One of the things I love best about pagan ritual is the embodiment of creating sacred space. It’s not just about entering a room and calling it sacred, it’s about being present to the physicality of the room, recognizing our connection to and grounding as part of creation, and visualizing the protective and enlivening presence of the immanent divine. There is intention in creating that sacred space, that ‘time out of time, place out of place’ where we can meet that which we call holy. In some circles, participants are asked to face in the four directions as we ‘call’ them into our presence. And as we do, we do have the sense that we are visualizing the energetic circle being formed around us.

That embodiment is reflected beautifully in this piece by UU composer Amanda Udis-Kessler; her lyrics connect us humans to the interdependent web not just as things to see but as things to feel and be changed by.

Mother Earth, beloved garden, living treasure under foot,
All our days you ground our being: sage and thistle, grass and root.
Herbs to heal us, plants to feed us, land to till and tend and plow.
With the pendant, deep as midnight, North we ask you: be here now.

Father Air, your inspiration holds together all that lives.
As we breathe, our minds see clearly, leading us to love and give.
Raging whirlwind, whispered breezes, violent gale and gentle cloud.
With the blade as sharp as morning, East we ask you: be here now.

Brother Fire, great transformer, share the passion of the sun.
In our hearths, your warmth revives us, cooks our food and heats our homes.
Flaming candle, blood within us, blazing desert, will to grow.
With the wand, directing power, South we ask you: be here now.

Sister Water, ever flowing, ocean, river, pond and rain.
Drink we now and quench our thirsting, cleanse us, we begin again.
Mist and ice, a host of changes, all that courage will allow.
With the cup, the holy chalice, West we ask you, be here now.

Lover Spirit, intuition in the center of our souls.
In your love we find relation. All connected, we are whole.
Timeless mystery, quiet conscience, deepest values, voice inside.
With the drum and with the cauldron, this we ask you, be our guide.

I really like this piece. It’s great, of course, for calling the directions to set sacred space. But it’s also great for talking about how we connect to the planet we call home. Of course, there are issues with the binary language – another case of how far we have come in just 13 years. I’m not sure what to replace them with, and I don’t know if our composer has considered a change, but I hope she has.

Meanwhile, it’s lovely to sing, easy to play, and a definite keeper.


Rejected intro paragraphs:

This makes me think of Greg Greenway, Joe Jencks, and Pat Wictor – the members of the musical group Brother Sun. Except they’ve broken up now, and any memory I have of them has nothing to do with the song.

It’s nice to have a song that’s good to call the directions with…except…wait… huh. I don’t know how you’d do that physically. Never mind.

Let’s start right off with the ugly truth: there’s a lot of binary language. Because I am Captain Obvious.

Who doesn’t love a Scottish melody – because if it isn’t Scottish, it’s crap! Yeah, now I’m just getting silly. Plus, actor/comedian Mike Myers is notoriously a massive, impossible jerk and that’s why he doesn’t make movies anymore.

Well, folks, I’m out of ideas. This song doesn’t move me one way or another, and I can’t seem to find a way in. So… let’s just star. This song, by Sharon Anway, has some nice metaphors for elements of life…

O Brother Sun, you bring us light, all shining ‘round in fiery might.
O Sister Moon, you heal and bless, your beauty shines in tenderness.
O Brother Wind, you sweep the hills, your mighty breath both freshens and fills.
O Sister Water, you cleanse and flow through rivers and streams, in ice and snow.

O Brother Fire, you warm our night with all your dancing colored light.
O Sister Earth, you feed all things, all birds, all creatures, all scales and wings.
O Sister Death, you meet us here and take us to our God so near.
O God of Life, we give you praise for all your creatures, for all your ways.

