You know, I do have this theory, though. I think it is good to be embarrassed and do things that make yourself feel awkward and kind of out of place and stupid sometimes. And I think that's healthy. I think it's good to do that. That's why I went on a, I went on a two year mission for my Church. Because it made me feel embarrassed and awkward. I had a lot of doors slammed in my face, and I think that's healthy.
One of my favorite parts of it was even before I left. Before I left, they said, "Steve, you get to pick the hymns that the congregation is going to sing before you leave." It was like a little farewell thing. And I thought that's cool. That's a big responsibility and I didn't want to mess it up. So I asked my dad, I was like, "What hymn should we sing?" And my dad goes, "I don't care, just don't sing the pirate hymn." And I was like, "Wait, what? There's a pirate hymn? What are you talking about? We have a pirate hymn?"
And I've done some research on the pirate hymn. The pirate hymn–the lyrics are used across many Christian churches. And as far as I know, my Church is the only one that uses this particular tune. The tune is also used by 1950's Disney movie that was about pirates and the ocean. And so I go, "Dad, please explain to me, what is the pirate hymn?" And he goes, "Well, it goes, it goes yeah, da da da da," and I was like, "Okay, that does sound kind of piratey, but keep going." And he goes, "Yeah, da da da da da"
And that felt so piratey I was like, "Oohh... and I started the swashbuckle a little bit"–I don't know why my pirates are Irish, but they are. It just feels . . . I don't know why that's how that goes, but I don't know how to do a pirate accent. It's all Irish. Sorry, if you're in Ireland, and you're watching this.
I didn't recognize the song yet. Right? "Ya da da da da da," I was like, "I don't recognize it yet." And I was like, "Dad, please sing it." And he's like, "Ugh." He didn't want to, but he did. And he goes, "Well, I'm gonna sing it the right way. With the pirate accent." My dad sings, he goes, "Okay, this is the song. 'Who's on the Lord's say who? Now is the time you show.'"
I was like "Oh! That is a pirate hymn." "We ask it fearlessly!" Fearlessly? What is that! Like, running the Jolly Roger up like, "Are you on the Lord's side? Fly the flag then, we ask it fearlessly. Who's on the Lord's side?" And then it doubles down on the pirate theme, it goes yeah, "Ya da da da da da da, ya da da da da da" at that point seaspray is hitting you in the face.
My favorite part, "Who's on the large side who," And the whole congregation sings that line, everybody goes "Whoooooo," You have grandma's next year going "Whooo." Is that how we sing that? Then you look up at the top for direction and it goes "Sing pirately." You go, "Oh there we go. That makes sense." Sing it pirately.
You go, "Are you on the Lard's side?" "The Lord?" "The LORD?" "The Lord?" "The Lord's side! He's on the starboard side." Of course we sang that when I left. I was like, "Dad, I'm shoving off! We gotta sing the pirate hymn." So excited.
That was Steve Soelberg at Dry Bar Comedy. We love Dry Bar and Steve Soelberg for lots of reasons, but the fact that they specifically offer stand up that doesn't make us bleep anything, that's kind of a big deal. In fact, Steve has a whole special that you can watch on the Dry Bar app that doesn't require any bleeping.
So maybe you're a better person than me, but I really resonated with this whole thing. I'm admitting here and now that I have giggled through more than a few hymns in my day, "Scatter sunshine," "Put your shoulder to the wheel," those have always made me feel just a little like we're all "Yo, ho ho ho-ing" through the rest hymn. And I just realized that I miss the rest hymn! I miss it. And if that's not a pandemic miracle, I honestly don't know what is.
Music is such a funny thing in our gospel worship. There are a lot of different camps of opinion about our hymns. Maybe sometimes we wish they were a little more lively or a little bit more modern. Or in the case of the pirate hymns, maybe we wish they were a little less lively? A little more reverent? I think the reason we have so many different feelings and opinions about the music in our church is because sacred music is one of the ways that so many of us connect to heaven. It's the workhorse of our spiritual communion. It can be a conduit of praise and revelation, a way to express our gratitude and keep a prayer in our hearts.
We use it to spiritually prepare ourselves for participating in holy ordinances. And for me, it's often the tool that God uses to soften my heart so that he can correct me and invite me to come closer. Maybe I forgot to list the way that sacred music wends its way into your gospel practice. But if you think about it, I'm sure something came to your mind.
