So… yesterday I kinda made fun of the whole “time cliché” thing. And this morning I realized we’re in the Here and Now section, so of COURSE we are singing songs about time and being present. I don’t regret yesterday’s post – it did feel a little cliché to me.

This one feels less so, because, I suppose, it isn’t advice, really, but rather describing a moment of decision and determination. This stuff is hard, but if I’m going to thrive, I must keep going. It reminds me a little of my mother, who, after my father died, decided to sell our large farmhouse in the country and move to a condo on the Outer Banks. She wanted to thrive, not just survive. And while she’d made a home there, and her grandchildren were nearby, she needed to do what was necessary to grieve and find life again.

A long, long way the sea-winds blow across the sea-plains blue,
but longer far my heart must go before its dreams come true.

And work we must, and love we must, and do the best we may,
and take the hope of dreams in trust to keep us day by day.

A long, long way the sea-winds blow — but somewhere lies a shore —
thus down the tide of time shall flow my dreams forever more.

This is set to a Southern Harmony tune called Liverpool; I’m having a hard time finding this one and not another tune by the same name, but because it’s Southern Harmony, it’s fairly simple and rich.

I realize as I am trying to conclude this that there are tears streaming down my face again; these hymns lately are reminding me of my parents, a heady mix of mourning and celebration. And add in a dose of joy, as we celebrated the marriage of my dear friends Lindsey and AJ Turner yesterday. So… emotions are running deep. I’m glad to have this practice to give me space to feel and think.

The image is of the Elizabeth II, a small ship that is moored in the bay across from where my mother’s condo was in Manteo, North Carolina.


I’ll be honest. I don’t know what to think here. I’ve been staring at this screen for a solid five minutes wondering what to say.

It’s not that it’s a bad piece. It is sweet – first, it’s set to a lovely Missouri Harmony tune (Devotion), which we first sang back in early January.

And it’s Wordsworth, one of my favorite English poets, lyrics excerpted from his poem “The Solitary Reaper.”

So the pieces aren’t bad. And they even go well together, despite the one verse of ABAB rhyme in a AABB song:

Alone she cuts and binds the grain,
and sings a melancholy strain:
O listen! for the vale profound
is overflowing with the sound.

Will no one tell me what she sings?
Perhaps the plaintive numbers flow
for old, unhappy far-off things,
and for the battles long ago.

Or is it some more humble lay,
familiar matter of today?
Some natural sorrow, loss, or pain,
that once has been, may be again?

I listened, motionless and still,
and, as I mounted up the hill,
the music in my heart I bore
long after it was heard no more.

I think the reason I have nothing to say, really, is that I don’t have a clue as to what theological or spiritual purpose this might have. In other words, why is it in a hymnal, and not just a songbook? Like, I get why we have some more complex or troubling songs in the hymnal – it’s songs of our living tradition. But this seems, well, like a really lovely song you might hear at a coffeehouse or folksy open mic or a shape note sing-along.

I don’t know what to say. I hope others can tease out meaning where I cannot.

What I can do is share one of my favorite paintings in the permanent collection of the North Carolina Museum of Art, “Christina’s World” by Andrew Wyeth. To be honest, it’s the image I have in my head every time I see this poem or this song.

One of the downsides of so many hymn tunes is that groups of them begin to sound alike. For instance, there’s a whole set of them in the O Waly Waly/Gift of Love milieu that I constantly confuse for one another.

And now there is another set of them – including this English tune, called Kingsfold, set by Ralph Vaughan Williams. I started singing it and was sure I knew what it was and where it was going, until I realized there were differences in what I thought I knew. Google told me, surprisingly, that Kingsford is NOT the tune to Canticle of the Turning – that one’s called Star of the County Down, an Irish tune set by Rory Cooney.

So are they originally different? Or are they both based on a tune that ran around the British Isles, and we have two different interpretations? They’re both great, but both different.

What I do know is that whichever of the two you wind up singing to yourself, the lyrics (by Alicia Carpenter) are fitting – the tune is joyful yet melancholy, as are these words:

Where my free spirit onward leads, well, there shall be my way;
by my own light illumined I’ve journeyed night and day;
my age, a time-worn cloak I wear as once I wore my youth;
I celebrate life’s mystery; I celebrate death’s truth.

My family is not confined to mother, mate, and child;
but it includes all creatures be they tame or be they wild;
my family upon this earth includes all living things
on land, or in the ocean deep, or borne aloft on wings.

The ever spinning universe, well, there shall be my home;
I sing and spin within it as through this life I roam;
eternity is hard to ken and harder still is this:
a human life when truly seen is briefer than a kiss.

I hadn’t ever really sung this one before, to be fair, but I like it. I would use this for a memorial service, I think, in its loving picture of a life well lived. And I’d use it for services on community.

I wish I had more insights today – I’m about to get in a car and drive to Murray Grove and the Goldmine Youth Leadership School, where I will be working  with youth on worship (surprise, surprise). Thus – programming note – the week’s posts may not come out in the mornings, but that’s my hope.

Oh my goodness. I forgot this was in our hymnal.

So… it’s a familiar song, one that has been recorded by such notable singers as Paul Robeson, Louis Armstrong, Sam Cooke, and Mahalia Jackson. It’s appeared in countless movies. For some reason, it appeals to many across racial lines, perhaps because everyone at some time or another can relate, at least to the chorus.

It is a song of pain, of lament. A song borne of the struggles in the fields, on the plantations. And it is a song of aspiration and promise. You see, this is one of those songs that, if we had the real – not the UU-ified – third verse, we’d understand that this was a song not of first world problems but of the terrors of slavery and the belief that one could escape. Here’s what we have:

Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen,
nobody knows my sorrow.
Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen,
glory, hallelujah!

Sometimes I’m up, sometimes I’m down, oh, yes, Lord!
Sometimes I’m almost to the ground, oh, yes, Lord! (Chorus)

Although you see me going ‘long so, oh, yes, Lord!
I have my troubles here below, oh, yes, Lord! (Chorus)

One day when I was walking ‘long, oh, yes, Lord!
The heavens broke and love came down, oh, yes, Lord! (Chorus)

But the actual third verse is this:

 If you get there before I do, Oh, yes, Lord
Tell all-a my friends I’m coming too, Oh, yes, Lord

This isn’t about heaven – although I suspect many of the field masters assumed so, particularly with that tantalizing “glory halleluiah” at the end of the chorus. This is about going north to freedom.  Now it may not carry as much actual code as some other spirituals – some, like “Follow the Drinking Gourd” and “Wade in the Water” make surprisingly direct references to where to go and what to look for if you escape and want to catch the Underground Railroad. But this is one of the “yes, I’m in” songs.

Which changes things. This isn’t about modern problems and hoping to hear the voice of the Divine. This is about lament and freedom. And in that context, it is heartwrenching and hopeful. But not because it speaks to my problems, but because it speaks to the problems of the enslaved in the 19th century…and to those in the 21st still seeking freedom.