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.

Wow.

Yeah. That’ll preach.

I’m sad to say I’ve not sung this very much.

I’m sad because I’ve opted for comfort and chosen other hymns for justice-oriented services, in part because I’m not as comfortable singing Spanish as I am other languages, in part because I’ve not had accompanists willing to try it, and in part because – at least in the last congregation I served – the people would barely make an effort and it would be a train wreck.

And that too is sad. I’m sad for my lack of courage, my lack of perseverance. I am sad that I too leaned on comfort in cases like this, not wanting to die on the hill of a hymn that would, I hope, become a favorite. I’m not sure who it is I’m apologizing to, but to whoever needs to hear it, please know that I am sorry. I know there’s no changing the past, but I will try to do better in the future.

I am also sad, because this is actually a beautiful song. written by Rosa Martha Zárate Macias, its minor key sets a tone for truthtelling, its driving melody sets a tone for action. You can hear a traditional version here, and a rocked-out version here.

Refrain:
Profetiza, Pueblo mío, profetiza una vez más.
Que tu voz sea al eco del clamor de los Pueblos en opresión.
Profetiza, Pueblo mío, profetiza una vez más,
anuncíandole a los pobres una nueva sociedad.

Profeta te consagro,
no haya duda y temor
en tu andar por la historia;
sé fiel a tu misión.

Refrain

Anunciales a los Pueblos,
que se renovara,
el pacto, en la justicia,
la paz florecera.

Refrain

Denuncia a quienes causan,
el llanto y la oppression,
la verdad sea tu escudo,
se luz de un nuevo sol.

Refrain

Esta sea tu esperanza,
esta sea tu luchar,
construer en la justicia,
la nueva sociedad.

Refrain

English translation by Elsie Zala:

Refrain:
Prophesy, oh my people, prophesy one more time.
Let your voice be the echo of the outcries of all oppressed.
Prophesy, oh my people, prophesy one more time.
Announce to them the coming of a new society.

I sanctify you, prophet.
Banish all doubt and fear.
Be faithful to your mission;
the quest that leads us on.

Refrain

Announce to all the people
that justice promised long,
Restored to every nation:
true peace throughout the world.

Refrain

Denounce all who are causing
oppression, sorrow, tears,
Let truth be your protection,
the light of a new sun.

Refrain

Let this be what you hope for,
the battle that you choose:
To build a social order
with justice at its core.

Refrain

I didn’t find much about the song or songwriter; the UUA Song Information page says only that it was “written in 1975 and first sung at the II National Convention of Spanish Speaking Catholics in Washington, DC.” I found more about the Rosa Martha Zárate at the GIA Publications page, where I learned that she migrated from Mexico to the US in 1968, and much like other notable singing activists, combined music and leadership to champion human rights – in her case, the rights of Latinx immigrants. She often talked about the power of people organizing to help them ” become agents of our own history and our own destiny.”

Amen.

 

There’s a wonderful podcast called Song Exploder, where host Hrishikesh Hirway invites songwriters to talk about the origins and construction of their songs; they ‘explode’ the song apart to share insights about the ideas for the song, and about the various parts as it goes from hummed melody and chords on a piano to fully arranged and produced.

Much like that process, there is a process here at Hymn by Hymn too; I am gonna explode my own process for a few minutes – break it apart and explain how I get from spiritual practice to post. (I should note that it didn’t start this way, but curiosity led to this process after a few short weeks).

It starts with coffee. Or at least the making of… I get the coffeemaker set up, press on, and then sit down nearby with my hymnal. Flip, flip, flip to the right page, and I start to sing. If I’m lucky, I know the hymn, or at least the tune (I’m getting a lot better at recognizing tunes by their name because of this). If I don’t, I do a search through various hymn tune sites…maybe YouTube… and as a last resort, open the keyboard app on my phone to plunk out the melody. And I sing.