…which are, by and large, the work of Francis of Assisi. Now normally I’d be cooing over stuff by this particular monk/mystic/saint, because I was born on his feast day and tend to like his mystic writings. But this one has always left me cold. Anway’s setting doesn’t help. The fact that it’s a list doesn’t help either. When we talk about hymns doing some work to get us from one state to another, this one gets me from unchecked-off list to checked-off list without anything actually being accomplished.

Ho hum.

And I’m very likely alone on this. That’s fine. I’m not a fan of it, I struggle to find a way to use it. But blessed are those who do.


Let me explain (updated 1/22/2018): at General Assembly in Louisville in 2013, despite terrible cell reception, many attendees endeavored to live tweet the events as they unfolded. On Friday morning, we sang Blue Boat Home. Friend and colleague Hannah Roberts made a comment to her friend Meredith Lukow, who tweeted:

… because like “Freebird” by Lynyrd Skynyrd, it is a popular song that people longed to hear, often requested, and reacted to in a kind of rock-anthem awe. The joke spread like wildfire, being retweeted and remarked upon throughout the days. On Sunday morning, Bill Schultz preached about the earth and its inhabitants, and as he finished (to great applause), the band began playing this song. To which Twitter – and more than a few voices in the room – shouted “FREEBIRD!” and more than a few hands in the room held up their hands as though holding a lighter. It was an hysterically transcendent moment.

Which is not surprising, because it is a beautifully transcendent song.

Peter Mayer wrote these gorgeous lyrics to the gorgeous Hyfrodol tune, but he also recast the tune a bit. It’s still in the same meter (3/4), but guitar strums turned to piano notation makes it feel more like 6/8, which makes it feel as rolling and pulsing as the ocean itself. He also extends the final phrase, giving space and room for “blue…. boat… home” to breathe and fill us with wonder.

Though below me, I feel no motion standing on these mountains and plains.
Far away from the rolling ocean still my dry land heart can say:
I’ve been sailing all my life now, never harbor or port have I known.
The wide universe is the ocean I travel and the earth is my blue boat home.

Sun my sail and moon my rudder as I ply the starry sea,
leaning over the edge in wonder, casting questions into the deep.
Drifting here with my ship’s companions, all we kindred pilgrim souls,
making our way by the lights of the heavens in our beautiful blue boat home.

I give thanks to the waves up holding me, hail the great winds urging me on,
greet the infinite sea before me, sing the sky my sailor’s song:
I was born up on the fathoms, never harbor or port have I known.
The wide universe is the ocean I travel, and the earth is my blue boat home.

Really, there is nothing bad to say about this one, except maybe that we can’t use it all the time. Mayer gorgeously captures the awe and wonder of our first source, and the amazing planetary grounding of our seventh principle, along with mysticism and humanism and gratitude.

Really. What a gorgeous song.

A short programming note: After today, I have only ten…TEN! hymns left. We’re in the home stretch! On the 11th day, I will write some sort of summary post, and then I’ll take a short sabbatical from daily writing while I figure out what’s next.

So… I have thoughts. In no particular order:

Jim Scott does like a long verse, doesn’t he? (No judgment, really, just noticing that his song make for long hymns.)

It took three phrases to become a Jim Scott song, because he has a signature style – and then it’s very much a Jim Scott composition. (Again, no judgment – more of an ‘oh!’ when we get there.)

If you omit the first verse, this is a great child dedication song. (And maybe you don’t even have to omit the first verse, if you can hang through “ancient story” and “longest night.”

Ancient story lived again, dark of longest night.
Birth of innocence and hope kindles our delight.
All celebrate the labor’s end.
Forth in laughter, tear and smile.
Light of love and joy extend all around the child

New life fragile yet complete, life from love once more.
Universal miracle, faith in life restore.
The harmony of all the world
lulls the newborn child to rest.
Welcome dreamer, safely sleep on your mother’s breast.

May our wonder never cease, Nature’s greatest art.
Birth and breath of life again warms the coldest heart.
Now rich and simple gifts bestowed,
Sacred promises well made.
Reverence and hope renewed all around the babe.

