Love the Tune, Hate the Words

Please visit our YouTube channel to watch Rev. Ann Marie’s video recording of this reflection.

How many of you know of the contemporary Buddhist author Sharon Salzberg? Born to a Jewish family in New York City, she has published a number of books on the practice of “loving kindness,” otherwise known as metta.

She says, “Metta is the ability to embrace all parts of ourselves, as well as all parts of the world. Practicing metta illuminates our inner integrity because it relieves us of the need to deny different aspects of ourselves. We can open to everything with the healing force of love. When we feel love, our mind is expansive and open enough to include the entirety of life in full awareness, both its pleasures and its pains, we feel neither betrayed by pain or overcome by it, and thus we can contact that which is undamaged within us regardless of the situation. Metta sees truly that our integrity is inviolate, no matter what our life situation may be.” 

Years ago, when I was first becoming a UU, I attended a small congregation in my hometown of Jacksonville, Florida. I was struck by how many UU hymns at the time reminded me of the songs I had sung as a child and a teen in the Baptist churches that my family and I had been members of. Of course, the UUs had changed the words. But I soon discovered that at the fellowship where I was learning to be a UU, not all of the words printed in the UU hymnal were “acceptable” to every UU at that fellowship.

There seemed to be a common practice of looking ahead at the words to be sung to see if you agreed. Apparently that was a UU “thing” some years ago, that went beyond that little congregation I was coming to know.  

There was a rather limited amount of “sacred” music most UUs found acceptable. 

When I was young, I loved to sing. I loved to hear the sound of the church choir. I loved the sound of the whole church singing. It didn’t matter what the words were. But yes, as I grew older and more in tune with liberal ideas, I did go through a long period of rejecting the bloody, sacrificial mess that my childhood faith pushed in the words of those old hymns. 

I too pushed back on that by not singing what I could no longer agree with.  

Then one Sunday, that little fellowship had the Mountain Singers lead the service. Two married couples who worked at The Mountain, the UU-affiliated retreat center in Highlands, NC were touring with their music and to promote The Mountain. The well-known songwriter Shelley Jackson Denham was among the four. She has five hymns in our grey hymnal. The one you may be most familiar with is “We Laugh, We Cry.” The group sang, and she gave the sermon that morning.

I still remember when she described how she couldn’t sing “Amazing Grace” for years and years, because she didn’t agree with the words “a wretch like me.” She came through the same consciousness-raising I had. She confessed that she loved the tune and missed the sound, so she did a little digging to find out more about who wrote the song and why.

Hearing the story made a difference to her and she began to sing “Amazing Grace” again. 

She sang it to us that day. I remember crying. That experience provided a way back to a part of myself.

Years later, I was the full-time called minister in Greenville, NC. I was told during the interview for that position that part of my ministry there was to coordinate the Thanksgiving Interfaith Service. I am proud that I added the local Pagans and the Indigenous People in the area to the mix of interfaith groups that participated in that annual service every year. 

We always started the service with the sounding of the shofar, an ancient musical instrument typically made of a ram’s horn, used by Jews in their services.  Following that, we would have an Iman sing the Muslim call to prayer. I loved the sound of that call and looked forward to hearing it every year. To my ears, it so matched the sound of the human longing for someone to be in charge, to bring order and satisfaction to this human mess.

I loved that part of the service the most, until the year that one of the Imans wanted the translated words of the prayer printed in the OOS. I hadn’t previously known or cared what the words said.

When I read the translation, I was horrified. Oh, no. The sound I loved did not match those words… I wish I had not read them. I shook my head and tried to forget what I had read.

The words only amplified how belittled and insignificant I was made to feel by another Iman who regularly participated in our interfaith discussions that happened every month. I tried to not reject him the way I felt he rejected me. 

Reading Sharon Salzberg at the time and practicing metta helped. “I am worthy no matter what. You are worthy no matter what.”

If we can practice loving kindness for all the parts of ourselves, the parts we may be proud to have left behind; the parts that were comforted by bad theology until we knew better, believed better; the parts that are judgmental of that person we count ourselves as lucky to no longer be; the parts that judge and divide and are hateful to some and only accepting of a few, because we fear loving all of who we are; the parts of ourselves even now that we deny that we are, even when we can clearly hear ourselves, see ourselves, be less than loving….

It isn’t about the words after all. It is about the tune, the sound, the comfort, the challenge of the music. It is about what makes the soul sing.

When I was in Greensboro, NC, doing a three-year stint as a developmental minister, doing ministry with me was a wonderful music director. He took the opinionated UUs who wanted to sing only the words they agreed with and taught them that sacred music was about the human longing for something beyond the self, beyond the anchor of daily duties, it was about letting the soul—the spirit—soar. The words were always going to be in the language of the times, but the music, the tune, was of the heart, of the spirit, and when that came through the words would not matter.

Sing. Listen to the sounds, the songs that soothe and comfort and heal. Find the songs that express your longing, your yearning, your need to believe in life, and in the strength of love.

Amen and blessed be. 

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