O Pilgrims, Come: The Tale of the Text

O Pilgrims, Come: The Tale of the Text
October 15, 2021 – David R. Weiss

It took me roughly twelve miles (walking in the Wind)—and just shy of 300 words—to cross 100 years. But sweet Jesus, what a journey.

All stories start somewhere in the middle (whether they realize it or not). For this story that middle is March 2021. I received an email from someone on the Anniversary Committee at Pilgrim Lutheran Church in Saint Paul. They were making plans to celebrate Pilgrim’s 100th anniversary in October. Someone had floated the idea of commissioning a centennial hymn to mark this special occasion in the congregation’s life. They began to think of local hymnists they might ask. Eventually my name came up. I’m not a particularly well-known hymnist, but I’ve written more (relatively unknown) texts than fit on my fingers and toes. More importantly, I’m known to Pilgrim, and I’ve known Pilgrim for nearly two decades.

Beginning in 2004, when Pastor Carol Tomer invited me to preach at Pilgrim for Reconciling in Christ Sunday, every few years I’ve been asked to preach or lead an adult forum there; in 2014-2015 I served as Theologian in Residence. After seventeen years, eight sermons, at least a dozen forums, and even a stint on a church committee, that mutual knowing reflects mutual respect and warmth as well. In fact, I just led my most recent adult forum via Zoom this past February.

This March email asked if I would take on the project of writing a centennial hymn for them. Of course, I was honored, humbled, delighted. And apprehensive. Although I am more than confident of my writing ability, the past couple years have been a struggle at times. A wilderness sojourn of sorts with long barren expanses in between oases of productivity. My creativity, temperament, and self-esteem have all occasionally withered—sometimes without warning. When working only against internal expectations and deadlines, that sense of falling short can still be excruciating but at least it’s entirely private. Saying Yes to this request would be a very public commitment.

I wrestled with the decision for a few days before replying Yes. And I wrestled with it for more than a few days in the first weeks after that Yes. This was never about whether I wanted to do it or whether “in theory” I could do it. It was about whether at this point in my life, suspended in a season (hardly my first) of unrelenting self-doubt and merciless melancholy, I trusted myself to do it. I said Yes in a spirit of reckless hope, throwing caution (and myself) to the Wind. And trusting the Wind to catch me.

Most every other hymn text I’ve written—probably two dozen of them—has come from inside me. Biblical imagery, of course. And rich theology in service of a chosen theme. But these have been my choices. In contrast, this text needed to echo 100 years of choices other than my own. So, I set to work gathering stones, as it were. As in making “Stone Soup” and inviting many others to toss all manner of ingredients into the pot.

There were many contributions. Three earlier anniversary booklets: 1946 (25th anniversary); 1971 (50th anniversary); and 1981 (60th anniversary). A 1996 (75th anniversary) meditation booklet on the intricately carved wooden reredos (the art behind the altar). A brief timeline chronicling major events and milestones in the congregation’s history. A guide to the “layman’s Bible” of tales and teaching held in the stained-glass windows. A guide to the Jesse Tree carving of Jesus’ ancestors. A floor map showing the cruciform pattern of the church itself and indicating where each bit of sacred art is found in the sanctuary. Several current brochures. Altogether about 70 pages of written material and another 30 pages of photos in the anniversary booklets.

Pilgrim Lutheran Church – 1935 St. Clair Ave., St.Paul – http://www.pilgrimstpaul.org

A personal tour of the building from the church archivist who had earlier supplied all the written documents. (As well as my own wander around the church’s website to get a sense of the phrases and images that they use to virtually lean into the world today.) The images from a new 16-panel display of Pilgrim’s more recent history. And a 55-minute video of Pastor Carol reflecting on the church’s history with her uniquely warm insight shortly before departing to take a new call in Olympia, Washington.

That’s a lot of stones!

I worked through all this material in April, letting the Stone Soup simmer, while this theme or that theme bubbled its way to the top. “Simmering” makes it sound too easy and automatic. There is so much richness in anyone’s history, and Pilgrim’s heritage holds a true abundance of riches. As everything simmered—at times coming to a rolling boil in my head!—the initial challenge was to select which handful of events and themes for the hymn, trusting this handful to generously evoke much more that wouldn’t fit in the lines themselves.

By the end of April, I’d settled on a basic structure of three or, more likely, four verses. The first one to reflect Pilgrim’s deep past; the last one to set the congregation on the threshold of the future; and the middle one or two verses to tell the sweep of Pilgrim’s life together over the decades. I put together a 20-point summary of themes and events (many of these points had sub-points within them); it was still far too much for a hymn, but it seemed to me to capture the breadth and depth of Pilgrim’s history, heritage, and missional vocation.

In early May I shared this summary with the Anniversary Committee and the Church Vestry (the Council). I explained it was still too much to fit into the final hymn, but now I had 100 years simmered down to these twenty points on a single page. And that it would be from among these events and themes that I would fashion the final hymn. I asked if I’d missed anything important in my summary or if any points in it were so essential that they really needed a place in the final text. I did NOT want anyone looking over my shoulder as I crafted the actual verses, but I also didn’t want to turn in a final text only to learn I’d overlooked one of their family treasures.

