I don’t know if it’s still true, but I remember in high school learning a bit about quantum physics – enough at least to know that physicists at the time weren’t sure if the universe is made of particles or waves. (Google suggests that there’s now an uncomfortable acceptance of a duality, but that’s a mind-blowing thought for another day.) Back then, the research fell victim to confirmation bias – if scientists were looking for a particle, they saw a particle; if they were looking for a wave, they found a wave.

I think the same is true for this song. Are you looking for humanism? It’s here. Looking for God? Yep. Looking for a song about the interdependent web? Gotcha covered. Fourth principle too. Looking for first source? Fifth source? Sixth source? Yep, yep, yep. Oh, and do you want a bit of process theology? Howdy!

Far beyond the grasp of hands,
or light to meet the eye,
past the reaches of the mind,
There find the key to nature’s harmony
in an architecture so entwined.
Like the birds whose patterns grace the sky
and carry all who join in love expanding,
The message of peace will rise in flight
taking the weight of the world upon its wings,
In the oneness of ev’rything.

Peace is in the dance of trees,
who stir before the first
breath of wind is yet perceived.
Trust in the song, becoming one with the dance,
and all mysteries can be believed.
Songs of lives long past that touch our own
are written in the earth evergiving,
And now to maintain the harmony
gives to us all lives worth living,
For the oneness of ev’rything.

Still we seek to find a truth
that we might understand
and reduce to terms defined
Vast and immeasurable time and space
all so overwhelmingly designed.
Oh, passing years just might I know the faith
that winters in the heart to be reborn in spring.
To hear and to feel the pulse of life
enters my soul as a song to sing,
Of the oneness of ev’rything.

There are many wonderful Jim Scott songs in our hymnals – from the very familiar Gather the Spirit to the hardly sung Tradition Held Fast, along with others we’ve sung/will sing. But I think this is my favorite; its lyrics are rich (I mean, how many times do you get to sing “vast and immeasurable time and space”?), the melody is interesting and easy to sing, and while it seems long, it’s worth it. (I should write about why we expect hymns to be so short when we don’t expect songs on the radio to be.)

The melody, while not super-easy, is much more intuitive than some of his other pieces, and I’ve never seen a congregation just not get it with a good song leader. The key to singing this in our congregations is not dragging. It’s written in a lush 2/2 with one beat = half note – 64 bpm, which is about right. Any slower and it’s just deadly, and definitely not the song Jim wrote (which you should totally listen to here).

 

More than once during my years at Union Theological Seminary, I said to myself “what is my life even like?” because of some improbable experience or another. To be clear, I didn’t choose to go to Union because of the possibility of meeting important or famous people;- I went because of the possibilities awaiting me in my journey to become a minister and, more importantly, a more fully faithful human being. Yet when I look back, I don’t know how I missed the fact that choosing Theology and the Arts as my program focus would lead to meeting important or famous people – or more, would lead to my sitting next to them in a small class and being told who I am.

Dr. Ysaye Barnwell had been on campus all day; she lead a community sing for our chapel service, consulted with a couple of PhD students in the afternoon, and that evening was the guest for a class I was taking on Worship and the Arts. The small class sat with our tables pushed together to form a circle that was really a square, and there we had amazing conversations about various art forms and how they inform our worship. Dr. Barnwell was with us to talk about  the power of community singing. To my surprise, she sat directly to my right. On the outside, I was pleasant and cool, on the inside I was jumping up and down like a five year old, so excited to be this close to someone whose music I’d been so connected to for three decades.

I don’t remember the conversation in any depth; I remember that on the first topic, I spoke a few times, and knowing that, I consciously moved back for the second topic to allow others to speak. At some point, a tangentially related story occurred to me, but I sat on it, knowing it wasn’t strictly relevant, and anyway, I had already spoken. I would wait until something more relevant and more pressing came to mind.

