An explosion of ideas and thoughts and tears greet me this morning as I make my way through this hymn. This amazing, loving, gorgeously composed by Bobby McFerrin hymn.

McFerrin recasts one of the most familiar passages in the entire Bible and not only changes “he” language to “she” language and thus re-gendering God, but also personalizes it ways that blur the lines between the divine feminine, the earth, and moms. These changes offer a healing mother image to those who need it, a nurturing divine image, a grounded, grounding image. And a holy image. McFerrin’s tacking on of a Gloria patri at the end is a remarkable bit of theological jujitsu, reminding us that women are holy, God is bigger than any box we can devise, and there is love and comfort in the Mystery.

The Lord is my shepherd, I have all I need,
She makes me lie down in green meadows.
Beside the still waters, She will lead.
She restores my soul, She rights my wrongs,
She leads me in the path of good things,
She fills my heart with songs.

Even though I walk through a dark and dreary land,
There is nothing that can shake me,
She has said She won’t forsake me, I’m in her hand.
She sets a table before me in the presence of my foes,
She anoints my head with oil,
and my cup overflows.

Surely, surely goodness and kindness will follow me
all the days of my life,
And I will live in Her house,
forever, forever and ever.
Glory be to our Mother and Daughter
and to the Holy of Holies.
As it was in the beginning,
is now and ever shall be
world with out end. Amen.

And that’s just the lyrics. McFerrin’s recitative style here offers some gorgeous harmonies and melodic emphases on phrases we might not notice otherwise. It is ancient and new all at once.

And I’m not sure I’ve heard a congregation sing it, because many people don’t know what to do with a written recitative. It looks odd on the page for those who haven’t encountered it before. So I recommend, at least to start, having a small group or choir sing it with a clear conductor. Oh… and don’t do it as a solo, because that misses the richness of the piece too. It just doesn’t sound the same with a piano in the background.

That being said, it’s still one of my favorites. It’s a gorgeous recasting of a familiar text that can help to reclaim the beauty of this source for those who struggle with their religious pasts. It is also one of the most beautiful, holy pieces of music I’ve ever sung, bringing me to tears every time I sing or hear it.



For some people, Christmas is nothing but joyful – everything goes well, the right people are in the room, the right presents are under the tree, the right food is on the table, the right music is in the air.

For others of us, Christmas is more complex. We’re not where we want to be or who we want to be with, gifts are too little or too callous, we are struggling in any number of ways, or there are difficult relationships that will likely result in difficult moments.

I wonder, with Rob Eller-Isaacs “Litany of Atonement” set to music as the hymn today, if it might not be more helpful to go in to the day’s celebrations with a spirit of forgiveness instead of an expectation of dread. What happens when we begin our possibly fraught Christmasses with forgiveness and love?

[spoken] For remaining silent when a single voice would have made a difference …

We forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love.

[spoken] For each time that our fears have made us rigid and inaccessible …

We forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love.

[spoken] For each time that we have struck out in anger without just cause …

We forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love.

[spoken] For each time that our greed has blinded us to the needs of others…

We forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love.

[spoken] For the selfishness which sets us apart and alone…

We forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love.

[spoken] For falling short of the admonitions of the spirit…

We forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love.

[spoken] For losing sight of our unity…

We forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love.

[spoken] For those and for so many acts both evident and subtle which have fueled the illusion of separateness…

We forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love.

It never would have dawned on me to sing this to myself on Christmas morning – except here it was when I opened the hymnal today, and I realized that I was already bracing for what could be some frustrating moments later today. Singing/speaking this to myself helped. I realized how much anxiety I was holding and was able to breathe it out a bit. How long it lasts, I can’t say. But I can say that in this moment, with the day of celebration ahead, I feel better about what will come, and maybe I can at last find some of that Christmas spirit.

For this gift – a beautiful sung response with gorgeous accompaniment by Les Kleen to a rich and meaningful litany – I give great thanks.

Merry Christmas, one and all.

Happy Christmas Eve – let’s sing an Alleluia!

A number of years ago, Tom Benjamin (whose work graces many pages of both hymnals) put out a collection of 62 Responses, Benedictions, Introits, and Chalice Lighting Songs, which add music to many elements we think of as spoken. Some are short, some are longer. Some are easy for congregations to pick up, some are great for choirs or soloists. Much like the hymnals, in fact.

There are a number of alleluias by Tom in his collection (although my favorite piece of his is a complex choral Alleluia); some, like this one, is written to be a round or canon. Tom offers us many different rhythms from a wide range of musical genres – like this Calypso one, which has nothing to do with the Greek goddess and everything to do with the blending of African and South American sounds throughout the Caribbean islands.

