Shall We Gather At The River

P I had never really given much thought to this hymn. It is very familiar, but not sung that often in my circles.  It feels like an old gospel song that should be found on a movie soundtrack, the scene set in the countryside with a small congregation holding a summer service out of doors.  A simple time. Hard working people singing and looking forward to something better.  Well, it’s probably been used that way, but it’s origins aren’t quite what my imagination conjured up.

This hymn was written by Robert Lowry in 1864.  He wrote both the words and the music, not that common, it turns out, in hymnody.  The context was the American Civil War and the story goes that in a moment of rest from the heat of the battle, both literally and figuratively, Lowry began to imagine the relief cool flowing water could offer, had there been a river available.   He composed the hymn in that moment, also reflecting on a biblical passage that spoke of a river flowing from Christ’s throne – a place for all to gather.

Shall we gather at the river,
Where bright angel feet have trod;
With its crystal tide forever
Flowing by the throne of God?

Refrain:
Yes, we’ll gather at the river,
The beautiful, the beautiful river;
Gather with the saints at the river
That flows by the throne of God.

On the margin of the river,
Washing up its silver spray,
We will walk and worship ever,
All the happy golden day.

Ere we reach the shining river,
Lay we ev’ry burden down;
Grace our spirits will deliver,
And provide a robe and crown.

Soon we’ll reach the shining river,
Soon our pilgrimage will cease;
Soon our happy hearts will quiver
With the melody of peace.

These are really quite beautiful words.  The imagery of crystal tides, silver spray and the shining river are lovely.  These are visions that are filled with that magical thing we experience when we are privileged to see the beauty of nature. When we take in those moments that can never quite be described or captured by a photograph.  The sights, sounds, smells of beauty, of our earth, of a single, fleeting moment.  These experiences that we seek again and again because they are so precious.

What’s interesting to me about these words, is the idea that we gather at something beautiful because to do so offers us the opportunity to find a melody of peace.  A melody of peace.  Emerging from this wondrous river that flows from something beyond us.  Maybe you call it God, maybe you call it nature, maybe you call it science or the universe.  Or maybe you have no idea what it is, but hope for something deeper than yourself and gather for a glimpse nonetheless.  Humans have been seeking the beauty found in this river for all time.  We talk about it, we write about it, we create its potential imagery, we sing about it.

We also fight about it.  We seem unable to come to a place where this melody of peace can be sung in both harmonic consonance and dissonance with all the other voices gathered. All the other ways of seeing its beauty, of understanding its power for good.  For me, the battle is not beautiful.  The desire to be right is ugly.  The promotion of arrogant supremacy is the exact opposite of a sparkling crystal tide and the shining silver spray.  For these are characteristics found in many places; seen with many eyes; understood by many hearts.

It is a simple hymn. It probably means something different to me than it does to you, or, I suspect, it meant to its author.   But I like that we can find a connection in the belief that beauty is both healing and worth walking towards.  I like that we understand that gathering for a common good is a path to peace.  And, I like that peace can be a melody.  One we can sing together.  All voices, all languages, all rhythms, all possible notes.

Shall we gather at the river?

Sing Praise To God Who Reigns Above

It is no secret that the tradition of singing is strong in my family heritage.  In fact, I was born when my parents had moved from the Canadian prairies to Detmold, Germany in order for my dad to pursue his education as a singer.  There are many musicians in my extended family. Many music teachers.  Enough to form a choir – and possibly a small orchestra. The ability to play an instrument is completely ordinary, reading music is assumed.  I am grateful for this heritage – and as we celebrate Father’s day this week, I thank my dad who in his quiet way, laid a foundation of song for me.  A foundation that I stand on to this day.

Sing praise to God who reigns above, the God of all creation,
The God of pow’r, the God of love, the God of our salvation.
With healing balm my soul is filled, and eve’ry faithless murmur stilled.
To God all praise and glory!

What in almighty pow’r was made, God’s gracious mercy keepeth.
By morning glow or evening shade, God’s watchful eye ne’er sleepeth.
Within the shelter of God’s might, lo! All is just, and all is right.
To God all praise and glory!

Our God is never far away, throughout all grief distressing,
An ever-present help and stay, our peace, and joy, and blessing.
As with a mother’s tender hand, God gently leads the chosen band.
To God all praise and glory!

