Mysterious Ways

originally published March 27, 2014

Perhaps you have occasionally answered difficult or puzzling situations with a shake of your head and the words “God moves in mysterious ways.” That phrase can be a flippant or a serious answer to just about everything we don’t understand, and its popularity would suggest to me that it must have come from one of two possible sources – the Bible or Shakespeare, but surprisingly it comes from neither. Rather, it is the first line of a hymn by the 18th century poet and hymn writer, William Cowper. In the Episcopal Hymnal 1982 his text is found at Hymn 677:

God moves in a mysterious way his wonders to perform:
He plants his footsteps in the sea, and rides upon the storm.

Cowper was a case study in woe. His mother died when he was very young, an unhappy relationship with his father caused him to enter a law practice he abhorred. He suffered from severe depression and horrifying delusions all his life, making several suicide attempts. It was while he was an inmate at the St. Albans Insane Asylum that he became a believer in God’s power to be the strength and guide he needed in his life. A prolific poet, he was urged by his friend and mentor, John Newton (of Amazing Grace fame), to write hymn texts as a form of therapy. Together they created a hymnal with nearly 350 hymns in it, many of which are still sung today. He shared Newton’s strong anti-slavery sentiments, writing poems that were quoted by Martin Luther King nearly 200 years later.

Knowing that he struggled with mental illness, I find the words of his hymn God moves in a mysterious way all the meaningful. The trust required to believe and write about God’s ability to bring bright designs (gems) from unfathomable mines (v. 2) speaks to Cowper’s ability to have hope in the midst of his anguish. The clouds ye so much dread are big with mercy (v. 3), the bud may have a bitter taste, but sweet will be the flower (v. 5) encourage us to trust that goodness can emerge from our struggles. The more we trust, the more we believe.

A trusting heart can understand what cannot be seen, Cowper seems to tell us. The eyes opened by faith and trust will be able to see the blessings in this stormy life. Cowper channeled his tortured mind to craft poetry. For his sake I wish he could have created without suffering, but God’s ways are indeed mysterious and I want to take Cowper’s words to heart and simply trust in the presence of goodness, even in the face of evidence to the contrary.

There are a surprising large number of recordings on YouTube of settings of Cowper’s most famous words, and they come from so many different traditions. These are a few that I enjoyed. Though the first doesn’t exactly stick to Cowper’s text, it’s pretty fun:

and a more sober approach:

And then there’s this one, which just cracks me up – in a good way. If the Monkees had sung this hymn on their show it would have looked like this:

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This blog represents my attempt to put thoughts together on various things that seem to connect – in my mind anyway. More often than not new ideas first involve reaching back to what was and I can only hope that the prehistoric San cave painting at the top of this page inspires all kinds of connections between old and new.

Feel free to pass this message along to anyone who might be interested. You can simply subscribe (look for the “Subscribe” button at the top of the post) to get a reminder of new posts, or you can register with a user name and password in order to comment. If a community conversation comes out of this, all the better. We have so much to share and so much for which we can be grateful.


Undone by Donne

One of my favorite hymns to teach young choristers in years past has been Hymn 140 in The Hymnal 1982, and I urge you to take a few minutes to listen to this gorgeous recording. With its plaintive 17th century tune and text by John Donne it was seemingly far beyond their years, and yet somehow always seemed to reach them in that deeper place where children have vast stores of wisdom. It’s also fun to teach them about the play on words in the last line:

Wilt thou forgive that sin, where I begun,
Which is my sin, though it were done before?
Wilt thou forgive those sins through which I run,
And do run still, though still I do deplore?
When thou hast done, thou hast not done, for I have more.

Donne (1573-1631) had secretly married Ann More against her family’s wishes, causing his dismissal and years of poverty until he became employable again as an Anglican priest in 1615.  “When thou hast Donne, thou hast not Donne, for I have More”. A Hymn to God the Father by John Donne

Ann had died some years before Donne wrote this text, but despite its apparent gloom the text actually conveys a sense of assurance, most clearly in verse 3, while playing on their names once again:

that at my death thy Son shall shine as he shines now, and heretofore.
And having done that, thou hast done, I fear no more.

Donne is quoted as saying: “And, O the power of church-music! that harmony added to this Hymn has raised the affections of my heart, and quickened my graces of zeal and gratitude.”

Might we all, including our children, be so moved by music in the church.

