Of Minstrels and Ministry: Part I
“Spirit of Life, come unto me.” When was the last time you looked at the words to this meditative hymn and considered what it says? We sing this hymn nearly every week. Newer folks are still discovering this hymn and learning it. But many here don’t reach for the hymnal anymore as the words have been learned by heart. I prefer to think you have it learned by heart rather than memorized … even though ‘by heart’ and ‘memorized’ mean essentially the same thing. The phrase ‘by heart’ locates the metaphor in what you love rather than what you know. Music is like that. There is something special about music. Music gets into us at a different level than plain words. Music reaches different parts of our brain. In some way it invites the hearer to share in the experience.
“Sing in my heart all the stirrings of compassion.” You’ll want your grey Singing the Living Tradition hymnals for this service. I want to look through several hymns that express something but also bring something out of us. I’ll invite us to sing our way through several of the most commonly sung hymns in this congregation. We’ve already sung Spirit of Life, but look over the words with me.
“Spirit of Life, come to me, come to me.” This is structured as a prayer, it is reflective. We use it that way in our services each week. This hymn is more than a prayer though. It has become the Unitarian Universalist song, our musical rendering of the essentials among us. It says all the important things about our faith: compassion and justice and the grace of the natural world. It hints strongly at our core messages of Inherent Worth and Interconnectedness. And, remarkably for a faith tradition so untraditional, it is a prayer.
We sing other prayers rather commonly. Hymn # 1, for example, is a prayer or blessing we sing often in our services. Join me in singing just the third verse.
May Nothing Evil Cross This Door, #1, verse 3, Louis Untermeyer
Peace shall walk softly through these rooms,
touching our lips with holy wine,
till every casual corner blooms into a shrine.
What does this hymn say about us? It is a hymn that refers to an abiding and sheltering power. Look at the words: “By faith made strong,” “Peace shall walk softly,” “With laughter.” The hymn talks about a power that keeps us safe, that bars evil from our sacred space. Faith and peace and laughter will be the power we use to keep hate out and hold love in. Now think about what it’s like in this congregation. Are we doing that? Do you find peace and laughter and faith in this community and in our actions? I do.
Turn with me to another prayerful hymn we sing a lot. Guide My Feet #348. Let’s just do the first verse.
Guide My Feet, #348, verse 1, traditional African American Spiritual
Guide my feet while I run this race. (3x)
for I don’t want to run this race in vain!
What does this one tell us about us? It declares that you are not alone. Where do you find guidance? Who holds your hand, searches your heart? Who stands with you as you struggle or stumble? Whatever the answer, the important part is that you are not alone. As we look over more hymns, you’ll find this message keeps coming up.
We’re going to jump to the teal hymnal supplement Singing the Journey for a minute. #1010 is next on my list of prayer hymns we often sing. While you’re digging that out I will tell you I consulted a few sources to come up with a list of the most common hymns we sing. It’s not that hard to draw up such a list. I spoke with Vicky, our music director, and the two of us drew up a list anecdotally. I then turned to Darin’s hymnal. Darin purchased his own hymnals a few years back, brings them every Sunday he is here, and marks in his hymnal each time we sing a hymn. There were nearly three dozen hymns on the list which I then barely narrowed down to the fifteen hymn numbers I have listed in the order of service. I had to cut #347 Gather the Spirit and #108 My Life Flows On. #168 One More Step and #38 Morning has Broken are also left out. I just couldn’t fit them all in. I should have cut more out; fifteen is still too many to fit into a mere twenty-five minutes of service time. And the more I talk, the less we sing. I will hush now so we can give thanks. #1010
We Give Thanks, #1010, Wendy Luella Perkins
Oh, we give thanks for this precious day
For all gathered here and those far away
For this time we share with love and care
Oh, we give thanks for this precious day
The tone of this hymn is upbeat and fun to sing. And it pretty much just says: Thank You. We list what we are thankful for. We name the day as precious; we remember all the people around us and those in our hearts. Thank you. It is a song we could offer every day. It is a good message to hear.
The next hymn is one I used at my ordination ceremony. I sang this hymn with three other people. We did it a capella; I did the base line. If you want to read along, it is hymn # 6.
Just as Long as I Have Breath, #6, verse 1, Alicia S. Carpenter
Just as long as I have breath, I must answer, ‘Yes’ to life;
though with pain I made my way, still with hope I meet each day.
