Facing the Music

by Elias Blum

Why can’t Unitarian Universalists sing well?
Because they are always scanning ahead to see whether they agree with the words!

It’s an old joke, but it expresses a truth. I find it hard to sing a lot of worship music with honest conviction. This isn’t a stylistic complaint. It applies equally to traditional liturgy, grand old hymns, or modern offerings by the likes of Hillsong or Vineyard.

Don’t get me wrong. In a certain frame of mind I can shout “Power, Power, Wonder-Working Power!” at the top of my lungs, or chant my way through “Agnus dei qui tollis peccata mundi”, or even blast out repetitive choruses of “This is the air we breathe” with my palms stretched upwards to the (mythical, pre-copernician) heaven.

But that qualifying parenthesis demonstrates the nature of the problem. I can sing it, and enjoy it, and even encounter, in the midst of the words and music, a glimpse of the Holy Spirit. But to reconcile the words with my progressive, Unitarian, Universalist theology, I have to willingly suspend disbelief, or else construct layers of filtering metaphor. I have to ‘translate’ the words into an acceptable theological understanding so that I can sing them without perjuring myself.

Maintained for any length of time, it can be exhausting. Sometimes, I just sit down, shut up, and wonder what on earth I am doing in a church anyway. God is Spirit, and is to be worshiped in spirit and in truth. The spirit is slippery and ineffable. It is described as a wind, a flame, a still small voice, a river, a light. But many of the lyrical images of God contradict that. They point to an all-too-human God, who is presented as a combination of warlike bronze age tribal patriarch, idealised medieval king, and a zombie superman. It just leaves me cold.

So I’m going to start an occasional series of posts about music. Music that I, as a Unitarian and Universalist Christian, could sing with a sincere conscience. Music that I think should make it into the hymnbook of a progressive church.

I’ll start with this one: “Forward Through the Ages”. To me, it is really a work song: a kingdom-sharing, community-building, world-repairing, spirit-cheering, peace-making, liberty-singing, hope-sustaining, love-awakening work song. It’s a song to motivate our labours, to recall us to our greater vision when we are mired in frustrating daily details, and to drive away our despondency when we think it’s not worth the bother.

Back in the real world, outside the Church or Meeting House doors, people with disabilities are being plunged into dire poverty by a Tory government, while millions of pounds have been spent on wars and circuses; Wall St. traders speculate on food prices while children starve; bankers get their bailouts while ordinary families are made homeless. I see all this, and much else besides, and it is so easy just to give up and stop caring. The systemic evil seems so great, and my voice seems so alone, my hands so weak. Sometimes the apparent futility of it all crashes over me, at other times I am piqued to uncharacteristic anger.

Yet I have hope. Not a baseless assumption that ‘everything will work out ok in the end’, but a growing, unfolding, living hope that I have experienced and seen. It is a hope that through darkness, light can emerge; through pain, renewal; through even the most harrowing crucifixions, glorious resurrections. It doesn’t have to be this way. One day, it will not be this way. We can make it better. Slowly. By blood, sweat and tears. But we can. The kingdom is here and now. We are building it with these hands. And when the kingdom comes at last, there will be no more tears. So find a corner and sweep it. Find a lamp and light it. And sing while you do it. Jesus is coming, and he’s probably wearing overalls. I don’t even know where the boundary between the literal and the metaphorical is anymore.

(It’s also a lovely version, although I don’t know who the artists are.)