Monday, March 21, 2011

Play the Music

"Play the Music, Say the Words" is a phrase from Ric Masten's song, "Let it be a dance." This sermon is one of a series of sermons based on phrases from that beloved song.

The year was 2006 – a very good year for me professionally. In March of that year, I received fellowship from UUA, graduated from Meadville Lombard at the top of my class, celebrated by receiving the “hand of fellowship” from Bill Sinkford at General Assembly, was called by you to be your minister – and was ordained and stalled on September 24! Ah, what a year that was!

But like most of you, my life is layered with waves and currents. And while I ride high on some waves, enjoying the cool breeze and warm sunshine, other waves in my life may be churning, or drifting, or pulling me in unknown directions. And so it was in 2006. For that was the year that my dad made those final breaks between the reality of who he and we were in 2006. And he became someone who did not know me, his only daughter. In 2006, when I would come to visit (and I came daily unless I was out of town) I would have to tell my daddy who I was. And I think he would accept that I was his daughter. He said to my Mama one time, “I know that woman who comes in here and plays the piano and sings is my daughter, because she says she is, and she is so nice. I need to find out who her mother is, because I must owe her something.” My mom said, “Don’t worry – you’ve provided for her mother.”

Now what does this trip back to 2006 have to do with our topic today? Because that was the year – with those situations being what they were – that I really came to understand the importance of hymn singing!

When I could no longer connect with my dad in other ways, we could always connect with the songs. And his favorite songs were the old hymns. He couldn’t remember what he’d just eaten for lunch, but he could remember the words to the hymns. One of his favorites was “In the Garden.” I would play the music – and he and I would sing the words. If you know, sing with me:

I come to the garden alone
While the dew is still on the roses
And the voice I hear falling on my ear
The Son of God discloses.
And He walks with me, and He talks with me,
And He tells me I am His own;
And the joy we share as we tarry there,
None other has ever known.

Now I don’t know how much these words meant to my dad. And he and I certainly didn’t share the same theology. But I think what was more important, in that moment, was what was underneath the words – something stronger! What was underneath was that he was still connecting – with me, with the world, with LOVE, perhaps named by many and my dad as God. And the connection in that garden was through singing. That one is not in our hymnal – but the one he sang with me till that day before he died – the same day you ordained me to be your minister is in there. And we shared Amazing Grace together as I sang and he moved his lips to the song. That old Christian hymn was written by Englishman John Newton, who was inspired to write these words after his slave trading ship survived a terrible storm. He later gave up slave trading and served his life in the clergy. In honor of Newton and my dad, please join me in singing that first verse.

Amazing Grace
How Sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see!

As I said – that same year, I was singing in celebration. I was especially moved when I marched with other Unitarian Universalist ministers who were getting preliminary or final fellowship that year. The ministers always march into the auditorium with the hymn, “Rank by rank again we stand.” The last verse had words most meaningful to me on that occasion.

"Though the path be hard and long, still we strive in expectation, join we now their ageless song one with them in aspiration. One in name in honor one, guard we well the crown they won; what they dreamed be ours to do, hope their hopes and seal them true."

My ordination on September 24th was filled with music, old and new favorites of mine and yours. And it was a day of when those seas were rumbling underneath for me; but your music was the boat that carried me though. SO yes, I became even more passionate about hymn singing – and the desire that this congregation become a true hymn singing congregation. And we’ve been working on it since then, adding voices to the congregation and to our little choir.

Now the hymnbook that we use is this wonderful book called, Singing the Living Tradition. I thought I’d share a little of the history of hymn books in our association, and about how this hymn book came to be. I’m very grateful for my colleague, the Rev. Roger Fritts, who pulled together a lot of this information for a sermon he did in 2003 – and I’ll be sharing and quoting that work a good bit today. Thanks Roger.

And ALL of us hymn singers owe our gratitude to this man: Martin Luther. In the Middle Ages – before the Protestant Reformation, the liturgy was restricted to the priest and the choir. But Martin Luther loved to take away the privilege from the priest – and he so promoted congregational singing, that he’s known as the Founder of the Congregational Song. Fritts states that, “Music was the point at which his doctrine of the priesthood of all believers received its most concrete realization... All the people sang. In 1524 Luther published a hymn book. (And) His congregations learned to sing. Practices were set during the week for the entire congregation. A Jesuit testified that "the hymns of Luther killed more souls than his sermons."

But Martin Luther said: "When we sing, we pray twice…."
"I have no use for cranks who despise music, because it is a gift of God. . . .
My heart bubbles up and overflows in response to music, which has so often refreshed me and delivered me from dire plagues."

English hymn singing owes some of its popularity to Isaac Watts, the Father of English Hymnody, who first published his book Hymns and Spiritual Songs in 1705. After Watts, John and Charles Wesley, the founders of the Methodist movement, firmly established hymn singing in congregations in England and America. Charles was the more prolific hymn writer of the two.

In 1761 John Wesley wrote his "Rules for Hymn Singing," which still appear at the beginning of the Methodist Hymnal today and are good ones for us as well:
1. Sing all. See that you join with the congregation as frequently as you can. Let not a slight degree of weakness or weariness hinder you. If it is a cross to you, take it up, and you will find it a blessing.

2. Sing lustily and with a good courage. Beware of singing as if you were half dead, or half asleep; but lift up your voice with strength. Be no more afraid of your voice now, nor more ashamed of its being heard, than when you sung the songs of Satan.
3. Sing modestly. Do not bawl, so as to be heard above or distinct from the rest of the congregation, that you may not destroy harmony, but strive to unite your voices together, so as to make one clear melodious sound.
4. Sing in time. Whatever time is sung be sure to keep with it. Do not run before nor stay behind it; but attend close to the leading voices, and move therewith as exactly as you can; and take care not to sing too slow. This drawling way naturally steals on all who are lazy; and it is high time to drive it out from us, and sing all our tunes just as quick as we did at first.
5. Above all sing spiritually. Have an eye to God in every word you sing. . . .

