Peg Duthie - Earth Was Given As a Garden

"Earth Was Given As a Garden"
Peg Duthie
Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Cookeville, TN
11 March 2007

The title of this homily comes from a hymn written in 1992, right before the publication of Singing the Living Tradition. It was written by a Unitarian Universalist, and its lyrics are very much rooted in the story of the Garden of Eden. The first verse goes,


Earth was given as a garden, cradle of humanity;
tree of life and tree of knowledge placed for our discovery.
Here was home for all your creatures born of land and sky and sea;
all created in your image, all to live in harmony.


Although the lyrics are relatively new, the melody of the hymn was composed in 1830 by a Welsh teenager named Rowland Huw Prichard. The tune is called Hyfrydol, which is Welsh for "Good cheer," and itís proven to be quite popular in Christian worship. It was first published in a supplement to a Lutheran hymnal, but over the years itís been sung by Anglicans, Methodists, Presbyterians, and other Christians. Its titles have included "Alleluia! Sing to Jesus!," "Love Divine, All Loves Excelling," "Come Thou Long-Expected Jesus," and others. It appears in our own hymnal three times: Hymn #140, "Hail the Glorious Golden City," uses verses written by Felix Adler, a Jewish intellectual and activist. Hymn #166, "Years Are Coming," features lyrics by Adin Ballou, a nineteenth century Unitarian minister who founded a Utopian community in Massachusetts. It also appears in Singing the Journey, a supplement to Singing the Living Tradition, as a song called "Blue Boat Home" by UU folksinger Peter Mayer. [*]

Choosing hymns for a worship service can be a tricky business. For instance, weíre not actually singing "Earth is Given as a Garden" today, because itís not the easiest hymn -- itís got some non-obvious rhythms, so it generally requires either critical mass or instrumental support for people to feel comfortable with it. There are hymns in this book I will never voluntarily program, either because I personally loathe them or because theyíre too hard or too interminable, even for trained singers -- a friend and I recently discussed our mutual conviction that three-page hymns are generally two pages too long. There are some hymns that seldom get chosen because theyíre not quite inclusive enough, and other hymns that strike me as trying a little too hard. Iím not mentioning specific examples, however, because I donít want to slag on anyone elseís favorites: the hymns in this book were selected from thousands of possibilities, and there were over fifteen hundred submissions to the task force that compiled Singing the Journey.

To a certain degree, the hymn situation is symptomatic of the wider, eternal quandary faced by Unitarian Universalist congregations: with thousands of possibilities to choose from, in terms of elements of worship, and multiple traditions to respect, what do we choose as our rituals and what are the boundaries we need to observe or establish? When is it appropriate to borrow from other sources and cultures? When are changes to original texts "harmless," and when are they totally out of line? What does it mean to make something "Unitarian Universalist," and when does universalizing something dilute it too much to be meaningful?

At this time of year, Iím constantly reminded of the fact that Easter can be a weird and controversial holiday. I know atheists for whom itís their favorite holiday, even though they donít believe in the Resurrection and barely tolerate anything related to organized religion. For them, itís all about the bunnies and the chocolate and the pretty decorations and new clothes -- which is fine, but... In recent years, Iíve also noticed humanists and liberal Christians becoming more outspoken about the pagan roots of Easter and Christmas, in what feels to me like an effort to reclaim those holidays from religious fundamentalists. At the other end of the spectrum, there are orthodox Christians who argue vehemently against recognizing Easter or Christmas as holidays, because the days themselves arenít holy and their traditions are too inextricably intertwined with those of solstice- and equinox-based festivals. This isnít a new conservatism at work -- throughout the centuries, the disciples and leaders of Christianity have constantly struggled to reconcile the words of God with the realities of the world. Thereís a Presbyterian Q&A from 1905 in which Question 7 asks, "Is it not a daring intrusion upon the prerogative of God to appoint as a stated religious festival any other day or season, such as Christmas or Easter?" and the answer is, "It is an impeachment of the wisdom of God and an assertion of our right and ability to improve on his plans." [**] Another Presbyterian document from 1896 declared that, "had God seen regular recurrence [of Easter and other holidays to be] desirable they would have been appointed. Their use has been spiritually damaging. They often become centers of ceremonialism and sensual worship." [***] Itís also been argued that Easter became popular in the United States in the aftermath of the Civil War -- that, for the survivors of the War, the message of resurrection became hugely relevant in light of the losses they had suffered. I havenít been able to verify whether that particular theory is true, but even if itís not, I think it underscores the essential connection between ritual and emotion: one of the reasons human beings create and observe rituals because we have an emotional need for them. They can help make sense of a too-large and too-mysterious universe by giving us specific actions to direct at it, be it words chanted in unison or dancing in praise of the sun. Paradoxically, they can also help us remember that the universe is large and mysterious, as well as grand and generous. Keeping the Sabbath, lighting candles, celebrating holidays -- when we do such things mindfully, they can help remember that thereís so much more to life than taxes and lines and meetings.

Over the centuries, one of the major criticisms leveled at religion is that it fosters superstition. Individuals who profess earth-centric beliefs sometimes have to contend with stereotypes of naivete, ignorance, and worse; the word "pagan" carries enormous baggage. In my opinion, itís as vague as "Unitarian Universalist" when it comes to conveying an individualís specific beliefs -- if someone tells me theyíre a pagan, Iíll probably assume it's safe to assume that they cherish and value the natural world, but that doesnít tell me thing one about which gods or goddesses they worship, if any, or which rituals they consider essential to their spiritual well-being. It does not tell me whether theyíre vegetarian or vegan or omnivorous, or whether theyíre right-brained or left-brained, and it certainly doesnít tell me whether theyíre into Celtic music or talking to animals or believers in reincarnation. As with so many other labels, the word "pagan" needs to be treated as starting point rather than a definition.

