The first time I remember knowing who Peter, Paul, and Mary were, I was about 8 and was watching my brother and his first wife singing the song “Lemon Tree.” Karen had long chestnut brown hair and a rich alto voice, and while I often associated her with another alto brunette named Karen – Karen Carpenter – my sister-in-law had the Mary Travers sound down too, and the song sounded great to my young ears.

Peter, Paul, and Mary – along with so many other folksingers – became part of the rich tapestry of music that filled my childhood, and they are in part why I pick up on harmonies so easily and tend to blend my voice well with whoever I am singing with. But it wasn’t until adulthood, really, that I learned about the political meaning behind their (and so many other folksingers’) lyrics.

I wonder in part if that’s because I liked so much music I didn’t pay attention to it, or if my growing up the child of Rockefeller Republicans kept me from that analysis, or – as I realized in my undergraduate course on Vietnam – the issues were so current and so present there wasn’t language or resources to teach it. I remember sitting in that college class in my early 30s with the professor doing the first-session litany of “of course you know” facts; and while the students 12-15 years younger nodded at basic information, those my age sat with puzzled looks. We recalled to the class that history went up to the Korean War and we talked about current events only after Watergate – thus shining a light into a significant gap in our knowledge.

And it was only in that class that I really came to study and understand the anti-war, civil-rights, social justice meanings of so many songs from the folksingers I had loved throughout childhood.

Which brings me to today’s hymn – written by Peter Yarrow. Sure, it’s a Hanukkah song… sort of. But wow, is it really an anti-war, pro-civil-rights song.

(A quick musical note here – please, for all that is holy, please use guitars when singing this! It just clunks along on piano, and it needs the sense of urgency and freedom that guitars provide. )

Light one candle for the Maccabee children with thanks that their light didn’t die.
Light one candle for the pain they endured when their right to exist was denied.
Light one candle for the terrible sacrifice justice and freedom demand.
But light one candle for the wisdom to know when the peacemaker’s time is at hand.

(Chorus)
Don’t let the light go out, it’s lasted for so many years.
Don’t let the light go out, let it shine through our love and our tears.

Light one candle for the strength that we need to never become our own foe.
Light one candle for those who are suff’ring the pain we learned so long ago.
Light one candle for all we believe in, that anger won’t tear us apart.
And light one candle to bring us together with peace as the song in our heart.

(Chorus)

What is the mem’ry that’s valued so highly we keep it alive in that flame?
What’s the commitment to those who have died when we cry out they’ve not died in vain?
Have we come this far always believing that justice would somehow prevail?
This is the burden and this is the promise and this is why we will not fail.

(Chorus)

What’s amazing to me, reading this the day after FBI Director James Comey was summarily and indelicately fired, just how resonant these lyrics are to Literally Today. “Light one candle for the strength that we need to never become our own foe.” Holy cow. “Have we come this far always believing that justice would somehow prevail? This is the burden and this is the promise and this is why we will not fail” – not “must not”, by the way – “WILL NOT”.

Wow do we need this song today.

Don’t let the light go out.

 

I’m feeling at a bit of a loss this morning.

On one hand, this is an important code song from the Underground Railroad, a warning to follow the river and keep an eye out for the friendly folk.  As Walter Rhett at Black History 360 writes, “People think the song is about Moses and Exodus, but the troubled waters the spiritual refers to are in a New Testament verse. The conventional wisdom of history contends the song sent a signal to runaway slaves: Use the river so the hounds can’t trace you. Tonight is the moment for flight; move swiftly; the reaction will be fierce.”

That new testament verse is John 5:4 – “For an angel went down at a certain season into the pool, and troubled the water: whosoever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had.”

So there’s that.

On the other hand, I am simultaneously preparing my remarks for the Teach In on White Supremacy, and I am keenly aware of how damaging misappropriation can be, and how much I wish more notes could have been included in the printed hymnal rather than as a extra book.

And… in the middle of those hands is my experience singing, which was full and rich and deep as I thought of all the people for whom this song might have been a lifeline.

(Chorus)
Wade in the water,
wade in the water, children,
wade in the water,
God’s gonna trouble the water.

See that band all dressed in white.
God’s gonna trouble the water.
The leader looks like an Israelite.
God’s gonna trouble the water.