I really do sing the song, folks. Sometimes it’s quietly, sometimes it’s begrudgingly, sometimes it’s joyfully, sometimes it’s robustly … but I always sing it. I do that because I know that singing shifts our bodies energetically – it gets something moving in our bodies and our souls. And singing lyrics wakes up the mind, too.

Out of the singing comes some experiences, some questions, some affirmations. It might be a lyric that stops me, or a melodic phrase that captures me, or questions arising about its origins. I think about those questions, as well as my opening line, while I prepare the first sacred cup of the holy brew.

Then I sit down to the computer.

Sometimes I know just where I’m going and I begin writing. Other times, my curiosity leads me to a bit of research, which helps me frame my post for the day. I will often have half a dozen tabs open as I look at the hymn’s usage, origin stories, the composer’s bio, alternate lyrics. Sometimes there’s a poetry page or two, and often some YouTube examples of the song. Sometimes (like yesterday) there’s an email or text conversation with the composer or a member of the hymnal commission to offer further insights.

By the time I’ve done a bit of work, I have a pretty good sense of how to proceed – how to explore my own experience of singing, my own thoughts about the musicology, poetry, theology, spirituality, and liturgy reflected in my experience. I write, then find an image (often from Pixabay but sometimes from other sources), tag it, and publish it. By that point I’ve finished my first cup of coffee and can get on with my day. And a second cup of coffee.

Now I tell you all this because the experience I had singing this round today does not match the subsequent research I did before I sat down, and I stared at this screen for several minutes trying to find a way to explain what happened from first sung notes to first words on the post. And I probably wrote that whole piece above as a way to avoid the inevitable.

As we have Shlomo Carlebach’s round here, it’s a gorgeous invitation to return to ourselves, to remove the masks, to get back to what we know is true about ourselves. Return to the home of your soul… gorgeous. As I sang it I felt a bit of release, comforted by this reminder.

Return again, Return again,
Return to the home of your soul.

Return to who you are,
Return to what you are,
Return to where you are
born and reborn again.

But of course it also made me wonder about Carlebach, and if there are recordings of the piece for those who are unfamiliar. So I googled, and I discovered in listening to him perform the song that the lyric has been changed; the original is “return to the land of your soul.”

Of course that makes sense; Carlebach (known as “The Singing Rabbi”) was writing and performing songs specifically for a Jewish audience, writing songs that speak about the Divine in ways that “make other rabbis uncomfortable.” And given that, “Land” makes sense, with its significance to the Jewish people and their millennia’s-long desire to be home in Israel. The idea that the returning again is to a physical place – the land of your soul – is as important as and is maybe equal to/more resonant than returning to a sense of self.

Now I can see how the original lyrics might offer some resonance with people whose lands were stolen by greedy Europeans, or with people who were taken from their lands by greedy Europeans – I can’t speak for them but I suspect a Latinx or an African American might find some connection to the original lyric. However, as a descendant of greedy Europeans, I have no right and no standing to sing Carlebach’s original “land of your soul” – it seems like an affront.

Now I wouldn’t have had any of these thoughts if I’d not followed my process. And maybe I’d have been happy to continue using this song to focus on personal spiritual growth.

But now – even with the changed lyric that makes it less obviously about physical place – I struggle. I know the hymnal commission contacted Carlebach’s estate to get approval for the lyric change, but it still feels like, well, like we whitewashed the song.

And I don’t know what to do with that. Until this morning, and through the original singing, I loved this piece and have used it.

Now, I’m not so sure.

It’s still beautiful and lush, and I’m glad it’s here. But I’m just not sure about it anymore.

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?”

Wow.

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.

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.

Refrain:
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.

Refrain

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.

Refrain

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.

Yesterday, as we closed the New York State Convention of Universalists/Hudson Mohawk Cluster gathering, my colleague Sam Trumbore called for us to sing something together. “What shall we sing?” he asked, looking at me because he knows I do this.

