The Gospel of Unitarian Universalism in Music

Sermon by Barbara W. ten Hove
Paint Branch UU Church - Nov. 14 , 2004

Unitarian Universalists love to sing Gospel Music. Most people do. It's visceral, real and fun.

Gospel music as we have come to know it emerged from the American south, primarily though not entirely from the African American community. The music was based on field and work songs, and the words usually told a story from the Bible. Wade in the Water speaks of the story of Moses. But it also was used to tell escaping slaves the importance of getting their feet wet-so the sniffing dogs would be put off the scent.

Gospel music is popular in many places, not just in the United States. Not long ago, I heard a Hungarian children's choir sing a gospel song with extraordinary energy and surprising depth. But gospel music is primarily religious and sung mostly in faith communities in our nation.

Gospel music is called "gospel" because it is about good news-the real meaning of the word gospel. And for those who believe in the good news, the gospel of the Christian story, this kind of music is incredibly moving and intensely joyful.

Religious groups of all kinds use music to enhance their spiritual life. Though the form and content vary dramatically, music is used across cultures to carry the good news of many religions to the people who will hear. This shouldn't surprise us. Music is well known to be an excellent teaching tool. But more, music, particularly songs sung together by a group, have the potential to help us feel more connected, tied to each other by a shared vision of how the world can be.

American gospel music does this for those who believe in its message. But even as I love to sing and listen to this kind of music, I have to acknowledge that the gospel of traditional gospel music isn't, for the most part, the gospel, the good news I believe in. So I've been thinking, are there songs that might be, for us, gospel music? Do we have a musical tradition that teaches our faith, lifts our spirits, and helps us feel more connected?

That's a challenging question. UUs are not known for our music. In fact, when I was a child, my mother, who happily left the southern Methodist church of her childhood to become a committed UU, never could get accustomed to what she saw as boring and hard-to-sing hymns. So she chose to teach her children what we called "Jesus Songs"-mostly spirituals and hymns she grew up singing.

That said, I do remember growing up in my UU church learning hymns that spoke to some of the basic beliefs of our faith.

It sounds along the ages, soul answering to soul.
It kindles on the pages, of every Bible scroll.

These words, set to triumphant music, taught me one of the basic tenets of our religion: that revelation is continuous, from age to age.

Then there is the common doxology sung still in many of our New England churches:

From all that dwell below the skies, let songs of hope and faith arise.
Let beauty, truth and good be sung, through every land by every tongue.

A good description of the universal nature of our faith.

But these songs, as nice as they are, are not, in the way of gospel music, "intensely joyful" and powerfully moving. Yes, they teach about our faith, but they are not terribly memorable.

So, today I turn to music that has entered our faith tradition in more recent years, to see if the gospel of Unitarian Universalism can be sung as well as preached. I have chosen three hymns that I think meet my criteria for UU gospel music: that they teach something significant about our faith; move us emotionally; and are truly spiritually uplifting. Let us begin by singing Hymn #188:

Though you've broken your vows a thousand times
Come, come, whoever you are, wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving.
Ours is no caravan of despair. Come, yet again come.

Many years ago, a good friend of mine attended a UU church for the first time. As a gay man, he had felt unwelcome in the church of his childhood. He tells the story of how, in this first UU congregational experience, he felt profoundly and radically welcome. Though the song, "Come, Come, Whoever You Are" had not yet been composed, its message was lived out in that UU congregation. My friend, now a minister, says that the unconditional welcome he received utterly transformed his life. And when he first heard this song, he knew that it sang that message. To my friend, "Come, Come, Whoever You Are" is one of the most important UU gospel song in our hymnal. I agree with him.

Another friend and colleague, Lynn Ungar, wrote the music to this short poem by the Persian poet Rumi some years ago. When I first began to preach on this song, I asked Lynn what she knew about it and she answered, "Very little." Later I was to find out that these words (though somewhat differently phrased) are written on Rumi's grave.
Lynn chose not to add the hard line, "Though you've broken your vows a thousand times" to her song. But it refused to stay out and is now used frequently as an underpinning to Rumi's other, more hopeful words.

How wonderfully UU that a 13th century Persian poet's words can be sung by us in the 21st-and as a gospel song, no less! For I believe this song is a UU gospel song. How powerfully it speaks of the first of our principles, the inherent worth and dignity of every person. It is saying, "Come in, to this place, no matter who you are or why you're here." We know (and accept) that all of us have made mistakes, broken our vows, fallen short. Yet, the invitation is offered again and again. "Come, yet again, come."

Lynn's simple tune, often sung as a round, gets in the head and lives there. This is one of a handful of songs that lots of UUs know by heart. "By heart." Its message and music speak deeply to the heart and are a musical expression of the radical welcome many feel when they enter our congregations. That our faith is so inclusive is good news indeed. And so I choose this hymn as one that can be called gospel.

The second musical choice I have chosen to call gospel comes from a very different source and speaks to yet another primary aspect of our theology. It is hymn #23, Bring Many Names. Seldom sung here, it may surprise you a bit. But I want you to experience it in a fresh way. I invite you to stay seated and to sing only the first and the last verses. The middle four verses will emerge from within the congregation

[Hymn # 23, Bring Many Names, is illustrated by four solo voices in turn as four others silently portray a tableau of described characters]

The folks who helped to create our hymnal tell the story of this powerful hymn. As originally written, the first verse began, "Strong Mother God." Brian Wren, a prominent liberal Christian composer, submitted it in that form to the United Methodists for their new hymnal. It was rejected. This was probably a good thing, for Wren returned to the text and added a pivotal first verse that allows the song's meaning to speak deeply to our theology as UUs.

