Twelve Hymns Project: My life flows on
Texts: Psalm 46; 2 Corinthians 5:16-6:2
Back in the fourth century the great North African theologian Augustine wrote that a sacrament is “an outward sign of an inward grace.” It’s a phrase that stuck. Many Christian denominations still use this as a definition for sacrament. An outward sign of an inward grace.
Through the centuries the Western Church developed the rituals and meaning of sacraments, eventually recognizing seven: Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist or Communion, Reconciliation or Confession, Anointing the Sick, Marriage, and Holy Orders or Ordination. These signs are outward. They are enacted, spoken, even tasted. They involve material reality: water, oil, bread and wine, bodies. Through these things, one experiences the Presence of God, an inward grace. Eventually the church taught that although not everyone had to receive every sacrament, the sacraments were necessary for salvation.
It’s quite a thing for an institution, and its leaders, to hold the means of salvation. To be the access point for experiencing the grace of God. That’s a lot of power.
During the 16th century various Anabaptists questioned and ultimately rejected this notion of salvation and the sacraments. They still practiced many of them, but debated whether they were “ceremonies,” “witnesses,” or “mere symbols.” The Anabaptists emphasized the life of the Spirit rather than the authority of the institution. The broader Protestant idea of the priesthood of all believers taught that one need not go through an ordained priest in order to have access to God’s grace. All this led to a greater leveling of power, a democratization of the sacred. Later generations of Anabaptists, from whom Mennonite come, rarely used the language of sacraments.
More recently, in 21st century North America, we’re reconsidering the sacramental. Marlene Kropf, a leading voice in Mennonite worship, has proposed the idea of “Singing as a Sacrament.” She writes this: “It may be that Mennonite detachment from the sacramental tradition has caused us to overlook what is the most obvious and powerful locus of God’s presence in Mennonite worship: hymn singing…The experience of hymn singing in worship can and does satisfy the deep need for a personal encounter with the sacred in a way that engages the whole person: body, heart, and mind” (Singing: A Mennonite Voice, p. 132).
There will be plenty of time this summer to unpack that idea of singing as sacrament. As someone who didn’t grow up singing hymns or harmony, I’ve experienced the practice as an acquired taste, and have yet to acquire full proficiency on the bass line. But I have come to deeply appreciate worship where the congregation is the choir and the body is the primary instrument. It certainly fits with a theology of community, where the sacred is democratized in the voice and daily life of each person. The inward grace of each individual is expressed as an outward collective harmony – a sign of peace and beauty in our troubled world. Augustine is perhaps giving an enthusiastic thumbs up from beyond the veil.
And so I find it fitting that the number one song for this Twelve Hymns series, the first song discussed and the top voted getter, is a song about singing. “My life flows on in endless song…how can I keep from singing?”
The sermons this summer will take the song or songs of that week as their starting point. We’ll look more closely at the words we’re singing and their relation to scripture and theology. Some weeks we’ll look at the story behind hymn, and occasionally we’ll get some commentary on the hymnology. And along the way, we’ll chew on this idea of the sacramental – song as a vessel for the Divine presence.
On Tuesday Phil Hart walked into the church office and delivered the document that became today’s bulletin cover. It’s the original 1869 text and music for what we know as HWB 580, My life flows on. It has remained mostly the same after nearly 150 years. Two of the most obvious differences are a different title, and our current song making what was once the end of a single verse, verse 2, into the chorus now sung after each verse.
A less obvious, but significant difference is the change of one word in that line. The original says “Since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth, How can I keep from singing.” HWB 580 says, “Since love is Lord of heaven and earth, How can I keep from singing.”
It’s a change connected to what brought the song out of relative obscurity back in the 1960’s. Pete Seeger learned about the song from his friend Doris Plenn, who had written an additional verse that said:
When tyrants tremble, sick with fear,
And hear their death-knell ringing,
When friends rejoice both far and near,
How can I keep from singing?
In prison cell and dungeon vile,
Our thoughts to them go winging;
When friends by shame are undefiled,
How can I keep from singing?
Peter Seeger included this verse with the original, and changed some of the specifically Christian language to the more universal language of “truth” and “love.” And with that, it entered the mix of the many folk music anthems of the 60s and 70s that sung of a better world beyond racism, nationalism, and warfare.
If you’re in my generation, or maybe this applies to other generations too, you’re likely more familiar with the Enya version from the early 90’s, which stuck with the Pete Seeger and Doris Plenn lyrics. Our current hymn is mostly 1860’s with a dash of 1960’s, although I’d love to see that additional verse about trembling tyrants and friends in prison cells in our hymnals.
For what it’s worth, when Pete Seeger died in 2014, of all the places in Columbus that could have hosted a concert honoring his life and music, it was this sanctuary that was filled to overflowing with folks hearing Bill Cohen and his friends play the Pete Seeger classics. I was here for most of it, but can’t remember if this one made the cut.
“My life flows on” has a universal appeal, and all versions remain rich in biblical imagery. We selected two especially relevant passages to be read today. The chorus “No storm can shake my inmost calm, while to that rock I’m clinging” is a lovely summary of the opening lines of Psalm 46: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountain shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult.”
The lyric about hailing the new creation is drawn from 2 Corinthians 5, where Paul writes “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation.” For Paul, the time of salvation was not merely something in the distant future, but something present even now. “See,” he writes. “ now is the day of salvation.”
And this gets at one of the overarching big ideas within the hymn.
This is a song about song, and we are indeed the singers, but there’s something else going on with song here that makes this hymn so captivating. The lyrics start with “My life.” “My life flows on.” But as they continue we are directed toward a much larger song. The hymn is not just the hymn of my life or even our collective life, it’s about “the sweet, though far off hymn that hails a new creation.” It is something to first hear, and then join. “Through all the tumult and the strife, I hear the music ringing. It finds an echo in my soul. How can I keep from singing.” Our singing is but a mere echo of the endless song that draws us toward itself. This is the theological idea that we are not simply moved forward by history, all of the stuff in the past pushing us from behind into what comes next. But we are drawn forward, lured into the future by the future, enticed by the new creation that calls us toward itself. Sings us toward itself. We are led into the space ahead of us where Christ already is. We hear that far off hymn, and its beauty raises us above earth’s lamentation.
It’s like a reversal of the sirens in Greek mythology. The Greeks told stories about the sirens who sang beautiful songs from their far off island. Sailors would hear the songs and sail towards it, only to have their ships broken up on the rocks around the island. The beauty of the siren song was deceptive. Its ultimate purpose was to lure one toward destruction.
In the Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus wanted to hear the siren song, but was fully aware of the danger. So he had all his sailors bind him to the mast of the ship and under no circumstances were they to unbind him. He was disabled from being able to steer the ship toward the island of the sirens. The sailors were all protected by putting beeswax in their ears so they couldn’t hear the song. As they got close enough to hear the sirens, Odysseus becomes entranced with the music and demands his sailors to untie him, but they keep to his original orders, and they sail through and out of range of the sirens, despite Odysseus’ protests.
“My life flows on” seems to flip this story. We are already close to being dashed against the rocks to our own destruction, but the far off song calls us to itself. And it is in moving toward that song that we move toward our salvation. Not merely through the taking of certain sacraments – water, oil, bread, cup — as necessary as these may be along the way, but by participating in that very broadly defined sacrament of song. It is a universal song, that draws activists and office holders toward it. People in the pews, and people in the streets. It is this song that rises above earth’s lamentation, of which our singing, as powerful as it may be, is merely an echo.