You could call this one “How Is This My Life?” or maybe “God Bless the Revolution.”… and you’d certainly use the hashtag #MyUnion. But I think we’ll call this one “Our Rock Stars Are Not Your Rock Stars.”

Now the rock star in question is not composer Ysaye Barnwell, although she is a rock star, and I’ll talk more about her when we get to We Are… on January 10th. No, the rock stars in question right now are feminist theologians Bev Harrison and Carter Heyward.

One of the advantages of going to Union Theological Seminary is that we had the opportunity to meet some amazing people in our field, and I had a lot of “how is this my life” moments when sitting in a living room with Harry Belafonte, or singing from the same hymnal with former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd, or catching a glimpse of Mos Def in the hall as he heads to sit in on a class with Cornel West.

Such is the case on one beautiful, bittersweet afternoon, when Union held a memorial service for Bev Harrison, who had been a professor at Union and made major strides in the field of Christian feminist ethics. I never met her, but the stories being told at the service made me wish I had known her, because she seemed to be loving, gregarious, expansive, and always willing to challenge the status quo. In one of the reflections about her life, someone shared her words for blessing the food:

Some have food.
Some have none.
God bless the revolution.

It was a powerful experience learning about her life and her work. And then… the seminary choir, of which I was a part, got up to sing the second of two songs we had prepared for the service; I don’t remember the first, but the second was Breaths. I was honored to sing one of the lead parts with my dear friend Lindsey Turner, with the rest of the choir backing us up with the deep, pulsing rhythms that keep time and move the song along in rich harmonies.

When Lindsey and I walked to our places, we realized we were right in front of Bev’s partner, Carter Heyward. For those who don’t know, Heyward is a lesbian feminist theologian; in 1974, she was one of the Philadelphia Eleven, eleven women whose ordinations eventually paved the way for the recognition of women as priests in the Episcopal Church in 1976. Her life and her work is groundbreaking.

Yes. We were being asked to sing to Carter Heyward. This was like being asked to sing to Michelle Obama, or Madonna, or Oprah Winfrey – someone of that magnitude. In those first moments I felt a combination of terror and excitement and amazement.

Our rock stars are not your rock stars.

Of course, we pulled it together quickly, recognized our role as pastoral, and sang this song to Carter, who is now a friend on Facebook. Lindsey and I found the healing pulse of the music and breathed into the healing lyrics, evoking the ancestors, and in particular the loving presence of Bev.

This song… this beautiful song, now graces our hymnal.

Listen more often to things than to beings,
listen more often to things than to beings,
‘tis the Ancestor’s breath when the fire’s voice is heard,
‘tis the Ancestor’s breath in the voice of the waters.
Zah Whsshh Aahh Whsshh

Those who have died have never, never left.
The dead are not under the earth.
They are in the rustling trees,
they are in the groaning woods,
they are in the crying grass,
they are in the moaning rocks.
The dead are not under the earth.


Those who have died have never, never left.
The dead have a pact with the living.
They are in the woman’s breast,
they are in the wailing child,
they are with us in our homes,
they are with us in this crowd.
The dead have a pact with the living.


Now I can’t go without saying a thing or two about the piece as it appears in STJ:

Thing one: YAY! It’s an amazing song, easy to sing, written by a beloved hero of mine and many others. The lyrics, based on a piece by Senegalese poet Birago Diop, are as close to my theology of the afterlife as you can get without me having written them myself.

Thing two: Part of the magic of this song is the vocal orchestra that weaves together rhythm and harmony in a unique but utterly singable fashion; and while I applaud the attempt at a piano arrangement, the results tend to be – at least in my experience – less than the rich, rhythmic breaths Barnwell’s song evokes.

And still. I am glad it is here, in our hymnal, bringing that healing, pulsing breath of life and afterlife together.

Gentle readers, there is a chance I will let you down today.

You see, I am feeling utterly and totally uninterested in where this hymn came from, who wrote it, and why we sing it to this tune.

Which is kinda funny, because that’s exactly what my mom would have me do: activate another part of my brain and lose focus on the part that’s dwelling in sadness. It may explain why I struggled so much with my depression as a youth; where this worked for her, it didn’t always work for me, and it wasn’t until well into adulthood that I was able to name it and experience it more fully.

But the truth is, one week out from the tenth anniversary of her death, I am finding it hard this morning to do anything but mourn as I sing this hymn. Partly because it’s a hymn specifically for this purpose, but partly because there are things in here Mom has said to me, almost verbatim without really knowing the hymn, about death and mourning. I remember her complimenting the country pastor who conducted my father’s funeral, because he had talked about how the dead live on in us and our stories, which was something she believed was true. And she was so fascinated with all we were learning about space and physics. Once we watched A Brief History of Time, and she spent the rest of the weekend having those deep thought moments as she tried to wrap her head around black holes (it was something that continued to come up every now and then, because it continued to flummox her).

