Happy New Year! In the words of Colonel Sherman Potter (M*A*S*H), “may it be a damn sight better than the old one.” If today’s hymn is any indication, it will be full of beautiful reminders that there is a love holding us.

This haunting song, composed by David Zehavi, is based on a poem by an Israeli hero I’d never heard of but am excited to learn about. This is the opening paragraphs from Wikipedia (there’s a longer bio at J*Grit, the Internet Index of Tough Jews):

Hannah Szenes (often anglicized as Hannah Senesh or Chanah Senesh; Hebrew: חנה סנש‬; Hungarian: Szenes Anikó; July 17, 1921 – November 7, 1944) was a poet and Special Operations Executive (SOE) paratrooper. She was one of 37 Jewish parachutists of Mandate Palestine parachuted by the British Army into Yugoslavia during the Second World War to assist in the rescue of Hungarian Jews about to be deported to the German death camp at Auschwitz.

Szenes was arrested at the Hungarian border, then imprisoned and tortured, but refused to reveal details of her mission. She was eventually tried and executed by firing squad. She is regarded as a national heroine in Israel, where her poetry is widely known.


That definitely puts this poem, written in 1943 – just a year before her death – into some perspective.

Eli, Eli shelo yigamer l’olam,
Hachol v’hayam,
Rishrush shel hamayim
B’rak hashamayim,
T’filat haadam.
Hachol v’hayam,
Rishrush shel hamayim,
B’rak hashamayim,
T’filat haadam.

And the English translation:

My God of all, God’s love shall never end;
The sand and the sea,
the rush of the waters.
The thundering heavens,
the prayers of our heart.
The sand and the sea,
the rush of the waters.
The thundering heavens,
the prayers of our heart.

Wow. I might have found a hero to study in this upcoming year – a year where we need faith, grit, a moral center, and resolve.

Musically, I will say that I was  a bit anxious entering it, as I don’t know it and it seemed to go in unexpected places. But then I found this gorgeous version online, and suddenly the song made sense to me both musically and lyrically, even though I don’t know Hebrew. I leave you with this blessing:

Let us live in peace… let us die in peace.


The song’s origins are, not surprising, found in the years following the attacks on 9/11:

This song is the inspiration of a Muslim residing in the United States, Samir Badri. Samir recruited the composer(Ted Warmbrand), a Jew, to set his words to a tune, after they both were featured at a Peace rally in Arizona before the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan and then Iraq.

As a song of peace in time of war, it is simply perfect.

And to me, considering how many are fighting ‘the wars at home’ – poverty, racism, xenophobia, homophobia, sexism, ableism – it is in fact a perfect song for today too.

Daoona nayeesh beesalaam;
daoona nayeesh Beeamaan;
daoona nansij;
daoona namoot beesalaam.

The English translation from Arabic:

Let us live in peace.
Let us live in inner peace.
Let us weave our dreams together.
Let us die in peace.

Imagine if we sang this with energy at marches and protests against discriminatory laws and tax scams. Imagine if we sang this as a lament at our vigils for transfolk being murdered, for people of color being denied justice, for what will now be a growing number of people dying from poverty and lack of health care, for families torn apart by deportation.

Imagine if we actually lived and died in peace.

Some useful musical/performance notes from the UUA Song Information page:

This song can been shared in different ways: Energetically, meditatively, with audience singing along (as echoes after each phrase), and/or with instrumental breaks allowing for English translation during the piece. It has been sung in 3/4, 12/8, and 4/4 time. Sometimes the composer adds the one word ‘tag’ “aHlaam” (dreams) only at the end and sometimes the song fades out with it. At other times he uses it as a bridge to return to the verse. When unaccompanied or with only percussion “aHlaam” can become a descant under the melody. It was put there to assure people could sing at least one word in Arabic. A pause can be added before the last line, “let us die in peace.”

The image is from Pixabay contributor Gerd Altmann – even though Pixabay offers royalty-free photos for editorial and non-commercial use without attribution, I wanted to name the photographer in this case because it is such a striking image.

I’m a little bit embarrassed this morning.

You see, I went on and on about how much I love yesterday’s hymn, and then I turn the page and realize not only do I not know the next one, I’m not sure I ever gave it a second glance. There it sits, in the shadow of the Fire of Commitment, just waiting for me to notice it, it’s first line telling me it’s willing to wait.

Like love does, I guess.

I forget that while I might feel embarrassment, love feels no judgment, throws no shade. It just waits for us. It is patient and kind. And still, I’m a bit embarrassed that I regularly preach a piece on I Corinthians 13 (the famous love passage from the letters of Paul) and have somehow completely ignored this hymn, which would an absolutely perfect part of that liturgy.