Then all my gladsome way along, I sing aloud thy praises,
That all may hear the grateful song my voice unwearied raises:
Be joyful in the Lord, my heart! Both soul and body, bear your part!
To God all praise and glory!

Singing is one of the great joys in life.  Every human being on this planet has a voice. Some are small, others large.  Some are shy, others bold.  Some are less than beautiful, but filled with spirit and emotion.  Some are glorious as though coming from a higher place.   Some are merely enthusiastic.  Others have yet to be discovered.  All cultures sing in one form or another.  It is free, requires no equipment, can be done in any context and with any number of people or completely alone.  It is our birthright; it is our privilege.

What I like about this hymn, written way back in 1675 by Johann J. Schütz, is that it is an unapologetic use of song as a means of praise. The writer is stating an admiration of his God through his singing voice.  It is an important act to do so – implying that a loud voice devoted to song is an appropriate form of worship; an appropriate means of celebrating that which was, presumably, of great significance.  A voice singing, unwearied and with both soul and body.

So, why do I sing?  For lots of reasons.  It is my tradition, beginning before I was born.  It feeds my spirit like nothing else.  It is my livelihood and profession.  It allows me to connect with others – both within and as a result of the songs.  It expresses emotions that I may not otherwise be comfortable expressing.  It shows me things of beauty that open my eyes to others’ experiences – some shared, and some completely unfamiliar.

But mostly, I sing because I must.  Because I have a voice – as we all do – that wants to rise and fall; that loves to combine with other voices; that simply enjoys being part of beauty.  There are times when the beauty is obvious, and times when it is not.  Some things I sing well, others sound terrible.  But the beauty isn’t always just about what it sounds like.  Often it is about the experiences surrounding the music.  The words, the notes, the memories, the satisfying work of learning, the sharing of the harmonies, the driving in the car, the laughter at mistakes, the rewards of achieving excellence, the insight into a composer’s genius or a songwriter’s perceptiveness.

And, I sing because it is good.  It opens space to express all that is valuable to me.  To any of us.  Maybe it is about spiritual matters, or feelings or emotions.  Maybe it is about our stories, our history, our desires, our hopes, our dreams.  Maybe it is about our pain, our trauma, our expectations of a better world. It is a means, as this hymn writer knew, of saying things of the utmost importance in ways that can be ingested both easily, and with greater depth for those willing to dig. Allowing us to examine ideas in the context of beauty; giving us a chance to consider and evaluate and, importantly, to participate.

These hymn texts are important to me.  As a singer and an observer.  They tie me to the past, to the present and to the future. They allow me to see others’ ideas about so much that I both need and wish to think about.  Singing the words is a beautiful act – thinking about whether the words I sing are still relevant, is challenging.  In some I find great wisdom, in others tremendous distaste.  There is a kind of beauty in this too, unravelling our histories and understanding none of us is without error.

So, I will continue to sing.  Alone and with others.  Experiencing the magic that is the human voice.  Expressing the variety of experiences found in the limitless collection of songs that we possess.  Singing for understanding.  Singing for excellence.  Singing for fun.  Singing for beauty.  Singing for praise.  Singing because I have a voice, and it will not lay silent.

Spirit Of God! Descend Upon My Heart

This Sunday is Pentecost in the Christian tradition. It is the day commemorating the Holy Spirit’s descent upon the Apostles, and is sometimes thought to represent the birth of the early church.  It is considered a celebration of great joy that marks the end of the Easter season.  In some traditions, the celebrations are marked with the colour red in various forms to symbolize the Spirit’s fire and to acknowledge the light provided once the recipient has been given this gift.

The author of this text, George Croly (1780-1860), was a literary man who wrote poetry, plays, novels and theological works.  He eventually became rector at St. Stephen Walbrook in London where he is described as a powerful preacher who managed to fill a previously empty church, and even caught the attention of people like Charlotte and Anne Brontë who made a special visit to hear him preach on their first trip to London.  He was also appointed as the afternoon preacher at the Foundling Hospital, although he didn’t last long there as his style was criticized as being inappropriate for the children.  I found an amusing quote by a Mrs. Hall (whoever she may have been …) describing him thus: “Dr. Croly is an almost universal poet.  He is grand and gorgeous, but rarely tender and affectionate; he builds a lofty and magnificent temple, but it is too cold and stately to be a home for the heart.”