If they ask what I did well, tell them I said, ‘Yes’, to life
I choose this hymn because my ordination was a dramatic turning point in my life. Aside from the obvious professional change – the ordination – it also marked the growing change in my sense of the world. Each verse, you’ll notice, has that line in the middle about the darkness and the disappointment and the pain. I had long been aware of that part of life, of my life. And that is all still there, but now it is alongside the hope and faith and love. I saw my own transformation into hope as wrapped up in my calling. And that is what this hymn offers.
The next hymn is a favorite of many people. I remember singing Amazing Grace to our older kids each night as they were falling asleep. We had a few dozen songs we rotated through but Amazing Grace was a regular. And many nights we were exhausted ourselves and we would sing it very slowly so as to encourage sleepiness. A-a-a-a-ma-a-a-a-a-zi-i-i-i-ing gr-a-a-a-a-ace. Sing the second verse with me, at a regular tempo.
Amazing Grace, #205, verse 2, John Newton
T’was Grace that taught
my heart to fear.
And Grace, my fears relieved.
How precious did that Grace appear
the hour I first believed.
I’ve often been struck by that verse. What does that mean to say grace taught my heart to fear? We could spend quite a while on that one. Suffice at this moment to point out how this old hymn carries a depth of meaning among us.
Let me turn us to another popular hymn that in a similar way tells us about how we can be transformed or led into a new understanding. Lets do the opening verse of #131 Love Will Guide Us.
Love Will Guide Us, #131, verse 1, Sally Rogers
Love will guide us, peace has tried us,
Hope inside us, will lead the way
On the road from greed to giving.
Love will guide us through the hard night.
Think back to #348, Guide My Feet. Where do you find guidance? Here we say Love will guide us. Love is the spirit of this church, and love will guide us through the hard night. And again we find the message that all is not well in the world, but we have a strength and a power on our side as we live with hope and faith.
Our last hymn in this half is from the teal hymnal, #1053 How Could Anyone. It is a song that with such bare simplicity and beauty lifts up the basic Unitarian Universalist commitment to the Inherent Worth of every person. It also hints at our interconnectedness.
How Could Anyone, #1053, Libby Roderick
How could anyone ever tell you
You were anything less than beautiful?
How could anyone ever tell you
You were less than whole?
How could anyone fail to notice
That your loving is a miracle?
How deeply you’re connected to my soul?
Our music tells us who we are as individuals, it tells us about our values and about what matters most to us. The choir is going to offer a piece, not a hymn we sing a lot but one that tells us and reflects to us who we are as a people of faith. And their anthem will help us segue from the individual focus the earlier hymns offered to the communal focus of others we sing with great frequency.
Choir sings We Are … by Ysaye Barnwell (#1051 in the Singing the Journey)
Building a Vocal Community: Part II
The next two hymns are used every year in our June Passages service. They tell us who we are and about how we are as a community together. #311, Let it Be a Dance, was included in the Search Packet I looked at about this congregation when I was a pre-candidate for the ministry position. I was told it was the congregation’s favorite hymn. Let’s sing the chorus leading into the second verse.
Let it Be a Dance, #311, verse 2, Ric Masten
Everybody turn and spin,
Let your body learn to bend,
and, like a willow with the wind,
Let it be a dance.
Let it be a dance.
Let it be a dance
A child is born, the old must die,
A time for joy, a time to cry.
Take it as it passes by.
And let it be a dance.
Such fun. I think a significant reason why we like this one is the lyrics and what they mean, but also the fun and playful melody and rhythm! Our congregation puts a high value on laughter and joy. This hymn honors the life cycle and the ongoing search for what is right while maintaining balance.
The same can be said for the other hymn we sing at our Passages service. Join me for the last verse of #354, We Laugh, We Cry.
We Laugh, We Cry, #354, verse 4, Shelley Jackson Denham
We seek elusive answers to the questions of this life
We seek to put an end to all the waste of human strife.
We search for truth, equality, and blessed peace of mind.
And then we come together here, to make sense of what we find
And we believe in life and in the strength of love
And we have found a joy being together
And in our search for peace maybe we’ll finally see:
Even to question, truly is an answer.
All that guidance we talked about earlier from “Guide My Feet” and “Love Will Guide Us,” that guidance is valued because we are looking for something, we are in a search. This hymn lifts up the values of Love and Justice as well as our sense of yearning, of the search for truth and meaning. We find – as we found in Spirit of Life – the key features of our faith in this hymn: Love and Justice, Inherent worth and Interconnectedness, and the yearning we have “to nurture our souls and to help heal the world.”