Vision for humanity, all around the child.
Loving as one family all around the child.
Life passages well understood,
known and felt around the earth;
Rich or poor we each are blessed by the miracle of birth.

Which brings me to the last thought (well, almost – I’m trying to figure out his use of the word “forth” in the first verse): this is a very non-offensive hymn for a group of people who are offended by celebrating the birth of Jesus every year and the explicit nature of many beloved carols. And I get it. I mean, I have personally heard the criticisms of a rather Christian Christmas Eve service (“because it’s Christmas-freaking-Eve” I want to shout but don’t), and I suspect this piece comforts people because while some of the key notes are hit (“reverence and hope renewed”, “miracle of birth”, “the child”, “ancient story”, etc.) there’s nothing terribly explicit about the birth of Jesus – thus my assertion that this could be used for a child dedication. You know it’s a Christmas song because we put it in the Christmas section and hint to it, but it’s really quite ubiquitous.

Don’t get me wrong – it’s a good song, and I have used it. It’s one of the easier Jim Scott pieces for a congregation to sing, as long as there are strong song leaders for the Scott turn in the third phrase. I am always impressed with Jim’s lyricism and turns of phrase.

But my thoughts have turned into feelings, and something isn’t feeling right to me. Maybe it’s the grief talking, maybe it’s the exhaustion of so many days of hymns, maybe it’s the spectre of a new project that involves the Bible. The truth is, I am not sure what I’m feeling about it, but it feels tender to me.

Anyway. Don’t be put off by its length. Or break it up. Or pick a couple of verses. And have a strong song leader.

Another image from Pixabay. Babies come with hats.

For a long time I loved this one. I thought it was a great creative, artsy way to think about our lives.

But when you sit down and really think about it – the initial metaphor, the remaining lyrics – yeah, not so much. Here are Jim Scott’s lyrics – the chorus of a longer song turned into a round (based on a Russian folk song):

May your life be as a song,
Resounding with the dawn
to sing awake the light.
And softly serenade the stars,
Ever dancing circles in the night.

Here are my problems:

First, if my life is a song, it’s reasonably short and likely forgettable. Short is okay, when you think about how short our time is on earth compared to the earth itself or even the universe. But likely forgettable? An annoying ear worm? A repetitive hook? Yeah, no thanks. I’d rather my life be a symphony, or an opera, or something longer that tells a story and contains themes and variations and a sense of impact.

Second, why is my song only in concert with things I have no affect on? Sun’s gonna rise whether I’m here or not, stars did that dancing we see long before we were more than a single-cell paramecium. I’d rather my life resound with the interconnected web of existence as it is now, singing awake our own internal lights, serenading the children we raise, voicing our truths.

Maybe it’s my mood, but I’m growing tired of our desire to be detached and sound wise, when all we are really is detaching from the wisdom we find on the ground.

My third problem is less about the lyrics and more about the music – Jim’s full song is a bossa nova – but if you don’t know that, it becomes complex to sing, and the unusual timing of some lines just doesn’t work if you don’t have that beat in your head. As the image shows below, it’s a syncopated beat that you almost need to feel before this round makes any sense.



Fourth – how did a Russian folk song become a bossa nova anyway?

Bottom line: I used to love this song, and I really don’t anymore.


I want to start with a word of gratitude for the STJ hymnal commission, who thought to include some short responses in this slim volume. It would have been easy to only include bigger songs and hymns, but they knew (probably because most of them were music directors themselves) that we needed fresh music to fill those spaces in our worship – spaces where we receive the offering, or send the children to religious education classes, or respond to a prayer, or welcome us in, or send us out.

This short piece – another beauty composed by Tom Benjamin – is a pretty setting of the Theodore Parker words (a fuller version can be found in STLT, reading #683).

Be ours a religion
which like sunshine goes everywhere,
its temple all space,
its shrine the good heart,
its creed all truth,
its ritual works of love.

