I’ve been to church this mornin’.

Not literally, of course, and yet…

When I was in seminary, I joined the gospel choir – I was tentative at first, not only because I am white but because I am not a Christian. But I was assured that this gospel choir was indeed open to all, and yes, I found it exactly that way: a mix of people, a mix of beliefs, even a mix of talents. Yet our conductor, M. Roger Holland (who now teaches and conducts at the University of Denver), made everyone feel welcome as we both sang and learned a great deal about the wide expanse of the gospel milieu – from the old spirituals (and Moses Hogan’s influence) to the old timey gospel songs, to modern grooves and swings, and everything in between. We learned the history, the compositional complexities, and the vocal techniques.

And, we talked about the theologies. Some of us struggled, especially when the song was grounded in a ‘washed in the blood’ theology. We talked a lot about inclusive language and expansive meanings, and we wrestled a lot with the word “Lord” with its connotations of empire.

Which brings me to today. “Precious Lord, take my hand.” How very unlike us to sing a song of surrender to a “Lord” … and yet, here we are. Maybe we need a little surrender. Maybe we need a prayer to get through the night, to get through the hard times.

Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on, let me stand,
I am tired, I am weak, I am worn;
through the storm, through the night, lead me on to the light,
take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home.

When my way grows drear, precious Lord, linger near,
when my life is almost gone,
hear my cry, hear my call, hold my hand lest I fall;
take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home.


When the darkness appears and the night draws near,
and the day is past and gone,
at the river I stand, guide my feet, hold my hand;
take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home.

Is this really any different than Spirit of Life? If we say we’re good with a range of metaphors for the Divine, then Precious Lord should fit in next to Spirit of Life. And if we’re good with asking for that Spirit of Life to come, to change us, to offer comfort and insight, then maybe we can be okay with asking Precious Lord to come, to change us, to offer comfort and insight.

And thus, it’s in that spirit that I sing this song. Lord knows we could use it right now.

Of course, that is only half of why I went to church this morning. The other half was because of my YouTube search for a good rendition to share.

I began with this fairly simple, albeit country-fied version that helps folks new to the song learn it.

And then I clicked on this one:

And then this one:

And this one by Mahalia Jackson, which doesn’t allow embedding but is worth the click.

And amen, halleluiah, I have been to church.

Photo is of the one and only Mahalia Jackson.

I like it when I have eureka moments with hymns I have never sung – those moments when I wonder “where has this song been all my life” or at the very least “wow, did I need this lyric this morning.”

I am sorry to say there was no eureka today. Maybe a moment of “oh, these Asian melodies arranged by I-to Loh, which the hymnal commission used several times, are beautiful and so good to include” but no flat out eureka.

And why is there no eureka? Perhaps it’s because I’m personally a little annoyed with the Transcendentalists right now. Perhaps it’s because while I like Robert Louis Stevenson’s prose, I find his poetry stilted. Perhaps it’s the AAAB pattern that makes me long for a final rhyme. Perhaps…. and this may be most likely…. it’s that some days this daily practice gives me an overdose of themes that I wouldn’t get if I had randomized the singing practice, and I’m ready, if not eager, to move on.

Anyway, here are our lyrics, from Stevenson’s untitled poem:

Let us wander where we will,
something kindred greets us still:
something seen on vale or hill
falls familiar on the heart.

Dew and rain fall everywhere,
harvests ripen, flow’rs are fair,
and the whole round earth is bare
to the sunshine and the sun.

And the live air, fanned with wings,
bright with breeze and sunshine,
brings into contact distant things,
and makes all the countries one.

Anyway. This is again a melody you’ll have to teach a congregation – it may be better for a soloist or small group to start. And I can see it being useful for a particular kind of service.

I’m just not feeling the eureka.

Today I offer a pic of a swallow, as it’s referenced in the first stanza of Stevenson’s poem.

I was expecting this to be a difficult song to learn – enough times, that “Irregular” at the bottom of the page signals complex rhythms and intervals.

Yet once I got into it, and I felt the 9/8 rhythm (which is really a glorious 3/4), the song suddenly felt familiar, in a way that makes me wonder if I’ve heard it or sung it before. I can’t identify the time or place, yet it feels familiar in my bones.

Perhaps this is the beauty of folk tunes – this one from the Philippines. Our hymnal says it is a Visayan, or indigenous Filipino folk tune. I believe that’s true, but I don’t want to discount that this tune might have some Western European influence, given the Spanish conquest in 1521, which didn’t end until the Spanish-American  War in 1898 (when the US took over until the end of World War II).

