I am torn this morning between heartbreak and duty: my duty to myself to follow through on this spiritual practice and write something – anything – in response to the day’s singing; my heartbreak over yesterday’s death of one of my cats, a 15 year old black cat named Chelsea who was found dumpster diving and whose personality was full of spunk, love, and grit.

Asking me to write about a song that beautifully portrays our call to love the hell out of this world, on this day, feels too hard. I don’t have the wherewithal to answer the call of love today; I barely have the wherewithal to be here at all today.

I’ll leave you just with this: UU composer Elizabeth Alexander – who I first met 13 years ago at a UU Musicians Network conference (she was my roommate) is one of the most lovely people I know; her choral settings are gorgeous and complex but definitely worth it – as is this song. It’s not the easiest hymn to sing, but it’s not impossible with good song leading.

As we sing of hope and joy today,
Some know only anguish and despair.
How can we lift our voices in this way
while some have pain and misery to spare?

If a crumbling world we would renew,
We must sing no ordinary song,
Peals from a noisy gong will never do;
in every breath compassion must belong.

Let this song our greatest hopes contain:
Laughter of a well-fed child its tune,
Roofs over every heartbeat its refrain,
its harmony from peaceful cities hewn.

Sing of joy while hammering each nail.
Sing of hope while pulling every weed,
So shall we sing together and prevail;
May every Alleluia bear a seed.

In a different time, I would be talking about the metaphors and turns of phrase. Maybe someday.

Today, I just feel sad.

Happy New Year! In the words of Colonel Sherman Potter (M*A*S*H), “may it be a damn sight better than the old one.” If today’s hymn is any indication, it will be full of beautiful reminders that there is a love holding us.

This haunting song, composed by David Zehavi, is based on a poem by an Israeli hero I’d never heard of but am excited to learn about. This is the opening paragraphs from Wikipedia (there’s a longer bio at J*Grit, the Internet Index of Tough Jews):

Hannah Szenes (often anglicized as Hannah Senesh or Chanah Senesh; Hebrew: חנה סנש‬; Hungarian: Szenes Anikó; July 17, 1921 – November 7, 1944) was a poet and Special Operations Executive (SOE) paratrooper. She was one of 37 Jewish parachutists of Mandate Palestine parachuted by the British Army into Yugoslavia during the Second World War to assist in the rescue of Hungarian Jews about to be deported to the German death camp at Auschwitz.

Szenes was arrested at the Hungarian border, then imprisoned and tortured, but refused to reveal details of her mission. She was eventually tried and executed by firing squad. She is regarded as a national heroine in Israel, where her poetry is widely known.


That definitely puts this poem, written in 1943 – just a year before her death – into some perspective.

Eli, Eli shelo yigamer l’olam,
Hachol v’hayam,
Rishrush shel hamayim
B’rak hashamayim,
T’filat haadam.
Hachol v’hayam,
Rishrush shel hamayim,
B’rak hashamayim,
T’filat haadam.

And the English translation:

My God of all, God’s love shall never end;
The sand and the sea,
the rush of the waters.
The thundering heavens,
the prayers of our heart.
The sand and the sea,
the rush of the waters.
The thundering heavens,
the prayers of our heart.

Wow. I might have found a hero to study in this upcoming year – a year where we need faith, grit, a moral center, and resolve.

Musically, I will say that I was  a bit anxious entering it, as I don’t know it and it seemed to go in unexpected places. But then I found this gorgeous version online, and suddenly the song made sense to me both musically and lyrically, even though I don’t know Hebrew. I leave you with this blessing:

I think I first learned this song in high school, about the same time I heard about apartheid in South Africa. Yet I am pretty sure I never related the two – I know our music teachers didn’t do that, and at that age I wasn’t in a religious education program that helped me understand the world in context (I was in a youth group at a small non-denominational, more-or-less fundamentalist church where we talked bible, not justice).

I began to wonder, as I sought recordings of today’s hymn to share, and found mountains of YouTube videos of high school choirs, if music teachers are doing a better job of connecting the music they sing to the context the music comes from.

Because the context is rich – there is much we can learn about the United States past and present from examining South African apartheid, from the creep of discriminatory legislation to the ways in which resistance to those laws bend the moral arc of the universe toward justice.

And as we see over and over again, music makes a difference. We have talked about it here a lot – the enslaved Africans in America, the civil rights movement, Estonia’s singing revolution, and more. Music spreads, music informs, music reaches deep in and grabs hold of our spirits, music shifts our energy and can change our minds.

Oh freedom, oh freedom,
oh freedom, freedom is coming!

Oh yes I know, oh yes I know,
oh yes I know, freedom is coming!

Oh freedom, oh freedom,
oh freedom, freedom is coming!

