Tag Archives: Singing the Living Tradition

A Hymn-Inspired Variation on NaNoWriMo

As November 1, 2021 approached, I was intrigued by the concept of writing something special during the month of November. I wasn’t quite read to jump into an effort dubbed “NaNoWriMo,” or “national novel writing month,” now part of a global non-profit effort to encourage creative writing. I was aware that I don’t at this point have a novel in me. However, the discipline of writing something every day was appealing. 

After looking over my bulging bookcase, I decided that I’d try for a few days to write a daily appreciation of a favorite hymn and see where that effort took me. It resulted in 30 short to medium length essays, some fit for blog publication. I’ve included the complete hymn list at the end of this piece. Perhaps a few of my favorite hymns may speak to you as well.  

One of the aspects of social life that I’ve missed most during the pandemic is the practice of group singing, especially of choral singing in religious services. As the season of holiday choirs and caroling approaches, I miss this practice even more. So, for the next couple of weeks, I’ll post some additional “hymn appreciations” to the “Spiritual musings” thread of this blog. Where possible, I’ll include a link to an earlier example of an in-person choir performing the hymn, or to a pandemic-induced “virtual choir” performing. Best holiday wishes to all, and please, keep singing!   

As an introduction, I’ve penned a parody of a tune you may recognize, apologies to “The Sound of Music”…

Coolinge, Mandela, and Scots-English folk songs,
“Nothing but Peace,” tunes for righting of past wrongs,
Melodies passed down through thick and through thin,
These are some tunes to my favorite hymns.

Masten, and Jim Scott, and Denham and Câpek,
Writing last century on multiple topics,
Tunes and words wistful, or teeming with vim–
These authors crafted some favorite hymns.

“Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” “Climb Jacob’s Ladder,”
“We’ll Build a Land” with room for children’s laughter,
“Gather the Spirit” with fife or with drums,
These are a few of my favorite hymns.

In pandemics, when I’m lonely, when life seems too grim,
I simply locate real or virtual choirs, and belt out a favorite hymn.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

List of hymns profiled in November, 2021 writings; hymns included in UU hymnal Singing the Living Tradition:

Now I Recall My Childhood #191, words Rabindranath Tagore, tune Sursum
Corda
Earth Was Given as a Garden #207, words Roberta Bard, tune Hyfrydol
We Are a Gentle, Angry People #170, words and music Holly Near
Wake Now, My Senses #298, words T.J.S. Mikelson, tune Slane (Irish melody)
How Can I Keep from Singing #108, variation of Quaker hymn, tune traditional
Bright Morning Stars Are Rising #357, words anonymous, tune American folk
song
Nothing But Peace Is Enough #167, words and music Jim Scott

Seek Not Afar for Beauty #77, words M.J. Savage, tune Coolinge
Faith of the Larger Liberty #287, words V.B. Silliman, tune Bit Freuden Zart
Love Will Guide Us #131, words Sally Rogers, tune Olympia
One More Step #168, words and music Joyce Poley
Turn Back #120, words Clifford Bax; and Here We Have Gathered #360, words
Alicia Carpenter; tune Old 124th from 1543 Genevan Psalter
Sleep, My Child #409, words adapted Alicia Carpenter, tune Ar Had Y Nos
Blessed Spirit of My Life #86, words and music Shelley Jackson Denham

For All That Is Our Life #128, words Bruce Findlow, tune Sherman Island
Enter, Rejoice, and Come In #361, words and music Louise Ruspini
Mother Spirit, Father Spirit #8, words and music Norbert Câpek
Every Time I Feel the Spirit #208, African-American spiritual
We Sing Now Together #67, words E.T. Buehrer, tune arr. Edward Kremser
Let It Be a Dance #311, words and music Richard Masten
Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing #149, words James Weldon Johnson, music
J.Rosamond Johnson, dubbed by the NAACP as the Negro National Anthem

