I’ve kind of been dreading this one, knowing the complexities inherent in both the lyrics and the tunes (and by the way, this is the first of only two times when you’ll see me cover two numbers at once – they are the same lyrics to different tunes, so it seems appropriate).

But, if this practice has taught me anything, it’s that a closer examination leads to both joy and sorrow, and here I definitely find both.

So let’s tuck right in. First, the lyrics.

Our friend Sam Longfellow is back, with what – according to Jacqui James in Between the Lines – is the first Christian hymn to recognize non-Christian religions. There is a lot to love about this text, not the least of which is that somewhere along the line we changed “God of ages” to “Light of ages” – a shift I think further opens up the message. But I digress. I love the rather plainspoken nature of the lyrics, making clear that revelation is not sealed, that reason matters, that we should look to the prophets.

What I am not crazy about is the phrase “Greek, Barbarian, Roman, Jew” in the last verse. Take a look at it in context:

Light of ages and of nations, every race and every time
has received thine inspirations, glimpses of thy truth sublime.
Always spirits in rapt vision passed the heavenly veil within,
always hearts bowed in contrition found salvation from their sin.

Reason’s noble aspiration truth in growing clearness saw;
conscience spoke its condemnation, or proclaimed eternal law.
While thine inward revelations told thy saints their prayers were heard,
prophets to the guilty nations spoke thine everlasting word.

Lo, that word abideth ever; revelation is not sealed;
answering now to our endeavor, truth and right are still revealed.
That which came to ancient sages, Greek, Barbarian, Roman, Jew,
written in the soul’s deep pages, shines today, forever new.

When I look at the history of the word, it’s always been a pejorative, always about the outsider, the stranger, the ‘uncivilized’. I kind of get what our man Sam was saying here, but instead of being inclusive, it still seems like a bit of a slam. What we would change it to, I’m not sure (I’m coming with half a thing) – I’m sure others have thought of good replacements for that phrase that still rhyme with “new”. I just know that for all that I really like the rest of the lyrics, I wince at that line and then miss the full sentiment, “that which [was] …written in the soul’s deep pages, shines today, forever new.”

So now let’s look at the tune issue.

The first appearance, 189, is set to In Babilone, a tune we already sang in the aspirational Wonders Still the World Shall Witness. It’s a touch cheery for my tastes in this case, but it’s a good solid hymn tune and am already considering its use for a service that wraps up this congregation’s year-long conversation with world religions. (If I can figure out what to do about the barbarian, that is.)

The second appearance, 190, to which this lyric was originally set, is much more complicated. Take a deep breath – we’re going in.

The tune, Austria, was written by Austrian Josef Haydn in 1797, as a birthday song for Francis II, the last Holy Roman Emperor. It later found life in 1841 as a revolutionary call to unite Germans against the ruling classes. It was called “Das Lied der Deutschen” but became known by its first line “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles” (“Germany, Germany above all else”).

And now you see the problem.

If you know anything about German history, you know that in the last few hundred years, long periods of stability are hard to come by, and every so often there’s a call for a new Germany to rise up, well, make Germany great again. And if you know anything about political movements, you know that the music and iconography of a culture can be used and abused by those movements.

Such is the case here. “Das Lied der Deutschen” got overused by the Third Reich and became a theme song of the Nazi regime. On the plus side, the song was banned in 1945. However, by 1952, it was clear that West Germany needed a national anthem for diplomatic occasions, and after much consternation, it was decided that the final verse ONLY of “Das Lied der Deutschen” would be used. (East Germany used a different song, “Auferstanden aus Ruinen” (“Risen from Ruins”), until about 1972).

And the memory of this tune as a tool of the Nazis remains to this day.

Now you may wonder why we keep this in. I wondered too, and often thought this was an error of sentimentality. But then, of course, Jacqui James comes to the rescue to explain it: “We have retained Austria to signal that Nazism has not had the final victory by ruining this fine melody of Haydn.”

I can definitely applaud that.

