STLT#292, If I Can Stop One Heart from Breaking

Last night, friend and colleague Erika Hewitt brought a message of love to evening worship here at SUUSI. It was not an easy message – she challenged us to flex our heart muscles in new ways, to lean into empathy, to see love in part as being willing to look past events and out into the systems that cause events to occur, and to know that we have the power – by practicing love even when it’s hard – to change lives and live into our call as Unitarian Universalists. Quoting UUA President Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray’s pastoral letter about New Orleans, Erika asked, “Who’s outside the circle of love?” We replied, “No one is outside the circle of love.”

And because this spiritual practice has a keen sense of timing, today’s hymn is of course a setting of this amazing poem by 19th century American poet Emily Dickinson:

If I can stop one heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain.
If I can ease one life the aching
or cool one pain,
or help one fainting robin
unto his nest again,
I shall not live in vain.

Sometimes we think we are called to solve all the world’s problems. But love, as Erika reminded us, uses plural pronouns; so no, I as an individual can’t do it, but we, all of us loving, can do it together. But it means I have to do it and you have to do it and the others too – and thus, if I can do one thing, help one person, ease one life, stop one heartache, show one kindness – I have contributed to the we.

And who doesn’t wanna do that?

Now what I don’t really want to do is sing this again. It’s not that the piece by Leo Smit, commissioned for STLT, is bad, it’s just super tricky. I first learned this tricky melody for a service a million years ago – a group of us sang it as a trio or quartet (I don’t really remember, as it was over a dozen years ago). I remember the harmonies being hard, the phrasing being tricky. And when I tried to sing it this morning, I fumbled and struggled. (Crazy part is that I’m on a college campus full of musicians but it’s too early to wake one up and ask them to play it for me.)

In other words, this is NOT for a congregation to sing unless you’ve spent a lot of time teaching it. And even then, the newcomer will be baffled (and rightly so). So put this in the not-for-the-congregation category, hand it to some seasoned singers, and see what magic happens.

Because what Dickinson’s poem – and Erika’s service – and really, our entire faith – says, is that we must show mercy and love, because that’s what it’s all about in the end.

2 Comments

  1. I agree! The only time I’ve seen/heard this hymn used effectively in a church service is when an accomplished singer once sang it as a vocal solo — it was beautiful and moving. Wish someone would come up with a bonafide congregational hymn using this text. (BTW, there’s a gorgeous choral arrangement that draws on this text and also text by RW Emerson, called “Write It On Your Heart” by Robert I Hugh, published by Hal Leonard. Unfortunately there doesn’t appear to be a video or audio recording of it available online. I believe that the melody line in that arrangement could be used as the base for a congregational hymn. Perhaps someone out there could get permission from Hugh to develop it?)

  2. I was so curious to see what you’d say about this. I tried to figure out the melody and just gave up, Read the words instead, which are lovely. Ha! LOVEly – get it?. Your humor is better than mine.

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