(Chorus)

See that band all dressed in red.
God’s gonna trouble the water.
It looks like the band that Moses led.
God’s gonna trouble the water.

(Chorus)

I’m uncomfortable right now, and I should be. I know that my English and Dutch ancestors settled in New England and New York in the 1600s, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t complicit in the spread of slavery. And still I want to honor ancestors that weren’t mine, ancestors of my friends who are descended from the enslaved Africans, because they did survive, and their descendants live today, fighting for what should always have been theirs – freedom.

Happy Two Hundredth Hymn-by-Hymn Post Day!

Only 290 more to go. Gulp.

That seems daunting, but then, holy cow, how are we 200 in already? Time does fly, friends, even through hard, dark days. Thanks to my regular, rather frequent, and occasional readers. And if you’re just discovering this today, welcome to my daily spiritual practice, which might become something more if the stars align properly.

And while I am still talking about things that aren’t actually today’s hymn, I am conjuring up an idea for a Hymn by Hymn event at General Assembly…stay tuned.

Now, on to the hymn – and it’s a doozy!

I can’t say I wasn’t a little excited about today’s hymn. While there are things about Martin Luther’s theology and personal beliefs I’m not keen on (that anti-Semitic thing was just awful, y’all), I do have a bit of affection for the guy. I mean, here’s someone who stood up and said to his superiors “Eine Minute, bitte…. there’s something wrong with how we’re doing things.” Which made the establishment mad. Which made Luther say “well, I’m so right I’m gonna do my own thing,” which, by the way, includes translating the Bible into his mother tongue and essentially creating Modern German, along with putting the scriptures in the hand of every day people.

And yeah, sure, some of them did strange things with it when they got their hands on it, and because of this, our guy Michael Servetus butts heads with John Calvin, who winds up burning Servetus at the stake (and yeah, Servetus was warned not to come back at Calvin, but ….Calvin did dare him, so…). And yes, the Bible in the hands of everyday people meant that some radicals who wanted a stricter interpretation than the newly formed Church of England would allow decided they couldn’t live there, so they left from Plymouth, and landed in…Plymouth, and yeah, they thought they’d discovered a new world and in their arrogance took over inhabited lands because, I don’t know, by then western Europeans were already chock full of white privilege and what else would they do. And yes, our guys – two separate groups of guys – got their hands on the Bible too and said “yeah, not so much with this three-god thing” and ‘really, a loving God would punish you? Not buying it” and the Unitarians and Universalists were born, and now five hundred years after our buddy Martin decided to air his grievances (the first Festivus?), we have modern Unitarian Universalism.

Phew.

So all that by way of saying, I’m kinda hip to Luther. If not for him, who knows what we’d be or where we’d be.

And this, likely his most famous hymn (because he wrote hymns along with massive volumes of books and that Bible translation), appears in our hymnal. For me, it’s a connection to our UU pre-history.

And it’s a pretty cool tune – an old drinking song that can swing, or be as stalwart as the lyrics. (Which aren’t half bad for those times you need a good muscular, strong divinity.)

A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing;
our helper sure amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing.
For still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe;
with craft and power great; and, armed with cruel hate,
on earth is not an equal.

God’s word above all earthly powers, no thanks to them, abideth;
the spirit and the gifts are ours, through God who with us sideth.
Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also;
the body they may kill, God’s truth abideth still;
whose kingdom is forever.

So happy 200th post and happy Reformation.

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.

What is it?

What is it that sounds along the ages, that breathes from Buddha’s tree, that speaks new truth, that resounds from the eternal chime?

Is it truth? Justice? Love? Spirit? Is it, as I first thought, Yes?

Is it, in fact whatever it is we seek from the wisdom of humanity?

What is it?

It sounds along the ages, soul answering to soul;
it kindles on the pages of every Bible scroll;
the psalmist heard and sang it, from martyr lips it broke,
and prophet tongues outrang it till sleeping nations woke.

From Sinai’s cliffs it echoed, it breathed from Buddha’s tree,
it charmed in Athens’ market, it hallowed Galilee;
the hammer stroke of Luther, the Pilgrims’ seaside prayer,
the oracles of Concord one holy word declare.

It calls — and lo, new justice! It speaks — and lo, new truth!
In ever nobler stature and unexhausted youth.
Forever on resounding, and knowing nought of time,
our laws but catch the music of its eternal chime.

