This is one of those cases where, given the times in which we live and the still unbelievable event about to happen on Friday, all I can do is let the lyrics of this beautiful song of joy and resistance speak for themselves. Sorry, folks, no deep analysis today, because this song has shaken me to my core with its undeniable truths and hope-filled demands. Please sing and cry with me today:

My life flows on in endless song above earth’s lamentation.
I hear the real though far-off hymn that hails a new creation.
Through all the tumult and the strife I hear the music ringing.
It sounds an echo in my soul. How can I keep from singing!

What though the tempest ‘round me roars, I know the truth, it liveth.
What though the darkness ‘round me close, songs in the night it giveth.
No storm can shake my inmost calm while to that rock I’m clinging.
Since love prevails in heav’n and earth, how can I keep from singing!

When tyrants tremble as they hear the bells of freedom ringing,
when friends rejoice both far and near, how can I keep from singing!
To prison cell and dungeon vile our thoughts to them are winging;
when friends by shame are undefiled, how can I keep from singing!

I should note, as Jacqui James points out in Between the Lines, the third verse was written during the McCarthy era to protest that round of paranoia and fear; it seems especially appropriate right now.

My sermon this week is called “What’s Next?” wherein I’ll be talking about what this elderly congregation can expect and can do, since for nearly all of them, their days of protest marches and door-knocking are long over. I want them to do is keep singing the songs of resistance and freedom, to keep telling their stories, and do the little things they can (letter writing, calls to representatives, etc.) to keep hope alive. And so we’ll end on this hymn.

And hopefully I can keep it together long enough to do the benediction.

Welcome to another edition of Hymns I Have Never Sung and Plan To Use Now.

We have now entered the next section of our hymnal; for those keeping track, we’ve finished the First Source songs and are now entering the Second Source, Words and Deeds of Prophetic People. (I hear you saying “people? Isn’t it women and men?” Oh yes, that is how the sources read now; but there is a motion to change the source as written in the bylaws to read “prophetic people” in order to be more inclusive. And I should note, this campaign was started by my colleague Jami Yandle and others at our Toledo, Ohio, congregation.)

Anyway, back to the hymn. We now are talking exemplars and pioneers – and what better exemplars to start with than the Christ and the Buddha?  These elegant lyrics, by English Unitarian minister John Andrew Storey, are intriguingly set to a tune by I-to Loh, a professor of liturgy in the Philippines – and what I love is that even though there are other Western tunes this could easily be set to, the choice of this Eastern tune removes a sense of Western domination. It is subtle to be sure, but it is a brilliant choice that preferences a culture other than our own and still speaks to us.

We the heirs of many ages, with the wise to guide our ways,
honor all earth’s seers and sages, build our temples for their praise.

But the good we claim to cherish, all that Christ and Buddha taught,
unrepentant hearts let perish, spurning truth most dearly bought.

Centuries of moral teaching, words of wisdom, ancient lore,
all the prophet souls’ beseeching leaves us heedless as before.

Late in time, may we, forsaking all our cruelty and scorn,
see a new tomorrow breaking and a kinder world be born.

And lest you think the Asian tune means it’s hard to sing, it’s most assuredly not. It has a couple of intervals that are, to my Western-trained ears, a little unusual, but they would be easily learned by anyone, I think.

So why have I never sung it? I suspect in some cases, for other minsters it wasn’t the right message, or it seemed too foreign to introduce to ‘a congregation that doesn’t sing’ (which is code for “I don’t have anybody who can – or I don’t want to take the time – to teach them.”)

But here’s another reason it probably gets bypassed, and certainly got bypassed by me: it faces Abide With Me, and a title like We the Heirs of Many Ages makes a connection to memorials and funerals – if you don’t look, it seems like another of the same ilk, and for the most part (although colleague Christian Schmidt is about to prove me wrong), nobody uses Abide With Me except at memorials and funerals, so why would we give another funeral song a glance? And of course, we’d be wrong.

