A drunkard’s walk through the UU hymnal Singing the Living Tradition

There are 415 hymns in the UU hymnal (“The Grey Book”) Singing the Living Tradition, and although I’ve been going to Beacon Unitarian Church nigh on 15 years, I’ve not heard more than a tenth of them.  I won’t be addressing the readings, that will be another post.

There are additional hymns I will reference from the (“Teal Book”) Singing the Journey Hymnal, which (and here my prejudices flow like an unattended bathtub…) has a bunch of songs in it from the people who put the hymnal together (read the credits for the authors, and then look at who wrote what and tell me I ain’t lyin’) which sound like anemic show tunes and are expletive hard to sing for altos, but it definitely widens the scope of what can be sung in church, although it’s my preference to let the choir handle it, because I don’t like many of those songs and would prefer not to voice them, however frequently people tell me I’ll start liking them eventually.  (Mushy lyrics and ditzy tunes, o well). These two sentences deleted for excessively high sour grapes content.  Yeah. Okay, there are some good tunes in it, I love Blue Boat Home, which Gary and Elva brought into a service in such an emotionally appealing way that I can’t help but applaud them.

But, erm, why sing at all?

Hymn singing in church is a purposeful way of:

  • Involving the congregation in worship.
  • Forcing people to stand at regular intervals so they cannot snooze through the service. Not that our folks generally do, but you know what I mean.
  • Making people breathe together – that’s what a conspiracy is, it’s a breathing together, except we’re the conspiracy of well meaning white people.  Breathing together causes entrainment.  For a few minutes our breathing and brain waves sync up, causing a big spike in happy brain chemicals, which seriously, folks, is one of the reasons people come to church.
  • Assuring newcomers that we haven’t dispensed with what was their favourite part of services at their church of origin, which they fled, ’cause of the every reason people flee their religious upbringings. It’s as individual as you are!
  • Filking… cause we mess with the lyrics, hard, yo.
  • Maintaining continuity with our forebears, and extending that continuity into any foreseeable future.
  • Honoring the great composers of religious music from many traditions, not just Christianity.
  • Bringing Hungarian Unitarian songs into our worship, providing a welcome break from the standard Protestant hymns and bringing minor tunes up front.
  • Sneaking gospel into the repertoires of militant atheists.
  • Providing awesome ‘cleaners’ for when you get Miley Cyrus, commercials and the Song That Never Ends stuck in your head.  PS the best cleaner is the happy birthday song because you sing it once and stop.  You’re welcome.
  • Providing something you can drop from the service when worship is running too long.  And that’s me in the back giving the stink-eye to the homilist who ran long and cut my fave hymn from the service.  Running long is a CRIME against HUMANITY. Lord how I wish I’d recorded one of the many conversations I had with Bareld, rest his soul in splendour and joy, on the subject. Plus we only rent the hall for x number of hours….
  • Differentiating one church from another.  Every Unitarian congregation handles music and congregational singing differently.  I nearly swallowed my gum when I found out there are UU congregations who don’t use congregational singing AT ALL as part of worship, only bringing in guest singers and musicians on the occasions they feel appropriate.  I would hike up my skirts and trot out of any church so inclined.  That aside, each church comes to have a particular set of fall back hymns, with complicated backstories of how they came to be part of the lifestream of the church.  These ‘in frequent rotation’ hymns are part of the psychic furnishings of the church.
  • Forcing you to stand close to your neighbour, who is holding the hymnbook for you.
  • Providing emotional consistency to worship services.
  • Providing an emotional and physical break from preaching or sharing that can be quite exhausting or uplifting or otherwise challenging.
  • And there are likely other reasons, but I’m not going to run off to the UUA website to look them up. These are all just out of my head this morning.

Herewith my meander through the main hymnal, with a nod to various connecting points. At this point, however, I must pause and say that David Hamilton’s piano playing has enhanced every aspect of worship, and that his dedication and ability are an adornment to our church. For further info on tunes.

