Singing It Back
UU Church of St. Petersburg, Florida
May 8, 2005
The donor household and this congregation were in the front of my mind when I selected the reading that Alec shared with us earlier. *
In it Rev. David Blanchard told us about a people who believe that we humans are each created having a unique melody, some music that is our own. He told us how their tradition is to:
…honor that song by singing it as welcome when a child is born, as comfort when the child is ill, in celebration when the child marries, and in affirmation and love when death comes.
At first, it seems as if Blanchard is simply relating ancient wisdom from the far edge of the African continent. But a more careful read points out that he is also talking about what poet e.e. cummings might call “human merely being.” He is describing “human, merely being” in community. What David Blanchard is lifting up is nothing less than what a church such as this one does together, as you live out your lives in each other’s company.
What he is describing, what we try to express as Unitarian Universalists, are these truths:
- Each of us is unique.
- Each of us has gifts we were given at birth – we were born with these gifts; they are wired within us.
- Each of us has the responsibility to apply these talents to the world.
- Each of us must navigate how to find our place in creation’s fold, while understanding that everyone around us is involved in the very same pursuit.
As Blanchard tells us:
It takes a while for many of us to figure out which is our song, and which is the song that others would like us to sing…Some of us are slow learners. I heard my song not necessarily from doing extraordinary things in exotic places…What came to astound me was not that the song appeared, but that it was always there.
Whatever we believe about the origins of our creation, whatever is our understanding about a Creator, imagining that we each have music that is ours to sing – a song that is echoed back and forth between us and the “other” perhaps – or between us and one another – whatever our theological orientation, this is worth our pondering. Right now, I’m not interested in debating HOW the song got there. I’m interested in unearthing the song that IS there, within each one of us.
Imagine the idea of having a tune that is just our own; a song that lives in our heart and mind that describes us to the world; a song that we sometimes hear the world sing back to us; a song that is there, no matter it be day or night, ready to comfort, sustain, and encourage us. Imagine. And then ask yourself: What’s your song? What does your life echo back to the world?
Nearly a century ago, Rabindrinath Tagore wrote:
I have spent my days stringing and unstringing my instrument while the song I came to sing remains unsung.
This Nobel-winning, Hindu poet conjured up for us the image of a person who spends more time “doing” tasks than in “being” his or her true self, living out his or her true song. Blanchard was reminded of Tagore’s lines when he wrote about the people of East Africa.
“The song I came to sing remains unsung,” Tagore laments. And David Blanchard responds, “What came to astound me was not only that [my] song appeared, but that it was always there.”
So the question is, do we take time to hear the song? To answer its call? To join its chorus? For me, churches such as this helps the answer to that question be “yes!”
Why I thought of you, the congregation, when picking the reading and writing this homily is that in this church, you have the opportunity to provide one another melodies and harmonies, back beats and refrains, as you each continue on the path in life of trying to be faithful to that which stirs most strongly – or sings most loudly – within you.
But I also thought of the donor when writing these words, for a song of generosity has been sung out, loud and clear, from the donor to you. How wonderful that your ears were open to hear its tune and your hearts were open to receive its message.
One of my heroes, Rev. Jim Wallis of the progressive Christian organization Sojourners, often asks people this pivotal question:
Where do your gifts meet the pressing needs of the world?1
And Mary Oliver says the same thing in one of her poems:2
What is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
The donor has answered these questions with a magnificent gift to you. Now it’s your turn to answer those very same questions, as you look at one another, the larger St. Pete community, and this world that holds us all.
The attempt to figure out how best to pay our debt to the world is the challenge that each of us faces, throughout our life journeys. Connecting our gifts with the world’s needs (as Wallis would say) or (as Oliver might put it) justifying our “wild and precious life” with purposeful behavior: this is lifelong work.
Regardless of your years on this earth, what is your life song? What calls out to you from the universe? What melody do you give voice to in return?
The donor has offered you a song of abundance. Now it’s your turn to sing back a tune of your own. Not just to the donor – though saying thanks is always nice. But to the world.
A year from now when I come for a visit, and I ask you what the melody is that is “most your own” as David Blanchard would say – and if I ask this of you not only as individuals but also as a congregation – what do you want the answer to be?
In Blanchard’s words:
They can be…songs of love or of longing, songs of encouragement or of comfort, songs of struggle or of security.
To what will your voices give testimony?
My current calling is to help UUs join their voices with the music this religion of ours can make. My hope for our UU churches is that here, we continue to make room for the various ways our fellow-faithed hear the universe calling out to them. My hope is that we do more than eavesdrop on the tunes our neighbors are echoing back and forth – to and from the world. My hope is that we are moved and shaped into being more honest and faithful Unitarian Universalists by opening ourselves up to the songs that abound.
My hope for you is that next year at this time, you will have a chorus of answers about how the world’s needs and your unique gifts as a faith community can best bless this world.
May these songs grow more steady, more robust, and more certain in the year to come. I, for one, can’t wait to hear how you – the Unitarian Universalist Church of St. Petersburg – will sing it back.
This reading can be found in various meditation manuals that UUA’s Skinner House has published over the years. The easiest way to locate it is in the 2002 Meditation Manual entitled “Listening For Our Song.”
The reading is the opening meditation from which the book’s title got its name. Excerpted here, it is written by Rev. David Blanchard.
Listening For Our Song
On sabbatical in East Africa, I heard a story of a people who believe that we are each created with our own song. Their tradition as a community is to honor that song by singing it as welcome when a child is born, as comfort when the child is ill, in celebration when the child marries, and in affirmation and love when death comes. Most of us were not welcomed into the world in that way. Few of us seem to know our song.
It takes a while for many of us to figure out which is our song, and which is the song that others would like us to sing. Some of us are slow learners. I heard my song not necessarily from doing extraordinary things in exotic places, but also from doing some pretty ordinary things in some routine places. For every phrase I heard climbing Kilimanjaro, I learned another in a chair in a therapist’s office. For every measure I heard in the silence of a retreat, I heard another laughing with my girls. For every note I heard in the wind on the beach at Lamu, I gleaned more from spending time with a dying friend as her children sang her song back to her. What came to astound me was not that the song appeared, but that it was always there.
… Our songs sing back to us something of our essence, something of our truth, something of our uniqueness. When our songs are sung back to us, it is not about approval, but about recognizing our being and our belonging in the human family.
It is good to know our songs by heart for those lonely times when the world is not singing them back to us. That’s usually a good time to start humming to yourself, that song that is most your own.
They can be heard as songs of love or of longing, songs of encouragement or of comfort, songs of struggle or of security. But most of all, they are the songs of life, giving testimony to what has been, giving praise for all we’re given, giving hope for all we strive for, giving voice to the great mystery that carries each of us in and out of this world.
1Why the Right Have it Wrong and the Left Doesn’t
2 Summer Day