Bring many names, beautiful and good, celebrate in parable and story,
Holiness in glory, living loving God ­ Hail and Hosanna! Bring many names!

"Bring many names." One of the essential truths of our Faith is that God-by whatever name-is too great to be confined to narrow definitions. When we are told that God can only be one thing (usually male and all-powerful), our faith teaches us to question that assumption. And our religion teaches us to imagine that all the many images of God that have come down through centuries of trying to understand the great mystery of life are best understood through human experience.

This is why Brian Wren's song sings to me as gospel. Here before us are human images, powerful but real, that teach us a bit of what God may be, even if we reject that old-fashioned and wounded word. This song comes from the Christian tradition, also a primary source of our faith. But it goes beyond the single image of God so prominent in fundamentalist Christian theology, that of a stern father, demanding and judging. Brian Wren captures in this classic hymn of praise the multi-faceted experience of the holy. God is father, yes, but a father hugging every child! Doesn't that sound like the loving God preached of by our Universalist ancestors?

And the other rich images of God speak deeply. God as a genius at play-our mother; God as old and aching but wiser than despair. God as a child willing to be changed and quick to be delighted. And finally God as mystery, never fully known, joyful darkness far beyond our seeing, closer yet than breathing. This is the kind of God that calls out to us for praise. This is the one God of all, the loving God of creation. Our Good News, our gospel, invites us to bring all the names of God to the table, as long as at the heart of it all is love.

And that leads me to perhaps the most popular gospel song in all of Unitarian Universalism. A song that is sung weekly in many congregations and that has become the song most identified with our faith. I am talking of course, about Spirit of Life.

Spirit of Life is one powerful song. It is simple yet deep, easy to sing yet profoundly moving. And, unlike the first two of my gospel songs, it springs directly from our Unitarian Universalist tradition.

[My thanks to The Rev. Linda Olson Peebles for her Exegesis on Spirit of Life,
written for the Harpers Ferry UU Ministerial Study Group. Her research is the
basis for the following passage regarding Carolyn McDade and Spirit of Life.]

We sing it weekly at Paint Branch, but I expect few of you know the story of this popular hymn. Carolyn McDade, its composer, was born in 1935 and raised in Louisiana, and for her, as for many women of her generation, life was expected to unfold as daughter, wife and mother. But like so many others, the women's movement of the 1970s had a profound impact on her. Encouraged by a student minister at the Arlington Street Unitarian Universalist Church in Boston, Carolyn began to write music that spoke to her experience as a woman in a changing world.

Learning to find her voice transformed Carolyn McDade's life forever, and she began to write many songs, including other popular hymns, such as [#346] "Come Sing a Song with Me" and [#121] "We'll Build a Land." But [#123] Spirit of Life is unique. And its story is important for us to know, if we are to claim this song as representative of our UU gospel.

In the late 1970s, Carolyn got involved, as many people in our congregations did, with anti-nuclear efforts. Like many protest movements, it was made up of well-meaning, but flawed people who did not always act out of their best selves. Coming home one night from a difficult meeting, she felt the despair that can emerge when it looks like even those trying to envision a better world aren't able to live that vision themselves. Frustrated and angry, she did what she often did in those days. She turned to her piano and waited to see if music would emerge.

Unlike many songs she would write, Spirit of Life emerged fully born. It was, as she put it, "prayed into being." From the heart of her pain and anguish came a cry for hope and justice. Using a name that speaks of the Holy but does not limit it, she created a song that has become the anthem of our faith. Simple, humble, beautiful, it is a song that teaches, for it reminds us of our common commitment to justice. It lifts our spirits as it calls forth all that is good and strong in us. And it speaks to our shared path as humans on this planet-together growing roots and wings.

This song has been sung in many places and translated into other languages. A dance has been created for it. And it is used in very healing ways. For example, shortly after th attacks of September 11, 2001, [my spouse and co-minister] Jaco was invited to take part in a prayer vigil at the Silver Spring Islamic Center. Surrounded by people of diverse faiths, all scared and sad, Jaco chose to offer this song in the way it was written, as a sung prayer. For him, as for many of us, Spirit of Life allowed him to get in touch with what is most essential, most holy, most healing.

And so it is important for all of us to remember that Carolyn McDade wrote this song as a prayer. Some say that she returned prayer to a faith that had lost its ability to pray. Music, our gospel, can allow us to do things that otherwise might feel awkward or wrong. Spirit of Life allows even atheists to pray.

And so I will end this exploration of our UU gospel by inviting you to hear this song in a new way. Singing it, as we do, each week, it is easy to forget what it really means. Today we will use this song as it was written, as prayer. Please follow me into this prayer. You will know when it is time to sing

Spirit of Life, come unto me.
Sing in my heart all the stirrings of compassion.
Blow in the wind, rise in the sea;
Move in the hand, giving life the shape of Justice.
Roots hold me close; wings set me free;
Spirit of Life, come to me, come to me.


As we go forth this day, may we remember the good news we have sung here and be blessed by its healing message. Whoever you are, whatever name you call your God, You are invited by the Spirit of Life to give your life the shape of justice.

May each of us commit ourselves to spreading the good news of our liberal faith, in word and song. Join with us now in singing a different closing hymn, one that also offers a gospel message. Follow along and sing with your hearts.

There is more love/hope/peace/joy somewhere.
There is more love/hope/peace/joy somewhere.
I'm gonna keep on, 'til I find it.
There is more love/hope/peace/joy somewhere.

Back to PBUUC Home


Click here for more advanced search options.

If you are experiencing any technical problems with this page, click here.