Fragile

I’ve lost track of how many days we’ve been living in this strange state; how many weeks, maybe months are a better measure.  Time moves fast, and yet feels so slow.  It is still hard to comprehend, and yet there are ways in which we are getting used to things as they are.  A strange surreal dream.  One we’re all having together.  In the middle of all of that, I have been reminded very clearly this week, that there are many, many who are facing both enormous and minor challenges, small or scary disturbances that have nothing to do with this pandemic.  Dealing with things that must be dealt with, in spite of this pandemic.  It sometimes feels as if we’ve forgotten this, but these struggles are also real.

For some reason, it made me think of this song.  Surely everyone knows this one.  We all sang it at camp or school or in some gathering of some sort, somewhere along the way.  It has been written about many times, sung by many singers, treasured for its ability to engender warmth and maligned for its naïveté.  It has a fairly long history, some of which has been disputed, some of which involves being co-opted for all kinds of uses, political and otherwise, but most agree it comes from the Gullah Geechee people in the Southern United States.  People who were, and are, descendants of enslaved West Africans.  These people were deeply rooted in music, and this familiar word, kumbaya, is said to mean ‘come by here’.  I suppose, it is a lament or a call for what is needed.

Kumbaya my Lord, kumbaya
Kumbaya my Lord, kumbaya
Kumbaya my Lord, kumbaya
Oh Lord, kumbaya

Someone’s singing Lord, kumbaya
Someone’s singing Lord, kumbaya
Someone’s singing Lord, kumbaya
Oh Lord, kumbaya

Someone’s crying Lord, kumbaya
Someone’s crying Lord, kumbaya
Someone’s crying Lord, kumbaya
Oh Lord, kumbaya

Someone’s praying Lord, kumbaya
Someone’s praying Lord, kumbaya
Someone’s praying Lord, kumbaya
Oh Lord, kumbaya

When we find ourselves in need, where do we turn?  Some have difficulty asking for anything, I know I would fall into that camp.  When we look around and see the world in the state is in today, how much more difficult is this call for help.  We feel we are imposing.  We want to be independent, we want to be strong. We care about burdening others.  There are lots of reasons to face things on our own.  But there are better reasons to reach out, to ask for help, to share the load.

We are fragile.  But we are also immensely strong.  It’s a bit like the way time is moving fast and slow all at once.  We are simply too complex to be one or the other.  This means we need each other.  We need to give, we need to receive.  It is a beautiful symbiotic thing that we have with the rest of humanity.  With our friends, with our families.  We carry, we rest.  We are carried, we renew.  Our fragility connects us and invites others to both come to where we are, and show us how to find them.

When I sing these words, and it is difficult not to when I hear the tune, this interaction is so clear, so present.  Someone’s singing.  I hear you and then you draw me to where you are.  You hear and then find me.  Someone’s crying.  I see your tears and wipe them away.  You see my pain and enclose me in your care.  Someone’s praying.  I listen and understand your needs.  You listen and look for ways to fill mine.  These are remarkably simple words filled with incredible power.  I don’t think they are naïve at all, but wise beyond what I had really considered.  Come by here.  Meet me where I am.

We are all on different journeys.  Some have an overdose of pain right now, more to deal with than should be allowed.  I am incredibly inspired by those who are able to face their fragility with strength that seems to carry all those around them.  Strength that invites us all to participate, and encourage, and just be better.  No denial of the hardship or inability to acknowledge the fragility, but the wisdom to do what’s required to rebuild, grow and heal with the hope and knowledge that something better is coming.

This is kumbaya.  And when we see these special people, we come to their sides and we sing, we cry and we pray.  Oh Lord, kumbaya.

Doubt

As time passes, I suspect we all have doubts about what is going on.  Are we doing the right things?  What are the next steps?  Where are the trustworthy sources of information?  Lots of questions.  It is our responsibility to seek wisdom where it lies, not simply accept the noise of the loudest voices.  We must also seek the strength and guidance of those that can reassure us in our personal doubts.  With our lives turned upside-down, many are questioning their value and relevance in the absence of previously secure circumstances.  Many are doubting their futures in the reality of already shaky situations.  There are lots of doubts, and lots of encouragement is needed.  Look for strength and wisdom. If you are able, offer these things. We will get through this.

