We are overwhelmed with gratitude for all the members and friends, old and new, young and not-so-young, who all came together to raise money for affordable housing in our church’s neighborhood. We set some big goals: 60 individuals or households giving, and a $20,000 total gift. Thanks to your generosity, we exceeded both of our goals with 92 givers and $29,067.29! Here are some photos of the offering collection and dedication. Stay tuned for opportunities to build and plant in the summer and fall…
Matthew 17:1-9, 2 Peter 1:16-21
On the feast of Epiphany, we celebrate Jesus, who was born beneath a star and becomes a light for the world. During the weeks following Epiphany we witness Jesus’ holiness shining forth at the time of his baptism, and in his work of preaching and healing. On this last Sunday before the season of Lent begins, Jesus’ brightness is revealed again in a spectacular way.
Just a few days after Jesus has broken the news to his disciples that he will be killed in Jerusalem, and raised on the third day, Jesus goes up a high mountain with Peter, James, and John. There, at the top of the mountain, Jesus is transfigured. His face begins to shine like the sun. His clothes become dazzling white. Moses and Elijah, the two greatest heroes of his faith, begin talking to him like an equal. Then, as if all this wasn’t enough, a bright cloud overshadows everyone, and a voice proclaims, “This is my child, the beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”
It must have been amazing to see Jesus’ face; to hear the conversation between him and Moses and Elijah; to feel the presence of God. But none of us were there on that day. How can we feel the awe? How can we grasp the mystery? How can the glory of God become real to us?
Only a few folks witnessed the events in the life of Jesus. Thankfully, they shared their experiences generously. As so we can still receive the blessings of these events today, not only in scripture, but also in song. There are Christians in just about every part of the world, speaking many languages, representing many cultures, and singing about the glory of God.
The sharing of Christian songs across culture, geography, and language has dramatically increased in recent decades. As a result, our New Century Hymnal includes songs that did not originate in the European-American cultures that are the largest roots of our denomination, the United Church of Christ.
Our opening hymn today is one example: Siyaham’ ekukhanyen’ kwenkos. This song expresses the longing of the black South African majority for rights and freedoms denied by an oppressive colonial white minority. It is written in the language of the Zulu people, the most widely spoken indigenous language in South Africa. Like so many protest songs, this one empowered those who sang it on their journey towards social change. Some of us know it because it was recorded and published in 1980 by the Church of Sweden Mission, and became popular in North America during the 1990s. In churches and concert venues, this song highlighted the fight against apartheid while introducing rhythms and energy that were unfamiliar in many predominantly European-American cultural institutions.
Our closing hymn, Sois la Semilla, was written by a Spanish theologian, Cesareo Gabarain, in the 1970s. Father Gabarain wrote many hymns while serving as a parish priest and the Spanish chaplain to Pope Paul the 6th. This one was translated into English by the United Methodist Church and arranged by Mexican organist and choral director Skinner Chavez-Melo. Tragically, the nineteenth century missionary movement encouraged Latin American and U.S. Latinx people to forget their language and culture. Including the Spanish language and Latinx song styles in our worship today is a way of honoring the identity of many, both here and far away, who were threatened with cultural erasure by the church.
One more international selection for today is the Taiwanese hymn “God Created Heaven and Earth.” English missionaries Boris and Clare Anderson translated the text into English in 1981. The melody is from the Pi-po tribe, originally from the island of Taiwan. I-to Loh, a professor of church music and hymnologist, harmonized this tune in 1963. Before the groundbreaking work of Professor Loh, the sharing of indigenous Asian hymnody was so focused on western accessibility, that it compromised indigenous musical styles or character. Professor Loh has played a key role in researching, educating, and promoting the sharing of authentically indigenous hymnody. Let’s sing…
Many issues arise as we use hymns that originate beyond North America and Europe. Some of us are uncomfortable singing in an unfamiliar language or musical style. It may be challenging to sing, or feel less “holy” to us than the songs and styles we know by heart. Others among us are excited to have new cultural experiences. Regardless of our personal preferences, questions of justice remain. How can we be confident that we are honoring language, music, and stories that do not belong to us? When might the use of songs from other cultures become appropriative? How can we acknowledge the colonial and missionary history that has shaped this music, especially within congregations and denominations that are predominantly white?
