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.

There’s a thing that’s been happening in our congregations that is reflective of what’s been happening in our society: anxiety.

Anxiety about the current administration – its real and sustained attacks on our principles and the real and sustained traumas we are experiencing – spill over from our personal lives into our houses of worship. And while we’d like to think we are our best selves at our congregations, we often are not. And suddenly, we find ourselves more anxious about things we can’t control and a bit overprotective of things we can. Things that were never an issue before are now a crisis, and things that require focus and attention get obscured by the day’s outrage.

Sound familiar?

It’s a natural thing, what we are experiencing – and I know religious professionals are in some cases struggling to help the congregations they serve remain focused on health and growth. There are many resources being employed, and I’m not here to talk about things like family systems or congregational management – there are many resources and well trained colleagues out there. But what I do know is that the one hour most of us spend together each week matters.

In that one hour each week, we can experience a pause in the action, that can help us deal with anxiety. We should be offering worship that subtly (or not so subtly) pushes the rudder to help us correct course, that provide comfort for those worn, frayed nerves while challenging the status quo. We need sermons and readings that call us to our best selves. And we perhaps most of all, music that reminds us of who we are and who we want to be must ring through our sanctuaries.

Like this one, another beauty by Jim Scott:

Let this be a house of peace,
Of nature and humanity,
of sorrow and elation,
Let this be our house,
A haven for the healing,
An open room for question,
and our inspiration.

Let this be a house of peace.
Let this be our house of peace.

Let this be a house of freedom;
Guardian of dignity
and worth held deep inside us,
Let this be our house,
A platform for the free voice,
Where all our sacred diff’rences
here shall not divide us.


Let all in this house seek truth,
Where scientists and mystics,
abide in rev’rence here,
Let this be our house,
A house of our creation,
Where works of art and melodies
consecrate the atmosphere.


Let this be a house of prophesy,
May vision, for our children
Be our common theme.
Let this be our house
Of myth and lore and legend,
Our trove of ancient story,
and cradle of most tender dreams.


Now I’m on the fence about this being a congregational sing, because of two things: while The Oneness of Everything is considered long for a hymn, this one is actually really long and is hard to cut down without glaring omission; additionally, unlike Jim’s other songs, each verse has a different rhythm – fine for a solo or choral work, hard for a congregational sing.

And yet, the melody is gorgeous, and the chorus is amazing; even if this is only ever sung by a choir or soloist, the congregation should sing the chorus, repeating it as a mantra, especially noting the change from “a house” to “our house.” The lyrics (with more delightful phrases like “where works of art and melodies consecrate the atmosphere”) serve as reminders of who we are and want to be in crystal clear, yet still lush language. It is a wonderful piece for services about the sources and the third and fourth principles, but mostly a wonderful piece to use anytime we need to remind ourselves what our congregations should be at the best.

I’m not sure any of us – individuals or institutions – are at their best right now. But it’s nice to remember that a vision of what ‘best’ could be sits in our hymnals, ready for us to invoke.

I love this image of the Church of the Good Shepherd at Lake Tekapo in New Zealand – via Pixabay.

More than once during my years at Union Theological Seminary, I said to myself “what is my life even like?” because of some improbable experience or another. To be clear, I didn’t choose to go to Union because of the possibility of meeting important or famous people;- I went because of the possibilities awaiting me in my journey to become a minister and, more importantly, a more fully faithful human being. Yet when I look back, I don’t know how I missed the fact that choosing Theology and the Arts as my program focus would lead to meeting important or famous people – or more, would lead to my sitting next to them in a small class and being told who I am.

Dr. Ysaye Barnwell had been on campus all day; she lead a community sing for our chapel service, consulted with a couple of PhD students in the afternoon, and that evening was the guest for a class I was taking on Worship and the Arts. The small class sat with our tables pushed together to form a circle that was really a square, and there we had amazing conversations about various art forms and how they inform our worship. Dr. Barnwell was with us to talk about  the power of community singing. To my surprise, she sat directly to my right. On the outside, I was pleasant and cool, on the inside I was jumping up and down like a five year old, so excited to be this close to someone whose music I’d been so connected to for three decades.

