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This is post number 34 in the hymn series.

Finlandia by Jean Sibelius provides one of the most moving hymn tunes.  Most people know it as the tune for "Be Still My Soul."

Be still, my soul: for God is on your side;
bear patiently the cross of grief or pain;
Leave to your God to order and provide;
in every change God faithful will remain.
Be still, my soul: your best eternal friend
through thorny ways leads to a joyful end.

Many find this hymn to be consoling, and it has often appeared in favourite hymn lists and surveys in the church's I've served.  However, there is a "religion as the opiate of the masses" quality to it.  It also has bad theology.

When Jesus instructed his disciples to "take up their crosses and follow him," he meant that they were to be willing to risk everything in their challenge of the powers-that-be and the creation of a new and better world.  The cross, of course, as an instrument of torture and execution was a symbol of injustice and oppression.  Jesus wanted followers who were willing to suffer martyrdom.

So, when a dear elderlly woman says of her arthritis, "I guess it's my cross to bear," that is really bad theology and a complete distortion of the gospel.  She's come of the view honestly, for this bad theology has often been promulgated by the church as a means of consolation for suffering.  It just isn't what Jesus meant.  This hymn, of course, has furthered that bad theology.

At CoH-OKC one of our church members, David Disbrow, adapted the lyrics to overcome this bad theology.  I can't seem to find a copy of them, but maybe David can share them in the comments.

Fortunately, FINLANDIA is the tune for a truly great hymn "This Is My Song."

This is my song, O God of all the nations,
a song of peace for lands afar and mine.
This is my home, the country where my heart is;
here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine;
But other hearts in other lands are beating
with hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.

My country's skies are bluer than the ocean,
and sunlight beams on cloverleaf and pine;
But other lands have sunglight too, and clover,
and skies are everywhere as blue as mine.
O hear my song, O God of all the nations,
a song of peace for their land and for mine.

The first time we did a hymn sing Sunday here at First Central this hymn was requested, and it was the first time that my husband Michael ever heard it.  He immediately fell in love with it and now requests it himself every hymn sing Sunday (and other times).  He wants it sung at his funeral.  A few weeks ago the first two hymns requested at this year's hymn sing were "Be Still My Soul" and "This Is My Song."

On September 11, 2011 we sang this song in worship.  

More on Gaza

Great breakfast conversation this morning on Israel/Palestine with a rabbi, a chaplain, and a Unitarian minister.  In our conversation, these two opinion pieces were recommended.

One by David Brooks discussing this conflict as part of a larger "Thirty Years War" underway in the Middle East.

And this one by Roger Cohen arguing that the current policies of the Netanyahu government are a betrayal of Zionism.

Ancient Words

Post number thirty-three in this series on the hymns I've sung.

Christa Singing

One feature of the Cathedral of Hope--Oklahoma City liturgy that was unique among the churches I've served was the singing of a Gradual before the reading of the scripture lesson.  The lesson was always followed by a Gloria, of which we sang a great variety, changing with the seasons of the church.

One simple gradual was the chorus "Thy Word."

Thy Word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.
Thy Word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.

Though they were usually more developed than that.  My favourite one, and one I still find myself singing in the shower was "Ancient Words."  It opened with a soloist singing:

Holy words long preserved for our walk in this world,
They resound with God's own heart, O let the ancient words impart.

And then the congregation joined in:

Ancient words, ever new, changing me and changing you.
We have come with open hearts, O let the ancient words impart.

I think that this chorus expresses a sound, progressive theology of the Bible.  It continues to influence my thinking.

Another interesting feature of CoH's worship, and which I've used some here at First Central, was a sung communion.  Since we had communion every week, it was easy to sing the communion for a month or a season two to three times a year and the repetition made the songs familiar and touching.  I was a little surprised to learn I would be singing solos in worship, as the minister celebrating communion.  One of my predecessors warned them that he couldn't carry a tune.  He was assured that anyone can sing well enough for this task and that one didn't have to be great, that a natural sound would be effective in worship.  His first Sunday singing the communion solo was his last.


My favourite of those we used was "Come Just As You Are," which opened with the solo:

Come just as you are; 
Hear the Spirit call.
Come just as you are:
Come and see, come, receive;
come and live forevermore.

Then the congregation joined in:

Life everlasting, and strength for today;
Taste the Living Water, and never thirst again.

And then a repeat of the opening words with everyone continuing to sing.  

It always seemed as if singing this song itself helped to effect the communion of those present.

Resurrection People

As my hymn series continues, I've reached the thirty-second post.  A recent one discussed some other Easter hymns and said a later post would more fully discuss Easter.  This is that post.