[Note: It is not Pentecost Sunday this week, this hymn just seemed right today]

*

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.

Legacy

How will we be remembered?  What groundwork are we laying?  With our lives, our actions, our words?  What are the results of who we are, for the present for the future?  I wonder about this sometimes, when everything is in its usual state.  I suppose it is just a variation on the question of the meaning of life. But it seems important right now.  As our lives have been paused in a away, and it is a strange opportunity to considerer our impact.  In big and small ways.  Our humour, our skills, our light, our work, our fun, our joy, our anger, our frustrations, our pain, our kindness, our care. They are all part of what we contribute.  We are complex, but we can choose what we offer, what we leave behind – even in our failures, there is space for us to shine.

*

One of the reasons for doing this project, is to consider hymns I don’t know.  There are many.  This is one of them.  The words are based on Psalms 103 and 104, and were written by James Montgomery in 1819 (this particular version was revised in the 1990s by Jean Janzen).  They are well-known.  The tune, however, I didn’t know – although it felt familiar.  With a bit of searching, I found that it was actually written by Giovani Paiesello for his 1787 opera, La Molinara.  Interestingly, Beethoven also wrote variations for the piano using this tune. Somewhere along the way, someone decided to use it as a hymn, and it shows up in the St. Alban’s Tune Book in 1865.

The story of this tune travelling through time in various forms, for various purposes, reminds me of how little we can predict what our contributions to this world can become.  Perhaps our endeavours will not have quite as illustrious associations and long lasting impact as this, but what we contribute – good or bad – has a tendency to spread. To ripple through our immediate circles and out into the world, in small and big ways.

Thinking about this, and reading these words, I can’t help feeling that, once again, I am being guided to behave in ways that will result in ripples of good; in a legacy that is about kindness and truth.

O bless the Lord, my soul!
God’s grace to you proclaim,
And all that is within me join
to bless God’s holy name.

God clothes you with great love,
Upholds you with the truth,
And like the eagle God renews
The vigor of your youth.

Love’s mercy bear in mind
When you are plagued with wrong.
God’s anger will be slow to rise;
Love’s patience stretches long.

God pardons all your sin,
Prolongs your feeble breath,
Heals all your sickness, ev’ry pain,
And saves you from your death.

Then bless God’s holy name,
Whose grace has made you whole,
Whose lovingkindness crowns your days;
O bless the Lord, my soul.

If I think about these words in terms of an example to follow, I’m drawn to the words grace, love, truth, vigor, mercy, patience, pardon, healing and lovingkindness.  That’s a tall order.  For those who adhere to a belief in God, it is pretty easy to assign these characteristics to a divine being.  But if we start to consider what adopting these characteristics means for each of us, the effort seems monumental.  I like these ideals.  But following them can be enormously challenging – particularly when faced with the behaviours and attitudes of others that seem to require more aggressive responses.

There are times when my instinct is to fight against what I disagree with, what I find repulsive, what seems to be wrong.  It is a good instinct, but I find myself thinking more and more about what the fight looks like.  I see and hear a lot of resentment and negativity in this easily accessible world we live in.  A lot of divisiveness.  Much of it justified.  But some of it is more about the image than the progress; more about being right than creating change; more about winning than gentle guidance and real leadership.  It is so hard to consider the humanity of the other side … when they are always on the other side.

As I think about the ideals expressed in these words, I am conscious that how I choose to behave will have some impact on the world. I don’t know, nor do I really care, whether that is great or small.  But I do care that it is good.  I do care that it doesn’t damage, betray or bring pain to another beautiful soul.  There are times when I have failed at this and times when I have succeeded. The depth of what it means to choose to wear a crown of lovingkindness requires us to stand up for truth and be vigorous in our actions and patience.  It is neither passive nor weak, it is strong beyond our immediate understanding.  History has had far too few that have adhered to this philosophy wholeheartedly, but there have been those who remain inspirational and to whom we can look as examples. Find them – those we only read about, those we know personally.

Choose to create a legacy made up of what you truly believe, admire and value.  Doing so will guide your path in ways that you won’t always understand and that won’t always be easy.  But these paths take us where we need to go, and leave a trail for others to follow.  They will sing your operas, create beautiful variations and offer hymns.  And souls will be blessed.

Praise?

