I want to like this one.

Composer Joyce Poley is one of the sweetest human beings I ever met. She was open, generous, and kind to us UU Musicians Network conference newcomers. She had amazing insights when it came to song leading. And there is a sweetness to the music she writes.

And there is an earnestness to the lyrics; they want to be good and inclusive and expansive. They want to paint a picture of beloved community. There are some great lines, too – “we see our faces in each other’s eyes” and “trust the wisdom in each of us” are fantastic nuggets of insight.

But the truth is, I don’t like this song. And not just because of the grammatical oddity of “our heart”.

I don’t like it because it’s bad theology.

When our heart is in a holy place,
When our heart is in a holy place,
We are bless’d with love and amazing grace,
When our heart is in a holy place.

When we trust the wisdom in each of us,
Ev’ry color ev’ry creed and kind,
And we see our faces in each other’s eyes,
Then our heart is in a holy place.


When we tell our story from deep inside,
And we listen with a loving mind,
And we hear our voices in each other’s words,
Then our heart is in a holy place.


When we share the silence of sacred space,
And the God of our Heart stirs within,
And we feel the power of each other’s faith,
Then our heart is in a holy place.


At least it’s bad Universalist theology, because it’s creating conditions where none should apply. I’m reminded of this from Hosea Ballou:

“Your child has fallen into the mire, and its body and its garments are defiled. You cleanse it, and array it in clean robes. The query is, Do you love your child because you have washed it? Or, Did you wash it because you loved it?”

This song… this sweet song written by this sweet person… suggests that we are only loved, only holy, when we have been behaving in open and expansive ways. “We are blessed with love and amazing grace when our heart is in a holy place” reads the lyric. No. Just… no. We are blessed with love and amazing grace because our hearts are always and already holy places. Sure, we should do these other things, but the conditional nature of this lyric is just… wrong.

I’m sorry, Joyce, I don’t like your song.

Among the things I have learned in almost a year of doing this practice is that I am sometimes the outlier – sometimes I see something in a hymn others don’t see that makes me anxious or angry or bored. I know some of it is that I do this before the coffee’s kicked in, but really, there are times that I just don’t get why we would want to include a particular song as part of our living tradition, as it feels wrong to me.

I say all this because I suspect few will feel as I do about this hymn, with lyrics by Alicia Carpenter, set to the haunting Guter Hilte tune: This hymn is scolding me, the way a Hobbit might have scolded Bilbo or Frodo.

Will you seek in far-off places?
Surely you come home at last;
in familiar forms and faces,
things best known, you find the best.

Joy and peace are in this hour,
here, not in another place.
Here in this beloved flower;
now, in this beloved face.

I can’t even with this one. “Surely you come home at last” because of course family’s the best. What if family isn’t the best and is in fact harmful? What if we want to see the world? What if we are called to another place? What if home is a landscape with flowers that don’t inspire but far off is the one that comforts our soul?

Look. I get that this is about appreciating what we have around us, and if it’s true that Carpenter was inspired by a Walt Whitman poem I can’t seem to find (Between the Lines notes that it’s inspired by “Here and Now” – anyone know what poem it’s talking about?), then it’s got that whole transcendentalist thing happening.

But surely you shouldn’t scold me into staying where I don’t want to be, or looking for something more.

I’ve been sitting here trying to troubleshoot a problem with the site in an attempt to avoid writing about today’s hymn.

But I know I must, so here goes.

I have problems with this hymn. Not because it’s set to an unfamiliar tune by noted Vietnamese composer Nguyễn Đức Toàn. (We also have from him the sad, haunting tune for Almond Trees, Renewed in Bloom.) And not because it’s weirdly repetitive. But because its lyrics, by Alicia Carpenter, is so godawful limiting.

I should note that Carpenter’s work has been and will again be praised in this series – she’s the author of Just as Long as I Have Breath, With Heart and Mind, We Celebrate the Web of Life, and several others. I mostly really like her work. A lot.

But this one really gets my goat.

