I love this prayer.

Seriously, this meditative, prayerful hymn – lyrics by Carl Seaburg, set to a Transylvanian folk tune – is absolutely in my top ten list. I love the haunting, minor key of the tune as well as the phrasing. Some might say the third phrase is too high, but that’s what transposition is for.

I also love the three-part invitation in the lyrics; especially that first one, to find, hold, and then let the stillness carry me. It’s a prescription for prayer and meditation. Find it, hold it, and let it do its work in us. I mean, really, the whole thing just knocks me out:

Find a stillness, hold a stillness, let the stillness carry me.
Find the silence, hold the silence, let the silence carry me.
In the spirit, by the spirit, with the spirit giving power,
I will find true harmony.

Seek the essence, hold the essence, let the essence carry me.
Let me flower, help me flower, watch me flower, carry me.
In the spirit, by the spirit, with the spirit giving power,
I will find true harmony.


I sometimes sing this to myself as a prayer to help me pray. But it is effective for a congregation to sing – although always with an invitation to pray this hymn, which leads directly into a time of silent meditation.

And if you’re not a fan yet, consider singing this to yourself before you enter a time of prayer or meditation in your personal spiritual practice. I suspect you’ll notice – as I have – its helpful welcome and invitation to the Mystery.

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 cool things about this particular hymnal is that the commission had some remarkable 20th century poetry set to music, like this poem, “Canzone” by WH Auden. The downside, of course, is that most of those poems – including “Canzone” – are far longer and intricate than we have breath for in a few short verses.

I wonder if this is still a good thing – does having snippets of longer works provide a sense of the poem’s meaning? Or does it miss the point of the still fairly short work that has been carefully constructed? Are we short-changing the amount of attention the poet has asked for?

Or does anyone actually notice who writes these things except someone like me who is studying them?

I can’t argue that the edited-for-singing version doesn’t capture some of what Auden was going for, and some of the most striking couplets remain in tact here. But I know that only from reading the full poem did I get it; otherwise, it was snippets of phrases and syllables to sing.

And that, as I’ve said before, seems to be a consideration when choosing a hymn to be sung by a congregation versus a hymn to be performed by a choir or soloist: does the music get out of the way enough so singers can hear the words? So much amazing poetry we have in this book of ours, but so much of it obscured by tunes that are complex. And when the notes demand more attention that the words, we might as well be singing “la la la” together.

My point – and I do have one – is that to let Auden’s words sing forth, and perhaps lead another person to look up the full poem, this should not be a congregational hymn but rather a solo/choral work.

When shall we learn, what should be clear as day,
we cannot choose what we are free to love?
We are created with and from the world
to suffer with and by it day by day.

For through our lively traffic all the day,
in my own person I am forced to know
how much must be forgotten out of love,
how much must be forgiven, even love.

Or else we make a scarecrow of the day,
loose ends and jumble of our common world;
or else our changing flesh can never know
there must be sorrow if there can be love.

The tune is a flowing piece called Flentge that isn’t too hard to sing, written by Lutheran composer and lecturer Carl Flentge Schalk; I don’t have much more info on it, but there is a recording on YouTube.

The image is of a now-extinct white rhinoceros, but that fact is not why it’s my featured image…

I’m not sure if it’s the muscle relaxers and anti-viral meds I’m on because of a weird virus that hit me late last week, or Charlottesville, or something else, but I just can’t grok this hymn this morning. I don’t get the tune (by Dede Duson, commissioned for this hymnal), and while I intellectually understand there is value in the lyrics by Unitarian Universalist minister John Godfrey MacKinnon, they speak not to my heart and soul at all.

Ye earthborn children of a star amid the depths of space,
the cosmic wonder from afar within your minds embrace.

Look out, with awe, upon the art of countless living things;
the counterpoint of part with part, as nature’s chorus sings.

Beyond the wonder you have wrought within your little time,
the knowledge won, the wisdom sought, the ornaments of rhyme.

