I was talking to friend and colleague Diana McLean yesterday about the moment I am fast approaching – the moment when I sing the last of the hymns in Singing the Living Tradition, and begin a 75-day trip through Singing the Journey. I remarked on the growth of this practice, and how it has shifted from purely my experience of singing to something of a resource.

But it’s more than that. What I realize is that in singing through this hymnal – lovingly assembled 24 years ago with a broad charge (make it more inclusive) – I have had the opportunity to see the shifts in our theologies, our congregational life, our work of justice. Twenty five years ago, the Cold War had just ended and a new, uncertain world lay ahead. The specter of the 21st century and the 50th anniversary of the Unitarian Universalist consolidation loomed in the distance. Thus, song choices to meet the moment might feel to us, well, not quite right (I think I need a good German word here because the English ones aren’t working).

But more, what I recognize is that when we hold STLT in our hands, we are holding evidence of the moral arc of the universe bending toward justice. Issues that come up for us now when we sing songs like Sit at the Welcome Table and Dear Mother-Father of Us All, and even Singing for Our Lives are evidence that we are growing, changing, becoming more and more expansive and seeking more and more justice. Sure, we have a long way to go, but wow, look how far we’ve come in such a short time.

And musically too, we’ve come far. Since STLT was published, a young UU Musicians Network has grown, encouraging new and vibrant hymns and other music; it has developed a credentialing program for music professionals; it has educated not only musicians but also clergy and lay people on the role of music in our faith. And, as I have often asserted, they have been writing our living theology. And thus, our music is shifting from being that which we inherited from our Protestant roots or the folk movement to being organically and authentically ours, reflecting who we are and who we want to be.

It’s amazing. And I don’t know that I would have gotten that had I not engaged this practice. It’s not done, of course, but it’ll be interesting to enter Singing the Journey with this in mind.

So… what about today’s hymn?

Not much, really. It’s a sweet recessional by Vincent Silliman, set to a tune from a Bach chorale. It’s light, but not quite as simple as one might expect. For me, a change to a different tune would make sense – I’d set it to Tom Benjamin’s Woodland (Down the Ages We Have Trod, among others). But that’s me. I think, given my discourse above, taking it off Bach and setting it on one of our own makes sense.

As we leave this friendly place,
love give light to ev’ry face;
may the kindness which we learn
light our hearts till we return.

Tomorrow, we sing the last song of this grey hymnal. Already. Finally.

The photo is of my well-worn hymnals, complete with bookmarks.

If you are a fan of a film or tv show with highly quotable lines, you may find yourself giving the next line almost out of habit:

“You keep using that word. I don’t think it means what you think it means.”

“To make a long story short…”
   “TOO LATE!”

“My father hung me from a hook once..”

“Surely you don’t mean it.”
“I do. And stop calling me Shirley.”

“Darmok and Jilad at Tanagra.”
“Darmok and Jilad on the ocean.”

And so on.

We like things that repeat. It helps firm them up in our brains. The call and response connects us. It’s also a bit of a shibboleth, a password of sorts that lets us know we’re on the same page.

We see it all the time in Protestant liturgy:

May the Lord be with you.
     And also with you.

The Word of God.
     Thanks be to God.

Now as Unitarian Universalists, we don’t have much of this in most of our congregations. Our liturgies are much more freeform (despite many of them still modeling what Glen Thomas Rideout calls “Puritan Standard”). Yet for many of us, there are words or phrases that lead us almost instinctively to respond, perhaps most frequently (in my experience),

Please say with me the words for extinguishing our chalice.
     We extinguish this flame, but not the light of truth…

For me and many of us, there’s another trigger of ritual response:

And now the children may go to their classes.

If you’re in one of the hundreds of congregations that uses today’s hymn as a children’s recessional, what comes next are those first four notes – G, C, D, G – repeated as an intro to our lyrics:

Go now in peace. Go now in peace.
May the love of God surround you
everywhere, everywhere you may go.

You probably already started singing before I got to it, didn’t you?

Now I know many congregations use other songs as their recessional; Bloomington, IN, uses a verse of a different hymn each month. Others have pieces written for them. But for those congregations, the song is still part of a habitual call and response. We say we don’t like ritual, but we crave it. And this song, by Methodist composer Natalie Sleeth, is a major piece of our ritual.

I should say a thing you likely already know: the lyrics are “may the love of God” because that’s how Sleeth wrote it and required it be printed in order to give us permission. I’m sure members of the Hymnal Commission can tell more about the story, but the bottom line is that we’ve not been given permission by a living artist to change her lyrics to anything, including the popular “spirit of love.”

Go now in peace.


I don’t know what was going on at Westside UU in Seattle that day, but I love the pic of the kids under a bridge made by adults.