Today we've got two stories about the way our sacred music tutors and blesses us as disciples. Our first story comes from Lillie, whose love for music and languages gave her the unique opportunity to start a choir, quite different from any that she'd been a part of before. Here's Lillie.
The year my husband and I got married, I was teaching high school Spanish so I had summers off, and he was still in school so he had time in the summers as well. So we decided to volunteer. I needed more experience with Latin American countries so that I could feel like I was a better teacher. So I decided to–we signed up for this nonprofit to go and do nonprofit work in Ecuador, with a man named Washington Zambrano, he was actually a bishop at the time too, but he was a dentist. We signed up to be there for almost four months.
And when we got there, there were a bunch of nurses there that were volunteering with him, actual dentists, dental hygienists, so we basically did whatever he asked us to do. One particular service we were asked to do was go and help a bunch of nuns that lived in a monastery there in the historical district of Ecuador and Quito. Cloistered nuns take vows to never leave the convent. And they vow to just basically study and pray and be close to God. So it's pretty amazing that these women chose these things.
Some of the women that we met while we were in there doing their dental work, had actual jobs before they had taken their vows. And so some of them hadn't entered the convent until they were in like their 50's. And others were young, there were a couple of nuns that hadn't taken the vow to be a cloistered nun yet, so those were the nuns that would go out and get food or take some of the prepared food that the nuns made, and give it to the homeless population there in Quito.
So when we went to do dental work for the nuns who obviously hadn't had dental work in a long time, we felt really lucky to have been invited. And we kept hearing from the director, "We are so lucky to be here. They don't let people come in." And so we did feel that and we were really expressing how happy we were to be there, and we knew that it was probably the only time we'd be let in there.
They were super excited when we came because they didn't see people very often. They were talking our ears off. It was super fun. And so while one nun was getting her teeth cleaned, we'd be chatting with the other nuns and getting to know them. I do remember two nuns, they were actually radio personalities in their previous life. They were hilarious, and I think that they missed the attention. Oh my goodness, they were wonderful.
So somehow music came up with the nuns while we were there, and they had missed music in their lives and didn't have anyone to lead a choir. And my husband is a musician and he plays the guitar really well and oftentimes when we would go to do the dental work at the schools or in little villages I would play the violin and he would play the guitar and we'd just play music for them. They said, "Well, we would love a choir, can you teach us music? Can we form a choir? Would you come and do that?" And it was like our dream come true, "Yes!" You know, because I mean, dental work is one thing, but doing music is is exciting and super fun. So yes, we said we'd love to.
And so myself, my husband, and so we got it all set up, and I got these folders, I thought they would feel really important having you know, their folders. I wanted them to know that I was taking it seriously. So I gave them their folders, they had a pencil, you know, to mark anything. The real problem was I didn't have music. And the only music I had access to was the church hymns. So I found a hymnal. It was in Spanish, of course. And I chose some songs that I thought were simple. And I was really drawn to, "As Sisters in Zion" And then the other song was, "As I Have Loved You", and "Keep the Commandments."
[Nuns singing "Love One Another" in Spanish"
So the "Sisters in Zion" song, it was an interesting one, because I'm going to be honest, I haven't always loved that song. I haven't always enjoyed singing it. Maybe because I grew up listening to Relief Society sisters sing it, and maybe, you know, there were older voices in there that weren't always the most lovely to listen to–I don't know, it just wasn't a song that I always loved. But as I read the words in Spanish, the translation, it's called, "We Serve United." And what I think is neat about that is they are, they were cloistered nuns serving together.
The first line, the first part of the song, "We serve together because we're sisters." And then it's saying that they hope God blesses us in our work, and we will edify his kingdom on the earth, bringing service in love. It's very simple, and there's nothing that says even Zion in it. And I felt like it translated perfectly for their situation, I thought that they would relate to it, and that it would help them feel strength in their purpose.
So when I brought this song in their little folders with their little pencils–which, they were just giddy when we arrived, I still remember their faces. And remember, they're wearing habits, just like on "The Sound of Music," and they were so excited to see us that of course, we were just thrilled. And I remember singing the song with them, they really caught on pretty quickly. And after they sang it, they looked at me and they said, "Wow, did you write this for us?" Like, "No, actually Janice Kapp Perry wrote this, but it does relate," like, they loved it. They just loved it, it almost became their anthem.
And what I love about it is it completely changed my perspective on this song. I cannot sing this song. Without thinking about these sisters. I really, I saw them as my sisters. I–when we sang that together, I just felt so much love that Heavenly Father had for them.
