There’s a thing that’s been happening in our congregations that is reflective of what’s been happening in our society: anxiety.

Anxiety about the current administration – its real and sustained attacks on our principles and the real and sustained traumas we are experiencing – spill over from our personal lives into our houses of worship. And while we’d like to think we are our best selves at our congregations, we often are not. And suddenly, we find ourselves more anxious about things we can’t control and a bit overprotective of things we can. Things that were never an issue before are now a crisis, and things that require focus and attention get obscured by the day’s outrage.

Sound familiar?

It’s a natural thing, what we are experiencing – and I know religious professionals are in some cases struggling to help the congregations they serve remain focused on health and growth. There are many resources being employed, and I’m not here to talk about things like family systems or congregational management – there are many resources and well trained colleagues out there. But what I do know is that the one hour most of us spend together each week matters.

In that one hour each week, we can experience a pause in the action, that can help us deal with anxiety. We should be offering worship that subtly (or not so subtly) pushes the rudder to help us correct course, that provide comfort for those worn, frayed nerves while challenging the status quo. We need sermons and readings that call us to our best selves. And we perhaps most of all, music that reminds us of who we are and who we want to be must ring through our sanctuaries.

Like this one, another beauty by Jim Scott:

Let this be a house of peace,
Of nature and humanity,
of sorrow and elation,
Let this be our house,
A haven for the healing,
An open room for question,
and our inspiration.

Chorus:
Let this be a house of peace.
Let this be our house of peace.

Let this be a house of freedom;
Guardian of dignity
and worth held deep inside us,
Let this be our house,
A platform for the free voice,
Where all our sacred diff’rences
here shall not divide us.

Chorus

Let all in this house seek truth,
Where scientists and mystics,
abide in rev’rence here,
Let this be our house,
A house of our creation,
Where works of art and melodies
consecrate the atmosphere.

Chorus

Let this be a house of prophesy,
May vision, for our children
Be our common theme.
Let this be our house
Of myth and lore and legend,
Our trove of ancient story,
and cradle of most tender dreams.

Chorus

Now I’m on the fence about this being a congregational sing, because of two things: while The Oneness of Everything is considered long for a hymn, this one is actually really long and is hard to cut down without glaring omission; additionally, unlike Jim’s other songs, each verse has a different rhythm – fine for a solo or choral work, hard for a congregational sing.

And yet, the melody is gorgeous, and the chorus is amazing; even if this is only ever sung by a choir or soloist, the congregation should sing the chorus, repeating it as a mantra, especially noting the change from “a house” to “our house.” The lyrics (with more delightful phrases like “where works of art and melodies consecrate the atmosphere”) serve as reminders of who we are and want to be in crystal clear, yet still lush language. It is a wonderful piece for services about the sources and the third and fourth principles, but mostly a wonderful piece to use anytime we need to remind ourselves what our congregations should be at the best.

I’m not sure any of us – individuals or institutions – are at their best right now. But it’s nice to remember that a vision of what ‘best’ could be sits in our hymnals, ready for us to invoke.

I love this image of the Church of the Good Shepherd at Lake Tekapo in New Zealand – via Pixabay.

In 1991, even as my life was falling apart after a messy breakup, I was welcomed into a community of singers known as the Common Woman Chorus. Started by a delightful woman named Eleanor Sableski (may she rest in peace), who was also the music director at Eno River Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Durham, North Carolina, Common Woman Chorus was (and is) a true celebration of women – from its members to its repertoire.

Feeling battered and uncertain, I joined the group and found instant camaraderie among my fellow singers; despite being 40-50 in number, we did a check in – the first I had experienced. It felt so holy and warm. And in that first year, we sang amazing, life-affirming songs, from “Breaths” to Margie Adam’s “Beautiful Soul” and Holly Near’s “Great Peace March.”

And this song, this short, beautiful, tender chorus by Libby Roderick.

How could anyone ever tell you
you were anything less than beautiful?
How could anyone ever tell you
you were less than whole?
How could anyone fail to notice
that your loving is a miracle?
How deeply you’re connected to my soul.

The first time we sang it, I wept. It was so healing, so comforting, so exactly what I needed to hear in those tender months.

To this day, I use it in services, most notably as the denouement of a piece on wholeness, called Holey, Holy, Wholly. Every time, I invite people to sing it once through to remember how it goes, then sing it to the person next to them, and then finally sing it to themselves. It is a powerful moment.

A simple chorus, easily taught, easily sung.