Hymn 1.  May nothing evil cross this door.  Louis Untermeyer wrote the words, Robert N. Quaile wrote the music.  We have sung this once to my recollection; I particularly love the last lines, which speak to our wandering state, tent dwellers in a world of settled churches.  “Though these sheltering walls are thin, may they be strong enough to keep hate out and hold love in.” It’s in waltz time.

Hymn 145. As Tranquil Streams.  Another of many gems from the Musicalisches Hand-buch, which has been feeding congregational singing for over three hundred years, it has a tune recognizable to any Protestant but the lyrics are… well, Unitarian, as in written by a relatively prolific Unitarian hymn lyric writer by the name of Ham.  My favourite line:  “A freedom that reveres that past but trusts the dawning future more, and bids the soul, in search of truth, adventure boldly and explore.” Sounds like a Star Trek hymn, and certainly a suitable hymn for a lifelong SF fan.  This is one of our congregations mainstays.

Hymn 348.  Guide My Feet.  (I sang this to the KSS, the former minister as HO-OLD my PU-URSE, while I run this race.  It was appropriate in context.)  A real corker, if sung with sufficient enthusiasm and all our basses are in da house to sing that line.  It’s a traditional tune, pleasingly simple and with loads of gospel flair.

Hymn 211. Jacob’s Ladder.  Like a number of other hymns in the hymnal, this resonates with my childhood. One of the many folk groups we listened to constantly back then had a really fine version of this on an album.  It was one of the Limelighters, Kingston Trio, Chad Mitchell Trio (or other) albums.  It was wonderful hearing it in church for the first time, and as I recollect I asked for it as a hymn for one of the services I delivered.  Obviously the lyrics have changed from the original…

Hymn 108.  My Life Flows On. AKA How can I keep from singing.  This is one of the hymns I sing in my head, a LOT.  The lyrics strike me as facing the trials of life with a tranquil and patient spirit. All of the lyrics are moving and essential… the last verse in particular I love. “When tyrants tremble as they hear the bells of freedom ringing, when friends rejoice both far and near, how can I keep from singing? To prison cell and dungeon vile, our thoughts to them are winging; when friends by shame are undefiled, how can I keep from singing?”  All as a reminder of those who do not enjoy the benefits of living in Canada in the circumstances we enjoy.  Often I sing the first lines to myself… “My life flows on, in endless song, above earth’s lamentation.  I hear the clear, though far off song, that hails a new creation.”  So mote it be.

Hymn 324.  Where My Free Spirit Onward Leads.  The truest and saddest song in the hymnbook, I definitely have used this one a couple of times in services, and I’m the only one who did, to my recollection. The minor tune, an English folk melody, is lilting and questioning at the same time.  The lyrics, by my personal favourite Alicia S. Carpenter, contain the following gem. “Eternity is hard to ken, and harder still is this: a human life when truly viewed is briefer than a kiss.”

Hymn 361.  Enter, Rejoice and Come In. Well now. I love this hymn so much I mentioned it in my “Cognitive Bias and Congregational Life” homily, referenced to your left.  When I first started attending UU services it was at the Lakeshore UU Congregation and a very excellent pianist would be playing this as I climbed the stairs (where a beautifully coloured and handlettered sign welcomed me, like a hug, honestly). I thought with the naivety of the newbie that ALL UU Congregations started their services that way and I was saddened to find that nope, every UU congregation is like a different fingerprint gathered from the same body.  And then I cheered up, because individuality within unity is good.

Hymn 291.  Die Gedanken Sind Frei. Ah, another gem from my past, as sung with tremendous musicality, precision and enthusiasm, by the Limeliters.  When I first started attending Beacon at Place Maillardville, we had two elderly German speakers in the congregation, and I was BLISSFUL when they sang, standing shoulder to shoulder at the back of the congregation, in the original German.  One of those men escaped from Hitler.  Both were mighty hearts for justice and learning.  It’s a song with a LOT of meaning for me; I’m always thrilled when it’s in the order of service.

Hymn 8. Mother Spirit, Father Spirit.  A plea to the Spirit for assistance in understanding our lives; as deeply Unitarian a hymn as can be, having been written, lyrics and tune, by one of our martyrs, Norbert Čapek, who died in a concentration camp in 1942.  The tune is simple and yet heart-rending. Sung measuredly and reverently, it’s an amazing work for congregational singing.

