Archive for Liturgy

“I Want a Principle Within”, adapted

During his life as an Anglican and then Methodist minister, Charles Wesley wrote the words for about eight thousand hymns.  I’m not actually sure how that’s possible and still have a life.  In any case, many of his hymns are still sung in Anglican and Methodist churches, but perhaps not as he had intended them.

Wesley was a curious combination of somber seriousness and evangelistic pragmatism.  He preached and wrote hymns about sin and temptation and more sin and the cleansing power of the blood of Jesus, drawing upon and in turn feeding the message of the Great Awakening, the Christian movement that was then sweeping across the American colonies.  And yet, when he realized that his public sermons were competing with the popular but raunchy songs of the local taverns, he cleverly wrote new words, conveying his desired theology, that could be sung by unlettered sailors and farmhands to the already familiar tunes.

In other cases, though, Wesley fully expected that his serious words would be set to appropriately somber music.  A case in point is “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”, one of the most popular Christmas carols there is thanks to the fact that, over a hundred years after Wesley wrote them and in spite of his wishes, his words were set to the joyful and stirring music of Felix Mendelssohn.  I’m guessing that something similar took place for as hymn I recently discovered, too.

We’re singing it today because a few weeks ago, a congregant generously gave me a CD of instrumental arrangements of classic English hymns.  Looking down the playlist I noticed one called “I Seek a Principle Within” and the word “principle” caught my eye.  I hadn’t heard of such a hymn before, and I wasn’t familiar with the tune, but I loved it as soon as I heard it.  The music — which is in 6/8 time, so it’s essentially a dance — is by Louis Spohr, who was a great composer and musician in his own right but is largely forgotten today because he was so overshadowed by his friend and colleague, Ludwig van Beethoven.

Then I looked up the words to this hymn and found that they’d been written by Charles Wesley, and written perhaps as much as a century before Louis Spohr wrote the music that eventually accompanied them.  Wesley’s words were, as usual, about the fear of sin, the pain of temptation, the ever-present danger of sin, and the need to return to the blood of Jesus.  Beyond his words — which for many of us in today’s world, whether we’re Unitarian Universalists or not, are rather a turn-off — I saw a message about the importance of cultivating something within ourselves that helps us figure out right from wrong, so I decided to adapt Wesley’s words for Unitarian Universalists, and adapt I did, heavily.

This is perhaps the longest introduction I’ve ever given to a hymn, for which I can only apologize by saying: I love hymns.

I want a principle within
that lifts my heart from fear,
a sensibility wherein
life’s goodness draws me near.
Discerning how I think and feel
in all things I require,
to guide the wand’ring of my will
and grasp that holy fire.

From trust that I no more may stray,
no more time’s promise grieve,
to hear that still, small voice, I pray,
to tender conscience cleave.
Quick as the apple of an eye,
that inner wisdom make;
bestir, my soul, when trouble’s nigh,
and keep my heart awake.

O source of life, of hope, of love,
to me thy pow’r impart;
the splinters from my soul remove,
the hardness from my heart.
O may compassion now entrain
my re-awakened soul,
and lead me to that spring again,
which makes the wounded whole.

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The Seven Promises: a Responsive Reading

When Unitarian Universalists talk about our Seven Principles, we like to think of them as a set of values that define our faith.  We like to note, of course, that there’s little in them that most reasonable people, whether they’re Unitarian Universalists or not, would reject, but we hold them up as, in some way, defining what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist.

In fact, the Seven Principles are part of a covenant that Unitarian Universalist congregations make with each other.  As printed in large capital letters on one of the opening pages of our grey hymnal, the Seven Principles are actually prefaced with these words: “We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote:”  So these are actually values that Unitarian Universalist congregations promise to uphold.

Of course, those same values can be affirmed and promoted by individuals, too, so in many Unitarian Universalist congregations the language of the Seven Principles has been adapted into what is often called the Seven Promises, a covenant that Unitarian Universalist individuals make with each other.  The Fellowship made its own version of the Seven Promises some years ago, and I’ve adapted it for use as a responsive reading.  I start it with what is essentially an eighth promise, based on our Fellowship’s own mission, and the Seven Promises follow, only in reverse order for reasons that I explain elsewhere.

Let us create a dynamic community that celebrates life and searches for truths,

for we honor minds that question, hearts that love and hands that serve.

Let us live lightly on the Earth, beginning with our church community,

for we respect the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

Let us embrace others both near and far in hope and compassion,

for we lift up the goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all.

Let us remember that everyone bears responsibility for the health of our congregation,

for we affirm the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process.

Let us remain open to new ideas, knowing that we need not be afraid of change,

for we trust in a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.

Let us respect individual religious paths, even those we do not understand,

for we aspire to accept one another and to encourage spiritual growth.

Let us treat others as we would like to be treated,

for we desire justice, equity and compassion in human relations.

Let us listen actively and speak and act respectfully to others,

for we believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person.

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