Sing a New Song

It is truly a gift to be present for this first experience of our choir today. I confess, when we started talking about the idea, it didn’t dawn on me that I would be such a, shall we say, integral part of it. But I’m glad that I am, and I’m glad for all of your voices and your energy. The sounds of you all together, giving life to this music is moving. Thank you all.

Hearing our choir today makes me remember some of my own experiences singing. It sends me back into to some of my earliest memories of life, where I remember some of the first songs I ever learned. I remember learning what animals say on Old McDonald’s Farm. I remember that oddly named dog, [clap]-[clap]-N-G-O. And of course there is the compelling and exciting story of Ella Meno. You remember…j, k. Ella Meno, p…. Learning songs is one of the ways that we start to learn how to speak and how to put words to the thoughts we’re having. For millennia, the ways we live together and how we were born and exist are the subjects of songs. And being on this island has helped me to see that ever more clearly.

See we share something rare here. We share something that very few people will ever really know or experience here on this island. We share Retro 97.1, the 80s pop station here.

Now, I know I have preached on hit 80s tunes before. I have even confessed to my earliest memories of creating dances to some of those very tunes. So when I discovered that the entire soundtrack of my childhood, these old songs, worn out for so many years, yet so precious to me, were on regular lineup and play on one station, I knew I’d finally found my home here on these islands.

From the oldest songs of our childhood, we begin to attach feelings to the songs we learn. Music educators and activists like our Unitarian Universalist brother Pete Seeger believe that by teaching one another songs, by singing together, by uniting our souls in song we can overcome powers that seek to control and oppress the soul and the person. But why? What is it about singing songs together that these bright minds are so convinced is so effective?

Well, some people tell us that singing together is actually biologically beneficial. When Susan Barry joined her town chorale, she found herself looking forward to her weekly rehearsals…a lot.[1] And as a professor of neurobiology, Dr. Barry was better equipped than some to figure out why that was. What she discovered was that even in a solo singer, the acceleration of the heart rate during an inhalation and the deceleration of the heart rate during an exhalation creates a coupling of the heart and lungs that promotes improved circulation and health. But when you combine singers into, say, a choir, the power of breathing together and experiencing together these beneficial changes in these coupled systems is even more profound. She discovered that singing in a choir is actually good for your body. So we all got some singing in today…as well as a workout! Good for us!

Now, as a faith movement, as Unitarian Universalists, we are not exactly known for a long, storied tradition of choral singing. Today’s exhibition, notwithstanding. I don’t know of any Unitarian Universalist “choir schools.” There are only a handful of churches in our tradition with a paid chorus. I mean, we love singing, but on the whole it hasn’t taken on the kind of attention some of our sibling traditions give it. What appears, in fact, to be the case, is that singing doesn’t interest us nearly as much as breathing does. Yes, the very act of breathing itself, is at the center of some of the most influential Unitarian Universalist lives we know.

Take Joseph Priestly. He is the person responsible for bringing the Unitarian faith from Europe to the United States in the latter part of the 18th century. As much as Unitarians would love his claim to fame to be his contributions to our faith, as much as we want to place him in the highest echelons of history, he had another job. You know, a job like, discovering the element oxygen.

Now, Priestly truly was an influential theologian and thinker…for us. But for most of the world he was seen as a scientist…with some pretty nutty ideas bouncing around in his head. And he wasn’t alone.

Long before Priestly broached the shores of this continent, Miguel Servetus, was making waves across Europe. It was in Servetus’s correspondence with John Calvin in Geneva where he rejected orthodox teachings about Christianity and the trinity, all during the Reformation period in Europe in the mid-1500s. And Servetus was an able, and eventually influential, mind in theology. Though today, in wider circles of history and theology, he is relegated to a few paragraphs in the life of the influential John Calvin. True, Servetus was killed by John Calvin for proclaiming his beliefs publicly that ran counter to a belief in some Christian doctrine. And true, this treatment by Calvin had enormous implications on Calvin’s life. But long before John Calvin took Servetus’s life, servetus gave life to another piece of knowledge. He was the first European person to properly describe pulmonary circulation. He theorized that blood is sent from the heart to the lungs, and not the other way around. Though he didn’t fully understand what he was seeing yet, Servetus was also mapping the flow and properties of oxygen in the blood. He was describing how breathing works to keep us alive.