These considerations also apply as we turn our attention to music that arises out of minority cultures in the United States. Wakantanka Taku Nitawa is a song from the Dakota people. It was written in 1842, using an existing Dakota tune. The author is Joseph Renville, son of a French-Canadian trader and a Dakota mother. Renville served as an interpreter between white missionaries and Native Americans, helping to establish the Lac qui Parle mission in Minnesota. This hymn was paraphrased in English by R. Philip Frazier, a Native American and Congregational minister, in 1929. I don’t feel comfortable singing in Dakota without someone to teach us, so let’s sing in English…
Among many hymns of African American origin in our New Century Hymnal is Lift Every Voice and Sing. James Weldon Johnson, the text writer, was a teacher, poet, lawyer, newspaper founder, diplomat, and a leader in the NAACP. He worked together with his brother, John Rosamond Johnson, a musical composer, performer, and director. This hymn was first performed in 1921 for a celebration of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, and is often referred to as the black national anthem. As with all spirituals and songs from African American traditions, I wonder what it means to sing this as someone who benefits from white supremacy. As we sing together, notice the words “our” and “we” and consider their meanings. Let’s sing…
Writing to the faithful many years after the Transfiguration, the author of the second letter of Peter assures their audience that “no prophecy ever came by human will, but people moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.” With humility and gratitude, let us receive the gift of God’s Holy Spirit revealing herself through the holy songs of many peoples. For God’s glory cannot be limited to any one language or culture, rhythm or hymnody; it bursts forth in a magnificent diversity of expression. As witnesses and students of this music, as participants in this music, may we receive a clearer understanding, a brighter glimpse, of the God at the heart of it all. May it be so.
On Sunday, all of the children in our Sunday school classes came together to learn about Habitat for Humanity and the very exciting building project that will be happening right down the street from our church later this year! We learned how Habitat for Humanity helps families build or renovate their homes, we discovered on a map exactly where the new home will be built (just two minutes from church!), and we talked about the fundraising effort our whole church is engaged in to help raise $20,000 for the project and reach 60 participants. This coming Sunday I am asking the children to consider what they might want to contribute to our fundraiser, and we have set a 20-person participation goal for gifts in any amount. I am confident we’ll reach it!
After telling our related scripture story from the book of Matthew about the parable of the wise builder who built his house on a strong foundation of rock and the foolish builder who built his house on soft sand (the “rock” is the foundation of Jesus’ teachings!), we learned an awesome song and then explored a large variety of building activities in each classroom. Check out the pictures to see our busy builders!
Moses is tired. He has been leading the people Israel through the wilderness for decades. With God’s help, he has faced their complaints, met their needs, and given them guidance. Now the people are on the plains of Moab, almost within reach of the promised land. But Moses is 120 now, and according to his own account, he no longer gets around very well. Who can blame him? Moses is nearing the end of his life, and he’s not going to make it to the promised land. So before he dies, he shares some more wisdom with the people on God’s behalf.
After all that he’s done and said, what is it that Moses wants to make sure that the people know? You have a choice, says Moses. You have a choice. You can choose between prosperity and adversity. You can choose between blessings and curses. You can choose between life and death. You can choose between honoring the God who brought us up out of Egypt, and worshiping someone or something else. You have a choice, and your choice matters.
This season we listen to both Moses and Jesus share ideas with us about how to live faithfully. Many of us have heard it all before. Don’t lie or steal or kill. Don’t spend your energy on worry or hate. Don’t worship wealth or seek power for its own sake. Instead, honor creation and be generous with what you have. Strive to forgive other people and help those who need help the most. Love God with all that you are, and your neighbors, and even your enemies, as yourself.
These instructions may be familiar to us. They may even seem simple. But one thing’s for sure: they aren’t easy. So what does Moses mean when he tells us to choose? Can we really just choose a way of God, a way of life, once and for all, and everything will fall into place? If so, why hasn’t it happened already?
The ways Moses asks us to choose aren’t simple to live out. His insistence that we have a choice may even make us angry as we remember just how many things we can’t choose. None of us get to choose the circumstances of our birth or upbringing. We don’t get to choose what we’re naturally good at, or what is really hard for us, or what jobs we get or lose. We don’t get to choose who falls in love with us. We don’t get to choose if we or our loved ones get sick. We cannot choose how the people who are closest to us will act, siblings or spouses or children or parents or friends, even if we really, really wish that we could.
