Musical Treasures – Sharon Glass, Lucas Tarrant, Shawna Floyd, and Donald Milton III
MUSICAL TREASURE – Sharon Glass
When I think about my life’s treasures, one thing in particular comes to mind as the most precious treasure of all…Music. From my earliest memories to this very moment, music has been the golden thread that has anchored me to this life. And even though I listen to many different types of music, the one genre that will always be at the top of my list is Classic Rock… Artists like The Beatles: John, Paul, George and Ringo—as a band and as solo artists…Peter Frampton, Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, The Who, Eric Clapton, The Rolling Stones, Chicago, Jimi Hendrix, Journey, The Moody Blues, The Doors, Queen, ELO, Dire Straits, Foreigner, Boston, Rush, The Eagles, Yes, The Doobie Brothers, Styx, James Taylor, Steve Miller, Heart, Fleetwood Mac, Santana, The Police, Genesis, Crosby, Stills and Nash– with AND without Young… Jefferson Airplane and Starship, Steely Dan, Pink Floyd… I could go on!
All of these incredible artists have been treasures in my life, but one holds a very, very special place in my heart…
And that’s Elton John.
My brother introduced me to Elton John when I was about seven years old and I was absolutely CRAZY about him! The first album I ever owned was Elton John’s Greatest Hits, which I received for Christmas, in 1974. My second album was Elton John’s Madman Across the Water, which my mom purchased for in 1975, shortly after we moved from an Air Force Base in Michigan, to my grandmother’s house, in Northeast Washington, D.C. which, at the time, was one of THE most dangerous neighborhoods in the US. Going outside to play, was a hazardous endeavor, to say the least. So, for the better part of eight months, one of my favorite ways to pass the time became hiding upstairs, at the back of the house, in the bedroom that I shared with my sister, and listen to my two Elton John albums, one after the other… over and over and over and over again, until the day came when it was time for us to move on to another Air Force Base.
To this day, I feel a special fondness for Elton’s music because it kept me safe and sane in what turned out to be one of the most chaotic periods of my life. One of my favorite songs from Madman Across the Water, which wasn’t even a very big hit for Elton, but I got to live vicariously through his music, as he sang about a boy named Jesus, who blew up balloons all day and sat on the porch swing, watching them fly… A boy named Levon.
MUSICAL TREASURE – Lucas Tarrant
When I began college, I made a friend who made me constantly wonder why he was interested in being my friend. He was cool, kind, intelligent, funny, and talented. Most importantly, he was constantly telling me how much I meant to him. How important my friendship was. His name is Michael. Some of our most memorable nights were those when we would take turns listening to our favorite music (like two nerdy college musicians do). It was routine for me to play a song called “Sure on this shining night” by Samuel Barber. I had heard it in a vocal literature class. Michael insisted I learn it so we could listen to my version. In his words, “you would KILL this, bro.” And I constantly shrugged him off both afraid to agree with his compliment of me and avoid learning a piece both of us idolized.
In 2015, 11 short days after being a groomsman in Michael’s wedding, he passed away of lung and throat cancer at the age of 23.
Michael had always been at my side in our musical endeavors. Losing him felt, in a way, like losing music. It took me 3 months after losing him to feel confident in my singing again. There is something powerful and otherworldly about music. Remembering his encouraging words, “Sure on this shining night” was the first song I sang after his death. I feel his presence in this song.
MUSICAL TREASURE – Shawna Floyd
If you’ve ever heard the radio version of this song from the beginning, the first words you heard were from a voice in the background saying “Never say die. The Blackness. Keep, keep on.” This song is “Optimistic ” by Sounds of Blackness and it, for me, is like getting an intravenous shot of optimism. And while the words of encouragement are widely relatable, it is clear that this ensemble and this song come out of the depths of the black experience of faith, of self-determination, of resilience, of holding ourselves, our lives, our dreams dear. This song is a song of beating the odds, a song of triumph. It never fails to loose me from despair and remind me of the remarkable people from whom I descend and to whom I owe the debt of keeping on.
HOMILY – Donald Milton III
A few weeks ago I posted on The City asking folks to share their favorite hymns with me. I was overjoyed to receive over 70 responses. The responses echoed our plurality and diversity. Some people answered with one hymn, others wrote a long list of their favorites. Some people included beautiful, meaningful stories about why a certain hymn means so much to them, others answered with songs that they like regardless of whether they’re in the hymnal or have ever been performed in worship because, hey, we’re UUs and we can take any question with grain of salt.
