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

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

Sound familiar?

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

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

Like this one, another beauty by Jim Scott:

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

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

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


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


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


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

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

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

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

This might be my favorite song in Singing the Journey.

It’s not my favorite congregational hymn – in fact, I’ve yet to encounter a congregation that’s even tried it as a hymn. But every time I hear a duet or choir sing it – or every time I sing it with someone – I weep from its beauty and its truth.

Our piece is composed by friend and colleague Beth Norton, and is based on a Transylvanian folk song and saying. As the UUA Song Information page notes,

This setting of the blessing is a “partner song” with the text in Hungarian in one part and in English in the other part. It was composed for the choir of First Parish in Concord, MA on the occasion of their Musical Pilgrimage to Transylvania in the summer of 2002. The song is dedicated to Concord’s partner congregation in Székelykeresztúr and to the musical pilgrims of First Parish in Concord.

The gorgeous, haunting piece weaves languages and melodies together to connect us to faith and to the Mystery. Even if you don’t believe in God, per se, there is connection.

Hol hit ott szeretet;
hol szeretet ott béke.
Hol béke ott áldás;
hol áldás ott Isten.
Hol Isten ott szükség nin csen.

Where there is faith there is love;
where there is love there is peace.
Where there is peace there is blessing;
where there is blessing there is God.
Where there is God, there is no need.

What I especially love is the idea that love isn’t the end – we often rely on love first and last, helped along by our Universalist assertions that God Is Love, and thus ultimate. No, in this understanding, love leads to peace leads to blessing leads to God/Mystery. But it begins with faith. Simple, impossible faith.

Yeah, that’ll preach.

The image is of hand-made needlework, made by Unitarian artists from Szentlaszlo Unitarian Church in Transylvania. It was an offering for the 2016 Goods and Services auction at Unitarian Church North in Mequon, WI – blessings to the member who won!

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.



There are days when I am sure my ability to come up with the perfect search terms are to blame for my not finding what I seek.

Other days, I know I have the right terms, but nothing comes up easily and I either have to dig deeper into the rabbit hole, or assume there is no there there.

Welcome to my world this morning. And I don’t have a lot of time this morning to dig deep into the underground tunnels and hidden rooms of the internet to find a morsel of information about today’s song. Which is frustrating, because there’s not much I can say otherwise.

What I do know is that everyone, including STJ, attributes this as a Swahili folk hymn. I have found scores of scores – arrangements for voices, bands, handbells, drum ensembles. I even found the arrangement we use, from Gather, a Roman Catholic hymnal.

Bwana awabariki,
Bwana awabariki,
Bwana awabariki, milele.
Ukimcha Bwana.
Bwana awabariki.

May God grant you a blessing,
may God grant you a blessing,
may God grant you a blessing ever more.
*Revere the Lord.
May God grant you a blessing.

*insert personal words, i.e. “Thanks to our teachers,” “Peace to all nations,” etc.

What I can’t find is any evidence of it outside of a fairly comprehensive high school (and maybe church choir) market. I wish I had some links to its original form, some native Swahili speakers/singers, some history of the song as passed down and passed around. There isn’t even a note on the UUA Song Information page, which I’d been counting on.

So I guess, given that my time is short and I have nothing, really, I will offer my own two cents about use. First, while it is quite simple, it’s unexpected in its last phrase, and so will perhaps benefit best from having a choir sing it the first time used, then have a strong song leader teach it the next time it’s used. Also, percussion seems key to giving the song life. Finally, remember that is a folk song, so bring less formality and more joy.

Because at the end of it, it’s a joyful song, asking for blessings from that which some call God.

By the way, the image has no specific meaning – I searched under “Kenya” to see what came up, and I found these great meerkats, who made me giggle.

This song speaks the truth in my heart.

This song allows me to cry.

This song is a balm to my soul.

Composer Jeannie Gagné wrote it to give voice to “those things which are not expressed, kept within the silence of our hearts” (as noted here) – that moment after spoken joys and sorrows, to honor the unspoken. And more than once, I have needed the quiet strength this song provides; its tender melody matching its tender lyrics.

I am worn, I am tired,
in my quiet sorrow.
Hopelessness will not let me be.
Help me.

I won’t speak of this ache
inside, light eludes me.
In the silence of my heart,
I’m praying.

I keep on, day by day,
trusting light will guide me.
Will you be with me through this time,
holding me?

You’re my hope when I fear
holding on, believing.
Deep inside I pray I’m strong.
Blessed be.

I could – and did – spend a long time with this hymn this morning. But much like the music, the moment demands not so much my words as my silent witness.

Amen. Blessed be.

You could call this one “How Is This My Life?” or maybe “God Bless the Revolution.”… and you’d certainly use the hashtag #MyUnion. But I think we’ll call this one “Our Rock Stars Are Not Your Rock Stars.”

