“HYMN OF PROMISE” was written by Natalie Sleeth (1930-1992), an American church organist and composer. After the death of a close friend, she meditated on a line from T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets” — “In the end is my beginning…” Inspired, Sleeth composed a poem that unfolded in overlapping circles rather than straight lines.
Written in 1985, first as an anthem, her hymn is a contemplation of contradictions — death/ resurrection, doubt/ belief, winter/ spring, song/ silence, past/ future. In the spirit of Ecclesiastes, it speaks of seasons more than reasons. There are no easy answers here, which is why these lyrics are comforting to people facing staggering loss and for whom trite churchy platitudes would be an insult.
THERE’S NO MAKING SENSE OF THIS
One week ago, in an instant, a car went out of control on the Taconic, jumped the median, and caused a head-on collision, 4-car pile-up. After the names of the accident victims were released, late night phone calls conveyed real life nightmares. Before daybreak, word spread via social media. My church family is still reeling from the news.
The directors of our PSUMC Gospel Choir and their daughter were returning from making music all week at Silver Lake church champ (UCC) in the Berkshires. As I write, Don, the beloved jazz pianist/ drummer husband/ dad, is hooked up to tubes, suffering multiple fractures. Ledell, a vivacious teacher, activist, and musician, always ready to lead an old civil rights song or belt out a gospel hymn, and their singer/ songwriting daughter Kat, didn’t make it. Their surviving son, Devan, was not in the car.
Numbness is a blessing, but it doesn’t last. Shocking news insists on its truth, rips through our denial, screams death beneath an unblinking summer sun. We instinctively back away from the unthinkable, but stone-cold fact has gotten inside our brains and under our eyelids, broken our hearts.
THE QUESTION OF GOD’S WILL
There is so much we don’t understand. Young people go to their deaths, abrupt and brutal, on highways and city streets, while beloved elderly drift away, ever so slowly, on little ice floes of dementia. Why?
Peace and civil rights activist William Sloane Coffin (1924-2006) was, for ten years, pastor of Riverside Church in Manhattan. In one of his most memorable sermons, delivered just days after his 24-year-old son was killed in a car accident, he told the congregation about a quiche-bearing woman who, meaning to comfort, muttered sadly about the mystery of “God’s will.”
Coffin, by his own account, unleashed his grief and rage at her. Later, he explained from the pulpit: “My own consolation lies in knowing that it was not the will of God that Alex die; that when the waves closed over the sinking car, God’s heart was the first of all our hearts to break.”
WHERE IS GOD IN ALL THIS SUFFERING?
We are impatient to make sense of what seems senseless. We long for answers, for the unbearable and incomprehensible to be explained. Where is God in all this suffering?
Sleeth was only 62 when she died of cancer at the height of her creativity. She left us this gift, a hymn about seeds and hidden promises, mysteries and melodies. Trembling, we muster our courage and sing together of darkness, doubt, and death.
There is no judgment here, only the reality of unanswered questions and of a loving God who weeps with us in our grief.
TO GO DEEPER
Ledell leading children (students at the International School of Brooklyn) singing Civil Rights Movement songs at a Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Assembly 2015. (14 mins.)
“ISB (International School of Brooklyn) Middle School Chorus, Winter Concert, 2013” Ledell Mulvaney directing, Pam McAllister accompanying. (1:05 min. fragment)
“Kat Ledell and Andy Mac, ‘New Coat of Paint’” (Tom Waits Cover) (4:52 mins.)
“Urbnergy, ‘What Is This Thing Called Love’ Live at Cafe Steinhof” with Don Mulvaney on drums and vocals, Marc Irwin on piano, 2012 (6:43 mins.)
Words and Music: “Hymn of Promise” Hymnary.org.
“History of Hymns: ‘In the Bulb There Is a Flower’” by C. Michael Hawn, Discipleship Ministries (United Methodist Church) Resources