It’s a song about the death of someone’s mother, the composer’s wish to delay the inevitable as the Undertaker approaches, and a lifting up of the faith traditions that offered comfort at the time. So far, so good. Then comes the chorus.
Will the circle be unbroken
By and by, Lord, by and by
There’s a better home a-waiting
In the sky, Lord, in the sky
Can you imagine a foreigner with an English – to – Language dictionary trying to understand that verse? English speakers might have trouble explaining. It certainly wouldn’t get a passing grade if submitted in a literature class. And yet it is a widely accepted, often sung, tear inducing chorus that comforts people. It’s a classic. Even people who don’t do church know it, because it is part of mainstream secular music as well.
As if the words weren’t confusing enough, people grieving and mourning who sing it tend to stand up, clap, cry and dance, all at the same time. Now that’s weird.
BY AND BY —Idiom. in time; before long; eventually. It originates in a phrase meaning one at a time, not in a hurry. This phrase is the opposite of instant messaging.
HOME A-WAITING IN THE SKY – a final dwelling place, where heaven is believed by some to be located. Modern hearers might assume we all plan to end up in a space station, so watch for looks of confusion on young faces.
CIRCLE –noun. a closed plane curve consisting of all points at a given distance from a point within it called the center (Ah, well, that explains it) / the area within which something acts, exerts influence, etc.; realm; sphere (Family circle, Circle of friends) / a series ending where it began, especially when perpetually repeated (infinity) / a number of persons bound by a common tie (it takes a village people).
Circles have no beginning, no end. Forever. Infinity. Dependability.
It’s not by accident that metal circles (rings, bracelets) are used as a sign of commitment to a person, a religious order or a cause.
We decorate our homes with plant circles (wreaths) to symbolize the changing seasons, the continuance of life. We decorate our graves with wreaths for the exact same reason.
Around the globe community dancing is done in a circle. And in all of those cultures, including our own, food is served in or on something round.
The circle of life – Hakuna Matata – is a universal theme. People move in and out of it. Things change, evolve. Yet the circle continues, round and round, with tales and tellings of what has gone before. The recounting of the stories is a vital part of life in the circle. We hear of how others faced adversity and survived. We hear of others’ mistakes in hopes of not having them repeated. We learn how to adapt and adjust for survival.
We hear of the people, our ancestors and others. Some were heroes, some scoundrels. This can influence how we choose to live, knowing how we might be remembered. But most of the people we hear of are the day to day Keepers of the Circle. The Ones who protected us, cared for us, paved the way for us. The Ones who are missed by us. The Ones who assumed responsibility and took over when another left the circle. And, Obladee Obladah, life went on.
We find comfort in the remembering of our loved ones. We find assurance that someone will step up. We learn what to do for when it’s our turn. This gives confidence and a sense of belonging to those coming into the circle.
It also comforts those getting ready to step out of it. Knowing they will be remembered. They are reassured that it’s okay to leave, that those behind them will be fine. And while no one from the family has returned from the dead to tell us what it’s like, all cultures have faith histories with hints. We don’t know many details, but enough to look forward to a “Better home”, rather than something threatening.
By and by, in the Circle, there is