89, Come, My Way, My Truth, My Life

Summary: Sixteenth century poet George Herbert’s words invite us to hear Mystery’s call to insight and love.

Often, poetry and music make odd bedfellows, especially when lack of rhyme and extra syllables get crammed uncomfortably in a melody. But sometimes they are a perfect match; is the case with one of the most famous poems to come out of the early Anglican era (1550-1560), set to music by one of the most lush melodies to come out of the English Victorian era (dates).

This poem, “The Call,” was written by George Herbert, an Anglican priest and poet from Wales who lived for many years in Salisbury, Wiltshire. Herbert was considered a masterful orator and writer, and did a brief stint in Parliament and as Trinity College’s public orator (because apparently that was a thing) before returning to the priesthood.

This poem is part of Herbert’s vast body of work that places him squarely in the cannon of the Metaphysical Poets – John Donne perhaps the most famous of them all. These poets – loosely held together under this moniker, did not write all together in one particular style, but what connects them is a particular use of nature as metaphor, mystical sensibilities, and a particular intelligence and cleverness that some contemporaries (and subsequent critics such as Samuel Johnson – the guy who wrote a dictionary) found untenable.

And yet, the poetry lives – beautifully, I might add. At its heart, the poem is a meditation on John 14:6 – “Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” [NRSV] Unfortunately, that verse has been used as a spiritual weapon to delegitimize other religions, and there are some Unitarian Universalists who came to us because of this kind of spiritual abuse.

What I find here, however, is that Herbert’s poetry reaches beyond the dogma and gets to what may have been the real message, which transcends belief: that there is a greater call from that Mystery that we can all find truth, strength, joy, love. Come, Herbert asks of us. If we come to that which we call a higher power – through prayer, through communion, through meditation – we will know.

In 1911, English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, also from Salisbury, set this poem to a beautiful tune, included in a larger piece called Five Mystical Songs, which are all based on Herbert poems. Each one is simply gorgeous and perfectly matched to Herbert’s lush poetry. If you like this hymn, I recommend taking the 20 minutes to listen to the entire song cycle.

You may still have concerns and reservations about this hymn; it is grounded in our Christian heritage, it is by dead European men, and it is a bit too mystical for some. When might it be appropriate to include a more mystical perspective? What would it mean to some in our congregations to hear a hymn based on a well known and sometimes badly used gospel text? How might you shape the rest of the service to balance the socio-location of this hymns composers?

Textual Note: Just one word has changed, but which changes its meaning: in the last line of the second stanza, the word “his” has been changed to “a” by the STLT Hymnal Commission. This removes some explicit Christian content and makes the hymn more universally mystical. If you are using this for a Christian communion, consider changing it back.

Usage Note: permitted for use in online/streaming worship; lyrics and tune in public domain

For More Information:
Biography of George Herbert
Biography of Ralph Vaughan Williams
February 2000 Newsletter of the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society (articles about Herbert and the song cycle beginning on page 7)

Composer: Words by George Herbert
Music by Ralph Vaughan Williams
Tune Name:The Call (recordings found here)
Genre:Classical Hymn
Alternate Tunes:not recommended, but if necessary, Orientis Paribus
Vocal Range:Moderate (E to D-flat)
Complexity:Familiar to Western culture; fairly easy to sing
Mood:Meditative, Mystical
Topics:Christianity, Hope, Insight, Ministry
Liturgical Uses:Meditation, Prayer, Communion
Holidays/Holy Days:NA

1024, When the Spirit Says Do

Summary: This song, passed down in the oral tradition, was used during the Civil Rights Era to give people strength and encourage joyful, committed action.

Sometimes, a hint of something bigger leads one down an unexpected rabbit hole. Such is the case with the hints left by the STJ Hymnal Commission about this hymn.

Now to be clear, that group, like the hymnal commissions before them, did excellent work in gathering, researching, and arranging the 75 songs in this hymnal supplement. And it is true that we are always learning more, always finding more resources, and of course always expanding our theological and ethical understanding. Even the book you now hold in your hand may be out of date as new information appears.

The hint that there’s a bigger story with this song led me down a rabbit hole – not to comfortable underground warren but to something Lewis Carroll’s Alice might have encountered, were she a minister looking for more information about a song only hinted at.

