One week ago, I attended the 352nd annual gathering of Quakers in New England. This year’s theme was “living with integrity in a time of change” in which Friends were urged to “dream of world in which humanity has joined together to protect the earth in all its diversity” and where we could work “together in love and wisdom to meet the demands of our rapidly changing world.”
During an early morning session, two visitors shared a song that I have loved since I first heard it sung by Pete Seeger and, some years later, by John McCutcheon. This song, the visitors told us, addresses integrity and teaches us how we might cope with change. Listen, they said, and ask yourself: how can I keep from singing?
“My life flows on in endless song
Above earth’s lamentation.
I hear the real, thought far off hymn
That hails the new creation
Above the tumult and the strife,
I hear the music ringing;
It sounds an echo in my soul
How can I keep from singing?
What through the tempest loudly roars,
I hear the truth, it liveth.
What through the darkness round me close,
Songs in the night it giveth.
No storm can shake my inmost calm
While to that rock I’m clinging.
Since love is lord of Heaven and earth
How can I keep from singing?”
A young Friend rose out of the silence that followed our singing. He told a story of a college choir he had once joined and loved. Every concert performed by that choir began with “How Can I Keep from Singing?” Some years after his graduation, when the beloved choir director decided to retire, a final cross-country tour was arranged and the young man decided to attend the last concert. The choir chose to sing their traditional tune at the very end and as he listened from the audience, he longed to rise up and join them in song. It was all he could do to restrain himself, to remain silent and listen.
“I have felt shame ever since,” he told us. “Barriers separate audiences from the performers. We believe we must do what is expected and not what our hearts are longing to express. Friends, let us find ways to support one another so that we might learn how to share the best of who we are.”
We sat in silence and took in his words. When our small gathering came to a close and we rose to attend other activities, I came across the Clerk of Yearly Meeting, a woman I admire. At this moment in time we happen to share a similar fate: unemployment.
“That was a good message for those of us who are out of work,” I said, with both laughter and longing to find an opening that would allow my soul to express what lives inside.
She laughed too. And then, with a look I can only describe as a portrait of integrity and kindness added, “But you do know, we are never truly out of work.”