And embarrassingly, my mind went blank. Fortunately, someone else piped up with a song (Come Sing a Song with Me) which went fine, especially when someone jumped up to play it on piano. But I realized I was standing there with a bunch of doxologies and entrance songs in my head, but I couldn’t come up with a closing.

Truth is, today’s song is what popped into my head, truly the opposite of what we needed in that moment. What we needed was a joyful exit… (we got a rather sentimental one, but that’s okay). What this is could be best described as an invitation to deepening.  This is one of my favorite rounds; its deep, rich, minor tones evoke the mystery as much as the words do.

Gathered here in the mystery of the hour.
Gathered here in one strong body.
Gathered here in the struggle and the power.
Spirit, draw near.

We’ve encountered lyrics by liturgist and dancer Phillip A. Porter before, namely in When Darkness Nears; his words there and here evoke a depth that for me feels important, rooted, very first chakra.

And yes, even though I’ve sung it a thousand times, I love it.

 

The truth that passes understanding right now is how it’s been a year already.

A year ago today, I started this spiritual practice. At the time I thought I’d reflect a little on my own experience of singing and maybe have some interesting conversations with some friends who noticed. I did not anticipate this becoming a Thing, with musicology and literary analysis and providing indices and categorizations. I most certainly did not anticipate the number of people following, the great and funny and insightful comments (here and on Facebook), nor the friendships with members of the STLT hymnal commission, from whom I’ve learned so much about and beyond the hymns.

To all of you – frequent or infrequent readers – thank you.

The practice continues, of course… after today there are still 45 more pieces in this hymnal, then another 75 in Singing the Journey. What happens in February after it’s complete is still a question, but for now, let’s turn our attention to today’s hymn.

Another entry in the praise and doxologies section, this Robert Weston verse, set to the old Geneva Psalter tune Donne Secours, is both hopeful and haunting. I suppose, of course, if the words had been set to a different tune, it would be less haunting – this one is minor and slow. I don’t have a suggestion – the few tunes in this 11.10.11.10 meter I listened to are all minor and slow. But it’s possible.

Anyway, here are the lyrics:

This is the truth that passes understanding,
this is the joy to all forever free:
life springs from death and shatters every fetter,
and winter turns to spring eternally.

Is it me, or does this seem to be a little confusing? In my mind, I’m back to the Hymn by Hymn Extra I did with Michael Tino wherein we talk about how Spring is not Easter. Here we’re three lines in, and it’s all good Universalist theology, and then boom, it’s back to nature in a metaphor that doesn’t really work for me. The seasons are not the same as eschatology.

And I’m not sure when or how I would use this – certainly not as a doxology, perhaps as a choral response at a memorial service for someone who wanted some theology but not too much because they sometimes eschewed Sunday services in favor of hikes.

I will tell you one truth that doesn’t pass my understanding – I have a bright future ahead of me as a curmudgeon. 🙂

We have now entered (and rejoiced, and came in) a new phase in this practice – the short songs. The rounds, the doxologies, the introits, the chalice lightings, and the benedictions.

I have no idea how this section will feel. I admit that this morning it feels a little disappointing, as there’s not much to grab on to here. I worry that the spiritual practice will become thin because the songs are, and I wonder how sustaining this very different level of engagement will be. I may very well be falling into the loving, complex arms of Jason Shelton’s Morning Has Come on November 20, heaping loads of praises upon the return to hymn forms and loads of lyrics and page turns, not just the hymn I adore (spoiler alert).

But for now, we enter this time of short songs with this chalice lighting. The words are from an anonymous source, and the melody is by Praetorius.

Rise up, O flame,
by thy light glowing,
show to us beauty,
vision, and joy.

So… I never use words or music for lighting the chalice, because I think it draws attention from the lighting of the chalice. We have really just one symbol, one object, that binds Unitarian Universalists together, and it isn’t because the mothership told us to, but because the image of the chalice and the meaning of the chalice spread from congregation to congregation, from gathering to meeting to assembly, and organically it has become the one ritual object that features in – as far as I know – all UU congregations. The only object. (We can talk about all the other things that feature in our congregations at some point, like coffee, fake fights, and white people – but that’s outside the scope of this particular moment.)