We actually do have an answer… sort of. According to Jacqui James in Between the Lines, William Gannett’s original four verses were called “The Word of God.” (Lots of reframing/additions/shifts since its original publication in 1911.)

The word of God.

Okay. But what IS the word of God? Is it truth? Justice? Love? Spirit? Yes?

Ultimately, this is a lively and pretty cool hymn, one I can see using a number of ways, including in the wrap up service on our Conversations with World Religions that the church I serve has been engaged in since September. And what I like is that whatever you think the word of God might be, it’s in there.

So for me, I will say that It is Yes – because from all the things I’ve read in holy books and have experienced as a person of faith and a practical theologian, it seems to me everything comes down to saying Yes.

Yes to risk.

Yes to justice.

Yes to the vision of beloved community.

Yes to the all of our stories.

Yes to the opportunities to grow and learn.

Yes to love.

Yes to possibility.

Yes.

 

 

I suspect most of us have flipped past this a thousand times. I suspect the combination of Hindi language, no translation, and fear of the unfamiliar keeps us away.

And it’s too bad. Because not only is this a beautiful lyric, but it’s a beautiful and catchy melody. Take a listen:

Isn’t that great? It’s got such life and spirit.

I did struggle to find a translation until I realized that Jacqui James provided one in Between the Lines:

Chorus:
Please bestow upon us O Supreme Soul, the gift of devotion
please bestow upon our souls [the gift of] purity.

Come in our meditation, O God, reside in our eyes.
Come into our dark hearts, arouse the Supreme Light.

Flow the river [Ganges] of love in the hearts, O Ocean of Love,
Teach us, O God, to live together in harmony.

Let service be our creed, let service be our action,
Make us earnest servers whose service is ever honest.

That is amazing.

Sure, it uses the spiritual imagery of Hinduism, and some of those ideas are harder for UUs to wrap their minds around than others (we’re great with service being our creed but struggle with devotion and purity). But that’s okay. I think it’s a blessing for us to challenge our notions of religious concepts when engaging a conversation with other religions. Learning the language of reverence from other faiths helps us better understand our own.

Plus, yanno, “let service be our creed” is a place where we can connect.

Here are the Hindu lyrics:

(Chorus)
Daya kar daanot bhakti ka, hame paramatma dena,
Daya karna hanari aatma me shuddh ta dena.

Hanare dhya n me aao, prabhu aan khon me bas jao,
andhere dil me aa kar ke, pa ram jyoti jaga dena.

(Chorus)

Bahade prem ki ganga, dilo me prem ka sa gar,
hame aapas me miljulkar, prabhu rehna sikha dena.

(Chorus)

Hamara dharm ho seva. Hamara karm ho seva,
sada eeman ho seva va sevak char bana dena.

(Chorus)

I recommend you give it a listen and try to sing along. It’s catchy and beautiful, and I can’t think of a better prayer to start my day with today.

The photo was taken at a Holi festival – a spring festival of color, renewal, life, and a bit of wild spirit.

The downside of this spiritual practice is that it demands attention even on days when attention is hard to give. And more often than not, it is demanding the exact kind of attention I want to hide from on that particular day.

This song, written by Holly Near in the wake of the Harvey Milk assassination, is a call to action. It demands that we make sure everyone knows who we are and how many we are, we who will not be moved, we who are scared, and angry, and loving, and resisting.

We are a gentle, angry people,
and we are singing, singing for our lives.
We are a gentle, angry people,
and we are singing, singing for our lives.

We are a justice-seeking people…

We are young and old together…

We are a land of many colors…

We are gay and straight together….

We are a gentle, loving people…

The truth is, I’m nearly paralyzed by fear right now – it’s all coming on so many fronts, this insanity. And I am really worried that there are so many things happening we’ll miss the big one – and they’re all big ones. And worse, it seems like there is no one to hold them accountable, because they’ve stacked the decks. I know there are simple things I can do, and I know that just by refusing to accept this as normal, contacting elected officials, preaching justice, supporting boots on the ground – I know those things matter. But this is big, all that is rolling down the hill at us in speeds heretofore unmeasured. And that’s got me scared and not sleeping and a little afraid to take my eyes off the ball and even more afraid to look at the ball.