Now I’ll be honest: this one isn’t my favorite of the short congregational alleluias, but is the favorite of many, and I often hear it used. With its syncopated rhythms evocative of the Afro-Caribbean sound, it begs you to sway and dance – especially if you add the suggested drum, claves, and shaker. (In my dreams, there’s enough money to issue every congregation a decent box of hand drums, steel drums, and other percussion instruments. And maybe some kazoos for good measure.)

Alleluia, sing alleluia!
Sing Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.
Sing alleluia, sing alleluia.

Blessed be, sing blessed be!
Sing blessed be, blessed be, blessed be.
Sing blessed be, sing blessed be.

And I love that the lyrics are expansive – not just alleluia, but blessed be, words that expand our theological praises.

It’s certainly not a song I’d have expected to sing on Christmas Eve, but then when has anything in this practice gone according to the calendar?

One of the Facebook memes going around right now is about memories – namely, asking for people to post memories of you, with a fair bit of delight at the answers. If my friend and colleague Ashley DeTar Birt were to ask, I would be hard pressed to pick just one memory, as our friendship, which began the first week of seminary and continues to this day, is full of great moments.

But the moment I would choose right now would be hearing her sermon “The Prism and the Paint” wherein she used Genesis 1 to search for better ways to talk about light and dark, white and black, good and evil. Using acrylic paints, crystals, and a lamp, she reminded us that the creation story calls day and evening “good” because it is not “void.” As Ashley reminded us, white is the sum of all colors when using light, and black is the sum of all colors when using paints. Light and dark are fullness. Light and dark – whether about the natural world, or our souls, or our skin colors – are good.

This Taizé song, by Jacques Berthier, expresses the fullness of darkness, where we can find sustenance for the journey.

De noche iremos, de noche
que para encontrar la fuente,
sólo la sed nos alumbra,
sólo la sed nos alumbra.

By night, we hasten, in darkness,
to search for living water,
only our thirst leads us onward,
only our thirst leads us onward.

De nuit nous irons dans l’ombre,
car pour decouvrir la source,
seule la soif nous éclaire,
seule la soif nous éclaire.

Di notte andremo, di notte,
per incontrare la fonte,
solo la sete c’illumina,
solo la sete ci guida.

In Dunkler Nacht woll’n wir ziehen,
lebendiges Wasser finden,
Nur unser Durst wird uns leuchten,
nur unser Durst wird uns leuchten.

One of the things I love about the music of the Taizé Community is that it’s meant to be sung in the language you choose; in a Taizé service, you will sometimes hear the words of many tongues crossing over one another in the same rich harmonies. It’s a beautiful thing to experience. And I am glad our Hymnal Commission offered the words in five languages here.

It is beautiful, haunting melody, perfect for a Winter Solstice vespers. (If only I’d gotten to this one last week, cry my clergy friends who led solstice services last night!)

It is beautiful, haunting, and full.

It is good.

For your listening pleasure:

About 12 years ago, I was honored to be one of ten people asked to pilot a new credentialing program through the UU Musicians Network; it was so exciting to be part of this group, to be deepening and learning and seeing a possible future serving our faith in this way. Among the ten was Widdy, a joyful, funny, and caring music director from Wisconsin, who made me feel welcome even though I’d only joined the UUMN a year prior.

Thus, it made me sad when only a year in, he announced he would be leaving the program to enter seminary – I was going to miss him a lot. Of course, I had to drop out myself, a only a few short months later due to health concerns, and then of course found my own way into seminary a couple of years after that. But I always felt great fondness for him, especially when singing this song. Widdy – known to most as Rev. Ian Riddell – doesn’t know this, but just seeing his song on the page and rejoicing in our friendship does as much for my feeling peaceful and at ease as does this graceful setting of a Buddhist meditation.

May I be filled with loving kindness. May I be well.
May I be filled with loving kindness. May I be well.
May I be peaceful and at ease.
May I be whole.

May you be filled …

May we be filled …

I have used this in so many different settings and for so many topics – because we need the reminder. Over and over. Between this and Sarah Dan’s Meditation on Breathing, we have the makings of a chant cycle to get us through all of these hard times – times when we need to be brought back to ourselves and reminded of our interconnectedness.

May we all be whole.

The image is the not-yet-updated seven principles wheel; Ian had developed this new way of examining the principles and handwrote it. After he shared it on Facebook, I set it graphically. There are some updates to be made, and one day we’ll get it printed on things, but for now, it is what it is, and I’m glad Ian let me play with his grand idea. I will say this: it preaches really well, this new way to look at the seven principles.