I could see this as an introit – welcome to this faith community, and here’s what we’re like – or as a benediction – go bring this out to the world. Either way, it’s a lovely little piece. I think it’s a bit tricky, but once you learn it, it’s in your bones.

I wish I had more to say today. Parker’s words are in some ways a call to arms, and in some ways an admonition – this is who we say we are, but are we? It’s easy to puff ourselves up and say “we are this” but I think it’s more important that we say “we strive to be this.” Parker’s words are a vision of Unitarianism (and, by modern extrapolation and extension, Unitarian Universalism). And on this day when we remember Dr. King’s dream, we can remember our own dreams for who we strive to be.

One of my favorite December Sundays is the one a minister designates as “Mitten Tree Sunday.” For those who haven’t experienced this wonderful service, it begins with a Christmas tree on the chancel, empty but for some lights. Often, the Candace Christiansen story that inspired the service is told, other times different stories about giving and grace appear – told, acted out, or otherwise referenced. And then the invitation comes, and everyone has the opportunity to decorate the tree with mittens, and gloves, and hats and scarves and other cold-weather accessories. After the service, those items are donated to a group that can suitably distribute them to those in need.

It is a small, but a tangible way to live out the call reflected in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 25, verses 31-41. Which, of course is also the call of this hymn, by Jose Antonio Oliver, which is inspired by the liberation theology of Peruvian priest and theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez, which emphasizes a concern for the liberation of the oppressed.

Cuando el pobre nada tiene y aún reparte,
cuando alguien pasa sed y agua nos da,
cuando el débil a su hermano forta lece,
va Dios mismo en nuestro mismo caminar;
va Dios mismo en nuestro mismo caminar.

Cuando alguno sufre y logra su Consuelo,
cuando espera y no se cansa de esperar,
cuando amamos, aunque el odio nos rodee,
va Dios mismo en nuestro mismo caminar,
va Dios mismo en nuestro mismo caminar.

Cuando crece la alegria y now inunda,
cuando dicen nuestros labios la verdad,
cuando anoramos el sentir de los sencillos,
va Dios mismo en nuestro mismo caminar,
va Dios mismo en nuestro mismo caminar.

Cuando abunda el bien y llena los hogares,
cuando alguien donde hay Guerra pone paz,
cuando “hermano” le llamamos al extraño,
va Dios mismo, en nuestro mismo caminar,
va Dios mismo en nuestro mismo caminar.

The English translation is by the Rev. Martin A. Seltz, a Lutheran (ELCA) minister/musician:

When the poor ones, who have nothing, still are giving;
when the thirsty pass the cup, water to share;
when the wounded offer others strength and healing:
we see God, here by our side, walking our way;
we see God, here by our side, walking our way.

When compassion gives the suffering consolation,
when expecting brings to birth hope that was lost;
when we choose love, not the hatred all around us;
we see God, here by our side, walking our way,
we see God, here by our side, walking our way.

When our spirits, like a chalice, brim with gladness,
when our voices, full and clear, sing out the truth,
when our longings, free from envy, seek the humble,
we see God, here by our side, walking our way,
we see God, here by our side, walking our way.

When the goodness poured from heaven fills our dwellings,
when the nations work to change war into peace,
when the stranger is accepted as our neighbor,
we see God, here by our side, walking our way,
we see God, here by our side, walking our way.

I love this hymn. I love the lyrics, I love the sentiment, and I love the melody. It is rich, and flowing, and I find it incredibly moving. It’s not often I’m in tears from singing the morning’s hymn, but this one brings me to tears from just thinking about it, no less singing it.

I hope congregations use this – not just on Mitten Tree Sundays but any time of the year when we need to remember that acts of simple generosity is liberation for all.

Featured Photo: members of First Universalist Church of Southold, NY, decorating last year’s mitten tree. The photo at the top of this page is the completed tree.