According to the hymnal, this is an African American spiritual from the civil rights period. When I go to the UUA Song Information page, I find that hint to something bigger:

This was one of the songs that was used during the Civil Rights Era at virtually every demonstration, mass meeting of activists, and march in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Singing songs helped give the activists strength and a sense of self. For more detailed information, you may explore the book, When the Spirit Says Sing!: The Role of Freedom Songs in the Civil Rights Movement, written by Kerran L. Sanger.

The rabbit hole now contains a copy of Sanger’s book, which is a treasure trove, exploring how songs like this were used to encourage one another, build cohesion in groups, and build collective identity. As Sanger explains, these songs were rarely narrative in nature, which was useful to activists because of ‘the ease with which verses could be changed to adapt a song to a specific civil rights campaign.

Additionally, these songs helped activists define

“freedom by enumerating the ways that activists could get involved in overturning the restrictions imposed on them in the South. The singers sang of ‘walking and talking’ and ‘singing and praying’ as ways of showing themselves and others that they could and would be free. They also encouraged each other, in ‘Do What the Spirit Say Do’ to take opportunities to prove to themselves that they could march, sing, picket, vote, move, love, and die, if the quest for freedom demanded such action. The abstract word ‘freedom’ gained meaning through the listing of activities that would be available for blacks, and the use of the list amplified the meaning of freedom by providing a multifaceted view of what it meant to be free.”

Thus, finding the definitive version becomes impossible; while the version highlighted on WNEW’s Story of Selma is familiar, it may not be anywhere close to the original, because songs shared this way change and morph with each singing; groups lean into different rhythms, or melodic structures, and soon you have a variety of lyrics and melodies. Sanger notes that this “is another song characterized by activists as a song they had learned through the oral tradition and that they recognized as an older, religious song.”

Finding the older, religious song, was more of a challenge; nothing similar comes up at the fairly exhaustive database at NegroSpirituals.com, or in Thomas Higginson’s “Slave Songs and Spirituals.” However, this version from Sweet Honey in the Rock may be closer to that original than others. The tune is markedly different in their version, but the form is the same; a zipper song, which is useful at protests, on marches, at rallies.

And as children’s music, it turns out.

Raffi, known and loved for his music for children, did a version of this song under the title “You Gotta Sing” wherein he takes out the “lord” and adds in verses such as yawn, stretch, play, stomp, and hum rather than the more pronounced activism of verses such as march, moan, picket, vote, love, preach, etc.). The tune is more familiar to our ears than the others.

But none of them have the jazzed up tag that UU musician Mark Freundt reflects in his arrangement in our hymnal. You now the spot – that one tricky spot that’s only tricky until you learn it. I have yet to find a version other than ours that features that tag, which may be Freundt’s mark on the ever-changing nature of a folk song handed down by oral tradition.

This rabbit hole has led not to definitive answers, as the Song Information paragraph hinted at, but rather to more questions for us as we use this song in our services and justice actions: How do we correctly honor its roots in its current form in STJ? Can we sing it differently than written sometimes? Should we? Who has the right to change it? How do we address the context when many know this as a children’s song?  Some congregations use the song for Pentecost; does this change our usage of it, or enhance it?

However you hold the complexity of this song, you gotta do what the spirit says do.

Usage Note: permitted for use in online/streaming worship

For More Information:
When the Spirit Says Sing!: The Role of Freedom Songs in the Civil Rights Movement, by Kerran L. Sanger (linked to Amazon)

WNEW’s Story of Selma

Composer: African American spiritual, civil rights period. Arrangement by Mark Freundt
Tune Name:NA
Genre:Folk
Alternate Tunes:NA
Vocal Range:moderate (D above middle C to high D)
Complexity:Some tricky parts but easily taught
Mood:Joyful
Topics:Joy, commitment, action, justice, community, embodiment
Liturgical Uses:closing song, recessional
Holidays/Holy Days:Pentecost

143, Not in Vain the Distance Beacons

Summary: This 19th century hymn of vision, peace and hope for the future is set to the familiar Hymn of Joy by the German composer Beethoven, with lyrics from “Locksley Hall” by the English poet Alfred Tennyson.

As anyone who draws inspiration from pop songs or films or television shows can tell you, sometimes the sacred is hidden in the profane. Even when it’s from the 19th century.