Dr. Barnwell wasn’t here for that, however. A few times she glanced at me as if in invitation, but I deflected it and the conversation continued. But finally, she looked straight at me with that Auntie Stare and said “go on.” I stammered something about no, it’s fine, it’s not important or some such nonsense. Which she rejected, saying “speak. You’re wearing your words on your face.”

Oh.

So I spoke. (How could I not?) And while the story I told (“Listening for our Song” by David Blanchard) wasn’t exactly on topic, it moved our conversation to a new, deeper topic. Afterwards, Dr. Barnwell thanked me for sharing that story, and with a twinkle in her eye, told me not to be afraid that what I have to say isn’t important. It was like she looked into my soul and saw who I am – perhaps the first time I’ve ever experienced that sort of knowing from someone who barely knew me.

Anyway. This song.

For each child that’s born,
a morning star rises and
sings to the universe
who we are.

For each child that’s born,
a morning star rises and
sings to the universe
who we are.

We are our grandmothers’ prayers
and we are our grandfathers’ dreamings,
we are the breath of our ancestors,
we are the spirit of God.

We are mothers of courage and fathers of time,
we are daughters of dust and the sons of great visions,
we’re sisters of mercy and brothers of love,
we are lovers of life and the builders of nations,
we’re seekers of truth and keepers of faith,
we are makers of peace and the wisdom of ages.

We are our grandmothers’ prayers
and we are our grandfathers’ dreamings,
we are the breath of our ancestors,
we are the spirit of God.

For each child that’s born,
a morning star rises and
sings to the universe
who we are.

It’s beautifully transcribed for our hymnal so that you don’t need all the rhythmic parts (even though I sing the bass line every time just because it’s so fun). It’s hopeful and full of possibility. I love it, and I hope congregations use it even if it seems scary on the page. The beauty is that it’s very repetitious, and once you get the rhythm and the flow, it’s a breeze to sing.

And it’s got a beautiful origin story; this, from the UUA Song Information page:

This is the last song in a suite that began with the lyric, “Lawd, it’s midnight. A dark and fear filled midnight. Lawd, it’s a midnight without stars.” Dr. Barnwell wanted to create a complete circle of experience, and so she wrote “for each child that’s born, a morning star rises…” This phrase is meant to establish hope, and it defines the uniqueness of each one of us. No matter what our race, culture or ethnicity, each one of us has been called into being and are the sum total of all who came before. In the composer’s words, “Each and every one of us stands atop a lineage that has had at its core, mothers and fathers and teachers and dreamers and shamans and healers and builders and warriors and thinkers and, and, and…so in spite of our uniqueness, we come from and share every experience that human kind has ever had. In this way, we are one.”

Amen.

 

This is the piece I love.

This is the Taizé piece that sets my heart and soul free.

This is the Taizé chant that sings not only to what our English verse calls the Holy Spirit but what the Italian verse calls the Creator Spirit. To me, that is the God of process theology, but also the spirit of our own creativity, the creative spark, the part of us that cannot help but imagine and experiment and express our stories through the arts.

Italian:
Vieni Spirito creatore,
vieni, vieni,
Spirito creatore,
vieni, vieni!

English:
Come and pray in us, Holy Spirit,
come and pray in us,
come and visit us, Holy Spirit,
Spirit, come, Spirit, come.

Spanish:
Ven Espiritu, fuente de vida
Ven, ven, ven Señor,
Ven Espiritu, fuente de vida,
Ven Senor, ven Señor.

Is it any wonder that this is my favorite Taizé piece?

It’s made even more wonderful by a spoken word piece called “Fire of the Spirit” by Ken Herman that I have used more than once; he shared it many moons ago with the UU Musicians Network and I share it here. (When I have done it, the choir has hummed the final chord under the spoken word.):

 

Spoken:
Fire of revelation, flame of compassion:
Illumine our hearts and kindle our spirits.
Cloven tongues of wisdom:
Rain down on us and unleash our tongues with the Spirit of Truth.