So, here was an apparently successful, spiritually driven man who, if I read these words correctly, had doubts.  Doubts about his strength, his faith, his patience.  His need – his desire – to receive something from the Spirit to support his weaknesses and renew his energy.

Spirit of God! descend upon my heart.
Wean it from earth, through all its pulses move.
Stoop to my weakness, mighty as thou art,
And make me love Thee as I ought to love.

Hast, thou not bid me love Thee, God and King?
All, all thine own, soul, heart and strength, and mind.
I see thy cross, there teach my heart to cling.
O let me seek thee, and O let me find!

Teach me to feel that thou art always nigh.
Teach me the struggles of the soul to bear,
To check the rising doubt, the rebel sigh;
Teach me the patience of unanswered prayer.

Teach me to love thee as thine angels love,
One holy passion filling all my frame;
The baptism of the heav’n-descended dove,
My heart an altar, and thy love the flame.

I suppose renewal and seeking the presence of God is what Pentecost is all about.  This receiving of something, slightly intangible, that we can carry with us into our lives. But even if one isn’t a believer in these specifics, I suspect there is a need to find something that is the unseen support for whatever is encountered.  It is difficult to imagine facing all we need to face – good and bad – without some kind of spiritual or emotional or psychological strength. And, in fact, in those moments where these supports are depleted, most of us require assistance.

I understand that faith is critically important to many.  I understand that others are baffled by the concept.  It is a very personal thing, one that I don’t really comprehend – why some are so committed, others dismissive, others wavering, others struggling with guilt, others happily indifferent.  But, I have long felt that the Holy Spirit is the spiritual embodiment of wisdom. And, as such, offers an open door to the pursuit of whatever knowledge and guidance is available.  For me, the idea of receiving this spirit is not a simple matter of resignation, basking in the glow of some ethereal creature, it is alternately an act of discovery, an act of pursuit.

We all have doubts.  I read these words and find myself wondering if asking for things like the skill of love, faith, strength and patience is really enough.  Surely wisdom requires us to do more than ask.  It is tempting to simply request what we need and sit and wait for it to arrive.  My experience is that that rarely happens.  I’m not convinced that this is the essence of faith.  I’m not convinced that we receive everything we think we need simply by asking.

But there is something to be said for finding that thing that provides the strength with which to seek the fulfilment of our needs; the easing of our doubts.  It might be spiritual or found within our relationships.  Perhaps it is found in physical exercise, meditation or a walk in the woods.  Maybe it emerges when we listen to music, read a book or stroll through an art gallery. Whatever it is, let it descend upon your heart.  Let it open you up to the wisdom that is found all around.  Let it require you to actively live your life and seek what you need. Let it guide your steps as they then illuminate a path for others who also seek.  Let it be a holy passion filling your frame.

Let There Be Light, Lord God of Hosts!

This week’s hymn is one I was only vaguely familiar with. The tune was written by Charles H. C. Zeuner in 1832 and I believe has been used several times with different texts. It has a strange feeling rhythmically, but as I’ve played it, there is something quite mesmerizing about its lilt.

The words were written by William M. Vories in 1908. Vories has an interesting story.  He was born in the United States, was an educator, architect and lay minister. In 1905 he moved to Japan where he opened an architectural office and eventually married a Japanese woman and became a citizen.  He founded a mission in Japan dedicated to education and businesses in the fields of architecture, medicine and medical treatment with the practice of investing profits into the local community.  It is said that he owned no property in his lifetime and spent his time contributing to those around him.   This cross-cultural and generous spirit is quite evident in these words.

Let there be light, Lord God of hosts!
Let there be wisdom on the earth!
Let broad humanity have birth!
Let there be deeds, instead of boasts!

Within our passioned hearts instill
the calm that ends all strain and strife.
Make us thy ministers of life.
Purge us from lusts that curse and kill!

Give us the peace of vision clear
to see each other’s good, our own,
To joy and suffer not alone:
the love that casteth out all fear!

Let woe and waste of warfare cease,
that useful labor yet may build
its homes with love and laughter filled!
God, give your wayward children peace!