I mean, for a faith tradition, how much more nerdy can you get? Other folks get the Bach Mass in B Minor and Mozart’s Requiem. The Unitarians are so geeky that the claim to fame of some of their most notable historical figures is the discovery of the basic, though very necessary, elements of breathing itself.

See, the song that Unitarian Universalism sang, for a long, long time, our old, old song, was one that was very European, highly intellectual, and concerned with some of the more cerebral (not to mention pulmonary) pursuits. It is only in the past few decades, and only in the past few years, if we are being honest, that a new song is being sung in our churches, in our places of gathering and worship.

And folks, it is not easy. And we are not only talking in metaphors. We are literally singing new songs. With changes in technology we can sing songs outside of our hymnals. And there have been mixed reactions in congregations to this. Part of these advances have led to the need for entire seminars, on how to use these tools to begin to de-center European influence in our worship lives, to de-center whiteness in our worship lives. And there have been consequences of looking so closely and critically at these lives we share together.

Just this week, Unitarian Universalist President Susan Frederick-Gray sent a letter addressed to all religious professionals of color. In it she summarizes the mid-year report of the association, and explains that there is a rise in conflict in our congregations, and specifically in congregations where religious professionals of color are employed. She writes: “[w]e have received a record number of calls from religious professionals who are experiencing conflict in their professional settings. While the specifics of each situation are different, I am concerned by the trend and want you to know I am paying attention and want to help the UUA provide better support to religious professionals of color.”[2] And the letter continues and explains that the support of a number of groups associated with Unitarian Universalism are doing their best to dedicate themselves to serving the needs of religious professionals of color.

And I know, I know in my bones, that this congregation is doing some of the deepest work to develop a truly anti-racist identity as is being done anywhere else in coordination with our wider faith community. One of the groups central to the task of assisting religious professionals of color that President Frederick-Gray mentions in her letter is Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism. And just last month, during Black History Month, we came together in worship to support Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism with a share of our non-pledge offerings collected during the offertory. And in doing so, our Social Justice Council will be able to present a check for more than $500 to Black Lives UU.

And though our own congregation has taken seriously the internal work we have to do to begin to develop anti-racist identities, to interrupt systems of oppression, the adoption of the 8th Principle, a guide for many of our lives toward journeying toward wholeness, has certainly had an impact here. You might not know this, but our congregation is being contacted by other congregations who want to begin the process of adopting the 8th Principle as well. Your leaders who guided you through the process of adopting the 8th Principle here, of committing to dismantle systems of oppression, are now helping to guide other congregations through the same process.

Of course, the work we do internally, here in our chairs, and here in our hearts, is vital to our own spiritual life and to the lives of others. And, now we are starting to see the ways that the work we are doing in the public sphere to respond to oppression and to de-center whiteness in our faith is starting to bear fruit as well.

And is it any wonder that a powerful voice singing this new song, adding its strength to the growing chorus of voices shouting life into the Beloved Community that is only dreamed of, is rising up from these islands? No.

At the time that turned the heat of the earth,
At the time when the heavens turned and changed,
At the time when the light of the sun was subdued
To cause light to break forth,
At the time of the night of Makalii (winter)
Then began the slime which established the earth,
The source of deepest darkness.
Of the depth of darkness, of the depth of darkness,
Of the darkness of the sun, in the depth of night,
It is night,
So was night born.[3]

The great Queen Liliuokalani gave the world this translation of the opening stanzas of The Kumulipo, the epic of creation of these islands, while under house arrest by an occupying force in her palace. But one of the earliest European scholars of this text, after acquainting himself with the religious depth and literary accomplishments of the Hawaiian people, declared to his colleagues in no uncertain terms that there is no way the European mind could possibly grasp the underlying allusions and depth of the meaning of these texts. Edward Tregear wrote in 1900 in The Journal of Polynesian Studies, that “It is certainly quite unavailing to attempt to convey to Europeans at once the literal meaning and the metaphorical reference of every allusion unless each line is made the text of a whole sermon of explanatory notes and almost interminable commentary.”[4] It’s important to see how a white European knew more than a century ago that there was such a deep, such a complex, such a powerful presence in the opening words of the Hawaiian sacred song of creation that he could never fully understand it. That is a statement that contains one of the most difficult spiritual gifts to cultivate: humility, accepting we don’t know something.

