Thank you, Sister Act.

Joyful, joyful, we adore thee, God of glory, God of love;
hearts unfold like flowers before thee, hail thee as the sun above.
Melt the clouds of sin and sadness; drive the pain of doubt away;
giver of immortal gladness, fill us with the joy of day.

All thy works with joy surround thee, earth and heav’n reflect thy rays,
stars and planets sing around thee, center of unbroken praise;
field and forest, vale and mountain, blossoming meadow, flashing sea,
chanting bird and flowing fountain call us to rejoice in thee.

Thou art giving and forgiving, ever blessing, ever blest;
wellspring of the joy of living, ocean-depth of happy rest.
Ever singing march we onward, victors in the midst of strife;
joyful music lifts us sunward in the triumph song of life.

I was about to go on another rant regarding lyric changes – how some of them made sense, but at what point are we taking the teeth out of another person’s song, and is it okay to do it when the words are from an dead white guy, and what does that mean… and at where is the line – is it okay to change ‘dark’ to ‘pain’ (I think so) and ‘Lord’ to “God’ (works for me) and ‘angel’ to ‘planet’ (less comfortable).

But the truth is, I could obsess about only this throughout the hymnal and miss the point of this practice – to sing every hymn, to start my day with music, to feel the power of song as a way to awaken and ground my spirit, to find meaning.

Because despite my stumbling through singing this as printed in STLT – this is indeed a joyful hymn.

The joy starts in the mastery of Beethoven – especially that early entrance in the final couplet – like joy is bursting through and can’t wait to be expressed. Brilliant.

And of course, the lyrics are joy-filled. I love the line “wellspring of the joy of living, ocean-depth of happy rest” – I talk a lot about the unimaginable expansiveness of God, and this captures it for me lusciously.

And then, of course, I start singing what I can remember of the contemporary gospel setting as we first saw in the film Sister Act II, featuring the incomparable Lauryn Hill…

How can you hear this and not be filled with joy? Barring the incredibly-90s outfits (the appearance of which causes a continuity issue for me – who thought that minor plot point made sense?) – this rendition is joy personified. It brings me to tears every time, tears from deep in the well of my soul, tears that tell me underneath the pain and sorrow, the stress and concern – my soul is ultimately made of and made for joy.

We are made for joy. And with music like this, we get to celebrate all the joy that is found above, around, and within us. Joyful, we humans adore thee – all that thee might be.


Titles are deceiving…

View the starry realm of heaven,
shining distant empires sing.
Skysong of celestial children
turns each winter into spring, turns each winter into spring.

Great you are, beyond conception,
God of gods and God of stars.
My soul soars with your perception,
I escape from prison bars, I escape from prison bars.

You, the One within all forming
in my heart and mind and breath,
you, my guide through hate’s fierce storming,
courage in both life and death, courage in both life and death.

Life is yours, in you I grow tall,
seed will come to fruit I know.
Trust that after winter’s snowfall
walls will melt and Truth will flow, walls will melt and Truth will flow.

I have never sung this hymn. I have never really even paused to read the lyrics. I think once or twice I have noticed that it was written by notable Unitarian minister and martyr Norbert Capek. But I’ve easily flipped past, because we’ve got so many “ooo, look at God in nature” hymns already.

Mea culpa.

Sure, the first verse is lovely and nature filled. But this second verse… “my soul soars with your perception; I escape from prison bars.” And the verses after… “courage in both life and death”… “trust that after winter’s snowfall walls will melt and Truth will flow.”


A look to the bottom of the page – the tune is called Dachau. And I remember this, from the Dictionary of Unitarian and Universalist Biography:

On the 28th of March, 1941, Čapek and his daughter, Zora, aged 29, were arrested by the Gestapo and taken to Pankrac Prison. Zora was accused of listening to foreign broadcasts and distributing the content of some BBC transmissions; Čapek himself of listening to foreign broadcasts and of “high treason.” Several of his sermons were cited as “evidence” of the latter charge. Listening to foreign broadcasts was a capital offense under the Protectorate. Two separate trials were held, the first at Pankrac Prison soon after their arrest; the second, an appeal of the original decision, at Dresden in April 1942. The appeals court found Čapek innocent of the treason charge, recommending that, given his age, the year between his arrest and the appeals trial be counted toward his jail time. The Gestapo, ignoring the court’s recommendation, nonetheless sent Čapek to Dachau, Zora to forced labor in Germany. Čapek’s name appears among prisoners sent on an invalid transport on October 12, 1942 to Hartheim Castle, near Linz, Austria, where he died of poison gas.

