In the recent remake of the movie “True Grit,” a haunting piano echoes beneath fourteen-year-old Maddie Ross’ opening voice-over as she notes there is nothing free in life, save for God’s grace. The tune will be recognizable to most churchgoers, as it is played out in numerous variations in the course of the film. The words will have to come from memory, or wait to be stirred when they are sung at the last by Iris DeMent as the closing credits roll. No, it isn’t “Amazing Grace” (for once) which flows under this film of the American frontier; it is “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.”
Given the degree to which the characters come to lean on each other in order to accomplish their task, it seems a hymn fitting to their plight. The tough but dissipated U.S. marshal (first played by John Wayne and now by Jeff Bridges) hardly seems able to stand on his own, much less to carry another; the girl who thinks she is “about her father’s business” in seeking to bring his killer to justice is determined in her efforts, but does not know the terrain before her; and the Texas Ranger seemingly capable of leading them has differing plans regarding the acquisition and disposition of their prey. They do indeed come to lean on each other in moments of desperate grit and need.
Beyond the testing, failing and reconnecting the main characters make in the course of their quest, there is a carrying quality that is underwritten by something like grace. The lyric for the hymn that accompanies perhaps three-quarters of the film comes from Deuteronomy 33:27 — “The eternal God is thy refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms” (King James Version). It was written in condolence to a widower by a hymn-writer who asked a friend to complete the beginning he made of the lyric, which thus came to enter American hymnody complete as “What a Fellowship.”
From the Proverb (28:1) quoted at the beginning of the movie to the myriad of stars spanning the skies under which an unlikely protagonist is carried to healing by an unlikely hero, there are echoes of both divine sanction and saving grace not unlike those found in the blessings “enveloping” Moses’ benediction in Deuteronomy 33.
There may be a rough grace reached for in the kind of desperate situation portrayed here; not the kind that comes from wading quietly in a river (but are the waters ever only still?); nor found in some place where desperados leave “peaceable” people alone in their silences (note here the caution of that opening proverb!). No, it is found more in leaning and learning to be leaned upon, seeking still “a fellowship divine.”
It will take the telling of God someday to sift out what was more holy than not in our lives (Matthew 13:24-30). In the meantime we may grasp for what grace comes our way in the midst of life’s grit, leaning on the everlasting arms.
Listen to sample of "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms" sample, Iris DeMent (True Grit, 2010)
and true grace,
Pastor William B. Jones (January, 2011)