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May the River Renew Us, June 9, 2024



Friends: this piece Dorothy has just played, “Deep River,” from the late 19th-/early 20th-century British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, is based on the African American spiritual of the same name. Taylor, who was the mixed-race child of a Sierra Leonean father and a British mother, was fascinated by the music of the African diaspora. One notable experience was his attendance at a London performance of the Fiske Jubilee Singers, a world-renowned African American a capella group from the historically black Fiske University in Nashville, TN.[1] Taylor was particularly moved by their rendition of “Deep River.” He became well-known in European classical music circles for his compositions based on both African-American spirituals and traditional African-continent music. This piece, "Deep River," is part of a larger collection he published in 1905.[2] 

            “Deep River,” which like so many black spirituals emerged out of the crucible of American slavery, is a powerfully hopeful song—hope for freedom, deliverance, justice, acceptance and peace in this life and in the life to come:


Deep River, my home is over Jordan; / Deep River, my home is over Jordan; / O don’t you want to go to that Gospel Feast / That Promised Land where all is Peace? / Deep River, I want to cross over into camp ground.  


I have only a cursory understanding of the place “Deep River” holds in African American culture. It has worked its way into books and book titles. It has worked its way into jazz. It has worked its way into poetry, perhaps most famously echoing through Langston Hughes’ poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” which he wrote in 1920 at age seventeen, and which launched his career as a towering American poet. You can find it in our hymnal as “I’ve Known Rivers.” I’ve known rivers ancient as the / world and older than the flow of / human blood in human veins. / My soul has grown deep like the rivers. [3]

In his 1945 commentary on the spirituals (later published under the title Deep River) the Christian mystic, Howard Thurman, said this in reference to the song: “The fascination of the flowing stream is a constant source of wonder and beauty to the sensitive mind. It was ever thus. The restless movement, the hurrying, ever-changing stream has ever been the bearer of the longings and yearnings of [humanity] for land beyond the horizon where dreams are fulfilled and deepest desires satisfied.”[4] Thurman understood the spirituals as emerging out of the unique experience of black people in America, but the goal of his commentaries on the spirituals was not to name what is uniquely black about them, but to name what is uniquely human about them, to find universal truths within them.

            Our ministry theme for June is ‘renewal.’ This is my sermon on renewal. I initially titled it “The Renewal Imperative,” thinking that with so much happening in the world that creates stress, anxiety, fear and despair—so much happening that keeps us up at night, tires us out, wears us down, divides us even from each other—renewal seems, well, imperative. Let’s take time to renew ourselves. Let’s take time for regeneration, for restoration. But the more I studied Howard Thurman’s commentary on “Deep River,” the more the word “imperative” didn’t sound right. It sounded like a mandate, an order: “Thou shalt renew Thyself!” Yet another task to add to the list, and thus another source of stress and anxiety. 10:00 meet with Mary. 11:00 meet with Emmy. 12:00, eat lunch. 12:30, renewal. 1:00, Emergency Preparedness Team. After reading Thurman, I decided to give the sermon a more prayerful title: “May the River Renew Us.”

            Thurman counsels us “to think of life as being like a river.” He calls this “a full and creative analogy.”[5] A river flows from a source to a destination. Ask yourself: what is your source? What is your destination? These are spiritual questions with spiritual answers. For Thurman, as a Christian mystic, the source and the destination are, paradoxically, the same: God, which for the river is the sea. He says, “All the waters of all the earth come from the sea. Paradox of paradoxes: that out of which the river comes is that into which the river goes. The goal and the source of the river are the same! From gurgling spring to giant waterfall; from the morning dew to the torrential down-pour; from simple creeks to mighty river—the source and the goal are the same: the sea. Life is like that! The goal of life is God. The source of life is God.”[6]

            That’s his theological language, which I find to be wonderfully aligned with our Universalist heritage. I invite you to translate his language into whatever language speaks to you; and I’ll offer this translation which speaks to me: All life, if we go back far enough, has a common source, which is sacred, holy, beautiful, powerful, awesome and, though increasingly knowable through scientific theory, experimentation and discovery, remains mysterious. And all life flows toward a common destination, which is sacred, holy, beautiful, powerful, awesome and, though also increasingly knowable through scientific theory, experimentation and discovery, also remains mysterious. Between the source and the destination, our small yet sacred, holy, beautiful, powerful, awesome lives flow. May the River Renew Us.