There are so many things we don’t have a choice about — not only in our personal lives, but in our common life, as well. It’s President’s Day weekend, and this is an election year. We don’t get to choose who runs for office, or who other people vote for, or how politicians act once they are elected. We cannot force our leaders to tell the truth, or care about the truth, or uphold any kind of moral code. We cannot single-handedly stop hateful speech and action, or redistribute wealth, or eliminate oppressive laws and practices, or halt climate change, or transform our immigration policies.
Choose a way of life, Moses? What choice do we really have? If we pay attention to the world around us, and particularly if we stay up late reading or watching or listening to the news, it’s easy to end up feeling entirely powerless. I wonder how those folks Moses was talking to felt, coming up out of slavery in Egypt only to endure 40 years of wandering and want. How many choices did they feel that they really had?
But Moses never claims that we can choose the circumstances of our lives, or that we can choose anyone else’s actions. He only reminds us that we have a choice about how we will live in the midst of everyone and everything else. God creates us for choice in the very beginning. God designs us to be free and even creative. God does then offer us guidelines for meaningful and just living, suggestions for how to use our freedom, lots of them; but God has no interest in forcing us into obedience. Instead, throughout our holy text, God cajoles, pursues, provokes, questions, and entices. God invites us to recognize and claim our freedom to say no to whatever is life-taking, life-denying. God invites us to recognize and claim our freedom to say yes to whatever will nurture, heal, inspire, connect, strengthen, honor.
God gives us freedom. God makes us free. It is our work, then, to claim that freedom. To choose despite the pain of our past, and our fear of the future. To choose despite the pressures of our families and cultures and political systems. To choose with as much creativity and faithfulness as we can, and then, when we make a mistake – as we will inevitably do – to accept God’s forgiveness, and choose again.
What might you choose, if you truly felt free? How might you live, if you claimed all your choices?
Keep in mind that Moses wasn’t speaking to one person here, but to the whole people of Israel. A free human community. As we struggle to make choices in the directions of goodness, and kindness, and justice, we will discover others who are striving to choose these things too. And while each of us has very limited power, together we have astonishing power. Power to influence, and power to change.
Just before he asks us to choose life, Moses says this:
“Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.” (Deuteronomy 30:11-14)
Please pray with me.
God, you are close enough for us to cling to, and the wisdom you give us is not far away, but planted here, in our hearts. Whatever challenges we face, personal and political, grant us the strength and courage to still claim some part of that magnificent freedom you have given to us. Guide us as we struggle to choose faithfulness, wisdom, and life: by ourselves, and together; for your sake and for our own sake and for the sake of one another. Amen.
Isaiah 58:1-9a, Matthew 5:13-20
In this season, we remember how Jesus is baptized and begins his ministry, and how he invites others into discipleship. We remember how we were baptized, many of us, and how Jesus invites us into discipleship. But what does this mean, discipleship? How could we really do it? What does it mean to follow Jesus, or to live a life faithful to God?
Our scriptures offer us two lovely answers today. Both of them are worth a longer examination, if you want to take home your bulletin and look them up. In the book of Isaiah, we find a God frustrated by their people. People pretend to care about me, God says, and they pretend to care about my ways. But at the same time, they are oppressing each other, and fighting with one another. (This may sound a bit familiar; you may have witnessed some of this in the news recently. Times haven’t changed so very much.)
God says, if these people who talk so much about me were really interested in my ways, they would be undoing injustice, and sharing their bounty with those who really need it, and recognizing everyone as kin. Only when they do these things will their light shine forth, and their healing spring up. Only then will they feel my presence, right there, alongside them.
In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus, preaching what is known as the Sermon on the Mount, offers a similar message. He knows that his audience has heard the law of Moses, and the wisdom of the prophets. You have probably heard at least the basics of it, too: love God, and your neighbor as yourself. But too often even those who know these guidelines do not follow them; or at least, we do not follow them with our whole hearts. Jesus tells us: you already have everything you need to follow me. You know what you need to know, you are who God created you to be. So, be who you really are. Salt seasons all it touches. Light brightens all it touches. You were blessed to bless others, so be salty, be bright, be yourself, and bless everyone who comes near you.