And oh so powerful in its deep healing. I’m not the only one who thinks so, either; according to Roderick’s website, the song

has been featured on CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360, highlighted on a CBS 60 Minutes special on teens at risk, written about in newspapers ranging from the New York Times to the Hindustani Times, translated into many languages, reprinted in numerous books (including Hometown by Pulitzer Prize winner Tracy Kidder), used in movies, and sung at the UN Conference in Beijing by thousands, among many other uses.

How Could Anyone has been used for every conceivable purpose to bring inspiration and affirmation to people struggling with every imaginable challenge and to celebrate the beauty of human beings everywhere: AIDS orphans in Zambia keeping their spirits high, Latina mothers initiating their daughters into adulthood, gay activists affirming their inherent worth, children with disabilities at summer camp honoring their wholeness, Japanese women and girls recovering from eating disorders, men in prison making peace with their pasts – these groups and thousands more have made the song their own and used it to inspire powerful action on behalf of our shared humanity. It has been featured in every format and venue, from videos, films and slide shows to hospitals, prisons, kindergartens, marches, peace gatherings, weddings, funerals and shelters.  Princess Diana even wore a t-shirt with How Could Anyone’s lyrics printed on the front to work out at the gym.

This song is such a blessing. I am grateful.

I don’t know if it’s still true, but I remember in high school learning a bit about quantum physics – enough at least to know that physicists at the time weren’t sure if the universe is made of particles or waves. (Google suggests that there’s now an uncomfortable acceptance of a duality, but that’s a mind-blowing thought for another day.) Back then, the research fell victim to confirmation bias – if scientists were looking for a particle, they saw a particle; if they were looking for a wave, they found a wave.

I think the same is true for this song. Are you looking for humanism? It’s here. Looking for God? Yep. Looking for a song about the interdependent web? Gotcha covered. Fourth principle too. Looking for first source? Fifth source? Sixth source? Yep, yep, yep. Oh, and do you want a bit of process theology? Howdy!

Far beyond the grasp of hands,
or light to meet the eye,
past the reaches of the mind,
There find the key to nature’s harmony
in an architecture so entwined.
Like the birds whose patterns grace the sky
and carry all who join in love expanding,
The message of peace will rise in flight
taking the weight of the world upon its wings,
In the oneness of ev’rything.

Peace is in the dance of trees,
who stir before the first
breath of wind is yet perceived.
Trust in the song, becoming one with the dance,
and all mysteries can be believed.
Songs of lives long past that touch our own
are written in the earth evergiving,
And now to maintain the harmony
gives to us all lives worth living,
For the oneness of ev’rything.

Still we seek to find a truth
that we might understand
and reduce to terms defined
Vast and immeasurable time and space
all so overwhelmingly designed.
Oh, passing years just might I know the faith
that winters in the heart to be reborn in spring.
To hear and to feel the pulse of life
enters my soul as a song to sing,
Of the oneness of ev’rything.

There are many wonderful Jim Scott songs in our hymnals – from the very familiar Gather the Spirit to the hardly sung Tradition Held Fast, along with others we’ve sung/will sing. But I think this is my favorite; its lyrics are rich (I mean, how many times do you get to sing “vast and immeasurable time and space”?), the melody is interesting and easy to sing, and while it seems long, it’s worth it. (I should write about why we expect hymns to be so short when we don’t expect songs on the radio to be.)

The melody, while not super-easy, is much more intuitive than some of his other pieces, and I’ve never seen a congregation just not get it with a good song leader. The key to singing this in our congregations is not dragging. It’s written in a lush 2/2 with one beat = half note – 64 bpm, which is about right. Any slower and it’s just deadly, and definitely not the song Jim wrote (which you should totally listen to here).

 

More than once during my years at Union Theological Seminary, I said to myself “what is my life even like?” because of some improbable experience or another. To be clear, I didn’t choose to go to Union because of the possibility of meeting important or famous people;- I went because of the possibilities awaiting me in my journey to become a minister and, more importantly, a more fully faithful human being. Yet when I look back, I don’t know how I missed the fact that choosing Theology and the Arts as my program focus would lead to meeting important or famous people – or more, would lead to my sitting next to them in a small class and being told who I am.

Dr. Ysaye Barnwell had been on campus all day; she lead a community sing for our chapel service, consulted with a couple of PhD students in the afternoon, and that evening was the guest for a class I was taking on Worship and the Arts. The small class sat with our tables pushed together to form a circle that was really a square, and there we had amazing conversations about various art forms and how they inform our worship. Dr. Barnwell was with us to talk about  the power of community singing. To my surprise, she sat directly to my right. On the outside, I was pleasant and cool, on the inside I was jumping up and down like a five year old, so excited to be this close to someone whose music I’d been so connected to for three decades.