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I’m not sure if the sign is still there, but several years ago when I made a quick visit to Milwaukee I came through airport security to see this:

Recombobulation Area

I don’t know about you, but I’m discombobulated on a regular basis, and the opportunity to pull myself back together after shedding various parts of my attire for airport security was very welcome. In fact, I bet we might all welcome the chance to recombobulate ourselves now and then. Maybe you already have such a place. A yoga class,  hiking, a cup of tea and a book. Could church be one of those places to recombobulate? It’s a place, after all, that asks you to temporarily step away from your normal life, where discombobulation is perhaps not an unusual state of being.  Church, at its best, is a place to sing together, confront difficult issues from moral and theological perspectives, and experience the beauty of God through all five senses. It is a place, ideally, where you are accepted and loved as you are, and given some tools to help you become better than you are now.

I often imagine what someone, completely new to church, might experience during a service. While singing a hymn with an archaic text such as Donne’s for Hymn 140,  I wonder what my unchurched visitor is thinking. Does it seem stuffy and off-putting?  A conversation in my head goes something like this:

“Why do you say thee and thou in church still?” she might ask?

“Because there is a power in being connected by language and thought to past generations of Anglicans/Episcopalians, and because we aren’t afraid to create an experience which takes us away from day to day life and helps us glimpse a more orderly world where ideas and emotions are beautifully and carefully expressed,” I might answer.

Wilt thou forgive that sin?  “I’m not really comfortable talking about sin. It’s such a harsh word, and makes me feel judged.”

“I get that. Words have power, but one of the things I particularly enjoy is looking under the surface for deeper meanings. There’s no basis, as far as I know, for my idea that “sin” is related to the word sine, which is Latin for “without,” but being without a moral compass is my working definition of sin.”

“But where’s the joy and exuberance that unleashes the power of the Holy Spirit in us?” she would then wonder.

And I could reply, “Well, it is Lent, and expressions of joy and exuberance become muted, so that we can then feel their full effects on Easter.  For Episcopalians, it’s almost always about balance.”

Maybe church in general, and Lent in particular, can be times to recombobulate, places to step away from “normal” and reconnect with those deep currents of thought and emotion that keep us…combobulated. I wish that was a real word.


* * * * *

This blog represents my attempt to put thoughts together on various things that seem to connect – in my mind anyway. More often than not new ideas first involve reaching back to what was and I can only hope that the prehistoric San cave painting at the top of this page inspires all kinds of new connections between old and new.

Feel free to pass this message along to anyone who might be interested. You can simply subscribe (look for the “Subscribe” button at the top of the post) to get a reminder of new posts, or you can register with a user name and password in order to comment. If a community conversation comes out of this, all the better. We have so much to share and so much for which we can be grateful.

Advent 4 – Veni Emmanuel

This week contains the shortest days of the year, as well as one last opportunity to ponder the season of Advent. This is the turning point. Days now begin to gradually lengthen, and that for which we are waiting will soon be with us. In my mind’s ear I hear the bass soloist in  Handel’s Messiah singing:

For behold, darkness shall cover the earth…the people that walked in darkness have seen a great light; and they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.

I was probably well into early adulthood before I realized that it was actually the prophet Isaiah, and not Handel, who wrote about this time of darkness and the coming of a great light.

There is one hymn in particular which captures the urgency of our longing – for light, for salvation, for hope, for knowledge, for connection. O come, O come Emmanuel, expresses all that Advent holds for us, and takes us to a place of contemplation and quiet anticipation. Its medieval text and tune – written separately and of uncertain sources – are mysterious and comforting at the same time.

These “O” antiphons, as the words are known, are adaptations of medieval texts that were (and still are in some places) sung before and after the chanting of the Magnificat, one each in the seven days preceding Christmas Eve. Perhaps you’ve always wondered what those dates before each verse of Hymn #56 in The Hymnal 1982 meant?

Each of the seven different verses of Veni Emmanuel begins with a salutation in the form of a name for God, and then a petition based on that name:

(December 17) O Sapienta
O come, thou Wisdom, to us the path of knowledge show
(December 18)  O Adonai
O come, thou Lord of might, that didst give the law
(December 19)  O Radix Jesse
O come, thou Branch of Jesse’s tree, give them victory o’er the grave
(December 20)  O Clavis David
O come, thou Key of David, make safe the way that leads on high
(December 21)  O Oriens
O come, thou Dayspring from on high, disperse the gloomy clouds of night
(December 22)  O Rex gentium
O come, Desire of nations, be thyself our King of Peace
(December 23)  O Emmanuel
O come, Emmanuel and ransom captive Israel

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my savior, the first line of the Magnificat, is Mary’s marvelous response to Gabriel’s news that she would bear a son. If only we were all able to be as open-hearted and accepting of God’s plan for us. With each verse of O come, O come Emmanuel we are summoning God into our lives, but there needs to be room in our hearts for all the ways that God might open our minds and cause us to change.