I just wish this note was in the hymnal itself. The way the pages lay out, there would have been plenty of room. How helpful it would be to know this, and to be able to set up the hymn or use it with this fact in mind. It’s a shame Between the Lines is out of print, and that it doesn’t get shipped with every order of hymnals, because as I’m learning with these hymns but as we are learning with, well, everything, context matters.

I doubt I would ever use this hymn with this tune, but you can bet I will now talk about why we have this in here and what it means to reclaim art that gets ruined by abuse.

The featured image is of Francis II. Now we know what a last Holy Roman Emperor looks like.

A few short thoughts today.

First, composer Joyce Poley is one of the sweetest people I have ever met and very much wrote this before we had an awareness of ableist language.

But despite how sweet she is, she wrote one of the most annoying earworms we have. Sadly, it mostly gets played as an oom-pa-pa and not the more gentle waltz I am sure Poley anticipated. And so it’s often avoided on those grounds, even before considering the language of the first verse.

Yet the sentiment is good and righteous and motivating. It’s Frederick Buechner’s “There can be no peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy for you also” in song. So it still works – but requires a lot of care in the introduction and performance.

One more step,
we will take one more step,
‘til there is peace for us and everyone,
we’ll take one more step.

One more word,
we will say one more word,
‘til every word is heard by everyone,
we’ll say one more word.

One more prayer,
we will say one more prayer,
‘til every prayer is shared by everyone,
we’ll say one more prayer.

One more song,
we will sing one more song,
‘til every song is sung by everyone,
we’ll sing one more song.

I think my feelings about this can be summed up as ‘this song hasn’t aged well – but bless its heart.’

I rarely use stock images, but this one seemed to fit…

NO NO NO NO NO NO NO.

Holy cow this is a terrible hymn.

Technically, it’s not terrible – the tune is a favorite – Hyfrodol, made fresh by Peter Mayer in 1064, Blue Boat Home (which will get its day next January).  And the lyrics in terms of rhyme and meter are just fine.

But HOLY COW this is a terrible hymn.

Why? I’m glad you asked.

In the history of humankind, there has been a constant battle between Us and Them – we like Us, and we don’t like Them, so we’ll fight hard to make sure Us is protected from Them, even if we have to build walls and cities within those walls to keep Them out. And we have expected our cities to be beacons for both people who are Us and people who want to be Us. We see it played out throughout the Old Testament, with its understanding of the chosen people, and Zion, and the emphasis on building and protecting Jerusalem.  It’s here that we get all of the “shining city on a hill” imagery that my ancestor John Winthrop spouted in 1630 and which then President Ronald Reagan spouted in the 1980s.

And it’s terrible. It’s empire – meant to keep some people in and some out, meant to keep some people free and others enslaved, meant to separate and oppress.

So when I see “hail the glorious golden city” and “gleaming wall” and “banished from its borders” I scream NO. I mean, just look at these lyrics:

Hail the glorious golden city, pictured by the seers of old:
everlasting light shines o’er it, wondrous things of it are told.
Wise and righteous men and women dwell within its gleaming wall;
wrong is banished from its borders, justice reigns supreme o’er all.

We are builders of that city. All our joys and all our groans
help to rear its shining ramparts; all our lives are building-stones.
Whether humble or exalted, all are called to task divine;
all must aid alike to carry forward one sublime design.

And the work that we have builded, oft with bleeding hands and tears,
oft in error, oft in anguish, will not perish with our years:
it will live and shine transfigured in the final reign of right:
it will pass into the splendors of the city of the light.

There are other hymns that talk about building – in particular, I am thinking of 1017, Building a New Way. The difference is that a song like that is about building a path, a journey, a way for us to be better out in the world not just with Them but seeing Them and Us as useless constructs. I like the idea that we work together to build a path toward that kind of vision.

But when the establishing shot of the vision is “glorious golden city”? I’m tapping out.

Just…. no.

It’s time for everybody’s favorite new game, “Who Will Love This Hymn I Hate” – this week, starring lyricist Joseph Cotter and composer Frederich Filitz!