So…yeah. Holly Near’s song wants me to stop being paralyzed and get back in the game. I’m not ready. But I suppose none of us ever truly are when it matters like this.

Sigh.

Okay.

Still scared, but …okay. What’s next?

UPDATE November 5, 2017: In a concert at the Eighth Step @ Proctors in Schnectady, NY, last night, Holly Near performed, and toward the end of the show led us in this song. We sang the first couple of verses, and then she began to speak (her words transcribed to the best of my ability – I was typing on my phone as quickly as I could once I realized what was happening):

“I wrote this song when Harvey Milk and George Moscone were assassinated. We originally sang ‘we are gay and lesbian together’ but then we were surrounded by the support of allies and so I changed it to ‘we are gay and straight together.’ And now we are learning more and more about gender and sexuality and it now requires many more syllables than I can fit into the song, and so let us now sing ‘we are all in this together.”

In that 30 second riff, she updated her lyrics to expand the circle of love that this song holds.

Thank you, Holly.

Photo is at an unnamed rally, with Holly Near and emma’s revolution, and other singers I’m not familiar with…

 

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…

Today we get to the first of several pieces by Jim Scott, a prolific UU songwriter and performer. It’s interesting to me that while some of his songs are full on hymns (Gather the Spirit, The Oneness of Everything, etc.) we also get some short pieces that are the choruses of longer songs. That’s the case here, the joyful chorus of a longer song.

Now Between the Lines will only tell you that he is a singer songwriter who was part of the Paul Winter Consort. But in this interview with Northern Spirit Radio, Jim tells a longer story about this song, inspired by the people who walked for six months on the Great Peace March for Global Nuclear Disarmament in 1986; having played concerts along the way, he felt inspired to join them in Baltimore, and then inspired to write this song, hearing the snippets of other music they were singing and knowing they needed a good 4/4 marching song for peace.

Nothing but peace is enough for me.
Nothing but peace is enough,
nothing but peace is enough!
Nothing but peace is enough for me.

Now I must admit, while I know Jim’s other songs in our hymnals, I didn’t know this one until this morning, and I really was baffled in a way by its notation in the hymnal. I’m not sure why…. but I couldn’t get the hang of it until I listened to it in that interview. Then it all made sense. So I recommend that whoever leads it should know it and have the hang of it – it’ll make it easier for the rest of the congregation.

Oh…and the sentiment. Nothing but peace is enough. I’m not sure it’s all I want it to be, and I could spend a few thousand words unpacking what that all means, but it’s a pretty good, simple sentiment for those seeking an end to wars and conflicts. So I won’t quibble, I won’t unpack, I’ll let it be.

And then I’ll go listen to the rest of the interview, because Jim has some great music and great stories to tell.

Photo from this flickr album by Dan Coogan of the Great Peace March. It is ABSOLUTELY worth looking through.

Ear worm in three.. two… one….

As an American growing up in the 1970s, I learned this in elementary school, and I associated it with Vietnam War protests. This might even have been the first African American spiritual I learned, and I didn’t even know at the time it was one. In fact, I don’t know if I knew until well into adulthood, because to me it was a protest folk song, and in my mind, I hear Pete Seeger and Peter, Paul, & Mary.

What I know is that is history is long, and it wasn’t always just an anti-war song, but rather a song about baptism and freedom – going to glory and from slavery, and to a place where fighting (literally and metaphorically) ceases – “gonna study war no more” is likely a reference to this passage in Isaiah (2:4):

“He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.

How the whole song came to be, and how it was used, and its journey to our current view of it…. well, like many songs handed down in oral tradition, the path and the ‘real story’ is murky and may never really be known. What we do know is its powerful imagery was inspired by the plight of those who had gone before, and continues to inspire those who go on.

Gonna lay down my sword and shield,
down by the riverside,
down by the riverside,
down by the riverside.
Gonna lay down my sword and shield,
down by the riverside,
gonna study war no more.

(Chorus)
I ain’t gonna study war no more,
I ain’t gonna study war no more,
ain’t gonna study war no more. (2x)

Gonna lay down my burden
down by the riverside …

(Chorus)

Gonna shake hands around the world,
ev’rywhere I roam …

(Chorus)

May it be so for all of us.

—-

Yep, that picture is of the River Jordan.