            The analogy deepens. Thurman reminds us there are times when the river floods—times when we become overwhelmed, when we may face imminent danger, when our survival may be at stake, when we need to get to higher ground. Our reptilian, limbic system takes over—fight, flight, freeze. In such moments we’re not resting in thoughts of our sacred, holy, beautiful source; we’re not contemplating our sacred, holy, beautiful destination. This is part of life, part of the human condition. There are also times when the river runs dry—our energy is low, we struggle in our relationships, we’re in a rut, our sense of purpose goes missing, we forget our sacred, holy, beautiful source, we forget our sacred, holy, beautiful destination. This, too, is part of life, part of the human condition. “The time of drought may be seasonal,” writes Thurman, “or it may be specially circumstanced. It is therefore of greatest importance,” he continues, “to understand its cause, and to discover … what special reserves must be tapped so as to bring flowing fully and freshly the refreshing, life-giving currents. There is perhaps no greater revelation of character than what is revealed by the things to which one appeals for regeneration and restoration!”[7] And I would add renewal.

            In the wake of a flood, or when your river runs dry, to what do you appeal for renewal? What puts you back in touch with your sacred, holy, beautiful source? What puts you back in touch with your sacred, holy, beautiful destination?” What allows you to re-enter the river, to flow with its life-giving currents, to remember your source and your destination.

***

            In May I attended a three-day gathering of my Unitarian Universalist clergy study group, the Greenfield Group. Our gathering focused on bringing joy, play and fun more deeply into our lives and our ministries. In preparation we read The Book of Joy, by the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu: Pleasure Activism, by the progressive thought leader, writer and facilitator, adrienne marie brown: and a collection of poems from the 14th century Sufi poet Hafiz called I Heard God Laughing. We listened to joyful music. We watched TED Talks from researchers who study play in children and adults. We each shared a short reflection on our theology of play. But instead of presenting academic papers—our normal mode of interacting—we used the bulk of our time to play together. It was not easy for a group of 25 clergy to let down a guard we didn’t fully realize was up, and sink into play. But we did it. I had a blast. I left feeling renewed.

            A concept that repeatedly shows up in the psychological literature on play is “flow.” If I have my facts correct, the term was first coined by the Hungarian psychologist, Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi in the early 1990s. In people of all ages, play induces flow, a state in which one is completely immersed in the activity, loses track of time, and is not easily distracted. Of course, this also describes the state achieved through spiritual practice. Meditation, prayer, singing, stretching, journaling, labyrinth-walking, sacred dance, ritual all have the capacity to induce flow. It’s the same with physical activity. It’s the same with creative activity. Further, a significant body of research concludes flow is good for us. It correlates with good physical and mental health, emotional well-being and spiritual aliveness. Flow renews us.

This makes me wonder: perhaps the greatest resource we have for deepening our spiritual foundations in adulthood—for getting in touch with our source and our destination—isn’t what we learned as children from the priest, the rabbi, the imam or the minister, isn’t what we learn from church, synagogue, masjid or temple today, but is rather our childhood experience of play, of fun, of joy—all the things that induce flow. Not the rules, the right or wrong answers—certainly not the doctrines and the dogmas—but those experiences of surrendering to the moment, getting lost in a task we enjoy, losing track of time—though I prefer to think of it as entering into a state of timelessness—letting the river take us or, to reference our opening words from the Rev. Manish Mishra-Marzetti, letting the currents hold us and guide us. [8] 

***

            When the flood has receded and it is safe to venture out, may we surrender once again to the river. May the river renew us.

            In the midst of drought, when our souls feel parched, let us tap our reserves, so that the refreshing waters flow once again. May the river renew us. 

            In times of stress, anxiety, fear and despair, may we learn to move with the currents of the river of life, to trust them. May the river renew us.  

            In challenging times, may we remember the river’s source—the sacred, holy, beautiful powerful, awesome, knowable yet mysterious source. May the river renew us.

In difficult times, may we remember the river’s destination—the sacred, holy, beautiful, powerful, awesome knowable yet mysterious destination. May the river renew us.

May the arrival of summer—the season of play, fun and joy—renew us.

May the words of the poet whose soul has grown deep like the rivers be a gift to us, a gift to all people, a source of renewal.

May the deep river music of once enslaved people yearning to be free, yearning for that great gospel feast, for the peace of the promised land be a gift to us, a gift to all people, a source of renewal.

May our lives flow. May our lives flow. May our lives flow. May the river renew us.

Amen and blessed be.


[1] For the history and the current-day activities of the Fiske Jubilee Singers, visit their website at https://fiskjubileesingers.org/.

[2] Elkins, Stephanie, “Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s ‘24 Negro Melodies’, January 16, 2024. See: https://www.wpr.org/music/classical-music/samuel-coleridge-taylor.

[3] Hughes, Langston, “I’ve Known Rivers” in Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #528.

[4] Thurman, Howard, Deep River and The Negro Spiritual Speaks of Life and Death (Richmond, IN: Friends United Press, 1975) p. 66.

[5] Thurman, Howard, Deep River and The Negro Spiritual Speaks of Life and Death (Richmond, IN: Friends United Press, 1975) p. 66.

[6] Thurman, ibid., p. 74. 

[7] Thurman, ibid., p. 72.

[8] Mishra-Marzetti, Manish, “River Call,” in Voices from the Margins (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2012) p. 9.

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