One of the strongest “help heal the world” hymns in our hymnal is #121, We’ll Build a Land. It is chock full of justice and equality and healing. Sing the opening verse with me.
We’ll Build a Land, #121, verse 1, Carolyn McDade (Isaiah & Amos)
We’ll build a land where we bind up the broken.
We’ll build a land where the captives go free,
where the oil of gladness dissolves all mourning.
Oh, we’ll build a promised land that can be.
Come build a land where sisters and brothers,
anointed by God, may then create peace:
where justice shall roll down like waters,
and peace like an ever flowing stream.
The powerful drive of this song is amazing. I’ve had Humanists and Atheists tell me this is their favorite hymn – it’s probably the most blatantly biblical hymn in our list of favorites! But the message is of an abiding ethic of right relationship. It is powerful stuff calling us to build a better world.
The next hymn in our survey of the hymns we sing most often around here comes out of the Singing the Journey. #1028 Fire of Commitment is newer to us but has quickly grown on us. I suspect in part this is due to the youth. I remember my oldest child, Brin, learned it on the piano almost immediately after she got her hands on a copy of this hymnal supplement. It then became a standard in nearly every youth worship service here after that. Sing the second verse with me.
Fire of Commitment, #1028, verse 2, Jason Shelton
From the stories of our living rings a song both brave and free
Calling pilgrims still to witness to the life of liberty
When the fire of commitment sets our mind and soul ablaze,
When our hunger and our passion meet to call us on our way,
When we live with deep assurance of the flame that burns within,
Then our promise finds fulfillment and our future can begin.
Such rich metaphors, so lyrical! This is another great justice-based hymn. But the root metaphor is again about guidance. We are pilgrims called to witness, a beacon guides our hands and hearts, and our dreams and visions demand a deeper justice. All of this is rooted in the deep assurance of the flame that burns within. That old Emersonian inner guidance mingled with the fire imagery of our flaming chalice perhaps.
And consider another long favorite among us, This Little Light of Mine, #118. You surely don’t need to switch back to the regular hymnal to belt out the first verse with me.
This Little Light of Mine, #118, verse 1, Traditional African American Spiritual
This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine, (3x)
Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine
Is it the flame that burns within as Jason Shelton says? Who are we? We are the fire of commitment, the warmth of community, and the light of truth. As a community we value that action and compassion found in the fire metaphor of these hymns. But compare all that to what has become the most common hymn sung here these past five years or so: #1064 Blue Boat Home. The water image brings balance to the fire image of other hymns. Join me just for verse two.
Blue Boat Home, #1064, verse 2, Peter Mayer
Sun, my sail and moon, my rudder
As I ply the starry sea
Leaning over the edge in wonder
Casting questions into the deep
Drifting here with my ship’s companions
All we kindred pilgrim souls
Making our way by the lights of the heavens
In our beautiful blue boat home
Did you hear again he words “questions” and “pilgrims” – these words keep popping up in our hymns. This hymn has become the most commonly sung hymn in this congregation by a narrow margin, aside from Spirit of Life of course. So what does this hymn say about us? It speaks of wonder and a sense of home; it is a peaceful hymn of nurture. The tension between our fire hymns and our water hymns is the tension of our faith. Love and Justice are tangled together. Here you nurture your spirit and help heal the world.
Hymn #318 in Singing the Living Tradition is We Would Be One. It was the anthem of the youth movement a generation back. It is a hymn that holds the tension between Blue Boat Home and We’ll Build a Land, the call to both love our home and make it a better one. We Would Be One has the call, the yearning, the promise that rests at the heart of Unitarian Universalism. Sing the second verse with me if you will.
We Would Be One, #318, verse 2, Samuel Anthony Wright
We would be one in building for tomorrow
A nobler world than we have known today
We would be one in searching for that meaning
Which binds our hearts and points us on our way
As one, we pledge ourselves to greater service
With love and justice, strive to make us free.
Which is your favorite? Is it one you sing alone or is it best when others join their voices to yours in the lift and swell of the chorus? Is it the meter and the rhythm that draws you or the message in the lyrics? The music we sing tells us something about who we are as a people. These hymns are not extra pieces to adorn the service. They are a deep part of the message, working their way into our consciousness in ways the spoken word cannot. The music not only proclaims our values, it lifts up values that shape who we are becoming as a people.
In a world without end,
May it be so.
Closing hymn #1008, “When Our Heart Is in a Holy Place”