The duality of Advent includes the knowledge that we are awaiting something which we already have – God’s love. Light and dark, joy and penance, a baby both human and divine. The very word Emmanuel, Hebrew for “God with us,” suggests reality, however, and not just a hope. We sing our invitation with Veni Emmanuel. Be ready then to make room.

Veni Emmanuel – instrumental version, with photos from the Holy Land


The Moment to Decide

Thou that hast given so much to me
give one thing more, a grateful heart.
Not thankful when it pleaseth me,
as if Thy blessings had spare days —
but such a heart, whose pulse may be Thy praise.

from “Gratefulness” by George Herbert

Cultivating, expressing, and living a life of gratitude are decisions we each make for ourselves. Feeling grateful can come from a place of abundance in our lives, but I have a feeling it comes more often from a place of scarcity, or even despair. Those moments when we are stripped down to a basic level of survival – be that emotional or physical survival – and we somehow summon gratitude for another day, a kindness shown, or even just an awareness that our pain is a sign that we have loved and been loved. These are clear connections with God in a way that lifts us from scarcity to abundance.

Think of all that you are blessed with.  A loving family? Educational opportunities? The chance to travel the world? Material wealth? Good health? Sincere friendships?  Resilience?  Charisma? The possibilities are many.  The best gifts are given without expectation of anything in return, but blessings? Those put us in God’s debt and we do owe something back to the world for our blessings.

President Kennedy, echoing words from Luke 12:48, reminded a prosperous America in 1961: “For of those to whom much is given, much is required.”

 *   *   *   *   *

Three people in the past week or so have individually mentioned the same hymn to me. Coincidence?  Holy Spirit?  It comes from The Hymnal 1940, and though I know the tune well (the wonderfully sturdy Welsh tune, supposedly found in a bottle on its rugged coastline…Ton-y-botel), the words were less familiar to me.  I suppose the editorial committee for The Hymnal 1982 couldn’t imagine us singing these words into the 21st century and so it didn’t make the cut:

Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth with falsehood, for the good or evil side;
Some great cause, God’s new Messiah, off’ring each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever ‘twixt that darkness and that light.

From a poem written to protest the Mexican War and the increased territory for slavery which that war portended, the hymn’s text continues:

Then the brave man chooses, while the coward stands aside till the multitude make virtue of the faith they had denied (v. 2), and …toiling up new Calvaries ever with the cross that turns not back; new occasions teach new duties, time makes ancient good uncouth (v. 3) and in the final verse…Though the cause of evil prosper, yet ’tis truth alone is strong.  

You will find the text in its entirety here. Do you agree that these words have relevance for us in 2017, occasional masculine language notwithstanding? New CalvariesGod’s new Messiah…new occasions teach new duties…new forms of human cruelty and deception, new reasons to strengthen our resolve for truth and justice.

This is bold language, words to shake us from complacency.  Perhaps too directive though, too black and white? But aren’t some things simply wrong? Is every problem shaded in gray? If a simple question were to be asked of any action – does it create more goodwill and love in the world? – would that pull us out of some of life’s gray areas?

Each of us has abundant blessings of one kind or another. Our obligation in turn is to see each decision – even seemingly insignificant ones – as moments to decide ‘twixt that darkness and that light.

With a grateful heart,

Sanctus…Some Free Associations

A couple of years ago I had the pleasure of coaching an excellent, 100+ voice high school choir from Pennsylvania as they prepared to sing in a competition. One of the pieces they sang for me was a setting of the liturgical text Sanctus (Holy, holy, holy) by a young Norwegian-American composer, Ola Gjeilo.

I asked if the students knew what they were singing, and a few did know that Sanctus translated as “holy.”  No one, however, connected the elaborate setting they were singing in performance to anything that might be sung in church every week, though more than a few were undoubtedly also singing in their church choirs. I found myself explaining that the richness of the chords they were singing in the Gjeilo setting were a wonderful representation of this central part of our liturgy, when the people join their minds and hearts and voices together with the “Angels and Archangels and all the company of heaven.”  Maybe I crossed some church vs state line that I shouldn’t have, but a deeper understanding seemed worth that risk.

As I further reflected on this notion of the Sanctus as a point of convergence, I saw that moment in the liturgy as one where heaven and earth come together, giving us a glimpse of true communion. Liturgy emerged from my imagination in an hourglass shape – something akin to a George Herbert poem.