Now the rock star in question is not composer Ysaye Barnwell, although she is a rock star, and I’ll talk more about her when we get to We Are… on January 10th. No, the rock stars in question right now are feminist theologians Bev Harrison and Carter Heyward.

One of the advantages of going to Union Theological Seminary is that we had the opportunity to meet some amazing people in our field, and I had a lot of “how is this my life” moments when sitting in a living room with Harry Belafonte, or singing from the same hymnal with former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd, or catching a glimpse of Mos Def in the hall as he heads to sit in on a class with Cornel West.

Such is the case on one beautiful, bittersweet afternoon, when Union held a memorial service for Bev Harrison, who had been a professor at Union and made major strides in the field of Christian feminist ethics. I never met her, but the stories being told at the service made me wish I had known her, because she seemed to be loving, gregarious, expansive, and always willing to challenge the status quo. In one of the reflections about her life, someone shared her words for blessing the food:

Some have food.
Some have none.
God bless the revolution.

It was a powerful experience learning about her life and her work. And then… the seminary choir, of which I was a part, got up to sing the second of two songs we had prepared for the service; I don’t remember the first, but the second was Breaths. I was honored to sing one of the lead parts with my dear friend Lindsey Turner, with the rest of the choir backing us up with the deep, pulsing rhythms that keep time and move the song along in rich harmonies.

When Lindsey and I walked to our places, we realized we were right in front of Bev’s partner, Carter Heyward. For those who don’t know, Heyward is a lesbian feminist theologian; in 1974, she was one of the Philadelphia Eleven, eleven women whose ordinations eventually paved the way for the recognition of women as priests in the Episcopal Church in 1976. Her life and her work is groundbreaking.

Yes. We were being asked to sing to Carter Heyward. This was like being asked to sing to Michelle Obama, or Madonna, or Oprah Winfrey – someone of that magnitude. In those first moments I felt a combination of terror and excitement and amazement.

Our rock stars are not your rock stars.

Of course, we pulled it together quickly, recognized our role as pastoral, and sang this song to Carter, who is now a friend on Facebook. Lindsey and I found the healing pulse of the music and breathed into the healing lyrics, evoking the ancestors, and in particular the loving presence of Bev.

This song… this beautiful song, now graces our hymnal.

Listen more often to things than to beings,
listen more often to things than to beings,
‘tis the Ancestor’s breath when the fire’s voice is heard,
‘tis the Ancestor’s breath in the voice of the waters.
Zah Whsshh Aahh Whsshh

Those who have died have never, never left.
The dead are not under the earth.
They are in the rustling trees,
they are in the groaning woods,
they are in the crying grass,
they are in the moaning rocks.
The dead are not under the earth.


Those who have died have never, never left.
The dead have a pact with the living.
They are in the woman’s breast,
they are in the wailing child,
they are with us in our homes,
they are with us in this crowd.
The dead have a pact with the living.


Now I can’t go without saying a thing or two about the piece as it appears in STJ:

Thing one: YAY! It’s an amazing song, easy to sing, written by a beloved hero of mine and many others. The lyrics, based on a piece by Senegalese poet Birago Diop, are as close to my theology of the afterlife as you can get without me having written them myself.

Thing two: Part of the magic of this song is the vocal orchestra that weaves together rhythm and harmony in a unique but utterly singable fashion; and while I applaud the attempt at a piano arrangement, the results tend to be – at least in my experience – less than the rich, rhythmic breaths Barnwell’s song evokes.

And still. I am glad it is here, in our hymnal, bringing that healing, pulsing breath of life and afterlife together.

Last night, friend and colleague Peggy Clarke told me this practice is “a source of insight.” Which is funny to me this morning, as I have absolutely nothing interesting to say about today’s hymn. No insight. No brilliant analysis. Not even a good joke… dang.

Anyway, this hymn. It’s a decent Brian Wren lyric, set to a tune commissioned for STLT from composer Alan Hovhaness. It’s in a tricky 3+4/4 rhythm that probably flows if I had accompaniment.

And the truth is, while I have attended many child dedications, I have never heard this sung or played, so I wonder if its trickiness is what puts people off, or if it’s something else? Anyway, here are the lyrics:

Wonder of wonders, life is beginning,
fragile as blossom, strong as the earth.
Shaped in a person, love has new meaning,
parents and people sing at their birth.

Now with rejoicing, make celebration;
joy full of promise, laughter through tears,
naming and blessing, bring dedication,
humble in purpose over the years.

Yay, babies.

Sorry I have nothing more…except, wait, if you want a different setting to Wren’s lyrics (including the third verse, which goes like this – “Lord of creation,  Dying and living / Father and Mother,  Partner and Friend / Lover of children,  Lift all our loving / Into your kingdom,  World without end”) check out this recording by David Haas.

Update: The brilliant Michael Tino offered this brilliant suggestion: you could also sing this to Morning Has Broken (tune: Bunessan). As he rightly notes, it “seems a fitting tune.”

