“For the Sake of Christ” has become my most requested song this year. Many people have asked me how I composed it. Here is the story that first appeared on spiritandsong.com.
Arleen Dunne was an energetic person, full of life and ideas and enthusiasm. She was the Director of Religious Education at St. Monica Church in Moraga, California when I became middle school minister there in 1995, and I had the pleasure of working with her on the parish staff. Her daughter Shannon was one of our cantors, and I always looked forward to doing music ministry with her at our Sunday liturgies.
The mid-1990s was something of a golden age at this parish. Our youth ministry was beginning to take off, reflecting the changing demographics of this region in the Diocese of Oakland. Once thought of as a quiet "retirement" community, Moraga was suddenly bursting at the seams with children, necessitating a building boom in local schools. In the midst of this growth, Arleen coordinated a thriving religious ed program for the elementary children, recruiting and training teachers, scheduling overlapping class sessions in our small parish plant, and supporting the parents in their role as the primary religious educators of their children. All this was done cheerfully, and Arleen's smile and laughter were contagious.
Arleen also made time to be a good wife and mother, and the parish watched Shannon blossom as an outstanding singer, growing up from high school musicals and liturgy to a burgeoning career in show business. Arleen and her husband Frank were proud of Shannon and all their children.
One day, the unthinkable happened. Arleen was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease. Also known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, ALS is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord. The affects in Arleen were gradual but noticeable. As her body moved toward muscular paralysis, Arleen lost her ability to speak. But she did not let this disease prevent her from carrying out her responsibilities as our DRE. Arleen communicated through a wonderful portable voice synthesizer that "spoke" the words as she typed into it. Her teachers continued to be supported, First Communion was celebrated with great joy, and the children grew in their faith. Over the next year and a half, Arleen charged into her ministry with a zest and cheerfulness that struck many of her friends as saintly. ALS was not going to stop her from bringing children to Christ.
I was personally inspired by Arleen's spirit, and moved by how her loving family dealt with these new challenges. I wanted to give Arleen something to show her my appreciation and love. While praying the Liturgy of the Hours, I came across this reading for Friday Morning Prayer, Week III:
I willingly boast of my weakness, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore, I am content with weakness, with mistreatment, with distress, with persecutions and difficulties for the sake of Christ; for when I am powerless, it is then that I am strong.
— 2 Corinthians 12:9-10
I looked up the passage in the Bible to see it in context. Preceding this passage, St. Paul gives this memorable piece of wisdom:
He [the Lord] said to me, "My grace is enough for you, for in weakness power reaches perfection."
Tears streamed down my face as I realized that this passage was personified in dear Arleen. I went straight to my piano and this song came out almost immediately. I started with a chant mode on the words "For the sake of Christ," and the song basically wrote itself after that.
By the time I finished the song, Arleen was in the final stages of ALS. She had to step down from her daily DRE duties, and the parish staff covered for her. I went over to her house and played my new song for her. Afterward, we embraced through our tears. God's word spoke powerfully to us at that moment. It would be the last time I would ever see Arleen in this life.
"For the Sake of Christ" became a Lenten favorite at St. Monica, and a fitting remembrance to a dedicated parishioner and dear friend. I am now long gone from that marvelous parish, but whenever I play or hear this song I think of Arleen and how God worked so powerfully through her to bring children to Christ.
For when I am powerless, then I am strong.
Here is a link to the song on spiritandsong.com. That's Bob Halligan, Jr., of Ceili Rain, singing lead vocal. This version appeared on the Spirit & Song, 2nd Edition CD-library. I later recorded the song myself for my 2009 Doxology album.
The video above features a guitar/vocal interpretation. I have no idea who created this beautiful video but I am grateful.