Coming from every direction, the people gather in church
Liturgy of the word and sermon
Creed and Prayers
Eucharistic Prayer
The people partake in communion
Renewed and fed, the people disperse into the world

If you know the works of George Herbert, then you may already have made the same free association that I did with The Altar. The “metaphysical” poets, as a number of 17th century English poets, including George Herbert, are labeled, sought to describe reality beyond what science had to teach them.  They were particularly interested in illuminating God’s relationship to humans. In The Altar, the appearance of the poem as a physical ALTAR, upon reading describes the human HEART as altar. One made of stone that is “cut” by the power of God, leading to the death of selfish will as a SACRIFICE upon this ALTAR.

A broken ALTAR, Lord thy servant rears,
Made of a heart, and cemented with teares:
Whose parts are as thy hand did frame;
No workmans tool hath touch’d the same
A HEART alone
Is such a stone,
As nothing but
Thy pow’r doth cut.
Wherefore each part
Of my hard heart
Meets in this frame,
To praise thy Name:
That if I chance to hold my peace,
These stones to praise thee may not cease.
O let thy blessed SACRIFICE be mine,
And sanctifie this ALTAR to be thine.

Since I’ve already made a free association between the Sanctus and George Herbert, I’ll continue with a few more. From the poem’s second line:

…cemented with teares

My engineer/poet/philosopher father wrote his dissertation on concrete, so I happen to know that concrete must be kept wet in order to properly cure.  In that same way, tears strengthen the emotions we feel. Whether these are moments of sadness or happiness, love and compassion are strengthened when tears are present.

When Jesus wept, the falling tear in mercy flowed beyond all bound

Early American composer William Billings wrote a tune for these words that paints “falling tears” as clearly as Herbert draws his Altar above.  That tune is found in The Hymnal 1982 at #715, and it is beautifully used by 20th century American composer William Schuman in his New England Triptych..

I’ve come a long way from Sanctus, but our journeys are rarely in straight lines!


People move in mysterious ways

I re-read Barbara Kingsolver’s 2012 book, Flight Behavior, not too long ago.  Writing about the problems of global warming and environmental degradation in what seemed a heavy-handed way just a few years go, her book now, in light of the hurricanes, floods and fires of 2017, is another clear call to change human behavior. Kingsolver also writes, somewhat more subtly, about the age-old problems of rich versus poor, educated versus uneducated, social intelligence versus academic smarts, rural versus urban. I haven’t noticed those problems going away either.

It was near the novel’s end that Kingsolver said something I have never thought about before. Her main character in Flight Behavior, the fancifully named Dellarobia, has wondered all her life why the answer to her life’s greatest difficulties has always been that “God moves in mysterious ways.”  She realizes with some astonishment that God doesn’t move.  It’s God’s people who are moving. In Kingsolver’s book, and in reality, many would argue, some people are heedlessly moving to destroy the planet, and others moving to save it.

…everything else is in motion while God does not move at all.  God sits still, perfectly at rest, the silver dollar at the bottom of the well, the question. (p. 350)

God’s wisdom is unmoving, but sometimes people need to move around that wisdom a second (or third or fourth…) time to unlock its meaning.  I had that very experience with a hymn sung at St. John’s a few Sundays ago, Come, labor on (The Hymnal 1982, #541).  It’s a favorite of mine and, though I have played and sung it countless times, new wisdom jumped out at me in the phrase No arm so weak, but may do service here (Hymn 541, verse 3).  I had never focused on those particular words before, but I appreciate the belief that all can serve God, no matter how unimportant they might consider their service. The words had always been there, but I had moved around them enough times to finally hear that kernel of wisdom.

A question we might be tempted to ask, in despair after the mass shooting in Las Vegas this week, is one which a scientist named Ovid in Kingsolver’s book also wonders: “What was the use of saving a world that has no soul left in it?” Environmental degradation, gun violence, refugees from war and famine.  Where is God in any of this? There are times to be still in God’s presence and simply listen, and there are times to move, and it is in those times we might remind ourselves that God has no hands on earth but ours. As choirs have sung: Christ has no body now but yours. No soul on earth but ours.

People do indeed move in mysterious ways, from profoundly loving to cruelly indifferent to simply evil. If we are able to see God’s wisdom as a complete and central foundation for our lives we might try to move around that wisdom, uncovering bits of it, finding those truths that have been patiently awaiting our discovery and collective remembering. It is wisdom which will move us closer to love in all its forms, from quiet to outraged.