Sing a New Song: “Simple Gifts”
Lesson Psalm 150
‘Tis the gift to be simple, ‘tis the gift to be free
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
This summer we’re looking at favorite hymns, and Simple Gifts is a well loved. It’s simple, it’s catchy, it can get stuck in your head…and it turns out that this is not typically classified as a hymn. It was originally composed as a Shaker-dancing tune. A hymn, according to one source, is a song composed with the intent of praising or worshipping God. The lyrics do suggest dancing, especially in the chorus:
When true simplicity is gained.
To bow and the bend we shan’t be a-sham’d.
To turn, turn will be our de-light,
Till by turning, turning we come round right.
It’s easy to imagine a group of people moving to the words of this song. However, as I said, this is a Shaker-dancing tune, and the Shakers believed one could have a moment of divine revelation in the midst of dancing. So…who’s to say that Joseph Brackett, the Shaker elder, was not praising God as he cued people to dance?
The Shakers are an interesting branch of Christianity. The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, otherwise known as the Shakers, began in England as a breakoff group from the Quakers in 1747. The original members were known as the “Shaking Quakers” for the ecstatic nature of their worship service. In 1774, under the charismatic leadership of Mother Ann Lee, they arrived in New York State. They gained as many as 20,000 converts over the next century. At their peak in 1840, there were 6,000 Shakers throughout New England and as far west as Kentucky and Indiana. However, by 1850 they lost their momentum and today there are only a handful of Shakers left.
Their lifestyle was simple, austere. For instance they used peg rails to hang up clothes, hats, and light furniture pieces like chairs when not in use. They worshiped in meeting houses with unadorned, white walls and thought even pulpits were too worldly. Shakers were also respected for their productivity and orderly communities. They invented such things as the clothespin and the circular saw. They were the first large producers of medicinal herbs in the United States, and pioneers in the sale of seeds in paper packets.[i]
And yet these people known for almost rigid simplicity hold worship services, at least in the beginning, known for being, “unstructured, loud, chaotic, and emotional.” They “marched, sang, danced, and sometimes turned, twitched, jerked, or shouted.” Over time Shakers “developed precisely choreographed dances and orderly marches accompanied by symbolic gestures.”[ii]
Elder Joseph Brackett wrote Simple Gifts as a dance tune in 1848. It found its way from obscurity to the general public when Aaron Copland used the melody in his famous ballet score, Appalachian Springs in 1944. The tune found its way into numerous Protestant hymnals with new lyrics by English poet and songwriter Sydney Carter in 1963 under the title “Lord of the Dance.”
Dance then, wherever you may be,
I am the Lord of the Dance said He;
and I’ll lead you all, wherever you may be
and I’ll lead you all in the dance said He.
Sydney Carter remarked years later that he didn’t think churches would care for his tune and feared it would be considered heretical. In his own words, he wrote, “I see Christ as the incarnation of the piper who is calling us. He dances that shape and pattern which is at the heart of our reality.” ”[iii]
Dancing has a sordid history in the church—yes it’s in scripture. It’s in the Psalms as a way of praising God. Miriam dances for joy. David dances. Ecclesiastes mentions a time for dancing….turn, turn, turn. Yet, even back when the Shakers were singing and dancing, there was a pastor who was selling-out paper copies of his sermon claiming that dancing is not moral! I’ll put the link to this article on our website because it is an entertaining read.[iv]
While we Presbyterians are not necessarily known for our liturgical dance, …yet, I am pleased to report that on Friday our commissioners at the General Assembly broke into dance. Now, I was not able to see this with my own eyes, because the live video feed went blank every time there was a break in the meeting. However, I have it from numerous trusted sources on Twitter (those of you who were there may be able to attest to this) that directly after the GA voted on the social justice reports, music for a well-known energizer played over the speakers and the young adults and seminarians led the energizer, “Revolution.” Do you want a revolution? Remember this one?) I’m not sure the voting was any more revolutionary after the energizer, but it’s a start!
A dance tune and/or a hymn, Simple Gifts is one of those songs that one can slide into the tempo and gently bounce with ease to the tune. And the lyrics begin with “tis a gift” life, dancing, singing, music, it’s all a gift and as people of faith we remember that these gifts—all gifts—are gifts of God. We turn, we repent, we learn, we shan’t be ashamed as we dance. Which reminds me of a song I grew up with called “Life’s a Dance” by John Michael Montgomery. The chorus says:
Life’s a dance you learn as you go
Sometimes you lead, sometimes you follow
Don’t worry about what you don’t know
Life’s a dance you learn as you go[v]
For the next few minutes, I invite you to consider the gift of life and reflect on your life’s dance. You can be as concrete or metaphorical as you’d like. For instance:
Do you feel the support of a partner? (Or partners plural?)
Do you feel the freedom of a soloist?
Are you carefree and twirling with arms outstretched?
Are you at a pause, a rest in the music?
Are you waiting for the tune to change?
Are there words, images that speak to you from this tune or from your own experience with dancing?
I encourage you to play with this metaphor at your tables. If you want to look at the lyrics to Simple Gifts, they are printed in your bulletins. Feel free to speak, breathe, be silent, and see where the conversation takes you. If you feel moved to participate and respond in dance, well, move where the spirit takes you.
Image by the usual infinity, flickr common creative license, 2005.