The worst part is that there have been times that this would have been the perfect hymn, and I blew those chances. But I’ll remember it now, as I revel in the openness and poetry of word and music.

Fellow Whovians will understand why I chose the photo I did. For everyone else, it requires a geek confession: I opened the hymnal, started to sing, and instantly thought of Doctor Who. In particular, the episode called “Gridlock” where, in order to keep the residents of earth safe, they are told to go on massive freeways underground – and have been in a decades-long traffic jam by the time Martha Jones and the Doctor show up. One of the ways they are kept hopeful (and obedient) is through hymns, piped into the sound system; The Old Rugged Cross is one of them, and Abide with Me is another.

But that’s not at all the reason I like this hymn, nor should we ever consider it a tool of our alien protectors. No, in the real world, this is a sweet and comforting “old timey hymn” – a piece that some might find puzzling and out of place. But I am glad this is in our hymnal.

It’s an old hymn that likely appears in every Protestant hymnal in the country (and maybe beyond), speaking as it does about death and glory. Even though we only use three of the eight verses, there remains in what we sing a hopeful and comforting sense of something greater than ourselves being with us in those final hours. (The final verse, often found in Christian hymnals, is probably too explicitly Christian for most Unitarian Universalists, although we seem to have no problem with implicit Christianity…a topic for another time.)

Abide with me, fast falls the eventide;
the darkness deepens; still with me abide.
When other helpers fail, and comforts flee,
help of the helpless, oh, abide with me.

Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day;
earth’s joys grow dim, its glories pass away;
change and decay in all around I see:
O thou who changes not, abide with me.

I fear no foe, with thee at hand to bless;
ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness.
Where is death’s sting? Where, grave, thy victory?
I triumph still if thou abide with me.

And I’m not putting any extra meaning on this – the lyrics were written and set to an English tune in 1847 by Henry Francis Lyte, while he lay dying from tuberculosis. He survived less than a month after completing it.

This is absolutely a final call for comfort from the Divine on the eve of death. And it offers comfort to those who are mourning – that something we might call heaven, or the light, or glory, or simply rest welcomes our beloved.

Not exactly something we’d put in regular rotation.

But I am glad it’s in our hymnal.

Happy Hundredth Hymn! Thanks, readers, for being here, commenting, engaging, and occasionally educating.  Only 390 more to go!

Now… this song is a unquestionably a zipper song. It is highly repetitive and easy to learn. What’s fun about it is when people start harmonizing – it turns it from ‘dear god make it stop’ (with flashbacks to 60 prepubescent campers on a bus singing ’99 Bottles of Beer’ until you die a little inside) to fun, communal sing-along. And the lyrics move – joy and sorrow intertwined.

And here’s a little bit of fun that I discovered this morning quite by accident while waiting for the coffee to brew: “She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain” is a perfect countermelody. I’m not sure what the point of the mashup would be, but it’s a reminder of how similar songs can be when the appear to come from the same root, the same locale, the same peoples.

There’s not much else for me to say musically. That being said, I am always surprised when a simple song like this suddenly gets to something deep. Because emotionally, this song reflects what I suspect many of us long for these days – moving, active, forceful peace, joy, love – to help us through the pain and tears – to help give us towering strength. There are a lot of hard days ahead, and we need peace, not like a stagnant pond but like a moving, thriving, ever-changing river.

I’ve got peace like a river,
I’ve got peace like a river,
I’ve got peace like a river in my soul. (2x)

I’ve got joy like a fountain…

I’ve got love like an ocean…

I’ve got pain like an arrow…

I’ve got tears like the raindrops …

I’ve got strength like a mountain …

May we have all we need.

Oh my goodness. I forgot this was in our hymnal.

So… it’s a familiar song, one that has been recorded by such notable singers as Paul Robeson, Louis Armstrong, Sam Cooke, and Mahalia Jackson. It’s appeared in countless movies. For some reason, it appeals to many across racial lines, perhaps because everyone at some time or another can relate, at least to the chorus.

