How Can I Keep from Singing?

I’ve had the blessing of hearing three sermons so far in 2011 that have challenged my thinking on the topic of hope.

The first of these sermons was preached by Rev. John Caldwell at the church I grew up in, First United Methodist Church of Decorah, IA, the first Sunday of this year.  John was preaching on Isaiah 60 and talking about exile and kingdom vs. empire, both of which seem to be important themes in his preaching.  John was making a connection between exilic Jews and Americans today.  He was claiming that we are disillusioned dreamers, as were the exiled Jews.  We have been disappointed before, and thus it is hard for us to have dreams in which we believe.  Yet John challenged us that we must still dream and believe in those dreams.

Bishop Peter Weaver preached the second of these sermons at my church in Boston, Union United Methodist Church.  Weaver was preaching the day before MLK Day and was again sounding the theme (appropriately for the occasion) of dreams.  Weaver, too, emphasized the importance and necessity of dreams.

In her preaching debut on Feb. 6th, (the future Rev.) Allie Hoffman delivered the third of these sermons at Union.  Allie talked about imagination rather than dreams, but explicitly connected her sermon to Weaver’s.  Allie (taking as her text the Beatitudes, Matthew 5:1-12) asserted that we must have the imagination to envision a better world that is not a utopia, which is no place, but which comes about here in this place.  She challenged us to reject an easy cynicism about the world which belittles such imagination of a better world and to be the agents of God’s blessing.

By the time I was done listening to Allie’s sermon, I felt convicted by these three messages.  I have to admit that, as John says, I am sometimes a disillusioned dreamer.  My disillusionment comes from a couple of sources.  One is my disillusionment with aspects of modernity.  One of the basic narratives of modernity is the narrative of progress.  This narrative gets played out in a number of different ways, but boils down to a conviction that the world and people will become ever better.  Science will progress.  Liberty will progress.  Learning will progress.  Peace will progress.  Rights will progress.  For religious thinkers, religion will progress and the Kingdom of God will come on earth.  Darkness, ignorance, suffering, and conflict will fade away.

I have doubts about this narrative.  I do recognize that in some important ways our world has made progress in the past several centuries.  Modern medicine leads to less suffering and longer life.  The place of women is in many ways better than it was centuries ago.  African-Americans and Afro-Caribbeans are no longer kept in chattel slavery.  In other ways, change has certainly happened, but whether or not it represents progress is unclear.  Is getting together through Facebook progress compared to when we got together through box socials?  I’m not sure.  In other ways, modernity has failed to deliver on its promises of progress.  The twentieth century was not just the high point of modernity, but the century of two world wars, the Holocaust, and numerous genocides.  Poverty, disease, discrimination, exploitation, and a whole host of other causes and symptoms of suffering still exist.  Finally, because of its material basis in the unsustainable consumption of resources, modernity has led to regression in the environmental arena.

The second source of my disillusionment is looking at the world around me.  I don’t worry about my own future that much.  I’ve lived through enough unpleasant things that I’m confident I can live through whatever other unpleasant things life throws at me, and I have enough faith that I’m not too worried about my own death.  I do worry, however, about those around me and the world in general.  I see people I care about suffering from loss, unemployment, sickness, mental illness, broken relationships, uncertainty about the future, and other issues.  And while some of these situations may improve, I know it’s unrealistic to expect these things to cease altogether.

When I look at the world around me, I am aware that, far from the world being on a definite path to progress, there are significant chances that it will become (in my eyes) worse.  Workers may lose their rights and students their opportunity to get a good education in my beloved state of WI.  State laws may be passed elsewhere that are detrimental to the well-being of women.  Budgets may be cut such that those who have the least suffer the most.  Women and minorities continue to be discriminated against.  Immigrants and gays and lesbians are scapegoated for society’s problems.  Starvation, disease, and warfare continue to be endemic in many areas of the globe.  Natural disasters threaten to get worse as humans move into more environmentally vulnerable areas and continue to affect the climate.  Climate change will likely have increasing effects on the natural and human worlds and could lead to widespread environmental collapse.  Increased demand for oil and decreasing supplies of it may lead to global war and/or drastic changes to the way and standard of life we in the West are used to.

I was thinking of all these things this last Sunday in church as Crystal Gardner was preaching about Jesus’ injunction not to worry.  I was thinking to myself, “Even if I’m not worried about myself, how can I help worrying about others and the world around me?”  How can we dream, how can we have imagination in the face of all of the bad things in the world?  How can we have hope, and to what type of hope are we called?”

And then a song came to me.  It was song my mother had chosen as the postlude for her funeral, “How Can I Keep from Singing?”  Four of the verses are below.

My life goes on in endless song
above earth’s lamentations,
I hear the real, though far-off hymn
that hails a new creation.

Through all the tumult and the strife
I hear it’s music ringing,
It sounds an echo in my soul.
How can I keep from singing?

While though the tempest loudly roars,
I hear the truth, it liveth.
And though the darkness ’round me close,
songs in the night it giveth.

No storm can shake my inmost calm,
while to that rock I’m clinging.
Since love is lord of heaven and earth
how can I keep from singing?