I have no idea what prompted me to choose this hymn today.  It’s not a particular favourite, I don’t actually know it that well.  As I sit here thinking about these words and this tune, I find myself wondering if I made the right selection.  What’s odd, is that the words weren’t even written by one person.  The first two verses by the famous Isaac Watts in 1719, the last two added later around 1781, possibly by the editor of  A Pocket Hymn-Book, Robert Spence.  They are based on Psalm 117 – which is very short at about three sentences.  A simple act of praise, in gratitude for kindness and truth, faithfulness and love.  And, well, maybe that’s just what I needed.

From all that dwell below the skies, 
let the Creator’s praise arise; 
let the Redeemer’s name be sung, 
through every land by every tongue. 

Eternal are thy mercies, Lord; 
eternal truth attends thy word.  
Thy praise shall sound from shore to shore, 
till suns shall rise and set no more. 

Your lofty themes, ye mortals, bring, 
in songs of praise divinely sing; 
the great salvation loud proclaim, 
and shout for joy the Savior’s name. 

In every land begin the song; 
to every land the strains belong; 
in cheerful sounds all voices raise, 
and fill the world with loudest praise. 

It is interesting that these words are based on a Psalm of David, and yet speak so fervently about New Testament themes of salvation and a saviour.  I’m not particularly interested in that, and find it quite strange, actually.  But I do like the idea that it is possible for the entire world to look upon creation and raise our voices in praise.  That all who dwell below the skies, can sing with cheerful sounds.  The last verse is quite lovely.  Not only does every land begin to sing, but the song also belongs to every land.  Think about that.  If we were to accept the songs offered by our neighbours across this world, if we were to sing together in our various voices, what a tremendous sound could fill the air.

Is that what we are doing?  Every day we hear about how the choices of people unaffected by this virus are protecting those who are vulnerable.  I sit here healthy, at home, so someone else doesn’t catch this thing; so a hospital near me isn’t stretched beyond its capacity.  It is a song I am singing in unison, in harmony with people all over this planet.  Millions and millions of people are choosing to raise this powerful sound; choosing to accept a difficult truth and act accordingly, from one shore to the next.  It is imperfect, but it is happening.

I understand this is not what the Psalmist intended.  The origins of these words are about praise to a loving, faithful God.  They are about asking all on this earth to join in that praise. But as always, I think there is more to this.  It is also a broader concept.  If God, or nature, or spirit, or sacred, can be bigger than our personal definitions, this is about everything on this earth and how connected we all are.  There is something about the ideas of love and truth and kindness and faithfulness that tie us together.  Being joined by these things allows the whole to flourish, whereas choosing self merely devises our end.  These things are worthy of our praise. It is folly to to praise selfishness, and its ability to deceive us, for it only sacrifices both the singers and the song.

There is tremendous strength in our voices, in our actions.  All of them.  Every land, every tongue.  When they are joined in praise of what is good, what is right, they are a powerful force.  There are eternal truths below the skies.  They are those things that offer the greatest love, kindness, hope, faithfulness, joy, beauty, and generosity to all without discrimination or expectation.  If what we say and do doesn’t meet that standard, it just isn’t worthy of praise.  But when it does, it will sound from shore to shore, till suns shall rise and set no more.

Friends

If there is one thing we are learning, it is the value of our friends, of our communities.  Gathering isn’t possible right now, with the possible exception of conversations across fences, streets and driveways, but we are still coming together.  We are building strong bonds as we check on each other, share food, send flowers, meet virtually and have ongoing conversations via text and phone. There are still lots of reasons to be a community and lots of diversity to embrace.  These friends we make, these friends we cling to, these friends with whom we gather are the foundation for our ability to survive and enjoy life in so many ways.  I am thankful.

*

I’ve been thinking about community lately.  It seems to be something that is difficult to find and, perhaps, not as common as it once was.  I recently had an interesting conversation with some people much younger than I about the subject.  We all wondered what the impact our diminishing community groups was having – on how we understand each other; on how we understand ourselves.

The idea of community is one that involves gathering together people with something in common.  This can be anything.  Politics, religion, family ties, culture, heritage, activities, geographic location, neighbourhood, work…. anything.  But it’s more than just having things in common.  It’s also about the bonds that develop.  The ability to connect beyond the shared interests.  The ability to both celebrate successes and carry the group and its individual members through challenges.  The ability to share lives.