I wish I could make sense of this one.  No, seriously. I mean, I get that the lyrics are a rain song, and thus appropriate for a section called The World of Nature. I also get that we want to include voices beyond white men, and thus the hymn led me to learn about Joseph Cotter, Jr, who was an African American playwright and poet who died of tuberculosis at age 24.

But seriously – this too, too simple German tune? I found only one recording of it here, tied to a long washed-in-the-blood hymn. It’s really a boring tune, though, and it’s bad enough we sing it in 4 verses – imagine singing the eight in the one I linked too!

MAYBE this tune sounds okay in a round, but certainly not in a song about dry earth and ancient (I assume native American) drums.

Everything just seems wrong about this. And it makes me realize how much we had yet to do as a movement around cultural appropriation.

On the dusty earth drum beats the falling rain;
now a whispered murmur, now a louder strain.

Slender, silvery drumsticks on an ancient drum
beat the mellow music bidding life to come.

Chords of life awakened, notes of greening spring,
rise and fall triumphant over everything.

Slender, silvery drumsticks beat the long tattoo —
God, the Great Musician, calling life anew.

Now to make the piece even vaguely palatable for singing (because I couldn’t get to the second verse – lord help me I just couldn’t make it with this tune), I went hunting for another 6.5.6.5 tune, and I found this one that seems to make this feel less frivolous.

But really, this just doesn’t work. I am not moved. I am not changed. If anything, I’m a little annoyed, and this is not how you want to do spiritual practice. Time to go back and sing something I love, like What Wondrous Love, if only to bring some balm to my soul on this cold morning.

Hey, look! We’ve entered the “Harvest and Thanksgiving” section of the hymnal. And we start right off with the usual Thanksgiving song.

C.J.: There’s a usual song?
DONNA: “We Gather Together.”
C.J.: The song.
DONNA: That’s the usual song.
C.J.: So you know it?
DONNA: Everybody knows it.
C.J.: I don’t know it.
DONNA: [sighs] Didn’t you go to elementary school?
C.J.: Yes, right before being a National Merit Scholar.

(Sorry, West Wing fans, I couldn’t find a clip. But it’s season 2, episode 8, “Shibboleth”, written (of course) by Aaron Sorkin).

So yes, there’s a song. And somewhere later in the hymnal, we sing the usual words to the usual song. But here, in the “Harvest and Thanksgiving” section, we sing this paean to humanity.

We sing now together our song of thanksgiving,
rejoicing in goods which the ages have wrought,
for life that enfolds us, and helps and heals and holds us,
and leads beyond the goals which our forebears once sought.

We sing of the freedoms which martyrs and heroes
have won by their labor, their sorrow, their pain;
the oppressed befriending, our ampler hopes defending,
their death becomes a triumph, they died not in vain.

We sing of the prophets, the teachers, the dreamers,
designers, creators, and workers, and seers;
our own lives expanding, our gratitude commanding,
their deeds have made immortal their days and their years.

We sing of community now in the making
in every far continent, region, and land;
with those of all races, all times and names and places,
we pledge ourselves in covenant firmly to stand.

It’s not bad. Overall, it’s a decent “yay, humans” piece, sweet in an approaching-but-not-quite-completely-mired-in-treacle sort of way.

However – and here comes the serious quibble:  What is hard is the ending of the second verse – I am not a fan of the idea that tragic deaths and assassinations are in any way a triumph. “They died not in vain” is a humanist’s way of saying “It is God’s will” and it constantly feels empty and angering. They died and they shouldn’t have is the only right answer. Maybe we get woke and stay woke because they died, but they still should not have died. Death is never a triumph and anyone who says that has a pretty twisted way of understanding life.

But I digress.

The question is this: on balance, would I use this hymn? Probably in the right setting, gritting my teeth through the end of verse two, made easier with a memory of the sweetest flentl in the entire series:

 

So….

(Chorus) Name unnamed, hidden and shown, knowing and known. Gloria!

