I’m sure there is someone who loves this piece.

I’m sure there is someone who isn’t bothered by gendered language.

I’m sure there is someone who thinks four verses makes a chant.

I am not that someone.

Children of the Earth,
we have come to
sing to each other,
Sister to Brother,
songs of our Mother Earth.

Children of the Earth,
Autumn soon will
breathe her last breath and
quick will her death bear
witness to Winter’s Birth.

Children of the Earth,
can you feel the
air getting cold as
darkness takes hold and
sleep covers Mother Earth?

Children of the Earth,
we have come
to sit in the darkness,
breathe in the silence,
think of our Mother Earth.

Now don’t get me wrong; it’s not the pagan flavor that bothers me one bit. I often talk about the spiritual journey 1992-2004 as my “high pagan days.” I know that my religious experiences in that time – from the solitary to the communal – inform much of who I am today; it was in those days that I learned the ‘year and a day’ of spiritual study and practice that sparked Hymn by Hymn. I learned a great deal about shared ritual, the power of chant, the richness of the elements.

But I also learned that by and large, pagan chants leave me wanting. I’m not sure why, but there are only one or two that I think of with affection or even remember. And this one is not one of them.

I mean, it’s not a bad song. Phillip Palmer offers something interesting in the middle of his song, but it ends with a thud, and no amount of beautiful arranging by Jeannie Gagné can fix a thud like that.

But let’s not kid ourselves: this is not a chant. A chant is a short musical passage that is repeated. This is a song, with four verses. Yet because of the misleading title, countless winter solstice service coordinators – myself included – tried to figure out of how to use this as a chant, and it just doesn’t play well that way.

Anyway. I’m feeling curmudgeonly about this one. To the person who loves it, sorry.

Things I wonder:

Do some congregations sing this together fairly regularly?

Do some music directors and ministers flip past it because it is somewhat complex if you don’t know it already?

Do others flip past it because in 13 years we’ve learned that binary language is too restrictive?

Does composer and colleague Fred Small have some new lyrics for it? (12/8/17: He answered me! See the end of the post.)

Does any of that matter, given the origin story? That story goes something like this: in 1983, Small heard the distress of Janet Peterson, cellist and singer with the women’s music group Motherlode, whose nine-year-old son came home from school crying, because his friends no longer hugged each other to show that they liked each other, now the method was to hit one another. Parsons wanted a song she could sing to him to affirm the freedom to live and love as we choose, and the result was this gentle lullaby.

We have cleared off the table, the leftovers saved, washed the dishes and put them away.
I have told you a story and tucked you in tight at the end of your knockabout day.
As the moon sets its sail to carry you to sleep over the Midnight Sea,
Well, I will sign you a song no one sang to me—may it keep you good company.

You can be anybody that you want to be, you can love whomever you will.
You can travel any country where your heart leads and know I will love you still.
You can live by yourself, you can gather friends around, you can choose one special one.
And the only measure of your words and your deeds
Will be the love you leave behind when you’re gone.

Some girls grow up strong and bold; some boys are quiet and kind.
Some race on ahead, some follow behind; some go in their own way and time.
Some women love women and some men love men.
Some raise children and some never do.
You can dream all the day, never reaching the end of everything possible for you.

Don’t be rattled by names, by taunts or games, but seek out spirits true.
If you give your friends the best part of yourself, they will give the same back to you.

You can be anybody that you want to be, you can love whomever you will.
You can travel any country where your heart leads and know I will love you still.
You can live by yourself, you can gather friends around, you can choose one special one.
And the only measure of your words and your deeds
Will be the love you leave behind when you’re gone.
Oh, the love you leave behind when you’re gone.

It is sweet and sentimental, and oh so very 20th century in its language. I don’t know if any of my questions will be answered, but I hope some will.

Update: On the very active Facebook thread for this post, Fred Small offered this:

Thanks for all the kind words and thoughtful critiques of my song, “Everything Possible,” which I wrote in 1983 at the request of a lesbian mother trying to raise her 9-year-old son amidst the pressures of (toxic) masculinity. The song took off in the late 1980s when the Flirtations picked it up, leading to its performance by LGBTQ choruses around the world. The Boston Gay Men’s Chorus still sings it to their newest members at their first rehearsal. As a straight cis man, I’m deeply honored and humbled by the song’s embrace by LGBTQ singers and audiences.