And I think to myself of all the people of faith who maintained their faith in the worst of atrocities – Čapek, yes, and Bonhoeffer and Frankl – and I think of all that our faith calls us to do, and how we find the courage to do so.

And my mind goes to my colleagues who are heading to Standing Rock to answer the call to clergy to come pray… and the call that went out 51 years ago to clergy to join King in Selma… and all of the times our faith calls us to face down atrocities, because our faith helps us find the courage to do so.

I’m not heading to Standing Rock because of various commitments here – but I support those who are going, and I pray with those who are, and I pray that all who are there remain safe.

“Life is yours – in you I grow tall.” May we all grow tall, and courageous, and may the truth flow.

Every night and every morn
some to misery are born;
every morn and every night
some are born to sweet delight.

Joy and woe are woven fine,
clothing for the soul divine:
under every grief and pine
runs a joy with silken twine.

It is right it should be so:
we were made for joy and woe;
and when this we rightly know,
safely through the world we go.

William Blake. Swoon.

Seriously – an amazing poet, writing alongside Wordsworth, Shelley, Coleridge, Burns, Keats. Some of the most elegant poets of the English language, all exploring all manner of life, divinity, nature, and the essence of humanity… while Channing, Emerson, and Thoreau were exploring the same through theology and philosophy. A heady time of new thought.

But I digress. I was swooning over Blake’s poetry – wondering how it is I have spent all this time skimming past this hymn, not seeing its depth and beauty. It is something I deeply believe – that we cannot have joy without woe, nor woe without knowing there is joy somewhere, feeding and clothing our souls.

And how did I skim over this, knowing now that it is set to one of my favorite hymn tunes, the lush and delicious Ralph Vaughan Williams piece “The Call”? The two together are deep, and meaningful, and rich.

Part of this practice is about my own spiritual care – it isn’t just a daily homework assignment, although sometimes it strikes me as such. No, singing aloud to these hymns, in my kitchen while the coffee is brewing, is meant to be a spiritual practice to feed me and open my eyes to something.

And this one has brought me Right. Back. To. Center.

All of the insanity of the presidential election, all the tumult in the congregation, all the pain in the world, for a moment anyway, has been taken off my shoulders so that I may sit with my soul, full of joy and woe, and luxuriate in this beautiful hymn for this beautiful moment.


The sun at high noon, the stars in dark space,
the light of the moon on each upturned face,
the high clouds, the rain clouds, the lark-song on high:
we gaze up in wonder above to the sky.

The green grassy blade, the grasshopper’s sound,
the creatures of shade that live in the ground,
the dark soil, the moist soil, where plants spring to birth:
we look down at wonder below in the earth.

The glad joys that heal the tears in our eyes,
the longings we feel, the light of surprise,
our night dreams, our day dreams, our thoughts ranging wide:
we live with a whole world of wonder inside.

Let’s get the melody stuff right out of the way – Tom Benjamin, whom I have had the pleasure of making music with, is a terrific hymn writer, and this tune is great. It’s got all of the qualities you want in a tune, including a well-matched lyric.

I suspect if I were in a different mindset, I’d be singing this hymn’s praises. We really actually don’t have too many hymns that praise nature and its meaning/effect on us. But right now – just weeks before the votes are cast in the most contentious American election possibly ever – singing praises to nature doesn’t cut it for me. I need something right now to help me make sense of deep questions of worth. I need something to get in deep and make it all okay.

Of course, I realize that this is why we have hundreds of hymns and are free to choose those we need to work with a particular setting. And my doing this rather artificially structured tour means I will sing hymns that are not connected to what is actually called for.

And yet… as I typed those words, I wonder. Is it so random, really, that I am singing hymns about nature and the celebration of our interdependent web, that when people are behaving at their worst I am singing praises to the earth and all its inhabitants at their best? I don’t disagree with my earlier feeling that some of these hymns are a little fluffy and light on the theology… and maybe that is exactly the point. Maybe the point is that we have to remember there is more to life than the conflict that is arising or the particular events of a moment. There is more to life – and it is there for us to see, all around us, beyond us, within us.

There it is, then.

Immortal love, forever full, forever flowing free,
forever shared, forever whole, a never-ending sea!

Our outward lips confess the name all other names above;
but love alone knows whence it came and comprehendeth love.

Blow, winds of love, awake and blow the mists of hate away;
sing out, O Truth divine, and tell how wide and far we stray.

The letter fails, the systems fall, and every symbol wanes;
the Spirit overseeing all, Eternal Love, remains.

I finished singing this hymn and thought ‘the tune betrays the lyric.’