Beautifully moving, ceaselessly forming,
growing, emerging with awesome delight,
Maker of Rainbows, glowing with color,
arching in wonder, energy flowing in darkness and light:

(Chorus)

Spinner of Chaos, pulling and twisting,
freeing the fibers of pattern and form,
Weaver of Stories, famed or unspoken,
tangled or broken shaping a tapestry vivid and warm:

(Chorus)

Nudging Discomfort, prodding and shaking,
waking our lives to creative unease,
Straight-talking Lover, checking and humbling
jargon and grumbling, speaking the truth that refreshes and frees:

(Chorus)

Midwife of Changes, skillfully guiding,
drawing us out through the shock of the new,
Woman of Wisdom, deeply perceiving,
never deceiving, freeing and leading in all that we do:

(Chorus)

Daredevil Gambler, risking and loving,
giving us freedom to shatter your dreams,
Lifegiving Loser, wounded and weeping,
dancing and leaping, sharing the caring that heals and redeems.

… after what became a three-day discussion about Bring Many Names, I know this kind of hymn was and still is important for those who need to re-imagine God.

And truthfully, even the lyrics here – for the most part – are pretty decent. I like the premise, that there are still many names for God that we don’t know and only discover through time and experience. And some of Wren’s names are pretty awesome – Daredevil Gambler, Spinner of Chaos, Weaver of Stories – I’m totally in. Not so much with Lifegiving Loser, although I understand where that comes from and why it’s there. And as some have pointed out, some of the names can be problematic.

Maybe my problem is less with lyrics in Wren’s hymns and more with tunes; as my colleague Thom Belote rightly noted, the tune for Bring Many Names is “pure treacle.” This tune feels awkward and unwieldy – again, maybe good for a soloist or choir, but clunky for a congregation. There’s no way I’d spring this on people on a Sunday morning without an incredible amount of preparation.

My other quibble is that Wren’s lyrics are seemingly endless – in an effort to broaden and expand, they go on…and on… and on. They seem like nothing more than a list. Nothing, really, happens in any sort of progression. It’s recitation (albeit poetic and different), with no movement.

And maybe that’s the real problem with a hymn like this. It’s hard to sing and we get bored. At least I did.

I’m gonna use some of these names for God, though.

Bring many names, beautiful and good;
celebrate in parable and story,
holiness in glory, living, loving God:
hail and hosanna, bring many names.

Strong mother God, working night and day,
planning all the wonders of creation,
setting each equation, genius at play:
hail and hosanna, strong mother God!

Warm father God, hugging ev’ry child,
feeling all the strains of human living,
caring and forgiving till we’re reconciled:
hail and hosanna, warm father God!

Old, aching God, grey with endless care,
calmly piercing evil’s new disguises,
glad of new surprises, wiser than despair:
hail and hosanna, old, aching God!

Young, growing God, eager still to know,
willing to be changed by what you’ve started,
quick to be delighted, singing as you go:
hail and hosanna, young, growing God!

Great, living God, never fully known,
joyful darkness far beyond our seeing,
closer yet than breathing, everlasting home:
hail and hosanna, great, living God!

In my opinion, this hymn needs to be retired.

To be honest, I groaned when I turned to the page and saw which hymn it was.

First, it is a fairly annoying tune to repeat seven times – and it’s hard to omit a verse because then you’re omitting an aspect of god. But ugh – it’s such an annoying tune I stopped after three and then just sang the last line to end on a resolved chord.

Second, it’s got some troubling stereotypes: “Strong mother God, working night and day.” Really? The father God is warm, “hugging ev’ry child” – Dad’s being loving and kissing the hurts away while Mom is toiling away at creation? Are you kidding me? No. Just no.

I’m not that thrilled with how the lyrics paint young and old, either, as though only the old ache and only the young learn?

There are admittedly a few lovely moments – the last verse is terrific – “joyful darkness far beyond our seeing” is a nice turn of phrase. But I am not going to praise an entire hymn because it stumbles into poetic once or twice.

And yes… I get why this might be important for some people coming in to this faith from others who painted a vengeful, controlling image of a strong male God. But there are so many other hymns that explore the ways Unitarian Universalists understand the Divine, without using stereotypes and an annoying, kill-me-now tune.