We are children of the earth, children of the earth,
and we love our mother earth, love our mother earth.
From the mountain and the streams, from the flowing streams,
comes the fountain of our dreams, fountain of our dreams.

We dream of a village fair, of a village fair.
Laughing children playing there children playing there,
and our elders can be found, elders can be found,
here beside us safe and sound, always safe and sound.

There is nothing to desire, nothing to desire,
more than home and hearth and fire, home and hearth and fire,
in a village that we love, village that we love,
living side by side in peace, evermore in peace.

First verse, of course, is great. yay! Grounded eco-theology for the win. We’re earthlings, and we love where we come from.

Second verse, well, okay… sure, if we extend the metaphor of ‘village’ to be ‘wherever you most want to live’. And I like the multigenerational language – although the ‘safe and sound’ bit feels a bit patronizing.

Third verse: this is where it goes off the rails for me. All we want is home? Seriously? Are we so replete of aspiration that there is nothing more that we want? I mean, I get that for those without a home, a home is plenty. But even theologically, this doesn’t seem to work for me. It feels so limiting, so not aspirational – and for all the aspiration we have in our theologies, this is not it. It reminds me of a bit from Eddie Izzard’s Dress to Kill:

I grew up in the 70s, when the careers advisor used to come to school, and he used to get the kids together and say, “Look, I advise you to get a career, what can I say? That’s it.”

And he took me aside, he said, “Whatcha you want to do, kid? Whatcha you want to do? Tell me, tell me your dreams!”

“I want to be a space astronaut! Go to outer space, discover things that have never been discovered.”

He said, “Look, you’re British, so scale it down a bit, all right?”

“All right, I want to work in a shoe shop then! Discover shoes that no one’s ever discovered right in the back of the shop, on the left.”

And he said, “Look, you’re British, so scale it down a bit, all right?”

I want more. I want to wish for home and community, yes, but it’s not all I want And this lyric suggests I should only want those things. It’s most assuredly theological whiplash when you compare it to yesterday’s hymn, which celebrated human ingenuity and potential.

I MIGHT use that first verse someday, but not the rest.

I want more.

Like enough ingenuity to figure out why something here is broken.

Dear STLT Hymnal Commission:

I love you, you know I do. I have been impressed with all you did to come up with this collection, and I have been honored to hear some of the stories from your chair, Mark Belletini. I know it was hard. I know it required a lot of sometimes unpopular choices in order to serve the greater good. I know you found some amazing songs to include and commissioned some amazing music that is now among our favorites.

But this one… well, I’m sure it makes someone happy, but lordy, it isn’t me.

First of all – this tune. Again with this tune. I was kinda hoping the commission from Thomas Oboe Lee was a one and done, getting it out of the way early in Songs of Spirit. But no. It shows up again. (I won’t go on about the tune here – I did a pretty fair job of expressing my opinion when it showed up the first time.)

And you know I generally like John Andrew Storey’s lyrics, but yowza, this pair of verses sets my teeth on edge:

Children of the human race, offspring of our Mother Earth,
not alone in endless space has our planet given birth.
Far across the cosmic skies countless suns in glory blaze,
and from untold planets rise endless canticles of praise.

Should some sign of others reach this, our lonely planet Earth,
differences of form and speech must not hide our common worth.
When at length our minds are free, and the clouds of fear disperse,
then at last we’ll learn to be Children of the Universe.

Now understand, Hymnal Commission, I am both a theist and a humanist, and I’m a Star Trek fan, and I don’t think we’re alone in the universe. But I hate this philosophy of first contact that says we have to get our shit together before anyone will notice us. This hymn is scolding us (and making us cross for having to sing this terrible tune, too).

I love you, Hymnal Commission, but I’d personally recommend this one for the chopping block.

Kimberley “thank all that is holy that there are great hymns coming up in the next few days” Debus

Image is a still from Star Trek: First Contact – the moment that humans on earth were first visited by a humanoid race from another planet.