This song has been in the water for me since the late 70s, when somewhere (maybe Girl Scout camp?) I was taught the piece in the style of Art Garfunkel from his 1973 album Angel Clare. Sometime in the early 1990s, I sang a choral version that had the mark of Sweet Honey in the Rock all over it (although I can’t locate sheet music or a recording now).

Thus, I was both delighted and then a little baffled when I got to the version we have here – because there are places where the timing just seems off (specifically, there seems to be a measure missing after “we know we will” at the top of page 2), and there’s a squareness to the arrangement.

The original version, written by the Afro-pop band Osibisa, was first recorded in 1971. The original has a unique sound, a flowing rhythm, and a joyfulness that I don’t hear much in subsequent versions – even in this live version by Osibisa from 1995.

According to the UUA Song Information page,

Written by Ghanaian drummer Sol Amarifio, Woyaya is the title song of a 1971 album by Oisibisa, a musical group of Ghanaian and Caribbean musicians. It was frequently heard in work camps throughout central West Africa in the 1970s and 1980s. The arrangement in Singing the Journey comes from the version by Ysaye Barnwell (of Sweet Honey in the Rock). “Woyaya,” like many other African scat syllables, can have many meanings. According to the song’s composer, it means “We are going.”  This song is frequently used in bridging ceremonies (UU ceremonies of passage from youth to young adulthood).

Yet I wonder if it is used much anymore, because it seems to be, well, overused and thus has moved into a weird insipidness that is the death knell of many good songs.

And yet. Taking a step back from its sing-songy-ness and re-engaging the soulful joy of its Afro-pop roots somehow reclaims it for me. Because this is most assuredly the song we need a lot of days, personally and globally.

We are going,
heaven knows where we are going,
but we know within.

And we will get there,
heaven knows how we will get there,
but we know we will.

It will be hard, we know,
and the road will be muddy and rough,
but we’ll get there,
heaven knows how we will get there,
but we know we will.

Woyaya, Woyaya,
Woyaya, Woyaya,


Things I wonder:

Do some congregations sing this together fairly regularly?

Do some music directors and ministers flip past it because it is somewhat complex if you don’t know it already?

Do others flip past it because in 13 years we’ve learned that binary language is too restrictive?

Does composer and colleague Fred Small have some new lyrics for it? (12/8/17: He answered me! See the end of the post.)

Does any of that matter, given the origin story? That story goes something like this: in 1983, Small heard the distress of Janet Peterson, cellist and singer with the women’s music group Motherlode, whose nine-year-old son came home from school crying, because his friends no longer hugged each other to show that they liked each other, now the method was to hit one another. Parsons wanted a song she could sing to him to affirm the freedom to live and love as we choose, and the result was this gentle lullaby.

We have cleared off the table, the leftovers saved, washed the dishes and put them away.
I have told you a story and tucked you in tight at the end of your knockabout day.
As the moon sets its sail to carry you to sleep over the Midnight Sea,
Well, I will sign you a song no one sang to me—may it keep you good company.

You can be anybody that you want to be, you can love whomever you will.
You can travel any country where your heart leads and know I will love you still.
You can live by yourself, you can gather friends around, you can choose one special one.
And the only measure of your words and your deeds
Will be the love you leave behind when you’re gone.

Some girls grow up strong and bold; some boys are quiet and kind.
Some race on ahead, some follow behind; some go in their own way and time.
Some women love women and some men love men.
Some raise children and some never do.
You can dream all the day, never reaching the end of everything possible for you.

Don’t be rattled by names, by taunts or games, but seek out spirits true.
If you give your friends the best part of yourself, they will give the same back to you.

You can be anybody that you want to be, you can love whomever you will.
You can travel any country where your heart leads and know I will love you still.
You can live by yourself, you can gather friends around, you can choose one special one.
And the only measure of your words and your deeds
Will be the love you leave behind when you’re gone.
Oh, the love you leave behind when you’re gone.

