Aretha Franklin’s rendition of “What A Friend We Have in Jesus” makes me think that the Son of God, Savior who descended below all, doesn’t sit serenely on a throne in the sky, watching from afar while I struggle through this quagmire. He’s the kind of friend, in that song, who gets down and dirty, working with me while I try to pack sandbags around the flood of trouble this life sends my way. He laughs with me in my joys, high-fives when I reach a goal, tells me that the stretch marks across my abdomen are a badge of love, and, girl, any man would find them sexy if he knew what mattered.
Aretha gives us all the holy emotions in this one song. She reaches the celebratory praise-shout, then brings it down in quiet awe as she sings, “It’s just because we don’t carry, no we don’t, we don’t carry everything to the Lord in prayer.” Bam! That’s the crux of the song: a reminder that if I include Christ, he will, indeed, be the perfect friend my soul hungers to know. He’s right there, waving me down, trying to get my attention because he’s already walking with me. “What a friend we have in Jesus,” not “what a friend we could have in Jesus if we open the door” or “what a friend some people have in Jesus because they make better choices or look better on the outside.”
Already, right now, in every way, we have that perfect friend in Jesus. I love to know that the Day Dawn is Breaking, but sometimes, I don’t need to add anything else to my list of things to do, and certainly not guilt at thinking of all the long-dead relatives I’m not doing work for: I need to know that Jesus understands what I’m already striving toward, and that’s worth celebrating.
When Aretha sings “Climbing Higher Mountains” I feel like shouting ‘amen’ and throwing up my praise-hands. The song doesn’t ask us to do anything or be anything or change anything. Instead, it acknowledges the work we already do. The piano trills and she lifts her voice in that beautiful Aretha way, “I’m climbing higher mountains trying to get home. I’m going up the side of the mountain, on my way home (meet my people trying to get home).” The Southern California Community Choir supports her, “Climbing higher! Climbing higher!” I picture the choir, along with Jesus, on the path, encouraging us when we stumble on the gravel, boulders blocking the trail.
Some days, when I’ve got my heavy backpack on, filled with all the emotional weight of trying to navigate a world that seems intent on knocking me back down, I play this song and I remember something I don’t feel all the time: other people climb that mountain with me. All of us are just trying to get back to Jesus. We have more strength if we celebrate each other as we carry our heavy loads. That’s life-affirming stuff right there, and it’s often enough to get me out of bed, teeth brushed, maybe even real clothes on. I don’t have any energy to try to hie to Kolob. I’ve got my hands full just getting up that higher mountain here on earth.
So, now, before heading out to Mormon church meetings, I get some religion with Aretha Franklin. And I try to carry that joy—and Jesus—with me while I sit in Sacrament, wishing our (bless her heart) organist would add a few extra notes to the bridge or at least pick up the pace so we can march.
READER BIO: Bryn Brody refuses to stand for the rest hymn unless they play Called to Serve and then she marches. Her children roll their eyes when she does, but at least they do it quietly, so it seems like reverence.
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