This is a complex lyric – three verses of a complex poem, “Stanzas on Freedom,” written by James Russell Lowell (one of the 19th century American Fireside Poets). It’s not even a terribly good poem – technically, his writing was good, but as Margaret Fuller wrote, “”his verse is stereotyped; his thought sounds no depth, and posterity will not remember him.”

And it’s a complex topic – slavery. What’s worse is that Lowell’s anti-slavery position came largely because his wife wore him down; many of his thoughts about race make my skin crawl; I can’t even bear to repeat it here – if you’re curious, check out his Wikipedia page, under “Beliefs.”

The truth is, I don’t want to dig any deeper into this history and make a justification about why this should or shouldn’t be in our hymnal, or why it should or shouldn’t matter what a person’s belief is and we should honor the art, and what are the lines we draw between sacred and profane. Largely, because, I don’t know if I have the knowledge or the life experience or even the right to say if this is an appropriate and helpful hymn. And I do not want to mess it up.

What I do know is that it’s not a terribly familiar tune, nor is it as intuitive as I’d hoped, so I really struggled to sing it and pay attention to the lyrics all at once. And if I couldn’t manage it, how can our congregations? These are not casual lyrics – there’s something really complex, possibly meaningful and possibly terrible, about them.

All whose boast it is that we come of forebears brave and free,
if there breathe on earth a slave, are we truly free and brave?
If we do not feel the chain when it works another’s pain,
are we not base slaves indeed, slaves unwilling to be freed?

Is true freedom but to break fetters for our own dear sake,
and with leathern hearts forget we owe humankind a debt?
No, true freedom is to share all the chains that others wear,
and, with heart and hand, to be earnest to make others free.

They are slaves who fear to speak for the fallen and the weak;
they are slaves who will not choose hatred, scoffing, and abuse,
rather than in silence shrink from the truth they needs must think.
They are slaves who dare not be in the right with two or three.

Oof. Opinions, comments, history, and perspectives welcome.

Photo courtesy of  Internet Archive Book Images – https://www.flickr.com/photos/internetarchivebookimages/14595373847/
Source book page: https://archive.org/stream/historyprogresso09sand/historyprogresso09sand#page/n489/mode/1up,
No restrictions, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=42034844


Holy cow this is a terrible hymn.

Technically, it’s not terrible – the tune is a favorite – Hyfrodol, made fresh by Peter Mayer in 1064, Blue Boat Home (which will get its day next January).  And the lyrics in terms of rhyme and meter are just fine.

But HOLY COW this is a terrible hymn.

Why? I’m glad you asked.

In the history of humankind, there has been a constant battle between Us and Them – we like Us, and we don’t like Them, so we’ll fight hard to make sure Us is protected from Them, even if we have to build walls and cities within those walls to keep Them out. And we have expected our cities to be beacons for both people who are Us and people who want to be Us. We see it played out throughout the Old Testament, with its understanding of the chosen people, and Zion, and the emphasis on building and protecting Jerusalem.  It’s here that we get all of the “shining city on a hill” imagery that my ancestor John Winthrop spouted in 1630 and which then President Ronald Reagan spouted in the 1980s.

And it’s terrible. It’s empire – meant to keep some people in and some out, meant to keep some people free and others enslaved, meant to separate and oppress.

So when I see “hail the glorious golden city” and “gleaming wall” and “banished from its borders” I scream NO. I mean, just look at these lyrics:

Hail the glorious golden city, pictured by the seers of old:
everlasting light shines o’er it, wondrous things of it are told.
Wise and righteous men and women dwell within its gleaming wall;
wrong is banished from its borders, justice reigns supreme o’er all.

We are builders of that city. All our joys and all our groans
help to rear its shining ramparts; all our lives are building-stones.
Whether humble or exalted, all are called to task divine;
all must aid alike to carry forward one sublime design.

And the work that we have builded, oft with bleeding hands and tears,
oft in error, oft in anguish, will not perish with our years:
it will live and shine transfigured in the final reign of right:
it will pass into the splendors of the city of the light.