But is his opinion really a surprise to us? Is it a surprise to anyone sitting here to learn that someone familiar with these islands, someone who has seen the sometimes magical, awe striking impact of these islands on the lives of those who live here—is it a surprise that someone who has witnessed that would understand that there is so, so much more going on here, in the water here, coming up from the land here, than we can rightly imagine we know?

Of course not. There are new songs being sung all the time here. So we still have work to do, and I know this might be hard to hear, but new songs have not always gone they way they might right here.

Most of us witnessed together the offering of a gift of a new song, offered with an open heart, be questioned, be judged in some ways, right here in our sanctuary. For many weeks we had a member of our community open worship with an Oli, a Hawaiian song of opening and allowing, a song that asks permission to access the power of this land in our spiritual lives. And you may have noticed that we no longer do this.

Imiloa has given me permission to share this with you. A large part of the responsibility for why we no longer have this gift lies with me. I did not sufficiently prepare us to know how best to receive her gift. So when questions arose about how best to receive this gift, with applause or with silence, those questions were directed to the person offering this gift. They were not directed to me or the Worship Team, which I should have made clear was the best way to raise these questions. Because friends, there are only so many times the giver of a gift can have their gift questioned before it no longer feels like a gift they’re offering. And for my failure in foreseeing this, I apologize. I will work harder to prevent another occurrence like this.

The fact is, throughout these islands, Oli, the deep, old songs, are regularly received with applause, especially when the person offering the Oli is cherished and beloved by a community. I am sure that some people prefer, in their own way, to receive the gift in solemn silence, which is wonderful, too. And what is more Unitarian Universalist, what is more human, really, than there being more than one way to experience the sacred? And that is the song I think these islands are still teaching those who will listen.

The beauty and the variety of life in these lands, the ever-blooming, ever-green bounty they hold, sing to us of the vastness of the ways we can each hear that sacred song. I know it is in Unitarian Universalist DNA to seek, to discover, to find. Even our ancestors remembered for their theological contributions to our faith, are remembered maybe even more influentially in the areas of chemistry and medicine. While pondering the ways that the breath of life might matter to the worth and dignity of our souls, they were also solving the riddles of breath itself. And that duality, that integration of the practical with the mystical, that is what called so many of us here. That is the song that sings as loudly for some of us into the tiny organs of the ear, creating a pleasing response, as it is the song that sings to the Spirit of our Lives, the Deepest Mystery of our Souls, or the God of our own understanding.

We hear a new song today together. Maybe we hear it from our choir. Maybe we hear it echoing from our own hearts. And maybe, just maybe, we hear it coming from the heat of the churning, sacred ‘aina we are blessed to trod upon this sacred hour.

The gift of a shared life that experiments, and seeks new ways of knowing, new ways of being, new ways of loving, offers the chance for discoveries that shape our lives and the course of human knowing.

And the gift of a shared life of faith, of understanding the universe we share through many and varied lenses we each have, offers its followers more than knowledge and more than discovery.

It offers a new song of compassion to each one of us who make mistakes, who fall down, and who need a hand getting back up again.

It offers a new song of justice to each one of us convinced that our own liberation is bound up in the liberation of every last living soul.

It offers a new song of joy that rings from the throat of every person who believes together in a community that welcomes anew the gifts it might receive from its precious and beloved members.

And we will, we must, we shall keep singing these songs with the breath of our ages past, bound together with the rhythm of our beating hearts, until the chorus joined in the old songs and the new songs overcomes oppression, overwhelms injustice, overflows the banks of fear that would seek to hold us back.

We are singing a new song my friends.

May it ever be true.

May it ever be just.

But most of all, may it ever be so.

Blessed be and Amen.

[1] Susan R. Barry, “Why Singing Together Is Good for Us,” Psychology Today, September 22, 2013.

[2] Letter from President Susan Frederick-Gray, dated March 2, 2018.

[3] Kumulipo, translation by Queen Liliuokalani, translated while under house arrest in Iolani Palace and published in 1897.

[4] Edward Tregear, “The Creation Song” of Hawaii, The Journal of the Polynesian Society, Vol. 9, No. 1, March 1900, p. 39.

One Response to “Sing a New Song

  1. I would love to print out your sermons, TJ They are truly worth sharing on paper and digitally, too. Betsy

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