Choir Processional

On April 3, 2005 I preached my candidating sermon at the Cathedral of Hope in Oklahoma City.  It was the Sunday after Easter when the Doubting Thomas story is the gospel for the day.  The sermon I preached was entitled "Resurrection People."  Here is an excerpt from the closing paragraphs:

All who have gone through suffering can give insight into resurrection. But I think we have something special to say. We who are gay and lesbian have gone through an experience that our heterosexual sisters and brothers haven’t gone through. We have an extra rite of passage, an extra step in life’s journey. You see we have experienced our Good Fridays. Some of us have lain in the tomb for decades. But, at some point we have grabbed hold of a new life. We have claimed a new hope.

And what a journey it was. Despite anxiety. Despite fear. Despite a path that seemed fraught with danger on every side. Despite a world full of many that would rob us of our dignity and break us. We came out. Despite all, don’t you also remember the excitement, the joy, the new sense of self-awareness, the new confidence?  The timid early steps give way to pride. And suddenly we find ourselves at the dawn of a new day, entering new life. . . .

These stories, our stories, are stories of resurrection.

Will Willimon said that the best witness to the doubting Thomas’ is “a group of people.” “A group of people whose life together is so radically different, so completely changed from the way the world builds a community, that there can be no explanation other than that something decisive has happened in history.”

. . . Dare I say that we can be that group of people? Dare I say that we already are that group of people? I think we are because we begin with one simple claim – that absolutely everyone is welcome at this table. I think we begin where Jesus began. The multitudes will not be sent home hungry. No, they will experience extravagant grace, radical inclusion, and relentless compassion.

When someone asks, “Has he risen?” may the life we live together be the answer that says “Yes!”

So it is within the context of my ministry at the Cathedral of Hope that I must write about the hymns of Easter.  Not because I learned these hymns a decade ago, for I've sung many of them my whole life through.  And it's not because CoH-OKC had great Easter traditions, for the churches I served in Fayetteville and Dallas had Easter traditions I still miss (and wrote about some of them here).  Nor is it because we had the most sublime Easter worship (our choir anthem was never Beethoven's "Hallelujah Chorus," my favourite Easter anthem, though Robert Fasol could draw an amazing Vidor's "Toccata" from the First Unitarian Church pipe organ).  No, I write about Easter from this context because it was there at CoH that I felt the most clearly in my life that I was among Resurrection people and that my ministry was each and every day tied to the eschatological hope of the Christian faith.

The day of resurrection! 
Earth, tell it out abroad;
the Passover of gladness,
the Passover of God.
From death to life eternal,
from death unto the sky,
our Christ has brought us over
with hymns of victory.

My theology had developed toward liberation, fully flowering in that direction while serving in Oklahoma City.  Coupled with that was an emphasis upon Easter as new creation.  It is the third verse of this, my favourite Easter morning hymn, which makes clear the connection.

Now let the heavens be joyful,
let earth its song begin,
the whole world keep high triumph,
and all that is there-in;
Let all things seen and unseen
their notes of gladness blend,
for Christ again has risen,
our joy that has no end.

Of course there is the standard hymn that has probably been the processional hymn every Easter Sunday of my life:

Christ the Lord is risen today, Alleluia!
Mortal tongues and angels say: Alleluia!
Raise your joys and triumphs high, Alleluia!
Sing, glad heavens, and earth reply: Alleluia!

My first Easter at CoH-OKC I tried something I had learned while serving in Fayetteville--inviting people to bring bells to ring every time that the word Alleluia was said or sung.  It didn't work so well at CoH, as people found it odd.  But I have seen it work.  David Breckenridge told of one a story of a different church where one of the members brought a cow bell and sat next to the aisle so he'd have plenty of room to swing it at each Alleluia.

I like to close the service with "Thine Is the Glory" and its rousing Handel tune from Judas Maccabeus.  Because the New Century Hymnal of the UCC has such a weird aversion to stately language, it becomes "Yours is the glory," which I don't think I've ever sung.  Here at First Central we always sing it, then, from our red, traditional hymnal which actually uses the title "Thine Be the Glory," which, in some ways, is even more fun as there is nothing like adding a little pomp and formality to Easter.

Thine be the glory, risen, conqu'ring Son;
endless is the vict'ry thou o'er death hast won.
Angels in bright raiment rolled the stone away,
kept the folded grave clothes where thy body lay.

Thine be the glory, risen, conqu'ring Son:
endless is the vict'ry thou o'er death hast won.

And here's a photo of Easter singing at First Central.

Easter communion


William Trevor

At Yale, Richard Selzer recommended that we should all be reading the Bible and William Trevor.  A William Trevor book has been languishing on my shelf for a few years.  Mom gave it to me, after she read it in a book club.  Once or twice a year I get a big sack from her, and everything I don't want, I'm supposed to pass along to the Thrift Shop.  She had recommended this one however.  Though I never got around to reading it.  Honestly, I didn't know Trevor, but one time when I was culling my library and considering removing this book, I decided not to after looking him up.  So, every now and then I'd think, I should probably read that book sometime, but everytime I picked up a new book to read, I'd pick up something else.

Saturday I decided to follow Dr. Selzer advice.  I read the first short story in the collection entitled "Sitting with the Dead."  Trevor's writing is startling spare.