Here is an additional rule for Unitarian Universalists.

Stop reading ahead to see whether or not you agree with the lyrics!

Don’t worry about the words --- it’s all about someone’s connection with compassion and love in whatever form they deem as sacred --- SO JUST SING and connect with them!!

(From Fritts)
“The first Unitarian Universalist hymnal was Hymns of the Spirit. Although the Unitarian and the Universalists did not merge into one association until 1961, this 1937 "red hymnal" was a joint project of the Universalists and the Unitarians. It took five years to complete. It contains sixteen complete orders of service, including the texts of opening words, prayers and litanies, what we now call responsive readings. It is heavily theistic, with frequent references to God, the Lord, and Jesus.

“Twenty-seven years later Hymns for the Celebration of Life, what came to be known as the "blue hymnal" was published. This 1964 hymnal was a radical departure from the past, the first humanist Unitarian Universalist hymnal. The Lord’s Prayer, for example, which appeared several times in the red hymnal was nowhere to be found in the blue hymnal. The blue hymnal had no section at all called prayer. Instead the 1964 hymnal reflected the desire of many Unitarian Universalists to experiment with new forms of worship. Also the commission tried to include words for all the great world religions. For the first time our blue hymnal included passages from Hindu, Buddhist, Islamic and Jewish sources. The hymnal was carefully constructed so that it would serve us for many years into the future.”

BUT – within a decade it was hopelessly out of date. What happened?

“In the late 1960s our nation was shaken by the Black Power movement, the women’s liberation movement, Earth Day and the environmental movement, and other cultural revolutions. Hymn names like "Man is the Earth Upright and Proud" did not fit with our desire to live in harmony with the earth. Almost every reading, every hymn in the blue hymnal was written by a white male.” (Fritts)

Here are just a few of the hymns that were problematic because of their male centeredness:
The Mind of Man
The Man of Integrity
The Man of Life Upright
Dear Lord and Father of Mankind
Our Friend, Our Brother, Our Lord
O Brother Man
Man Lives Not for Himself Alone
And many more.

Fritts, noted that by the mid 1970s there was only one of these hymns that many women in the congregation felt comfortable singing. It was entitled "Turn Back O Man, for Swear Thy Foolish Ways." Well, most of us came to Unitarian Universalists after this – but my understanding from some old time UU’s is that congregations passed out pencils and had folks changing the words in that hymnal to suit folks better. Finally, in response to overwhelming complaints, the association published a small pamphlet called 25 Familiar Hymns in new form, hymns with the male language removed. But everyone KNEW that a new hymnal was needed.

Finally, in the late 1980s the UUA Board of Trustees established a new hymnal commission. They kept many of the favorite hymns by changing the language. And many new favorites were added, many of them written by Unitarian Universalists. Now it’s easy to tell which these are – because there is a little chalice by their name at the bottom of the page. One of our favorites by a # 354 – We Laugh, We Cry, with words and music by Unitarian Universalist Shelley Jackson Denham. Another UU congregation that where I preached recently sang this song at my request – and asked me to help lead it because they had never sung it before. And I thought – “What? – and you call yourself a UU church?” But I did not say that out loud, of course. I love this song because it expresses so well what we are about here. Let’s sing the first verse.

We laugh, we cry, we live we die;
We dance, we sing our song.
We need to feel there’s something here to which we can belong.
We need to feel the freedom just to have some time alone.
But most of all we need close friends we can call our very own.

And we believe in life, and in the strength of love;
And we have found a need to be together.
We have our hearts to give, we have our thoughts to receive,
And we believe that sharing is an answer.

Now unlike the old blue hymnal, Singing the Living Tradition is filled with hymns and readings by women as well as men. There are hymns and readings also by people of color and representing many varying theologies and cultures. Many of the old favorites are there – but the committee worked hard to make sure the language did not include the same old gender biases. And in fact, rumor has it that the reason John Lennon’s song Imagine is not included is because Yoko Ono refused to allow them to change the language from “brotherhood” to something more gender neutral. So this hymnal is 18 years old now – and still very beloved. It’s true that we also do now have a hymnal supplement, Singing the Journey, published in 2005 – with some newer songs that are loved by Unitarian Universalists. We’ve printed the lyrics to some of our favorites and have that as an insert in our hymnal. One of the ones we love to sing is Siyahamba – a song written in Zulu with other verses added in English. Let’s see how well your Zulu is this morning.

Siyahamba ku-kha-nyen’ kwen-khos’ (4 times)
Siyahamba, Siyahamba,
Siyahamba ku-kha-nyen’ kwen-khos; (2 times)

Now in the supplement – this is translated as “We are marching in the light of God.” But being Unitarian Universalists who like to change – and be inclusive – at recent General Assemblies we’ve been singing this as “marching in the light of Love.” And now with the recent “Standing on the Side of Love” campaign…. Folks have begun to use this song to sing this version – to join me. So for our final song of this message, I invite you to rise in body or spirit and join me in singing it this new way.

We are standing on the side of love (4 times)
We are standing, We are standing,
We are standing on the side of Love (2 times)

Just as my dad and I remained connected in love with the hymns of old, may all of us develop and continue a deep connection through these words and music – both old and new…. And may we say them – and sing them – till we know them – by heart!


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