I don’t want to talk about aching Gods and overworked housewife Gods, I want to talk about a God that can’t be described in trite stereotypes but needs expansive and gorgeous language to give a hint of what God might be.

I want to talk about all that might be God even if we can’t or won’t name it as God because of all the damage that word has done.

I want to talk about what God means to how we live with and among one another.

I want to talk about how we live on this amazing planet in this amazing time of the creative humans and see what we can do together to be together, work together, love together because that is God.

I want to take hikes in the woods and sit on beaches and picnic by streams and gaze out at changing leaves and talk about the emanating from the rocks and lakes and trees and birds God.

I want to talk about inspiring, creative, love beyond all measure, bigger than us but seen constantly in us and among us, present whether we notice or not God.

I want to talk about God without needing to believe in God.

I want to see God in you, and I want to see God in me.

I don’t want to categorize God. I want to experience God.

 

The sun that shines across the sea, the wind that whispers in the tree,
the lark that carols in the sky, the fleecy clouds a-sailing by,
O, I’m as rich as rich can be, for all these things belong to me!

The raindrops which refresh the earth, the springtime mantle of rebirth,
the summer days when all things grow, the autumn mist and winter snow,
O, I’m as rich as rich can be, for all these things belong to me!

The task well done, the fun of play, the wise who guide me on my way,
the balm of sleep when each day ends, the joy of family and friends,
O, I’m as rich as rich can be, for all these things belong to me!

Part one, wherein I reflect on familiarity

And now we’re back to the unfamiliar hymns.

I am thinking about how we learn hymns, what makes one more familiar than another, why we gravitate toward some even when we are the hymn choosers ourselves. Sure, some of it is that we lean into our favorites – whether because of the lyric or the tune or the combination. Some become favorites because of a particular memory that we associate with it. But let’s not discount the fact that some of the hymns we know well are previous ministers’ favorites. And those a previous minister doesn’t like doesn’t get chosen for services, week after week.

And in the case of this hymn, that’s too bad. It’s a sweet little song, one I would happily introduce into a service on gratitude or transcendentalism or even a celebration of the seventh principle. It is sweet, and draws the circle of blessings wide. I’m not 100% sold on the melody yet, but it’s pretty; this is another case of wanting to hear the whole accompaniment to make a real judgment about the tune.

It may not have been on the list of my minister’s favorites, but it may wind up on mine.

 

Part two, where I reflect on this section of the hymnal

This section is called “The Celebration of Life” – it’s been full of opening songs, celebrating who we are, extoling our various and varied theologies, exploring our sense of humanity’s self in concert with the rest of the planet, being thankful for life itself and all it has to offer.

Outside of these morning singing reflections, life has been much less celebratory. Politicians are fighting about who we are, battling over various and varied ideologies, exploiting our humanity (and forgetting to talk about the rest of the planet), insulting and harming each other. It’s a cantankerous, rancorous, angry time – and the atmosphere both within and outside of politics is at times vile.

Is it any wonder these hymns sometimes seem too sweet, too saccharine, too fluffy?

And yet – certainly as I discovered yesterday with What Wondrous Love – even these kinds of songs reach deep, almost imperceptibly, into our hearts and minds and keeps us going. It’s terrible out there, but we are still alive, and maybe that alone is worth celebrating. Maybe, during each of these horrible and hard and traumatizing days, the few minutes spent with these hymns is not just helpful but necessary medicine to ease our collective existential pain.

In other words, perhaps it is not entirely by chance that I began singing, at the beginning, on my early October birthday. Perhaps this is exactly the long-term treatment I need. That we need.

August 7, 2017 Edit:  I added the Content Warning tag on this because it strikes me as maybe a bit privileged to sing about riches of family and friends in the third verse; that could be a problematic sentiment to some. Use with care.

 

Mother Spirit, Father Spirit, where are you?
In the sky song, in the forest, sounds your cry.
What to give you, what to call you, what am I?

Many drops are in the ocean, deep and wide.
Sunlight bounces off the ripples to the sky.
What to give you, what to call you, who am I?

