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Singing, Joy, and Exultation – 6/2/2013

First Reflection

The next piece of music we will hear was composed by Mabel Daniels, a setting for words derived from several of the Psalms. Mabel was born a Unitarian and passed from life a Unitarian Universalist, having lived through the great consolidation. She was originally from Swampscott and lived most of her life in and around Boston. It is difficult to make a living for oneself as a professional composer of music, and because of long-standing bias, it is particularly difficult to do so as a woman. In Mabel’s day, it was so difficult, in fact, that it was nearly unheard of. Most people literally could not imagine that a woman would be able to compose music for a choir or orchestra, or even that she might want to.

One of the stories Mabel used to tell to illustrate this took place during the Worcester Music Festival in 1940. She happened to be chatting with another member of the audience during an intermission. He had been impressed with the new composition just performed, but was confused as to why that woman had been invited up onto the platform just before the music and singing began. Mabel offered a gentle, tactful response: “Perhaps she was the composer!” The fellow seemed flabbergasted at this; equal parts confused by the idea and certain that it was wrong. I take from this story that he must not have had very good seats for the performance, because he should otherwise have realized that he was talking to that woman who had been acknowledged just before the piece – it was a Mabel Daniels original.

The text of the piece we will hear now exhorts us in Latin to strike up the band – to bring in the sounds of drum and trumpet and all manner of instruments. To bring song, praise, and a joyful noise into the worship of that all-loving, justice-seeking spirit which each of us understands and experiences in our own particular way. Rev. Clinton Lee Scott, who was for many years the minister of the Independent Christian Church in Gloucester, the oldest Universalist congregation in the Americas, had a love for telling stories from his ministry in a language derived from the King James bible. And so he wrote,

“There was in the city a certain man with a good voice…[Who] did raise his voice in exultation when his favorite numbers were called for, even Let Me Call You Sweetheart, and I Want a Girl Just Like the Girl that Married Dear Old Dad…[And] sometimes on the Sabbath day the man with the good voice did come to the Temple with his wife. And the wife did strive valiantly with the hymns, but her husband would not so much as open his mouth to sing praises unto the Lord. When the congregation sang…this man with a good voice did remain shut up like unto a clam.”

That story and the words we are about to hear remind us that whatever our ability or potential, it is nothing if it is not put to use. Power without purpose is powerless. But a worthy reason to struggle, to sing, or to survive, makes any and all of us stronger.


Second Reflection

The next composition we will hear contains lyrics by Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. She was perhaps the first popular American novelist to attempt to take the lives and experiences of people living in slavery seriously, and her work is credited with helping to grow and embolden the movement for the abolition of slavery. She is so frequently listed as being a Unitarian that when we were putting together our plans for this service I didn’t even question her inclusion. In truth, however, Harriet Beecher Stowe was not a Unitarian and in fact her father was a famous enemy of Unitarianism, having led the opposition to the appointment of a Unitarian as chair of divinity at Harvard. Harriet’s own religious views were more complex and varied – she was something of a seeker during her life, and eventually became associated with Spiritualism, a religious movement focused on communicating with the dead which had a surge of popularity in the mid 1800s.

But it is one of the deeply held principles of our tradition, that we do not listen only to voices from within our own house, so that whether Harriet Beecher Stowe was or was not a Unitarian should have no bearing for us on the beauty and value we find in her words. The words of the piece we will now hear speak of wonder, joy, and reassurance in an abiding, persistent sense of the presence of the holy. In the morning, in the nighttime; at birth, throughout life, and even unto death, Harriet’s words describe a sense of never being truly alone. It is a classic understanding of what so many people call God: not as a king, or a parent, or a judge, but as an abiding companion. As we listen, I invite you to look into your own hearts and minds and reflect on who is with you this morning: what persons living or dead, what beings or forces, real or imagined, follow with you wherever you go?


Third Reflection

Our closing anthem was composed by Daniel Pinkham, a Unitarian church musician from Lynn who served for 42 years as Music Director at King’s Chapel in downtown Boston. One of the latin phrases in this piece – “Gloria in excelsis Deo” – may be familiar to you from the Christmas carol ‘Angels We Have Heard on High’. The lyrics are expressions of praise. One of the lines may be translated as, “Come before God, come into the Holy Presence, come unto God with singing,

Hoping Also all confiscated tact and I. That smell cigarette make.

joy, and exultation.” Music is a means to approach the transcendent – the whatever-it-is that is at the highest point of being alive. It is like the candy that your mom used to keep on the highest shelf where she thought you couldn’t find it. Music can be like that step ladder that you hauled across the kitchen and climbed up onto. We never fully understand what is up there, at the highest height of existence, but we always suspect it is something glorious. And that is what keeps us coming back; what keeps us singing.

The ancient mystical poet Hafiz wrote a poem that speaks to this. I would like to leave you with it, to consider in the remaining moments of our worship together, and in the days of the week to come. 650 years ago he wrote something like this:

Your breath is a sacred clock, my dear—

Why not use it to keep time with the sacred Name?


And if your feet are ever mobile

Upon this ancient drum, the earth,

O do not let your precious movements

Come to naught.


Let your steps dance silently

To the rhythm of the Beloved’s Name!


My fingers and my hands never move through empty space,

For there are invisible golden lute strings all around,
Sending Resplendent Chords
Throughout the Universe.

I hear the voice
Of every creature and plant,
Every world and sun and galaxy–
Singing the Beloved’s Name!

I have awakened to find violin and cello,
Flute, harp, and trumpet,
Cymbal, bell and drum–
All within me!
From head to toe, every part of my body
Is chanting and clapping!

Love has made me – and you – luminous!

For with constant remembrance of the sacred,
One’s whole body will become
A Wonderful and Wild,

Holy Orchestra!


First Parish Church

225 Cabot St

Beverly, MA 01915


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