STLT#102, We the Heirs of Many Ages

Welcome to another edition of Hymns I Have Never Sung and Plan To Use Now.

We have now entered the next section of our hymnal; for those keeping track, we’ve finished the First Source songs and are now entering the Second Source, Words and Deeds of Prophetic People. (I hear you saying “people? Isn’t it women and men?” Oh yes, that is how the sources read now; but there is a motion to change the source as written in the bylaws to read “prophetic people” in order to be more inclusive. And I should note, this campaign was started by my colleague Jami Yandle and others at our Toledo, Ohio, congregation.)

Anyway, back to the hymn. We now are talking exemplars and pioneers – and what better exemplars to start with than the Christ and the Buddha?  These elegant lyrics, by English Unitarian minister John Andrew Storey, are intriguingly set to a tune by I-to Loh, a professor of liturgy in the Philippines – and what I love is that even though there are other Western tunes this could easily be set to, the choice of this Eastern tune removes a sense of Western domination. It is subtle to be sure, but it is a brilliant choice that preferences a culture other than our own and still speaks to us.

We the heirs of many ages, with the wise to guide our ways,
honor all earth’s seers and sages, build our temples for their praise.

But the good we claim to cherish, all that Christ and Buddha taught,
unrepentant hearts let perish, spurning truth most dearly bought.

Centuries of moral teaching, words of wisdom, ancient lore,
all the prophet souls’ beseeching leaves us heedless as before.

Late in time, may we, forsaking all our cruelty and scorn,
see a new tomorrow breaking and a kinder world be born.

And lest you think the Asian tune means it’s hard to sing, it’s most assuredly not. It has a couple of intervals that are, to my Western-trained ears, a little unusual, but they would be easily learned by anyone, I think.

So why have I never sung it? I suspect in some cases, for other minsters it wasn’t the right message, or it seemed too foreign to introduce to ‘a congregation that doesn’t sing’ (which is code for “I don’t have anybody who can – or I don’t want to take the time – to teach them.”)

But here’s another reason it probably gets bypassed, and certainly got bypassed by me: it faces Abide With Me, and a title like We the Heirs of Many Ages makes a connection to memorials and funerals – if you don’t look, it seems like another of the same ilk, and for the most part (although colleague Christian Schmidt is about to prove me wrong), nobody uses Abide With Me except at memorials and funerals, so why would we give another funeral song a glance? And of course, we’d be wrong.

The worst part is that there have been times that this would have been the perfect hymn, and I blew those chances. But I’ll remember it now, as I revel in the openness and poetry of word and music.

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