This is a powerful lyric – “blow the mists of hate away”… “tell how far and wide we stray”… “the letter fails, the systems fall”… powerful words demanding we answer the call of Love and seek justice. We believe first in Love and the power of Love to make us agents of change, truth, justice, and compassion. This is a strong, time to show up, walk the talk, get woke and stay woke lyric. And one that reminds us that Love remains the constant – the one thing we can lean on, count on, avail ourselves of, learn from, embody.

And…it’s set to a light Irish air.

The truth is, I often overlook it when choosing hymns because I hadn’t dug deep into it before, had not realized the force that is Whittier’s words. “Immortal love, forever full”…okay, let’s remember you on Valentine’s Day…next.

But it is amazing. It deserves a better, stronger tune. Our own hymnal is limited – this tune, called St. Columba, is the only one in our hymnals with this meter ( – yet there are at least 150 other tunes with this meter (according to the site Small Church Music). So what are we doing here? Why did the folks who set this tune in the first place think this was the right match?

It’s time to find a new tune – one that is commiserate with the bold call of Whittier’s words. One that propels us into action. One that reminds us what Love looks like when it is Lived.

Words by John Greenleaf Whittier, set to an Irish melody

No longer forward nor behind I look in hope or fear;
but, grateful, take the good I find, the best of now and here.
I break my pilgrim staff, I lay aside the toiling oar;
the angel sought so far away I welcome at my door.

For all the jarring notes of life seem blending in a psalm,
and all the angles of its strife slow rounding into calm.
And so the shadows fall apart, and so the west winds play;
and all the windows of my heart I open to the day.

I need to learn how to play the piano – and by sight – fast. Here’s another hymn I am unfamiliar with, and it took a little time to get the hang of the melody. Once I felt it, though, I longed to hear the harmony, which looks to be a counterpoint.

The lyrics are an interesting addition for a people on the move – “I break my pilgrim staff”…”the best of now and here”… there is something very Zen about this lyric, something very present. This isn’t “one more step” or “I’m gonna keep on ’til I find it” or “come and go with me.” This is the all too infrequent reminder in our faith to be here now, be present to this moment of life. It’s what we hope for when we meditate or pray…I know it’s what worship leaders hope for the people attending…. that for a few moments, anyway, what you seek is found here, in this moment, in a place where the angels can speak and our hearts can open.

May we all have moments such as this.


Words by John Greenleaf Whittier, set to an English folk tune

Mother Spirit, Father Spirit, where are you?
In the sky song, in the forest, sounds your cry.
What to give you, what to call you, what am I?

Many drops are in the ocean, deep and wide.
Sunlight bounces off the ripples to the sky.
What to give you, what to call you, who am I?

I am empty, time flies from me; what is time?
Dreams eternal, fears infernal haunt my heart.
What to give you, what to call you, O, my God?

Mother Spirit, Father Spirit, take our hearts.
Take our breath and let our voices sing our parts.
Take our hands and let us work to shape our art.

This is one of our most haunting hymns – both melody and lyric work together to create an air of mystery, wondering, and mysticism. It is the plaintive call of the seeker, questioning all, finding solace in each other. It is a hymn uniquely suited for us – it is theism and humanism, nature and community, all rolled into one. I know that its author, Norbert Capek, did not live to see the fullness of the modern Unitarian Universalist movement (he was killed by Nazis in Dachau during WWII) – but his prescient lyric speaks deeply of those questions we wrestle with today.

I often imagine this should be a round – and then I realize we’d miss the lyrics if we sang it that way. But I hope others sing it; it is familiar to me and yet I find I don’t use it in my own services. Is it because of the binary language (mother/father)? Is it because of all the assumptions that there is a god? Is it, despite the landing on our hands and hearts, too theistic? As a minister, I both want to challenge our assumptions and give space for our particularities. Does this go too far? Not far enough? Many questions to ponder.

All I can ultimately say is that for me, this hymn speaks deeply to the questions I wrestle with all the time: ‘what to give you, what to call you, who am I?”

I brought my spirit to the sea;
I stood upon the shore.
I gazed upon infinity,
I heard the waters roar.

And then there came a sense of peace,
some whisper calmed my soul.
Some ancient ministry of stars
had made my spirit whole.

I brought my spirit to the trees
that loomed against the sky.
I touched each wand’ring careless breeze
to know if god was nigh.

And then I felt an inner flame that
fiercely burned my tears.
Upright, I rose from bended knee
to meet the asking years.

I am sad to say I have never sung this before – sad because it is beautiful, and touches both lyrically and melodically on that mystery contained in all of existence. It is reverent and mystical and makes me want to take a walk along the Sound.