In a world where we barely know our neighbours, and are often bombarded with the idea that strangers are somehow dangerous, how does community develop?  We need to gather.  And many of us are not great at that, myself included.  Making time for our communities requires effort.

This hymn was written around 1597, but first appeared in a 1625 collection of Dutch folksongs.  It has a bit of a strange origin in that it was written to celebrate a Dutch victory in a battle that was largely about being able to worship as Protestants.  I’m not a huge fan of military songs, but they were singing to celebrate their community’s new found freedom at a complicated time in church history.  They gathered to celebrate.  They gathered for strength.  They gathered for support.

We gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing.
He chastens and hastens his will to make known.
The wicked oppressing now cease from distressing.
Sing praises to his name; he forgets not his own.

Beside us to guide us, our God with us joining,
ordaining, maintaining his kingdom divine.
So from the beginning the fight we were winning;
thou, Lord, wast at our side, all glory be thine!

We all do extol thee, thou leader triumphant,
and pray that thou still our defender will be.
Let thy congregation escape tribulation.
Thy name be ever praised! O Lord, make us free!

While I am uncomfortable with the literal battle imagery evoked in these words, I am interested in the idea of gathering as a community.  Of developing such strong ties, that we are able to withstand the metaphorical battles we all face. If I really think about this honestly, I have to say that this kind of community is much more complex than what seems to have become the norm.  Most of us have a handful of friends that we really like – and these dear ones become our communities.  But many do not have communities of any sort that include people of diverse ages, or backgrounds, or perspectives.  We stay with those who are like us – which, while being a real treasure, is not quite the same as being part of a healthy, thriving community.

There is something to be said of learning from those who are different than us.  There is something to be gained by hearing the wisdom of the old, the young, the tired, the strong, the sad, the newcomer, the enthusiastic, the joyful, the inexperienced, the differently experience.  There are so many ways to view this world.  There are so many ways to be good.  There are so many ways to offer kindness, love and compassion.

These remain uncomfortable words for me.  They speak to a kind of divisiveness that I’m not entirely sure promotes the ideal of community that I might desire.  I’m not terribly interested in winning a battle between my group and another’s.  However, if I stand back and think about how we can gather to become a force of strength, I am comforted.  I am sure that the writer of these words was looking to God to be that unifying force in this gathering.  Some may still do that.  Others will look to values or interests or ideas.  But, wherever we choose to look for the foundations of our communities, I suspect we should actively consider building with bricks of many colours, textures and materials.  There is beauty in our diversity.  When we cease gathering, and cease looking for gatherings, we miss it.

So, gather together and enjoy all the blessings.

Mothers and Love

Today we celebrate Mother’s Day.  Taking a moment to honour the women that raised us, cared for us, guided us and taught us.  We usually send flowers and cards, share special meals, offer handmade gifts made of macaroni (well, it’s been a while since I’ve done that!).  As I thought about my mother and others that I’ve observed, I am aware that there is something extra special about the ability to love another human being from infancy through adulthood.  It is impossible to be swayed by cuteness and pleasant experiences for a whole lifetime, a mother’s love is deeper than that.  It is all encompassing.  It exists in sunshine and rain, in health and ill, in prosperity and drought.  It is imperfect and yet, it is sacred, a little bit holy.  Celebrate our mothers today.  Those that birthed us.  Those that chose us.  Those that simply filled a space that was empty.

*

Come, let us all unite to sing: God is love!
Let Heav’n and earth their praises bring,
God is love! Let every soul from sin awake,
Let every heart sweet music make,
And sing with us for Jesus’ sake: God is love!

This week’s hymn is pretty cheerful. It basically says, everyone join in and sing. Sing because God is love. I suppose that’s as good a reason to sing as any, the idea that this Divine being is love. It’s kind of a grand concept. Not simply that God loves us or that we love God, but that God is love.

I must admit that love is another one of our commonly used words that is actually quite difficult to define. We understand it as a feeling of affection, attraction or devotion and a means of expression. Something that compels us to act in a particular way. Something that can shape our views, our actions and our decisions. But, for something or someone to be love, seems beyond our usual definitions.

