Today, gentle readers, I offer you A Tale of Two Liturgical Moments. Because indeed, as our man Charles Dickens wrote, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

The best of times was when I learned an arrangement of this African American spiritual in my seminary gospel choir; the harmonies were rich, and a tag was added to give it musical interest. We sang this in a chapel service, accompanied by the Psalm from which it is inspired, and a homily from one of our African American students.

Now Psalm 119 is a very long lament to God for mercy. As our writer is seeking protection, so too are they trying to convince God that they are keeping true to the laws and commandments, to show they are worthy of God’s presence through the hardships. So it’s no wonder the enslaved Africans might have heard this psalm and these lines and wanted to ask for the same thing.

The homily talked about hardship in the face of racism, and the prayer that is Guide My Feet was directly connected to the work different groups of people have to do – people of color, to be sustained and keep resisting; whites to do the hard work of dismantling white supremacy from within. It was a powerful moment for me, and it forever changed how I understand this song.

Guide my feet while I run this race.
Guide my feet while I run this race.
Guide my feet while I run this race,
for I don’t want to run this race in vain! (race in vain!)

Hold my hand while I run this race.
Hold my hand while I run this race.
Hold my hand while I run this race,
for I don’t want to run this race in vain! (race in vain!)

Stand by me while I run this race.
Stand by me while I run this race.
Stand by me while I run this race,
for I don’t want to run this race in vain! (race in vain!)

Now the worst of times was recently, as SUUSI, when our morning minister offered a service that was part travelogue, part Odyssey (a review of a minister’s career and lessons learned), and all offensive. Everything that happened in the service used the word “walk” exclusively; first of all, it was a huge problem to use only walking as the means for following a path (our theme was “blessed is the path”) – but more, our intrepid speaker (an older white man) changed the words of an opening reading to include only “we walk this path together” and then had the nerve to change lyrics to songs from other traditions. His homily screamed “walk” to the seemingly intentional exclusion of any other word. By the time he got to the closing, he had chosen to change even THIS song to “guide my feet, while I walk this path.”

That was the moment I could take it no longer and walked out, fuming. Fuming for the excessive ableism, fuming for the lack of context on the songs from other cultures, and fuming for the incredible gall of the man to change these lyrics.

So the moral of the story is this, my friends: use songs like this with extreme care. Be really clear you know how to address the abelist language of “run this race.” Be clear that you can use other verses (especially those we don’t include in our hymnal but exist elsewhere), but be very careful to not change verses if it isn’t your song to change. And definitely offer context and explanation, and don’t use this as a joyful song. It’s a song of pleading and lament and a call for God’s guidance.

And in case you wonder if any of that’s true, I’ll leave you with Bernice Johnson Reagon’s version:

But really. Be careful.

Remember back when the news was bad and I was singing happy cheerful hope-filled hymns?  It was hard; I struggled to get past my own fears and anger and see the message those songs at those times held for me.

Well, what goes around comes around, I suppose.

Yesterday, I spent the day in Boston with a dear friend, Elizabeth Assenza, who was seeing the Ministerial Fellowship Committee. I got to be her chaplain; she didn’t need a quiet, contemplative experience – she needed me to “extrovert at her” so we gabbed excitedly and told stories in the lead up to her appointment. We also got to meet the legendary Denny Davidoff and spend time talking with Danielle DiBona and others in the room. And yes, Elizabeth is now in preliminary fellowship (yay!). We had a delicious meal in Chinatown, and then went to Kings Chapel, where a shared ancestor – John Winthrop – is buried.

It was a terrific day, made a breath or two easier knowing the ACA repeal vote was not brought to the floor, knowing that at least for a moment, the hard work of justice and the holy work of ministry won the day.

So here I am, having had a good, joyful day, and I wake up to sing this.

O earth, you are surpassing fair, from out your store we’re daily fed,
we breathe your life-supporting air and drink the water that you shed.
Yet greed has made us mar your face, pollute the air, make foul the sea:
the folly of the human race is bringing untold misery.

Our growing numbers make demands that e’en your bounty cannot meet;
starvation stalks through hungry lands and some die hourly in the street.
The Eden-dream of long ago is vanishing before our eyes;
unwise, unheeding, still we go, destroying hopes of paradise.

Has evolution been in vain that life should perish ere its prime?
Or will we from our greed refrain and save our planet while there’s time?
We must decide without delay if we’re to keep our race alive:
the choice is ours, and we must say if we’re to perish or survive.

Our lyricist, John Andrew Storey, is not wrong. And set to Welsh composer Joseph Parry’s tune Merthyr Tyfdil, with its somber, minor tones and lamenting rhythms, it’s well done and much needed. Unlike yesterday’s, that felt difficult as a congregational song (and really, cankerworms?), this has the right combination of melody and lyric to be well sung and thoughtfully internalized.

But wow did this harsh my mood.

This is our happy, light Hymn.


A short post today, as I am traveling and typing this on my phone.

I will say that the tune was deceptively harder than I expected – the intervals didn’t flow gracefully for me, and were at times discordant.

Maybe that’s the point.

This lyric is clearly not meant to cheer but to make the point that if we don’t do our duty as stewards of the earth, we’re failing. Yet it feels manipulative – and I am not sure that given this is an unfamiliar tune that congregants singing it would pay attention – until they got to the word “cankerworm” – I’m sure that stops everyone in their tracks.

In the branches of the forest, in the petals of the marigold,
on the shoulder of the mountain, in the vastness of the sea,
you will find a brooding sadness over all the ancient watershed.
You will see it written plainly on the wind and in the sand.

There’s a blight upon the mountain, there’s a sickness in the evening sky,
and we ask the age-old question: can we purge us of this sin?
Can we save the little nestling from the venom of the cankerworm?
Can we clear the look of anguish from the soft eyes of the doe?

In the thunder new commandments sound a warning through the wilderness,
let the forest be untainted, let the streams be undefiled,
let the waters of the river as they flow down to the ocean
be as sweet as in the old days when the mountain stood alone.

The song is not wrong.  And in the right hands, it certainly makes a good point. I also think it is just a helluva thing to turn to after the energetic strength of yesterday’s South African call for justice.

So… there it is.