It is a song of pain, of lament. A song borne of the struggles in the fields, on the plantations. And it is a song of aspiration and promise. You see, this is one of those songs that, if we had the real – not the UU-ified – third verse, we’d understand that this was a song not of first world problems but of the terrors of slavery and the belief that one could escape. Here’s what we have:

Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen,
nobody knows my sorrow.
Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen,
glory, hallelujah!

Sometimes I’m up, sometimes I’m down, oh, yes, Lord!
Sometimes I’m almost to the ground, oh, yes, Lord! (Chorus)

Although you see me going ‘long so, oh, yes, Lord!
I have my troubles here below, oh, yes, Lord! (Chorus)

One day when I was walking ‘long, oh, yes, Lord!
The heavens broke and love came down, oh, yes, Lord! (Chorus)

But the actual third verse is this:

 If you get there before I do, Oh, yes, Lord
Tell all-a my friends I’m coming too, Oh, yes, Lord

This isn’t about heaven – although I suspect many of the field masters assumed so, particularly with that tantalizing “glory halleluiah” at the end of the chorus. This is about going north to freedom.  Now it may not carry as much actual code as some other spirituals – some, like “Follow the Drinking Gourd” and “Wade in the Water” make surprisingly direct references to where to go and what to look for if you escape and want to catch the Underground Railroad. But this is one of the “yes, I’m in” songs.

Which changes things. This isn’t about modern problems and hoping to hear the voice of the Divine. This is about lament and freedom. And in that context, it is heartwrenching and hopeful. But not because it speaks to my problems, but because it speaks to the problems of the enslaved in the 19th century…and to those in the 21st still seeking freedom.

“Sweet” is the word I would use to describe this hymn.

Sweet lyrics, sweet sentiment, sweet tune. It’s not saccharine sweet, but rooted, old timey sound and wisdom sweet. It’s the kind of tune (another shape note tune, this time from the collection Missouri Harmony) you’d hope to hear played by a guitar, or maybe a violin, or perhaps even a banjo as you walked past a creek from that little cabin tucked in the woods up in the distance.

I don’t have a lot more to say about this sweet little hymn – except maybe a reminder of its message: take time to notice. Take time to meditate. Take time for spiritual practice. Take time.

What is this life if, full of care,
we have no time to stand and stare —
no time to stand beneath the boughs
and stare as long as sheep or cows;

No time to see, when woods we pass,
where squirrels hide their nuts in grass —
no time to see, in broad daylight,
streams full of stars, like stars at night;

No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,
and watch her feet, how they can dance.
A poor life this if, full of care,
we have no time to stand and stare.


Dr. Grathwohl would be proud.

You see, while I was a political studies/theater major at Meredith College in the 1990s, some of the courses that stick with me the most are the English classes – writing and composition, journalism, American literature, and everyone’s mandatory class, Major British Authors.

While many of my fellow students groaned and wondered, while hammering the first 18 lines of the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales (in the original middle English) into their noggins (“whan that Aprill with his shoures soute…”), what possible purpose any of this could have, others of us reveled in some of the most delicious writing in the English language. We got Chaucer and Shakespeare, of course, but also all the poets. Herbert, Donne, Spenser, Milton, Pope, Burns, Browning, Shelley, Keats, Coleridge, Wordsworth, and of course, Blake.

Now the reason I say Eloise Grathwohl would be proud is that I opened the page, sang the first couple of lines, and thought “Is this William Blake?” To which my answer was a glance at the bottom of the page to confirm my answer. I can’t help but wonder a little if I was already conditioned toward that reaction, since this appears to be the Major British Authors section of our hymnal.

To Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love
all pray in their distress,
and to those virtues of delight
return their thankfulness— return their thankfulness.

For Mercy has a human heart,
and Pity a human face;
and Love, the human form divine,
and Peace, the human dress— and Peace, the human dress.

Then every one, of every clime,
that prays in deep distress,
prays to the human form divine —
Love, Mercy, Pity, Peace — Love, Mercy, Pity, Peace.