Sung:
Vieni Spirito Creatore…

Spoken:
Light from uncreated light:
Fill our sight with amazing revelations and new visions.
Fire of the Spirit:
Sear our conscience with zeal for justice.

Sung:
Vieni Spirito Creatore…

Spoken:
Flame of aspiration:
Move our feet to tread the paths of reconciliation.
Come, Creator Spirit:
Comfort us with the warmth of your eternal love.

Sung:
Vieni Spirito Creatore…

Spoken:
Come, Creator Spirit:
Unite us with a zeal for communion with all of Creation.
Bless us—convert us—
May we become the Fire!

Sung:
Vieni Spirito Creatore… repeat song until ready to end.

I love all that this song, and Ken’s words, evoke. I hum this often – more often than you would expect – because it connects me to my creative self and to the mystery of all creation. It calms and engages me. It reassures me and it awakens me. My muse and I find each other in the meditation of these words, beckoning the Spirit come.

This is the piece I love.

 

 

 

You say the words “ubi caritas” to me and my heart sings as I think of the many experiences I have had singing those words. And if you’re lucky (or unlucky, depending on your perspective), you’ll hear me waxing poetic about the lush music these words are often set to.

I don’t think it’s a mistake – the lyrics, which translate to “where charity and love abound, god is there” ask for a lush, rich, warm accompaniment.

Ubi caritas et amor,
ubi caritas, Deus ibi est.

And this Taizé piece delivers. Again, it’s not my favorite of the Taizé pieces (tomorrow, beloveds, tomorrow)… but it absolutely delivers. It’s another beautiful call to compassion – not just empathy, but the gifts of compassion: the money and things that help others. I love this as an offertory response, as well as a prayer response; as with other Taizé pieces, it should be sung several times so that harmonies emerge along with prayers and revelations.

But not surprisingly, not only is this not my favorite Taizé piece, it’s not my favorite Ubi. (Yes, I’m about to wax poetic.)

You get closer with the setting by 20th century French composer Maurice Duruflé , which I first learned in seminary and had the privilege of singing for the wedding of my dear friends Lindsey and AJ Turner. The Duruflé is gentle, until it soars with angelic precision, a descant floating over the melody until it grounds again, reflecting love within and beyond. Listen here:

But even that is not my favorite, despite its connection to my friends. No, my favorite is another version I learned in seminary, by contemporary Estonian composer Ola Gjeilo. This version has roots in Gregorian chant and early European choral music, yet with something else, something unnameable. The parts weave together intimately, evoking the intimacy of love in all its forms.

And then, at 1:58 on the video (measure 28), a miracle happens. I don’t know how Gjeilo did it, but he managed to compose a miracle, right there in the middle of a piece of choral music. I remember singing this with Glen Thomas Rideout at General Assembly in 2016 (Sunday morning worship), and the look on his face as he conducted that moment told me he felt the miracle too… and so did the rest of the choir, and so did the assembled. Listen for it:

Like I said: Miraculous.

Now I realize not much of this is about the Taizé piece this morning, but I think that the words themselves evoke something of a miracle. I think that when we remember that it is our actions that evoke and represent the love beyond our understanding, new abilities to love emerge. We can always love more, give more, empathize more. These songs help us do that.

We have just entered my favorite section of Singing the Journey: the spot where instead of spreading them out, we get a series of Taizé songs all together.

It’s my favorite section, although individually they’re not all on my list of favorites – not that any of them are bad, but some are beloved more than others. It’s like Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours; there isn’t a bad song on the album (which has to be on most top ten lists), but I like “Songbird” a lot more than “Oh Daddy.”

But I digress. This song is so reassuring in its lyrics and melody; instead of the questioning of When I Am Frightened or the joyful affirmation of Trouble Won’t Last Always (not one of our hymns but wow I am glad I know it and you should go listen to it if you need a little joy, or just want to imagine some UU ministers-in-formation singing the heck out of it in seminary), this one is like a parent holding a scared child, or a reassuring hand while receiving a diagnosis, or the timely snuggle from a purring cat.