That it is the fourth hymn tells me of nature’s import to our hymn curators but also to our theology (at least the theology of the early 90s); it places our Transcendentalist forebears in a position of import. And I don’t know who ever sings it – I hope other congregations do, because I’ve never encountered it anywhere, other than in flips through the hymnal on the way to other hymns.

And that’s a shame. I for one want to really learn it and use it, because it speaks deeply, even to my very theist self.

The melody alone has a graceful flow, gentle scales supporting surprising intervals that emphasize the lyric mysticism. And the lyrics, calling us to give in and give over and draw strength from that which is so much bigger than us alone, tangible yet infinite. These lyrics evoke a primordial Yes… “I felt an inner flame that fiercely burned my tears” … “An ancient ministry of stars had made my spirit whole”…. I am surrendered. I am ready. Yes… deep within my soul, every cell and molecule cries ‘yes’ to the ancient mystery.

Words by Max Capp
Music by Alex Wyton

Down the ages we have trod
many paths in search of God,
seeking ever to define
the Eternal and Divine.

Some have seen eternal good
pictured best in Parenthood,
and a Being throned above
ruling over us in love.

There are others who proclaim
God and Nature are the same,
and the present Godhead own
where Creation’s laws are known.

There are eyes which best can see
God within humanity,
and God’s countenance there trace
written in the human face.

Where compassion is most found
is for some the hallowed ground,
and these paths they upward plod
teaching us that love is God.

Though the truth we can’t perceive
this at least we must believe,
what we take most earnestly
is our living Deity.

Our true God we there shall find
in what claims our heart and mind,
and our hidden thoughts enshrine
that which for us is Divine.

For me, this is less an inspirational hymn and more a utilitarian hymn – it is a lesson in theology: what do we believe about God? I have used this hymn in services – most notably in my series “Singing About God” – using a handful of verses each week helps introduce the perspective I explore.

But it’s not very inspirational, not like May Nothing Evil Cross This Door. It doesn’t have soaring lyrics or a soaring melody – in fact, the melody (written by a much admired friend) is rather light for such a heady subject. This is not a song I would turn to for meditation or spiritual deepening – it’s a song I turn to when I want to talk about Unitarian Universalist theology.

Not that that’s bad – not everything can have the heart-tugging power of Finlandia (which I’ll explore when we get to #159, This Is My Song). One of the reasons we have hymns, curated and collected, is to hold our theology as it is experienced in our congregations. It’s why the hymnals get revised every so often, or supplements get released – because the theology as we experience it in our congregations changes to meet our souls’ and our world’s needs. Even Singing the Journey, released only 11 years ago, feels a little outdated now, because so much has shifted. And yet, this is what we have for now – this, plus the new songs and lyrics written and shared, that soon become the ‘extra-canonical’ works of our sung theology. (Jason Shelton’s “Life Calls Us On” is one among many examples of this – I fully expect it will be included in a future hymnal.)

So… this is a fine hymn – it does what it is meant to, and it’s easy to sing. I’m glad it’s here.

Words by John Andrew Storey
Music by Thomas Benjamin

May nothing evil cross this door,
and may ill fortune never pry about
these windows; may the roar
and rain go by.

By faith made strong, the rafters will
withstand the battering of the storm.
This hearth, though all the world grow chill,
will keep you warm.

Peace shall walk softly through these rooms,
touching our lips with holy wine,
till every casual corner blooms
into a shrine.

With laughter drown the raucous shout,
and, though these sheltering walls are thin,
may they be strong to keep hate out
and hold love in.

And so it begins – with a lilting 3/4 tune, which I have heard too many times played like a dirge. It’s full of strong sentiment, but it is a blessing, not a demand. It is a prayer, not a protest….although they are often the same thing.

My point, however, is that this opening hymn is a dance – a waltz, a welcoming, loving blessing to all of the spirits who enter: the book, the congregation, the faith, life itself.

Imagine if we greeted people at the door with a hand jive, then twirling them into our foyers, one-two-three, one-two-three to the ushers who lead them gently to seats and then dance off to meet the next willing, dance-filled congregants?

Imagine if the pianist choir cha-cha’d to the bench, hips gently propelling them to feel the rhythm of the beating hearts filling the room?

Imagine the choir doing the electric slide into the loft, rocking their souls soulfully into place?

Imagine the worship leaders entering with an energetic Charleston, weaving an energetic magic that catches fire?

Imagine the whole congregation moving and breathing in sync, ready to be together because their spirits already are engaged in the dance of welcome and blessing?


Words by Louis Untermeyer, music by Robert N. Quaile
Tune: Oldbridge