It is sweet and sentimental, and oh so very 20th century in its language. I don’t know if any of my questions will be answered, but I hope some will.

Update: On the very active Facebook thread for this post, Fred Small offered this:

Thanks for all the kind words and thoughtful critiques of my song, “Everything Possible,” which I wrote in 1983 at the request of a lesbian mother trying to raise her 9-year-old son amidst the pressures of (toxic) masculinity. The song took off in the late 1980s when the Flirtations picked it up, leading to its performance by LGBTQ choruses around the world. The Boston Gay Men’s Chorus still sings it to their newest members at their first rehearsal. As a straight cis man, I’m deeply honored and humbled by the song’s embrace by LGBTQ singers and audiences.

I’ve thought about revising the lyrics to eliminate the gender binary. It’s not an easy fix. For now, my hope is that “You can dream all the day never reaching the end of everything possible for you” affirms an infinite range of sexual/affectional orientation and gender presentation/identity.

I don’t recommend that congregations attempt to sing the entire song because the verses and bridge are too irregular. Instead, I suggest the song be (1) performed by the choir or (2) led by a song-leader (with guitar or other accompaniment) who sings the verse and bridge and invites the congregation to join in on the chorus.

(To commenters who expressed distaste): Many of our greatest songs walk a fine line between heartfelt pathos and sentimentalized bathos. Whether “Everything Possible” crosses that line is a matter of personal opinion, and I respect yours.

Thanks to Fred.

Back in the 1980s, there was a series of commercials produced by the group Partnership for a Drug-Free America that became memes before memes were a thing; perhaps most famous is the “this is your brain on drugs” one, featuring an egg in a hot frying pan. But in second place is the one featuring a man confronting his son about drugs. “Who taught you how to do this stuff?!” he shouts incredulously. “You! I learned it by watching you” is the shocking reply.

That commercial came to mind when I sang this song, because it too is about how the ways we behave as adults affect our children. Shelly Denham’s wonderful song reminds us to take our role seriously – whether we’re parenting or just part of the community that holds our children in care.

When I am frightened, will you reassure me?
When I’m uncertain, will you hold my hand?
Will you be strong for me, sing to me quietly?
Will you share some of your stories with me?
If you will show me compassion,
then I may learn to care as you do,
then I may learn to care.

When I am angry, will you still embrace me?
When I am thoughtless, will you understand?
Will you believe in me, stand by me willingly?
Will you share some of your questions with me?
If you will show me acceptance,
then I may learn to give as you do,
then I may learn to give.

When I am troubled, will you listen to me?
When I am lonely, will you be my friend?
Will you be there for me, comfort me tenderly?
Will you share some of your feelings with me?
If you will show me commitment,
then I may learn to love as you do,
then I may learn to love.

On the UUA Song Information page, we learn the origins of this song:

This song, also titled Then I May Learn, was commissioned in 1999 by the First Unitarian Church of Dallas for their Hymnal Supplement (Voices of the Spirit) which was published for their Centennial Celebration. Because of her life-long commitment to working with and empowering youth, Shelley took the opportunity to write a piece based on children’s yearning for truth, respect, and engagement with adults. In keeping with a philosophy that “children are watching, what are they learning?”, Then I May Learn is meant as a reminder that all children deserve and need compassion, acceptance, commitment…and that they often learn to both give and receive these essential elements of relationship through the simple act of observation.

In my short time in the parish, I didn’t dedicate any children, but you can bet I would have used this song as part of that ritual. And maybe we need to be reminded of this outside of those moments as well.

What we do matters. How we show love matters. And it matters not only to our children but to each other and this hurting world. It matters, as we continue to be traumatized by this administration. It matters, as we find the courage to resist, to fight, to say “me too.” We need each other to be present for each other as we fight the good fight. It matters.

The image is a still from the above-mentioned commercial.