I don’t remember the conversation in any depth; I remember that on the first topic, I spoke a few times, and knowing that, I consciously moved back for the second topic to allow others to speak. At some point, a tangentially related story occurred to me, but I sat on it, knowing it wasn’t strictly relevant, and anyway, I had already spoken. I would wait until something more relevant and more pressing came to mind.

Dr. Barnwell wasn’t here for that, however. A few times she glanced at me as if in invitation, but I deflected it and the conversation continued. But finally, she looked straight at me with that Auntie Stare and said “go on.” I stammered something about no, it’s fine, it’s not important or some such nonsense. Which she rejected, saying “speak. You’re wearing your words on your face.”

Oh.

So I spoke. (How could I not?) And while the story I told (“Listening for our Song” by David Blanchard) wasn’t exactly on topic, it moved our conversation to a new, deeper topic. Afterwards, Dr. Barnwell thanked me for sharing that story, and with a twinkle in her eye, told me not to be afraid that what I have to say isn’t important. It was like she looked into my soul and saw who I am – perhaps the first time I’ve ever experienced that sort of knowing from someone who barely knew me.

Anyway. This song.

For each child that’s born,
a morning star rises and
sings to the universe
who we are.

For each child that’s born,
a morning star rises and
sings to the universe
who we are.

We are our grandmothers’ prayers
and we are our grandfathers’ dreamings,
we are the breath of our ancestors,
we are the spirit of God.

We are mothers of courage and fathers of time,
we are daughters of dust and the sons of great visions,
we’re sisters of mercy and brothers of love,
we are lovers of life and the builders of nations,
we’re seekers of truth and keepers of faith,
we are makers of peace and the wisdom of ages.

We are our grandmothers’ prayers
and we are our grandfathers’ dreamings,
we are the breath of our ancestors,
we are the spirit of God.

For each child that’s born,
a morning star rises and
sings to the universe
who we are.

It’s beautifully transcribed for our hymnal so that you don’t need all the rhythmic parts (even though I sing the bass line every time just because it’s so fun). It’s hopeful and full of possibility. I love it, and I hope congregations use it even if it seems scary on the page. The beauty is that it’s very repetitious, and once you get the rhythm and the flow, it’s a breeze to sing.

And it’s got a beautiful origin story; this, from the UUA Song Information page:

This is the last song in a suite that began with the lyric, “Lawd, it’s midnight. A dark and fear filled midnight. Lawd, it’s a midnight without stars.” Dr. Barnwell wanted to create a complete circle of experience, and so she wrote “for each child that’s born, a morning star rises…” This phrase is meant to establish hope, and it defines the uniqueness of each one of us. No matter what our race, culture or ethnicity, each one of us has been called into being and are the sum total of all who came before. In the composer’s words, “Each and every one of us stands atop a lineage that has had at its core, mothers and fathers and teachers and dreamers and shamans and healers and builders and warriors and thinkers and, and, and…so in spite of our uniqueness, we come from and share every experience that human kind has ever had. In this way, we are one.”

Amen.

 

As I have mentioned before, I love an Alleluia.

And as I have mentioned before, I love music in 5, whether it’s 5/4 or 5/8, as we find here.

And as I have mentioned before, I am a huge fan of composer Tom Benjamin.

So there’s not much left to say, except this is a perfect storm of those three things I love – an Alleluia written in 5/8 by Tom Benjamin.

The words, obviously, are simple:

Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia, Allelu.

Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia, Allelu.

Alleluia, Alleluia,

I suspect some consider this a complex canon with all its syncopation and unusual time signature. But if you pick up the Dave Brubeck groove, it’s as simple as can be. And the blend of the three parts is amazing – Tom’s harmonic structures sing out the praise its lyric voices.

So without further ado, here’s the Brubeck piece you should listen to in order to get in the mood and begin feeling the jazz syncopation of this wonderful Jazz Alleluia:

Image today is the painting by Neil Fujita, used for the cover of Dave Brubeck’s album “Time Out” which first featured “Take Five.”

This is the piece I love.

This is the Taizé piece that sets my heart and soul free.

This is the Taizé chant that sings not only to what our English verse calls the Holy Spirit but what the Italian verse calls the Creator Spirit. To me, that is the God of process theology, but also the spirit of our own creativity, the creative spark, the part of us that cannot help but imagine and experiment and express our stories through the arts.

Italian:
Vieni Spirito creatore,
vieni, vieni,
Spirito creatore,
vieni, vieni!

English:
Come and pray in us, Holy Spirit,
come and pray in us,
come and visit us, Holy Spirit,
Spirit, come, Spirit, come.