Or, as the song suggests, a sense of presence of the Divine, the Mystery, God.

Spanish:
Nada te turbe, nada te espante,
quien a Dios tiene nada le falta.
Nada te turbe, nada te espante,
Sólo Dios basta.

English:
Nothing can trouble, nothing can frighten.
Those that seek God shall never go wanting.
Nothing can trouble, nothing can frighten.
God alone fills us.

Sung in repetition, harmonies emerging naturally, languages mixing, that is the power and beauty of this song and of all Taizé. I for one am grateful for the inclusion of these songs.

At various times in my mother’s life, she was more or less religious; she knew the value of a good church community, and wherever her theology lay (usually on the Unitarian side), she loved an old hymn. Among the tapes – then CDs – in her car were collections of hymns sung by old familiar voices. The one I remember most is Tennessee Ernie Ford, the album full of songs intoned in Ford’s deep baritone – songs like The Old Rugged Cross, How Great Thou Art, and of course Shall We Gather at the River.

A song that, delightfully, is in this hymnal. Now I haven’t verified this with anyone, but I have heard a story that the song was in our hymnals up to Singing the Living Tradition but was removed for that collection; the uproar was such that the STJ commission added it back. Whether it’s true or not, it does contain a nugget of truth about tradition – that despite all the important, vibrant, relevant new music, there’s something about old familiar tunes that bring us back to a sense of … something: center? self? connection?

That being said, it’s a remarkable piece, written by Robert Lowry (who wrote How Can I Keep From Singing, among many others), and reflecting the river of life as described in the Book of Revelation. It is a hopeful song, calling us to rejoice and celebrate in life.

Shall we gather at the river, where bright angel feet have trod,
with its crystal tide forever flowing by the throne of God?

Chorus:
Yes, we’ll gather at the river,
the beautiful, the beautiful river,
gather with the saints at the river
that flows by the throne of God.

On the margin of the river, washing up its silver spray,
we will walk and worship ever, all the happy golden day.

Chorus

Ere we reach the shining river, lay we ev’ry burden down.
Grace our spirits will deliver, and provide a robe and a crown.

Chorus

Soon we’ll reach the shining river, soon our pilgrimage will cease,
soon our happy hearts will quiver, with the melody of peace.

Chorus

What’s interesting to me is how often I hear it these days in a gentle, somber, almost meditative pace so that it’s not so much a celebration as a contemplation. And that’s fine, but it was intended to be much more joyful; according to Hymnary, Lowry said: “It is brass band music, has a march movement, and for that reason has become popular, though for myself I do not think much of it.”

He may not have thought much of it, but there is a hopefulness and grounded joy in this hymn that makes it a classic and a favorite.

 

I sing this to myself all the time but rarely use it in services.

Lately – well, for the past year or so certainly – this has seemed like the right prayer, not only for me and my own sin-sick soul, but for our communities and our nation. In fact, I did use it when I led a white supremacy teach-in at the First Universalist Church of Southold, where the repetition of the chorus was intended to draw us inward to look at our own sins.

I don’t use it very often, though, because it is rare that I find a congregation or group that’s comfortable with the idea that Jesus died for us. I know it’s classical Universalism, but I’m not sure even I’m comfortable with that idea. Yet to remove it completely takes away some of the power of the spiritual.

Chorus:
There is a balm in Gilead
To make the wounded whole;
There is a balm in Gilead
To heal the sin-sick soul.

Sometimes I feel discouraged
And think my work’s in vain,
But then the Holy Spirit
Revives my soul again.

Chorus

If you cannot preach like Peter,
If you cannot pray like Paul,
You can tell the love of Jesus,
And say “He died for all!”