Candlelight on Sunday evening

Happily, other than amplifying a couple points in my summary as being really important, everyone seemed pleased with my short list of highlights from their long years of history. The two things lifted up? That their Sunday evening contemplative services had become such an unexpected gift, reaching beyond the congregation itself and embracing many who longed for a spiritual wayside if not a specifically Christian home. And that they’re not afraid to wrestle with questions that make them uncomfortable, as, for instance, with their current Reparations Task Force. I made sure that both were in my final text.

Now it was time to move from themes and events to images, phrases, meter, and rhyme. Writing a brief prose sketch of Pilgrim’s storied heritage and faith would have been daunting. Doing that in rhyme was double-daunting—in bolded italics. Plus, this was a hymn: a song for worship. So, the internal energy of the text needed to sing Pilgrim’s history in a way that offered praise to the God who has been their beloved companion on this century-long journey.

With preparation complete and intention clear, I needed inner calm so that inspiration and art could have their turn. But inner calm can be elusive with such a multitude of ideas whispering, “Pick me! Pick me!” And with so much at stake. And with the clock ticking (my deadline was mid-June). Inspiration can be invited, but rarely if ever corralled. I needed the Wind. I found it by walking. Twelve miles.

The walking path around Lake Nokomis is almost exactly three miles (assuming you cross Cedar and include the western end of the lake). As it happens, I have occasion to walk that pathway once or twice a week. I suppose most of us have activities that help us “settle” inside: slow down, collect ourselves, re-center. Walking is one of mine. Over three weeks and four walks, thus, twelve miles, I carried my sheet of words as I circled the lake, notebook and pen in hand. By now most of the trees along the path know me and they obliged me with reverent quiet as I waited for the Wind to come. Sometimes it twirled the leaves on the trees around me, but on each of those four walks it also twirled the words as they danced inside me.

The opening pair of couplets came first—although the meter would be adjusted before I was done. And then a refrain. I wasn’t expecting a refrain, but there it was, taking the church’s tagline—“a home for hungry minds and souls”—and offering itself as the thread to stitch each verse to the next. Each walk more phrases, sentences, couplets emerged. The meter found itself, and a few stubborn sentences eventually softened so they could be matched to meter. Four verses and a refrain. Two-hundred-eighty-nine words to be exact. Two-hundred-ninety-two if you count the title, which I suppose you should.

Could I have written this text around a lake other than Nokomis? I won’t put limits on God, but I trusted the Wind to join me on these walks around this lake, and it did. As the people of Pilgrim Lutheran would testify—as did Martin Luther himself—the unique character of the gospel (good news) is that it’s never known in the abstract. It is always particular: only ever gospel when it’s good news for me … or for you. So that this hymn, with its persistent echo of grace—and good news—emerged on that particular path isn’t mine to question. It came to me along the edge of Lake Nokomis.

In Ojibwe, Nokomis means “my grandmother.” Interestingly, as with gospel, Nokomis is always particular: my grandmother. And in Ojibwe myth, Nokomis means the one particular Great Mother, as in Mother Earth. When my refrain sings, “Wisdom bids us all to dine …” is that Wisdom, usually personified in Hebrew Scripture as a woman ancient as Earth itself … or is it Nokomis beckoning to us? Who knows. My writing is always something of a duet between myself and the Wind. Is it possible that Nokomis found her way into my verses? You’d need to ask the Wind about that.

At last, let’s turn to the hymn text itself.

As some of you know, I have ZERO musical training or aptitude. I can’t even read music—I just try to make my voice go up or down like the notes do. I usually write a text with a specific (familiar) melody in mind, but for this project I intentionally avoided that since the church was commissioning original music for this hymn. (Anne Krentz Organ, a noted Lutheran composer based in Chicago did this after receiving my text in June.) As the phrases started to come together, I settled into a 7/7 rhyme scheme for the verses (seven syllables in each line). And an 8/6 rhyme scheme for the refrain. Both are common meters in church hymnody, so I knew they’d be congregation-friendly for singing. And having a refrain with a complimentary, but not identical meter would allow the composer to play with two separate but related melodies.

I’ve put the hymn at the very end. Here’s a short “guided” tour of the themes, events, and images you’ll find. Because poetry often “works” by leaving things unsaid in between the lines, if you’re not an “insider” to Pilgrim’s story, this tour will help you make the crucial connections for the hymn’s intricate imagery to work.

Verse 1: Origins and architecture. Pilgrim Lutheran was originally a mission chapel planted by Redeemer Lutheran, located several miles to the east. Initially they only had funds to complete the basement, so for the first decade they worshipped in an underground “sanctuary” with stairwells leading to a building not yet there. When the above ground structure was finished, it was beautiful, including stained glass windows that highlighted central stories and themes of their shared faith.

In the 1960’s a unique oak carving went up behind the altar. The “Returning Christ” shows Jesus coming as Lord of history, a profoundly theological image that declared faith in God in the face of rising Soviet influence in the world. The same carving, set against the yawning lure of American individualism, shows Jesus surrounded by an entire community of people, intended to spill over into those gathered in the pews. Someone writing in their 60th anniversary booklet remarked that the sanctuary’s beauty carried worshippers to “the brink of the eternal.”