This church has taken seriously our calling to love God and neighbor, to bless others – even those we don’t know. As part of our response, we give a portion of our budget — recently, 11% — to organizations we call Mission Partners. And along with our wealth, we share other things with them, too: time, labor, prayer.
I give thanks to all the folks who are leaders in this work of connection, several here among us today. Two of them will now offer us a glimpse into why they do what they do…
Barbara: This church has a long history with Open Table. Gordon Fraser was its faithful champion along with others when we first came to WCUC 16 years ago. When Jesus says, “feed the hungry” there is not a lot of confusion or spin around what he means. Community suppers in Maynard and Concord offer weekly healthy meals and the chance to socialize. The food pantry, operating in what was formerly the Aubuchon Hardware building on Main Street in Maynard, serves upwards of 80-100 families on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons. Our monthly food donations are part of providing that need. Local farms, businesses, and the Boston Food Bank fill in the rest, and the team of volunteers to pull off this feat is awesome. There are so many pieces to a community resource like this.
We all know about housing costs in this area. Many people who work even full time have trouble managing rent/mortgage, utilities, not to mention the possible need for child care or medical bills and paying back student loans. Helping families with food frees up money to meet some of these other bills. If you are like me, the emails, letters and phone calls keep coming—so many worthy causes, so many needs. I get overwhelmed.
I have needed to find my place of radical solidarity. I think this is what Jesus calls us to, to partner with the hungry, the homeless, the displaced, the refugees, with those who are struggling. When I worked in community mental health that was my place of radical solidarity. In retirement Open Table connects me again with people who are struggling, with job loss, illness, family problems, low wages—all of which impact their ability to provide basic needs for their family. It is also a place to welcome people new to this country, working to get settled. For my own spiritual health I have needed to get out of my bubble.
I am grateful to God for the presence of Open Table in our communities and for my opportunity to partner with Open Table.
Constance: Why I support Habitat for Humanity
- Habitat for Humanity is international, at one point present in more than 100 countries.
- Habitat for Humanity is a binding national network—across social, political, monetary, and religious lines.
- Habitat for Humanity is regional and local, sometimes at work in your own town.
- Habitat for Humanity is cooperative—“each one, teach one” is an unspoken motto.
- Habitat for Humanity is young people baking and selling their wares to raise money for a nearby project.
- Habitat for Humanity is a team of women bonding over a wide variety of tasks during “Women Build” Week.
- Habitat for Humanity is celebrating a 75th birthday in grand style, challenging friends and family to raise money at the time of the local affiliate’s annual gala.
- Habitat for Humanity is an agnostic Jew and a proud atheist (nephew of two Lutheran pastors) bonding as they dig foundation trenches.
- Habitat for Humanity is learning humility—being just one more team member when the team leader may be 1/3 of your age.
- Habitat for Humanity is being amazed by Jimmy Carter’s steadfast dedication to a cause he did not found but has supported more visibly than anyone for decades.
- Habitat for Humanity is climbing tall ladders to wash windows, getting up on a roof that turns out to be steeper (and higher) than it had seemed, wielding new tools.
- Habitat for Humanity is humbling—patiently washing paint brushes, picking up trash, sorting screws.
- Habitat for Humanity is moving 1000 concrete blocks across a London worksite because they had been delivered to the wrong spot and were in the way.
- Habitat for Humanity is replacing 1000 bolts in fencing because the wrong size had been delivered but everything had to be finished by the end of the Jimmy Carter Week in Vác, Hungary—and someone had to make the switch when the correct bolts arrived.
- Habitat for Humanity is, in the words of founder Millard Fuller: “Love in the Mortar Joints,” “A Simple, Decent Place to Live,” “The Theology of the Hammer, “More than Houses.”
- Habitat for Humanity speaks to me because it pulls me out of the isolating intellectual writer’s world where I spend too much time into physical partnership with people in need—and because Habitat for Humanity can use time and talent as well as dimes and dollars.
All of us can be part of this. Thanks be to God.
February 2nd was “Sunday Fellowship Sunday”, the day when members of Sunday Fellowship, a ministry for adults of all abilities, leads worship. Our focus, this year, was baptism and reminding each other that we are who God says we are: children of God. The day was extra special because it included the baptism of Stephen, one of our long-time members (video here). Check out a video of the song Sunday Fellowship sang with the Junior and Senior Choirs here. Everyone did a great job.