I don’t remember the conversation in any depth; I remember that on the first topic, I spoke a few times, and knowing that, I consciously moved back for the second topic to allow others to speak. At some point, a tangentially related story occurred to me, but I sat on it, knowing it wasn’t strictly relevant, and anyway, I had already spoken. I would wait until something more relevant and more pressing came to mind.

Dr. Barnwell wasn’t here for that, however. A few times she glanced at me as if in invitation, but I deflected it and the conversation continued. But finally, she looked straight at me with that Auntie Stare and said “go on.” I stammered something about no, it’s fine, it’s not important or some such nonsense. Which she rejected, saying “speak. You’re wearing your words on your face.”


So I spoke. (How could I not?) And while the story I told (“Listening for our Song” by David Blanchard) wasn’t exactly on topic, it moved our conversation to a new, deeper topic. Afterwards, Dr. Barnwell thanked me for sharing that story, and with a twinkle in her eye, told me not to be afraid that what I have to say isn’t important. It was like she looked into my soul and saw who I am – perhaps the first time I’ve ever experienced that sort of knowing from someone who barely knew me.

Anyway. This song.

For each child that’s born,
a morning star rises and
sings to the universe
who we are.

For each child that’s born,
a morning star rises and
sings to the universe
who we are.

We are our grandmothers’ prayers
and we are our grandfathers’ dreamings,
we are the breath of our ancestors,
we are the spirit of God.

We are mothers of courage and fathers of time,
we are daughters of dust and the sons of great visions,
we’re sisters of mercy and brothers of love,
we are lovers of life and the builders of nations,
we’re seekers of truth and keepers of faith,
we are makers of peace and the wisdom of ages.

We are our grandmothers’ prayers
and we are our grandfathers’ dreamings,
we are the breath of our ancestors,
we are the spirit of God.

For each child that’s born,
a morning star rises and
sings to the universe
who we are.

It’s beautifully transcribed for our hymnal so that you don’t need all the rhythmic parts (even though I sing the bass line every time just because it’s so fun). It’s hopeful and full of possibility. I love it, and I hope congregations use it even if it seems scary on the page. The beauty is that it’s very repetitious, and once you get the rhythm and the flow, it’s a breeze to sing.

And it’s got a beautiful origin story; this, from the UUA Song Information page:

This is the last song in a suite that began with the lyric, “Lawd, it’s midnight. A dark and fear filled midnight. Lawd, it’s a midnight without stars.” Dr. Barnwell wanted to create a complete circle of experience, and so she wrote “for each child that’s born, a morning star rises…” This phrase is meant to establish hope, and it defines the uniqueness of each one of us. No matter what our race, culture or ethnicity, each one of us has been called into being and are the sum total of all who came before. In the composer’s words, “Each and every one of us stands atop a lineage that has had at its core, mothers and fathers and teachers and dreamers and shamans and healers and builders and warriors and thinkers and, and, and…so in spite of our uniqueness, we come from and share every experience that human kind has ever had. In this way, we are one.”



I’ve been wandering around the house for the better part of an hour, singing this sweet little piece by Tom Benjamin, with two questions on my mind:

First, what can I possibly say about this piece I quite like, when it’s short, theologically and ethically sound, and just plain pretty?

Second, and perhaps more importantly: is it an introit, a chalice lighting, a prayer, a response, or a benediction?

Be Thou with us,
now and always,
now and always,
blessed be.

Seriously, it could be any of those things. It could be sung to welcome all into the worship space at the top of the service. It could be sung as we invite the light into our chalices (reminiscent of a pagan line when calling in the directions, “be thou with us, spirit of fire.” It could be sung at the end of a pastoral prayer, or be the prayer itself. It could be a sending forth as a variation on “we extinguish this flame, but not the…” that many congregations use for extinguishing the chalice. It could be sung as the final notes of a service, blessing all who leave the worship space.