This hymn seems like it could have been written by her – and certainly beloved by her.

Let hope and sorrow now unite
to consecrate life’s ending.
And praise good friends now gone from sight,
though grief and loss are rending.
The story in a well-loved face,
and years and days our thoughts retrace,
are treasures worth repeating.

With faith, or doubt, or open mind
we whisper life’s great question.
The ebb and flow of space and time
surpass our small perception;
yet knowledge grows with joyful gains
and finds out wonders far more strange
than hopes of resurrection.

And here’s the truth: music has the power to do a lot of things; it helps us rejoice, consider, release, meditate, explain, laugh, and yes… mourn. I am not upset that this came along when it did – it’s probably right on time, and it has allowed me to share more about this remarkable woman who raised me.

Thanks, Universe.

Picture is of my mother as a young woman, probably around age 25.



I really don’t have much to say, because I don’t know how I feel about this one. (Also, I’m squeezing this reflection into a day full of fall house cleaning.)

What I can tell you is the lyrics, by Sarah Flower Adams (of Abide with Me fame), set to the Charleston tune (which you may know from There’s a Wideness in Your Mercy), is lovely and well matched.

Part in peace! The day before us.
Praises sing for life and light.
Are the shadows lengthning o’er us?
Bless thy care who guards the night.

Part in peace! With deep thanksgiving,
rend’ring as we homeward tread,
love and service to the living,
gentle mem’ry to the dead.

Part in peace! Our voices raising,
in thy presence always be.
This the worship and the praising,
bringing peace to you and me.

I’m not sure I would use it for a memorial or funeral, but I would use it as a closing for a Memorial Day or All Souls service.

Anyway… not much from me today, as it didn’t feel as much like spiritual practice and more like duty today. And I guess that happens. I look forward to your reflections in comments.

I am in Peterborough, New Hampshire, preparing to lead a retreat with dear friend and colleague Diana McLean. And as I was preparing to write today, I waxed a little poetic about the Blake poem this hymn tune (Jerusalem, by Charles H.H. Parry) was written for.

And I burst into tears. Like, not just a weepy lump in my throat, but full on, reaching for the Kleenex, now I have to reapply my makeup tears. Which got worse when I read the lyrics we have in our hymnal.

I’m tellin’ ya. Ugly cry.

I’m not sure why the Blake lyrics gets to me – it’s very pro-England, very pro-Second Coming, very cliché. So cliché it’s inspired books, films, and tv shows.  And I’m a bit embarrassed by my reaction. Yes, I’m an Anglophile – I love British tv and film, I love English history, I love the English countryside, and once I loved an Englishman (who broke my heart). But why does this hymn – and not so many others that scream out my personal theology – make me burst into tears?

Anyway… makeup adjusted, tissues discarded… here’s our hymn. The tune is soaring and lush, and very fitting for these words by Don Marquis. And as much as our last encounter with Marquis frustrated me, this encounter draws me directly into the mystery of life and death and Mystery itself.

Have I not known the sky and sea put on a look as hushed and stilled
as if some ancient prophecy drew close upon to be fulfilled?
Like mist the houses shrink and swell,
like blood the highways throb and beat,
the sapless stones beneath my feet turn foliate with miracle.

And life and death but one thing are — and I have seen this wingless world
cursed with impermanence and whirled like dust across the summer swirled,
and I have dealt with Presences
behind the veils of Time and Place,
and I have seen this world a star — bright, shining, wonderful in space.

Gorgeous. Simply divine, really. And as I contemplate the lyrics, and my reaction, I realize this should probably be sung at my memorial service.

No wonder I had such a strong reaction.

I end with this beautiful choral arrangement of Jerusalem – not with our lyrics, but the Blake – sung by the West Point Cadet Glee Club (the song starts at 0:26):

And now I’m crying again. Where’s the Kleenex?

It’s a Hymn by Hymn miracle!

Today is September 1st, and the hymn today mentions September! The hymnal is right on schedule, pretending it hasn’t had me sing Christmas songs in spring and summer songs in winter and Easter songs at General Assembly. I hardly know what to make of it.

What I do know is that every time I start to sing this hymn, all my memories go to the first time I sang it in a small group and how baffled we were to find the phrasing so it didn’t sound automated. The key, we discovered, was realizing that while the bar lines have us singing four beats, then three, then four, etc., it’s best thought of in a 7/4 phrasing, which we decided feels like the tides as sung by Gregorian monks.

So here’s the funny thing, though. We have sung this before, as In the Lonely Midnight. But it’ written there in 7/8 and has a very different feel. This 7/4 is more flowing, less sprightly, and oddly, easier to sing that the 7/8 setting. For me, anyway.