Hymn 16.  ‘Tis a Gift to Be Simple. Here we borrow from the American Shaker tradition, and a fine borrowing it is, too.  It’s a good one to put in the order of service if you know things will run long…. cause it’s so short you feel like you’re standing up and sitting down in the same breath.

Hymn 21.  For the Beauty of the Earth.  Gentle lyrics and a singable tune make this a favourite of mine.

Hymn 30. Over My Head. Another spiritual brought lovingly into our tradition.  It does have God language, but as I have described repeatedly elsewhere, I have no objections to God language.

Hymn 34.  Though I May Speak with Bravest Fire.  From 1st Corinthians 13, to a lightly modified English folk tune.  “Though I may speak with bravest fire, and have the gift to all inspire, and have not love, my words are vain, as sounding brass, and hopeless gain.” As stern a warning to Unitarians not to be chatty intellectuals as we get in the hymnbook.

Hymn 38. Morning Has Broken. A very slightly different version than the wonderful Cat Stevens rendition, which messes me up almost every time I sing it with the congregation despite David’s best efforts, but I don’t care, I’m always happy to see it in the service.

Hymn 55.  Dark of Winter.  “And then my soul will sing a song, a blessed song of love eternal”.  Sung by the choir, this song has reduced me to silent weeping. Winter services are so NECESSARY.  Anything to get out of the house and see people. “Let your peace flow through me.”

Hymn 73. Chant for the Seasons.  A great hymn to include for solstice and pagan friendly services, it has a charming Czech folk tune and lyrics like a sensory tour of the changing seasons.

Hymn 95. There is More Love Somewhere.  Apart from the fact that every time I see this in the order of service I think “Well, that’s a heck of an endorsement for our congregation if we sing about there being more love somewhere… else,” I enjoy this African American spiritual borrowing, which is full of plaintive longing for joy.  “I’m gonna keep on… til I find it….”

Hymn 99.  Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.  Can’t exclude that song from the hymnal. “Although you see me, going ‘long so, oh, yes, Lord! I have my troubles here below, oh, yes, Lord.”

Hymn 100.  I’ve Got Peace Like a River.  Sounds traditional, but it was actually composed in 1974.  It is a very simple and singable tune, and I always like what the congregation does with it.

Hymn 109.  As We Come Marching, Marching.  Suitable for many occasions at church, but especially for woman warriors for social justice and International Women’s Day. “Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes; hearts starve as well as bodies, give us bread but give us roses.” “As we come marching, marching, unnumbered women dead, go crying, through our singing, their ancient song of bread.”

Hymn 118.  This Little Light of Mine.  A truly awesome song, begging for four part harmony and a kickass uptempo effort by everyone, it is guaranteed to cheer you up on the gloomiest of mornings.

Hymn 121.  We’ll Build a Land.  Carolyn McDade for the tuneage and a little bit of Isaiah and Psalms, repurposed, for the lyrics.  “Come build a land where sisters and brothers, anointed by God may then create peace, where justice shall roll down like waters, and peace like an ever flowing stream.”  It’s long and a bit complicated compared to many hymns but definitely worth it in worship.

Hymn 123.  Spirit of Life.  Carolyn McDade has provided Beacon with one of our signature songs (she being responsible for both words and music).  Short, sweet, with deceptively simple lyrics, for all its brevity a truly great hymn.

Hymn 128.  For all that is our life.  Beacon uses a portion of this as the responsive song after the collection.  I was irked when KSS introduced it and now it’s a comforting lodestone in the center of the service. “For all that is our life, we give our thanks and praise, for all life is a gift which we are called to use to build the common good, and make our own days glad.”  Can’t argue with those sentiments!

Hymn 131.  Love Will Guide Us.  Some hymns, rather than associating directly with the church, you associate with church members. During the amazing/awful period of the getting of the Welcoming Congregation imprimature, Peggy asked us to sing this at the end of some of our meetings, and also we sang it many times at her insistence at the end of our Chalice Circles.  Happy sigh.  So no, can’t think of this song without thinking of Peggy, and the articulation of her voice singing it.