There are other hymns that talk about building – in particular, I am thinking of 1017, Building a New Way. The difference is that a song like that is about building a path, a journey, a way for us to be better out in the world not just with Them but seeing Them and Us as useless constructs. I like the idea that we work together to build a path toward that kind of vision.

But when the establishing shot of the vision is “glorious golden city”? I’m tapping out.

Just…. no.

My love/hate relationship with lyricist John Greenleaf Whittier continues.

As regular readers may remember, I have loved some of his lyrics; I loved the movement in No Longer Forward or Behind and the call to action hidden under Immortal Love… and I have hated others; I found the ‘people suck’ attitude of The Harp at Nature’s Advent frustrating and off-putting.

So – Whittier’s winning, 2-1, going into today’s hymn.

Aaaaaand we’re tied.

Okay, so I don’t HATE this one, but I am bored by it. First, it doesn’t go anywhere; it’s four verses of yay, let’s pretend love and peace have already won. And then let’s make some noise about it – a la Psalm 150 with all its cymbals and trumpets. For me, the entire hymn can be summed up in the first verse, so Johnny, why are you making us sing three more verses? I’m bored.

And that boredom sent me to Between the Lines, where I discovered the lyrics are from a poem Whittier wrote called “A Christmas Carmen.” (A carmen is a song or incantation.) The original poem is here – three longer verses, ABOUT CHRISTMAS. This is a very Christian poem about how Jesus brings peace to the land, because the Savior Is Born; it fits right in with the eschatological underpinnings of the Advent season, the whole Son of God/Son of Man thing (see the lyrics of Joy to the World ).


And whoever set snippets of this poem to music decided to pull out the parts they like and hope we ignore the rest.

Okay, so maybe my beef isn’t with Whittier, it’s with whoever cobbled together this… this…. thing that sits opposite Spirit of Life in our hymnal (tomorrow’s hymn). It goes into the pile of hymns we sing whose original meaning has been sucked out/reversed/colonized. Ugh, ugh, ugh. This is a Christian poem about Christmas, not a ‘yay, peace, and we had something to do with it’ song.

So Johnny, I’m still not a fan, but I feel like I can’t blame you for this – let’s call it a draw; we now stand at 2-1-1.

Sound over all waters, reach out from all lands
the chorus of voices, the clasping of hands!
Rise, hope of the ages, arise like the sun,
all speech flow to music, all hearts beat as one!

Sing bridal of nations, with chorals of love!
Sing out the war vulture and sing in the dove!
With glad jubilation sing hope for the world;
the great storm is ending, the clouds are all furled.

Sound trumpets of triumph for marches of peace,
east, west, north, and south, let the long quarrels cease!
Sing songs of great joy that the angels began,
give glory to children, to woman and man!

Hark! Joining the chorus the heavens resound!
The old day is ending, a new day is crowned!
Rise, hope for the ages, arise like the sun,
all speech flow to music, all hearts beat as one!

For the curious, here’s the poem in its original form, found at Poem Hunter (and by the way, in the second verse, the meaning of ‘bridal’ is unclear – it might relate to the Christian idea that we are brides of Christ, but it might also be a riff from the old English word meaning a feast (Merriam-Webster tells us that it implied a feast where a lot of alcohol was consumed, and the word ‘ale’ comes from the same root meaning.):

Sound over all waters, reach out from all lands,
The chorus of voices, the clasping of hands;
Sing hymns that were sung by the stars of the morn,
Sing songs of the angels when Jesus was born!
With glad jubilations
Bring hope to the nations!
The dark night is ending and dawn has begun:
Rise, hope of the ages, arise like the sun,
All speech flow to music, all hearts beat as one!

Sing the bridal of nations! with chorals of love
Sing out the war-vulture and sing in the dove,
Till the hearts of the peoples keep time in accord,
And the voice of the world is the voice of the Lord!
Clasp hands of the nations
In strong gratulations:
The dark night is ending and dawn has begun;
Rise, hope of the ages, arise like the sun,
All speech flow to music, all hearts beat as one!