To me, lighting a chalice with a song or spoken words emphasizes that which gets plenty of play throughout the rest of the service – words and music. But lighting the chalice in silence, with our attention on the flame, puts our intention into the flame and sets the space apart. It is a signal that this isn’t business – or busy-ness – as usual, but rather a time out of time. And whether our chalices are big metal masterpieces, like our GA chalice, or a small bowl with a candle, or somewhere in between, it is that moment of lighting our chalice that calls together a group of Unitarian Universalists into worship like no other.

And that deserves all the attention we can give it.

 

Image by Del Ramey, from First Unitarian – Louisville.

I started singing this morning before I opened the hymnal, because I knew what today’s song would be. “Bright morning star’s a-risin’…” I sang.

And then I looked at our lyrics – “Bright morning stars are rising” – and thought, huh? Isn’t there just one morning star – the sun, or if we go Christian on it, Jesus? And which one’s right? This led me down the inevitable rabbit hole of learning more about the origins of the song and its original lyrics and tune. Surely I could get there and enlighten us all.

There is no “there” there.

Origins are sketchy – maybe Appalachian, someone hinted at Native American, someone else wondered about the Shakers, still another pinned it back to Ireland. And lyrics are sketchier still – seems some versions have been lengthily written to talk more about Jesus as the bright morning star, other versions more grounded in work and toil. And of course, there’s a debate on whether it’s “bright morning star’s a-rising” or “bright morning stars are rising”…

Bright morning stars are rising.
Bright morning stars are rising.
Bright morning stars are rising.
Day is a-breaking in my soul.

Oh, where are our dear mothers…

They are sowing seeds of gladness…

Oh, where are our dear fathers…

They are in the fields a-plowing…

The good news is that because of it’s long folk history, we can change some of our lyrics to remove the gender binary or add more verses to include others.

I know this is the first of our Entrance songs, but it is so wistful and somber to me, I couldn’t imagine using it that way. This always seems to me a song of hard-won joy or a longing for release. The “day is a-breaking” reminds me of the moment I had a few days ago with the line “Dawn breaks in me too” from Golden Skies at Dawn…. a releasing moment of prayer.

So. No clarity on this one, so make it your own. And if you’re not sure you can do that, start with this beautiful version by the Wailin’ Jennys:

Among the things I have learned in almost a year of doing this practice is that I am sometimes the outlier – sometimes I see something in a hymn others don’t see that makes me anxious or angry or bored. I know some of it is that I do this before the coffee’s kicked in, but really, there are times that I just don’t get why we would want to include a particular song as part of our living tradition, as it feels wrong to me.

I say all this because I suspect few will feel as I do about this hymn, with lyrics by Alicia Carpenter, set to the haunting Guter Hilte tune: This hymn is scolding me, the way a Hobbit might have scolded Bilbo or Frodo.

Will you seek in far-off places?
Surely you come home at last;
in familiar forms and faces,
things best known, you find the best.

Joy and peace are in this hour,
here, not in another place.
Here in this beloved flower;
now, in this beloved face.

I can’t even with this one. “Surely you come home at last” because of course family’s the best. What if family isn’t the best and is in fact harmful? What if we want to see the world? What if we are called to another place? What if home is a landscape with flowers that don’t inspire but far off is the one that comforts our soul?

Look. I get that this is about appreciating what we have around us, and if it’s true that Carpenter was inspired by a Walt Whitman poem I can’t seem to find (Between the Lines notes that it’s inspired by “Here and Now” – anyone know what poem it’s talking about?), then it’s got that whole transcendentalist thing happening.

But surely you shouldn’t scold me into staying where I don’t want to be, or looking for something more.