REFLECTION Let There be Harmony Rev. Maddie Sifantus
Our Touchstones theme for this month is Harmony. As I first began thinking of it as I wrote the blurb for the July newsletter, I thought to myself, “How odd to think of harmony at this time when we can’t gather, we can’t sing our hymns together and our choir can’t sing at all.” In fact, it seems that just singing is dangerous in this day of COVID-19. I am sure you have all seen the news stories about how singing can spew the virus up to 20 feet and how early on, one choir in Washington State who rehearsed just as everything was shutting down in March ended up with a number people sick and two members dying. And more recently some churches that tried to open too soon ended up with parishioners getting sick from just singing hymns together. So, no, to those who have been asking me about when we are going to reopen, it won’t be soon…and when we do I am sure your Safe Congregation Committee and your board will have all sorts of protocols in place to protect you and the most vulnerable among us. And some of us won’t even come back then but will continue to watch from home. And for those who do gather, we won’t be singing even then, most likely, as a congregation. For those of us who love to sing, to make harmony with others, it is heartbreaking. In fact, as this time goes on, it is heartbreaking on so many levels and you are not alone if you are feeling depressed or particularly stressed out. That is important to remember. You are not alone.
This “different time” remains a challenge in so many ways and is a particular challenge for those normally committed to creating harmony through making music together. I was especially aware of it several weeks ago on Flower Communion Sunday when our choir was slated to sing a piece by Gordon Young, “Let There Be Music”. The words go in part:
Let there be music in this place today
Let there be harmony in this place today
Let there be harmony
Let there be harmony
Let there be harmony in this place today.
Let there be love that knows no ending
Let there be joy that knows no bounds
Let there be peace and quiet understanding
Let there be faith in all [hu]mankind.
It seemed like a good piece to learn when I picked it back in mid-winter, before any thoughts of the isolation we have been living in, for that Sunday when we celebrate the relationships in this congregation, symbolized by the bouquets of flowers assembled blossom by blossom from our gardens and households as well as new members who have joined in the last year, as we did this year with Ariel Alexander. And we posted flowers in our Zoom room of our rose garden, some of you brought flowers to Worship Host Ken Stock and me the front of the church which I placed in a vase on our altar and others of you posted flowers from your own Zoom room. The flowers were in a sort of harmonious relationship with each other just as we are as well, looking into each other’s Zoom rooms. Zoom, zoom, zoom!
Actually, in talking with several of you this week, you spoke of the love you feel from and for this congregation, even in this strange time: “Let there be love that knows no ending.” You spoke of it with joy—and perhaps even astonishment: “Let there be joy that knows no bounds.” And we certainly wish for “peace and quiet understanding” and pray for “faith in all humankind” even—or perhaps even more so—in this pandemic time.
I have a colleague, the Reverend Carie Johnson, who serves a congregation in Augusta, Maine which was formed from a merger of a Unitarian congregation with a Universalist congregation in that city in 1992. If you don’t know, some of the founders of our congregation here in Santa Paula moved west from Maine which was then a hotbed of small Universalist congregations and wanted to create one here. There are still a number of formerly Universalist congregations in Maine, several of which I have visited. Rev. Carie loves to sing and wrote this in a piece entitled “Why They Sing”:
“I sing because of the joy and camaraderie it brings into my life. Music expands my world.
My great pleasure in singing in the choir is the opportunity to bring the music I love to others.
Because I can, and no one has run screaming from the building, yet, even if I don’t quite always “sing in harmony!”
I sing because I love making music with UUs and other people I care about.
A raggle-taggle choir such as ours, with a good director, can realize the essence of the music. Individually, we’re not much, but together, the sound we make is bordering on magnificent…by singing, my life is filled with the very best.
Making connections with the choir brings an even fuller sense of community with friends, with other UUs, and with the divine interconnected web of life.
I love the challenge of making the notes all come together and blend with other voices. Making music together is the ultimate expression of community harmony.”
I suspect that our choir, which I used to call “Ad-Hoc” until they began singing with me every month and which I would NEVER call “rag-tag”, would agree with Rev. Carie. It is a challenge to bring all the notes together and blend with other voices, especially for us, missing the lower voices and so many things pulling at people’s schedules that make it hard to gather even once a month in the pursuit of harmony. Would that we could spend some of this isolation time focusing on singing together! But listening to the scientists, who we UUs believe we must listen to, that is not to be. That is not the way we are going to make community harmony during this “different time.”
