Way way back on December 16, 2016 – back when this practice was still new – I wrote these words:

I wish I could make sense of this one.  No, seriously. I mean, I get that the lyrics are a rain song, and thus appropriate for a section called The World of Nature. I also get that we want to include voices beyond white men, and thus the hymn led me to learn about Joseph Cotter, Jr, who was an African American playwright and poet who died of tuberculosis at age 24.

But seriously – this too, too simple German tune? … MAYBE this tune sounds okay in a round, but certainly not in a song about dry earth and ancient (I assume native American) drums.

Everything just seems wrong about this.

Well, howdy. I didn’t realize until literally a minute ago that – much like his work on How Sweet the Darkness – had written a much better, much more appropriate tune for these lyrics.

On the dusty earth drum beats the falling rain;
now a whispered murmur, now a louder strain.

Slender, silvery drumsticks on an ancient drum
beat the mellow music bidding life to come.

Chords of life awakened, notes of greening spring,
rise and fall triumphant over everything.

Slender, silvery drumsticks beat the long tattoo —
God, the Great Musician, calling life anew.

The tune that Jason wrote (and which the hymnal commission put together as part of their quodlibet), does echo some of the chant styles we think of as coming from native American tribes, but even without that, the minor key and complexity of the canon works a lot better.

And yet.

I’m not sure even now that I would use it, given the weird conflagration of European American composer, African American lyricist, and sacred imagery that belongs to either (or maybe both?) Native American or African traditions. No offense to Jason, of course – his composition does a whole not more to honor the text than the German-washed-in-the-blood-hymn setting we find in STLT. But even now, I feel uncomfortable as a European American myself considering the use of this without a serious and perhaps belabored content warning.


I woke up this morning with white women on my mind.

Specifically, white women who exist in a different paradigm than I (also a white woman) do, one that says a woman is made for a man and made to support and please him. A paradigm that says feminism is evil and that suffrage was a terrible thing. A paradigm that says the only reason to use this tool of evil (voting) is to support your husband’s opinion. A paradigm that says abortion is worse than murder, war, and sexual abuse.

It’s hard to wrap our theologically progressive minds around, no less our politically progressive minds. Where they see strict rules and hierarchies, we see many truths and equanimity. Where they see clear lines of right and wrong, we see many shades of gray. Where they see a world order set up the day Adam and Eve entered the garden, we see a world eager to shift and change and grow.

The women who voted for Roy Moore cannot understand for a moment why anyone would support a pro-choice, pro-LGBTQ Democrat, just as we struggle to understand why they would support someone who is a known sexual predator of teenaged girls and who refutes the rule of law in favor of a singular interpretation of a sacred text. They do not understand us, and we don’t understand them.

And yet, if we are, as yesterday’s song suggested, build bridges between our divisions, we must find ways to listen to one another, to be willing to listen to one another.

Which brings me to today’s song, a beautiful, simple, two part canon that is my favorite thing Nick Page has written.

Now I know it was written as “a reaction to the buildup of the invasion of Iraq” but I can’t help bring this song into this moment in our history, when the country is so strongly and deeply divided, so much so that we’re not even getting the same news, no less having the same ideologies. We are fighting with one another in a different kind of civil war (although ideologically connected to the war in 1861-65) in ways that widen the chasm between us. We are not living in peace in this country, and haven’t for a long time. And it’s getting worse.

So what will it take for our love to break boundaries?

When will the fighting cease?
When will we live in peace?
When our love breaks boundaries.

Da pacem Domine,
Do pacem Domine,
in diebus nostris.

(translation: “Give peace, Lord, in our time.”)

And so the work now is to figure out how to do this in ways that don’t demonize but rather hold those who are on the other side of the chasm. It’s hard, this progressive Universalism, and it calls us to do things that seem anathema; it calls us to love those who perpetrate evil – and to figure out what love looks like in those situations; it calls us to work tirelessly in the face of hate; it calls us to extend a hand to those who would bite it. But most of all, it does, as our pithy tshirts say, call us to love the Hell out of this world. The more we do that, the smaller the chasm becomes.

May we always use the tools of love – open hearts, open ears, open minds – to reach out and break boundaries.

Throughout this practice, I’ve happened upon many hymns that were inspired by (or were outright settings of) poetry; that makes sense, as lyric forms seek out one another naturally. But this is the first time I’ve encountered one inspired by paintings.

As noted on the UUA’s Song Information page,

The lyrics of this song come from the French title of a famous oil painting by Paul Gauguin created in Tahiti in 1897 and 1898. It is currently housed at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, MA. The three groups of women, read from the right to left, represent the three questions posed in the title of the painting. The women with the child represent the beginning of life “Where Do We Come From?” The middle group, represent the daily existence of adulthood “What Are We?” The old woman facing death is asking, “Where Are We Going?”


It’s an amazing painting; the photo I’ve used here doesn’t do it justice, I’m sure. (When am I in Boston next? I have some art to look at…) It is haunting and asks for a meditative encounter, not a quick glance and go. It’s deceptively intricate in its simplicity, and it sticks with you.

Much like this song, which can be sung as a canon, a round, a chant, with about as many permutations as you can imagine. It embodies the questions and mood of the painting in haunting and meditative countermelodies.

 Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?

Where do we come from?

Mystery. Mystery. Life is a riddle and a mystery.