When I read these words, I am drawn to the ideas of light and wisdom.  There is an implication of a need to open our eyes and see what we are as humanity – broadly. A need to open our minds and take in the experiences of our ancestors and those across the seas; the experiences of our neighbours and those we do not yet know; the experiences of all who are beautifully different and wonderfully the same.

These words are a prayer asking for the establishment of peace.  But they are not the words of one who is idle in this desire.  There is an understanding that it is through our deeds, our ability to see other’s and our own good, our useful labour, and our passionate hearts that homes filled with love and laughter emerge – and, ultimately, peace.  All these things together make us ministers of life. What a phrase!  A minister is simply one who attends to the needs of others. Being a minister of life is the deliberate act of contributing to the enrichment of another’s experience.  The ways in which we can do this are endless.

It is quite amazing to me that these old hymn texts still ring true so many years later.  It doesn’t matter to me that this writer had a particular religious perspective, it matters to me that he was interested in searching for the way to peace.  It is a search that many of us continue – both personally and on a more global scale.  I suspect his notion that we must be active in this search is accurate. It is not enough to ponder and discuss. Our actions contribute to the construction of the roads on which we walk, the paths that others find behind us, the ability for all to find a way forward.  What matters is how we walk through our lives.

Our lives are not about solving all the problems of this world.  But we can all be ministers of life.  Finding ways to lay our own special bricks in the foundation of peace for all.  Some of us will lay many bricks, others few. Some of the bricks have the strength needed for foundations that stand the test of time.  Others are the special decorative bricks that provide beauty and interest.  Others are the corners that keep things aligned.  Others have no bricks, but provide the mortar that holds it all together. Some design, some find the best sites on which to build, some oversee the construction, some bring water when the builders are thirsty.  Some encourage and offer gratitude.  We are actively the many pieces of this puzzle that can emerge as love, as laughter and as peace.

Ministers of life.  Together – all the wayward children.

Let there be light.
Let there be wisdom.
Let there be peace.

 

Swing Low, Sweet Chariot

As I have looked at hymns over the past year (or more!), there are a few common themes that come up time and time again.  One of these is hope.  That we look for it; that we provide it; that we need it.  Our tastes in music and our views on life and spirituality may have changed over time, but there are some things that remain shared in our human experience.  This is one of them.

Thinking about these African American Spirituals is complicated.  I have a sense that we need to respect where they came from even as we welcome them into our lives and sing them to reflect our perspectives.  This one is no different.  It was written by Wallace Willis, a Choctaw Freedman, towards the end of the 19thcentury.  A Choctaw Freedman was an Indigenous person of colour – granted freedom from slavery and citizenship in the Choctaw Nation in 1885.  It is a complicated history involving the horrific practice of slavery because some of these people were first slaves to European colonists, and later to Native American tribes who held them as captives after battles. It is difficult, from my privileged position, to fully grasp all of this.  It is hard to reconcile these practices.  Hard to understand the myriad layers of devastation arising from our Colonial past.

The song’s words were reportedly written when Willis was hard at work with a view of the Red River in Oklahoma.  Bringing to his mind the biblical story of crossing the river Jordan to something better.  Working.  Slaving. And, dreaming of freedom beyond the bonds that kept him where he was.

Swing low, sweet chariot
Coming for to carry me home
Swing low, sweet chariot
Coming for to carry me home

I looked over Jordan, and what did I see?
(Coming for to carry me home)
A band of angels coming after me
(Coming for to carry me home)

If you get there before I do
(Coming for to carry me home)
Tell all of my friends, that I’m coming there too
(Coming for to carry me home)

Whenever I consider one of these spirituals, I am astounded at the strength of those souls that wrote them.  If I look back on my own life, it would be difficult to find much of inspiration that came to my mind in moments of apparent hopelessness. In fact, at my lowest points, I don’t think I have been able to see the bands of angels coming to carry me anywhere – blinded by my own preoccupations.  I suspect I am not alone.  When we are in the midst of a struggle, it can be difficult to see beyond the mess and the pain.