Blow, bugles of battle, the marches of peace;
East, west, north, and south let the long quarrel cease
Sing the song of great joy that the angels began,
Sing of glory to God and of good-will to man!
Hark! joining in chorus
The heavens bend o’er us!
The dark night is ending and dawn has begun;
Rise, hope of the ages, arise like the sun,
All speech flow to music, all hearts beat as one!

Postscript: I had absolutely no idea what image to use today, so I offer you a big cat in a box. Because it delights me a hell of a lot more than this hymn does. So there.


Seriously – it was like I had bit into a sour lemon or sipped some turned milk when I sang this. I honestly don’t know when I’ve ever had such a reaction to a song as I have sung; I’ve had lots of “um…what” and “dang, I cannot get this” moments, particularly the first time singing through a complex score. But this one isn’t complex. It’s just… awful.

It starts with a tune that is indelibly imprinted with the lyrics “Onward, Christian Soldiers / Marching as to war / with the cross of Jesus / going on before.” I love repurposing hymn tunes, but it’s hard to separate the tune from those militant lyrics. And learning that WIlliam Sullivan (of Gilbert & Sullivan) wrote the tune doesn’t help. While their light operettas rank high for me for their cleverness and singability, they are all – from The Mikado to Iolanthe to HMS Pinafore – are all about duty. And they all feature major generals and admirals and all manner of military positivity.

The lyrics we use emerge from the late 19th century as well, from Unitarian minister and hymn writer Frederick Hosmer, and heaven help us, carry that same militarism that is found in the original lyrics. “Forward…in unbroken line”… “heroes for it died” … “not alone we conquer” … “loss or triumph” …. Blech.

Forward through the ages, in unbroken line,
move the faithful spirits at the call divine:
gifts in differing measure, hearts of one accord,
manifold the service, one the sure reward.

(Chorus) Forward through the ages, in unbroken line,
move the faithful spirits at the call divine.

Wider grows the vision, realm of love and light;
for it we must labor, till our faith is sight.
Prophets have proclaimed it, martyrs testified,
poets sung its glory, heroes for it died. (Chorus)

Not alone we conquer, not alone we fall;
in each loss or triumph lose or triumph all.
Bound by God’s far purpose in one living whole,
move we on together to the shining goal. (Chorus)

I won’t use this hymn. It honestly scares me a little to think modern Unitarian Universalists would take up a fight in this manner. Yes, fight – of course, always fight for what is just and right and inclusive and expansive. But this feels very … just wrong in its manner of fighting. And I can’t imagine it would go over well with congregants who fought (or fought against) the 20th century wars, especially Vietnam.

There are many other great hymns to talk about commitment and action and rallying us for the resistance ahead. This one doesn’t work anymore.


Postscript: some might argue that we need to preserve this as part of our history – which says to me there’s a new book to be written, one that collects our musical history so we don’t lose them but don’t use them, because they no longer are in line with our theology and principles. Hmmm. Maybe this project is two books?


Image by Susan Herbert, for purchase here: http://www.chrisbeetles.com/gallery/animals/cats/gilbert-and-sullivan.html

Any other day, I might be up for a significant rewrite of a classic poem, but today is not that day. Snarky, cynical Kimberley is back, and she’s not having it.

I read the lyrics, sang (another fine Southern Harmony tune), then read again, feeling baffled. So I went to the internet to look up the original poem to see if anyone had any commentary, because I just wasn’t getting it.

It took me a long while to find it – finally, the phrase “whirl the glowing wheels” was enough for Google to point me to the original poem “Song of Nature.” For the record, I’m much more familiar with Emerson’s essays than his poetry – and even reading the full poem didn’t ring any bells of familiarity.

Now I am all for one art form inspiring the next – that’s what it’s all about, really. I like it when passages of longer pieces become lyric. I even get adjustments of words to fit musical meter. But this one has gotten under my skin in a bad way, and I think I know why: instead of picking a couple of verses that say something specific, the person who adapted the poem took bits and bobs from throughout the long poem and, to me, edited out the actual spirit of the poem.