How happy is our portion here, God is love!
His promises our spirits cheer, God is love!
He is our sun and shield by day,
Our help, our hope, our strength and stay;
He will be with us all the way; God is love!

The words of this hymn first appeared in an American songbook called Millenial Praises in 1812. It is unknown who wrote them, although they are sometimes attributed to Howard Kingsbury (unlikely, as he was only born in 1842!). It’s interesting to me that they are so pleasant. Filled with images of sweet music, happiness, sunshine, hope and strength.  Sing praises and all will be well. While I will be the first to suggest that music can uplift, and that the act of praise, in whatever form or tradition you choose to practice it, may also boost the spirit, life doesn’t magically become all we desire just because we’re singing praises.

So I struggle with these kinds of words. If we can’t praise, do we become sad? If we are struggling, hopeless, depressed, sick or weak are we unable to praise? Have we failed? I don’t think so. I think we have just been unable to define love very well. Love encompasses us completely.  Not just the happy bits, not just what looks or feels good. To me, these cheerful words are only part of the story. I’m happy to unite to sing, but love is about more than sunshine and so I also need us to sing in and about the rain.

Unite to sing whatever words or tune you know. There is much to be found in the unity of singing together.  But if you find yourself in a moment where you have no song, simply listen – the rest of us will sing.  And we will fill our voices with whatever love we have.

God is love! God is love!
Come let us all unite to sing that God is love.

Night

We are living in a kind of night.  A time where many things are on hold, not really gone, just dormant.  We are waiting.  We are receiving mixed messages – we should be resting and enjoying this time of less; we should be developing skills and trying new things, taking advantage of our extra time.  What we do during this time differs greatly depending on our circumstances, energy, access, wealth, personality, location, age and health.  There is no right answer as to how we should be spending our time, or what, if anything, we should be accomplishing.  But I am certain, that how we behave towards others matters. Our decisions to offer kindness and understanding are crucial right now.  These choices will make a difference greater than anything we can possibly imagine. And they will light up our night sky with a brightness that reveals what is good in us, and in this world.

*

I will admit that I picked this hymn solely because I liked its title.   I didn’t know it at all.  The tune isn’t very catchy and I can’t say I loved it.  It is one of those really, really old tunes (1539) that doesn’t exactly flow easily for our modern ears.   But I played it a few times and it started to grow on me.  And then, I read the words.

Now all the woods are sleeping,
through fields the shadows creeping,
and cities sink to rest.
Let us, as night is falling,
upon our maker calling,
give thanks to God, who loves us best.

The radiant sun has vanished,
its golden rays are banished
from dark’ning skies of night.
But Christ the sun of gladness,
dispelling all our sadness,
shines down on us in warmest light.

Now all the heav’nly splendor
breaks forth its starlight tender
from myriad worlds unknown.
And we, this marvel seeing,
forget our selfish being
for joy of beauty not our own.

Though long our ancient blindness
has missed God’s loving kindness
and plunged us into strife,
one day when life is over
shall death’s fair night uncover
the fields of everlasting life.

I love the idea of night.  The darkness, the quiet.  The possibility of peaceful sleep.  The time to let go of daily concerns, busy schedules, pressing concerns.  The beautiful feeling of comfortable aloneness. A time to rest and restore our bodies and minds.  The idea of night.

Then, there is the reality of night.  Lying wide awake wondering if sleep will ever come. All the concerns of days past and days to come swirling around like a flock of crazed birds.  Worrying about how difficult tomorrow will be because of not enough sleep.  The sadness found in loneliness.  The reality of night.

I find these words speak to both the ideal and the reality.  Lovely shadows creeping through fields as we sink to rest, yet we find the radiant sun’s golden rays have been banished.  These words are full of the suggestion that we need something to hold us when we find ourselves alone.  Alone with our fears.  Alone with our thoughts.  Alone with our failures.  Alone with our pain.  Alone with loss. For those moments we find ourselves facing the darkness of night, unable to find its beauty and peace.  We all need something to shine warmth when we are cold, tenderness when we are raw.

In the past few weeks, I have spoken with a number of people who are facing some of life’s deepest challenges.  We all have these times.  In these moments of night that bring no real peace or rest, it is easy to feel very alone.  For those that find themselves unable to see beyond the darkening skies, it can be debilitating to find any warmth.  For those that must go through difficult transitions, it can be so tiring to have the patience to walk the path.  For some the darkness is insurmountable.

