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Wednesday, August 13, 2014

"No storm can shake my inmost calm" - second thoughts

So today (Sunday), like a lot of you may have done, I programmed and we sang the great old hymn "How Can I Keep from Singing." Often misidentified as a Quaker or Shaker hymn, it was actually written in the late 19th century by Robert Lowry, the minister who also wrote "Shall We Gather at the River?" (he apparently liked songs with title questions), to a set of pre-existing lyrics. 20th century singers from Pete Seeger through Ed Gutfreund and Enya to Jeanne Cotter to Eva Cassidy have put their own stamp on it, with Seeger notably adding, via his friend Doris Plenn, the politically shaded stanza about trembling tyrants and friends in "prison cell and dungeon vile." It was, as far as I can tell, Gutfreund, in his recorded version that became enshrined in Glory and Praise in the 1970s, who took the quatrain "No storm can shake my inmost calm..." and made it a refrain, editing some of the original stanzas into verses for the song.

On Sunday, though, as I sang it, I wondered about the sentiment when we sing it with those words as a refrain. Like this, you know?

Ebola virus death toll reaches 1,000.
"No storm can shake my inmost calm."
Riots after unarmed teen shot in Missouri.
"No storm can shake my inmost calm."
ISIS beheads enemies, rapes women, drives countrymen from their homes in Iraq.
"No storm can shake my inmost calm."
Dozens shot in weekend street violence in Chicago. (again)
"No storm can shake my inmost calm."
Schoolgirls kidnapped in Nigeria. Pro-Russian militia shoot down passenger jet in Ukraine.
"No storm can shake my inmost calm."
Three friends have cancer, son's off to college, work's kinda dicey, and I'm not very good at relationships.
"No storm can shake my inmost calm."

I wondered if anyone else felt like a liar when they were singing?

In the original text, those lines were just one of several stanzas in a lyric that make a song of eschatological hope, clearing skies and a rescuing savior; the absolute statement of "no storm can shake..." is just one line of eighteen, and thus can be seen in a certain context. When the later verse written by Plenn is added, it helps us to see a context of a just world coming into being, even from the perspective of unjust imprisonment. When "Christ is lord" becomes "love is lord," it gives to non-Christians the opportunity to express similar hope about a new world, and without rendering the song meaningless to Christians, for whom Christ, as God, is love.

These are just second thoughts, thinking out loud, after saying words, writing my blog, hearing scripture at liturgy, singing the text. This happens not infrequently, right? How many times have I heard one of my friends or colleagues say, "It just felt wrong to sing 'All are welcome in this place,' because I know damn well that all are not welcome, and I can name names." Or singing those Isaian claims in "Be Not Afraid," safety in arid desert, stormy sea, raging fire, at all those funerals.

The editors of Gather for some reason deleted the Plenn-Seeger stanza after the first edition of the hymnal in 1994. There is no question of copyright, though that stanza first appeared in the late 1950s or early 1960s. Since Ms. Plenn gave Pete Seeger the authorization to publish it in his folk music magazine Sing Out, and it appeared without a copyright claim, U.S. courts ruled that the Plenn verse, like the rest of the text, is in the public domain. The deletion, however, makes the song too short to sing during communion at our church, so I wrote a couple of verses that reflect the gospel story to flesh out the piece for Sunday. They were sung between verses 3 and 4 in the Gather Comprehensive Third Edition version. (You can use them next time around if you want.)

3b. The wind and rain may lash the night
While lightning fiercely blazes,
And though I slip into the deep
Christ's arm with power raises.

3c. There is no time to cower in fear
Though boiling sea may swallow.
When Christ says "Come!" across the waves,
Oh let us boldly follow.

But you might recall that the event that set in motion the stories recounted in Matthew 14 for the last two Sundays (the feeding of the multitudes and the storm on the Sea of Galilee) was the violent death of Jesus's kinsman John the Baptist, a prisoner of Herod, who feared John's influence with the crowds and the potential for an uprising hem feared John might lead. As I thought of (the grieving?) Jesus trying to find some solitude after hearing the news, and being pursued by the crowds, and as I heard again the story of the gifted prophet Elijah on the run from the lethal anger of Ahab and Jezebel, it occurred to me that another way to hear the word of the Lord was to learn that our calling to kenosis, to self-emptying love that attempts to mirror the divine life even as it is empowered by that life, endures through the worst that life throws at us. Our vocation, whatever it might be, matters. Whatever the threat or the sorrow, people need to be fed, to sing, to hear the truth. I need to hear the gospel as a disciple, yes, to know that whatever the storm may bring, the universe in which the storm resides belongs to Christ. But I also need to hear the story as a member of Christ's body, entrusted with his mission. 

So I was glad that the words of "How Can I Keep from Singing" caught in my throat Sunday. Life sometimes makes us want to do anything but sing, and to think or sing otherwise is a lie. But just maybe, in my inmost calm, that place claimed by Christ in baptism and fed every Sunday by the word of God and the bread of life, the song echoes. It is the song of a God whose power is not expressed by deliverance from the pain of life but through solidarity in it, not divine light at the end of the tunnel, but light, somehow, in the darkness. For me, the song that hit all the right notes this weekend was Tom Kendzia's "Stand By Me," which reaches back in its inspiration through Charles Tindley's gospel anthem to the spiritual of experience of former slaves.
When the storms of life are raging,
Lord, stand by me.
When the current pulls me under,
Lord, stand by me.
When the rising waters toss me
like a ship upon the sea,
You who rule the wind and water,
Lord, stand by me.
Refrain: Stand by me, stand by me.
Lift me up from the restless sea.
When I am lost, when love can't be found,
when no one cares, Lord, stand by me.
Sometimes, we need to be the rock to which those in trouble are clinging. Selfish swine that I am, I hope that I can remember this, and put aside my petty need for "personal space" and give someone else a reason to sing, and not just a song. It's a move from singing about love to actually loving, which is another way of saying, from singing about the cross to taking it up, and becoming Christ.