The Song of Nature is a first-person song, sung by Nature! This adaptation is third-person – a human’s eye view. Oh gosh, yes, let’s notice once again nature and how long-lived it is. Because we haven’t already done that in previous hymns. But that’s not the point of the poem. The point of the poem is Nature, recounting with joy the long expanse of time through which she has stood and watched sometimes happily, sometimes sadly, as humans play their human games of birth, inspiration, anger, war, peace, and death. That’s the point – Nature sees the long arc of the universe, moral or otherwise, and sings an ode to it.

This hymn hints at what Emerson was going for, but to me takes all the teeth out of it.

No number tallies nature up, no tribe its house can fill;
it is the shining fount of life and pours the deluge still.
And gathers by its fragile powers along the centuries
from race on race the rarest flowers, its wreath shall nothing miss.

It writes the past in characters of rock and fire and scroll,
the building in the coral sea, the planting of the coal.
And thefts from satellites and rings and broken stars it drew,
and out of spent and aged things it formed the world anew.

Must time and tide forever run, nor winds sleep in the west?
Will never wheels which whirl the sun and satellites have rest?
Yet whirl the glowing wheels once more, and mix the bowl again;
seethe, Fate, the ancient elements, heat, cold, and peace, and pain.

Blend war and trade and creeds and song, let ripen race on race,
the sunburnt world that we shall breed of all the countless days.
No ray is dimmed, no atom worn, the oldest force is new,
and fresh the rose on yonder thorn gives back the heavens in dew.

And maybe I’m being too cynical. Maybe my mood – compromised by bad health news about one of my beloved pets – isn’t up to seeing some of Emerson’s poetry being sung at all. Maybe I stand alone in my frustration and disappointment, wishing for more than a hymn could provide. I mean, it might be weird to sing all the I-statements of this poem; it would easily be confusing to the singer.

So I don’t know… I’m not sure a hymn like this HAD to exist at all, given the plethora of other good nature hymns and the actual power of the original poem.

Let’s just tuck right in, shall we? This is a pretty and light tune (albeit with an odd harmonic choice in the second phrase), and it accompanies pretty and light lyrics, almost.

Because while everything is lovely and wonderful in nature, from star to sea, from earth to sky, apparently our lyricist, John Greenleaf Whittier, thinks people are terrible: “nature’s signs and voices shame the prayerless heart within.”

REALLY? You’re shaming me and my alleged prayerless heart? Seriously? Is this supposed to be a wakeup call to humanity? Is this “consider the lilies of the field” taken to its cynical conclusion? Or is this another of those gross misinterpretations of Thoreau? There is a negative attitude about humanity in that last verse that really gets under my skin.

I’m not saying we’re the best and screw the earth – not that at all. We have a sacred duty as earthlings to care for the planet and all that lives on it. But we are here, and we have developed to have these creative, emotional, innovative, self-reflective, self-saving and sometimes self-destructive minds. We are here, with hearts that are full of prayers whether we name them such or not. We have hopes and dreams and wishes and worries. To indict us as prayerless in a paradigm where nature is both separate from us and better than us? Not having it.

The harp at Nature’s advent strung has never ceased to play;
the song the stars of morning sung has never died away.

The prayer is made, and praise is given, by all things near and far;
the ocean looketh up to heaven and mirrors every star.

The green earth sends sweet incense up from many mountain shrines;
from folded leaf and dewy cup now pours the sacred wine.

The blue sky is the temple’s arch, its transept, earth and air;
the music of its starry march, the chorus of a prayer.

So nature keeps the reverent frame with which all years begin;
and nature’s signs and voices shame the prayerless heart within.

Seriously not having it.

(I am willing to concede there may be another interpretation, but I’m really struck by that final phrase and how turned off I am by it, so even a well-intentioned corrective won’t lead me to use it. I’m just not with this hymn.)