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.

Sometimes I sing a hymn and I think “it’s a fine hymn, but when would I ever use it?” (See the end for an important edit)

It’s a fine hymn. Another solid lyric by our friend, English Unitarian minister John Andrew Storey – a song of welcome, for sure, and a song of community and connection. And yet I’m not sure what kind of service would use a hymn like this; is it one when we talk about why we pass the peace? Is it one where we talk about John Donne’s “No Man Is an Island” and also include Simon and Garfunkel’s “I am a Rock”? Is it to boost the pastoral care team? I don’t know…. what do you think:

The human touch can light the flame
which gives a brightness to the day,
the spirit uses mortal flame,
life’s vehicle for work and play.

The lover’s kiss, the friend’s embrace,
the clasp of hands to show we care,
the light of welcome on the face
are treasured moments all can share.

May all who come within our reach
be kindled by our inner glow,
not just in spirit’s words we preach,
in human touch love’s faith we show.

The lyrics are set to a tune called Dickinson College written by Brooklyn native Lee Hastings Bristol in 1962; to me, it has all the markings of a “tune written in the style of Victorian hymns” – but with a syncopated twist. As I sang it, I found myself stumbling, as the half notes were not where I expected them to be, and I held some quarter notes longer than written. I can imagine congregations struggling to get the rhythm right, and how painful that would be.

So I don’t know. It’s a fine hymn, but I don’t know when I’d use it.

Edited to add this comment from friend and mentor Michael Tino, who makes a really good point that I’m sorry I didn’t think of:

I always pause when presented with lyrics that claim things like “all can share.” All? Hmm-maybe not.

Touch is touchy. For some, those instances of touch are intimate and lovely. For others, they are intrusive and reminders of past abuse.

This hymn had fine intent, with uncertain impact.

I am really struggling today to know what to say about this song.

Partly, it’s because I didn’t look ahead enough to think about interviewing colleagues Julica Hermann DelaFuente or Marisol Caballero, both of whom might have more insight into the difficulties or joys of this Mexican folk tune appearing in our hymnal – perhaps there will be a Hymn by Hymn Extra in our near future…

What can say is that it likely got noticed because (again) of the folkies we all know and love, this time the incomparable Joan Baez. While David Arkin’s lyrics were written for the 1976 song collection “How Can I Keep from Singing?” and published by the First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles, they appear to be reasonable musical translations of what appear to be original Spanish lyrics (except for the rooster crowing verse – which seems sad, since I want to hear a congregation sing “quiri, quiri, quiri” and “cara, cara, cara” and “pio, pio, pio” – or at least “cock-a-doodle-doo” and “cluck, cluck, cluck” and “cheep, cheep, cheep.”).

All the colors, yes, the colors we see in the springtime with all of its flowers.
All the colors, when the sunlight shines out through a rift in the cloud and it showers.
All the colors, as a rainbow appears when a storm cloud is touched by the sun.
All the colors abound for the whole world around and for ev’ryone under the sun.

All the colors, yes, the colors of people parading on by with their banners.
All the colors, yes, the colors of pennants and streamers and plumes and bandannas.
All the colors, yes, the colors of people now taking their place in the sun.
All the colors abound for the whole world around and for ev’ryone under the sun.

All the colors, yes, the black and the white and the red and the brown and the yellow.
All the colors, all the colors of people who smile and shake hands and say “Hello!”
All the colors, yes, the colors of people who know that their freedom is won.
All the colors abound for the whole world around and for ev’ryone under the sun.

De colores, de colores se visten los campos en la primavera.
De colores, de colores son los pajaritos que vienen de a fuera.
De colores, de colores es al arco iris que vemos lucir.
Y por eso los grandes amores de muchos colores me gustan a mi.

My problem in response is this: is it misappropriation? Should we have all the Spanish verses? Should we sing those?

I also bristle at the first line of the third verse. And I fear that white congregations don’t know how to sing this, and thus turn it into something it is not (often a dirge, sometimes almost a polka, and never – more’s the pity – on guitar). And I’m not sure if I’m making assumptions or judgments that aren’t mine to make.

Meanwhile, I’m going to leave you with this recording of the song by Mexican musician José-Luis Orozco, whose music promotes bilingual education:

I need the hope of possibility.

I need the promise of unanswered questions.

I need the assurance of unsealed revelation.

Especially today, as I conclude my ministry at First Universalist Church of Southold and begin a community ministry in the arts and worship – a ministry whose form is not entirely clear but whose call is – I need these things in large supply, in my professional life, my personal life, and most definitely in my spiritual life.

This hymn – one of a few serious poems by early 20th century humorist Don Marquis – holds none of these things for me. In fact, it strikes me as rather determined to close the door to possibility and question, even as it promotes questioning in its third verse.