The light in the room was dim; he'd been particular about low-wattage electric bulbs.  But the dimness made the room cosy and it seemed wrong that anywhere should be so while he lay only a few hours dead.  She wondered what she'd do when another bulb went, either here or somewhere else, if she would replace it with a stronger one or if low-wattage light was part of her now.  She wondered if her nervousness was part of her too.  It didn't seem that it had always been, but she knew she could be wrong about that.

Four Freedoms: A Novel

Four Freedoms: A NovelFour Freedoms: A Novel by John Crowley
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I met John Crowley in June while attending the Yale Writers' Conference and enjoyed my almost daily conversations with him over breakfast.

This novel is set during the Second World War primarily in Ponca City, Oklahoma at an imagined bomber plant. I knew the novel would be authentic when on the first page John pointed out that for the local Bois D'Arc Creek is pronounced (Bodark). When I told him that he said it was one of the last details to be added to the book, because he didn't travel to Ponca City until he was almost done with the novel.

The novel is about the workers in the plant and their stories, primarily Prosper's. Prosper was crippled in childhood when a surgery was botched, but is the type of person who thrived during the war being able to find employment and socialization that didn't last once the country demobilized. Similarly women, and there are many female characters in this novel, had a new found freedom during the war, which largely ended after. Also we see some other groups who gained employment such as little people and older folks. The bomber plant and its community resonate with the socialist vision of one of the older guys.

Another theme is how the war drive is connected with the sex drive. All of these currently unattached people (some of the husbands are overseas serving of course) are thrown together during exciting and troubling times, so sex would surely be a part of it.

The book primarily focuses on two of the four freedoms--from want and from fear. In doing so, it makes us wonder why we don't talk about FDR's Four Freedoms anymore, why those don't remain articulated national goals.

And by giving a picture of the Home Front, the book reminded me what was possible for us to accomplish when we do put our minds to it. Sadly, we have not mustered the common effort to deal with the great issues of our time.

View all my reviews

What Has Shaped My Thinking on the Middle East


Yesterday when you came into my office to discuss the war in Gaza, I was in the middle of a chapter on the relationships between Jews and Arabs in the era during which the Prophet Muhammad arose. Since our interesting conversation, I've been pondering what reading has shaped my own understanding of this conflict. Besides a lifetime of reading the Bible and being immersed in the stories of that region of the world and being fascinated enough to read lots of magazine and newspaper articles, columns, and essays, there are a handful of books that have shaped my thinking. Here are those that come to mind:

  • It was John LeCarre's spy novel The Little Drummer Girl which gave me a greater appreciation for the Palestinian perspective.
  • In Emil Fackenheim's What is Judaism? there is a section on the 1967 war and the theological significance for Judaism of gaining control of the Old City of Jerusalem which gave me a deeper appreciation for that perspective.
  • The novel The Counterlife by Philip Roth, who is an American Jew, is set in the 1980's and tells a story from a wide range of perspectives, including that of the Jewish settlers, a perspective that Roth is critical of. So, it did not give me a deeper appreciation of their perspective. What it did do was make me realize that Israel must choose between being a Jewish state or being a liberal democracy, that the two cannot be held together.
  • Bruce Feiler's Walking the Bible is a travel narrative of his journeys through the ancient lands of the Bible, while encountering contemporary political and cultural issues.
  • Expanding beyond Israel/Palestine. For better understanding of the Muslim Brotherhood and Egyptian politics and history, I have appreciated the novels of Naguib Mahfouz, particularly Miramar and The Thief and the Dogs.
  • For better understanding Arab feelings towards the West and the complicated relationships and animosities between the people groups in the region, I appreciated Amin Maalouf's The Crusades through Arab Eyes.
  • V. S. Naipaul's Among the Believers is about his travels in non-Arab Muslim countries, seeking to better understand how this imported religion interacts with ancient cultures. The chapter on Iran was helpful, as it is still something of a surprise that the glorious and ancient Persian people have embraced Islamic fundamentalism.
  • I gained much greater appreciation for how Islamic fundamentalism has ravaged non-fundamentalist Islamic cultures and peoples from a couple of novels. The best was Salman Rushdie's Shalimar the Clown, set in Kashmir. The other was Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner, set in Afghanistan. Hosseini's other novels deal with the same concerns. The best one of his which I have read is A Thousand Splendid Suns from which I learned a lot about Afghan history since the 1960's and its impact on women. The startling conclusion I took from that book is that the best time in recent history for Afghan women was during the Soviet era. Which humbled my own opinions.
  • Currently I am reading Simon Schama's first volume of his two volume The Story of the Jews. That's where I was reading about the vibrant Judaeo-Arab culture that existed in the era during which Islam arose.
  • Geraldine Brooks' novel People of the Book gives some glimpses into those time periods when Jewish, Muslim, and Christian peoples lived well together. And glimpses into those times when we've fallen to fighting each other.