Spanish:
Ven Espiritu, fuente de vida
Ven, ven, ven Señor,
Ven Espiritu, fuente de vida,
Ven Senor, ven Señor.

Is it any wonder that this is my favorite Taizé piece?

It’s made even more wonderful by a spoken word piece called “Fire of the Spirit” by Ken Herman that I have used more than once; he shared it many moons ago with the UU Musicians Network and I share it here. (When I have done it, the choir has hummed the final chord under the spoken word.):

 

Spoken:
Fire of revelation, flame of compassion:
Illumine our hearts and kindle our spirits.
Cloven tongues of wisdom:
Rain down on us and unleash our tongues with the Spirit of Truth.

Sung:
Vieni Spirito Creatore…

Spoken:
Light from uncreated light:
Fill our sight with amazing revelations and new visions.
Fire of the Spirit:
Sear our conscience with zeal for justice.

Sung:
Vieni Spirito Creatore…

Spoken:
Flame of aspiration:
Move our feet to tread the paths of reconciliation.
Come, Creator Spirit:
Comfort us with the warmth of your eternal love.

Sung:
Vieni Spirito Creatore…

Spoken:
Come, Creator Spirit:
Unite us with a zeal for communion with all of Creation.
Bless us—convert us—
May we become the Fire!

Sung:
Vieni Spirito Creatore… repeat song until ready to end.

I love all that this song, and Ken’s words, evoke. I hum this often – more often than you would expect – because it connects me to my creative self and to the mystery of all creation. It calms and engages me. It reassures me and it awakens me. My muse and I find each other in the meditation of these words, beckoning the Spirit come.

This is the piece I love.

 

 

 

You say the words “ubi caritas” to me and my heart sings as I think of the many experiences I have had singing those words. And if you’re lucky (or unlucky, depending on your perspective), you’ll hear me waxing poetic about the lush music these words are often set to.

I don’t think it’s a mistake – the lyrics, which translate to “where charity and love abound, god is there” ask for a lush, rich, warm accompaniment.

Ubi caritas et amor,
ubi caritas, Deus ibi est.

And this Taizé piece delivers. Again, it’s not my favorite of the Taizé pieces (tomorrow, beloveds, tomorrow)… but it absolutely delivers. It’s another beautiful call to compassion – not just empathy, but the gifts of compassion: the money and things that help others. I love this as an offertory response, as well as a prayer response; as with other Taizé pieces, it should be sung several times so that harmonies emerge along with prayers and revelations.

But not surprisingly, not only is this not my favorite Taizé piece, it’s not my favorite Ubi. (Yes, I’m about to wax poetic.)

You get closer with the setting by 20th century French composer Maurice Duruflé , which I first learned in seminary and had the privilege of singing for the wedding of my dear friends Lindsey and AJ Turner. The Duruflé is gentle, until it soars with angelic precision, a descant floating over the melody until it grounds again, reflecting love within and beyond. Listen here:

But even that is not my favorite, despite its connection to my friends. No, my favorite is another version I learned in seminary, by contemporary Estonian composer Ola Gjeilo. This version has roots in Gregorian chant and early European choral music, yet with something else, something unnameable. The parts weave together intimately, evoking the intimacy of love in all its forms.

And then, at 1:58 on the video (measure 28), a miracle happens. I don’t know how Gjeilo did it, but he managed to compose a miracle, right there in the middle of a piece of choral music. I remember singing this with Glen Thomas Rideout at General Assembly in 2016 (Sunday morning worship), and the look on his face as he conducted that moment told me he felt the miracle too… and so did the rest of the choir, and so did the assembled. Listen for it:

Like I said: Miraculous.

Now I realize not much of this is about the Taizé piece this morning, but I think that the words themselves evoke something of a miracle. I think that when we remember that it is our actions that evoke and represent the love beyond our understanding, new abilities to love emerge. We can always love more, give more, empathize more. These songs help us do that.

We have just entered my favorite section of Singing the Journey: the spot where instead of spreading them out, we get a series of Taizé songs all together.

It’s my favorite section, although individually they’re not all on my list of favorites – not that any of them are bad, but some are beloved more than others. It’s like Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours; there isn’t a bad song on the album (which has to be on most top ten lists), but I like “Songbird” a lot more than “Oh Daddy.”

But I digress. This song is so reassuring in its lyrics and melody; instead of the questioning of When I Am Frightened or the joyful affirmation of Trouble Won’t Last Always (not one of our hymns but wow I am glad I know it and you should go listen to it if you need a little joy, or just want to imagine some UU ministers-in-formation singing the heck out of it in seminary), this one is like a parent holding a scared child, or a reassuring hand while receiving a diagnosis, or the timely snuggle from a purring cat.

