Though I was flying home alone from Durham last Thursday night, I was not by myself. Seated next to me in the exit row was a large man who actually needed the extra leg room and who quickly fell asleep; across the aisle sat a couple who each had a puzzle book to work as they flew. And, about twenty minutes into the hour and a half flight, I became aware of the little boy sitting behind me who, evidently, was quite proud of both his singing voice and his command of the alphabet:
a, b, c – ellaminnowpea
q, r, s – ellaminnowpea
x, y, z – ELLAMINNOWPEA
His mother spoke to him several times in a maternal corrective whisper, but to no avail. He simply changed his tune:
LA LA LA (I’m happy, I’m happy, I’m happy)
LA LA LA (I’m happy, I’m happy, I’m happy)
He was a little kid on a plane being a little kid. He was happy, he was learning, and he had a pretty good voice. I’m sure it never crossed his mind that anyone around him might not share those sentiments. I’m grateful none of us adults who sat near him felt the need to tell him anything different than what he knew was true in his childlike heart. Somewhere in our muscle memory we resonated with his version of the alphabet song. (Is there a better run of letters than L M N O P?) I know I wished for the kind of abandon that would let me sing out, “I’m happy, I’m happy, I’m happy.”
Though not yet verbal, the baby that sat across the aisle from me in church yesterday with her mother was singing the same song. She bubbled and cooed through most of the service, throwing in a gleeful squeal every now and then for good measure. When we reached the closing hymn, I couldn’t help but feel the words as a prayer:
Come, Thou, Fount of Every Blessing,
Tune my heart to sing thy grace . . .
At least those are the words I know. Our UCC hymnal is one whose compilers felt driven to revise for several reasons, some (to me) more valid than others. So their opening lines read,
Come, O Fount of Every Blessing,
Tune my heart to sing your grace . . .
I know it’s a small change, but it’s just the beginning. The one that really gets me is the second stanza, which revised reads,
Here I pause in my sojourning,
giving thanks for having come,
Come to trust at every turning,
God will guide me safely home.
Those aren’t the words. The changes here are significant because they remove a wonderful image, even if it does need some explaining:
Here I raise mine Ebenezer,
hither by thy help I’m come.
And I hope by thy good pleasure,
safely to arrive at home.
The power of symbol is it packages the weight of memory and hope in way it can be carried across the miles and the years. Sure, in my junior high days, “here I raise mine Ebenezer” made us snicker as we played that good old Baptist adolescent worship service game, “Under the Sheets,” where you simply added the words “under the sheets” to the end of hymn titles with some humorous results:
O, for a Thousand Tongues to Sing . . .
Love Lifted Me . . .
I Surrender All . . .
And as I sang and chuckled, the words worked their way into my mind and heart and stayed until I could ask what an Ebenezer was with a straight face. The reference is from 1 Samuel 7:12:
Samuel took a single rock and set it upright between Mizpah and Shen. He named it “Ebenezer” (Rock of Help), saying, “This marks the place where God helped us.” (The Message)
One of the ways we tune our hearts is by matching the tone of faith that resonates down from the generations that have come before. The little soprano voice that sang “ellaminnowpea” so enthusiastically will learn more and more about where those letters can take him as he finds them shaped and gathered in the words of those who have preceded him. Those letters will teach him about Pegasus, Moses, The Little Prince, Eyeore, and Milton (John, that is), among other things.
Billy Joel began his song, “Summer Highland Falls” with the words:
They say that these are not the best of times,
but they’re the only times I’ve ever known;
and I believe there is a time for meditation
in cathedrals of our own.
The crash of emotion in those few lines has pulled me since the first time I heard them. That we are aware that these are the only times we’ve ever known should pull us to notice the Ebenzers standing tall across the landscape, making sure to remember the stories, rather than knocking them all over for our own construction projects. It is hither by the help of the other runners in the human race that we have come thus far, as well. Joel concluded:
How thoughtlessly we dissipate our energies,
perhaps we don’t fulfill each other’s fantasies,
and as we stand upon the ledges of our lives
with our respective similarities:
it’s either sadness or euphoria.
The melody of faith is more complex and more nuanced that his polarity. From the sadness to the euphoria and all of life in between, the hymn calls us to pray, with gratitude:
O, to grace how great a debtor
daily I’m constrained to be;
Let thy goodness like a fetter
bind my wandering heart to thee.
Yesterday, Ginger and I made our annual trek up to Newburyport for their Fall Festival, a wonderful community celebration. We got there in time to see the bluegrass band play their first song – my favorite song – “Angel from Montgomery.” The last verse of that song says:
There’s flies in the kitchen – I can hear ‘em a buzzin’
and I ain’t done nothing since I woke up today.
How the hell can a person go to work in the morning
and come home every evening and have nothing to say?
A little girl, not old enough yet to know Ella Minnow Pea, danced across the stones in front of the stage as they sang, twirling with total abandon, incarnating the depth of the song’s question. Whether morning or evening, coming or going, working or playing, let us answer together in song:
Prone to wonder, Lord I feel it:
prone to leave the God I love.
Here’s my heart, O take and seal it,
Seal it for thy courts above.
The video and recording is Sufjan Stevens.