But as we breathe the fresh air of Spring, we know we have been carried.  Through the winter’s cold.  Through the summer’s heat.  We don’t see the band of angels in the moment, but it is there.  Be it made up of our family, friends, therapists, pets – or our experiences, our creativity, our drive to accomplish something.  Maybe it is the tiniest flicker of a flame within that sees the smallest bit of beauty and says, that is enough.  Maybe it is our rawness that opens our eyes and shows us another’s pain, and in that moment allows us to spread our own angel wings and offer shelter and companionship.

What is hope?  Is it something we need to see?  Or, do those who have walked this earth before us, some in horrific situations beyond our comprehension, teach us that it is simply something that exists. Independent of our ability to see it or even believe it is there.  We have all, at times, looked for hope and found none.  But within the multitude of talents that others possess, there are ways across rivers that seem unnavigable.

So, as we wander along rivers both calm and turbulent, know that the band of angels walks beside us.  Sometimes we are part of that band, sometimes we are not.  Sometimes we feel these special souls, sometimes we don’t. But when we are carried to the other side, we meet them.  We greet them with gratitude and we join in, for a time, as part of this strength. Sharing what we know, what we’ve seen, where we’ve been.

Thank you, Mr. Willis.  Your vision inspires.  Your strength resonates through the ages.  Your pain is lamented.  Your story is remembered.  Your chariot flew to us and taught us about hope.

Spirit Of The Living God

This is the time of year where I start to get weary. As a musician and teacher, it is close, but not quite the end of another busy year.  I can feel myself losing patience with, and sometimes interest in, the various projects, jobs, activities – and even people – I am involved with.  I suspect this kind of weariness is completely normal and very common.

So, we look for ways to rejuvenate.  Sometimes we just need a break.  Sometimes we need to make adjustments to find balance. Sometimes we need to look beyond the day to day and find fresh perspectives and renewed vision.  This hymn speaks, in a very simple way, about just that.  It doesn’t provide answers, it merely suggests that we seek guidance and support; asking for replenishment from a valued source.

Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me.
Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me.
Melt me, mold me, fill me, use me.
Sprit of the living God, fall afresh on me.

In this case, the Holy Spirit is invoked to provide this renewal.  Personally, I like the definition of the Holy Spirit as a paraclete.  This word, originally from the Greek, means advocate, helper, sometimes counsellor, and has been commonly associated with the Holy Spirit in Christianity.  There is some comfort in knowing that we have access to a helper.  Something beyond ourselves that can provided a freshness that molds and fills us; renews our usefulness.

Increasingly, it seems that we are a weary society.  We are tired of how things are.  Many people want change.  There is something exciting about this – possibilities and opportunities opening up for those previously disregarded; reparations being made to those historically denied.  But this thirst for change also brings many things that are horrifyingly frightening – a desire to return to ideals and practices of the past that served some and destroyed others.  Visions of tremendous personal benefits, with a complete lack of regard for the backs on which they are built.  It is a strange time of division.  It is a scary time when philosophies of greed and discrimination are cleverly disguised as beneficial and reparative, and even morally superior.  Our weariness is easily manipulated.  Easily swayed.

The words “melt me, mold me, fill me, use me” are interesting.  The idea that when we seek out guidance and advocacy, it has the power to do these things. It is here that I find myself asking, what am I allowing to melt and mold me? What am I being filled with? For whom will I be useful?

I believe God to be immense.  I do not believe we can fully understand what God is.  This is the mystery and wildly inspirational nature of God.  To me, God is not small enough to fit within our explanations or traditions, rituals or practices.  So, when I consider the Spirit of a living God, it is with great care that I do so. Because it requires me to open myself up to the reality that I know so little about this advocate, helper and counsellor.  I must listen carefully to those around me and across our planet to catch a glimpse of this wisdom.  To my neighbours, to scientists, to artists, to givers, to carers, to writers, to thinkers and those who possess deep spiritual understanding.

And how refreshing that can be.  There is a wealth of knowledge and wisdom and creativity and joy being expressed in every corner of this world.  It is alive.  It cannot be hidden in the shadow of the filth that we hear spoken in many quarters these days, by those mouths that should inspire rather than defile our human experience.  This beauty that is everywhere should be celebrated and upheld.  It should guide our steps.  We should seek it when we’re weary and be renewed.