I’m a little bit embarrassed this morning.

You see, I went on and on about how much I love yesterday’s hymn, and then I turn the page and realize not only do I not know the next one, I’m not sure I ever gave it a second glance. There it sits, in the shadow of the Fire of Commitment, just waiting for me to notice it, it’s first line telling me it’s willing to wait.

Like love does, I guess.

I forget that while I might feel embarrassment, love feels no judgment, throws no shade. It just waits for us. It is patient and kind. And still, I’m a bit embarrassed that I regularly preach a piece on I Corinthians 13 (the famous love passage from the letters of Paul) and have somehow completely ignored this hymn, which would an absolutely perfect part of that liturgy.

It’s a shame, because it’s beautiful. The tune, by Methodist hymn composer Daniel Charles Damon, harkens back to the old shape note songs I wrote so fondly about when singing through Singing the Living Tradition.

Love knocks and waits for us to hear, to open and invite;
Love longs to quiet every fear, and seeks to set things right.

Love offers life, in spite of foes who threaten and condemn;
embracing enemies, Love goes the second mile with them.

Love comes to heal the broken heart, to ease the troubled mind;
without a word Love bids us start to ask and seek and find.

Love knocks and enters at the sound of welcome from within;
Love sings and dances all around, and feels new life begin.

According to Hymnary, the lyrics are inspired by several psalms, the Song of Solomon, the gospel of Matthew, and the book of Revelation. It’s that last bit that gives the hymn its opening metaphor; Revelation 3:20 says

Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.

Love just needs an invitation. I think we forget that in all of our talk about love. We forget that whether we are looking for more love, answering the call of love, giving songs of love, letting love guide us, or rejoicing in love… love doesn’t barge in. We have to invite it in.


Yeah. That’ll preach.

One of my favorite December Sundays is the one a minister designates as “Mitten Tree Sunday.” For those who haven’t experienced this wonderful service, it begins with a Christmas tree on the chancel, empty but for some lights. Often, the Candace Christiansen story that inspired the service is told, other times different stories about giving and grace appear – told, acted out, or otherwise referenced. And then the invitation comes, and everyone has the opportunity to decorate the tree with mittens, and gloves, and hats and scarves and other cold-weather accessories. After the service, those items are donated to a group that can suitably distribute them to those in need.

It is a small, but a tangible way to live out the call reflected in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 25, verses 31-41. Which, of course is also the call of this hymn, by Jose Antonio Oliver, which is inspired by the liberation theology of Peruvian priest and theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez, which emphasizes a concern for the liberation of the oppressed.

Cuando el pobre nada tiene y aún reparte,
cuando alguien pasa sed y agua nos da,
cuando el débil a su hermano forta lece,
va Dios mismo en nuestro mismo caminar;
va Dios mismo en nuestro mismo caminar.

Cuando alguno sufre y logra su Consuelo,
cuando espera y no se cansa de esperar,
cuando amamos, aunque el odio nos rodee,
va Dios mismo en nuestro mismo caminar,
va Dios mismo en nuestro mismo caminar.

Cuando crece la alegria y now inunda,
cuando dicen nuestros labios la verdad,
cuando anoramos el sentir de los sencillos,
va Dios mismo en nuestro mismo caminar,
va Dios mismo en nuestro mismo caminar.

Cuando abunda el bien y llena los hogares,
cuando alguien donde hay Guerra pone paz,
cuando “hermano” le llamamos al extraño,
va Dios mismo, en nuestro mismo caminar,
va Dios mismo en nuestro mismo caminar.

The English translation is by the Rev. Martin A. Seltz, a Lutheran (ELCA) minister/musician:

When the poor ones, who have nothing, still are giving;
when the thirsty pass the cup, water to share;
when the wounded offer others strength and healing:
we see God, here by our side, walking our way;
we see God, here by our side, walking our way.

When compassion gives the suffering consolation,
when expecting brings to birth hope that was lost;
when we choose love, not the hatred all around us;
we see God, here by our side, walking our way,
we see God, here by our side, walking our way.

When our spirits, like a chalice, brim with gladness,
when our voices, full and clear, sing out the truth,
when our longings, free from envy, seek the humble,
we see God, here by our side, walking our way,
we see God, here by our side, walking our way.

When the goodness poured from heaven fills our dwellings,
when the nations work to change war into peace,
when the stranger is accepted as our neighbor,
we see God, here by our side, walking our way,
we see God, here by our side, walking our way.

I love this hymn. I love the lyrics, I love the sentiment, and I love the melody. It is rich, and flowing, and I find it incredibly moving. It’s not often I’m in tears from singing the morning’s hymn, but this one brings me to tears from just thinking about it, no less singing it.