At any rate, what I know is that the tune has a familiar feel, and given that it was easy to sing (easier than expected), I reveled in the lyrics while I was singing – as we know, that rarely happens on the first go of a song.

I mean, look at these words, based on a text from Bishop Toribio Quimada, who founded the Universalist (now Unitarian Universalist) Church of the Philippines:

O, the beauty in a life that illumines honor anew,
that models wise and gracious ways to every seeker;
that every day shall serve in joy and do the right.
O, praise the life whose beauty shows a justice true.

Let not service of the good be confined to great saints alone,
but every hour be part of all our daily living.
Set not the hope of wisdom’s grace beyond our ken;
how wide the path, how close the goal, which love has shown.

O, the beauty of a life that illumines care of the soul,
that knows a love that is for self as well as others,
that every day embodies praise for every good,
this is the faith to which we turn, our God and goal.

How glorious, this call to justice. How elegant, this call to beloved community. How joyful, this call to love and faith and good.

We need this today – to turn to our Faith and allow it to illumine our souls so that we might do the work we are called to.

The photo is of the UU Church of the Philippines in Doldol, in the Negros Islands region.

I once almost made a mistake with this hymn.

It was spring 2011, and a small committee of Unitarian Universalists from four NY Capital Region congregations were planning our third joint service. We had moved to a new venue, which features an historic tracker organ, and we decided to do a hymn sing before the service, featuring the organ. Thus, we were selecting familiar, rousing hymns we thought would sound especially good on the organ, and I suggested this one.

One of the committee members, colleague Viola (Vee) Abbitt, recoiled, feeling some shock that I had cavalierly suggested this hymn be used without context. Vee explained her concerns, namely that this piece is considered the African American National Anthem and is not to be thought of as just another hymn, especially when it would be so casually sung by a predominantly white crowd greeting each other and finding their seats.

Of course, I quickly eliminated it from the list, and later went home to learn more.

I learned that this song, originally written as a poem by James Weldon Johnson and set to music by his brother John Rosamond Johnson, was sung by a group of young black children at a segreated school in Jacksonville, Florida, to honor Booker T. Washington. It became popular almost immediately, and by 1919, the NAACP dubbed it the African American National Anthem. It is said that this was one of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s favorite hymns.

And thus, we must be careful about using it.

Yes, these powerful lyrics could be sung about, by, and for many today – and yet it is specific enough that we should not consider for a moment adopting it or colonizing it for other needs. I think back to the lesson I learned in seminary, that we cannot make a presumption of sameness or else we run the risk of normalizing events, attitudes, and experiences that are not shared, not universal, not normal.

Resist the urge to use this song for purposes other than talking about racism, Jim Crow, the NAACP, and the incredible, bittersweet, angry yet hopeful expression of resistance that I see reflected by my African American friends and colleagues.

Lift every voice and sing, till earth and heaven ring,
ring with the harmonies of liberty;
let our rejoicing rise high as the listening skies,
let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us;
sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
let us march on till victory is won.

Stony the road we trod, bitter the chastening rod,
felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
yet with a steady beat, have not our weary feet
come to the place for which our fathers sighed?
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered;
we have come, treading our path thru the blood of the slaughtered,
out from the gloomy past, till now we stand at last
where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.

God of our weary years, God of our silent tears,
thou who hast brought us thus far on the way;
thou who hast by thy might led us into the light,
keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met thee;
lest our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget thee;
shadowed beneath thy hand, may we forever stand,
true to our God, true to our native land.

Do not colonize this song. Let it shine in the context in which it is intended.

The photo is of John and James Weldon.

I’m not sure I have much to say on this one today, short of what I muttered as I finished singing, and as poured my coffee, and I walked up the stairs to the office, and as I opened up this page: “Hmmm. Well.. okay.”

I hoped for more insight from Jacqui James – but all I learned is that Fred Kaan, a congregational minister in England, wrote this for the opening service for the Christian World Conference on Life and Peace in 1983. I suppose that explains the “for children unborn” line… and the cold war sentiment of “energy wasted on weapons of death.”

The tune is unfamiliar but not difficult, although there are some intervals that challenge a pre-coffee, pre-warm-up voice.

I’m not sure why I am so ambivalent about this one – I mean, short of the annoyance I have at the idea that “life” and “death” would rhyme (except metaphorically). Maybe it’s because I don’t need another prayer – I need action and answers. I guess I’m finding this a bit unsatisfactory today. Oh well. Here are the lyrics:

We utter our cry: that peace may prevail!
That earth will survive and faith must not fail.
We pray with our life for the world in our care,
for people diminished by doubt and despair.