Where do we find the sunshine of gladness to ease our way? I don’t know.  For some, it is in their faith, as this hymn suggests.  For some it is in their friends and family. For some it is in their therapist’s office.  For some it is in the beauty of nature, art or written words and ideas that they seek comfort.  But I suspect there is something in the act of seeking the warmth we need that helps us through the nights.

And yet, there are those times that the weight of the night is so heavy it is difficult to see beyond it or to seek what we need. It is in these times that those of us fortunate enough to find ourselves in moments of sunshine need to be the rays of warm light.  We may not have solutions, but there is something to be said for being a listening ear, a caring hand and a giving soul when darkness has become a thick fog. For loving kindness is a powerful tool against ancient blindness. It is present and it is warm.

Loving kindness has a tendency to reveal a beauty that is not our own.  The kind of beauty that resides in both day and night, in both sadness and joy.  The kind of beauty that gives us the opportunity to receive and offer peace and rest to the weary. When we deliberately walk in loving kindness we reveal the possibility of night’s safety.  And, just maybe, we are able to find paths in the darkness of the sleeping woods.

Gifts

I’ve been thinking about gifts lately.  Those special talents that each of us have; those things we spend our lives learning, improving and in rare cases, mastering.  Things that sometimes seem as though they are unexplainable when we observe what others are capable of, that we ourselves can’t even contemplate attempting.  But, we all have gifts.  They are different, some more obvious than others. But no matter how hard they can be to find and hone, no one is exempt.

I am particularly interested in what it means to share our gifts.  Something many are very obviously doing right now.  I had a look in my hymnal at the section about offerings and found this hymn.  The words were written by William Walsham How in 1864.  He was an Anglican minister who wrote over fifty hymns, perhaps his most famous being, For All the Saints.  The music is trickier to track, as the tune was originally attributed to Schumann and carries his name.  However, apparently after his death, his widow, Clara Wieck Schumann wrote that she could find no evidence of this in her husband’s work, so we don’t really know!

We give Thee but Thine own,
Whate’er the gift may be;
All that we have is Thine alone,
A trust, O Lord, from Thee. 

May we Thy bounties thus
As stewards true receive,
And gladly, as Thou blessest us,
To Thee our firstfruits give.

To comfort and to bless,
To find a balm for woe,
To tend the lone and fatherless
Is angels’ work below.

The captive to release,
To God the lost to bring,
To teach the way of life and peace—
That is a Christ-like thing.

And we believe Thy Word,
Though dim our faith may be;
Whate’er for Thine we do, O Lord,
We do it unto Thee.

This is a hymn about stewardship.  The practice of being responsible for what we have, for acknowledging it must be cared for, and understanding that, in this case, it comes from and belongs to God.  This is not an uncommon belief among people who practice a variety of religions and even of those for whom nature or mother earth is considered the source of all.  And, I suspect, there is something very powerful in the idea that what we have is not our own.

I don’t think this means we are not able to earn a living from our gifts, using them to do our jobs or find satisfaction in our accomplishments.  I think this means they are fertilized by their use, by being shared.  By being offered with sincerity, generosity and openness, our gifts’ benefits multiply and enhance the worlds in which we live.  We receive our gifts mysteriously, we work at them conscientiously and then, if we offer them freely, they become something more than they would be if only self-serving.  Suddenly they provide comfort and blessings, balms for woe, tend to the lone, release the captive, find the lost, teach and offer peace.

It is easy to think of these kinds of angels’ work as being limited to only certain gifts.  But they are not.  There are countless ways in which what we offer of ourselves fills these roles. I am blessed by the tireless person in my neighbourhood who picks up garbage from the sidewalks and encouraged knowing that there skilled gardeners and farmers ensuring we all have food. I learn from those who share their recipes and instructions on all kinds of things, and am comforted when I am able to have conversations with my family members and friends. It is a balm for many worries to know of people that use their minds and knowledge to solve enormous problems being faced by us all, even if we don’t understand how these processes work.  Peace can be found in the gifts of others and the knowledge that not one of us must fill every need.