Where do we come from? Where are we going?

And these are questions I’m asking myself a lot lately. As I facilitate a couple of UU Wellspring groups, I have the opportunity to both be present to myself and look back at the pre-seminary me who took this for the first time. The questions I had then aren’t the questions I have now, but I still seek answers as I look to where I have come from. And then more generally, where do we come from and what does it mean to dwell in such a time as this, wondering where we are going and how to be present in those riddles.

This is a small song, taking up only half a page.

But it is actually one of our biggest.

This song calls to us: “Come! Let’s be singing!”

And what shall we sing?

“Sing alleluia!”

That’s it. That’s the song. In English and in Hebrew.

Hava nashirah. Shirah alleluia!
Hava nashirah. Shirah alleluia!
Hava nashirah. Shirah alleluia!

Come, let’s be singing. Sing alleluia!
Come, let’s be singing. Sing alleluia!
Come, let’s be singing. Sing alleluia!

It is written in three parts that can be sung as a round  – or ideally a canon, which is great because one part is quite low and one part is quite high. It all seems simple, except the beauty of rounds is the complexity that comes when the parts blend. This one is quite gorgeous and joyful.

I don’t have much more to say…it’s origins are unknown but its presence is cheering.


As the Gish gallop of terrible politics, violence, natural disasters, and a shocking lack of compassion continues to fill our news feeds, we turn now to this canon by Methodist composer Natalie Sleeth.

Whose lyrics, when translated from the Latin, mean “let us be joyful today.”

Joy is hard to find some days – harder than hope, I think. But…and I’m just musing a bit here… I think joy is part of what’s at the heart of compassion. I am not sure I can explain it well right now; it’s an idea that’s just occurred to me as I started singing this song. But there’s something to it… something to joy, and hope, and relief that’s all woven together.

Anyway…things to think about as we sing this joyful song in the midst of these hard days.

Gaudeamus, gaudeamus, gaudeamus hodie.
Gaudeamus, gaudeamus hodie.

gaudeamus hodie.

Gaudeamus, gaudeamus,
gaudeamus hodie, hodie.

And if after singing it you still need some help to touch joy, watch these kids sing the song (I should note that while some of the kids are nearly emotionless, others more than make up for it and it’s fun to watch them):

Gaudeamus hodie – Natalie Sleeth from Music@BelPres on Vimeo.

I have sung this a thousand times since childhood, around the campfire, at vigils, even once at an evening memorial service. It’s as familiar as my own skin.

Yet when I think of it, I don’t think of the vigil or the campfire or the memorial service. I think of M*A*S*H.

In particular, the episode “Dear Sis” – where Father Mulcahy writes a letter to his sister, ‘the Sister’, about how ineffective he feels as pastor to this rag tag flock of medical personnel stuck half a world away in a war they don’t understand. He talks about watching the doctors and nurses saving lives, helping the injured, making a difference, yet all he can do is offer last rites and perhaps a bit of comfort.

Yet what he doesn’t realize – until the end – that small gestures of kindness and his simple presence among these busy, overworked, scared people bring them comfort, connection, a sense of their humanity, and most of all, moments of peace.

At the end of the episode, Hawkeye raises a glass to the priest and encourages the group to sing this song. “‘Dona Nobis Pacem.’ I can translate it for you,” he jokes. “No need,” replies Father Mulcahy, a sly smile on his face. And then they begin singing.

Dona nobis pacem, pacem;
dona nobis pacem.

The image of these people, wearing fatigues and showing fatigue, trying to capture a moment of Christmas spirit, and asking for peace…well, it knocks me out every time. The care these people show for their chaplain and each other speaks volumes of the work this simple priest accomplishes by his very presence among them.

You may find a million better versions, but I think you’d be hard pressed to find a more emotionally powerful one.

Give us peace, indeed.

The song is simple. The lyrics even more so. Yet it is hardly simple at all, is it?

Shabbat shalom is the traditional greeting on the Sabbath, meaning essentially ‘may the peace of God be with you on this Sabbath day.’ The joyful three part song is a reminder that there is joy to be found in this day of rest. And with it come the complexities of human habit, to keep doing… the complexities of what the commandment to keep the Sabbath holy is really all about… the complexities of ensuring we honor, not misappropriate, this song and practice…the complexities of wanting simply to sing a joyful greeting on a Sabbath day.

And at it’s heart, it is just a joyful song…and for me, it evokes thoughts of a member of my clinical pastoral education (CPE) cohort, a cantor who is becoming a rabbi in a new tradition. Our mutual love of music meant we shared a lot of songs with one another last fall during our CPE unit, and she was often surprised when I knew songs they sang in her congregation. She is now one of those people I send a quick “Shabbat shalom” text to on Friday evenings, because it means a lot to her to be seen by me.

Shabbat Shalom, Shabbat Shalom.
Shabbat, Shabbat, Shabbat,
Shabbat Shalom. (2x)

Shabbat, Shabbat, Shabbat, Shabbat Shalom. (2x)

Shabbat Shalom, Shabbat Shalom.
Shabbat, Shabbat, Shabbat,
Shabbat Shalom. (2x)

Otherwise remember to enter the Hymn By Hymn at GA drawing, and be joyful and gentle with one another. May the peace of God be with you always.


I’m afraid I couldn’t find the artist for this painting – best source I could come up with was this post at Soul Mazal.