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.
Milton, your writing is exquisite and almost always exactly what I needed to hear. Thank you.
(You have to love Sufjan Stevens.)
And Billy Joel!
Lord, how I need to be reminded of this sometimes. Think I’ll print and save just for the tough moments. Thanks for this, Milton.
Whoa, all my favorites. ‘Come Thou Fount’ is one of the most moving hymns hidden in my heart – and it HAS to be ‘Ebenezer’. And ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ and ‘thy’. Gosh darn it, you can’t just go changing everything that is solid…
And Billy Joel – who led me to play the piano with wild abandon. I wore out my copy of ’52nd Street’.
And Sufjan Stevens – God bless him for being exactly who he is.
Have you heard David Crowder’s version of ‘Come Thou Fount’? Worth looking at…as is Crowder’s version of Sufjan’s ‘Oh God, Where Are You Now’. And Crowder’s version of Sinead O’Connor’s ‘Thank You For Hearing Me’.
Great, great post. LMNOP. Happy, happy, happy.
Beautiful. So beautiful. I love that hymn, particularly that version.
“Make me an angel
That flies from montgomery
Make me a poster
Of an old rodeo
Just give me one thing
That i can hold on to
To believe in this livin’
Is just a hard way to go”
I just loves and loves this song myself.
My Presbyterian church got new hymnals. Changed the words on the old hymns. I don’t like it. Waters down the meaning.
Love the story of the little boy singing. There is indeed nothing more fun than singing “LMNOP”
I, too, wish for the type of abandon that little boy showed, singing his happy song. Thanks for sharing it so that we could “see” the moment too!
My favorite hymn, one of my favorite artists (Sufjan…though I had not seen the beautiful video), among my favorite songs (Angel…)from one of my favorite writers (and far and away favorite blogger)…remarkable stuff…Thanks.
…and Go Tribe! (my favorite team)
Our Lutheran Church also has a new hymnal with new words to old favorite hymns. Why this trend? A lot has to do with making the language of the hymnity more inclusive, but if that is the case, why not write new hymns?
I love the way you told this story and I’m so glad the folks on the plane didn’t stop this child from singing. Oh if we all could sing like children!
You are on a roll with your witnessing, and thank you for writing it. From the bridge of sand and egg whites to the Ebeneezer, your images are both food for contemplation as well as blessings.