But on to the words – from a piece by 20th century Russian poet Anna Akhmatova (and translated by our very own Mark Belletini – is there anything that guy can’t do?) – this is a lush text. It is haunting and wistful and hopeful.

All my memories of love hang upon high stars.
All the souls I’ve lost to tears now the autumn jars;
and the air around me here thickens with their song;
sing again their nameless tunes, sing again, and strong.

Willows in September touch the water clear,
set among the rushes tall of the flowing year.
Rising up from sunlit past comes the shadowed sigh
running toward me silently, love to fortify.

Many are the graceful hearts hung upon this tree.
And it seems there’s room for mine on these branches free;
and the sky above the tree, whether wet or bright,
is my ease and comforting, my good news and light.

A fitting hymn for a memorial service, or an All Souls day service, or a gorgeous vespers set around memory and remembrance.

It’s not the easiest piece we have in our hymnal, but it is simply gorgeous.

Photo by Alain /Papylin 

One of the downsides of so many hymn tunes is that groups of them begin to sound alike. For instance, there’s a whole set of them in the O Waly Waly/Gift of Love milieu that I constantly confuse for one another.

And now there is another set of them – including this English tune, called Kingsfold, set by Ralph Vaughan Williams. I started singing it and was sure I knew what it was and where it was going, until I realized there were differences in what I thought I knew. Google told me, surprisingly, that Kingsford is NOT the tune to Canticle of the Turning – that one’s called Star of the County Down, an Irish tune set by Rory Cooney.

So are they originally different? Or are they both based on a tune that ran around the British Isles, and we have two different interpretations? They’re both great, but both different.

What I do know is that whichever of the two you wind up singing to yourself, the lyrics (by Alicia Carpenter) are fitting – the tune is joyful yet melancholy, as are these words:

Where my free spirit onward leads, well, there shall be my way;
by my own light illumined I’ve journeyed night and day;
my age, a time-worn cloak I wear as once I wore my youth;
I celebrate life’s mystery; I celebrate death’s truth.

My family is not confined to mother, mate, and child;
but it includes all creatures be they tame or be they wild;
my family upon this earth includes all living things
on land, or in the ocean deep, or borne aloft on wings.

The ever spinning universe, well, there shall be my home;
I sing and spin within it as through this life I roam;
eternity is hard to ken and harder still is this:
a human life when truly seen is briefer than a kiss.

I hadn’t ever really sung this one before, to be fair, but I like it. I would use this for a memorial service, I think, in its loving picture of a life well lived. And I’d use it for services on community.

I wish I had more insights today – I’m about to get in a car and drive to Murray Grove and the Goldmine Youth Leadership School, where I will be working  with youth on worship (surprise, surprise). Thus – programming note – the week’s posts may not come out in the mornings, but that’s my hope.

Welcome to another edition of Hymns I Have Never Sung and Plan To Use Now.

We have now entered the next section of our hymnal; for those keeping track, we’ve finished the First Source songs and are now entering the Second Source, Words and Deeds of Prophetic People. (I hear you saying “people? Isn’t it women and men?” Oh yes, that is how the sources read now; but there is a motion to change the source as written in the bylaws to read “prophetic people” in order to be more inclusive. And I should note, this campaign was started by my colleague Jami Yandle and others at our Toledo, Ohio, congregation.)

Anyway, back to the hymn. We now are talking exemplars and pioneers – and what better exemplars to start with than the Christ and the Buddha?  These elegant lyrics, by English Unitarian minister John Andrew Storey, are intriguingly set to a tune by I-to Loh, a professor of liturgy in the Philippines – and what I love is that even though there are other Western tunes this could easily be set to, the choice of this Eastern tune removes a sense of Western domination. It is subtle to be sure, but it is a brilliant choice that preferences a culture other than our own and still speaks to us.

We the heirs of many ages, with the wise to guide our ways,
honor all earth’s seers and sages, build our temples for their praise.

But the good we claim to cherish, all that Christ and Buddha taught,
unrepentant hearts let perish, spurning truth most dearly bought.

Centuries of moral teaching, words of wisdom, ancient lore,
all the prophet souls’ beseeching leaves us heedless as before.

Late in time, may we, forsaking all our cruelty and scorn,
see a new tomorrow breaking and a kinder world be born.

And lest you think the Asian tune means it’s hard to sing, it’s most assuredly not. It has a couple of intervals that are, to my Western-trained ears, a little unusual, but they would be easily learned by anyone, I think.

So why have I never sung it? I suspect in some cases, for other minsters it wasn’t the right message, or it seemed too foreign to introduce to ‘a congregation that doesn’t sing’ (which is code for “I don’t have anybody who can – or I don’t want to take the time – to teach them.”)