Hymn 159.  This Is My Song.  Oh my how very yes.  We get to sing Sibelius in church on a regular basis.  The tune is very familiar, although I keep messing about with the dotted quarter, wanting to flatten it all out, although if I keep my ears open I can hear David gamely attempting to get us to sing it as written.  And who can fault Lloyd Stone’s brilliant lyrics. “This is my home, the country where my heart is/here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine/but other hearts in other lands are beating/with hopes and dreams, as true and high as mine.”  Absolutely beautiful, and I love singing it. Also see Hymn 318 to the same tune We Would Be One.  The lyrics for that one are almost as beautiful.

Hymn 163.  For the Earth Forever Turning.  A beautiful slow waltz time hymn which is a love song to our home, our planet earth.

Hymn 177. Sakura. “Cherry blooms, cherry blooms, pink profusion everywhere.” A wonderful hymn for spring in Vancouver, full as it is of cherry blossoms, or, as Lady Miss B refers to them, CHUBBLIES!  We get to sing in rote Japanese, too.  We also sing it for Hiroshima Day.

Hymn 188.  Come, Come Whoever You Are.  A well used ingathering song, it is wonderful to start the day with a paraphrase from the poetical and spiritual genius known as Rumi.  “Come, come, whoever you are, wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving, ours is no caravan of despair, come, yet again come.”  A sly reference to our mobile ways, and a candid revelation of the difficulties of a spiritual path. Sometimes we sing it straight, sometimes somebody up front keeps time and we sing it as a four part round.  Either way, count me in!

Hymn 231.  Angels We Have Heard on High.  It just isn’t Christmas if we don’t sing this.  This was my favourite Christmas Carol as a child, and singing it congregationally feels like a cup of hot chocolate on a miserable night!

Hymn 298. Wake, Now, My Senses.  A call to get off one’s duff and work for justice.  “Wake now my vision of ministry clear/brighten my pathway with radiance here/mingle my calling with all who will share/work toward a planet transformed by our care. The tune is a traditional Irish melody and Thomas J.S. Mikelson wrote the lyrics.

Hymn 304.  A Fierce Unrest.  I can’t think of this song without thinking of John.  It’s definitely a science fiction Unitarian hymn.  He and Brooke and Tom and Peggy sing, or sang this, every chance possible, and introduced it to many a filker.  Don Marquis wrote the lyrics.  “Sing we no governed firmament, cold, ordered, regular; we sing the stinging discontent that leaps from star to star.”  It’s got a slightly awkward tune, but I don’t care, the lyrics make it all worthwhile.  The lyrics of Hymn 343 are memorable too… A Firemist and a Planet contains the words:  “A firemist and a planet, a crystal and a cell, a starfish and a saurian, and caves where ancients dwelt, the sense of law and beauty, a face turned from the sod, some call it evolution, and others call it God.”  About as Unitarian a sentiment as is possible, I’d reckon.

Hymn 346.  Come Sing a Song with Me. Carolyn McDade’s sweet and simple hymn, which I always love singing.  Usually harmony, much to the consternation of the tone deaf members of the congregation who are standing next to me and leaning on my voice to find their way to the tune.  And tone deaf is okay.  Congregational singing shouldn’t be a popularity contest or only held up for people who can follow a tune.  Even if I hadn’t thought that way at the beginning, filking would have cured me of that little caustic wound of elitism.

Hymn 305. De Colores.  A gaily cheerful hymn, based on a Spanish folk tune, a little hard to sing for my taste, but part of our repertoire for sure.  “All the colors abound for the whole world around and for everyone under the sun.” Amen.

Hymn 347.  Gather the Spirit.  The great Unitarian songwriter Jim Scott is responsible for this one.  “Gather in peace, gather in thanks, gather in sympathy now and then/gather in hope, compassion and strength, gather to celebrate once again.”

Hymn 360.  Here we Have Gathered.  “May all who seek here find a kindly word, may all who speak here feel they have been heard.”  That about wraps up how we should be toward newcomers… and oldtimers.

Next up:  A drunkard’s walk through the spoken word portion of the UU hymnal.