Or, as the song suggests, a sense of presence of the Divine, the Mystery, God.

Spanish:
Nada te turbe, nada te espante,
quien a Dios tiene nada le falta.
Nada te turbe, nada te espante,
Sólo Dios basta.

English:
Nothing can trouble, nothing can frighten.
Those that seek God shall never go wanting.
Nothing can trouble, nothing can frighten.
God alone fills us.

Sung in repetition, harmonies emerging naturally, languages mixing, that is the power and beauty of this song and of all Taizé. I for one am grateful for the inclusion of these songs.

At various times in my mother’s life, she was more or less religious; she knew the value of a good church community, and wherever her theology lay (usually on the Unitarian side), she loved an old hymn. Among the tapes – then CDs – in her car were collections of hymns sung by old familiar voices. The one I remember most is Tennessee Ernie Ford, the album full of songs intoned in Ford’s deep baritone – songs like The Old Rugged Cross, How Great Thou Art, and of course Shall We Gather at the River.

A song that, delightfully, is in this hymnal. Now I haven’t verified this with anyone, but I have heard a story that the song was in our hymnals up to Singing the Living Tradition but was removed for that collection; the uproar was such that the STJ commission added it back. Whether it’s true or not, it does contain a nugget of truth about tradition – that despite all the important, vibrant, relevant new music, there’s something about old familiar tunes that bring us back to a sense of … something: center? self? connection?

That being said, it’s a remarkable piece, written by Robert Lowry (who wrote How Can I Keep From Singing, among many others), and reflecting the river of life as described in the Book of Revelation. It is a hopeful song, calling us to rejoice and celebrate in life.

Shall we gather at the river, where bright angel feet have trod,
with its crystal tide forever flowing by the throne of God?

Chorus:
Yes, we’ll gather at the river,
the beautiful, the beautiful river,
gather with the saints at the river
that flows by the throne of God.

On the margin of the river, washing up its silver spray,
we will walk and worship ever, all the happy golden day.

Chorus

Ere we reach the shining river, lay we ev’ry burden down.
Grace our spirits will deliver, and provide a robe and a crown.

Chorus

Soon we’ll reach the shining river, soon our pilgrimage will cease,
soon our happy hearts will quiver, with the melody of peace.

Chorus

What’s interesting to me is how often I hear it these days in a gentle, somber, almost meditative pace so that it’s not so much a celebration as a contemplation. And that’s fine, but it was intended to be much more joyful; according to Hymnary, Lowry said: “It is brass band music, has a march movement, and for that reason has become popular, though for myself I do not think much of it.”

He may not have thought much of it, but there is a hopefulness and grounded joy in this hymn that makes it a classic and a favorite.

 

I sing this to myself all the time but rarely use it in services.

Lately – well, for the past year or so certainly – this has seemed like the right prayer, not only for me and my own sin-sick soul, but for our communities and our nation. In fact, I did use it when I led a white supremacy teach-in at the First Universalist Church of Southold, where the repetition of the chorus was intended to draw us inward to look at our own sins.

I don’t use it very often, though, because it is rare that I find a congregation or group that’s comfortable with the idea that Jesus died for us. I know it’s classical Universalism, but I’m not sure even I’m comfortable with that idea. Yet to remove it completely takes away some of the power of the spiritual.

Chorus:
There is a balm in Gilead
To make the wounded whole;
There is a balm in Gilead
To heal the sin-sick soul.

Sometimes I feel discouraged
And think my work’s in vain,
But then the Holy Spirit
Revives my soul again.

Chorus

If you cannot preach like Peter,
If you cannot pray like Paul,
You can tell the love of Jesus,
And say “He died for all!”

Chorus

Yet for all of that, the chorus, based on Jeremiah 8:22 (“Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?”) is amazing. It is meant to reassure and hold us, even when all is wrong and we are filled with shame, guilt, regret.

And no matter how slowly you sing it, no matter how long you take with some of the phrases, it’s perfect. There’s a roominess to the song that makes space for our prayers, for our souls, for God.

For those curious about what the balm actually is, see this note found at Hymnary:

Gilead was the name of the mountainous region east of the Jordan River (pictured in the featured image). This region was known for having skillful physicians and an ointment made from the gum of a tree particular to that area. Many believed that this balm had miraculous powers to heal the body. In the book of Jeremiah, God tells the people of Israel that though many believe in the mysterious healing power of this balm, they can’t trust in those powers for spiritual healing or as a relief of their oppression. He reminds them that He is ultimately in control, and only He can relieve their suffering.