Interestingly, this is only three verses of the five in the original poem – Blake’s second verse is, in spirit, a fairly UU sentiment, but I suspect the hymnal commission was struggling with how to make it not quite so male-heavy:

For Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love
Is God, our father dear,
And Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love
Is Man, his child and care.
 The fifth verse is also very First Principle, but also with troubling-for-our-time lyrics:
And all must love the human form,
In heathen, Turk, or Jew;
Where Mercy, Love, and Pity dwell
There God is dwelling too.

Yikes. What do we do with that, other than omit it? I mean, the sentiment is right – but yikes.

Maybe this is one of the reasons we studied Major British Authors in undergrad – not just to understand the growth, beauty, and truth in the language and the art created with it – but also to understand the growth, beauty, and truth in the bend of the moral arc, the expansion of our understanding, the widening of our scope.

Dr. Grathwohl would be proud.

Singing Belletini

(a hastily written ode)

It is the volume I reach for first
looking for that particular presence
that metaphor
that cadence
that neither Sarton nor Oliver can match
nor even Whyte in his rich considerations

It is the rhythm of Belletini
who knows us deeply
who has served us and continues to
who understands the need
for Unitarian Universalists
to linger
and consider
what our voices cry out for

there is always a turn in his words
a something that gives us pause
whether it be a unique word like “starwheel”
or a repetition like “is upon us”
words that turn our heads
and make us wish
we weren’t singing at all
because we need the precious time
to revel in the glorious and sweet
to lean into the glow and the greening

would Rumi make us barrel on?
would Julian or Hildegard?
would Hafiz?

why then should our own poetic prophet
demand that we chant away
barreling onward
losing the moment?

we wish we weren’t singing at all

but rather
reading aloud
to one
and letting our NPR voices
into silence.

Summertime has turned the starwheel, autumn is upon us.
Sweet the angling sun, sweet upon the air the smell of blue mist rising.
Summertime has turned the starwheel, autumn is upon us.
Glorious the trees, glorious the sight of rust leaves falling, falling.
Summertime has turned the starwheel, autumn is upon us.

Autumn cold has turned the starwheel, winter is upon us.
Grey the windy storms, cold upon our cheeks the wet rain glistens, glistens.
Autumn cold has turned the starwheel, winter is upon us.
Leaping is the fire, golden in the glass the cider glows like amber.
Autumn cold has turned the starwheel, winter is upon upon us.

Winter rains have turned the starwheel, springtime is upon us.
Sharp the smell of loam, bursting in our eyes the turrets of the tulip.
Winter rains have turned the starwheel, springtime is upon us.
Greening is the grass; soft upon our brows the sunlight warm caresses.
Winter rains have turned the starwheel, springtime is upon us.

Vernal clouds have turned the starwheel, summer is upon us.
Gliding are the hawks, hovering above the hot and yellow hillside.
Vernal clouds have turned the starwheel, summer is upon us.
Crickets in the night, chirping in our ears the sound of moonlit music.
Vernal clouds have turned the starwheel, summer is upon us.

I’ve not much more to say. I love Belletini’s words – although I’m not a huge fan of the tune sung alone. Perhaps with others, with accompaniment, I would find the connection that would move me.

But for now, clearly what has moved me is Mark Belletini. The truth is, his meditation book, Sonata for Voice and Silence, is indeed my go-to when I need a reading, or even when I just need to read some poetry. Don’t get me wrong – I love other poets and mystics. But Mark is something special.

I had the pleasure of working with Mark for one of the Soulful Sunday services co-led by the Church of the Larger Fellowship and First Unitarian-Portland last winter, and after I fangirled a little (yes, it’s true, I did fangirl on the Zoom video conference), I discovered in Mark a minister as loving and gentle and surprising as his poetry. It was a delight and an honor to help him bring a visual element to his words, to be, just for a moment, a part of that creation.

On a day of blustery cold, it’s nice to have a warm memory to hold me.