Sign up here to volunteer at an upcoming Sunday Fellowship service.
Back in 2014 or so, we realized that there were more basic repairs needed on this building than we could possibly afford with the resources that we had on hand. So, we decided to ask some big questions about our building, how it could support our ministry in a better way. Then we launched a capital campaign, as we celebrated our 125th anniversary, to preserve and protect this building, to increase our environmental responsibility, and to support greater accessibility and flexibility in our spaces.
This was a hard process. So many people put in so many hours, trying to figure out: What should we do? How should we do it? How much will it cost? How much can we raise? There was so much to consider, and as many opinions as people, and I for one made plenty of mistakes as we found our way towards some decisions.
This was a hard process. And, we came together and did something amazing.
Today, let us recognize and celebrate that we have a roof above us that works, topped with solar panels that decrease our carbon footprint. There is no longer a hole in the main street door over here, or wood rotting around the glass on Pine Street. We have one main entrance that everyone can use, with an air lock and modern windows that prevent heat loss, and steps that don’t get icy in the winter, because they’re inside. Downstairs we have a kitchen with drawers you can easily open and close, a sanitizer that takes only a very few minutes to run, and a sink someone in a wheelchair can use. Right here, we have a sanctuary where Sunday Fellowship can meet, and prayer station services can be held, and labyrinths can be spread, and stars can be hung overhead, and everyone, everyone, everyone can get to the communion table.
You may be wondering, why am I mentioning all this now? Thank you for asking. This is the year that many of us completed our pledges to that Capital Campaign. We have received, to date, a combined $737,357, faithfully given. And while the church did thank you when you made your pledge, I want to thank you again, now, for your stunning generosity and dedication. You made it possible for us to preserve this building, care for the earth, and multiply the possibilities of our ministry. I hope it is beautiful to you, what we were able to do here together with the help of God.
So let us give thanks for all who have made this era of our building possible. Thank you to Renovation Committee. Thank you to all the givers. Thank you to all who offered their wisdom and forgiveness along the way in our process. And let us give thanks to God.
Matthew 4:13, 17-23
As Jesus begins his public ministry, he takes a stroll by the Sea of Galilea. While he is walking, he spots two brothers, Simon and Andrew, going about their daily work, casting a net into the sea. Jesus calls out: “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately, Simon and Andrew leave everything behind, to follow Jesus.
Jesus walks on, with his two brand-new disciples in tow. While they are walking, Jesus sees two other brothers, James and John, going about their daily work, mending their nets. Jesus calls out to them – this time, we don’t know what he said. What we do know is that these two brothers also leave their lives behind, to become disciples of Jesus. Now they’re a group of five.
Like many biblical stories, this one leaves a great deal unsaid. I have a lot of questions. Have Simon, Andrew, James, or John ever even met Jesus before? Did they have an initial discipleship interview, so that they could learn more about the position, and he could learn more about them? Are fisherfolk the only people available to be recruited for discipleship by the sea of Galilee, or does Jesus have a particular fondness for people in that profession? Is there a reason Jesus chooses two sets of brothers? What about Jesus compels these four to give up their livelihoods, and their families, to follow him?
There are a lot of holes in this story. There are a lot of spaces that require our imagination. Perhaps the most confusing part of this story, though, is Jesus’ invitation itself. “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” What’s that, now? Why would anyone want to be forced to catch other people in a net? We can give thanks that there seems to be only nets, not hooks, used in fishing in this story. Still, what a terrible way to describe the role of disciple, the work of ministry. What a terrible way to describe the wonderful tasks of showing forth God’s good news and inviting folks into God’s grace.
“Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” I’ve never really liked this invitation from Jesus. But this year I heard it differently. Maybe it’s because this fall we talked so much about being bound together in love, and binding the world together in love. What if Jesus saw Simon and Andrew casting a net into the sea, and he thought: that’s what God needs. Folks to cast out a web that others can catch onto, to save themselves from drowning in despair or loneliness or luxury or want. What if Jesus saw James and John, mending their nets, and he thought: that’s what God needs. Folks who are mending what binds us together, so that we can find one another and God again, so that we can be tied together in holy community.
The story of our ministry this year, and every year, is a story of webs and nets and ties. It’s a story of connections.