They let us come several more times during that time we spent in Ecuador, and they weren't really preparing for anything, they didn't have a choir concert, I think it was for their own edification. I think they just really wanted to sing.
So I've always loved music, and I feel like music is what helped me build my testimony throughout my younger years and even now, if I have questions, they're often answered while I'm singing hymns. And I feel like this experience solidified that for me, because, as we sang, the Spirit was there. Music invites the Spirit. And it doesn't matter what religion we are, we are all children of God, and singing a song or singing a hymn that speaks words of truth invites the Spirit. And I felt that so strongly and I looked around at these faces of these beautiful nuns singing "As Sisters in Zion," and I could see the love that they had for the same Heavenly Father, and I feel like it really did unite us in a cause for good. And I'll never sing that song again without that feeling.
That was Lillie. We first heard her story on our pitch line and were mesmerized by her description of acquire of cloistered nuns in Ecuador singing "As Sisters in Zion." My favorite spark of gospel from Lillie's story is that when we sing songs that speak truth, the spirits present, regardless of our faith tradition. And that's only amplified when we sing those songs together.
All my fellow choir nerds out there know that something really cool happens when we join our shaky, imperfect voices in praise of Jesus. And I think that something is a taste of Zion. The things that make us different or disconnected seem to fall away as we exert the same kind of effort to take individual notes and individual voices, and meld them into one. I think it's a really transcendent experience, and it can change the way that we see one another.
Maybe it's the erstwhile fiction writer in me speaking here, but I have this vision that someday anthropologists in the year 3000, will find this recording of a Spanish translation of Janice Kapp Perry's, "As Sisters in Zion" in an abandoned nunnery in Ecuador, and it'll spark a historical mystery for our posterity that will end with them coming to the conclusion that we were a unified and connected people across cultures and continents.
I know, it's a little far fetched, but a girl can dream, right? And maybe, just maybe, when we get back from this quarantine, we'll all decide to take another look at joining the ward choir. Just a thought. Our next story about the power of music comes from Holly who needed additional strength to move forward after a devastating setback. Here's Holly.
My husband and I were married in 1986, it seems like a really long time ago. And in 1991, we did our first adoptions. We had three biological children and in 91, we went to Romania, to adopt and adopted two little girls from orphanages there and decided that we would really want to welcome kids into our home who had been abandoned, neglected, in some way–hard to place, because we also had a biological daughter with disabilities, and so it really opened up a world of possibility for us to add to our family.
When we decided to adopt, when we felt inspired to adopt another child, or add another child, we always took it to the Lord. We always prayed, we always got confirmation, we both had to be on the same page. I think my husband would tell you that, if we had adopted every child that I had felt would be a good fit, we'd probably have 50. And we don't have quite that many, but we always got confirmation. And that was one of the things that I relied on, right? Is feeling confirmation from the spirit that these were the children that I needed to add to my home.
So in 2007–actually beginning in 2006–we started to pursue an adoption from a country in Africa, it's no longer open, but at the time it was open, and we had that same familiar feeling, it's time to go add to our family. We did all of the paperwork, and I traveled to that country prepared to adopt. My husband was going to stay home, I was going to go and I took one of my teenage daughters with me to do this adoption. And we actually spent months there.
We lived there to complete these adoptions, and we found three little girls. One was in an orphanage, and two were actually abandoned in the hospital, and they were legally adopted to us. We got birth certificates, and passports in the Richardson name, the courts released them into my custody and I started taking care of them, while we were still undergoing the rest of the legal process and the court process.
Absolutely bonded, I fall in love with my kids very quickly. The last step is to go to the American Embassy and get visas to bring them home to the United States. We went to the American Embassy and they . . . they said "No." They turned us down. First they said "Well, we need to go verify where these girls actually came from." So we tracked down all the information we had, we tracked down the police report where the kids were abandoned, I mean, we tracked all of this information down, provided all of the paperwork, and then there was another reason. And we just couldn't figure it out. And it started to get concerning.
One day with my teenage daughter who had come with me, we got a knock on our apartment door where we were staying and it was Child Services from this country, and they were coming to take the kids back into their custody. Two of them were newborns, one of them was only three months old, so they were really close in age. And I had been their full time caregiver around the clock for a couple of months at least. And here, these people show up and they're like, "We're here to take your babies." And I'm like, "What? What . . . like, How can that be possible?"