Seek deeper still within your souls and sense the wonder there;
the ceaseless thrust to noble goals of life, more free and fair.

Ye earthborn children of a star who seek and long and strive,
take humble pride in what you are: be glad to be alive.

If I were feeling better, I might be able to interrogate them and consider the theological implications. Right now, a baffling tune and a cosmic lyric – combined with this spacy head and weeping heart – just don’t click for me.

Sorry, folks. You’re welcome to take a stab at it in my stead.

I will add this: the aurora borealis in the photo is named Steve. For real.

PS: This weird illness is also why I haven’t finished tagging all the hymns yet. In time, good friends, in time.

Confession: sometimes I sing a hymn and all I really have to say is, ‘yep, it’s great’ and then I look for more to say.

I love this hymn. It’s great. The melody, a late 15th century French tune by Franciscan monk Jean Tisserand, is lush and a bit bittersweet, and provides a perfect mood for these last three absolutely perfect verses of Christina Rossetti’s poem “What Good Shall My life Do to Me?”

O filii et filiae, Alleluia.

O ye who taste that love is sweet,
set waymarks for the doubtful feet
that stumble on in search of it.

Sing hymns of love; that some who hear
far off, in pain, may lend an ear.
Rise up and wonder and draw near.

Lead lives of love; that others who
behold your lives may kindle too
with love, and cast their lot with you.

Two last notes, and then I’m heading on the last leg toward home from SUUSI.

The hymn tune is called O Filii et Filiae, which in Latin means “o sons and daughters” – and yes, it’s problematic now in terms of gender expansiveness. However, it is also the title of this rather famous-in-Catholic-circles tune, and I am not sure we can or should change it.

Also: this first line is the priest’s ‘get your attention’ line. It’s the “gather around and listen up” line. It absolutely sets the mood of the piece, too. If you use this as a congregational hymn, you probably want the song leader to sing the first line and then the congregation to sing the verses. Or, consider a song leader, then the choir on the verses, with everyone joining in on the ‘Alleluia.” or, drop that first line altogether and just do the verses. But know you have options, because this tune is somewhat unfamiliar in form, and it may prove to be a good way to teach it.

So this hymn? Yep, it’s great.

This round evokes in me another, which we’ll get to in November:

Where does it come from? Who wrote it? Why is it in here?
Where does it come from? How did it get here?
Mystery. Mystery. This hymn’s a riddle and a mystery.

Okay, so not all of it is a mystery – it is clearly a round whose text comes from perhaps the most famous of all of the lament Psalms, number 137, which was written by the Israelites during their forced exile in Babylon, beginning around 587 BCE. In even this first verse of the Psalm, we understand the longing of a people taken from their homeland.

We do also have in our hymnody a much-more-familiar-to modern-ears reggae version, which we’ll get to in late December, but this version is a lovely round whose composer is unknown. According to Between the Lines, the round is falsely attributed to William Billings – a likely mistake as he was a master of the fugue form, and this round has probably been around for a long time.

I had never heard it before this morning, and it’s a lovely round with a haunting melody. I’d love to know more about it. Here are the lyrics:

By the waters, the waters of Babylon
we sat down and wept, and wept for thee, Zion.
We remember, we remember, we remember thee, Zion.

Psalm 137:1 reads “By the rivers of Babylon— there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.”

There is, of course, a lot more to say about the whole Psalm, but I want to wait until December, when we get more of the psalm’s text in song. Something to look forward to….

Meanwhile, I am hoping to solve the mystery of this tune. Or at the very least become comfortable with dwelling in the mystery.

Painting by 19th century French artist Jacques Joseph Tissot, entitled “By the Waters of Babylon.”