The lyrics of this hymn are gorgeous and inspirational, painting for us a vision of a beautiful word yet to be. Written by 19th century English nobleman and poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson, they reflect the richness of his poetics, the influence of the Romantics, and the inspiration of human stories and nature’s power. (Perhaps his most famous poem, “The Charge of the Light Brigade” was written during his tenure as Poet Laurate under the rule of Queen Victoria.) 

Set to Beethoven’s Hymn of Joy, the words become a call to us from the ancestors to move always forward.  They are lovely, and stirring, and strong, and inspiring. A perfect hymn for services about vision, stewardship and capital campaigns, hope in the face of struggle.

Dear Reader, Alfred was writing about love gone wrong.

In his 1835 poem “Locksley Hall” – from which our lyrics are taken – the narrator of the poem is a young man wondering what his future would be, and one evening, he catches a vision:

“When I dipt into the future far as human eye could see;
Saw the Vision of the world and all the wonder that would be.—"

Except it wasn’t a vision of the world as we might expect. It was a woman.

Our intrepid poet goes on for dozens of couplets about their meeting, their falling in love, and eventually the relationship ending. And in his despair, our narrator decided he’s so broken hearted that he’s done with women. The distance that beacons in “Not in vain the distance beacons” is a life on the sea and away from women.

This is the poem our lyrics are from.

Now, credit where credit is due – much like ministers who preach from episodes of Doctor Who or songs by The Beatles – someone somewhere in the late 19th century, with identity lost to the annals of time, remembered the inspiring couplets buried in this poem, and managed to put them together into three sung verses that hold together quite well. 

Why might this have happened? It’s impossible to say, but an article in the April  1908 Union Seminary Magazine by Rev. F.P. Ramsay, Ph.D. suggests that throughout Tennyson’s seemingly secular poetry is a strong vision of God, or Providence; as Ramsey writes about “Locksley Hall,”

“At the head of this society of friendship is God, who is working out, through all ages and changes, through good and ill, His [sic] plan – an all-embracing purpose worthy of the infinite Love and Wisdom.”

Even though this poet’s subject matter was love gone wrong, he tapped into something deeper, more universally true about vision, hope, peace, and the nature of the Divine. Whoever selected these couplets to put into this hymn found the sacred in the profane and created a hymn that has stood the test of time.

It raises a question, however, about what happens when we pick and choose out of an existing resource. Clearly, Tennyson’s intention was far different than the resulting hymn; in this case, it seems reasonable that someone found the spiritual thesis of “Locksley Hall” and set it to music. So how do we wrestle with this when the source is from a person of color, or a trans person, or someone from a different religion?   

That being said, we can say with some certainty that these lyrics have existed for well over a hundred years without any notable controversy that I can detect. It is a good hymn for the right setting, but consider that its lyrics and tune are by 19th century European men. As noted previously, it is worth considering how you might shape the rest of the service to balance the socio-location of this hymn’s composers.

Textual Note: In previous version of this hymn, and indeed in Tennyson’s poem, the final line in the third verse reads “in the Parliament of man, the Federation of the world.” The STLT Hymnal Commission changed this to the more inclusive “in the parliament of freedom, federation of the world.”

Tune Note: These lyrics were originally set to the tune Rex Gloriae, by Henry Thomas Smart, and appear in the Westminister Abbey Hymn Book (1897) with the tune Rustington, by C. Hubert Parry. In Hymns of the Spirit and Hymns for the Celebration of Life, as well as Singing the Living Tradition, they are set to Hymn to Joy.

Usage Note: permitted for use in online/streaming worship; lyrics in public domain

For More Information:
Biography of Alfred Tennyson
Ramsay, Rev. F.P. “Tennyson’s Religious Beliefs”, Union Seminary Magazine, Volume 19
“Locksley Hall”

Composer: Lyrics by Alfred Tennyson,
Tune by Ludwig van Beethoven
Tune Name:Hymn to Joy (recordings found here)
Genre:Classical Hymn
Alternate Tunes:Hyfrodol, Rustington, Rex Gloriae
Vocal Range:Low (low A to high C)
Complexity:Familiar to Western culture; fairly easy to sing
Mood:Moderate/Hopeful
Topics:Vision, Hope
Liturgical Uses:Good for opening or closing
Holidays/Holy Days:NA