Technically, this song – if unfamiliar – will require some good song leaders, as the power comes from the interwoven parts. Drums will help too. Each part is really easy, but the coordination of them can be complex – hence the contradictory singability tags.

But oh, is it worth it. This is such a joyful, lively, energizing song.

May all feel the freedom this song demands.

Things I wonder:

Do some congregations sing this together fairly regularly?

Do some music directors and ministers flip past it because it is somewhat complex if you don’t know it already?

Do others flip past it because in 13 years we’ve learned that binary language is too restrictive?

Does composer and colleague Fred Small have some new lyrics for it? (12/8/17: He answered me! See the end of the post.)

Does any of that matter, given the origin story? That story goes something like this: in 1983, Small heard the distress of Janet Peterson, cellist and singer with the women’s music group Motherlode, whose nine-year-old son came home from school crying, because his friends no longer hugged each other to show that they liked each other, now the method was to hit one another. Parsons wanted a song she could sing to him to affirm the freedom to live and love as we choose, and the result was this gentle lullaby.

We have cleared off the table, the leftovers saved, washed the dishes and put them away.
I have told you a story and tucked you in tight at the end of your knockabout day.
As the moon sets its sail to carry you to sleep over the Midnight Sea,
Well, I will sign you a song no one sang to me—may it keep you good company.

You can be anybody that you want to be, you can love whomever you will.
You can travel any country where your heart leads and know I will love you still.
You can live by yourself, you can gather friends around, you can choose one special one.
And the only measure of your words and your deeds
Will be the love you leave behind when you’re gone.

Some girls grow up strong and bold; some boys are quiet and kind.
Some race on ahead, some follow behind; some go in their own way and time.
Some women love women and some men love men.
Some raise children and some never do.
You can dream all the day, never reaching the end of everything possible for you.

Don’t be rattled by names, by taunts or games, but seek out spirits true.
If you give your friends the best part of yourself, they will give the same back to you.

You can be anybody that you want to be, you can love whomever you will.
You can travel any country where your heart leads and know I will love you still.
You can live by yourself, you can gather friends around, you can choose one special one.
And the only measure of your words and your deeds
Will be the love you leave behind when you’re gone.
Oh, the love you leave behind when you’re gone.

It is sweet and sentimental, and oh so very 20th century in its language. I don’t know if any of my questions will be answered, but I hope some will.

Update: On the very active Facebook thread for this post, Fred Small offered this:

Thanks for all the kind words and thoughtful critiques of my song, “Everything Possible,” which I wrote in 1983 at the request of a lesbian mother trying to raise her 9-year-old son amidst the pressures of (toxic) masculinity. The song took off in the late 1980s when the Flirtations picked it up, leading to its performance by LGBTQ choruses around the world. The Boston Gay Men’s Chorus still sings it to their newest members at their first rehearsal. As a straight cis man, I’m deeply honored and humbled by the song’s embrace by LGBTQ singers and audiences.

I’ve thought about revising the lyrics to eliminate the gender binary. It’s not an easy fix. For now, my hope is that “You can dream all the day never reaching the end of everything possible for you” affirms an infinite range of sexual/affectional orientation and gender presentation/identity.

I don’t recommend that congregations attempt to sing the entire song because the verses and bridge are too irregular. Instead, I suggest the song be (1) performed by the choir or (2) led by a song-leader (with guitar or other accompaniment) who sings the verse and bridge and invites the congregation to join in on the chorus.

(To commenters who expressed distaste): Many of our greatest songs walk a fine line between heartfelt pathos and sentimentalized bathos. Whether “Everything Possible” crosses that line is a matter of personal opinion, and I respect yours.

Thanks to Fred.

It’s a Hymn by Hymn miracle!

Today is September 1st, and the hymn today mentions September! The hymnal is right on schedule, pretending it hasn’t had me sing Christmas songs in spring and summer songs in winter and Easter songs at General Assembly. I hardly know what to make of it.

What I do know is that every time I start to sing this hymn, all my memories go to the first time I sang it in a small group and how baffled we were to find the phrasing so it didn’t sound automated. The key, we discovered, was realizing that while the bar lines have us singing four beats, then three, then four, etc., it’s best thought of in a 7/4 phrasing, which we decided feels like the tides as sung by Gregorian monks.

So here’s the funny thing, though. We have sung this before, as In the Lonely Midnight. But it’ written there in 7/8 and has a very different feel. This 7/4 is more flowing, less sprightly, and oddly, easier to sing that the 7/8 setting. For me, anyway.

But on to the words – from a piece by 20th century Russian poet Anna Akhmatova (and translated by our very own Mark Belletini – is there anything that guy can’t do?) – this is a lush text. It is haunting and wistful and hopeful.