I am thankful for the many gifts I see in the people I know.  Many are beyond my understanding and impress me endlessly.  Especially now, the variety and quality of our gifts, and our individual commitments to using them, is so important.  We are all stewards of whatever we have been fortunate to receive – regardless of whether it seems significant or not.  When we share all these things, we become whole.  When we recognize the wealth and value of this variety, we start to become healthy.

Know that your gifts are valuable, important and welcome.  Do not let anyone convince you otherwise.  All of our gifts are treasures of immense beauty and powerful force.  Give freely and be satisfied that you are, and have done, enough.

Time

Some of us have a lot of extra time right now and are having trouble finding enough to do, or to be motivated to do anything.  Some of us are swamped with work that takes more time than usual, or extra work that is a result of changes in our workplaces and job requirements.  Some of us are pondering a life without the work that inspires and motivates us, because it is simply not possible at the moment. Whatever the case, we all need to take time for ourselves. Time to acknowledge whatever supports us, and reflect on that which brings us peace.  Whether putting aside extra activity or fending off lethargy, take a moment to focus on the things that offer stillness and renewal. These moments are important and will enhance our lives in ways we can’t even imagine.

*

For the first time since I began looking at old hymns, a friend asked if I had anything using a particular text.  I have had many requests for specific hymns, but never for specific words.  She hoped I might post something that would be of comfort to a friend of hers who was going through a difficult time.  After a bit of research, I found this old hymn written around 1882 by William D. Longstaff.  As far as I can tell, it’s the only hymn he wrote and while it is familiar to me, I hadn’t heard or sung it in a very long time.

Take time to be holy, speak oft with thy Lord;
Abide in Him always, and feed on His Word.
Make friends of God’s children, help those who are weak,
Forgetting in nothing His blessing to seek.

Take time to be holy, the world rushes on;
Spend much time in secret, with Jesus alone.
By looking to Jesus, like Him thou shalt be;
Thy friends in thy conduct His likeness shall see.

Take time to be holy, let Him be thy Guide;
And run not before Him, whatever betide.
In joy or in sorrow, still follow the Lord,
And, looking to Jesus, still trust in His Word.

Take time to be holy, be calm in thy soul,
Each thought and each motive beneath His control.
Thus led by His Spirit to fountains of love,
Thou soon shalt be fitted for service above.

The words in this hymn are powerful.  I was struck by how relevant they are for all of us – whether we believe the specifics of the language or not.  We live in a world filled with turmoil, anxiety and stress.  Our days are busy.  Our minds are full of thoughts, good and bad, happy and sorrowful.  We worry and we struggle to achieve all that is on our calendars.  We are constantly adding to our schedules, fitting things in, trying to balance the details.  Sometimes we succeed and sometimes we fail.  We are faced with unknowns, with crises, with the unexpected.  This is our normal.

And yet, as I read these words, I was reminded of our deep need to take a moment and be still.  To be holy.  One of the definitions of holy states that it is something worthy of our complete devotion.  For some of us that is about God.  For others it may be something else, or maybe it is just about quiet contemplation or meditation.  I think the key is that it involves our complete devotion.  It requires us to put everything else aside and take the time.

I love the way these words exhort us to take this time.  I love how they suggest that we need to feed on what is holy.  I love that they suggest that this feeding involves calming our souls but also helping the weak and becoming fitted for service.  These words are about renewing ourselves and then looking outward.  Past the rush of the world and into a place where our friends can see this little bit of holiness.  We are rejuvenated, but we also rejuvenate those around us.

During this very busy time of year, these words are a comfort.  Taking a moment to be calm and looking upon whatever is holy for you, is a gift.  It may be difficult, but the renewal is available.  It may be lonely, but these secret moments bring their own blessings.  These moments allow what we believe to be strengthened and renewed, maybe even found for the first time.  These moments allow us the space to become who we wish to be; allow us to see past the chaos in our lives.  These moments encircle us with what we hold dear, what we truly believe – they help us see what is holy.  And these are the soft places where we find our peace.

