Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.
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How Can I Keep From Singing?
The ancient pursuit of the good, the true, and the beautiful has always been contested by a competing triad – what will succeed, what can be demonstrated, what will serve a purpose. Neither is inherently wrong; when held together in creative balance each contributes to a full and rich life. But when the latter begins to obscure the former, bad things happen. The good becomes the achievable, relentlessly assessed by data. The true becomes whatever I can make others believe. The beautiful is reduced to utility.
We see this today in philanthropy where generosity is directed by a single minded focus on so-called achievable outcomes that can be measured by hard data. We see it in public education where students and teachers alike are overwhelmed by an avalanche of testing and the goals of the enterprise are reduced to merely fulfilling the work place needs of the state. We see it in public discourse where focus groups guide speech toward what can manipulate rather than inspire. It is seen among those pursuing justice in a harsh environment offering few victories, wondering in the words of a melancholy Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Are we still of any use?”
Lent is a season for renunciation, not because there is great virtue in giving things up, but because it allows us to see more clearly what is most important. This Lent I plan to set aside the expectation that I must always be able to prove the goodness of what I believe to be good, to demonstrate the truth of what has been revealed to me as true, that I must value what I do and say purely on whether it makes a difference. Perhaps this is silly, or worse, naïve. Or just maybe it is an antidote to the cynicism and gloom that an angry and dis-spirited technocratic season has imposed.
A poet friend writes of a chickadee’s song –
“She doesn’t wait for eye to see or ear to hear,
shaping her voice without regard for audience,
pointing beyond every notion of purpose we can know,
in answer only to the coming day and to delight.”***
Jesus tells us that the highest form of obedience is to love God and neighbor fully. It wouldn’t be wrong to consider the impact of our love, perhaps even to try to measure it, except to note that Jesus seems most concerned with intention, “pointing beyond every notion of purpose we can know.”
A vivid memory from my college years is sitting at a Pete Seeger concert listening to him sing the old Gospel song:
“My life flows on in endless song, above earth’s lamentation,
I hear the sweet, though far off hymn that hails a new creation.
Through all the tumult and the strife, I hear the music ringing;
it finds an echo in my soul – how can I keep from singing?”
To the Christian hymn Seeger added another stanza learned from a friend during the height of the McCarthy era:
“When tyrants tremble, sick with fear, and hear their death knells ringing;
When friends rejoice both far and near, how can I keep from singing?
In prison cell and dungeon vile our thoughts to them are winging;
when friends by shame are undefiled, how can I keep from singing?”
Seeger spent every Saturday morning of the last decade of his life standing with a few friends on a street corner in his Hudson river community protesting our nation’s adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. A waste of time? Or a song to be sung, good, true, and beautiful?
The world will need its data to assess what can be achieved, to determine what will be believed, to decide what will make a difference. But in these purple days may we look toward more ancient virtues – what is good, what is true, what is beautiful – and learn the liberating gift of answering “only to the coming day and to delight.”
John H. Thomas
February 11, 2016
*** Mark S. Burrows, “In Answer,” published in The Courtland Review, February, 2016.