All my memories of love hang upon high stars.
All the souls I’ve lost to tears now the autumn jars;
and the air around me here thickens with their song;
sing again their nameless tunes, sing again, and strong.

Willows in September touch the water clear,
set among the rushes tall of the flowing year.
Rising up from sunlit past comes the shadowed sigh
running toward me silently, love to fortify.

Many are the graceful hearts hung upon this tree.
And it seems there’s room for mine on these branches free;
and the sky above the tree, whether wet or bright,
is my ease and comforting, my good news and light.

A fitting hymn for a memorial service, or an All Souls day service, or a gorgeous vespers set around memory and remembrance.

It’s not the easiest piece we have in our hymnal, but it is simply gorgeous.

Photo by Alain /Papylin 

True fact: context matters.

I mean, I know you know this, but in this case it’s not just the context of where the lyrics come from or when they were written or how they were used. In this case, it’s about the accompaniment – in other words, the context in which the melody sits.

And I’m struggling with this one, because the tune seems hard and I don’t know the context.

Now you’d think it would be easy to find – a famous composer (the Hungarian Unitarian Béla Bartók), and a note from Between the Lines clearly stating that these lyrics (by American Unitarian Universalist minister George Beach) were written to be sung with the Chorale tune from Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra. Sadly, I don’t know the piece at all, and thus, I’m struggling to find the melody Beach is referring to here.

And thus, I don’t have the musical context for this tune…and that takes away from the lyrical context.

Perfect Singer, songs of earth rise on every field and hearth;
let our voices sound again ancient songs of joy and pain.

All your creatures strive for life, suffer hurt in angry strife,
seek compassion, find release in the covenant of peace.

Sing a sacred melody for the justice that shall be;
let our harmonies resolve dissonance in steadfast love.

Steadfast Seeker, find our song woven into lives made strong;
let the patterns of surprise kindle hope with each sunrise.

What I will say is that given some of the apparent dissonance in the tune, these lyrics are perfectly suited, as the perfect singer isn’t all about the good times. No, it’s about finding joy out of sorrow, comfort out of pain, and letting our compassion lead in places of suffering.

Truly, it’s an amazing lyric. I wish I knew how the song goes.

EDIT: The fantastic Michael Tino sussed it out for me! He found this page that breaks down the Concerto and discovered the chorale is a brass trio in the middle of the second movement. You can hear it here – our melody starts at 2:52:

Now it’s still a bit dissonant, but it’s not as hard to sing as I feared. In fact it’s rather beautiful. I therefore mark this “Complex but Worth it.”

Another list song – must be Brian Wren.

And so it is. Now this is not to say his list is bad, necessarily, but It can get tiring pretty quickly.

And when it comes to Wren, there is always something – even in songs I like, like this one – that make me go “hmm” …

Love makes a bridge from heart to heart, and hand to hand.
Love finds a way when laws are blind, and freedom banned.

Love breaks the walls of language, gender, class, and age.
Love gives us wings to slip the bars of every cage.

Love lifts the hopes that force and fear have beaten down.
Love breaks the chains and gives us strength to stand our ground.

Love rings the bells of wanted birth and wedding day.
Love guides the hands that promise more than words can say.

Love makes a bridge that winds may shake, yet not destroy.
Love carries faith through life and death, to endless joy.

Did you spot it? In this case it’s the fourth verse, “love rings the bells of wanted birth.” That line falls sharply on my ear, breaking open my heart for all the births that were not wanted – do they not deserve the bells of love too? And because of that hard line, I find myself checking out of the final verse, which may be the best one of all.

Oh, Brian. This one is so, so close. Sigh.

Anyway, this is set to a tune by Gerald Wheeler that is surprisingly more complex than you’d think. It’s worth learning, as a five-verse hymn makes “sing 1, 2, and 5” an easy choice. but I recommend a strong song leader to help with some of the more intricate intervals.

All in all, not a bad one. I’ve used it before – but with care.

The last thing I want to do is write a blog post about a song entitled “tradition held fast” on the morning after a spontaneous alt-right march encircled a church where friends and colleagues were praying in preparation for today’s hate-filled rally in Charlottesville. The march – complete with torches (but no hoods – hate is on full display) – is, to those who support it, all about holding on to tradition – their tradition of racism and hatred and oppression, the last gasp of the harmful and destructive Lost Cause.

So no, I don’t want to talk about tradition.

And yet, this amazing song by Jim Scott is indeed about the ways that OUR traditions – prayer, connection, non-violent protest, interfaith collaboration, trust and belief in our principles – how our traditions will win.

It is an affirmation, to be sure. But this morning, let it also be a prayer for strength, for good, for affirmation. May this be our prayer for those who are holding strong as counter protestors to the hate on full display in Charlottesville.