But there are other ways of being harmonious than by singing together or finding a broken guitar, as with the Miguel of our story and making it ring with grand harmony. Or taking a ukulele out the closet and coaxing some songs out of it. How about the harmony of art, of colors, of nature? One of the books I have been reading during this time is “Braiding Sweetgrass” by Robin Wall Kimmerer. I would highly recommend it for a number of reasons and I am sure I will come back to it in the future, but this passage in which she talks about why she became a botanist speaks to me this morning when I am focusing on harmony.
“I chose botany because I wanted to learn about why asters and goldenrod looked so beautiful together… Why is the world so beautiful? It could so easily be otherwise: flowers could be ugly to us and still fulfill their own purpose. But they’re not… Goldenrods and asters appear very similarly to bee eyes and human eyes. We both think they’re beautiful. Their striking contrast when they grow together makes them the most attractive target in the whole meadow, a beacon for bees. Growing together, both receive more pollinator visits than they would if they were growing alone… That September pairing of purple and gold is lived reciprocity; its wisdom is that the beauty of one is illuminated by the radiance of the other… When I am in their presence, their beauty asks me for reciprocity, to be the complementary color, to make something beautiful in response.”
Asters and goldenrod are harmonious together. There is something of harmony in how they look together. Lived reciprocity. Robin Wall Kimmerer is Professor of Environmental and Forest Biology and is of indigenous roots, seeing the world differently through the native lens she came by growing up as an enrolled member of the Potowatomi Nation. She was fascinated by how asters and goldenrod were so beautiful together and how we could live in harmony with nature which was what sent her to study botany. Let us just say that her first professor didn’t think that studying why asters and goldenrod went together was real science. But her wisdom of how we can live in the modern world learning from the earth will be one way we can bring harmony to our earth.
And then there is the sought-after harmony of living together as peoples on this planet. One definition of harmony in life is having the ability to handle life’s different areas such as your career, your health and your relationships so that they work for your progress on the path of life, a harmonious path. The definition of harmonious is things that go well together, or people and things that get along well. I think why so many of us feel ungrounded or disconnected at this time is the lack of harmony we sense in our communities and our nation. I heard it described this week as a just caught live fish flopping back and forth on hot concrete! It is an unsettled time, a time of not-knowing. Parker Palmer has written in his book “The Promise of Paradox”:
“Contradiction, paradox, the tension of opposites: these have always been at the heart of my experience, and I think I am not alone. I am tugged one way and then the other. My beliefs and my actions often seem at odds. My strengths are sometimes cancelled by my weaknesses. Myself, and the world around me, seem more a study in dissonance than a harmony of the integrated whole.” How do we strive for harmony in this challenging time, in ourselves and with our family members or those with whom we are quarantined? Have you sensed a study in dissonance rather than an integrated whole? The flopping fish?
As we look at the state of our nation and the upcoming election, we think of things such as UU the Vote that I spoke at length about last Sunday. We see our nation tugged one way and another. One thing I know is that this year is the most important election in my lifetime to get involved and get out to vote in November. And I also know that it is important to make an effort to understand the paradoxical viewpoints in our community and our country, even as we work for what our UU values call us to do. And here we keep in mind our mission as a congregation to practice inclusiveness, seek justice and foster spirituality. It is not simple. William Murry writes that, “In every church I know anything about there are two groups of members – those who are devoted to spirituality and spiritual growth and those who are committed to social action. The spirituality people are not involved in social justice work and the social justice folks generally want nothing to do with spirituality. They have two different understandings of liberal religion. However, in my view social justice and spirituality are two sides of one coin. For I believe that genuine spirituality should lead to social concerns and people working for social justice need a spiritual basis or they will burn out quickly. Moreover, spirituality that does not lead to social justice concerns is in my view bogus spirituality. It is simply a form of religious narcissism.”
It seems to me that we need a harmony between the call to spirituality and the call to social justice. And that is where we can practice inclusiveness. We need that harmony to build that beloved community we so often talk about, even when there are some dissonant notes here and there. We need to search for that harmony to be open to radical acceptance, to combining notes that might at first seem to clash with each other into a sacred sound. To combine the colors of the asters and the goldenrod so that they attract a more fertile environment. To bring together the high notes, the low notes and all notes in between in this newly complex world. Perhaps if we find that harmony we can find the simplicity of the old Shaker hymn we are about to sing, “Tis a Gift to Be Simple”. Perhaps then we can “come round right” for all our community. May it be so. Blessed be and Amen.
 “Balancing Spirituality and Justice”, William Murry. Touchstones Worship Resources for Harmony, July 2020.