It’s a shame, because it’s beautiful. The tune, by Methodist hymn composer Daniel Charles Damon, harkens back to the old shape note songs I wrote so fondly about when singing through Singing the Living Tradition.

Love knocks and waits for us to hear, to open and invite;
Love longs to quiet every fear, and seeks to set things right.

Love offers life, in spite of foes who threaten and condemn;
embracing enemies, Love goes the second mile with them.

Love comes to heal the broken heart, to ease the troubled mind;
without a word Love bids us start to ask and seek and find.

Love knocks and enters at the sound of welcome from within;
Love sings and dances all around, and feels new life begin.

According to Hymnary, the lyrics are inspired by several psalms, the Song of Solomon, the gospel of Matthew, and the book of Revelation. It’s that last bit that gives the hymn its opening metaphor; Revelation 3:20 says

Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.

Love just needs an invitation. I think we forget that in all of our talk about love. We forget that whether we are looking for more love, answering the call of love, giving songs of love, letting love guide us, or rejoicing in love… love doesn’t barge in. We have to invite it in.


Yeah. That’ll preach.

Programming Note: I’ve added a lovely piece from Mary Grigolia about her song I Know This Rose Will Open, from an email exchange we had, about the origins and meaning of that song. After you read this, go to that entry and check it out!

There are days in this practice when the little chalice next to a name at the bottom of the page sends me down a rabbit hole. Like today, where I saw a chalice next to the name Edvard Grieg, the Norwegian composer who arranged this folk melody for hymn singing.

Grieg was a Unitarian?

A few bio sites revealed few clues, although one references his leaving the Lutheran ministry after a series of tragedies and a sense of his musical creativity being strangled. But it took our own resource, the Dictionary of Unitarian and Universalist Biographies, to unearth the Unitarian connection:

Charles Harding, vice-president of the Birmingham [England] Festival, and his wife, Ada, members of the Unitarian Old Meeting Church in Birmingham, introduced Grieg to other Unitarians there, including members of the Kenrick family. Shortly before he died Grieg wrote, “During a visit to England in 1888 I was attracted to Unitarian views, and in the nineteen years that have passed since then I have held to them. All the sectarian forms of religion that I have been exposed to since have not succeeded in making any impression on me.”

Like most Unitarians of his time Grieg believed in God, the goodness of God, and the power of Jesus as an example—”Christ was filled by God as no one else known to me, living or dead, in the family of man.” He disbelieved in original sin. “Why should innocent people suffer for the sins of their forefathers?” he asked. “I think that the moral pain of the soul, which results from our bad deeds, as well as from the good we neglected to do, makes a Hell as effective as I can possibly imagine.”

In 1889 the Griegs were impressed by the ex-Anglican Stopford Brooke, who preached at Unitarian pulpits in London. “What a man! [his wife] Nina says, and it is true,” Edvard wrote. “A big, splendid, sparkling personality full of fire and power. We talked about this and that: about Unitarianism and socialism . . . and I daresay he felt just as I do.” Grieg thought some Unitarians were “some of the noblest people I know.” Like them he believed in separation of church and state and in a tolerant attitude towards others—”for what we don’t know, we don’t know.”

Grieg’s religious attitude is reflected in the independence of musical thought that led him, as Liszt advised, to “hold to your course.” Broad in musical appreciation as well as in religious scope, he admired the music of composers, such as Brahms, whose styles were quite different from his own, and valued the musical inheritance from peasant culture, considering it not primitive, but advanced. He stood against conservatism in both religion and musical culture. Sickly from his youth, brooding on the passing of his baby daughter and of his parents, Grieg worked out his peace with death through his Unitarian faith, by connecting himself with the Norwegian people and their mountainous landscape, by putting his faith in nature as a whole, and through the life-affirming exuberance of his music.

I had no idea. I’ve always loved his music – beyond the all-too-familiar “Morning Mood” from Peer Gynt – and into some of his other settings. Until today I had not heard this song, Den Store Hvide Flok, and it does not disappoint.

Nor do the lyrics, the first verse of the poem “Auguries of Innocence” by English poet William Blake:

To see the world in a grain of sand,
and a heaven in a wildflower,
hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
and eternity in an hour.


It’s a song I’d use as an introit, or as a sung response to the right sermon. In fact, I can think back to a dozen services where this would have been perfect…. and I may have to write another one just to use it.

Simply gorgeous.


Image found at Deviant Art, by user Devil-Grades.