I want to tell you a story about why this song means so much to me, but I want to get two bits of “hmm” out of the way first:

First: There is a long tradition in folk music – and hymnody – of writing new words to familiar tunes, or adapting old words and tunes for new use. One of my favorites is Dan Berggren’s rewrite of “Wayfaring Stranger” with the chorus “I’m going home to help my neighbor / I’m going home to do my part / love depends on peace and justice / peace begins in my own heart.” And… I know that it gets trickier when the tune in question is borne of the spirituals sung by enslaved Africans. I’m not sure exactly what to say about that in this case, except to say I think, perhaps, in this case the lyrics continue to call of We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder to find freedom here and now, with new ways of expressing it. I also understand I could be wrong about my assumptions and beg forgiveness if I blew it here.

Second: I know that “sisters, brothers, all” rankles against what we now understand as a gender spectrum, and that many who don’t find themselves in the binary of male and female don’t find space for themselves in this song – particularly poignant as the lyrics are about exactly that: making space and growing. I don’t fault the lyricist, Carole Eagleheart, nor the Hymnal Commission, because we just didn’t have the understanding and the language 25 years ago. (I recently saw someone compare this new understanding of gender to how the ancients didn’t see the color blue and thus didn’t have a word for it – as our understanding grows, we get new words and see the world differently.) I have heard a few substitutions for “sisters, brothers” but the one I like best is “family, neighbors” – it widens the circle and harkens back to Jesus’s admonition to love our neighbors as ourselves.

We are dancing Sarah’s circle,
we are dancing Sarah’s circle
we are dancing Sarah’s circle,
sisters, brothers, all.

Here we seek and find our history…

We will all do our own naming…

Every round a generation…

On and on the circle’s moving…

But now the story:

In 2004, I fell into a major clinical depression with suicidal ideation. I was living in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and had no friends, hated my job, worked too hard, and at that moment, just couldn’t figure out how to get out of the hole. Fortunately, I said the right things to the right people, and I found myself in treatment. Many long months of psychiatrists, psychologists, and a litany of medications led to me seeing the path out of the hole, which led me to move back to where my family lives in New York State. As it happens, my mother’s failing health meant she needed more care, so moving in with my mother and sister was a lifeline to me but also a help to the family. It was there that I healed and found my self again.

In order to ensure I built community outside my family, I actively sought out a Unitarian Universalist church, long my tradition but not much my practice in those years in Winston-Salem. I was embraced by Rev. Linda Hoddy and the members of the UU Congregation of Saratoga Springs, which quickly became my home, and which provided space for me to hear my call to ministry.

But in those first few months, feeling very unsure of myself and my footing, figuring out how to be in my family system again without losing myself, figuring out what to do with my life, I encountered a religious community who held and loved me, even as they were in their own pain and sorrow, as a beloved member, Sarah, surrendered her fight against stage-four breast cancer. I watched a community have enough love and care for all of us, and it helped me focus outside of myself and truly begin to heal.

In those last months of 2004, Sarah worked as she was able on what was to be the centerpiece of a large quilt that now hangs at the back of the chancel at UU Saratoga – it features a dove which can also be a chalice, with the only piece of metallic fabric, a beacon of peace and love.

Sarah died on Christmas Eve. When the quilt, called “Journey Well,” was completed a few months later, we saw the center and instantly called it Sarah’s Circle. And we sang this song in her memory. And we all cried.

I barely knew Sarah – I met her only once. But I carry that memory, and every time I am at UU Saratoga, I pause for a moment when I approach the quilt to remember her.

Journey well, Sarah.

Journey well, all.

Later this morning, I am leading our congregation’s Teach In on White Supremacy, joining over 600 Unitarian Universalist congregations around the country in examining the larger cultural systems that even progressive organizations like ourselves don’t realize we’re perpetuating.

In this service, I am preferencing the words of people of color, letting their words inform and minister to my largely elderly, almost entirely white congregation. To pontificate myself would do a huge disservice, for how can I possibly speak for those whose pain, fear, anger, and sorrow I can never know?

Similarly, I find myself unable to talk much about this song, which holds such deep resonance for the descendants of enslaved Africans, for whom this song spoke of hope, salvation, and freedom. It may have been a coded song, although its origins in 1825 or so tell us it was being sung was before the Underground Railroad, and certainly before the US Colored Infantry and US Colored Troops, which some say the original lyric “soldiers of the cross” alludes to.