This year we have continued the work of connecting with one another across demographics and ministry areas and organizations, with programs like Sunday Fellowship Food & Fun, and interactive services like Maundy Thursday, with combined choirs, and with community partnerships.
This year we have connected through giving. Folks gave with extraordinary generosity to our annual appeal. We gave $43,000, 11% of our budget, to our mission partners, as well as in-kind gifts for Open Table, Prison Gift Bags, Minuteman Arc Holiday gifts, and Mitten Tree items.
This year we have continued to explore and expand our dedication to inclusion. We discussed White Fragility. We kept working on our worship resources. We added an automatic door opener to our main entrance. We tried more inclusive words for well-known hymns. Stick around for Annual Meeting, when we hope to expand our Open and Affirming Statement.
This year we have connected through acts of care. We supported one another through losses and memorial services and surgeries. We have delivered flowers and made visits and knit shawls and written cards and welcomed visitors. We have even baked pies. And each week, folks offer rides to church, prayers, a listening ear.
This year we have connected by through acts of service, small and large. Folks showed up to water and weed and prune the garden throughout the year. We worshipped in the garden all summer, thanks to a dedicated crew (especially Andrew). David Frink and others have fixed and installed countless items. All year, folks have showed up to move chairs, and platforms, and bell tables; to serve food and set the communion table. Each Sunday, there are people making coffee, handing out bulletins, singing, reading, helping with Sunday School, counting the offering. The Schummers even designed and installed a new name tag holder!
Maybe there have been days where there were too many items on your list of church to-dos, and you wondered: why am I doing this?
I suspect that for most of us, it was because one day, someone, or something, whispered in our ear: Come, and be part of it. There is a place in God’s great community for you. And not only that: you can be a caster of nets. You can be a mender of nets. You can be a bringer of good news. You can become part of the binding, part of the weave, part of the stretch, part of the strength, that reaches out into the world for others to grab onto.
Because all those acts of service combine through the power of the Holy Spirit into something amazing that none of us could have put together by ourselves, that looks something like all ages and abilities giant uno games; the wonder of a child; the joy of finding a place, a home, a friend.
Thank you all, for what you have given to West Concord Union Church. Through your ministry, we have witnessed the glory of God here among us. Thanks be to God.
Wayyyyy back in December, children and Sunday Fellowship members created the beautiful 3D stars that would hold gift requests from Minute Man Arc. Twenty-four stars were hung on our Gift Tree and disappeared within moments. Like clockwork, the gifts poured in, were passed to Minute Man Arc and then delivered on Christmas! Thank you to all of our gift-givers and special thanks to Andrew Forti and Jean Goldsberry for partnering with WCUC in the second year of this project. Check out these pictures of the joyful recipients that day.
What is your favorite name for God?
Our tradition teaches that the Holy is beyond our understanding; that it cannot be fully described with human language. In fact, the most accurate biblical description for God may be the one spoken to Moses as he witnessed the burning bush. Moses wants a name to bring back to his people to explain who will be leading them out of slavery in Egypt. But the force we so often call God refuses, saying simply:” I am what I am. I will be who I will be.”
Some believers embrace the unknowability of God, finding blessings in mystery, in the absence of language. Still, many of us, like Moses, long for a name, or even an adjective, or a verb: something that will give definition to our conceptions of the divine. In search of the mystery that is God, we have come up with more divine descriptions that can possibly be counted. You can find them in scripture, mystical writings, poetry, liturgy, songs, and beyond. Each of us may have our own favorite names, the ones we most often use in prayer, the ones that resonate most deeply with our hearts. Wonderful. But which ones should we use when we are all together?
This year we are spending one Sunday each month exploring the music that we sing together at church. Today, we’ll talk a bit about the formation of our Black Hymnal, the New Century Hymnal, published in 1995.
As this hymnal came into being, the social movements that had begun to move through our culture decades before were finally being felt in theology and religious practice. Civil rights, Disability rights, Gay rights, Feminism & Womanism, Ecological activism: all of these movements challenged the cultural assumptions of the mostly white American Protestants who made up the United Church of Christ.