Choosing that song was an act of hope on my mother’s part, even in the face of the certainty of her own death.  And it was a message of hope to those at her funeral.  So I’ve decided that this is what hope is: not the conviction that progress is inevitable, but the ability to “hear that real, though far-off hymn that hails a new creation” and the ability to sing along.  Hope is not conviction that things must get better but rather a recognition that they could get better and an exploration of how that might be possible.  This definition, of hope leads us not to complacency about a better future that is coming no matter what we do.  Instead, it spurs us to action to work toward those possibilities of a better world.

Rev. John, Bishop Weaver, and Allie are right.  We must have hope, and this task of hope is two-fold.  It is first to hear that hymn, to dreams those dreams, to imagine a better world.  And then it is to sing along with the hymn and translate our dreams and imagination into action on behalf of that better world.


emily posted on March 5, 2011 at 5:47 pm

Again, a provocative and engaging blog, David!

I love this song as well and for me, the modern dream and promise of a linear progressive trajectory hasn’t, nor will it, occur. The Buddhists help me out greatly in terms of their understanding that suffering is an inevitable part of life. My hope, in the light of such suffering, is in my faith in the potential transformative power of suffering — if it is embraced or at least understood as a human universal condition through the lens of compassionate love. This is how I can still be hopeful — on good days, that is… not all, of course. I have faith in the individual and collective power of humans, when open to and informed by a power that is of and beyond us, to turn our suffering into a co-creation moment building relationship and community.

David Wm. Scott posted on March 7, 2011 at 11:13 am

Emily, that is a very well put comment. Like you, I think Buddhists have it right – suffering is an inevitable part of life. But unlike the Buddhists, I don’t think the point of life is to try to escape suffering. Rather, I think it is, as you put so well, to reach out to those suffering (including ourselves sometimes!) in compassion love so that suffering can be a transformative experience. I really see that as at the heart of the Christian message – that love has the power to transform and ultimately overcome suffering and evil.

j. ayrton posted on March 17, 2011 at 6:09 pm

This post caused me to get out Bernard James’s The Death of Progress. A remarkably good book for how obscure it is. James wrote in the early 1970’s as the disillusionment with the 50s and then 60s economic and cultural advancements ware starting to be realized. James warned that kowtowing to the inhuman idea of science as the god of progress had dangerous consequences. But he also worried about the counter-cultural revolution of the 60s. James recognized that complete abandonment of reason was not any better a path for a society to take than blind reliance on reason (a reactionary anti-progress progress if you will).

In a broader scope I think these two things really represent both Modernity (any progress is always for the better) and Post-Modernity (progress is individualism). I think in a way there has to be a middle way. Maybe hope is a way to describe that middle way. A sense that yes, we are all in this dark desperate place alone, but when we work together we can build great things. It just takes a better vision of what truly “great things” really are.

David Wm. Scott posted on March 21, 2011 at 3:43 pm

Thanks, Jamie. I’ve added James’ book to my Amazon list. I think you’re right that neither modernity nor postmodernity provides a suitable way forward. Stay tuned for a post this week in which I give my definitions of modernity and postmodernity and speculate on what might come next. Community (influenced in part by your research) will feature prominently.

Paul Scott posted on March 23, 2011 at 10:44 am

I read your posting and thought of a book that Mom loved–“The Art of Racing in the Rain,” by Joel Stein. In an interview, the author talked about the phrase from the book that came to mean so much to Mom and me–“That which you manifest is before you.”
Here’s what he said: “I think it’s very important to take charge of your life, not to feel like you’re a victim of circumstance or fate, but that you are an active participant in your future…Where I focus my energy always matches what comes back to me in my life.”
You are right that the world has seen numerous wars, holocausts and genocides, as well as poverty, disease and discrimination. But there is also love and family ties and fellowship and discipleship and compassion. And I find that the more I notice this, the greater hope I have for the future. “That which you manifest is before you.”

David Wm. Scott posted on March 23, 2011 at 3:17 pm

Thanks, Dad. I think that’s another beautiful statement of hope.

Scott Haile posted on June 17, 2011 at 12:32 pm

I like the post, but I feel like the discussion leaves me a little cold. I’m not sure that broad ideas of “hope” hold up very well if we don’t link them directly to the (personal) God of creation. I suppose folks could propose a kind of non-Christian parallel to the Christian Gospel, I just hate to think we might conflate those as the same thing.

Love doesn’t ever exist as an entity of its own, does it? Isn’t it always something shared between a person and another creature(s) or thing(s)? I know the hymn uses “love” as a stand-in for “God”, but it seems to me that if we don’t also name God along the way, then we lose the core content of what we’re talking about. Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God has a lot to do with what people do in our lives to be sure, but I think it loses its content if it’s not grounded in the power of a personal God, and it loses its drive if we don’t bringing about the kingdom as an act of worship toward that God.

Thanks for the thoughtful post, David.

David Wm. Scott posted on June 19, 2011 at 10:30 am

Thanks for the thoughtful response, Scott.
Of course, I would see hope as very closely linked to belief in God, even if I didn’t make that explicit in the post. God’s promises to us are ultimately the ground of our hope. I think the vision of the better world for which we are to hope and work should come from God.
Thanks for this important reminder.

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