I’ve thought about revising the lyrics to eliminate the gender binary. It’s not an easy fix. For now, my hope is that “You can dream all the day never reaching the end of everything possible for you” affirms an infinite range of sexual/affectional orientation and gender presentation/identity.

I don’t recommend that congregations attempt to sing the entire song because the verses and bridge are too irregular. Instead, I suggest the song be (1) performed by the choir or (2) led by a song-leader (with guitar or other accompaniment) who sings the verse and bridge and invites the congregation to join in on the chorus.

(To commenters who expressed distaste): Many of our greatest songs walk a fine line between heartfelt pathos and sentimentalized bathos. Whether “Everything Possible” crosses that line is a matter of personal opinion, and I respect yours.

Thanks to Fred.

I don’t even know where to begin, so I guess I’ll begin with this morning’s experience of singing.

As frequent readers know, I’m an Anglophile – a lover of British television, British film, the British Isles, and at least once, a British person. Knowing this was today’s hymn before I cracked open the hymnal, I started humming the tune (by English composer Walford Davies) in the shower, and it felt – feels – quintessentially British. I was transported to the Proms, and a scene from a Merchant-Ivory film, and it reminded me of Holst and Elgar and that early 20th century English classical music that seems an antidote to the romanticism of the French.

And as I shampooed, I remembered that the lyrics are troubling at best. Here’s what we have from the original by John Huntley Skrine, abridged and new words added by our man Carl Seaburg:

Rank by rank again we stand,
from the four winds gathered hither.
Loud the hallowed walls demand
whence we come and how, and whither.
From their stillness breaking clear,
echoes wake to warn or cheer;
higher truth from saint and seer
call to us assembled here.

Ours the years’ memorial store,
honored days and names we reckon,
days of comrades gone before,
lives that speak and deeds that beckon.
From the dreaming of the night
to the labors of the day,
shines their everlasting light,
guiding us upon our way.

Though the path be hard and long,
still we strive in expectation;
join we now their ageless song
one with them in aspiration.
One in name, in honor one,
guard we well the crown they won;
what they dreamed be ours to do,
hope their hopes, and seal them true.

Trust me, you don’t want to know Skrine’s original lyrics – which were written at the height of British Imperialism at the end of the 19th century. Seaburg did an okay job of softening the Empire language, and lines like “what they dreamed be ours to do” is inspiring. Sometime in the last 20 years, an additional verse was added by Kendyl Gibbons:

Never from that summons swerve;
Hark the prophets’ living chorus!
Truth and freedom still to serve
Show the present path before us.
As we dream, so shall we dare;
Hands to service, hearts to prayer.
Clouds of witness call us on,
That a nobler day may dawn.

It’s not bad, and “as we dream so shall we dare” is also a kick-ass line.

But oh, the problems. Empire. Abelism. And a song written, likely, for convocation (this appears in a handbook of songs for the University of Wales, compiled by Davies – with this tune, Reunion, written for this purpose). And of course at the time, we have men going to university in part to continue ruling the British Empire, which is already beginning to show signs of cracking in the wake of World War I. It’s not wonder this somewhat militarized tune and language would be used; even though in that context ‘rank by rank’ alluded to the various academic levels, rank also alludes to the military.

Surprisingly, information on this – especially the tune – was hard to find. A quick search for the tune turned up empty, and it took a while to even find reference to this song outside of our annual Service of the Living Tradition. I finally found a PDF of the hymnal it comes from (for those who want to follow along, click here – it’s on page 303 of the book and 345 of the PDF itself). The lyrics show up on Hymnary, but not the tune, which was a later addition. I finally found a recording of the tune here, in an obscure section of a folksinger’s website (Mary Ellen Wessels). I should also note that this was in Hymns of the Spirit and Hymns for the Celebration of Life, so it has a long history in our liberal religious tradition.