Whether we believe in God or simply in the possibility of human goodness, there are many options in which we can find inspiration to carry on in our weary lives.  They are often not at the forefront of our news, social media or conversations – so we must work hard to seek them out.  Renewal emerges from the persistent consumption of what is good.  Difficult when we are weary, but refreshing when we insist.

May this spirit of renewal colour your life.  May you look for where it lies and allow it to fall upon you.

Grant Us, Lord, The Grace Of Giving

There is something special about the people in our world who are givers.  I don’t mean just the people who write cheques, I mean the people who actually do things for others because they see a need.  As some of us celebrate mothers this weekend, I am reminded that my mom is one of those.  For many, many years I have observed as she has made meals for others (something I have rarely, if ever, done!), looked out for neighbours and volunteered in various capacities – spending her retirement years helping out at a Mennonite Central Committee thrift store and cuddling babies in intensive care.  She knows her skills and shares them.

This hymn is about just that.  Freely giving of what we have. Considering that our lives are best lived when we offer up whatever is our bounty and sharing generously.

Grant us, Lord, the grace of giving
With a spirit large and free,
That ourselves and all our living
We may offer unto Thee.

As I thought about this, I began to wonder about what kinds of giving are best.  And really, there is no answer.  It sometimes feels as though certain types of generosity are touted as what we should all be doing.  I’ve heard and read many sermons, articles or talks on the value of hospitality.  People have much to say about giving money. These are important.  But, if I am judged on my hospitality skills, my life will be a resounding failure.   If financial gifts are a deciding factor, people without those particular means will feel endlessly inadequate.  How does one volunteer if working two jobs to support their family, or is low on energy because they are battling a physical or mental health issue?

Giving is not about what you give.  It is about understanding what you have.

And then, sharing it.  With a spirit, large and free.

I am impressed by many things.  I am impressed by my mother’s, and many, many others’, commitment to volunteer work.  People giving of their time to do much needed work that might not otherwise get done.  I am impressed by people who make large and small donations to worthwhile organizations. Providing funds for things that are important to all of us, things that improve lives and make society a better place.  I am impressed by those who continuously invite people into their homes and share their meals.  Opening their private spaces whether they have time for the cooking and cleaning or not.

But, I am also impressed with people who take two seconds to thank me for my piano playing, week after week, making me feel as though I’ve contributed something valuable to their lives.  I am impressed by the mystery person who picks up garbage on my street.  I am impressed by my student who thought to bring me a freshly baked, still warm cookie.  I am impressed by my letter carrier who is endlessly cheerful.  I am impressed by my regular grocery store clerk who, although a bit flustered by a new computer system, did her best to make my check-out pleasant.  I am impressed by the artists in my world that work so hard to provide moments of refuge in this challenging world, often for little recognition and compensation. I am impressed by friends, near and far, who remember the smallest details and often provide things, be they words, gifts or actions, that are exactly what is needed.

The act of giving is a vast realm of possibilities. It is a way to reflect on one’s own good fortune.  We give what we have, we give what we value, we give what is needed.  Giving is not an act to be judged or ranked.  It is an act to be celebrated – in all its forms; big, small, obvious, secret, quiet and loud. Thinking about this cultivates a desire to be thankful and to consider carefully what we actually have to offer, often much more than we realize.  Giving these things freely is a celebration of the recipient, and of our own abundance.

Give with grace.  For there is no such thing as a small gift when given with a large spirit.

 

All People That On Earth Do Dwell

We all dwell on the earth.  This seems important.  Not so much for the obvious reason that we don’t, currently, have any other options, but because it is something we share.  As I’ve been thinking about these hymns over the past few years, I suppose that is something that has become precious to me.  The idea that we share a great deal.

This hymn uses a tune by Louis Bourgeois from the Genevan Psalter of 1551, and it just may be one of the best known tunes in any modern hymnal.  It is sometimes sung with different words, but these are pretty close to the original, based on Psalm 100, written by William Kethe in 1561.  People have been singing this for a really long time.  It started in Geneva, moved to England and spread from there.

All people that on earth do dwell,
sing to the Lord with cheerful voice.
Serve him with joy, his praises tell,
come now before him and rejoice!

Know that the Lord is God indeed;
he formed us all without our aid.
We are the flock he surely feeds,
the sheep who by his hand were made.

