Of the many metaphors we use for the Divine, I think Singer of Life is my favorite.

This metaphor taps into something we know about the earth, that it has its own vibrational hum…and when you add all of the living things that have their own hums (and voices and chirps and growls and sighs), not to mention all of the machines humans have built that have their own hums (and chugs and whistles and crunches and rumbles), well, the earth is a noisy place that responds to sound.

And – if quantum mechanics are right and it’s the waves and motion, not the matter, that is the stuff of the universe, then of course we need a Singer to bring us into resonance with ourselves, each other, and the divine.

This lyric, from a poem written in Nahuatl, from the Texcoco region of Mexico, elegantly captures this idea, reminding us to look to the earth to see ourselves.

Singer of Life, all flowers are songs, with petals do you write.
Singer of Life, you color the earth, dazzling the eye with birds red and bright.
Joy is for us! The flowers are spread! Singing is our delight!

Mortal are we, with all living things, with eagles in the sky.
Even all gold and jade will not last; singing alone, I know, cannot die.
Here in this house of springtime bestow songs that like birds can fly.

It is set to a tune from the Dakota tribe, which is haunting and intriguing and offers a level of mystery the text only hints at. It’s got a few intervals Western singers might find unusual, and again, it’s one I would introduce slowly to a congregation.

However, I find the metaphor and the connection to the interdependent web rather appealing, inspiring, and yea, even comforting today.

Singer of life – joy is for us!

Amen.

I had the opportunity to sing this once, as a solo, to commemorate Hiroshima Day. While set on a pentatonic scale, it is in what musicologists call Phrygian Dominant Minor Mode – which is another term for “very unfamiliar but striking intervals that are at once difficult and haunting.” It was not easy for me to learn, but I have never forgotten it.

The song is, at its heart, a simple and very popular Japanese folk song from the Edo period (17th century). It’s so popular that it’s used by the Japanese at international events, and it’s well known in Japan that it’s used in some electronic crosswalks as ‘guidance music.’

And the original translation is simply a celebration of spring. YAY SPRING!

 Sakura, sakura,
yayoi no sorawa.
Miwatasu kagiri.
Kasumika kumo ka.
Nioi zo izuru.
Izaya, izaya,
mini yukan.

You see that sentiment in the English text by Edwin Markham:

Cherry blooms, cherry blooms,
cherry blooms are ev’rywhere,
like a cloud from out the sky!
Mists of blossoms fill the air,
cherries, cherries blossoming!
Come and see, come and see;
let all now see and sing.

Cherry blooms, cherry blooms,
all the world their beauty sees!
Yoshino is cherry land;
tatsuta for maple trees;
karasaki for the pine.
Let us go, let us go —
where pine trees greenly shine.

Yay spring!

And then sometime after World War II, to mark the anniversary of the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima, William Wolff wrote these alternative lyrics:

Cherry blooms, cherry blooms,
pink profusion everywhere,
like a mist of gossamer rain
cherry blossoms fill the air,
covering Hiroshima’s plain.
Come and see, spring is here,
it will not long remain.

Cherry blooms, cherry blooms,
when we die as we surely must,
why not under yonder tree?
And when we return to dust,
falling flowers our wreaths will be.
Come and see, come and see,
the fine Hiroshima tree.

Wow.

So… at Easter, I am preaching a sermon called Earth Teach Us Resurrection – with a nod to Linda Hoddy, whose sermon of the same name a decade ago has remained with me. The central metaphor of both sermons is the surprising and almost defiant return of life on Mt. St. Helens, which leads to a consideration of the Easter story with its surprising and almost defiant return of Jesus, and what such surprising and almost defiant returns to life can mean for us today.

And when I read these Hiroshima lyrics, I am struck by the same spirit. The unthinkable set out to destroy life, yet we witness the surprising and almost defiant return to life of the Japanese people – much like their cherry blooms… and it is that life that honors the dead in wreaths and falling flowers.

Yes, I might have written part of my sermon just now – at least some bones of it. In this time of rebirth and regrowth, we need every example we can find of surprising and almost defiant returns to life, so we can learn and accomplish our own.

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.

I remember in the mid 2000s, Rev. Linda Hoddy, who was my home congregation’s minister, asked me to learn this as a solo. I remember at the time thinking how wonky the rhythms were and marveling that such an odd piece of music would be in the hymnal at all. Linda agreed that this was not something she could ask the congregation to sing, but it was the perfect piece for a service. And so I dived in. It took some practice before I could sing it gracefully, as its rhythm and word placement is unusual, and it was frustrating enough that my copy is covered with pencil marks where I worked on the phrasing and counting out the beats.

Relearning the piece a decade later, I felt that rush of frustration as I looked at the pencil-covered page (the advantage of owning your own hymnal). But in the relearning, I took it phrase by phrase as I had so carefully marked out, and I realized that this could be taught to a congregation if you tossed the book away and just handed them lyrics on a page.

And imagine if even the first verse alone became a regular response in the service? The lyrics are quite something, after all. What if we asked ourselves and our congregations to think about, for a moment, just what kindness and generosity can do?

How far can reach a smile,
how high a helping hand can lift?
How far is far enough to give?

Is there a way to learn
just how a kindness speaks or where it goes?
Should love be caught to hold?

For God pours out this love
in all that lives, through God we see that
Life can never cease to give.

If we then think our small
amount of help would not go far —
and so don’t give, would we still live?