Hymns are important to us as individuals
So many of the responses said something like, “Whenever I hear this hymn I’m transported.” Or “I bring this hymn to mind whenever I’m going through something difficult, or whenever I’m walking in nature.” Even some accusatory answers like, “Every time you program that hymn it’s in my head for weeks.” Though I assume the people who said that actually like to have that hymn playing up there on repeat. My favorite hymn in our hymnal is The Oneness of Everything that I sang earlier. It’s not only beautiful, it has a text that connects us all to the earth and to each other. It looks at our pluralism and our disagreements as things that don’t divide but make us one with each other. And for me it come down to the line about faith wintering in the heart to be reborn in spring to hear and feel the call of life. We all have songs that are special to us. Songs that transport us, help us remember, fill us with joy. Songs that connect us to a certain time or, more importantly certain people and a certain place.
Hymns are important to us as a congregation
So many of the answers also centered on specific moments or times here at UUCA. Let it Be a Dance might be my least favorite hymn of ours, not because I don’t like the sentiment, it’s just very schmaltzy. I included it because it was on the favorite list of about 10 people many of whom tied it to specific memorial services or congregational events and I love that. Every Sunday and at special services and life transitions we come to this space and we sing to each other in this round. I get goosebumps every time we sing “drifting here with my ships companions, all we kindred pilgrim souls.” It moves me to be in the center of this circle and to look at all of you, about a third of the room crying. We don’t cry because the song is sad we cry because it reminds us how deeply we care for this community. How grateful we are to be together and to let the music and the message open our hearts as we journey together.
Mostly this morning, I want to talk about how hymns are important to us as Unitarian Universalists.
One of the first things I did when I was told I was a finalist for this job was buy a copy of the gray hymnal. I think I got it on eBay. I wanted to get a feel of the music and let me tell you, it was weird. The third word in the first hymn is “Evil.” It’s a beautiful hymn but that’s still a little weird. I read through a couple of familiar hymns, a few hymns I had heard but with vastly different lyrics, a few hymns that were unsingable and just too odd. I was going to tell you the number but then some of you would stop listening. The hymnal is eclectic, varied, and, in my opinion, not that great. I don’t mean to say there isn’t great music in here, there absolutely is, but you all know the phrase, “A camel is horse designed by committee.”
This hymnal was clearly put together by a committee and let me tell you, putting anything together by committee in a pluralistic faith is hard. You have famous hymns that for some people are sweet memories of their past and for others are bad memory triggers. For some of us “God language” is essential for deep spirituality and for others of us “God language” makes us feel left out, misunderstood, or even unwelcome. I can say that for my first couple of years here the term “Spirit of Life,” our most inclusive name for a divine presence, still made my inner atheist cringe. So sometimes, in search of inclusive lyrics we lost poetry and metaphor. Sometimes in search of cultural inclusivity we instead have cultural misappropriation. There are many hymns with strong lyrics and not great music and vice versa. The Teal hymnal is full of awesome songs but only about half of them actually work when sung by a congregation.
But for all my gripes about these two books that I spent hundreds if not thousands of hours with they connect us with other UUs in a unique and special way. We don’t have a single book of scripture. In Christianity and Judaism they use a lectionary, meaning they all read the same scripture passage on the same week. We have our six sources which are a very verbose way to say anything can carry spiritual meaning. This suits us in our pluralistic faith. We can read Mary Oliver, and Billy Collins, the Qu’ran and the Torah, blogs and Facebook, and a few weeks ago we had an awesome reading from The Lord of the Rings that you better believe read like scripture.
I honestly think we gain more when our spirituality is broad and inclusive but when we long for a broader community we seek commonality and as UUs we find that in the hymnals. We are connected to each other not through creed but through music. These hymnals are in most every UU congregation all over the US and Canada. You can find several of these hymns in the hymnals in India and Transylvania. When our members who went to General Assembly in New Orleans last week walked into the main hall where they had their worship services they were surrounded by 5,000 other UUs. There were UU atheist, UU Christians, UU Buddhists, Jewnitarians, UU Wiccans and every all sorts of in between UUs. They were surrounded by people who believe different things, read different books, listen to different podcasts, and some who probably don’t listen to NPR. But when the pianist started playing Spirit of Life or the band broke into Blue Boat Home they had something very special in common. Our common songs embrace our plurality but they also bring us together as one people.
So I’ll continue to gripe about how stale the gray hymnal is and I’ll continue to wish the teal hymnal had more songs that were useful in worship but I’ll do all of this in gratitude for these books and those who put them together. As Unitarian Universalists we are deeply connected in our call to justice, in our yearning for a safer and greener planet, in our belief in democracy and the worth of all people, and across great distance and time we are connected in our music.