But the search, and my experience with this hymn, is frustrating and complex. And this is a hymn most of us sing once or twice a year. Has anyone sung this when they’re not processing at an ordination, installation, or Service of the Living Tradition? And most of us dislike the song but love the pomp and circumstance. A few still love it, and so it stays as part of our tradition. Can we redeem it? It seems that every year after General Assembly, we talk on Facebook about different lyrics – suggestions include

Rank by rank again we meet,
from the four winds gathered hither.
Loud the hallowed walls entreat
whence we come and how, and whither.


Rank by rank come we once more,
from the four winds gathered hither.
Loud the hallowed walls implore
whence we come and how, and whither.


We can get rid of it altogether for these handful of times a year, because while it is an historic part of our living tradition, we are easily able to preserve it (see the piles of old hymnals we have) and – because our living tradition CHANGES – we can choose something new. When I hear about how different the Service of the Living Tradition was not that long ago, it seems strange that we have such a fuss over changing the music we use. And if it makes us better as a result, why not?

And… I will still hum this tune now and then because it’s pretty good for a school processional.

Photo (via UU World) is of Rev. Cheryl Walker preaching at the 2017 Service of the Living Tradition.

I started singing this morning before I opened the hymnal, because I knew what today’s song would be. “Bright morning star’s a-risin’…” I sang.

And then I looked at our lyrics – “Bright morning stars are rising” – and thought, huh? Isn’t there just one morning star – the sun, or if we go Christian on it, Jesus? And which one’s right? This led me down the inevitable rabbit hole of learning more about the origins of the song and its original lyrics and tune. Surely I could get there and enlighten us all.

There is no “there” there.

Origins are sketchy – maybe Appalachian, someone hinted at Native American, someone else wondered about the Shakers, still another pinned it back to Ireland. And lyrics are sketchier still – seems some versions have been lengthily written to talk more about Jesus as the bright morning star, other versions more grounded in work and toil. And of course, there’s a debate on whether it’s “bright morning star’s a-rising” or “bright morning stars are rising”…

Bright morning stars are rising.
Bright morning stars are rising.
Bright morning stars are rising.
Day is a-breaking in my soul.

Oh, where are our dear mothers…

They are sowing seeds of gladness…

Oh, where are our dear fathers…

They are in the fields a-plowing…

The good news is that because of it’s long folk history, we can change some of our lyrics to remove the gender binary or add more verses to include others.

I know this is the first of our Entrance songs, but it is so wistful and somber to me, I couldn’t imagine using it that way. This always seems to me a song of hard-won joy or a longing for release. The “day is a-breaking” reminds me of the moment I had a few days ago with the line “Dawn breaks in me too” from Golden Skies at Dawn…. a releasing moment of prayer.

So. No clarity on this one, so make it your own. And if you’re not sure you can do that, start with this beautiful version by the Wailin’ Jennys:

Today, gentle readers, I offer you A Tale of Two Liturgical Moments. Because indeed, as our man Charles Dickens wrote, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

The best of times was when I learned an arrangement of this African American spiritual in my seminary gospel choir; the harmonies were rich, and a tag was added to give it musical interest. We sang this in a chapel service, accompanied by the Psalm from which it is inspired, and a homily from one of our African American students.

Now Psalm 119 is a very long lament to God for mercy. As our writer is seeking protection, so too are they trying to convince God that they are keeping true to the laws and commandments, to show they are worthy of God’s presence through the hardships. So it’s no wonder the enslaved Africans might have heard this psalm and these lines and wanted to ask for the same thing.

The homily talked about hardship in the face of racism, and the prayer that is Guide My Feet was directly connected to the work different groups of people have to do – people of color, to be sustained and keep resisting; whites to do the hard work of dismantling white supremacy from within. It was a powerful moment for me, and it forever changed how I understand this song.

Guide my feet while I run this race.
Guide my feet while I run this race.
Guide my feet while I run this race,
for I don’t want to run this race in vain! (race in vain!)

Hold my hand while I run this race.
Hold my hand while I run this race.
Hold my hand while I run this race,
for I don’t want to run this race in vain! (race in vain!)

Stand by me while I run this race.
Stand by me while I run this race.
Stand by me while I run this race,
for I don’t want to run this race in vain! (race in vain!)