 

 

Still Singing

The human voice is an amazing thing.  We have many other beautiful instruments – created over time and place to express our songs, our feelings, our desires, our hopes and our dreams.  But the voice arrives with us the moment we are born.  It is a sound like no other.  It can express everything there is to express.  Everything.  And when we sing, it offers something nothing else can – a connection that emerges from deep within our physical being. It can reveal and comfort us on an incredibly intimate level, but can also be shared in the grandest of ways.  Perhaps this is why we are turning to song so much these days, listening and allowing ourselves to be enveloped by the sound of the human voice.  Join in.  Sing.  What it offers is much more than entertainment. It is a way to be emptied of our concerns and filled with joy; express our pain and welcome comfort. It is our most basic act of hopefulness.  Find your voice, and sing.

*

I was sitting in church last week when this hymn was sung, and I thought, I kind of like this one.  I don’t think I had heard it in quite a while, but the tune is very familiar (based on a traditional English melody) and feels like a pleasant walk in nature to me.  Obviously, the words also evoke this image – and were written by a Reverend Babcock in the late 1800s as a reflection on the many walks he took along the Niagara Escarpment in upper New York.  I will admit to being slightly perturbed by the excessive use of male imagery to represent God, somehow diminishing the grandeur of the Divine that is being described into an easily understood human package, but I will attempt to let that go as I consider this lovely little song.  Language of the time, I suppose.

This is my Father’s world,
And to my listening ears
All nature sings, and round me rings
The music of the spheres.
This is my Father’s world:
I rest me in the thought
Of rocks and trees, of skies and seas;
His hand the wonders wrought.

This is my Father’s world,
The birds their carols raise,
The morning light, the lily white,
Declare their maker’s praise.
This is my Father’s world,
He shines in all that’s fair;
In the rustling grass I hear him pass;
He speaks to me everywhere.

This is my Father’s world.
O let me ne’er forget
That though the wrong seems oft so strong,
God is the ruler yet.
This is my Father’s world:
why should my heart be sad?
The Lord is King; let the heavens ring!
God reigns; let the earth be glad!

I could consider these words in terms of their beautiful description of our natural world.  The rocks, the trees, the skies, the seas; morning light and rustling grass. Wonders, all.  Understanding the presence of the Creator in nature.  Or, understanding the value of nature itself in its ability to remind us of something beyond ourselves, something majestic, something spectacular.

But it brought to mind something completely different.

What struck me in these words was the idea that nature sings.  The carols of the birds, the music of the spheres.  Of course this appeals to me – I love singing.  I love that we can sing together.  I love that it is possible for each and every one of us to join together and without needing anything beyond our voices, to produce extraordinary sound, emotion, spirit, meaning and community.  We can create astounding beauty – like nature itself does for us.

If I take this a step further, I realize that singing is as much an act of joy as it is an act of admiration.  We do it because it fills us with something difficult to describe.  It makes us feel good, it makes us feel sadness, it simply makes us feel.  But it also serves to remind us of what is greater than ourselves.  Be it nature or God – or be it the wisdom of the lyrics and the beauty of the notes.  The complexity of the harmonies, the simplicity of a lovely tune.  The laughter found in silly songs, or comfort offered in times of grief.  The rhythms that get our toes tapping, the solemnity that requires us to contemplate. The observations that reflect the entire human experience.

This beautiful act of expressing through song all that we are, all that we experience, all that we see, is one I value hugely.  It is universal – we all sing.  And it should be celebrated and protected, not merely as an act of mimicry, but as an act of deliberate participation.   Our voices can speak and offer so much.  I’m not sure we really understand that we need to sing, and that we need to fight for places in which to sing together.  We sing in our cars. Alone. But when we join together, something magical starts to happen.  We become connected – to each other and to the beauty of our world.  When we take the time to craft our singing, to learn from those who have spent their lives showing us this art and how to get the most from it, we bond with those we are working and playing with and we start to develop all kinds of skills and have all kinds of experiences.

When I walk through this beautiful world and listen to the music of the spheres, I want to sing along. Join me.  Our voices can unite for many reasons.  But mostly, to reflect the beauty we see every day – in the stars, in the birds, and in the eyes of someone listening.   For when the view is difficult, the sound of our voices becomes a beacon, a respite and a valuable tool in fending off that which threatens to weigh us down.  Sweet songs lulled us to sleep as children, and they can carry us as adults.  The act of singing is a powerful one that both gives and receives.  Filled with beauty and peace, comfort and joy. The human voice is an unsurpassed instrument.  So use it… sing and share, learn and grow, and let the earth be glad.