We cry from the fright of our daily scene
for strength to say “no” to all that is mean:
designs bearing chaos, extinction of life,
all energy wasted on weapons of death.

We lift up our hearts for children unborn:
give wisdom, O God, that we may hand on,
replenished and tended, this good planet earth,
preserving the future and wonder of birth.

Hmmm. Well… okay.

The picture today is another unrelated image because nothing came up for me visually. Instead, here’s a beloved covered bridge in Arlington, Vermont, which I was reminded of during a conversation with my friend and colleague Elizabeth Assenza. It’s pretty, isn’t it?

Sometimes I know what I think about a hymn before I start singing, and let the experience of singing affirm or shift those thoughts. Sometimes I don’t know, and I let the experience of singing take me somewhere, and as a result some of my posts have been more theological, or musical, or silly, or timely, or emotional.

Sometimes I leave the singing with really, no concrete thoughts at all, and on those occasions need to learn a bit more about the hymn.

Welcome to my experience today.

Yes, of course I smiled at noting the lyrics were written by Mark Belletini, a poet and minister I greatly admire and am glad to be getting to know a little. And I knew if I read the lyrics again, I’d see its powerful message, with a second verse that could have been written for today.  Let’s look at the lyrics, and then I’ll continue.

O liberating Rose, that glows on ragged stem,
your beauty helps all hearts lose power to condemn.
Your buds are tight with prophecy;
your thorns, a tougher poetry:
you sign the whole and Gift of life.

O liberating Fire that calls for cleansing rage
whenever hurtful lies distort our present age.
Your dancing dreams our liberty
to challenge each indignity:
you sign the whole and Faith of life.

O liberating Song whose echo now we sing,
your lyric, swelling line rekindles strengthening.
Your harmonies portray the time
when seeds we sow shall bloom sublime:
you sign the whole and Hope of life.

O liberating Love, we hear you in a sigh;
we glimpse you when we see a wet or weary eye;
we touch you when our hands extend
to soothe, or to embrace a friend:
you sign the whole and Source of life.

So good lyrics, right? But they honestly, to me, need to be read, not sung, to get their full effect. But that’s me. Still, I had no real clue about how I felt, because I couldn’t see its arc and direction.

I felt similarly clueless about the tune – it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me: it’s one part late 19th century hymnody, one part mid-20th century modern, wholly confusing.

And so, feeling a bit adrift on this one, I turned to Jacqui James’ Between the Lines, and learn the following:

Belletini’s text was written for the dedication service of a home for people with AIDS, supported by Seattle’s University Unitarian Church. The words are based on conversations Belletini had with Canadian Unitarian minister Mark DeWolfe, for whom the home was named, before DeWolfe’s death.

Suddenly. the pieces of the lyric fit – the conversations the two Marks had about new kinds of theistic language became poetry, became new ways of expressing the Divine, and became liberative. Wow.

So now, the tune, which oddly (to me) is named Initials. According to James, the tune is a present from composer Larry Phillips to his father, with the pitches chosen by a formula using the initials of the family members and connecting them to the pentatonic scale.

No wonder it’s got odd jumps and feels both old and modern – it’s as much an art song as anything. And I’m sure the meter was meant to match Belletini’s poem – no one just decides to write a for fun.

So…now what do I think? I think that sometimes we write in memory of someone or to honor someone, and this hymn accomplishes that on two fronts. It isn’t maudlin or sentimental – but rather a bit of something old and something new. Old ideas in new language, old forms in new patterns.

I’m not sure I would use it without a good deal of preparation and learning, but I really appreciate this one now.

And herein lies the lesson: sometimes it’s okay to not know immediately what you think of a thing, but rather let it sit, learn more, explore. It’s really okay to take time for slow thinking.

The picture is of a quilt made on a Liberated Log Cabin pattern, specifically a Liberated Log Cabin Rose. Quilter Gwen Marston created the style, showing you can liberate traditional patterns and create original quilts result that engage the quilter’s intuition and emotion as well as technical skills. The resulting quilts are modern, funky takes on traditional forms. This particular quilt was created by Maree at the blog Block Lotto.

This is a beautiful prayer. A needed prayer. An elegant prayer.

And I am sure, in the right hands, a beautiful and elegant tune.

I am not sure if it’s unfamiliarity that keeps me from accessing the melody, or just sustained high notes before coffee, but the tune doesn’t work for me in this moment. Especially when I realized that the tempo was marked much faster than I had been singing it.

