“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” and thus begins my own story, A Tale of Two Memories.

The first memory of this song is set in a hotel suite in St. Paul, MN, where the inaugural group of students in the Music Leader Credentialing program gathered to talk about discernment and the call of this kind of ministry. The facilitator – who shall remain nameless but is, not surprisingly, white – invited us to hear the call of the Mystery in several ways. That section ended with, also not surprisingly, singing. We were asked to sing this song without context (except that it’s in STJ) and let it be the invitation to hear our call to music ministry.


Hush, hush, somebody’s callin’ my name.
Hush, hush, somebody’s callin’ my name.
Hush, hush, somebody’s callin’ my name.
Oh my Lord, oh my Lord, what shall I do?

Sounds like freedom, somebody’s callin’ my name…

Sounds like justice, somebody’s callin’ my name…

Soon one mornin’, death comes creepin’ in my room…

I’m so glad that trouble don’t last always…

The second memory of this song is set at Union Theological Seminary, in two chapels. The first is Lampman, a tiny space full of amber tones and gorgeous iconography, was where we met for a class on the spirituality of spirituals, led by a woman of color (who, for parity, shall also remain nameless). It was in that space that we learned about the deep call to freedom for enslaved Africans that these songs expressed, and how our singing – no matter how we identified – must carry that knowledge explicitly, recognizing that our own prayer must affirm theirs. At the end of the semester, our class conducted a chapel service in the large, seemingly cavernous James Chapel – we greeted folks outside in the narthex while our teacher sat at the back of the room, singing this song as a call to freedom, beckoning us to follow the hushed sounds and hear stories and songs of hope.


The End.

Image is of James Chapel at Union.


Day two of laryngitis – day two of not actually singing, and letting a series of YouTube videos sing for me (by and large, videos of high school choirs around the world singing this with a simplicity this middle aged voice long ago relinquished).

It is again a simple piece with deep complexity, a prayer from the Book of Lamentations 5:21: “Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored; renew our days as of old.” (NRSV)

Hashiveinu, hashiveinu,
Adonai eilecha venashuva.
Chadeish, chadeish yameinu kekedem.

“Restored” can mean a lot of things – from simple sleep and rest, to remembering who we actually are, to being brought back to repent and renew. And while I know the prayer seems like it starts with the Divine – ‘restore us to yourself” – the very act of saying this prayer is the first step. We must be willing to ask, to use that pesky free will we have, to spiritually ask God to “open the door, please, I want to repent.”

Lately in Unitarian Universalist circles, there’s been some discussion about our lack of prayers of confession, and how, without our formally being able to say “we’ve messed up, we repent, and we seek forgiveness” means a lot gets bottled up, overlooked, swept under the rug. This happens amongst each other, in our congregations, and in our denomination. I know we aren’t a ‘confessing church’ – rather, we are much more likely to feel that if humanity is innately good, what have we to confess? We forget that good people sin too, and confessing isn’t necessarily about saying “I’m terrible and was born terrible” as much as the Calvinists would like us to believe. Rather, it’s about saying “I want to be restored to the goodness I know lives in and among us.” Our Universalist theology doesn’t say we don’t sin – rather, it says sin and evil are here on earth, and we must work hard so that love, freedom, justice, and compassion win. And part of that has to be confession. How can we be good, honest partners for each other if we can’t acknowledge the elephants in the room that keep us from one another?

Lord help me, I am about to quote a poem I want beyond want to forget – mostly because I had to memorize it for a class in seminary and it annoyed me – but for real, this is at the heart of WIlliam Stafford’s poem, “A Ritual to Read to each Other”:

If you don’t know the kind of person I am
and I don’t know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.

For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood
storming out to play through the broken dyke.

And as elephants parade holding each elephant’s tail,
but if one wanders the circus won’t find the park,
I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty
to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.

And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
a remote important region in all who talk:
though we could fool each other, we should consider–
lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.

For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give–yes or no, or maybe–
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.

Hashiveinu calls us to reawaken, to see beyond the darkness, to talk to each other and seek restoration.

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.

A song that evokes memories..

Over my head I hear music in the air.
Over my head I hear music in the air.
Over my head I hear music in the air.
There must be a God somewhere.

Over my head I hear singing in the air…

Over my head I see trouble in the air…

Over my head I feel gladness in the air …

Over my head I see angels in the air …

This hymn. Feeling all the feelings, thinking all the thoughts, and wishing I had a better memory.

From a purely music and lyrics standpoint, this gets right to my heart, that part of my soul that wonders about God, that part of my spirit that feels lonely and afraid. Even when I’m feeling reasonably okay, this one cuts through all the noise to bring me voice for my fears and comfort for my soul.

And I am just a middle aged white woman in the 21st century. I cannot imagine what this song meant to the enslaved Africans who sang it in the fields, or the black Americans in the crosshairs of Jim Crow and the Civil Rights movement. For them – I cannot imagine how meaningful a song like this must be, how much hope it must bring.

A few years ago, I remember the amazing songstress, scholar, and friend Kim Harris telling a story about this song, about how a young girl in the civil rights era South sang it in church while the cops were trying to come in. In my incredibly faulty memory, that girl is Bernice Johnson Reagon, founder of Sweet Honey in the Rock, but the details are gone and I can’t trust this memory of a song. I am hopeful that when I ping Kim on Facebook, she’ll be able to fill in the details.

But I bring it up because of this song’s power to signal, to comfort, to communicate. Even to a middle aged white woman, for whom this song was never meant to be.

That’s the power of music.

And it is a gift.