Chorus

Yet for all of that, the chorus, based on Jeremiah 8:22 (“Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?”) is amazing. It is meant to reassure and hold us, even when all is wrong and we are filled with shame, guilt, regret.

And no matter how slowly you sing it, no matter how long you take with some of the phrases, it’s perfect. There’s a roominess to the song that makes space for our prayers, for our souls, for God.

For those curious about what the balm actually is, see this note found at Hymnary:

Gilead was the name of the mountainous region east of the Jordan River (pictured in the featured image). This region was known for having skillful physicians and an ointment made from the gum of a tree particular to that area. Many believed that this balm had miraculous powers to heal the body. In the book of Jeremiah, God tells the people of Israel that though many believe in the mysterious healing power of this balm, they can’t trust in those powers for spiritual healing or as a relief of their oppression. He reminds them that He is ultimately in control, and only He can relieve their suffering.

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.

Wow.

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:

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!

We have seen this before.

Well, not, entirely – in July, we sang a round based on the first two lines of Psalm 137, and noted that more would come. Well guess what – it’s time for more, and based on my searching, it’s not what we think.

First, let’s look at the lyrics and listen to the original recording, by The Melodians:

By the rivers of Babylon there we sat down,
and there we wept, when we remember Zion.
By the rivers of Babylon there we sat down,
and there we wept, when we remember Zion.

Where the wicked carried us away captivity,
required of us a song,
How can we sing King Alpha’s song in a strange land.

So let the words of our mouths
and the meditation of our hearts
be acceptable in Thy sight, O Farai.
So let the words of our mouths
and the meditation of our hearts
be acceptable in Thy sight, O Farai.


Now that you have your reggae groove on – a groove many in our congregations will be familiar with because it became a popular song in the 1970s, I should tell you that this version is not as straightforward as you might think, despite it being based on Psalm 137 (and a line from Psalm 19).

It’s not just Judaism set to a reggae beat, it’s Rastafarian – an Abrahamic religion of its own.

In a nutshell (albeit a hasty and not-well written nutshell – apologies), Rastas believe that Ethiopian emperor Haile Sallasie was at least a prophet, and possibly the second coming of Christ, and most certainly, in his role as emperor righting against colonization, the one who would lead a future golden age of eternal peace, righteousness, and prosperity; in this system, developed in Jamaica in the 1930s during British Imperial rule, Sallasie and his wife were called King Alpha and Queen Omega – the beginning and the end. Babylon then is any principality/government/system that oppresses, and the call of the faith is liberation.

Thus, this song, written in 1970, captures the Rastafarian spirit, the hope that we would be freed from exile and led into liberation and prosperity. According to one if the composers, Brent Dowe, the song was initially banned by the Jamaican government because “its overt Rastafarian references (‘King Alpha’ and ‘O Far-I’) were considered subversive and potentially inflammatory” – and yet, as we know too well, truth will out. And after its popularization in the Jimmy Cliff film The Harder They Come, the song spread far and wide.

What I love about the song is the hopefulness – something that is missing from the original psalm, which is by all accounts a lament. (In case you don’t know, the psalm was written while the Judeans were exiled in Babylon, a long hard time when they longed for their homeland.) Adding a sense of hope that there would be deliverance from exile, not just praying for it – offers a resolve that freedom will come, that our prayers are being answered.

Now in terms of using it in our congregations, the best advice I can give is what I give often: have good song leaders (and maybe drums and electric guitar), offer some context, and for goodness’ sake, don’t let it just be a cool pop music break. There’s deep meaning here, and the call is clear.

It’s a great song, used in Jamaican churches to this day. I hope we can expand our understanding of liberation and music by including this one in our congregation too.

Postscript: if you want to mix an appreciation of reggae with bingewatching, I highly recommend Death in Paradise, on Netflix; the score is almost entirely reggae music, and the show itself is great fun – mystery and comedy plus beautiful scenery.