There is a substantial contingent of pagans within Unitarian Universalism -- enough that there are nearly seventy chapters of CUUPs, the Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans. This year is the twentieth anniversary of the founding of CUUPs, and during the 1990s, its members actively lobbied for the "Sixth Source" now listed as part of the UU Living Tradition. The statement of the Sixth Source asserts that our influences include the "Spiritual teachings of Earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature."

At my home church, the pagan group holds solstice celebrations, religious education classes, and craftmaking gatherings, and they play an integral role in such traditions as greening the church for the winter holidays. That said, there are other members of First UU who are intensely uncomfortable with the concept of worship subgroups within the church, be it pagan or Christian or ethnically-based. One question thatís been raised in such discussions is whether encouraging such groups weakens the larger congregation -- that is, if people identify primarily with a smaller group within the church, is that likely to lessen their commitment to the greater good? The formation of cliques within a church is, to a certain degree, inevitable, and the more programs a church can offer, the more its members have to pick and choose, and sometimes Sunday worship will lose out.

At the same time, there are members of traditional religious groups who are equally uncomfortable or outright hostile to outsiders "borrowing" or adapting their sacred practices. Thereís a fascinating study by Philip Jenkins called Dream Catchers: How Mainstream America Discovered Native Spirituality, in which he examines how American Indian rituals became popular with the rise of New Age styles of worship. There is no question that a lot of thoughtless cultural appropriation has taken place, and that there are people who are the equivalent of spiritual magpies -- grabbing on to anything shiny, and feeling that anything they want is fair game for their use, regardless of its origins and associations. That said, there is also a lot of thoughtful adaptation taking place, where old rituals and songs provide the foundation for new opportunities for mindfulness. Professor Jenkins quotes Native American poet Gary Snyder, who said, "Spirituality is not something that can be Ďownedí like a care or a house." Jenkins goes so far as to say, "If we press the delicate idea of legitimacy, no religion has anything like the immemorial antiquity that it claims. That old-time religion often isnít....Religious believers never like admitting that their practices or beliefs begin at a specific point in time, though they clearly do." In Jenkinsís opinion, Judaism, Shintoism, Hinduism, Christianity, and earth-centered religions have repeatedly reinvented their "core" identities over the centuries, and revised their observances to adapt to external pressures.

As Unitarian Universalists, we are blessed in having a range of sources to draw from as we create our new traditions. In spite of my snide commentary earlier, there are hymns in Singing the Living Tradition that I will never get tired of singing. Some of them are poems with a bit of pronoun-tweaking and some of them are old Christian tunes with modern Universalist lyrics. This doesnít mean Iím entirely comfortable with these adaptations, or that I can always go along with the changes made. "For the Beauty of the Earth," which is our closing hymn this morning, is one I sometimes feel ambivalent about, because the words in our hymnal are not all the author's. The original verse 4 reads:


For the joy of human love,
Brother, sister, parent, child,
Friends on earth and friends above,
For all gentle thoughts and mild...


The UU adaptation removes the reference to heaven, changing the verse to:


For the joy of human care,
sister, brother, parent, child,
for the kinship we all share,
for all gentle thoughts and mild...


It might not seem like a big deal, but the original lyricist, Mr. Folliott Pierpoint, was very definitely a Christian. In the four verses that arenít printed in our hymnal, he goes on to praise sacrifice and martyrs and the virgin birth, as well as "the flowers of earth and buds of Heaven." So thereís a part of me that feels guilty about appropriating his words for my ends, even though I feel as passionately grateful to my "Source of all" as he did to his "Lord of all." I donít feel as guilty about dropping those last four verses, though, because eight verses really are too much, and Christian liturgists themselves often exercise discretion when reprinting such hymns. There was one secular party I attended last Christmas that printed all the verses to "O Come All Ye Faithful" for its singalong, and the not-so-usual second verse about the Virginís womb not being shunned definitely created more of a stir than it should have.

As with so many other aspects of Unitarian Universalism, I donít think thereís a one-answer-fits-all answer to such dilemmas. A hymn that sends me into queasy ruminations about authorial intent can be the same hymn that helps another congregant feel "at home" and truly at church. A Unitarian Passover seder can be a wonderful learning opportunity, and a happy blending of traditions for interfaith households, but it can also feel not quite right and not quite "real" to a participant with certain emotional or theological ties to the holiday. Likewise, some individuals find themselves more open after earth-connected rituals such as writing on stones or dancing to drums, but others find such activities anxiety-making or just plain boring.

What it means is that our worship committees have quite the challenge, and that the covenant of each congregation is crucial to the maintenance of community worship. Itís important that people speak up about their needs, but that they also always strive to remember the diversity of needs among the whole. Earth was given as a garden, and raising a church is not unlike cultivating a plot of flowers: no matter how much you know, and no matter how much you plan and prepare, there will always be surprises, there will always elements we can't help regarding as weeds, and there will always be so much more to learn. The gift is that there is the garden, and gardens thrive when tended with mindfulness. Amen and alleluia.



* Note: You can hear a MIDI rendition of "Blue Boat Home" on the STJ download page.
** Quoted at http://www.fpcr.org/blue_banner_articles/americanxmas.htm
*** Ibid.


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