First, I need to say a prayer for Key West, and really all of south Florida this morning. I have friends who are still on the island (mostly they are first responders, public works folk, or other government officials), and they are getting hit so very hard as I type. I’ve seen a few videos of storm surge waters in Bahama Village and trees down on Smathers Beach, and I am holding a fair amount of anxiety right now. And then I go  preach on the benefits of spiritual practice. (And actually, this is helping, this spiritual practice right here… because I had to stop, be still, and be present with myself and God for a few minutes.)


I keep coming back to a line written by Susan Frederick-Gray, and highlighted for me by an amazing service by Erika Hewitt: “No one is outside the circle of love.”

To be honest, it’s really changed my thinking about our principles and even our understanding of Unitarian Universalism’s history – that at every moment we have had the choice to expand the circle of love, or not, both theologically and ethically. I’m still pondering, but this aspiration that no one be outside the circle of love has captured my ministerial imagination.

And I think I just found one of my new anthems – this short, old hymn. The lyrics are by our old friend Sam Longfellow, set to the familiar Winchester New (the same tune is sung for As Tranquil Streams).

I mean, check out this lyric:

With joy we claim the growing light,
advancing thought, and widening view,
the larger freedom, clearer sight,
which from the old unfold the new.

With wider view, come loftier goal;
with fuller light, more good to see;
with freedom, truer self-control;
with knowledge, deeper reverence be.

Our man Sam is calling for us draw the circles ever wider, the circles of vision, and freedom, and knowledge, and goodness.

Not bad, Sam. I didn’t know this one existed, really, so it gets a Hidden Gem tag from me.

And when I am finally ready to preach on this, I have one of our hymns.


I have a service I love to do called “Holey, Holy, Wholly” about the myth of wholeness and the grace of brokenness as a truer path to healing. It is one of those deeply pastoral services that fulfills the call to ‘comfort the afflicted’ – because we can’t always just ‘afflict the comfortable.’ I have a few hymns I like to do with this service, but some of my choices are, sadly, not ideal – they fall into that category of ‘general hymns, good for any occasion’. In other words, our hymnals aren’t teeming with pastoral hymns.

Except, surprise surprise, this hymn bubbles up – because using the first line as the title is rather misleading. How many of us have flipped past it, thinking it’s another “yay, we’re together” hymn? I sure have.

But this hymn – much like Jeanne Gagne’s “In My Quiet Sorrow,” which we’ll get to in late November – speaks to the person who comes to church for solace that day, not for celebration. It gives voice to the need to be seen and held in all of our brokenness and heartache. It reminds us that this too is part of life, and it shouldn’t be hidden away but rather held in community.

Though gathered here to celebrate,
my spirit’s burning low;
instead of serving, now I wait,
the breath of worship’s not too late,
breathe, let the embers glow.

There have been losses on the way;
a parent, partner, friend.
At times I need to grieve and say,
“I have enough to bear today,
be near and help me mend.”

The stillness strips the masks away,
exposes lonely hearts;
self-pity must not have its way;
I’ll live my life from day to day,
and now the healing starts.

I hate that it took until now for me to find this hymn – set to a lovely tune by Fred Wooden, which we last sang in January when one of my cats went in for surgery to remove a malignant tumor from his intestine (he’s fine now; his only problems now are living with my other cat again, and hairballs).

This hymn has gotten inside me. I hadn’t expected to be so deeply moved this morning – but I suppose that’s the grace of this or any spiritual practice.


Over the past almost eleven months, this spiritual practice has gone from personal folly to best kept secret. Somewhere along the way, Mark Belletini noticed this and has been a wonderful resource of stories from the STLT hymnal commission and these hymns. He said to me at General Assembly this year that he’s grateful that I am doing this project, examining every hymn, singing them as best I can and thinking about the massive scope of work such an undertaking requires.

And occasionally I irk him.

A few days ago, I found myself baffled by the inclusion of a particular hymn – not because it had what I consider troubling lyrics or history, but because I just didn’t get the theological purpose of its inclusion. On Facebook, colleague David Miller Kohlmeier found what I had been missing:

It reminds me of the Max Kapp hymn I Brought My Spirit to the Sea, in that it has a single individual in a moment of existential wondering and questioning. The difference is that the Wordsworth hymn has the speaker focused on another human and not on his own subjective mystical experience.

It feels profoundly theological to me in that its about (IMO) a male voice of privilege trying to feel a connection in the human experience of someone from a totally different social location, and leaving the encounter with something changed inside of him that he can’t quite articulate.

It’s one of those hymns that is about the question and not about the answer. That it doesn’t name God explicitly only makes it more theological, IMO. It’s deeply human. Which makes it about God.

