Lullabies for a Revolution | July 9, 2017

12 Hymns Project
STS 124: My soul cries out
Scripture texts: 1 Sam. 2:1-10; Luke 1:46-55

The world is about to turn.

I have to admit that on more than one occasion I have slipped up and changed the lyrics to “the world is about to burn,” which was, perhaps, less of a slip up and more of a reflection on the world around us. 

The world is about to turn.  Things are changing.  A new day is dawning, but not just any new day.  The air is crisp with possibilities.  Breathe it deeply.  A reverie of hope tiptoeing toward that vernal awakening; creation unfolding, stretching cramped wings that have caught the scent of a favorable breeze.

The world is about to turn.

Whether turning or burning, the world is making way for something new.  God is making way for something new, and our hearts shall sing of this day God brings.

Of our top 12 hymns, My Soul Cries Out, also known as the Canticle of the Turning, is one of the newer ones, first published less than 30 years ago.  One of the advantages of this is that I was able to find a blog post about the hymn that was written by the the arranger of the music and author of the text, Rory Cooney.

Cooney writes that the song was written for his parish in Phoenix, Arizona in order to tie together in worship the themes of Luke’s gospel during Lectionary Year C when Luke is a main focus.  The more he thought about the monumental task of tying together all of the themes of Luke’s gospel the more he kept coming back to Mary’s song at the end of the first chapter. 

Often called the “Magnificat” because of the first word in the latin translation that means “to magnify,” Mary’s song speaks broadly and deeply about God taking action in the world on behalf of the less powerful.  It echoes Hannah’s song from 1 Samuel both in content and context, which nicely roots the Jesus story within Judaism. 

Both Hannah and Mary’s songs move outward from a recognition of God’s blessing in their own personal lives toward an ever broader recognition of the ways God is lifting up the lowly to the ends of the earth, to Abraham and his descendants forever and ever, to the ends of the age to be. 

Both Hannah and Mary’s songs are born of the joy of the new life that grew inside of them; songs to children who would alter the course of history, calling their communities and the world back to God, calling us to turn away from violence and greed and abusive power toward a new way of life where the hungry poor shall weep no more for the food they can never earn; tables spread, ev’ry mouth be fed. 

The world is about to turn.

My favorite thing that Cooney wrote in his reflection on the creation of this song offers us a beautiful picture to imagine while we sing.  He writes, “In the spirit of Miriam of Egypt, Hannah, and Miriam of Nazareth ‘Canticle of the Turning’ invites us to sing around the fire in the darkness while we await the new world’s dawn.” 

Sing around the fire in the darkness while we await the new world’s dawn. 

Hannah and Mary’s songs are rooted in a hope that can’t help but imagine a better world for their children, a hope that sings itself into existence.  They sing so that their children will know this hope and be formed by the vision it offers.  Their songs becoming lullabies for a revolution that seek less to lull us into sleep but more to find the comfort that comes with staying woke to a God who continues to do new things. 

Hannah and Mary sing their songs of hope because their lives and the lives of their children depend on it.  On the nomination forms for the 12 Hymns, one mother wrote that if she could nominate My Soul Cries Out twelve times she would because she recalled the first time her son heard us singing it she sensed a change in him; his typically detached engagement with the happenings of worship shifting suddenly to intrigued interest as he followed along. 

Our future, our children’s future, and our Church’s future depends on us being formed by a vision of hope in a God who continues to do new things. 

The world is about to turn.

Over the past week many of you know that Joel and I, along with Barb Gant and Kerry Strayer participated in the biennial Mennonite Church USA convention.  A key feature of this convention was the setting aside of huge blocks of time for a new endeavor called the Future Church Summit. 

This Future Church Summit was described as “a generative, open space for denomination-wide conversation — to dream together, reset priorities and engage one another in answering the question: How will we follow Jesus as Anabaptists in the 21st century?”  No small task.