O enter then his gates with joy,
within his courts his praise proclaim!
Let thankful songs your tongues employ.
O bless and magnify his name!

Because the Lord our God is good,
his mercy is forever sure.
His faithfulness at all times stood
and shall from age to age endure.

I like this tune – it is so familiar.  In my own family and church tradition, we sang it with the words of the common English doxology, “Praise God from whom all blessings flow…” before special meals as grace.  We sang it together, in four-part harmony.  All of us. We knew it, we joined our voices.

In this version, we are reminded of the need to praise with a cheerful voice.  Reminded of the source of life, mercy and faithfulness.  It is powerful to look beyond oneself to something bigger, something shared.  Certainly we all define this differently – for some it is God, as in these words, for others it is the earth itself, in all its beauty, majesty and power.  For me, I’m not convinced these kinds of differences matter very much, but I am convinced that when we join our voices to praise that which is truly good, and that which we share, we are likely to move together.

Perhaps it is this act of sharing the earth that struck me, in the wake of last week’s Earth Day.  We all look with wonder at the same stars, whether we practice the same religion or not.  We all need clean air and water.  We live our lives celebrating in good weather, worrying in bad.  We notice our neighbour’s flooding and mourn their losses – we attempt to help; we ask ourselves what more can we do?   We share the experiences of this world, for better or worse, amongst the ages and across our borders.  No matter how much we try to divide ourselves, the earth shows us over and over that we are one.  What I do here, impacts how you are able to live there.

For some reason, this hymn spoke to me about our connectedness.  The details of our praises may vary.  The importance of knowing we are small and need to look far beyond our own spaces, is clear.  When we see only our own space, we miss not only the needs of the other, but the very definition of the Divine.  And we miss the beauty and joy to be found; to be treasured; to be protected.

All people that on earth do dwell.

God Of The Earth, The Sky, The Sea

It was Earth Day this week.  This annual day of action was established almost fifty years ago in 1970, when people took to the streets to protest our misuse of the planet; the neglect of our environment and the damage we have done. It has come to represent a day of global participation in promoting sustainability and the protecting of our earth.  It also requires us to acknowledge our role in the destruction – and come up with solutions for what is almost certainly the greatest challenge of our time.

As I thought about how we both mourn and celebrate our environment, it was not lost on me that we have been singing the praises of the earth for thousands of years.  There are all kinds of songs about our earth – its beauty, its value, its sacred elements.  Whether these songs are religious or secular, we celebrate our surroundings frequently.  We share this love of nature among a whole variety of belief systems, cultures and traditions.

There are many hymns about creation in any Christian hymnbook, many are very familiar.  This one was written in 1864 by Unitarian minister, Samuel Longfellow. He was the brother of the more well-known poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and was loosely part of the transcendentalist movement.  He adhered to a belief that contemplating nature could lead to transcendence and that God was wholly part of all nature.  It is obvious in these words, that this element of finding God in nature was critical to understanding its worth.

God of the earth, the sky, the sea!
Maker of all above, below!
Creation lives and moves in thee,
Thy present life in all doth flow.
We give thee thanks, thy name we sing,
Almighty God, our praise we bring.

Thy love is in the sunshine’s glow,
Thy life is in the quickening air;
When lightning flashes and storm winds blow,
There is thy power, thy law is there. 
We give thee thanks, thy name we sing,
Almighty God, our praise we bring.

We feel Thy calm at evening’s hour,
Thy grandeur in the march of night;
And when Thy morning breaks in power,
We hear Thy Word, “Let there be light.” 
We give thee thanks, thy name we sing,
Almighty God, our praise we bring.

God and creation – inextricably linked.  Living and flowing, life in the air, love in the sunshine. Power as the morning breaks.  Even if one doesn’t believe in God as defined by Christianity, or other religious traditions, the idea that everything in nature is linked, is a powerful image that can serve to inform our ideas about how we treat this planet.

When I hear naysayers speak about the ever present environmental concerns we are faced with as if they are somehow less urgent than things like the acquisition of wealth, financial security and our ability to lead comfortable, easy lives, I am baffled. When I hear these people speak about environmental issues as though we have neither a stake in nor a responsibility for their occurrence, I am baffled.  We are linked.  We are culpable.  And we need to make amends.