And it’s the third verse I really have a problem with. The first two aren’t bad – they’re a rather decent retelling of the creation story that is evolution. But the third verse…

A fierce unrest seethes at the core of all existing things:
it was the eager wish to soar that gave the gods their wings.
There throbs through all the worlds that are this heartbeat hot and strong,
and shaken systems, star by star, awake and glow in song.

But for the urge of this unrest these joyous spheres are mute;
but for the rebel in our breast had we remained as brutes.
When baffled lips demanded speech, speech trembled into birth;
one day the lyric word shall reach from earth to laughing earth.

From deed to dream, from dream to deed, from daring hope to hope,
the restless wish, the instant need, still drove us up the slope.
Sing we no governed firmament, cold, ordered, regular;
we sing the stinging discontent that leaps from star to star.

The first two lines are great. yes! This is how many of us, whatever our particularities, think is true – humanity driven by some need, some hope, something possible. It’s at the core of our Unitarian Universalism.

But then, boom. Marquis shuts the door hard, never letting our drive find what some call God. Nope. We don’t sing about that. We’re discontented beings in a wide scary universe. Period. No possibility of a new revelation. No possibility of Mystery.

Is this what we want our humanists and atheists to think? That in fact, science has sealed possibility and hope and cut us off from mystery? Because that’s how I read this last verse, and it is most assuredly not what I want anyone to think. I want neither science nor religious belief to seal possibility. Instead, I want them to work together to show us how much more is possible, how much more mystery there is in the universe, how many more questions there are than we can ever imagine.

I appreciate that some would be comforted by this hymn. And I do like the first two verses as an alternative to hymns like Earth Was Given as a Garden. But I will never sing that third verse.

I need the hope of possibility.

Later this morning, I am leading our congregation’s Teach In on White Supremacy, joining over 600 Unitarian Universalist congregations around the country in examining the larger cultural systems that even progressive organizations like ourselves don’t realize we’re perpetuating.

In this service, I am preferencing the words of people of color, letting their words inform and minister to my largely elderly, almost entirely white congregation. To pontificate myself would do a huge disservice, for how can I possibly speak for those whose pain, fear, anger, and sorrow I can never know?

Similarly, I find myself unable to talk much about this song, which holds such deep resonance for the descendants of enslaved Africans, for whom this song spoke of hope, salvation, and freedom. It may have been a coded song, although its origins in 1825 or so tell us it was being sung was before the Underground Railroad, and certainly before the US Colored Infantry and US Colored Troops, which some say the original lyric “soldiers of the cross” alludes to.

What I know is that there is a deep, soulful, melancholy to this song that I can never understand for myself but can hear from others, most powerfully, to me, from Sweet Honey in the Rock:

We are climbing Jacob’s ladder,
we are climbing Jacob’s ladder,
we are climbing Jacob’s ladder,
we are climbing on.

Ev’ry round goes higher, higher…

If I stumble, will you help me? …

Though the road is steep and rugged…

Amen.

Painting of Jacob’s Ladder is by Marc Chagall

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.

This is one of those hymns that make you go “huh!” (And that isn’t a bad thing.)

First “huh” – it’s a Pentecost song, most definitely, stuck in the Worship section. And I go “huh, is that so we’ll use it, because some music directors and ministers will flip right by that liturgical season?”

Second “huh” – it’s a spiritual from the 18th century, with unknown origins. And I go “huh, check out that coded language in the second verse, pointing to the Underground Railroad!”

(Chorus)
Ev’ry time I feel the Spirit moving in my heart, I will pray.
Yes, ev’ry time I feel the Spirit moving in my heart, I will pray.

Upon the mountain, my God spoke,
o’er the mount came fire and smoke.
All around me looks so shine,
ask my God if all was mine.

(Chorus)

The River Jordan runs right cold,
chills the body, not the soul.
Ain’t but one train on this track,
runs to heaven and right back.

(Chorus)

Third “huh” – the first hit I get when putting this title into Google is Nat King Cole. “Huh, I didn’t know he did an album of hymns and spirituals…. is it sacrilege that I don’t like this version?”

Fourth “huh” I wonder if I can find a less late-50s-good-for-the-white-Ed-Sullivan-audience version on YouTube version to share with y’all, because “huh – this is a song you need to experience, not talk about.”

I did spend a long time listening to versions – and there are a plethora out there. But my eye was caught by the suggestion that the African American choral composer and arranger Moses Hogan did an arrangement of this song, and so I started listening to those. To be honest, there are a LOT of bad versions, mostly sung by high school and college ensembles. There’s the overproduced version by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, too, and men-only or women-only versions.