Though I May Speak with Bravest Fire #34, words Hal Hopson, and Surprised by
Joy #410 words Eric Routley; traditional Scottish or English folk tune
I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free #151, words and music Billy Taylor
and Dick Dallas, tune called “Mandela”
We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder #211, African-American spiritual and We Are
Dancing Sarah’s Circle #212, words by Carole A. Etzler
We’ll Build a Land #121m words by Barbara Zanotti, music Carolyn McDade
Lady of the Seasons’ Laughter #51, words Kendyl L.R. Gibbons, music David
Hurd
There Is More Love Somewhere #95, African American hymn, tune Biko
Light One Candle #221, words and music by Peter Yarrow (of Peter, Paul and
Mary)

Gather the Spirit #347, words and music Jim Scott
I Know This Rose Will Open #396, words and music Mary Grigolia

 

 

 

Ladders and Circles

Ladders and Circles    —by Jinny Batterson

On a recent Sunday morning, our congregation sang “We are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder,” an adaptation of a 19th century African-American spiritual, in a service about accountability. Even though the word “accountability” has been mouthed by those in positions of power for more than a human generation—holding teachers accountable for students’ performance, holding office holders accountable for appropriate sexual conduct, and so on—many of our current social, political, and environmental structures are not accountable, either to human or to planetary well-being.  If I understood the hymn’s relevance, its implication was that our society has failed to provide needed ladders for those in poverty or distress to climb their way out, or even to reach an escape ladder at all.  Our minister urged us to consider both personal and societal changes to bring our behavior into closer alignment with our professed values of human dignity and worth.  Later in the day, I got a second dose of “accountability audit” from social activist William Barber II, who came to Raleigh to speak at a different congregation as part of the intensification of a nationwide Poor People’s Campaign. Barber combined individuals’ stories of living in poverty with statistics about our worsening wealth imbalances, war profiteering, voter suppression, and degradation of the natural environment. He highlighted the huge gaps between what we profess as a nation founded on the principle of a “more perfect union” and the ways many of our current institutions operate.

Through both morning and evening church, I kept the image of ladders in mind. But I also remembered a different shape. In our UU hymnal, “Singing the Living Tradition,” we’ve frequently borrowed hymn tunes from other Christian traditions and tweaked the lyrics to make the language less full of “almighty God” talk and more inclusive of the glorious spectrum of humanity. During the morning’s service, I noticed that on the page facing the hymn about Jacob’s ladder was a more recent addition, “We Are Dancing Sarah’s Circle.”

Most of my life I’ve been uncomfortable with a strictly hierarchical view of the world. Of course when I was a child, I knew that my parents were nearly always in charge of our family, but as I grew up, I increasingly found that overly general mentions of ladders and of “higher” or “lower” could set my teeth on edge. I often prefer images of circles, where power and movement can flow in many directions—in, out, up, down, right, left, forward, back. I have yet to come up with any consistent long-term way to balance my needs for hierarchies and fairly fixed structures with my needs to remain fluid and adaptable—the balance shifts over time. Implying a gendered component from the names “Jacob” and “Sarah” in the facing hymns would be imperfect and incomplete—the term “pecking order,” after all, refers to hens, not to roosters. 

Most of those in positions of formal leadership struggle with issues of hierarchy and ladders, I believe. Aside from pressing a “big button” and potentially blowing the planet to pieces, or firing advisors who are perceived as insufficiently loyal, our national chief executive has few powers as an individual. He/she must rely on the acquiescence of others to carry out his/her commands. He/she must cajole, inspire, and/or bully others into doing his/her bidding. 

Those in circles of various kinds face other challenges—determining who is in charge of what can be confusing. Diffuse power can lead to overall powerlessness. Yet in many ways circles are more resilient. The absence or death of a single member, or even of a proportion of the overall membership, does not necessarily destroy a circle. Often new members step in to fill the gaps. Circle members learn a variety of skills, so that leadership can rotate with little decrease in overall effectiveness. A different hymn, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” written in the early 20th century and frequently adapted since, speaks to the long life of circles.

So let’s celebrate ladders and work to make them more accessible to all who need them, but let’s not forget that circles are important, too.