Rector's Blog: Hard Times Come Again No More
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Let us pause in life's pleasures and count its many tears
while we all sup sorrow with the poor.
There's a song that will linger forever in our ears
Hard times come again no more
'Tis the song, the sign of the weary,
Hard times, hard times, come again no more
Many days you have lingered all around my cabin door,
Oh, hard times, come again no more.
Popular songwriter, and one-time Cincinnati resident, Stephen Foster penned these powerful words in 1854, and the song has lasted in American culture all this time. It’s been performed by Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, Bruce Springsteen, Mavis Staples, Joan Baez, Johnny Cash, Mary J. Blige, and the Roots, just to name a few. The first time I heard it was in 1996, from a 1992 recording by Bob Dylan. With Bob singing, I didn’t understand a lot of the words the first hundred times I listened to it, but I couldn’t stop listening – because his words became perfectly clear when he pled, “Hard times, hard times, come again no more,” and I believed him when he sang it.
While the song is ostensibly sung from the point of view of the privileged who are steeped in life’s pleasures, every version I’ve heard finds its heart in that courageous, pleading refrain of the weary, “Hard times, hard times, come again no more.” In the last year, I have found new and glorious comfort in the playing of Foster’s tune. For the first time it has dawned on me: This song isn’t just an admonition to those experiencing good fortune to consider those in misery – it’s a bold declaration that the margin between the two is razor thin.
That the number of COVID cases and deaths has horrifically affected the poor of our country more than the affluent is a damning statistic. And yet, no amount of money has inoculated the wealthy among us from the loneliness, dread, and uncertainty of the last 12 months. So many of us have loved ones in Texas. Watching the entire state be plunged into frozen powerlessness overnight was yet another reminder of the thin line between life’s pleasures and tears. Jesus is saying, “Have you eyes but do not see? Have you ears but do not hear?” As we seek to move into the next chapter of our shared life and cobble together a new normal that will help guide us back into each other’s arms, our souls are singing, “hard times, hard times, come again no more."
I love music. It keeps me sane. It colors most of my waking moments with its joys and sorrows. I am almost always listening to it. When there are words, I am usually singing along. If I don’t know how to describe a feeling or idea, I often turn to the recitation of a lyric. Sometimes I have to pause to remember if it’s Scripture I’m thinking of or a song. Isaiah or Bob Dylan? St. Paul or Gillian Welch?
The other day I noticed how comforted I am in listening, yet how challenged I am in playing music. Throughout the years I have played the piano, harmonica, banjo, guitar, and ukulele. And I love it, I do. But also, it’s frustrating. I can hear the music in my head, hear what I want my voice and hands to do, and then there’s what comes out. How different they are. I know I could practice more and get better. But I also know that this frustration is shared by professional musicians, those who have mastered the craft. One of my favorite people is a professional percussionist. He is a passionate artist and diligent practitioner. He loves what he does, and he excels at it. If you were to listen to him play you would think, “Yes, that’s how it’s supposed to sound.” But at the end of any song, he could point to the spots where he could have been better, more, closer to what he hears in his head.
I have been told people like my preaching, and I’m grateful for that. On some level I love preaching. And of course, I love so much the possibility that others appreciate it. I’m certainly happy I get to do it as a job. Still, I cannot count the number of times I have sat down after a sermon and thought about the distance between what I wanted to convey and what came out of my mouth.
I think this is the way of things: Listening can bring comfort, to have someone else sing or say the things that are alive in your heart is a great gift. But stepping into the role of the singing or saying or playing presents a challenge and a frustration: Can I do justice to the truth of things? Can I accurately present the music I hear or the Gospel that I know?
I have found such comfort and joy this Lent in reading the writings of Howard Thurman. His meditations of the heart have served to articulate for me the spiritual life of God’s Beloved Community – that gathering of people from every tribe and language and people and nation who bask in the glow of their divine belovedness and who live into the truth of their belonging to one another.
And now the challenge. How will I shift from listening to proclaiming? From contemplation to action? From comfort to commitment? Jesus’ disciples sat and listened. But then Jesus raised them up and sent them out to live the truth of the song he sang to them. To listen is a comfort. To become a practitioner of God’s Love, a proclaimer of Christ’s dream will take something of us. We will get it wrong a lot. Our words will not always match our hearts, our impact will not always mirror our intent.
But this is the way of things. You have a part to play in the revealing of God’s truth. You have a role in the story of healing that God is telling right here and now. However imperfectly, it is yours to play. We cannot let our fear of the unknown or our frustration with our own imperfection keep us from picking up the instrument of our bodies and imperfectly playing that song which is meant to draw us all into justice and unity.
'Tis a sigh that is wafted across the troubled wave,
'Tis a wail that is heard upon the shore
'Tis a dirge that is murmured around the lowly grave
Oh! Hard times come again no more.
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