This might be the most utilitarian short piece we have, and one of my favorites.

Blessed be.

This is not the chant I thought I knew.

And thank all that’s holy that no one else was around, because I was blissfully singing the chant I know (very similar, but not exact – the version I know includes a verse of “ai-aaaa, ai-oooo”) and did a cartoon screech to a halt when I looked at the hymnal closely. It was somewhat comic and fairly embarrassing, at least in my imagination.

But like mine, this one bubbles up anonymously from the neo-pagan traditions and just exists in the ether.

The earth, the water, the fire, the air,
return, return, return, return.

But what’s great about these chants is that they begin with a simple melody line that invites harmony and improvisation. It invites a cacophony of sound to grow and welcome the elements and then return to center, to calm, to focus.

And it’s that cacophony that I suspect many UUs are afraid of. I rewatched the Decentering Whiteness in Worship webinars in preparation for a workshop I’m leading on Saturday, and I was struck anew by something Julica Hermann de la Fuente said, that we worship an “ethic of control” – from time to energy – and letting ourselves immerse into a chant like this would be scary and uncomfortable. Yet in a properly held container by confident worship leaders, it can be freeing and deeply spiritual. I remember the Amen we sang at GA2016; there is a point at which the sheet music literally stops to invite the singers to improvise off the motifs, and we had to trust our conductor, Glen Thomas Rideout, to hold the space for it and bring us back together. I know that singing it was incredible; I can only imagine how beautiful it felt and looked and sounded to the assembly.

And I need more of this. I have been telling the UU Wellspring groups I am leading that I’m beginning to worry I won’t find a good spiritual practice after finishing this one, but singing this today – even though I started by singing the wrong one – tells me I need more chant in my life. Maybe I need to invite chaos and cacophony into my life…


It’s 24 hours since nearly five dozen people died and nearly 600 were wounded by a single gunman wreaking terror in Las Vegas. And I still don’t have words, only the heaviness in my heart that is both sad and outraged.

That is, I suppose, why the Universe keeps doing this: putting cheerful, aspirational, hopeful songs in front of me when things seem at their worst. And I offer the Universe that annoyed chuckle that says, “I see what you did there, dammit.”

But then I started to think about personal tragedies that leave us sad and/or outraged, things that only one or two of us might bring into the sanctuary on a Sunday morning… and I wonder what it feels like to them when we start a service with a song like this. It must feel like you’re out of phase, and I suppose it can feel like either an invitation or an affront. I mean, it’s peppy and happy and just so damn….joyful.

Now let us sing, sing, sing                      Sing to the power of the faith within.
Now let us sing, sing, sing                      Sing to the power of the faith within.
Lift up your voice, be not afraid;             Lift up your voice, be not afraid;
sing to the power of the faith within.     sing to the power of the faith within.

Sing to the power of the hope within …

Sing to the power of the love within. …

Sing to the power of the joy within. …

What I hope, however, is that the penultimate line – “lift up your voice, be not afraid” – might offer some release.

Because while I am still sad and outraged, singing this (albeit with one part in my head), and singing “be not afraid” did change me a little. I took it slowly at first, with a quiet and almost contemplative feel; and yes, there is something to the power of the faith within.” and the hope, and the love. By the time I got to the joy, I was… okay. Not cured; nothing short of going back in time can cure this. But I was more okay than when I started.

May we all find things in the coming days to help us be okay so that we can do the work that our faith calls us to.

Now this is an entrance song. Welcoming in all kinds of ways, with nothing for us to …wait…nothing for us to be upset… oh … Dammit.

It’s not as good as I’d hoped. “We of all ages, women, children, men, infants and sages, sharing what we can” reads the second verse. It uses binary language for gender. (And it’s repetitive.) So of course I sat here for a time trying to rewrite this one couplet of an otherwise good song by Alicia Carpenter (set to Old 124th).