Now the worst of times was recently, as SUUSI, when our morning minister offered a service that was part travelogue, part Odyssey (a review of a minister’s career and lessons learned), and all offensive. Everything that happened in the service used the word “walk” exclusively; first of all, it was a huge problem to use only walking as the means for following a path (our theme was “blessed is the path”) – but more, our intrepid speaker (an older white man) changed the words of an opening reading to include only “we walk this path together” and then had the nerve to change lyrics to songs from other traditions. His homily screamed “walk” to the seemingly intentional exclusion of any other word. By the time he got to the closing, he had chosen to change even THIS song to “guide my feet, while I walk this path.”

That was the moment I could take it no longer and walked out, fuming. Fuming for the excessive ableism, fuming for the lack of context on the songs from other cultures, and fuming for the incredible gall of the man to change these lyrics.

So the moral of the story is this, my friends: use songs like this with extreme care. Be really clear you know how to address the abelist language of “run this race.” Be clear that you can use other verses (especially those we don’t include in our hymnal but exist elsewhere), but be very careful to not change verses if it isn’t your song to change. And definitely offer context and explanation, and don’t use this as a joyful song. It’s a song of pleading and lament and a call for God’s guidance.

And in case you wonder if any of that’s true, I’ll leave you with Bernice Johnson Reagon’s version:

But really. Be careful.

Another list song – must be Brian Wren.

And so it is. Now this is not to say his list is bad, necessarily, but It can get tiring pretty quickly.

And when it comes to Wren, there is always something – even in songs I like, like this one – that make me go “hmm” …

Love makes a bridge from heart to heart, and hand to hand.
Love finds a way when laws are blind, and freedom banned.

Love breaks the walls of language, gender, class, and age.
Love gives us wings to slip the bars of every cage.

Love lifts the hopes that force and fear have beaten down.
Love breaks the chains and gives us strength to stand our ground.

Love rings the bells of wanted birth and wedding day.
Love guides the hands that promise more than words can say.

Love makes a bridge that winds may shake, yet not destroy.
Love carries faith through life and death, to endless joy.

Did you spot it? In this case it’s the fourth verse, “love rings the bells of wanted birth.” That line falls sharply on my ear, breaking open my heart for all the births that were not wanted – do they not deserve the bells of love too? And because of that hard line, I find myself checking out of the final verse, which may be the best one of all.

Oh, Brian. This one is so, so close. Sigh.

Anyway, this is set to a tune by Gerald Wheeler that is surprisingly more complex than you’d think. It’s worth learning, as a five-verse hymn makes “sing 1, 2, and 5” an easy choice. but I recommend a strong song leader to help with some of the more intricate intervals.

All in all, not a bad one. I’ve used it before – but with care.

I wish…

I wish I felt better so I could really dig into this hymn.

I wish I had looked ahead and scheduled a Hymn-by-Hymn conversation with Suzanne Fast about this hymn.

I’ll just say that having had a conversation with Suzanne at General Assembly, I now understand how difficult this embracing our bodies without shaming our bodies for the ways they work, move, and look can be.

The pen is greater than the sword.
To wield a blade or write a word
we need the skill which hands accord.

A surgeon takes a knife to heal;
assassins do the same to kill.
Each acts according to their will.

I pick the cherries from a tree,
or break the branch and let it die.
For good or ill, my hands are free.

With fingers I can soothe a brow,
or make a fist and strike a blow,
kindness or cruelty bestow.

Then let us now this lesson see:
like life itself our hands can be
for evil used, or charity.

My analytical abilities continue to be put off by a flu that has settled into my shoulder, causing great pain. I’m on anti-virals and muscle relaxers to ease it out; they’re starting to work, but I am Flexeril-loopy.

Anyway – have at it: the song about assassins and hands.

At least it’s not a cankerworm?

Cool pen image via deviantart.net.

Am I the only one who sees the first line of this song and thinks of “Man of Constant Sorrow” from O Brother, Where Are Thou? Really? It’s just me? Can’t be.

Anyway…  this is another one I have never sung, and likely never would have chosen because it’s got a title “This Old World” and is stuck next to Children of the Earth, both of which lead one to think they’re more about the planet than the people. To be honest, I’d have stuck this one in the Love and Compassion section rather than the Humanity section, because it’s really about how we love one another. But that’s me.