I hope congregations use this – not just on Mitten Tree Sundays but any time of the year when we need to remember that acts of simple generosity is liberation for all.

Featured Photo: members of First Universalist Church of Southold, NY, decorating last year’s mitten tree. The photo at the top of this page is the completed tree.

Among the lessons I have learned during this spiritual practice is that the hymnals of a denomination reflect history. Yes, there’s theological history, and certainly musical history, but there’s also a reflection of political and cultural history, if you pay attention.

Singing the Living Tradition reflects the world as it was in the early 1990s – the cold war had just ended but we still had all those nukes around. Apartheid ended and Nelson Mandela had been freed, but we were embroiled in the first Gulf War with no clear objective or victory in sight. Hence, we have in that hymnal a number of songs about world peace and getting along with one another, along with the emphasis on humanism and other kinds of inclusion.

Singing the Journey, produced 12 years later, reflects the times as well, most particularly the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in 2001. Hence, we have in this hymnal supplement more songs about world peace and getting along with one another, along with an expanding emphasis on nature-based religions and musical multi-culturalism.

It is this thought that brings us to today’s hymn, an anti-war song that must have felt vital to the STJ hymnal commission. It was written by West Virginia singer-songwriter Karen Mackay, to express her “strong belief in the power of women to influence global culture and bring peace to the world.” It’s got a simple, Appalachian gospel melody that’s easy to pick up and harmonize with, and except for the lack of a verse that expands the gender spectrum, it’s a rather wonderful anti-war song – a perfect addition (especially that last verse) in those first years after 9/11.

If ev’ry woman in the world had her mind set on freedom,
if ev’ry woman in the world dreamed a sweet dream of peace,
if ev’ry woman of ev’ry nation,
young and old, each generation,
held her hands out in the name of love,
there would be no more war.

If ev’ry man in the world had his mind set on freedom,
if ev’ry man in the world dreamed a sweet dream of peace,
if ev’ry man of ev’ry nation,
young and old, each generation,
held his hands out in the name of love,
there would be no more war.
If ev’ry leader in the world shared a vision,
if ev’ry leader in the world shared a sweet dream of peace,
if ev’ry leader of ev’ry nation,
young and old, each generation,
worked for justice and liberation,
holding hands out in the name of love,
there would be no more war.

If ev’ry nation in the world set a true course for freedom,
if ev’ry nation raised its children in a culture of peace,
if all our sons and all our daughters
reached in friendship across the waters,
refusing to be enemies,
there would be no more war.

When I first learned this song in 2005, it felt very fresh and prescient. But like many of our hymns that reflect the times (in both current hymnals), it now feels a bit dated and out of fashion. I started singing this song and wishing that we had verses about today’s problems, because I love it but I am not feeling the need to sing about warring nations right now – there are more pressing issues.

Do note: I’m not advocating not having them – because heaven knows when the next war will erupt, and it will be good to have these songs at the ready. It’s just interesting to note how history informs song choices.

And so the final question, then, is what political and cultural events will shape the next hymnal? Certainly the specter of all-out war doesn’t loom as sharply (except when our Twitter feeds are filled with ill-advised taunts to North Korea); we are much more concerned with the wars at home – black lives matter, immigration justice, health care, financial inequality, feminism, the First Nations, etc. What will our new hymnody look like? And how dated will it feel a dozen years on?

Or is that the cross hymnals in a living tradition bear – that the moment they’re published they are in some ways already out of date?  It’s not a bad problem to have, but it does mean we must pay more and more attention to the new music coming out to fill those gaps between printed books.

Image is of a peace pole in Plymouth, Massachusetts.

I feel like I have fallen down a strange rabbit hole this morning.

I have to begin by assuring you all that I have no doubt about the excellent work our STJ hymnal commission did in gathering, researching, and arranging the 75 songs in this hymnal supplement. I recognize that we are always learning more, always finding more resources, and of course always expanding our theological and ethical understanding.

But because singing these songs often leads me to curiosity about its origins or uses, I jump in the rabbit hole of the internet…. and today, this rabbit hole is leading not to comfortable underground warren but to something Lewis Carroll’s Alice might have encountered, were she a minister looking for information on the internet.

According to the hymnal, this is an African American spiritual from the civil rights period. When I go to the UUA Song Information page, I find that

This was one of the songs that was used during the Civil Rights Era at virtually every demonstration, mass meeting of activists, and march in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Singing songs helped give the activists strength and a sense of self. For more detailed information, you may explore the book, When the Spirit Says Sing!: The Role of Freedom Songs in the Civil Rights Movement, written by Kerran L. Sanger.