Tradition held fast through varied time and place,
the raising of voices, the touching of hands.
Circle of spirit, council of grace,
all faith finds expression ‘cross countless lands.

Freed from the worldly burdens that we bear,
released in this time of forgiving, healing, sharing.
Lifted by the power of our communion,
held in the warmth of a common caring.

Now though we turn to separate lives, renewed,
our circle of peace will not break as we part.
Though form is gone as we conclude,
through us will it open to every fate of life
and every open heart.


(I’m sorry that I can’t find a recording of this song. If someone has a link, please share.)

It’s been all about the tune for me this morning.

I know this lyric as a choral piece by composer and music director Michael Harrison – a beautiful setting of these lyrics that evoke the hope of the lyrics (the cascading voice thing that happens on “peace, good will” is gorgeous and the intricacies of parts on “bright as paradise” is simply glorious. I wish there was a recording of it; I own a copy of the sheet music and if you’re interested, I can see if Michael will let me share with you on an individual basis.

But I digress. My point is that I opened the hymnal, saw the title, started singing Michael’s version, and realized there was a very different tune in front of me – a plainsong chant called Adoro Te Devote. Now it does work from a mood perspective, but the pattern in each phrase is harder to pick up and felt somewhat plodding to me.

As I looked for other tunes in similar meter, my first stop was our hymnal. And guess what tune this fits?

Cranham – the one we know as In the Bleak Midwinter. Go ahead, sing a bit of it now.

In the lonely midnight, on the wintry hill,
shepherds heard the angels singing, “Peace, good will.”
Listen, O ye weary, to the angels’ song,
unto you the tidings of great joy belong.

Though in David’s city angels sing no more,
love makes angel music on earth’s farthest shore.
Though no heavenly glory meet your wondering eyes,
love can make your dwelling bright as paradise.

Though the child of Mary, heralded on high,
in his manger cradle may no longer lie,
love will reign forever, though the proud world scorn;
if you truly seek peace, Christ for you is born.

Works, doesn’t it? Beautifully, I might add. I suspect our lyricist, Unitarian minister Thomas Chickering WIlliams (who served All Souls NYC from 1883-1896), had that tune in mind as well.

Now you can do what you like, but I know that if I want a choir to sing these words, I’ll use Michael Harrison’s arrangement. And if I want a congregation to sing these words, I’ll have them sing it to Cranham.

And you can be I want these lyrics to be sung on Christmas. They honor the story, honor the awe and wonder, honor the expansiveness of our theologies. It’s gorgeous and glorious.

Kinda like the moment they describe.


I wonder how many denominations have Duke Ellington in their hymnals?

A hat tip to our hymnal commission for finding a place for this piece. And, as I’ve talked about before, this fits in the ‘not every song in the hymnal is meant for the congregation to sing’ category – although I would love to be present in a congregation that knows how to sing jazz together.

Now I will admit, I only kinda knew this one before I got to it, which is a surprise, as my parents were huge fans of jazz from the big band era and the Harlem renaissance, and I am fairly sure this song was on one of the Ellington albums they owned. But maybe not – as I learned from reviewer Ken Dryden at All Music,

“Come Sunday” was the spiritual movement of Duke Ellington’s extended work “Black, Brown & Beige,” but after the longer piece was lambasted by critics attending its premiere at the 1943 Carnegie Hall concert, Ellington performed the complete work just once more before reworking it into a smaller suite.

So it’s possible this song only later found its way into collections. But either way, it’s not that familiar to me.

That’s not to say I don’t appreciate it now…wow, do I. I even appreciate its connection to Easter. I wondered, when I read that, why this wasn’t in the Easter section, but then I thought that would limit this amazing piece. But look at these words:

Oo Oo Come Sunday, oh, come Sunday, that’s the day.

Lord, dear Lord above,
God Almighty, God of love,
please look down and see my people through.

I believe that God put sun and moon up in the sky.
I don’t mind the gray skies, ‘cause they’re just clouds passing by.


Heaven is a goodness time, a brighter light on high.
(Spoken) Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,
(Sung) and have a brighter by and by.

I believe God is now, was then, and always will be.
With God’s blessing we can make it through eternity.

If that’s not a prayer for resurrection, I don’t know what is.

Now I can’t let this one go by without sharing a few versions. The first is from a church choir in Nebraska, whose version isn’t the most inspiring but helped me learn the song so I could sing it this morning.

This one is the incomparable Mahalia Jackson, singing with Sir Duke himself:

There are, of course, as many covers as there are jazz musicians. But I wanted to close with this little gem by Abbey Lincoln, complete with pops and scratches from the well-worn LP, that moved me to tears: