A few times over the course of this practice, I’ve talked about the work of a hymn, mostly in reference to hymns that I don’t think carry their weight. And some of you have asked me what I mean by that, and it’s important as we approach today’s hymn, which I’m not sure I like.

For me, this discussion begins with remembering the inextricable connection between worship and theater, as ancient humans began to act out their centering stories and ideas about how the world and the mysterious worked. As religions develop with their various performative elements, so does performance outside the ritual space, each growing up and changing in tandem. At some point there’s a clear delineation, yet through the millennia, liturgy learns from theater learns from liturgy learns from theater ad infinitum. It shouldn’t surprise you that one of my courses in seminary was entitled Ritual and Performance, where we explored performative arts in our deepening of ritual form and function.

Now central to theater, and subsequently to worship as well, is what we might call  story arc; something shifts from the time we start to the time we finish. If we’re listening to a fairy tale, we go from ‘once upon a time’ to ‘they lived happily ever after.’ If we’re watching a play – say, Romeo and Juliet – we go from ‘Two households, both alike in dignity / In fair Verona, where we make our scene” to ‘For never was a story of more woe / Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.” And in between, there’s a story. We go from point to point, each part of the performance getting us further along.

This is especially important when we talk about musical theater, as what separates the art form from others is that the music isn’t tangential but is vital to the plot. Something changes or shifts during each song, whether it’s expository information that helps us get oriented (“Fugue for Tinhorns” from Guys and Dolls explains the setting and general character of our characters) or working out a decision (“Rose’s Turn” from Gypsy), or making/breaking a connection between characters (“No One Is Alone” from Into the Woods). Occasionally you have a true performance piece (“Don’t Tell Mama” from Cabaret), but even there, there’s something happening about character and plot, an undercurrent even as you enjoy the number.

Through this lens, then, liturgical elements in a worship service – from introits and opening hymns to prayers, readings, sermons, and offerings to benedictions and postludes – all have a performative character and are meant to do some work to  move our ‘story’ along. Sometimes our story, or arc, is hard to nail down, but whatever our worship’s intent, we are in fact telling a sacred story with words and music. Thus, thinking about each separate element in terms of this musical theater idea of the work of the songs will help create the emotional, spiritual, and intellectual journey we hope to bring people on (whether it be deepening, awakening, healing, etc.).

Which means our music – including our hymns – have work to do. They are elements that help shape the arc of our worship so that we’re not experiencing emotional or spiritual whiplash. It’s why we spend a lot of time looking for the right hymns with the right mood and feel, hymns that mean we’re a little bit changed (or have the potential to be) by the time we’ve finished singing them. And I recognize that one reason this spiritual practice of mine has become popular is that I give clues about the genre, mood, tempo, and emotional arc of these hymns, helping you place them well in the liturgical stories you’re telling each week. Whether it’s Gather the Spirit, serving as a prologue, or Find a Stillness, bringing us into prayer, or We Would Be One, bringing people together, or Wake Now My Senses, leading us to decisions about our call, or even Go Now in Peace, helping us make a transition in the story – these hymns do some work to serve the arc of worship.

Which brings me back to today’s hymn, a jazzy number by one of my favorite UU composers, Tom Benjamin.

When I first started today, I was sure my response would be one of pure disappointment, because on first singing, it’s simply a ‘yay nature’ song, and god knows we had plenty of those a year ago. Yet as I think about the things I’ve written above, I understand now that it’s not so much a ‘move the story along’ hymn but a ‘set the stage’ hymn – much like “Fugue for Tinhorns” – it tell us where we are and the character of the worship we are about to experience. And it sets a tone (upbeat and jazzy) that hopefully tells us more about what’s coming.

Praise to God and thanks we bring,
hearts rejoice and voices sing;
praises to the Glorious One;
for a year of wonder done.
Praise now for the budding green,
April’s Resurrection scene;
Praise now for the shining hours
starring all the land with flowers.

Praise now for the summer rain;
feeding day and night with grain;
praise now for the tiny seed;
holding all the word shall need;
Praise now for the garden root,
meadow grass and orchard fruit;
and for hills and valleys broad;
bring we now our thanks to God.

Praise now for the snowy rest,
falling soft on nature’s breast;
for the happy dreams of birth,
brooding in the quiet earth,
For this year of wonder done,
praise to the All glorious One;
hearts rejoice and voices sing;
praise and love and thanks we bring.

I was set to not like this hymn much and I’m still not sold on its surprisingly simple form that makes it feel (to me) a little boring, but even in my writing I have turned myself around a bit on its use. I’m not sure I would use it, but I can see how it could be used. What I hope is that what follows fits the mood as well as the theme – the service that would follow, if I were to design it, would use more upbeat, jazzy songs, maybe involve a story that feels improvised in parts, or a sermon that a conversation between music and words, perhaps include many places for voices to join together, and certainly explore the reasons why we sing praise to spring (even if it’s not actual resurrection) and what it does for our spiritual growth. If we don’t let the hymn’s work come to fruition, then it’s a weird ‘yay spring’ song and I’m not sure why it was used at all.

Thus endeth the lesson.

For readers in the US, may your Thanksgiving celebration be all you hope it will be and none of what you dread.

So… huh.

I had gotten three quarters of the way through writing today’s post, all kinds of excited about the joy in discovery, the awe and wonder of science, calling in Malvina Reynolds’ O What a Piece of Work Are We, waxing poetic about religious humanism, thinking about when I could preach this and use this as my doxology. Feast on this bounteous world indeed!

And then I read the lyrics again…

Sing loudly till the stars have heard.
In joy, feast on this bounteous word!
Our praises call us to explore
till suns shall rise and set no more.

Feast on this bounteous WORD.

This anonymously written lyric isn’t so much about science as it is about sacred texts. Perhaps the sacred text at the center of our Protestant forebears, in fact. And not that this still isn’t about our human joy of learning and meaning making – it is. But it’s not the same lyric I started writing about.

This isn’t to say I wouldn’t still use this for a service about the fourth principle, or perhaps on the sacred texts of the third and fourth source. And if I did, I’d use Old Hundredth – of the three tunes, that is in my mind the most praiseful.


My post will be short today, as I have succumbed to what is commonly known as “con crud” – the general flu-like illness that befalls many a convention attendee. But I wouldn’t be true to this practice without at least singing through this beloved hymn and making a few comments before the siren song of my bed overtakes my weakened resolve.

I do love this hymn, although I think one reason is that when I hear it in my head, I hear Geraldine Granger, the Vicar of Dibley, singing it. I’m not sure what episode it appears in (“Songs of Praise” maybe?) but what I love about her singing is the enthusiasm with which she does it, egging a tiny congregation on to sing robustly.

I also love that this is in our hymnal, a wonderful expression of the transcendent god we find in the Bible.

Immortal, invisible, God only wise.
In light inaccessible hid from our eyes,
most blessed, most glorious, the Ancient of Days,
almighty, victorious, thy great name we praise.

Unresting, unhasting, and silent as light,
nor wanting, nor wasting, thou rulest in might;
thy justice like mountains high soaring above
thy clouds which are fountains of goodness and love.

To all, life thou givest, to great and to small;
in all life thou livest, the true life of all;
all laud we would render; oh, help us to see,
‘tis only the splendor of light hideth thee.

Perhaps the only quibble (and I’m not sure I disagree with this one) is that our Hymnal Commission compressed verses 3 and 4 into one verse that better reflects the process threads in our theology. Here are the original verses 3 and 4, by 19th century Scottish minister Walter Chambers Smith, who led the Free Church of Edinburgh and later was moderator of the Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland:

To all, life thou givest, to both great and small;
in all life thou livest, the true life of all;
we blossom and flourish like leaves on the tree,
then wither and perish, but naught changeth thee.

Thou reignest in glory, thou dwellest in light,
thine angels adore thee, all veiling their sight;
all praise we would render; O help us to see
’tis only the splendor of light hideth thee!

I don’t mind losing tree leaves and angels – in fact, I think the combined verse is stronger and better.

Anyway… enjoy this delightful, free Scottish hymn while I crawl back to bed.

I couldn’t find a Free Church in Edinburgh that looked old enough to be Smith’s congregation – so our image is of a Free Church in the village of Lochinver, which looks old enough and pretty enough that we’d want it to be his Edinburgh congregation.

Confession time: I did not actually sing this today.

It’s not that I don’t like this hymn – I do. It’s that I have laryngitis and I physically can’t. That laryngitis – and the accompanying cold – is also why this is so late: I turned off the alarm so I could sleep. The good news is I am not preaching this weekend; the bad news is I am singing and doing a blessing of hands at Diana McLean’s installation – so I have to find the voice by Sunday afternoon. Fingers crossed!

Anyway, I said I like this hymn, and I do. First, it’s got a wonderful tune to sing – as Jacqui James notes in Between the Lines, it is one of seven traditional tunes for this text and “has been the accepted Friday evening tune in England for two centuries.”

The text is pretty wonderful too – without any context, this is a fantastic view into the transcendent God upon high that we find now and then in our hymnal. This is the God Luther sings to in A Mighty Fortress Is Our God and whom we see in Immortal Invisible and Immortal Love. A loving, strong, god-outside-of-us. A solid, Psalm 23 god. Very much an Old Testament god.  And…one that seems somehow present and connected to our more theistic theologies.

Praise to the living God! All praised be The Name,
which was, and is, and is to be, for aye the same.
The one eternal God ere aught that now appears:
the first, the last, beyond all thought or timeless years.

Unformed all lovely forms declare God’s loveliness;
no holiness on earth can e’er The Name express
whose love enfolds us all; whose laud the earth displays.
Yea, everywhere, above, below, is perfect praise.

The spirit floweth free, high surging where it will;
in prophet’s word did speak of old, and speaketh still.
The Torah rests secure, and changeless it shall stand,
deep writ upon the human heart, on sea and land.

Eternal life hath God implanted in the soul;
such love shall be our strength and stay while ages roll.
Praise to the living God! All praised be The Name
which was, and is, and is to be, for aye the same.

In context, however, it’s even more wonderful. I will quote James here, as her explanation of the hymn text is pretty awesome:

This text, originally named “The Yigdal” fo its first Hebrew word, is sun antiphonally by cantor and congregation at the close of Jewish worship on the eve of the Sabbath and other festivals. probably written by Daniel ben Judah Dayyan between 1396 and 1404, it is a versification of the thirteen articles of Jewish faith drawn up by Maimonides. A Christian hymn based on “The Yigdal,” written ca. 1770 by Thomas Olivers, and English Methodist preacher, was used in England and the United States. In the 1880s, Rabbi Max Landsberg of Temple Berith Kodesh in Rochester, NY, asked Newton Mann, minister of the Unitarian church there, to make a more exact translation. later, Rabbi Landsberg asked Mann’s successor, William Channing Gannett, to recast Mann’s version in traditional meter. That version, omitting one stanza, appears here in revised form.

Now I’m not sure what was omitted – and yes, the revisions are largely about gender – but I am both surprised and not that a rabbi and a Unitarian minister worked together on this. It feels both appropriate and connected.

I’m a fan. I just wish I’d had a voice to sing it today.


This is the second of what I realize now are three times when the same lyrics are applied to two different tunes. Now in the case of Light of Ages and of Nations, and later, O Little Town of Bethlehem, they are actually two completely different tunes. But here, we have two distinct versions of the same tune – the one you all know and love.

The first is in 3/4 time, as we commonly sing it. The second is an expansion into 4/4 time, giving it a different sort of swing and feel. The first swings in an old timey sort of way. It feels comfortable and familiar, like an old shoe. The second offers some swing, to be sure, but also a little breathing room for that emotional swing and subsequent trills.

It’s a trick that’s used for a variety of reasons, this expansion of time signature. Perhaps most famously, it was used to highlight a beautiful voice at a momentous occasion, namely Whitney Houston singing the National Anthem at Super Bowl XXV in 1991.

The original is written in 3/4 – you can feel it as you being singing, right? Or if you need help, here’s Martina McBride singing it in 3/4 during the 2005 World Series, in St. Louis:

Beautiful, yes. Familiar. And pure, in its simplicity.

But now hear what Whitney did, by expanding it to 4/4:

While it’s true that this also came in the midst of a tense Gulf War, this rendition – giving space for leaning into the meaning and her beautiful voice – made this an instant classic.

Giving space – isn’t that what grace is all about anyway? And so I invite you to sing this both ways – to feel both its grounding and its expansive space.

Amazing grace! How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.

‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved;
how precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed!

Through many dangers, toils and snares, I have already come;
‘tis grace that brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.

When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun,
we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise than when we’d first begun.

I know there are some who hate the word “wretch,” but there is something grittier, more real, about it. Soul (the option offered in the hymnal) can be sweet and ambiguous. Wretch is clear and focused. And while I firmly believe humans are innately good (a very anti-Calvinist position), I believe that we can be easily sucked into despair, destruction, and evil – and grace, however you define it and wherever it comes from, is what saves us. For me, it’s an easy line to draw between this song and the not-very-old UUA slogan, “nurture our spirits, help heal the world.”

But however you sing it, it’s a comforting hymn that calls us back to ourselves and gives us room to let go of the fears and pains we carry.

Amazing grace, indeed.

This is a devotional prayer if ever I heard one.

And I suspect this text, by Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore, would make some Unitarian Universalists squeamish, this whole-hearted surrender to the Divine. Yet it is a vital theological perspective found in our congregations – even if those who adhere to it might not say it aloud very much.

For me and my theology, I could use a little whole-hearted surrender now and then. We talk a lot about the expansiveness of God’s love in our Universalist theology, but then we try to place limits on how much love we’ll give back, in the name of reason, as though a devotion to the Eternal One means we have less devotion to give to each other and the planet.

Here’s the thing about love: it really, truly, honestly is limitless. The first line of There Is More Love Somewhere isn’t about a gathering of resources, it’s an opening to what already exists. So what happens when we do give the whole and not the part of ourselves to that which is bigger than ourselves, which some call Spirit of Life, or Holy One, or Collective Unconscious, or God? What happens when we surrender?

Your mercy, Oh Eternal one by no heart measured yet;
in joy, or grief, or shade, or sun I never will forget.

I give the whole and not the part of all you gave to me;
my goods, my life, my soul, my heart I yield them all as free.

And when in silent awe we wait, and word and sign forebear,
the hinges of the golden gate move soundless at our prayer.

I can tell you what happened when I surrendered: I heard the call to ministry.

And here’s the truth: by giving myself whole-heartedly to that something greater, I regularly challenge my perspective, my ego, my deeply held beliefs, my way of doing things. Whole-hearted devotion doesn’t mean losing yourself, it means losing the things that no longer serve or help. In fact, I am more in touch with my mind, my reason, the needs of others, the call to justice, the healing and transforming power of love.

Maybe we need a little less skepticism and a little more devotion.

We need a little more whole-heartedness.

I can’t let this go by without a mention of the tune, Dundee. While most of the tune is rather typical of psalter tunes from the British Isles, the first line is magical. There’s something about the closing of the interval in the second phrase of the line that is delicious and warm and other words I can’t access at the moment. It’s a powerful musical moment for me.

Today’s pic is another beautiful image by photographer Jeremy Garretson.  Go look, then buy  his stuff.

There’s a funny opening in an episode of Family Guy, where the guys are sitting at the Drunken Clam, and a Barry Manilow concert is announced. At first they make fun of it, but slowly, they are comfortable enough to confess how much they love Manilow and are soon like excited teenagers as they plan to see him in concert.

I feel a little like this, especially in the company of my friends who are lovers of much less schmaltzy English composers like Benjamin Britten. But the truth is, I love Ralph Vaughn Williams, who set this English folk tune in a lovely arrangement. He did hymnody a great service with his settings and compositions. He parted from his contemporaries and leaned into the beautiful folk tunes of England and France, and wrote lush, harmonious pieces that are a joy to listen to and a joy to sing. And I am definitely a fan of this tune.

I also rather like the lyrics, with some rich metaphors and turns of phrase, although their place is complex: is it a winter hymn? An Advent hymn? A praise hymn? Some part of all three, I suspect.

All beautiful the march of days, as seasons come and go;
the hand that shaped the rose hath wrought the crystal of the snow;
hath sent the hoary frost of heaven, the flowing waters sealed,
and laid a silent loveliness on hill and wood and field.

O’er white expanses sparkling clear the radiant morns unfold;
the solemn splendors of the night burn brighter through the cold;
life mounts in every throbbing vein, love deepens round the hearth,
and clearer sounds the angel-hymn, “Good will to all on earth.”

O Thou from whose unfathomed law the year in beauty flows,
thy self the vision passing by in crystal and in rose.
Day unto day doth utter speech, and night to night proclaim,
in ever changing words of light, the wonder of thy name.

My problem is this: the tune’s a bit cheery and springy and seems a tad odd in this setting. It will seem odd in future posts too – I go back to my comment a few weeks ago about how meter doesn’t always mean the lyrics fit. For me, it’s a hair too happy a tune, especially for lyrics like “laid a silent loveliness” and “life mounts in every throbbing vein, love deepens round the hearth”… I don’t want spritely trills while singing those lyrics, I want a lush, lengthened melody line there.

And for all this grousing, I sang this with some measure of gusto. The tune almost requires a full-bodied sing with its lilt and intricate movement. So I don’t know. Maybe this series has me looking at these hymns with a more critical eye than is necessary. Maybe it’s the mood, and it will pass, and soon I will be transported again into the mystery, inspiration, and comfort of singing hymns. Who knows?

What I know is that despite my thinking this marriage of tune and lyric doesn’t quite work, I am glad for the singing.


I’m trying – I really am. These songs, tho’…

We sing of golden mornings, we sing of sparkling seas,
of prairies, valleys, mountains, and stately forest trees.
We sing of flashing sunshine and life-bestowing rain,
of birds among the branches, and springtime come again.

We sing the heart courageous, the youthful, eager mind;
we sing of hopes undaunted, of friendly ways and kind.
We sing the roses waiting beneath the deep-piled snows;
we sing the earth’s great splendor, whose beauty ‘round us glows.

If I were in a different headspace, I’d be making some vaguely academic comments about Emerson and his journey with the immanent divine, which might include a dalliance into his exploration of Hindu texts.

And then I’d be commenting on the richness of the tunes from William Walker’s Southern Harmony and expressing gratitude for the preservation of these folk tunes.

But I am not in the right headspace today. My spiritual practice isn’t working to give me comfort or enliven thought. I suppose it’s true of any spiritual practice – sometimes you do it and it blows your mind, sometimes you do it and you check it off your To-Do list. Today is definitely the latter.

What has been helping are conversations with friends and colleagues – and a bit of immersion into the arts. My friend Micah Bucey, the fierce minister of the arts at Judson Memorial in NYC, reminded me that I need to both make art and take in art. Dr. Hal Taussig, one of my professors at Union Theological Seminary, says art helps us “enter the difficult sideways” so that we can approach the hard and sad and terrifying safely.

So… art.

Which I suppose these hymns are, too.

Maybe I’ve been doing as Micah and Hal have advised all along…

The Universe has a sense of humor.

Morning has broken like the first morning,
blackbird has spoken like the first bird.
Praise for the singing! Praise for the morning!
Praise for them, springing fresh from the Word!

Sweet the rain’s new fall sunlit from heaven,
like the first dewfall on the first grass.
Praise for the sweetness of the wet garden,
sprung in completeness where God’s feet pass.

Mine is the sunlight! Mine is the morning
born of the one light Eden saw play!
Praise with elation, praise every morning,
God’s recreation of the new day!

It is, for me and millions of us, dark days. Hard mornings. As one colleague said on Facebook, I go to sleep and all is well, then I wake up, remember, and I cry. For those both shocked at the election results and scared of what might happen if the attitudes expressed in the campaign come to fruition, these are hard days, as we deal with a deep sense of foreboding and struggle to find a path forward.

So of course, I am starting the Morning series of hymns. Bright, shiny, beautiful dawns. And of course it starts with this otherwise popular, easy to sing, inspiring hymn, made popular in the 1970s by Cat Stevens.

Of course.

And of course, it’s a bright and crisp autumn morning here. The song matches the weather.

Oh Universe, what are you like?

The sermon kinda writes itself, doesn’t it. Always dark before the dawn, one day at a time, tomorrow is another day, etc. And the truth is, I’m not ready to write that sermon yet, or even that blog post. I’m not ready for the re-creation of a new day. I’m not ready to praise much of anything. I think that’s okay. If I were to bypass my own emotional process, I would be doing neither me nor anyone else any good.

But what I suspect these next few hymns will do for me – and maybe for you too – is hold the door open for when I’m ready to walk toward it. Some little musical reminders that life calls us on, that the world is forever turning, that we are still here.

Anyway. Be good to yourself in these days. Do the next right thing. Hold space. Love.


A meta celebration.

When in our music God is glorified,
and adoration leaves no room for pride,
it is as though the whole creation cried Alleluia!

How often, making music, we have found
a new dimension in the world of sound,
as worship moved us to a more profound Alleluia!

So has the church, in liturgy and song,
in faith and love, where centuries of wrong,
borne witness to the truth in every tongue, Alleluia!

Let every instrument be tuned for praise!
Let all rejoice who have a voice to raise!
And may God give us faith to sing always Alleluia!

I don’t know what I expected when I turned the page to this hymn – something with a hint of a justice and compassion hook, maybe…. something to reflect the importance of this day (American presidential election day). What we have is a song about singing.

Totally meta.

And completely appropriate.

There are few things that cut so perfectly through all of the ideologies and theologies as music. There are few things that draw us together into intentional harmony as music. There are few things that vibrate our every essence so completely as music. There are few things that give so pure a voice to our spirit as music.

Music invokes deep memory. Music fills our empty spaces. Music speaks when words cannot. And music is universal – everywhere there is humanity there is music, and while musical styles sometimes feel foreign to us, there are some basic truths about music that cut across culture. I love the example Bobby McFerrin gives in a panel at the World Science Festival in 2009:

It’s amazing how much music brings us together.

And so, on this day which is all about choices, divisions, winners and losers – it’s a joy to be reminded of something that hooks our very souls into that something greater.