This photo was taken at a simply lovely child dedication held during Professional Days (just prior to General Assembly) in Providence, RI, 2014. Yay, babies!

Next on the Countdown, it’s the original one hit wonder. (I’m apparently channeling the late Casey Kasem right now… a throwback to my misspent youth.)

While a working organist, composer, and teacher most of his life, German musician Johann Pachelbel produced more than 200 pieces throughout his lifetime, earning himself a place as one of the most important composers of the middle Baroque  era. But as prolific and popular as he was, he only ever hit the charts with his Canon in D.

Here’s a version on original instruments:

Our chaconne, based on the Canon in D, uses the word “alleluia” for vocalizing. It is a rather lovely way to honor the hit in voice. It’s laid out in a way that should make sense for leading a congregation, but it would require some teaching and strong leading. I’d start it with the choir, and then get them to help the rest of the congregation.

Alleluia, alleluia. Alleluia, alleluia.
Aleluia, alleluia, alleluia, alleluia,
alleluia, alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

That is, if you’re not sick to death of the piece.

I admit to having loved it a lot, so much so that I bought an album called Pachelbel’s Greatest Hit, which features 14 different versions, by artists ranging from Arthur Fiedler to Isao Tomita.  And then I got sick of it. Not as sick as comedian Rob Paravonian, but pretty sick of it. I leave you with the hysterical rant from Paravonian, because we all need something to laugh about now and then:

Image is the cover of the CD, drawn by cartoonist Patrick McDonnell, who draws the popular comic Mutts.

If you’re looking for music to accompany a service about anti-intellectualism and fake news, this is your hymn.

Heck, even if you’re just looking for music to accompany a service about James Luther Adams’ five smooth stones, or William Ellery Channing’s Baltimore sermon, or our fourth principle, this is your hymn.

Knowledge, they say drives wonder from the world;
they say it still, though all the dust’s ablaze with marvels at their feet,
while Newton’s laws foretell that knowledge one day shall be song.

We seem like children wandering by the shore,
gathering pebbles colored by the wave; while the great sea of truth,
from sky to sky stretches before us, boundless, unexplored.

Adapted from a longer piece by Arthur Noyes, this captures in two short verses the value we place on reason and awe of the natural world. And to be honest, nothing gets me thinking loftier thoughts about God than the latest photos from the Hubble or a previously unimaginable discovery of an animal, or a star system, or a cure.

Pretty much, if you’re a Unitarian Universalist, this is your hymn.

That is, if you can get the hang of the tune.

Composed by Cyril Taylor, this tune is a bit tricky and with an odd rhythm. I find it clunky and – broken record time – I lose the depth of the words because I’m trying to figure out how to sing it. That is not good, if this is sung congregationally. As a solo, perhaps. Now I should note that this was previously in the Celebration of Life, the 1964 hymnal, so it’s got some history. But as much as I love the lyrics, I don’t love the tune. So much so that I’ve scrapped the music altogether and used Noyes’ words as a reading.

Because it’s worth shouting from the rooftops some days.

One of the cool things about this particular hymnal is that the commission had some remarkable 20th century poetry set to music, like this poem, “Canzone” by WH Auden. The downside, of course, is that most of those poems – including “Canzone” – are far longer and intricate than we have breath for in a few short verses.

I wonder if this is still a good thing – does having snippets of longer works provide a sense of the poem’s meaning? Or does it miss the point of the still fairly short work that has been carefully constructed? Are we short-changing the amount of attention the poet has asked for?

Or does anyone actually notice who writes these things except someone like me who is studying them?

I can’t argue that the edited-for-singing version doesn’t capture some of what Auden was going for, and some of the most striking couplets remain in tact here. But I know that only from reading the full poem did I get it; otherwise, it was snippets of phrases and syllables to sing.

And that, as I’ve said before, seems to be a consideration when choosing a hymn to be sung by a congregation versus a hymn to be performed by a choir or soloist: does the music get out of the way enough so singers can hear the words? So much amazing poetry we have in this book of ours, but so much of it obscured by tunes that are complex. And when the notes demand more attention that the words, we might as well be singing “la la la” together.

My point – and I do have one – is that to let Auden’s words sing forth, and perhaps lead another person to look up the full poem, this should not be a congregational hymn but rather a solo/choral work.

When shall we learn, what should be clear as day,
we cannot choose what we are free to love?
We are created with and from the world
to suffer with and by it day by day.

For through our lively traffic all the day,
in my own person I am forced to know
how much must be forgotten out of love,
how much must be forgiven, even love.

Or else we make a scarecrow of the day,
loose ends and jumble of our common world;
or else our changing flesh can never know
there must be sorrow if there can be love.

The tune is a flowing piece called Flentge that isn’t too hard to sing, written by Lutheran composer and lecturer Carl Flentge Schalk; I don’t have much more info on it, but there is a recording on YouTube.

The image is of a now-extinct white rhinoceros, but that fact is not why it’s my featured image…