I am empty, time flies from me; what is time?
Dreams eternal, fears infernal haunt my heart.
What to give you, what to call you, O, my God?

Mother Spirit, Father Spirit, take our hearts.
Take our breath and let our voices sing our parts.
Take our hands and let us work to shape our art.

This is one of our most haunting hymns – both melody and lyric work together to create an air of mystery, wondering, and mysticism. It is the plaintive call of the seeker, questioning all, finding solace in each other. It is a hymn uniquely suited for us – it is theism and humanism, nature and community, all rolled into one. I know that its author, Norbert Capek, did not live to see the fullness of the modern Unitarian Universalist movement (he was killed by Nazis in Dachau during WWII) – but his prescient lyric speaks deeply of those questions we wrestle with today.

I often imagine this should be a round – and then I realize we’d miss the lyrics if we sang it that way. But I hope others sing it; it is familiar to me and yet I find I don’t use it in my own services. Is it because of the binary language (mother/father)? Is it because of all the assumptions that there is a god? Is it, despite the landing on our hands and hearts, too theistic? As a minister, I both want to challenge our assumptions and give space for our particularities. Does this go too far? Not far enough? Many questions to ponder.

All I can ultimately say is that for me, this hymn speaks deeply to the questions I wrestle with all the time: ‘what to give you, what to call you, who am I?”

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.

Just as long as vision lasts, I must answer, “Yes,” to truth;
in my dream and in my dark, always that elusive spark.
If they ask what I did well, tell them I said, “Yes,” to truth.

Just as long as my heart beats, I must answer, “Yes,” to love;
disappointment pierced me through, still I kept on loving you.
If they ask what I did best, tell them I said, “Yes,” to love.

It is a bit of a relief to turn to a hymn I know well, whose lyrics are very familiar.

Which also makes this day an interesting challenge, because it would be easy to sing through without paying attention. If yesterday’s hymn was like learning the steps of a complex dance, today’s is a dance I know so well I have forgotten its actual form.

And so I sang it a second time, paying attention to the lyric – and I noticed something difficult and uncomfortable in the third stanza: “disappointment pierced me through, still I kept on loving you.” Now on one hand, this is the beauty of our covenant and of unconditional love – despite the hard times, disappointments, struggles, love still abides.

But the political atmosphere right now – with sexual assault being headline news and many women struggling with the doubts and traumas of their own assaults (physical and emotional) – this line screams out to me. I think of the women who believed their partner’s abuse was somehow their fault. The women who lean on “but I still love him” as reason enough to stay. The women who are told they are a disappointment and it’s only because no one else will love them that he stays.

And then I think of the same kinds of manipulations that can happen in our congregations: Those who excuse bad behavior, because “well, he is a longtime member.’ Those who threaten to take their pledge and their membership if a vote doesn’t go their way. Those who believe the bad behavior was because of something the congregation did/didn’t do.

We are struggling, in this time and place, in our homes, communities, and in the nation, with a callousness that demands love despite disappointment, that blames rather than takes responsibility, that gives too long a rope to bad behavior and is unpracticed in the art of calling in and recommitting to covenant.

I don’t know what the answer is. I don’t know what kind of radical, global epiphany we have to have in order to wake up and stay woke. I don’t know what kind of personality characteristic we need to collectively unearth to stand up to that which we know in our guts is wrong, abusive, or harmful. I’d like to think that we’re practicing it in our congregations – churches, synagogues, fellowships, mosques, and circles should be the places where we build these muscles and gain a little bit of courage. But the harm has permeated our walls too – and so what should be safe havens, practice spaces, and soul gyms, become just as harmful, hurtful, and distressing.

“Disappointment pieced me through” – and then I named the problem, I called you back in, we talked about the harm, we developed a plan for reconciliation, we kept each other accountable – and then, “I kept on loving you.”

Let’s not mistake “love” for permission. And let’s stop using “love” as permission. Let’s make sure “love” means calling for, expecting, and giving, the very best of ourselves.


Words by Alicia Carpenter
Music by Johann Ebeling