Now I’d like to explore the book, but on this snowy Tuesday I have no access to a library, nor do I have an extra $48 to plunk down for this book (current list price on Amazon – even for the Kindle version). So I decide to hunt for other online resources about the song…. and what I find is that there are a number of different songs that have the same sort of structure but with various lyrics and melodies, like this one from Hymnary, and this one by Sweet Honey in the Rock. They are variations, and to be sure, I’m fairly certain some of them were used in the civil rights movement and some of them come out of an older spiritual tradition. It makes sense.

But I’m struggling to find anything about the version – this wonderful, jazzed up version arranged by Mark Freundt, with that one tricky spot that’s only tricky until you learn it. Until I run across this version, by children’s music performer Raffi. It is the only one I found with our melody, although some of the lyrics are different. And when I look for more information about this version, I find this:


Have we got the wrong song in our hymnal? Did we mean to have one of the others but starting singing Raffi instead?  I don’t doubt that the hymnal commission did their due diligence, but was this not the song they thought they were getting?

Like I said, a strange rabbit hole.

I’m not sure what to make of this, gentle readers. I do like this song and when played well has a rousing, almost Pentecostal spirit to it (in fact, it’s a great song for Pentecost). It’s a wonderful send off for services with a strong call to action, too.

Anyway, here are the lyrics – another great example of a zipper song.

You got to do when the spirit says do!
You got to do when the spirit says do!
When the spirit says do, you got to do, oh Lord!
You got to do when the spirit says do!
Spirit says do (6x)

Other verses may include sing, dance, laugh, shout, etc.

I’m feeling a bit at sixes and sevens having gone through this… I almost wish I hadn’t looked for more information now. But I will say I like the cut of the Mad Hatter’s jib…

For about a dozen years, my mother lived on the Outer Banks of North Carolina – it’s how I got to the state too. Every Thanksgiving and Christmas, I would come in from the Raleigh-Durham area, and the rest of my family would come down from New York to celebrate the holidays. And on Thanksgiving weekend, to help Mom out, we’d decorate the tree.

One year in particular, we wound up listening to some old Allan Sherman records while we decorated – finding branches for Santas and snowmen, while singing “Hello Muddah” and marching around laying the garland to “The Ballad of Harry Lewis.” And adding the finishing touches to a conga line while singing “My Zelda” – a parody of Harry Belefonte’s “Matilda.” Every year since, whether decorating with family or alone, at some point the Allan Sherman shows up, and I usually find myself singing a calypso parody before the final ornament is placed.

It’s not surprising, then, to find myself singing this Sea Islands-inspired calypso-esque piece, on this day when the tree will be decorated.

Here’s what the UUA’s Song Information page has to say:

Composed in 1997 in Cuzzago, Italy, this is the title song of Elise Witt’s 8th recording on the EMWorld Records label. Open the Window was inspired by a Spiritual from the Georgia Sea Islands called Heist the Window, Noah. Though Elise’s version uses only one phrase from the original Spiritual, it keeps the intention of naming situations in our lives, personal and global, that need opening for the dove to fly in, for us to find peace.

Here are the lyrics:

Open the window children,
Open the window now.
Open the window children.
Open the window let the dove fly in.
Open the window let the dove fly in.

Mama and Papa are fighting like snakes
Open the window let the dove fly in.
Baby is a cry in’ like her heart will break
Open the window let the dove fly in.


Neighbors lock their doors, Build fences so high.
Open the window let the dove fly in.
Don’t see what’s to discover on the other side.
Open the window let the dove fly in.


Borders ‘round countries, borders ‘round the sky.
Open the window let the dove fly in.
The only border close you is the border ‘round your mind.
Open the window let the dove fly in.

Abran la ventana niños,
Abran la ventana ya,
Abran la ventana niños.
Abran la ventana que entre la paloma.
Abran la ventana que entre la paloma.

And here is where I’m supposed to offer some deep thoughts about the music, or the lyrics, or the theology, or even about fair use, appropriation, or singability.

Yet I don’t know what to say. It’s not a song I’ve ever used. And I’m not entirely sure about it. It’s entirely possible that this practice has made me gunshy and oversensitive… or it’s possible that this practice has honed my spidey senses and I’m appropriately more sensitive to subtle issues of appropriation and wonky theologies.

All I know is that on this day, with an unadorned tree awaiting our attention, my sister and I will enjoy both the old Christmas favorites – Ed Ames, The Carpenters, John Denver and the Muppets – and a little Borscht Belt humor.