Now the truth is, this is not a nice hymn. This isn’t calling for us to be nice. I reflected on nice v. kind in a service a few weeks ago – and I wish I could have used this hymn to emphasize my point:

It’s easier to be nice than to be kind. Niceness buys into the gospel of comfort, that says we don’t want to offend. Niceness is being quiet and complacent, niceness is not making waves and not making a stink and just letting people have their own version of truth even when they’re not factual. Niceness is demure and unobtrusive and doesn’t want to bother anybody. Niceness allows comfort to be more important than goodness, ease to be more valued than doing what’s right.

Niceness is not kindness. Kindness sees a need and offers to help. Kindness stands up for the person being bullied, and then makes sure they’re safe. Kindness disrupts lawlessness and incivility. Kindness goes out of its way. Kindness recycles, kindness holds the door, kindness builds a ramp, kindness explains, kindness knows its privilege and uses it to build justice. Kindness is not easy. Kindness is sometimes uncomfortable, because it requires us to not stay comfortable, to not stay nice and docile.

Kindness doesn’t sit still. And kindness acts in many big and small ways. Kindness calls elected representatives, and writes letters, and sometimes goes to protest marches, and makes sure everyone who wants to have a voice has one. Kindness donates much needed funds to groups in need and sometimes stands outside of Planned Parenthood and acts as a protective escort to women seeking medical treatment. Kindness puts on angels wings and shields a grieving family from a Westboro Baptist Church protest. Kindness sends water to Flint and camps with the Indian nations at Standing Rock. Kindness prays for the protection of sacred land and water, and asks forgiveness. Kindness mourns the loss of another black person killed by police and sometimes kindness works for racial justice because it knows that Black Lives Matter.

Kindness isn’t always easy. But kindness – the big acts and small – matters.

This hymn is a hymn of kindness. Do I wish it were easier to learn the tune? Sure. It would be great if this were easily accessible, like the Finlandia tune, for example. But maybe it’s good that it’s not.

This isn’t a nice hymn. But it is kind.

An ode to the space between.

When darkness nears and embers die,
the wind in trees a distant sigh,
the end of day like a lover’s voice nearby.

The night draws close, a fond embrace;
the heart then slows its frantic pace,
and fear drifts off as a calm breath takes its place.

The cradle of a velvet wing,
it holds us in its gentle swing,
and peace slips in with the songs our dreams will sing.

The end of day, the passing year,
the rush of time need cause no fear,
we’ll love the night and its myst’ry now so near.

I love a 5/4 time signature*. To me, there is a touch of the melancholy in 5/4 – not quite so regular as common time, not quite so lilting as a waltz. Something languid and rushing all at once. Something not quite calm, something not quite energized. The 5/4 time signature lives in the paradox. It lives in the space between, much like the twilight the lyrics describe.

Now one brief quibble: For the most part, this hymn is set there, and it works. But to make the final line of each verse work correctly, there’s a 4/4 measure, then a 7/4, and then we’re back to our mysterious 5/4. To be honest, that shift makes it hard to sing – baffling to many congregations, I suspect. But it does work, in the scope of the piece.

But then the lyrics: They’re laden with the paradox of twilight, thus meaning that the lyrics and the music fit. If this had been set to a more regular tune, it would maybe be easier to sing but it wouldn’t evoke the mystery and melancholy that the lyrics hold. As it is set, the secrets of the words come forth and leaves their impressions on the heart.

Well met.

 

*Other songs in 5/4 include “Everything’s Alright” (Jesus Christ Superstar) and “Nothing Like You’ve Ever Known” (Song and Dance) by Andrew Lloyd Webber, the “Theme from Mission Impossible” by Lalo Schifrin, “Seven Days” by Sting, and of course “Take Five” by Dave Brubeck.

 

A post that is hardly about this hymn at all, but it’s fine.

Sovereign and transforming Grace,
we invoke your quickening power;
reign the spirit of this place,
bless the purpose of this hour.

Holy and creative Light,
we invoke your kindling ray;
draw upon our spirit’s night,
as the darkness turns to day.

To the anxious soul impart hope,
all other hopes above;
stir the dull and hardened heart
with a longing and a love.

I feel like I’ve been on a tune rant – one of the consequences of singing while clergy, I suppose, is that part of my mind is always thinking about how a congregation receives and participates in the music. And I wonder, more so lately, if we should be thinking about our collections of music differently.

My hunch is that there are hymns in STLT, and maybe even in STJ, that we want to keep, want to remember, believe are a crucial part of our theology, our tradition, our body of work. And yet, they aren’t necessarily songs a congregation would sing on even a remotely regular basis. What happens if we create a worship professionals’ guide to the hymnals, a commentary of sorts, that not only talks about the origins of the hymns (like we have in Between the Lines), but also comments about tempo, style, choral v. solo v. congregational choices, tips for teaching, etc.? Surely we have enough musicians in the UUMN, along with musical clergy, who could shed some light onto these hymns. Surely we could help those in small congregations without music professionals, or without musical clergy, so that good choices could be made AND hymns that get flipped past regularly find new life through different means of presentation in worship.

Am I asking too much? I mean, I look at a hymn like this – the lyrics are really good. It’s got a fairly square meter (7.7.7.7.). But the tune requires some teaching so that the lyrics shine and not get lost – as they did originally for me – in favor of figuring out how to sing it.

And yes, the musical among us will say “we already do that – we know what should be sung by a soloist or choir and what will work for group singing.” But I am realizing many don’t – or wish they had a clue.

Is this a crazy idea? Or one that just might work?