And they just said, "Well, we know you're having trouble with the American Embassy, so you go work it out in America, and we're going to take care of the girls here," and told us to go home and work on the problem at home. And we were just like, I was just stunned. I . . .I couldn't believe it, right. It was really traumatic and very sad.
And here I had been, trying to be faithful, following the spirit, and it had not worked out and I was in shock and grief. I did not feel the Comforter, I did not feel supported, I actually felt betrayed. I felt betrayed by God, that He had led me so far, and then taken away the ability for me to get these little girls home.
I had this realization that I was at a moment of choosing. And I did debate a little bit on on whether this was going to be the last straw for me, because we'd gone through some really rough stuff. I could have said, "Okay, I'm done. I'm out."
I had, at the time, this was 2007, so I had a laptop, it used to have a CD player and I had CD's with me from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. And as I played, "How Firm a Foundation," I was stuck on the last verse. And the last verse says, "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."
And I literally put that on repeat. This music helped calm my soul, it was so soothing, and I just sat there and listened and cried and listened and cried and cried. And made that commitment that I'll never forsake. I'll never forsake, no matter how hard it is, I'll never forsake and that was, that was really my moment of choosing. That music really helped me choose faith.
I heard later, one of the people that was helping us said that they had just participated in a meeting where the woman who had come and taken my children from me, stood up and said that Mormons were not Christian, and that she had saved these children from a fate worse than death by preventing them from coming to an LDS home. I don't know exactly what her difficulties were with my religion, but it was very clear that that was the reason that they decided that they were going to prevent these kids from coming home.
Now what happened is, I went home and I spent, we spent many, many hours with attorneys and working the legal process, and the reality was–it never happened. And they didn't come home.
I entered a period of really dark depression, because I couldn't bring them home. And it just felt so awful that I knew where they were, and I couldn't do anything about it. People would ask me, "How are you doing?" and I would literally burst into tears. I look at pictures from that year, I never did my hair, I never wore makeup, I put on sweats, like I could barely get myself out of bed. But because I chose to stay in the gospel and to do the things that I needed to do to feel the light again, because I didn't for a long time.
One morning, in December of that year, I woke up and I could tell that things were a little bit better. That was the day that I started to really feel like I was healing from that. And now it's been, what, 14 years. And every time I still hear that song, I remember that commitment that I made, both to myself, but to God as well to say, I'm going to stay, and I choose faith.
And I think sometimes. . . II think sometimes people think that, that people stay in the church out of maybe naivete, but, but I choose to stay in spite of the difficulties, and I choose to stay in spite of not knowing. And I chose to stay even when things were really hard and I felt like they were really not fair–and they weren't fair. But I knew that I would have dark times but I also knew that I could rely on Heavenly Father and my Savior, I knew that they would be there, and I knew that I would get through it. And I did it.
And I think part of it for me is knowing that if I hold on during those dark times that the light will come again. I've gone to the temple where I felt not one thing. I've prayed where I felt like not one thing, nobody was listening, nobody cared. But I just did the things I knew I was supposed to do, and the light came back.
That was Holly. Holly and her husband, are parents to 25 children who've come into their family in various ways. And if that doesn't tell you what you need to know about her willingness to commit when the Spirit directs her, I don't know what does.
I appreciate what she learned about the beauty of our hymns as spiritual teachers, that when we listen to and surround ourselves with sacred music as part of our discipleship, we're creating a little well of inspiration that we can dip from when we need to learn something or decide something in a moment, even if that moment is characterized by pain or grief. Those songs will float upward and act as a catalyst for the Spirit. But even better, after we've had that experience with the Spirit, the moment is gonna fade, but that song will still remain.
And just like Holly said, every time we hear it, it becomes this tangible touchstone of a time when we were inextricably connected to heaven, a solid reminder to recommit or to stay strong or to have additional peace.
I suspect that most of us could point to a pivotal moment when a song, a sacred song, offered an answer or comfort to us. I know I can. For me, it always seems to come from the song, "I'll Go Where You Want Me to Go." In fact, that song has become kind of an inside joke between me and the Lord. Every single time I don't want to do something scary, or I'm on the fence about following inspiration or revelation. Invariably, I go to church, I sit in the back pew, I argue with the Spirit about it, and then we sing this song for the closing hymn.