If you compare the New Century Hymnal to its predecessor, the Pilgrim Hymnal, you may notice several shifts. The New Century Hymnal draws from a far wider range of cultures, Christian movements, and time periods. Its hymns address new issues, like social justice and stewardship of the earth. The New Century Hymnal shows more respect for the practice of faiths other than Christianity. It eliminates instances in which the word “men” is used to represent all people. It begins to shift descriptions of people in other ways, too, in response to racism and ableism, as they were understood by the editors at the time. But what the New Century Hymnal is most known for is its language for God.
The first hymn of any hymnal is telling. The New Century Hymnal committee chose “Immortal, Invisible, God only Wise.” This hymn, which we sang at the beginning of our service, acknowledges the unknowability of God, while using a wide range of adjectives and images to describe the divine: most blessed, most glorious; unresting, unhasting; with justice like mountains high soaring above.
In seeking the broadest possible description of God, and address shifts in theology, the hymnal committee “identified words, phrases, and theological implications in hymns” to revise, retranslate, or eliminate in well-known hymns (Companion, 8). These words & phrases included those that emphasized the maleness and hierarchical power of God. Singing a very familiar and beloved hymn with these kind of alterations can be jarring, as some of us experienced at Christmas. However, the hymnal committee was convinced that the way that we speak and sing about God should reflect what we believe. Perhaps they also considered how our singing shapes our belief, and the beliefs of those learning these songs for the first time.
The hymnal committee did not simply seek to eliminate what it found problematic, however. More than anything, it sought to diversity our imagery for God, to reflect in song the variety that already existed in the bible and beyond. In the words of the hymnal companion, it is “a hymnal boldly committed to a spirit of inclusiveness. It welcomes and celebrates the diversity of all the people of God as surely as it confesses the mystery of diversity within God the Holy Trinity.” The preface to the hymnal proclaims: “One of the great gifts to our time is the spirit now moving among us calling us to affirm the fullness of God, the goodness of creation, and the value of every person. The search for language and metaphor to express that breadth and richness marks this book.”
Remarkably for the time, that breadth and richness included female imagery for God. Let’s sing together #467, Mothering God, You Gave Me Birth.
Now, you may be wondering, “Why is it appropriate to use female imagery for God?” After all, if we acknowledge that God is not male, and we try to avoid using too much male language for God, we must surely also know that God is not female. God is not a person; human gender does not apply to God. Yes. And, in an absence of gender indicators, we often allow our deep training, our subconscious bias, to go undisturbed. If hearing the name “she” for God surprises us, this is a helpful indicator that it is good for us to use it, among many other names, to loosen the hold of the male description that is embedded in our religious tradition.
There may be a better pronoun for God, however, if we need to use a pronoun at all; one that has emerged since the publishing of the New Century Hymnal. Many have suggested that “they” is the most appropriate pronoun for God. The singular “they” has become a popular option for those who find themselves outside our gender binary system. If we’re describing God, “they” has an additional layer of meaning as it reminds us of the three persons in our trinity. “They,” then, might describe any mixture or absence of genders; it can suggest both unity and multiplicity. I’ve used this pronoun for God before; listen for it again later in the service.
But back to the music! The majority of the more unfamiliar language in this hymnal is not female. It is often described instead as expansive, encouraging us to stretch our brains to grasp a bigger understanding of that “I am what I am, I will be who I will be.” One hymn that beautifully captures this is God of the Sparrow, God of the Whale, #32. Let’s sing it together.
Beloved: this hymnal represents change, and change can be hard. It is hard to accept alterations to things we already know and love. It is hard to learn to love entirely new things that disrupt our assumptions or stretch our imaginations. But this year-long exploration of hymns has taught me that hymns are always being revised, and new songs are always being written. In fact, there is a wonderful quote in the preface to our Pilgrim Hymnal that reads, “Each generation responds to the call of Christ in its own distinctive way. There is need for periodic revision of our hymnals.”
I give profound thanks for the folks who came together to make this book, and to the mysterious, unknowable God who inspired them. This hymnal was the first of its kind, as far as I know, anywhere in the world; certainly it broke ground here in the United States. It has impacted the hymnals that came after it in other denominations, and it continues to challenge us, 25 years after its publication. It invites us to broaden our minds and hearts to more fully grasp the immeasurable, awe-inspiring force of Love at the center of our faith. Treasure your favorite names for God, whatever they are; and see if you can find some new ones, in the pages of this book. Let’s sing together, Bring Many Names, #11.