For the record, I love that we have a section of hymns based on the Psalms. The time spent with the Psalms in my Old Testament class was one of my favorites – learning about the different kinds of psalms, learning about when they might have been written and why, and hearing the strength of poetry and potential for, yes, singing.
One of the assignments we were given in that class was to recast a psalm for a modern setting; I don’t remember now which one I did or how, but I remember at the moment finally understanding that the text we revere as The Bible was deeply human, deeply personal, deeply situational. And so while we might marvel at how one of these Psalm-inspired hymns got to where it is from where it was, we can remember that that the original psalm used words and meanings that we won’t ever truly understand (made further away by translation into English), and thus we can only reinterpret for ourselves the truths found within.
This first psalm hymn is an example. It’s based on Psalm 126 – the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) goes like this:
A Song of Ascents.
1 When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,*
we were like those who dream.
2 Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
and our tongue with shouts of joy;
then it was said among the nations,
‘The Lord has done great things for them.’
3 The Lord has done great things for us,
and we rejoiced.
4 Restore our fortunes, O Lord,
like the watercourses in the Negeb.
5 May those who sow in tears
reap with shouts of joy.
6 Those who go out weeping,
bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
carrying their sheaves.
Now we Unitarian Universalists don’t sing much about Zion (it shows up in just three hymns across the two books ), but it was an important concept for the Israelites/Judeans/Jewish peoples. Because what Zion meant to them was Home. A deep-seated, God-given, long-remembered-in-our-bones Home.
Thus, it’s this concept of home and striving toward home that our lyricist (unknown, but probably the Hymnal Commission working together) caught and cast into our lyrics:
When we wend homeward to our land,
like dreamers we shall be;
like leaping rivers in the spring
we’ll joyful be and free!
For though our sowing work is hard,
and tears do freely flow,
on harvest day we’ll shoulder sheaves,
our hearts will overflow!
Yet for all its trueness to the psalm (bravo) and its setting to one of the sweet American folk tunes (Land of Rest), I’m not sure I would ever use this hymn. Because what is home to a European American like me, whose ancestors (the ones who came before the 19th century) were part of the problem here in the Americas? I mean, my line doesn’t go back to nameless settlers, it goes back to John Winthrop, he of the ‘shining city on a hill’ and declaring the land for England and Christendom and all that rot. This isn’t to say I’m not proud of my roots – friend and colleague Elizabeth Assenza joyfully visited Winthrop’s grave at King’s Chapel in Boston this spring, as we are both his descendants and love our cousin-hood. But the idea of homeward is uprooted for me; ideally, home is England. And yes, I feel an affinity. But to sing it as a European American in an American setting feels wrong somehow.
Funny that I’m writing this on July 4th, a day when I feel my American-ness deeply, a day when I rejoice in the parts my ancestors played in the Revolution, a day when I celebrate the good (and there is good) in US. But I have long lost the rose colored glasses of my youth, when we dove deeply into the bicentennial celebrations and were nothing but proud. Now my pride is dinged up and bruised by the realities of our country’s founding and growth, the abuses by some in leadership, the false patriotism, and the knowledge that our system, while not completely broken, has been damaged and corrupted.
Perhaps singing this hymn today is not about the home of my birth, but home to our roots as Americans, with all the messiness, knowing that there is still something true and strong about the idealism of democracy and freedom.
Happy Independence Day.