But check this out – sung to the Southern Harmony tune Restoration – it’s got a fair bit of seriousness and melancholy but also comfort and love in its tune, and in its lyrics. Lyrics I’m pretty much a fan of and have preached on without knowing it.

This old world is full of sorrow, full of sickness, weak and sore;
if you love your neighbor truly, love will come to you the more.

We’re all children of one family; we’re all brothers, sisters, too;
if you cherish one another, love and friendship come to you.

This old world can be a garden, full of fragrance, full of grace;
if we love our neighbors truly, we must meet them face to face.

It is said now, “Love thy neighbor,” and we know well that is true;
this, the sum of human labor, true for me as well as you.

Yes, there’s a bit of binary language in there – “brothers, sisters, too” – but here’s a thing: the words at the bottom of the page that say “Words: American folk tune” are usually a good indication that (a) this has been sung with varying lyrics long before we captured it and (b) no one’s going to mind if you change that to something like “siblings, cousins, too” and (c) that kind of fluidity is expected in this kind of folk tune.

In fact, as I just learned at Folklorist.org, this is a song that has what are called “floating verses” – meaning the chorus (in this case, our first verse) stays the same, and then you float in other verses from other songs that fit the meter. In the examples Folklorist offers, we see verses of all kinds, including

Come, thou font of every blessing,
Move my heart to sing thy praise.
Streams of mercy, never ceasing,
Call for songs of loudest praise.

…which fits perfectly and can float in along with other verses in meter. Which is really cool.

So…yeah. I like it a lot. A LOT.

And because I know it’s in your head, here’s Man of Constant Sorrow (song starts about 1:18):

I want to tell you a story about why this song means so much to me, but I want to get two bits of “hmm” out of the way first:

First: There is a long tradition in folk music – and hymnody – of writing new words to familiar tunes, or adapting old words and tunes for new use. One of my favorites is Dan Berggren’s rewrite of “Wayfaring Stranger” with the chorus “I’m going home to help my neighbor / I’m going home to do my part / love depends on peace and justice / peace begins in my own heart.” And… I know that it gets trickier when the tune in question is borne of the spirituals sung by enslaved Africans. I’m not sure exactly what to say about that in this case, except to say I think, perhaps, in this case the lyrics continue to call of We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder to find freedom here and now, with new ways of expressing it. I also understand I could be wrong about my assumptions and beg forgiveness if I blew it here.

Second: I know that “sisters, brothers, all” rankles against what we now understand as a gender spectrum, and that many who don’t find themselves in the binary of male and female don’t find space for themselves in this song – particularly poignant as the lyrics are about exactly that: making space and growing. I don’t fault the lyricist, Carole Eagleheart, nor the Hymnal Commission, because we just didn’t have the understanding and the language 25 years ago. (I recently saw someone compare this new understanding of gender to how the ancients didn’t see the color blue and thus didn’t have a word for it – as our understanding grows, we get new words and see the world differently.) I have heard a few substitutions for “sisters, brothers” but the one I like best is “family, neighbors” – it widens the circle and harkens back to Jesus’s admonition to love our neighbors as ourselves.

We are dancing Sarah’s circle,
we are dancing Sarah’s circle
we are dancing Sarah’s circle,
sisters, brothers, all.

Here we seek and find our history…

We will all do our own naming…

Every round a generation…

On and on the circle’s moving…

But now the story:

In 2004, I fell into a major clinical depression with suicidal ideation. I was living in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and had no friends, hated my job, worked too hard, and at that moment, just couldn’t figure out how to get out of the hole. Fortunately, I said the right things to the right people, and I found myself in treatment. Many long months of psychiatrists, psychologists, and a litany of medications led to me seeing the path out of the hole, which led me to move back to where my family lives in New York State. As it happens, my mother’s failing health meant she needed more care, so moving in with my mother and sister was a lifeline to me but also a help to the family. It was there that I healed and found my self again.