But “huh” happened again, when I found a version that really moved me, by the University of Santo Tomas in Manila, Philippines. Here they are, in some traditional garb (which is reflective of the Spanish influence on the indigenous culture, something I learned about during my CPE unit with a Filipino supervisor). I love this version, because there is such life and light in the soloist’s voice, demeanor, and eyes.

Enjoy. Feel the spirit.

 

Postscript: Sorry these are coming out so late these days – I seem to be experiencing a shift in my sleep habits since Easter. We’ll see if this is the new pattern or if I’ll go back to rising earlier.

I don’t know what to say about this one.

It’s not that I don’t get it – I do. It’s an encapsulation of Confucianism, ending in the golden rule. It captures the nuggets of carefully measured wisdom and advice a Confucian parent doles out to their child, reminding them that the way out of chaos is order, and the achievement of order is relationship and right action.

And other than that, really, I don’t know what to say. Here it is.

Grieve not your heart for want of place, nor yearn for easy praise;
but fit yourself some task to do, and well employ your days.

From wise and foolish both alike we should all try to learn,
for one can show us how to live, the other what to spurn.

Be fair to people when they err, when good, your pleasure show;
their faults be quick to understand, in judging them be slow.

But this above all else obey, it is the best of goals,
what you would wish not done to you, do not to other souls.

There’s nothing to argue with because there’s no real depth. It’s the aphorism song. It’s the be nice song.

As I said in my recent UU World article, “blech.”

(Tens – maybe hundreds – of thousands of words written between blogs, articles, essays, and sermons, and the thing I quote is “blech.” Go me.)

Anyway. It’s a lovely Southern Harmony tune and easy to sing, and for the right service on the golden rule or on compassion, this might be just fine.

Gentle readers, I’m in an odd place with this one.

I am certain (and am glad) there are people who draw strength and inspiration from this text, a beloved  (anonymously translated) passage from “Buddha’s Farewell Address” – a passage from the Mahaparinibbana Suttana.

I don’t. I mean, I get what it’s about – it’s all over the place, this idea that it starts within and goes outward. It’s a lot of how we understand our rather individualistic faith.

But this idea doesn’t give me strength or comfort. As an extrovert and a theist, I process externally, with others and the Divine, in order to understand myself. My comfort comes from without, not within. And knowing myself, knowing truth, knowing the divine spark – for me, anyway – is informed and revealed only through my experience with others. I know myself in relation. And when my spark goes out, when I am not confident, when I am unsure what the truth is, well, I can’t be my own lamp if my pilot light is out.

Perhaps its my mood, or the season, or the events of the past few weeks, or the weltschmerz and general malaise of the world, but I feel sadder having sung this one.

Be ye lamps unto yourselves;
be your own confidence;
hold to the truth within yourselves
as to the only lamp.

If it brings you comfort, I am glad. Not every song has to work for every person, just as not every theology has to work for every person. I am certain for those who are internal processors, or non-theists, or just of a different temperament, this one inspires deeply – hurrah for you!

It’s just not my jam.

It may be lack of coffee.

It may be lack of ease with Buddhism.

It may be lack of sleep.

But whatever it is I am lacking seems to be keeping me from understanding what the heck this lyric, written by Sarojini Naidu, the first female president of the Indian National Congress, is saying.

It feels mostly like it’s saying ‘life sucks and there’s nothing we can do so just give up already.’ Which I am certain isn’t true and maybe it’s in there but that’s not the point… but dammit, meaning is eluding me today.

So instead I’ll nitpick about bad rhymes, like ‘won’ and ‘throne’ and ‘flight’ and ‘infinite’ (grr) and wonder at the combination of a very Buddhist poem and a very German hymn tune.

The wind of change forever blown across the tumult of our way,
tomorrow’s unborn griefs depose the sorrows of our yesterday.
Dream yields to dream, strife follows strife, and death unweaves the webs of life.

For us the labor and the heat, the broken secrets of our pride,
the strenuous lessons of defeat, the flower deferred, the fruit denied;
but not the peace, supremely won, great Buddha, of the lotus throne.

With futile hands we seek to gain our inaccessible desire,
diviner summits to attain, with faith that sinks and feet that tire;
but nought shall conquer or control the heav’nward hunger of our soul.

The end, elusive and afar, still lures us with its beck’ning flight,
and our immortal moments are a session of the infinite.
How shall we reach the great, unknown nirvana of your lotus throne?

I’m missing something big here today…for which I apologize. Although I guess it’s okay if not every piece speaks clearly to every person – that whole pesky 4th principle thing, eh?

Now go have a day – stay dry if it’s raining, stay warm if it’s cold, cheer up if you’re a Gonzaga fan.