That was weird, actually – because sung slowly (half note = 60 bpm), the prayerfulness of the lyrics shone forth; it was like singing a meditative chant (until the high notes, that is). When I realized the tempo was quite fast (half note = 92 bpm), it lost not only its meditative qualities but its import. I don’t know the lyricist’s or the composer’s intent – perhaps they meant it to be less of a prayer and more of a declaration. But the lyrics don’t say that to me, and my first look at the tune (before I saw the tempo marking through the pre-coffee haze) screamed slow and purposeful.

And here’s where I realize the truth I learned at a UU Musicians Network Conference in the mid 2000s: in hymnody, the score is a suggestion. I suggest you take the tempo as fast or slow as you like, and if you want a prayer, 60’s your best bet.

O light of life that lives in us,
help us to turn away from war,
reveal the hate that lives in us,
help us to live no more in fear.
Save us, save our children.

O light of love, rain down on us,
help us to heal our wounded world,
our dying forests, gutted plains,
smoldering cities, wasted fields.
Save us, save our children.

O love of life that lives in me,
help me to lift my head and sing,
let me know joy as well as pain,
see beauty in the rain and wind.
Save me, save my children.

O light and life and love in us,
help us to open eyes and ears,
reach out and listen, touch and love,
that we may stand in strength and peace.
Save us, save our children.

(Image is from a painting by Igor Zenin.)


Seriously – it was like I had bit into a sour lemon or sipped some turned milk when I sang this. I honestly don’t know when I’ve ever had such a reaction to a song as I have sung; I’ve had lots of “um…what” and “dang, I cannot get this” moments, particularly the first time singing through a complex score. But this one isn’t complex. It’s just… awful.

It starts with a tune that is indelibly imprinted with the lyrics “Onward, Christian Soldiers / Marching as to war / with the cross of Jesus / going on before.” I love repurposing hymn tunes, but it’s hard to separate the tune from those militant lyrics. And learning that WIlliam Sullivan (of Gilbert & Sullivan) wrote the tune doesn’t help. While their light operettas rank high for me for their cleverness and singability, they are all – from The Mikado to Iolanthe to HMS Pinafore – are all about duty. And they all feature major generals and admirals and all manner of military positivity.

The lyrics we use emerge from the late 19th century as well, from Unitarian minister and hymn writer Frederick Hosmer, and heaven help us, carry that same militarism that is found in the original lyrics. “Forward…in unbroken line”… “heroes for it died” … “not alone we conquer” … “loss or triumph” …. Blech.

Forward through the ages, in unbroken line,
move the faithful spirits at the call divine:
gifts in differing measure, hearts of one accord,
manifold the service, one the sure reward.

(Chorus) Forward through the ages, in unbroken line,
move the faithful spirits at the call divine.

Wider grows the vision, realm of love and light;
for it we must labor, till our faith is sight.
Prophets have proclaimed it, martyrs testified,
poets sung its glory, heroes for it died. (Chorus)

Not alone we conquer, not alone we fall;
in each loss or triumph lose or triumph all.
Bound by God’s far purpose in one living whole,
move we on together to the shining goal. (Chorus)

I won’t use this hymn. It honestly scares me a little to think modern Unitarian Universalists would take up a fight in this manner. Yes, fight – of course, always fight for what is just and right and inclusive and expansive. But this feels very … just wrong in its manner of fighting. And I can’t imagine it would go over well with congregants who fought (or fought against) the 20th century wars, especially Vietnam.

There are many other great hymns to talk about commitment and action and rallying us for the resistance ahead. This one doesn’t work anymore.


Postscript: some might argue that we need to preserve this as part of our history – which says to me there’s a new book to be written, one that collects our musical history so we don’t lose them but don’t use them, because they no longer are in line with our theology and principles. Hmmm. Maybe this project is two books?


Image by Susan Herbert, for purchase here: http://www.chrisbeetles.com/gallery/animals/cats/gilbert-and-sullivan.html

File this under Hymns that Make You Go ‘Huh.’

Sometimes these things begin with the ‘huh’, sometimes they begin on a joyful note and then somehow turn. I opened the hymnal and smiled because I love this one. As regular readers know, I love hymn tunes by Ralph Vaughan Williams, and this one is particularly and simultaneously joyful and regal. It is well crafted too, with a third line that revels in the release of the alleluias.