This conversation with music and the Spirit happened when I was trying to decide whether to serve a full time mission. And it happened when I was feeling nervous about my decision to leave my job and move to South Korea. And it happened again when I didn't get into a graduate program that I desperately, desperately, wanted to be a part of. And when the answer was to stay right where I was for the time being. It's this line that gets me every time, "But if by a still small voice He calls to paths that I do not know, I'll answer Dear Lord with my hand in thine, I'll go where you want me to go."
I admit that it has some of the lilting of a pirate hymn, but it's my pirate hymn. And every time I hear it, I am reminded that sacred music is a powerful and personal tool of communion between me and my Heavenly Parents. There's one other piece of this that I think is worth mentioning. In a Church Educational System talk the President Nelson gave in 2008 he spoke about the power and the protection of worthy music.
And at the outset, it might seem like our stories today were all about the power of music, the power to unify, to transcend differences, to anchor us to the gospel and soothe our troubled hearts. But when I look a little bit deeper, I can see what President Nelson was talking about when he said, quote, "Music is not only a source of power, but also of protection," end quote.
Surrounding ourselves with sacred music–and that could be lots of different kinds of music, I'm not just talking about hymns, but surrounding ourselves with sacred music offers a shield against the darts of the adversary. It covers our efforts to share eternal truths when disagreements, misunderstandings, or cultural differences could easily drive a wedge between an ad hoc choir director and her newly formed corral of nuns. Sacred music can hold us still, while our hearts break in a hotel room far from home. And it can fill us with a hope that is strong enough to cast out the doubt and the dissonance that threatens to send us far from God's goodness.
In my own life, I've seen sacred music fill the space between the angry words in my head and my sometimes too sharp tongue. It stopped me from saying things that I couldn't take back. And I have experienced the presence of angels after a light filled song open the gates of heaven against a darkness that felt like it could own me.
Worthy music is a power and a protection. Is it any wonder then, that President Nelson warned us in that talk to use that power and care for that protection intentionally, when he said, quote, "Do not degrade yourself with the numbing shabbiness and irreverence of music that is not worthy of you. It is not harmless. It can weaken your defenses. Fill your minds with worthy sights and sounds. Cultivate your precious gift of the Holy Ghost. Protect it. Carefully listen for its quiet communication, you will be spiritually stronger if you do," end quote.
And to that, my friends, all I can say is amen. And in the spirit of our theme today, I want to leave you with one more thing, a hymn that my Pappy used to sing with all of his heart and soul in our sacrament meeting, arranged and sung by some of my favorite musicians. I hope it gives you an added measure of power and protection today. This is "II Stand All Amazed" by the Bonner family.
Bonner Family 31:33
"I stand all amazed at the love Jesus offers me. Confused at the grace that so fully he proffers me. Oh, it is wonderful that he should care for me enough to die for me. Oh it is wonderful, wonderful to me."
"Wonderful to me. I marvel that he would descend from His throne divine. To rescure a soul so rebellious and proud as mine. Oh, it is wonderful that he should care for me enough to die for me. Oh it is wonderful, wonderful to me."
"I stand all amazed at the love, I stand all amazed. Wonderful to me. Wonderful to me."
That's it for this episode of "This Is the Gospel." Thank you to our storytellers, Lillie and Holly, and comedian Steve Solberg and Dry Bar Comedy for sharing their stories and their love for all worthy music, including the piratey ones.
We'll have a link to Steve's full length comedy special–that again requires no bleeping–and more info about each of our storytellers in our show notes. We'll also have a way for you to find more of that gorgeous music from the Bonners. Seriously, they're bringing a whole new energy to our hymns, and I am here for it. You can find our show notes at LDSliving.com/thisisthegospel.
One of my favorite things besides the Bonner family and cake is hearing from you. We love to hear how this podcast is adding to your practice of the gospel. You can find us on social media at @thisisthegospel_podcast, or leave us a review on Apple, Stitcher, or whatever platform you listen on. Reviews are super helpful in pushing us up in the recommended section of a lot of platforms, so more people can find us easily.
All of the stories in this episode are true and accurate as affirmed by our storytellers. We find so many stories through the pitch line and we'll be gathering those stories and ideas for season four soon so get ready to share them. You'll have three minutes to pitch your story when you call 515-519-6179. This episode was produced by me KaRyn Lay, with story production and editing from Erika Free. It was scored, mixed and mastered by Mix at Six studios and our executive producer is Erin Hallstrom. You can find past episodes of this podcast and other LDS Living podcasts at LDSliving.com/podcasts.