Sometimes I know what I think about a hymn before I start singing, and let the experience of singing affirm or shift those thoughts. Sometimes I don’t know, and I let the experience of singing take me somewhere, and as a result some of my posts have been more theological, or musical, or silly, or timely, or emotional.
Sometimes I leave the singing with really, no concrete thoughts at all, and on those occasions need to learn a bit more about the hymn.
Welcome to my experience today.
Yes, of course I smiled at noting the lyrics were written by Mark Belletini, a poet and minister I greatly admire and am glad to be getting to know a little. And I knew if I read the lyrics again, I’d see its powerful message, with a second verse that could have been written for today. Let’s look at the lyrics, and then I’ll continue.
O liberating Rose, that glows on ragged stem,
your beauty helps all hearts lose power to condemn.
Your buds are tight with prophecy;
your thorns, a tougher poetry:
you sign the whole and Gift of life.
O liberating Fire that calls for cleansing rage
whenever hurtful lies distort our present age.
Your dancing dreams our liberty
to challenge each indignity:
you sign the whole and Faith of life.
O liberating Song whose echo now we sing,
your lyric, swelling line rekindles strengthening.
Your harmonies portray the time
when seeds we sow shall bloom sublime:
you sign the whole and Hope of life.
O liberating Love, we hear you in a sigh;
we glimpse you when we see a wet or weary eye;
we touch you when our hands extend
to soothe, or to embrace a friend:
you sign the whole and Source of life.
So good lyrics, right? But they honestly, to me, need to be read, not sung, to get their full effect. But that’s me. Still, I had no real clue about how I felt, because I couldn’t see its arc and direction.
I felt similarly clueless about the tune – it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me: it’s one part late 19th century hymnody, one part mid-20th century modern, wholly confusing.
And so, feeling a bit adrift on this one, I turned to Jacqui James’ Between the Lines, and learn the following:
Belletini’s text was written for the dedication service of a home for people with AIDS, supported by Seattle’s University Unitarian Church. The words are based on conversations Belletini had with Canadian Unitarian minister Mark DeWolfe, for whom the home was named, before DeWolfe’s death.
Suddenly. the pieces of the lyric fit – the conversations the two Marks had about new kinds of theistic language became poetry, became new ways of expressing the Divine, and became liberative. Wow.
So now, the tune, which oddly (to me) is named Initials. According to James, the tune is a present from composer Larry Phillips to his father, with the pitches chosen by a formula using the initials of the family members and connecting them to the pentatonic scale.
No wonder it’s got odd jumps and feels both old and modern – it’s as much an art song as anything. And I’m sure the meter was meant to match Belletini’s poem – no one just decides to write a 126.96.36.199.8.8 for fun.
So…now what do I think? I think that sometimes we write in memory of someone or to honor someone, and this hymn accomplishes that on two fronts. It isn’t maudlin or sentimental – but rather a bit of something old and something new. Old ideas in new language, old forms in new patterns.
I’m not sure I would use it without a good deal of preparation and learning, but I really appreciate this one now.
And herein lies the lesson: sometimes it’s okay to not know immediately what you think of a thing, but rather let it sit, learn more, explore. It’s really okay to take time for slow thinking.
The picture is of a quilt made on a Liberated Log Cabin pattern, specifically a Liberated Log Cabin Rose. Quilter Gwen Marston created the style, showing you can liberate traditional patterns and create original quilts result that engage the quilter’s intuition and emotion as well as technical skills. The resulting quilts are modern, funky takes on traditional forms. This particular quilt was created by Maree at the blog Block Lotto.
We just sang this hymn last Sunday. It’s nice to know the story behind it. Thank you.