What I know is that there is a deep, soulful, melancholy to this song that I can never understand for myself but can hear from others, most powerfully, to me, from Sweet Honey in the Rock:

We are climbing Jacob’s ladder,
we are climbing Jacob’s ladder,
we are climbing Jacob’s ladder,
we are climbing on.

Ev’ry round goes higher, higher…

If I stumble, will you help me? …

Though the road is steep and rugged…


Painting of Jacob’s Ladder is by Marc Chagall

This tune is apparently a magnet for messed up rhymes.

Now to John Holmes’ credit, his lyrics generally rhyme in a comfortable ABAB structure, but goodness, we got off to a rocky start, as ‘tablecloth’ does not rhyme with ‘truth’ … and while we’re at it, the tune does not support the correct pronunciation of the word ‘harvest’ instead making us sing ‘har-VEST’ which is just silly.

But let’s get into the hymn itself – these lyrics from John Holmes, whose words I adore in O God of Stars and Sunlight.

As a song, I don’t like them. This is one of those cases where the metaphors and narrative imagery require time and connection; singing them in this Gregorian-like chant disguises the poem’s ebb and flow. While I like this tune in other settings, I think it’s a bad pairing here.

I mean, who doesn’t want to sit with that second verse – ‘careless noon, the houses lighted late’… ‘the doorways worn at sill’… wow. The images are lush as Holmes describes the peace we can know right now… the peace and restorative, emotional and spiritual coziness the Danes call ‘hygge.’

The peace not past our understanding falls
like light upon the soft white tablecloth
at winter supper warm between four walls,
a thing too simple to be tried as truth.

Not scholar’s calm, nor gift of church or state,
nor everlasting date of death’s release;
but careless noon, the houses lighted late,
harvest and holiday: the people’s peace.

Days into years, the doorways worn at sill,
years into lives, the plans for long increase
come true at last for those of God’s good will:
these are the things we mean by saying, Peace.

This is a terrific lyric, awkward rhyme notwithstanding. It captures something ineffable about our everyday lives that matters in how we live with and for each other. But I say read it – or find a more lush, graceful, expansive tune.

I’m going to let you down, dear reader, because there is a distinct lack of content today.

I feel like I have a lot more work to do to understand this song’s actual origins, the history of its use by Harriet Tubman as a code song for the Underground Railroad, and its use today. I feel ill-equipped to talk about whether I think this should, or shouldn’t be in our hymnal, and what conditions and warnings I would give around the use of such. And … I don’t have the energy to talk about the Biblical text this song speaks to, even though I spent eight months studying Exodus for a show I co-wrote and directed in seminary.

But right now all of these thoughts and directions to investigate seem too big, too important, and too much in need of thoughtful consideration to rush through it on a Sunday morning when I still have service preparations to make.

The short version of it all is this: the song tune is called Tubman to honor this incredible woman, the story of Israelite freedom was a useful and needed allegory for the enslaved as they sought their own freedom, and I always fear that as predominantly white folk, we misuse songs like this.

And still, it’s a good one to sing, especially on the eve of Martin Luther King Jr. Day – it gets down to your toes and resonates in your chest and speaks to that deep yearning in the belly of our humanity.

When Israel was in Egypt’s land,
let my people go;
oppressed so hard they could not stand,
let my people go.

Go down, Moses,
way down in Egypt land,
tell old Pharaoh,
to let my people go.

The Lord told Moses what to do,
let my people go;
to lead the tribe of Israel through,
let my people go. (Chorus)

For you the cloud shall clear the way,
let my people go;
a fire by night,
a shade by day,
let my people go. (Chorus)

We need not always weep and moan,
let my people go;
and wear these slav’ry chains forlorn,
let my people go. (Chorus)

And so, dear reader, I owe you on this one.