The summit was born out of a recognition that we are a denomination in the midst of change and a desire to see this change as an opportunity for new life and new vision to emerge.  Leading up to our time together, it became apparent that for many people, myself included, this particular moment in our life as a denomination felt pregnant with possibilities.  No one knew quite what would happen; many of us carried a tension in our hearts between skepticism and hope; what united all of us was a desire to see MCUSA be a place where the fires of God’s justice burn, even if we had different ideas of what that looked like.  Even if you weren’t at the summit, I would guess that many of you know this state of cautious optimism and anticipation.

There is not enough time in the world to fully describe the process, and I’m sure there will be lots of opportunities to read about it in next weeks and months.  But I do want to share two stories with you, one that brings me hope and one that strengthens my resolve to continue singing of the hope to come. 

First off, there was a recognition by those planning the summit that the typical decision making body at these kinds of convention gatherings were not nearly representative of the diverse identities that exist across MCUSA.  To ensure that our visioning for our future was being done with as many voices as possible, a concerted effort was made to specifically invite minority and marginalized groups, and a new program was aimed at including youth in the process alongside adult mentors.  This gives me hope.

I was part of a team that was tasked by summit planners with finding 20 extra people who would be able to give voice for LGBTQ advocacy at the tables.  Other marginalized groups were invited in the same way.  This gives me hope.

Even beyond just having more voices at the tables, LGBTQ people were also intentionally invited to bless the entire gathering in various leadership roles.  I actually found myself being overcome with emotion one evening as I watched a young queer person take the stage wearing a bright pink hat that read “Make Anabaptism Queer Again,” and she blessed the gathered body through original poetry and song.  Not only were the words and music extremely moving, I choked up as watched her there on stage because I remembered a story I heard about the 2009 convention where a colleague of mine was told that before she would be allowed to take the stage she would have to cover up her pink shirt.  Only a few short years ago, queer bodies were seen as such a threat that even a straight ally showing solidarity was seen as a threat.

The world is about to turn. 

But now, a story that leaves me clinging to hope more deeply:  One of the intended goals of the Future Church Summit was to not just be another process but that the outcomes of the discussions would set priorities that guide all levels of the denomination as we seek to follow Jesus in the 21st century.  It was certainly not a perfect process but much good work was done to decenter dominant narratives, to enable authentic dialogue, and to confess and lament harm that had been done.  Not perfect by any standard, but many good steps toward a vision of where we want to go together emerged. 

After many, many hours around tables doing this hard but holy work, the central themes were distilled and compiled into a summary document.  The plan was for this document to be affirmed by an official vote by a resolution that stated, “We the delegates of Mennonite Church USA affirm the collective work of the Future Church Summit, and we receive the FCS…report as the direction of our national body.”   

During open discussion on this resolution, it became apparent that there was unease with the idea of labeling the work that had been done as a “direction” for our denomination.  Anxieties were raised be a handful of people and after some quick procedural jostling, the resolution was amended to erase any trace of the word “direction,” instead declaring the work that had been done a “guide for further discernment.” 

Part of me feels my eyes starting to glaze over even just thinking about the amount of semantic gymnastics that happened in this change, but at the same time I also find it so important to recognize that the move from “direction” to “guide for further discernment” is a significant watering down. 

After hours upon hours of discernment we resolve…to further discernment?   

The world may be about to turn, but are we ready to follow where God is leading us?  When we feel new life leaping inside us, do we sing our hope into existence or do we lull ourselves back to sleep? When a Church that knows it is pregnant with possibilities is in the midst of labor pains are we ready to start pushing? 

My wish for us, my friends, is:
-That all of us together, young and old, rich and poor, black and white, and every expression of God’s beautiful creation, that we would find spaces in our life together to sit around campfires and tables and living rooms and sanctuaries to share stories of good news, to cast visions of hope, and to sing into existence the dawn of a new day.
-That in our singing, our dancing, our storytelling, our working and our resting, our feasting and our fasting, and the entire canvas of life that we would be a people who don’t just proclaim a vision of hope, but a people who make the way of hope by walking it.
-And finally, that we would be a Church who is not afraid to turn, to change direction, and even to die if it means making a way for the heartbeat of new life.