But then I realized that I don’t have to rhyme anything with ‘men’ because ‘men’ doesn’t rhyme with ‘can’ anyway. IT DOESN’T RHYME. Sure, there’s an internal rhyme, but that can be taken care of with a less awkward phrase than “infants and sages” too. (See, y’all made fun of me about my rhyming rule, but you see how handy it can be?)

Not that I know what the replacement couplet is, of course. I am, indeed coming to you with half a thing.

But here are the lyrics – maybe they’ll inspire you:

Here we have gathered, gathered side by side;
circle of kinship, come and step inside!
May all who seek here find a kindly word;
may all who speak here feel they have been heard.
Sing now together this, our hearts’ own song.

Here we have gathered, called to celebrate
days of our lifetime, matters small and great:
we of all ages, women, children, men,
infants and sages, sharing what we can.
Sing now together this, our hearts’ own song.

Life has its battles, sorrows, and regret:
but in the shadows, let us not forget:
we who now gather know each other’s pain;
kindness can heal us: as we give, we gain.
Sing now in friendship this, our hearts’ own song.

And seriously – if you come up with a replacement couplet, let me know. I want to use this in an upcoming service and I’d like to not exclude people I love from being welcomed.

Update January 16, 2018:

Jason Shelton just texted me this possible replacement couplet:

We of all ages, living out our span
Infants and sages, sharing what we can

I like it a lot. Plus, it rhymes better. Thanks, Jason.

When it comes to film, there are genres and directors I am a fan of, those I dislike, and those I appreciate. For purposes of today’s post, I will say that I dislike horror and appreciate the director Robert Rodriguez – especially his masterful work on Sin City.

Now, if you ever saw his film From Dusk to Dawn (written by Quentin Tarantino) … (am I supposed to add a spoiler alert for a film that is over two decades old?), you know that the first half of the film is very much a Tarantino-style film, with a gallery of rogues and a slew of seedy deals. And then halfway through, in the blink of an eye, it stops being a roadhouse film and begins being a horror film, complete with vampires.  I don’t exactly know what happens in the first ten minutes of that crossover, because I spent the entire time shocked, repeating “what the hell? what the hell?” I felt like I got suckered into one kind of film, which I appreciate, only to be handed a film whose genre I seriously dislike.

What does this have to do with today’s hymn, you ask?

Look at these lyrics, by Grace Lewis-McLaren:

When we are gathered for a time of worship and of song,
let none forget the joys and griefs that mark each path of life,
and thus we reach for those who love, we reach for those who love.

For youth shall pass and time is wise, and countless seasons turn,
so day by day our years increase until at last by life released
our spirits shine like stars, our spirits shine like stars.

Here we go, tripping along, being gathered, grateful for the time of sharing and the community of love that surrounds us. And then suddenly, the sun sets and You Are Going To Die.

This song gives me the same whiplash that From Dusk Till Dawn did. I didn’t spend 20 minutes staring at the screen, but I did feel like I got suckered into singing one kind of song only to be handed another.

Which then begs the question: if this a time passes, life is impermanent kind of song, why is it in the Entrance Songs section?

And just as I’m still not quite sure about whether I like, appreciate, or dislike From Dusk Till Dawn, I’m not quite sure what I think of this one. It’s a lovely, light tune (Repton), and it has a lot to appreciate, but I really don’t think I like it, because I’m not sure how I would use a piece that’s part ‘welcome to this loving community’ and, part ‘to dust you shall return’.


Image is a still from the film From Dusk Till Dawn.

On December 9th, this tune first appeared, and I suggested that “later in the hymnal, we sing the usual words.” Well, that ‘later’ is today, and while the first three words are the same as the usual words, that is where ‘usual’ ends. And so I stand here in my wrongness being wrong.

And thank all that is holy that I am.

You see, the original words – from a Dutch hymn written in the 1600s, when they were fighting for their independence from the Spanish – are quite different:

We gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing;
He chastens and hastens His will to make known.
The wicked oppressing now cease from distressing.
Sing praises to His Name; He forgets not His own.