I also like the lyrics in our hymnal – they are, in part, how I understand my theistic humanism (on days when I describe my theology like that). The saints – the exemplars and pioneers of the present and the past – should be recognized, honored, and praised. And thank all that is holy that they were here, they were strong ‘in the well-fought fight” and they inspire us in our fights. Amen, amen, amen.

And so I sang this rousing hymn while waiting for the coffee, a bit more enthusiastically than other hymns I’ve sung, grateful for this section of the hymnal being timed for right now, on the eve of a week than starts with a celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr. and ends with the Women’s March, and features in the middle the inauguration of someone whose words and actions call us to resist, that call us to remember more than ever the exemplars of our past and be the exemplars of our present.

As I sang, I thought, I really love this hymn….

For all the saints who from their labors rest,
who thee by faith before the world confessed,
thy name most holy be forever blest. Alleluia! Alleluia!

Thou wast their rock, their shelter, and their might;
their strength and solace in the well-fought fight;
thou, in the darkness deep their one true light. Alleluia! Alleluia!

O blest communion of the saints divine!
We live in struggle, they in glory shine;
yet all are one in thee, for all are thine. Alleluia! Alleluia!

And when the strife is fierce, the conflict long,
steals on the ear the distant triumph-song,
and hearts are brave again, and arms are strong. Alleluia! Alleluia!

So why the turn?

Well, as I am wont to do, I check out some of the background and history – where did this song come from, why did they write it, what was the original use of the tune and what was the original lyric. These things intrigue me, and as I’ve reflected on before, they matter.

And so, I was a bit surprised to find that our four verses are part of a much longer, eleven-stanza piece, that (a) makes it abundantly clear that the “thy” and “thee” is Jesus (and his partners in divinity, the Father and the Holy Ghost)… and (b) is in fact careful to single out the Apostles, the Evangelists, the Martyrs, and the Soldiers, each with their own verses, all part of the Saints that this Anglican song sings praises for.

And that preposition is important – it’s not praises to, as we might see it in our truncated (and edited, of course) version. It’s praises to the Big Three for their existence. It’s not so humanist as our version is, by any stretch. The original is a processional, a calling in of the ancestors, as it were. The way ours is revised, it’s more a recessional – a get out there and fight the good fight song. In many ways, it’s a different song – a different intent, with a number of different lyrics (and the adaption is not noted in the hymnal, by the way).

And so the “huh”, as is often the case, is about whether this was appropriate for us to do, when is it appropriate to do so, and how do we honor original intent when it doesn’t fit our theologies. Do we lose beloved songs? Are we okay in making these dramatic shifts in some instances even as we rail against the same in others? I know that folk music has a time-honored tradition of changing/adding lyrics, but this isn’t a folk song. I’m not sure what the line is, where the line is, and what it says about us that we cling to old hymns that in some cases still really move us, as long as we can make the lyrics work for us.

I don’t know any of the answers to the above – hence my “huh” – and in the midst of it, I still know that as we sing it today, and especially this week, it is inspiring and glorious, even with all the questions it raises. And maybe that’s the metaphor – we can question a thing and still love it. We can love a thing and still want it to be better.


(Postscript: I chose this great photo of religious leaders in North Carolina, including the Reverend William Barber, because they are our present exemplars and pioneers. I am grateful for their witness.)

I fell asleep last night thinking about the questions about end of life stuff that my sister raised about one of my cats, who is about to have major surgery to remove a malignant tumor (Shea is with her, five hours away, so I won’t be there the day of surgery if things go awry).  In my dreams, with death on my mind, I dreamed of my mother in her final hours and how heartbreaking it was to see her go.

Needless to say, I was not at all prepared to open the hymnal to this first hymn in the Transience section, and I cried through the singing.

I cannot think of them as dead who walk with me no more;
along the path of life I tread they are but gone before,
they are but gone before.

And still their silent ministry within my heart has place
as when on earth they walked with me and met me face to face,
and met me face to face.

Their lives are made forever mine; what they to me have been
has left henceforth its seal and sign engraven deep within,
engraven deep within.

Mine are they by an ownership nor time nor death can free;
for God has given to love to keep its own eternally,
its own eternally.

These lyrics are lovely, and I think for many – Unitarian Universalist and otherwise – they would be equally comforting. And what made it possible for me to cry was a simple but beautifully crafted tune (“Distant Beloved”) by Frederick Wooten. This gentle melody  both matches the lyric and gets out of the way of the lyric so that the meaning can rise up and spill out – in my case, literally spill out as tears.

(Fair warning: the next few days may feature some powerful memories and unleased sentimentality… such is the power of music. )