But here’s another reason it probably gets bypassed, and certainly got bypassed by me: it faces Abide With Me, and a title like We the Heirs of Many Ages makes a connection to memorials and funerals – if you don’t look, it seems like another of the same ilk, and for the most part (although colleague Christian Schmidt is about to prove me wrong), nobody uses Abide With Me except at memorials and funerals, so why would we give another funeral song a glance? And of course, we’d be wrong.

The worst part is that there have been times that this would have been the perfect hymn, and I blew those chances. But I’ll remember it now, as I revel in the openness and poetry of word and music.

Fellow Whovians will understand why I chose the photo I did. For everyone else, it requires a geek confession: I opened the hymnal, started to sing, and instantly thought of Doctor Who. In particular, the episode called “Gridlock” where, in order to keep the residents of earth safe, they are told to go on massive freeways underground – and have been in a decades-long traffic jam by the time Martha Jones and the Doctor show up. One of the ways they are kept hopeful (and obedient) is through hymns, piped into the sound system; The Old Rugged Cross is one of them, and Abide with Me is another.

But that’s not at all the reason I like this hymn, nor should we ever consider it a tool of our alien protectors. No, in the real world, this is a sweet and comforting “old timey hymn” – a piece that some might find puzzling and out of place. But I am glad this is in our hymnal.

It’s an old hymn that likely appears in every Protestant hymnal in the country (and maybe beyond), speaking as it does about death and glory. Even though we only use three of the eight verses, there remains in what we sing a hopeful and comforting sense of something greater than ourselves being with us in those final hours. (The final verse, often found in Christian hymnals, is probably too explicitly Christian for most Unitarian Universalists, although we seem to have no problem with implicit Christianity…a topic for another time.)

Abide with me, fast falls the eventide;
the darkness deepens; still with me abide.
When other helpers fail, and comforts flee,
help of the helpless, oh, abide with me.

Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day;
earth’s joys grow dim, its glories pass away;
change and decay in all around I see:
O thou who changes not, abide with me.

I fear no foe, with thee at hand to bless;
ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness.
Where is death’s sting? Where, grave, thy victory?
I triumph still if thou abide with me.

And I’m not putting any extra meaning on this – the lyrics were written and set to an English tune in 1847 by Henry Francis Lyte, while he lay dying from tuberculosis. He survived less than a month after completing it.

This is absolutely a final call for comfort from the Divine on the eve of death. And it offers comfort to those who are mourning – that something we might call heaven, or the light, or glory, or simply rest welcomes our beloved.

Not exactly something we’d put in regular rotation.

But I am glad it’s in our hymnal.

I fell asleep last night thinking about the questions about end of life stuff that my sister raised about one of my cats, who is about to have major surgery to remove a malignant tumor (Shea is with her, five hours away, so I won’t be there the day of surgery if things go awry).  In my dreams, with death on my mind, I dreamed of my mother in her final hours and how heartbreaking it was to see her go.

Needless to say, I was not at all prepared to open the hymnal to this first hymn in the Transience section, and I cried through the singing.

I cannot think of them as dead who walk with me no more;
along the path of life I tread they are but gone before,
they are but gone before.

And still their silent ministry within my heart has place
as when on earth they walked with me and met me face to face,
and met me face to face.

Their lives are made forever mine; what they to me have been
has left henceforth its seal and sign engraven deep within,
engraven deep within.

Mine are they by an ownership nor time nor death can free;
for God has given to love to keep its own eternally,
its own eternally.

These lyrics are lovely, and I think for many – Unitarian Universalist and otherwise – they would be equally comforting. And what made it possible for me to cry was a simple but beautifully crafted tune (“Distant Beloved”) by Frederick Wooten. This gentle melody  both matches the lyric and gets out of the way of the lyric so that the meaning can rise up and spill out – in my case, literally spill out as tears.

(Fair warning: the next few days may feature some powerful memories and unleased sentimentality… such is the power of music. )



“Sweet” is the word I would use to describe this hymn.

Sweet lyrics, sweet sentiment, sweet tune. It’s not saccharine sweet, but rooted, old timey sound and wisdom sweet. It’s the kind of tune (another shape note tune, this time from the collection Missouri Harmony) you’d hope to hear played by a guitar, or maybe a violin, or perhaps even a banjo as you walked past a creek from that little cabin tucked in the woods up in the distance.

I don’t have a lot more to say about this sweet little hymn – except maybe a reminder of its message: take time to notice. Take time to meditate. Take time for spiritual practice. Take time.

What is this life if, full of care,
we have no time to stand and stare —
no time to stand beneath the boughs
and stare as long as sheep or cows;

No time to see, when woods we pass,
where squirrels hide their nuts in grass —
no time to see, in broad daylight,
streams full of stars, like stars at night;

No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,
and watch her feet, how they can dance.
A poor life this if, full of care,
we have no time to stand and stare.