The original is a song of liberation, and gets tagged onto Thanksgiving only around World War I, as it appears in American hymnals only around 1903. The lyrics continue, by the way, in the same “God is on our side in this conflict” vein. Which makes its association with the Thanksgiving holiday even more awful. ::::shudder::::

So much for the usual song with the usual words.

Thankfully, two modern-day Unitarian Universalists, Dorothy Caiger Senghas and Rev. Robert Sengas, wrote new lyrics, for a Thanksgiving Sunday.

We gather together in joyful thanksgiving,
acclaiming creation, whose bounty we share;
both sorrow and gladness we find now in our living,
we sing a hymn of praise to the life that we bear.

We gather together to join in the journey,
confirming, committing our passage to be
a true affirmation, in joy and tribulation,
when bound to human care and hope — then we are free.

Now this is a Thanksgiving hymn I can get behind. Sure, it’s in the Hope section, but it is definitely worth putting on the Thanksgiving list too. And if you really want to do it right, sing the first verse as your opening words and the last verse as your closing words, because they would frame a message of gratitude calling us together and calling us onwards to the work of our faith.

This hymn almost got ruined for me in 2009.

That spring, Saratoga Springs’ minister, Linda Hoddy, went on sabbatical, leaving a congregation well prepared to hold the fort down. As chair of the worship committee, I was also on the sabbatical team, and after a fall spent ensuring we had all our ducks in a row, our meetings were usually ten minutes of checking in on everything, then another half hour or so of general chatter.

Our longest meeting was the one about halfway through the sabbatical, when we all realized that while as a team the worship committee was doing a good job of attracting a wide variety of speakers and tending the scope of topics over the six-month period, we failed to track the week-to-week use of music, and we had been singing Gather the Spirit extremely frequently – easily two out of every three weeks. I know why it was chosen – it’s popular, it’s general in its scope, and – unless it’s played like a dirge – it’s a joy to sing.

But we were singing it a LOT. And it didn’t help that as we were gearing up for our first cluster-wide worship service, the obvious choice for the opening processional hymn was… Gather the Spirit. As worship coordinator for the service, I gulped, wondered if we could find another song, but realized that no, this was exactly the right hymn.

Back in Saratoga, we started waving speakers off this hymn, asking them to choose something else (and eventually offering a few other options that the congregation was familiar with and do the same kind of work). And as I stood at the stairs of the stage our choir and speakers processed onto in the cluster-wide service, I didn’t need any lyrics, because I realized I knew them all. Because we just. kept. singing. this. song.

I still know them by heart, partly because of that spring, but also because it really is a terrific song. And while some of UU songwriter Jim Scott’s pieces can be complex and tricky to sing, this one gets it right.

Gather the spirit, harvest the power.
Our sep’rate fires will kindle one flame.
Witness the mystery of this hour.
Our trials in this light appear all the same.

Gather in peace, gather in thanks.
Gather in sympathy now and then.
Gather in hope, compassion and strength.
Gather to celebrate once again.

Gather the spirit of heart and mind.
Seeds for the sowing are laid in store.
Nurtured in love, and conscience refined,
with body and spirit united once more.


Gather the spirit growing in all,
drawn by the moon and fed by the sun.
Winter to spring, and summer to fall,
the chorus of life resounding as one.


This is a song of warm, open welcome.  Just don’t overuse it… and by all that is holy, do not play it as a dirge! It is meant to dance in a gentle waltz, ushering us in with gentleness and love.

And I am glad it didn’t get ruined for me.

Photo is of our first joint service in 2009, with members of the four congregations (Albany, Schenectady, Glens Falls, and Saratoga Springs) coming together for the first time to worship. We asked each congregation to bring their chalices, from which we lit a common chalice. Then St. Lawrence District Executive Tom Chulak (pictured) joined Tom Owen-Towle as our first speakers. The cluster has now expanded, and we continue to hold a service each year, featuring an outside speaker (past speakers have included Thandeka, Kim and Reggie Harris, and Scott Alexander). This year, our service will feature the amazing Glen Thomas Rideout – and I am privileged to be back as worship coordinator.