Verse 2: A history tilted toward inclusion. Despite being founded as a Missouri Synod (that is, a very conservative) Lutheran church, Pilgrim gave women the vote in church matters within their first decade. Fifty years later, in the 1970’s, they joined a sizable minority of other like-minded churches that split off from the Missouri Synod over the synod’s rigid theology and biblical interpretation. Eventually these churches—including Pilgrim—became founding partners in the ELCA Synod.

Over its years Pilgrim has been active in immigrant resettlement, affirming LGBTQ Christians, pursuing inclusive language in worship, and most recently standing in solidarity with Black Lives Matter and seeking racial justice. Their wide welcome is holy hospitality drenched in the waters of baptism—this is fundamentally God’s gracious welcome. While it’s commonplace to prize children as “the church of tomorrow,” at Pilgrim they’re emphatically recognized as the church today. This is done architecturally—with a special children’s door—and also through special children’s areas in the sanctuary where their curiosity and even movement are welcomed in the midst of worship.

Verse 3: Art, worship, and Sunday evenings. In its original sanctuary and through a multitude of later gifts, Pilgrim has relished art as a doorway to the sacred. Under creative pastoral and musical leadership, the people have embraced worship that ranges wide across styles but runs deep in tradition. “Sunday Evenings on Saint Clair” offers contemplative worship that aims to be open and inviting, especially to Seekers—many of whom carry baggage or wounds from earlier church encounters, but who still hunger for a moment of mystery in their lives. In fact, this service is prized by some who rarely attend themselves because it so effectively reaches out to others.

Verse 4: Leaning into the future. I place a bit of Trinitarian divinity in this verse, suggesting that Pilgrim lean into its future via Advent-expectation, Easter-resurrection, and Pentecost-Spirit. And I echo their determination to continue asking—together, as a community—hard question about what it means to be a church in reformation still today, allowing themselves to be pressed uncomfortably as they discern the path toward holy kinship. This verse ends by inviting these Pilgrim saints into a simple prayer as they journey into their next century.

Refrain: echoing Pilgrim’s tagline: “A home for hungry minds and souls.” Here I blend Hebrew Scripture imagery of Wisdom calling all to feast with symbols of baptism and Communion—all wrapped in Pilgrim’s deep spirit of welcome, hospitality, and love. The final line is particularly brimful of meaning. Of course, Pilgrim aims to “welcome strangers home.” But there’s so much more here. Pastor Schuessler created the Little Pilgrim “logo” in 1959 (on a napkin in a Chicago pizza parlor, no less!) and nicknamed him, Xenos, a Greek name meaning “pilgrim.” How fitting. But intended or otherwise, there’s a profound double entendre: used as an adjective, xenos means “strange”; as a regular noun, “stranger.” But—by some sacred grace—strangers become Pilgrims when they’re known by name.

As I said at the outset, sweet Jesus, what a journey—in the Wind. Okay, here’s the hymn, “O Pilgrims, Come,” which debuted at Pilgrim’s Centennial worship service on October 10, 2021:

O Pilgrims, Come

By our Redeemer planted, like a seed beneath the ground;
Til grew a tow’ring building, bearing gospel all around.
With stained glass traced by sunlight, to be read by wond’ring eyes;
Mid oaken acclamation of Christ coming in the skies.
The cloud of saints around us, on the wall and in the pew;
The brink of the eternal splashing o’er our lives anew.

Refrain:
O Pilgrims, come, the table’s set; the spring of water clear.
And Wisdom bids us all to dine, so come from far and near.
With hungry minds and hungry souls, and lives in love aflame;
Thus welcome every stranger home, and call them by their name.

Our women early voted, and in time our synod changed;
Our welcome ever widened, reaching many long estranged.
Where’er our lives have led us, and where’er you still may be,
We journey by the water, all together whole and free.
Our youth, the church already; thus we built a children’s door;
Their wand’ring, wond’ring witness helps the faith of all to soar.

[Refrain]

Through art we touch the sacred, where the holy may reside;
Our worship spans traditions, going deep and ranging wide.
So listen, in the stillness, there is music in the air;
The doors are opened fully, Sunday ev’nings on Saint Clair.
In quiet candlelighting, as the day begins to part,
The words soft weave the myst’ry in the waiting of each heart.

[Refrain]

Tomorrow is our Advent, and our Easter, Pentecost;
We move with expectation, risen too, and Spirit-tossed.
As questions rise to press us, faith reforming still today,
We bear a restless witness to God’s holy kin-dom way.
Sweet Jesus, walk beside us; on the journey we abide.
Your gospel be our message; your compassion be our guide.

text: David R. Weiss – © 2021 – Pilgrim Lutheran Church – http://www.pilgrimstpaul.org
original music: Anne Krentz Organ

Xenos, the Little Pilgrim, circa 1959

[All images courtesy Pilgrim’s website: http://www.pilgrimstpaul.org]

* * *

David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at drw59mn@gmail.com. Read more at www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community SupportedTheology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.

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