Greetings from Colorado College in Colorado Springs, CO, the site of this year’s meeting of The Hymn Society in the United States and Canada. Scholars, writers, pastors, composers, publishers, and hymn-lovers have gathered from across North America (and beyond!) and from dozens of Christian traditions to sing, pray and learn together. Each year I learn more about the practices of other Christians, and each year I am invited to reflect and grow in my own (Roman Catholic) faith. And each year I marvel anew at how much unites us — particularly music.
Our theme this year is inspired by a hymn of Shirley Erena Murray. “Touch the earth lightly,” her text begins, “use the earth gently, nourish the life of the world in our care…” In Colorado — where Katherine Lee Bates wrote the hymn “America the Beautiful” — it is easy to see the glory of nature’s grandeur. In particular, Pike’s Peak looms over us, even while we are at 6,000 feet of elevation.
The theological implications of environmental stewardship are a special focus this week, beginning with our opening hymn festival. We sang of the glories of God’s creation — including a translation of St. Francis of Assisi’s “Canticle of the Sun,” Catherine Cameron’s “God, Who Stretched the Spangled Heavens,” and Cecil Frances Alexander’s “All Things Bright and Beautiful.” We also sang pieces from Cuba and from the Philippines. Hymns were interspersed with readings from Genesis and Isaiah and from authors such as James Weldon Johnson and Wendell Berry, inviting us to reflect on the creation that God so lovingly calls good.
Our first plenary speaker was Dr. George “Tink” Tinker, Professor of Indian Cultures and Religious Traditions at the Iliff School of Theology. He describes himself as “mixed blood”: he is both an ordained member of the ELCA and a member of the Osage Nation. His speech addressed what American Indian spirituality could offer to Christianity in regards for caring for the earth. While acknowledging the many differences in ceremony and ritual among the various Native American nations, he proposed a few common elements of a worldview shared by many tribes. For example, he proposed a much wider notion of relation — relation, not just among all the members of a biological family, but among all the people of earth, and even extending to all creation. This is a worldview that rejects the dichotomy of animate and inanimate — a worldview that instead invites us to contemplate our relationship with all nature, to even the rocks. (Is this why the rocks cry out?) Ceremonies, then, safeguard our relationship that humankind has with all creation.