Speed Bonnie Boat: Elegy for Pam Byers

Speed bonnie boat, like a bird on the wing,
Onward, the sailors cry;
Carry the lad that’s born to be King
Over the sea to Skye.

Loud the winds howl, loud the waves roar,
Thunderclaps rend the air;
Baffled our foes stand on the shore,
Follow they will not dare.

It’s not your garden variety ear worm, this romantic poet’s telling of the end of the Jacobite Rising.  And it’s not exactly the kind of music that normally gets stuck in my head.  But today, as I make my way through the foggy Oakland morning, I hear it sung in Jeff Byers’ grief-raw tenor as he stood to offer a public tribute to his beloved (and mine, and ours) Pamela McLucas Byers.

Jeff sang and we remembered her love for poetry, her passion for Scottish literature, and her self-accompanying soundtrack of continual humming.  And today, I can’t get it out of my head. I cannot.

It occurs to me that it’s because this isn’t just another song loved by her poet’s heart. It’s a sign and symbol of the the way Pam lived.  And while it might be a stretch to connect bloody highland battles with such a gentle spirit, it strikes me that it is a musical version of what Pam experienced as she worked tirelessly for the full inclusion of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered, Queer people in the Presbyterian Church.

In this song, my ears hear Pam’s patient ferocity, even as she faithfully spoke her hopes for peace into the onslaught of howling winds threatening the precious unity of the church.  My eyes see her determined focus on the horizon of God’s dawning of justice, even as she stood on an ever-eroding shore with crashing waves of resistance to change breaking at her feet.  And here at the end, my heart feels the reverberation of the thunderclaps that destroyed barriers to ministry and burst open the doors of the sanctuary so all God’s children can celebrate and be celebrated as they marry.

Many have watched in confusion and awe as God’s rambunctious and creative Spirit moved. But not Pam. She was never confounded, never uncertain, never afraid.   She dared to believe and to hold hope for those who couldn’t. She dared it when few would follow and many would judge.  She dared it when all seemed lost. And in the end, at the end of her warrior’s life, she saw freedom and justice becoming a reality in the church she loved so much.

I will never hear this song again without thinking of Pamela McLucas Byers.  I will love it and I will hate it because I don’t want her bonnie boat to speed away.  None of us wanted that.  We wanted Pam to be able to rest awhile in victory and then return to these shores, ready to lead us in another battle for freedom and justice and unity.  But there it is. We are left on the shore, baffled with grief, hoping we can dare to follow her even when she’s not here to lead. And singing her home to God.

Though the waves leap, soft shall ye sleep,
Ocean’s a royal bed;
Rocked in the deep, Flora will keep
Watch by your weary head.

Speed bonnie boat, like a bird on the wing,
Onward, the sailors cry;
Carry the lad that’s born to be King
Over the sea to Skye.

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