I have a friend who believes the correct response to whatever befalls a community of faith is: “What, then, shall we sing?”
This morning in church, many of us throughout the United States joined in solidarity with the congregation at Mother Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC by singing the great hymn, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” (#599 in The Hymnal 1982 if you’re Episcopalian like me; the text is by James Weldon Johnson and can be read at poets.org).
I love that hymn. Being a Detroiter, I know it by heart. But it was particularly difficult to sing today:
Lift every voice and sing, Till earth and heaven ring, Ring with the harmonies of Liberty; Let our rejoicing rise High as the list’ning skies, Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
I don’t know about heaven, but earth does not yet know the tune, much less the harmonies. We have work to do. So the triumphant-sounding words in the hymn, which sprang so easily from the tongue in 2009 when our nation elected its first Black president, felt a little flat today.
We were gathered as community to celebrate: that’s the term we use when speaking of the Eucharist. It’s a memorial of Christ’s death and resurrection, and we celebrate it. Our story, as people of the Christian faith, looks death squarely in the eyes and takes it on, in the “sure and certain hope of resurrection.” On any given Sunday, that resurrection faith is easy to sing. But this week, we were made keenly aware that we are still, in the words of the hymn, “treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered.” It was difficult to sing.
Yet with a steady beat, Have not our weary feet Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?
“No,” I wanted to reply. The hymn refers, in past tense, to “the day when hope, unborn, had died.” Yet it feels like we’re living in such a time.
Reflecting on the contradictions we were singing, I recalled the words of Harvey Milk: “You gotta give ’em hope.” Biblical scholars often encourage us to interrogate the text of Scripture by asking, “Where’s the good news?” It’s a question we should also ask while looking out at the world trying to find what the Spirit is doing, and another way to word it is, “Where’s the hope?” Today’s hymn, I think, is actually quite useful in training our vision to see hope where it seems to be absent.
There’s no denying that, even though we keep retreading the same stony road, we are “already and not yet” in a place for which our ancestors hoped. Ground really has been gained, no matter how much journeying still needs to be done. Today’s triumphant-sounding hymn carries that sense of the “already-and-not-yet” by proclaiming a bright future even while acknowledging a “gloomy past.” That in-between stretch of road that spans from hopeless past to future promise continues to be watered with tears but also continues to point us toward the consummation of our hope.
Wisely, the hymn does not end on either a mournful or a celebratory note, but with a prayer, reminding us that our hope lies in praying these words and striving to live them out, together:
God of our weary years, God of our silent tears, Thou who hast brought us thus far on the way; Thou who hast by Thy might, Led us into the light, Keep us forever in the path, we pray. Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee, Lest our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee; Shadowed beneath Thy hand, May we forever stand, True to our God, True to our native land.
Perhaps the rhetorical-sounding questions earlier in the hymn are intended to evoke a mixed response. Have we arrived in the place “for which our parents* sighed”? That language is reminiscent of the biblical descriptions of patriarchs and matriarchs in the faith hoping for the fulfillment of God’s promises. We read, for example, in Hebrews 11 [NRSV]:
…By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.
…All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.
Our “native land,” to which we pray in today’s hymn to stand true, is that city “whose architect and builder is God.” We’re not quite there yet, but we catch glimpses, especially when we gather together to celebrate the Eucharist. May we remain true to that native land, and bring along with us whoever we meet along the stony road.
*The Hymnal 1982 changes the word “fathers” in the original poem to the gender-inclusive “parents.” You know our mothers were sighing, too! Maybe more, even.