Hymn writers and poets of all stripes saw that our earth and our souls are joined.  To sever this union is a kind of devastation.  When we do not understand how our very lives depend upon the preservation and respect of the place in which we live, we fall quickly.  Earth day began as a response to the damages caused by the Industrial Revolution.  An awakening to the reality that our desire for ease was seriously misguided.  Fifty years later, it seems we remain in that space.  It seems we have been deceived into believing that all these things we have are simply deserved.

Change is difficult.  Every day I find something in my hands that if I am honest, contributes to the destruction of this planet.  Big things, small things.  The solutions  are sometimes unpalatable.  But when I consider this from a spiritual perspective, I wonder if the concept of God is even compatible with an unwillingness to honour the earth; to do the hard work this requires; to make amends.  It is difficult to admit that I sometimes value my own comfort, wealth and  security more than I value what is both sacred and is my neighbours’ home – those near and far, current and future.

As I ponder this massive issue, I will give thanks.  For creation – our earth, our air, our water.  To be shared amongst us.  To be protected and loved.  For now, and for the future.  These are the things that provide the calm at the evening’s hour.  These are things about which we sing.

That Easter Day With Joy Was Bright

Every year I struggle with Easter.  Not the idea that a sacred sacrifice was made and that hope emerges from the aftermath of that act.  Not the desire to celebrate this hope – to celebrate that it is possible to renew and rejuvenate after the harsh realities of life bring us almost to the end of things.  Not the descriptions of love unimaginable presented at this time of the liturgical calendar and the idea that we are worth so very much.  I struggle with the language of victory.  With the notion that a battle has been won.  I struggle with using the same language we use to describe the winning of a war, or the supremacy of one group over another, or the conquest of something, as being reflective of our understanding of God.  As I consider the story of this selfless act of sacrifice, love and compassion, I find myself wondering why religious tradition has made it one of conquest, rather than one of supreme humility and compassion? Symbolic of what can be given, rather than representing what can be won.

Consequently, selecting Easter hymns has always been challenging.   I know many find these hymns inspiring, perhaps I’m in the minority on this one, but all the triumph, overthrowing, ruling, conquering, destruction, hailing and reigning, sometimes leave me feeling a bit out of sorts.  There are many Easter hymns I love, and sing or play with gusto.  Those that are full of joyful alleluias.  But there are many that sound like a battle cry, and give me pause.

That Easter day with joy was bright:
the sun shone out with fairer light,
when to their longing eyes restored,
the apostles saw their risen Lord.

O Jesus, King of gentleness,
with constant love our hearts possess.
To you our lips will ever raise
the tribute of our grateful praise.

All praise, O risen Lord, we give
To you, once dead, but now alive!
To God the Father equal praise,
and God the Holy Ghost, we raise.

This hymn is not one that we sing very often, or ever, but I like how the words describe a gentle Jesus, and a bright joy, constant love and praise that is filled with gratitude.  It is a very old hymn, the music from 1568, the words from the 4th– 5thcentury (translated in 1851).  It is the third part of a Latin text that describes the Apostles’ experience of the death and resurrection of Christ.  The depths of sorrow, the pain of burying their friend, and the joy of seeing his beloved face again.  And the realisation that they had been blessed.

Perhaps it is this element of being blessed by the gentleness of Christ that speaks to me much more than thinking of him as a great warrior.  It feels less like something that wants to be displayed as a trophy, for all to see and admire, than an example of how I might treat those around me.  It requires me to consider how my life can reflect this generosity and compassion, rather than encouraging a sense of superiority that must be imposed on others – because the victors in a battle always seem to want to assimilate the conquered, and while I understand the conquered in this situation is death, the Christian church has had a long tradition of extending this to include everything that is not from within itself.  Much has been destroyed in the name of this perspective – much has been lost.

To be gentle is the opposite of violence.  It is about expressing love in ways that are filled with kindness, that consider the impact of every action, that desire peace and mercy.  This gentleness is about providing constant love in our hearts.

Hope.  Renewal.   These emerge from selfless generosity.  From gentle love.  They are not the spoils of war.  They are the result of considered actions that have been consciously planned to offer what is most needed.  And they should be celebrated.  These are the things deserving of our alleluias and our joy.  On Easter, or whenever.  Not to win, but to give.