In order to ensure I built community outside my family, I actively sought out a Unitarian Universalist church, long my tradition but not much my practice in those years in Winston-Salem. I was embraced by Rev. Linda Hoddy and the members of the UU Congregation of Saratoga Springs, which quickly became my home, and which provided space for me to hear my call to ministry.

But in those first few months, feeling very unsure of myself and my footing, figuring out how to be in my family system again without losing myself, figuring out what to do with my life, I encountered a religious community who held and loved me, even as they were in their own pain and sorrow, as a beloved member, Sarah, surrendered her fight against stage-four breast cancer. I watched a community have enough love and care for all of us, and it helped me focus outside of myself and truly begin to heal.

In those last months of 2004, Sarah worked as she was able on what was to be the centerpiece of a large quilt that now hangs at the back of the chancel at UU Saratoga – it features a dove which can also be a chalice, with the only piece of metallic fabric, a beacon of peace and love.

Sarah died on Christmas Eve. When the quilt, called “Journey Well,” was completed a few months later, we saw the center and instantly called it Sarah’s Circle. And we sang this song in her memory. And we all cried.

I barely knew Sarah – I met her only once. But I carry that memory, and every time I am at UU Saratoga, I pause for a moment when I approach the quilt to remember her.

Journey well, Sarah.

Journey well, all.


I’ve been staring at the screen for longer than is helpful, thinking about this hymn and what to say about it, wondering what it really is I feel about it that’s quantifiable. There’s something about it that bugs me, which actually makes me sad, as it’s perfectly suited for the beloved Hyfrodol hymn tune, and I’m always happy to connect the earth and our sense of the Divine.

I can see why, in 1993, it won a competition held by the Hymnal Commission, seeking new hymns. This lyric, by UU Quaker Roberta Bard, has everything you could want, for its time. And I say that, because as Jacqui James points out in Between the Lines, “her lyrics reflect her concern for gender-inclusive and spiritually-inclusive language.”

In 1993, I could see how this would be true.

And yet.

By now, you now I will point out the binaries, which 25 years ago was fine, but as we now know doesn’t accurately reflect our current understanding of a gender spectrum. (I recently saw someone brilliantly compare this new understanding to the relatively late human understanding of the color blue.)

But even that’s not quite what’s stuck in my craw.

I think it’s that I bristle against the use of the Genesis lens, the idea that earth was given to humans, as though we were so special that all of this is ours to do with as we wish:

Earth was given as a garden, cradle for humanity;
tree of life and tree of knowledge placed for our discovery.
Here was home for all your creatures born of land and sky and sea;
all created in your image, all to live in harmony.

Show to us again the garden where all life flows fresh and free.
Gently guide your sons and daughters into full maturity.
Teach us how to trust each other, how to use for good our power,
how to touch the earth with rev’rence. Then once more will Eden flower.

Bless the earth and all your children, one creation: make us whole,
interwoven, all connected, planet wide and inmost soul.
Holy mother, life bestowing, bid our waste and warfare cease.
Fill us all with grace o’erflowing. Teach us how to live in peace.

I know Bard tries to redeem it in the third verse, making sure we know we’re part of one creation, but it feels too little too late for me. I know it’s hard to say I don’t love this hymn, given that there’s a lot of good stuff within it, but it has an overall feeling of ‘ick’ to me. The parts do not make up a good whole.

One more thing – and this is something I would not have thought of except for a long conversation with my colleague Marisol Caballero, whose ancestors are from east Texas long before Europeans conquered the Americas. When we talk about discovery in connection to land, it reinforces a long and hard doctrine of discovery that dates back to the 16th century, which “sanctioned and promoted the conquest, colonization, and exploitation of non-Christian territories and peoples.” This isn’t to say that discovery in and of itself isn’t important – Mari would likely agree with me that discovering new cures, new planets, and new species is pretty awesome. But ‘discovery’ of lands that are inhabited already and taking dominion over them? Not cool. And that first verse suggests we do just that with the entire earth.

(I should note that our memories are short – this is all we talked about just five years ago when we prepared for Justice GA in Arizona.)

So yeah. I’m not a fan of this hymn – despite some good parts, and despite its award-winning status 25 years ago. It’s proof that as times goes on, our knowledge and our faith evolves.