And that’s all good. Mark followed up with frustration – not directly aimed at me (although maybe at my obtuseness over the hymn), but at those who think a song has to explicitly mention God in order to be theological. I get his frustration; from stories he’s told, this is among the many slings and arrows the STLT commission battled in their work to create a inclusive hymnal.

I tell you all this to say this: Mark, I don’t need a direct reference to God to be inspired by this one. I get it.

Once when my heart was passion free to learn of things divine,
the soul of nature suddenly outpoured itself in mine.

I held the secrets of the deep and of the heavens above;
I knew the harmonies of sleep, the mysteries of love.

And for a moment’s interval the earth, the sky, the sea —
my soul encompassed each and all, as they encompass me.

These words, by Catholic priest John Bannister Tabb (and set to the sweet shape note tune Primrose), encapsulate for me our first source, the direct experience of transcending mystery.

This is just lovely. Again, a hymn I have managed to bypass for reasons passing understanding. A hidden gem for sure…. a hidden gem speaking of that hidden gem that is transcendent awe.

Photo source: http://heroes-get-made.tumblr.com/image/155737200748

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):

Now THIS is a humanist hymn I can get behind.

What a glorious celebration of that creating, created, creative spark within each of us that is greater than the sum of us and that in the living evokes Mystery.

Earth is our homeland: a song of stars, a grace
wrought of the ages, an opal spun in space!
Dawn’s far blue hill, soft nighttime still, dark ocean depth, smooth stone —
for gifts sublime that hallow time we’ll sing, making deep thanksgiving known.

Word is our glory, our breath of air, our cry!
Parables, letters, or star names in the sky,
or myths that play as poets pray bring meaning to our lives.
For ev’ry praise that hones our days we’ll sing, till the final day arrives.

Music is wonder, an alchemy of art,
love’s pure enchantment, communion for the heart!
From chants to Psalms, from jazz to Brahms, no soul may stay at rest.
For starry choir in sky afire we’ll sing, joined with them in anthem blessed.

Hope is our high star, the certitude love brings;
silence our center, our living water’s spring.
Though aching heart know self apart from Whole and Mystery,
for gatherings of strengthening we’ll sing, throughout human history.

If you detected some Belletini here, you’ve got a good eye (or ear). He wrote this with fellow Hymnal Commission member Helen Pickett (whose husband Eugene served as UUA president). I love the patterns of poetry, the metaphors, and frankly, the fact that they set it to the Brahms hymn tune Symphony – and by the way, in verse three, we see what you did there.

I haven’t sung it much – I wonder if its length puts some people off. Or maybe we don’t preach about creativity and the arts enough – because this is a perfect hymn for that. Or maybe – as regular reader Kaye would agree – using the first line as a title is misleading. You really wouldn’t know that past the first verse it’s about creativity and process theology from the words “Earth is our homeland” – would you? (And here’s the real shame – I have preached a sermon called The Art of Meaning a couple of times, but never when I could use three hymns, so this never made the cut. I’m preaching it tomorrow, and I had the perfect opportunity to use it, and I plum forgot. Dammit.)

Anyway – I love this piece and highly recommend writing services for which this is the perfect hymn to sing. Partly because I love the hymn, but partly because we need to talk about creativity, the arts, and humanity’s connection to both Earth and Mystery a whole lot more.

This was rather unexpected.

I’ve never sung this one before – lyrics are by Thomas Mikelson, who wrote the magnificent lyrics to Wake Now My Senses and was my home congregation’s first interim minister. The tune is by another colleague, Fred Wooden, whose generosity means a few of his books (pictured) are now in my library.

So even though I know the writers of this hymn, I’ve never sung it before. And that’s a shame, because this is a terrific hymn.

First, let’s look at Mikelson’s lyrics:

Sing of living, sing of dying, let them both be joined in one,
parts of an eternal process like the ever-circling sun.
From the freshness of each infant giving hope in what is new,
to the wisdom of the aged deepened by a longer view.

Open to a deeper loving, open to the gift of care,
searching for a higher justice, helping others in despair.
Through the tender bonds of living in a more inclusive way
we are opened more to suffering from the losses of each day.

My only criticism is that it’s only about generational differences, in a time when we need to sing about other differences as well. But maybe this is the jumping off point for services about living inclusively and expansively, living as if we believe the first principle.

The tune is lovely – a bit unexpected in places, but that gives it depth. It’s interesting that it’s set in 3/2 with 2/2 measures to even it off; it could easily been done in a squarer 4/4, but then the song wouldn’t dance. And while some people flip away as soon as they see time signature changes, they come naturally here and allow the melody to pulse rather than plod.

That I’d never sung this before is a shame. But I’m grateful to sing it now, this lovely, unexpected hymn.