This world. This place. This life.

For so the children come


Within the last year I learned of a UU tradition of linking Christmas with dedicating infants and young children.  Our theology, however diversely we articulate it, teaches us that the divine spark lives in all of us, and so the birth of each child is an opportunity to celebrate incarnation.

This past Sunday we celebrated a Rachel Sabbath, which focuses on improving maternal health and universal access to family planning.  Our middle hymn, from Singing the Journey, was “For So the Children Come:”

The chorus began: Each night a child is born is a holy night: A time for singing, a time for wondering, a time for worshipping. Each night a child is born is a holy night.

Cool, I thought.  This must be what some UU congregations sing at Christmas when they’re dedicating babies.

But then the narrator read the words to the first verse:  For so the children come, and so they have been coming, always the same way they come, born of the seed of a man and a woman.

My heart fell into my stomach.  Always the same way they come?  Born of the seed of a man and a woman?  How did these words that sound like a bumper sticker on a right-winger’s car  find their way into a recently-published UU hymnal?

I recovered a bit during the second verse, but then came the third:  Fathers and mothers–sitting beside their children’s cribs–feel glory in the sight of new life beginning.

Sure, this image doesn’t have to read as exclusively one father and one mother at each crib.  But after the first verse’s jolt, it felt that way.

I spoke to our minister about it after the service, and she said that she’d noticed the language, too, as we were singing it.

In 2005 when Singing the Journey was published, one writer could say, without irony, “This is an impressive piece of writing even now, but especially for the time in which it was written. There isn’t a phrase or a sentence that seems out of date, even today.”  He was speaking of the same Fahs text, this time used as a reading in the older Singing the Living Tradition hymnal.

Five years and four months later, some Fahs’ words are now outdated in congregations where children do not always come in the same way.  Where members have wrestled painfully with the fact that it’s not as simple as “seed of man plus seed of woman.”  Where our children our children often have two moms, or two dads, or one parent, or adopted parent, or foster parents, or live with their grandparents, etc.

The times they are a changing.  How do we invest our resources in these changing times?  In printed hymnals, expensive to produce, expensive to replace?  Or in more flexible formats, ones that allow us to pivot, and move in a new direction when old words are hurtful rather than helpful?

I’m not against hymnals.  Far from it.  I love the comfort of familiar words sung again and again over time, gathering memories as we sing them.  I guess I’m arguing for sustainability–and not just saving trees by not printing hymnals.  We need to invest in media that reflect our living tradition, that support our singing along the journey into the future.


11 thoughts on “For so the children come

  1. Heather, I don’t respond the same way to that first line that gave you a jolt.

    To me it just sounds like a line from biology 101. It is true that children do come as the result of the joining of sperm and egg and that gestation takes place in a uterus. Children do still come the same way they always have. Even if the process for getting from biological parent bodies to implantation of an embryo to birth to home with the parent(s) has variations.

    Perhaps we can have parents sitting at cribside rather than mothers and fathers. But in truth, I admit that I don’t see a problem with the Fahs quote for today. I just don’t see it as excluding any of the aspects of humanity that we honor.

    That said, if a worship leader knows that someone in the congregation experiences hurt because of the words, then the song probably should be avoided.

    • Hey, Paul. I understand the emphasis on the science of reproduction, to counter the magical story of the Incarnation. But for me, these words just reinforce that the hetero way of babymaking is the norm, and everything else is a work-around. It’s hard work to come to terms with needing donors and surrogates in order to become parents, and being reminded of that during worship can open a not-quite-healed scar.

      • So here’s a thought to send up the proverbial flag pole…

        I hear what you are saying and wonder: would the hurt from the Fahs quote be overcome if worship leaders made explicit that it would only be used in a service that specifically honored the “work arounds” of donors and surrogacy and adoption, etc.? Or would it still be too raw?

        That is, do we need to box Fahs for the foreseeable future? Or do we “just” need to more fully contextualize her?

    • At the moment, I have no idea. Good questions, ones I’ll ponder for a while. As I was writing this post, it reminded me of the argument about the new, n-word-free Mark Twain works. Sometimes its good to leave historic words right where they are.

  2. Interesting. The song bothered me too, mostly because it just seemed too traditional and overtly religious for my tastes. I’m sorry that it was hurtful to you.

    I was also put off by some comments made by both our speaker and the minister. For the first time I felt like I was not welcome at the fellowship. I tried not to take it so personally (which is possibly my greatest fault) and not be “pre-offended.” If we avoided everything that offended anyone we wouldn’t have much to talk about would we?

    • I hope you’ll take a chance and share your feelings with B. As a worship leader, it’s often difficult to remember the all the various circumstances and perspectives of those present. I don’t think it’s humanly possible–0r even desirable–to avoid everything that might offend someone. But I do believe it’s helpful for our ministers and worship leaders to get feedback about how the congregation experiences worship. Reactions like yours and mine, shared simply, directly and gently, broaden a minister’s awareness of the congregation’s worship experience, and help the minister to be incrementally more welcoming.

  3. To your point about whether hymnals are what we want / need going forward, I certainly understand about the limitations of hymnals. For example, for the service I led this past Sunday, I honestly couldn’t find anything acceptable in the gray book and just had to make do with things that didn’t do what I wanted.

    Vance Bass ( strongly favors projected words on a screen in contemporary worship. And that is commonly done – very well in some congregations.

    Jim Scott told me recently about a friend of his who is Director of Music at an African American church that it completely paperless (no hymnals, no printed choir music, no printed order of service, no bulletin, etc.) but that does not project words onto a screen and does so effectively for a three-hour+ service. They do not have a special pre-service learning of the music either. Rather, the worship style uses a combination of call and response and other methods to bring the congregation into the singing of music they are hearing for the first time. It sounded exciting.

    And if you’ve experienced worship with Kevin Tarsa leading the singing, you know just how possible it is to bring people into music, worshipfully, without them necessarily knowing the music in advance. Kevin is very impressive in this.

    It’s all good. But I have to admit, I will be sad if hymnals go the way of the dinosaur. Whatever their flaws and weaknesses, hymnals provide a record of how a wide body of worshippers used music to express their values at some period in time. I for one have a large shelf of nothing but hymnals U, U, and UU, UCC, Congregationalist, Methodist, Episcopal, Presbyterian, and so on that I frequently consult. If we don’t have hymnals, then the UUA had better hire a team of ethnomusicologists to keep a record of what our congregations are doing with music over time and make the resulting documentation available to everyone in PDF and MP3 formats free of charge.

    Personally, I don’t think of hymnals as all that costly. Our gray book is just $28 and our teal book is just $18. And they last a long time unless seriously mistreated. As long as a congregation is not replacing hymnals at the same time it is doing a capital campaign or getting ready to hire for a newly created staff position, and provided it is not the heart of a depression/recession, that is simply not that much to add to normal pledge expectations (with exceptions for those who cannot, of course).

    And there are constant costs of acquiring copyright for new music if a congregation doesn’t work from a hymnal, though it comes with the advantage of ever-expanding repertoires. And maybe the problem I had last Sunday finding appropriate hymns would be a thing of the past. As long as a congregation never flagged in keeping its music resources up to date…

  4. Your sharing this morning at AUUF was moving, encouraging and appreciated.
    Perhaps you could make a copy of the same available on your website?
    I remember picking Nagoon berries near the mouth of a river outside of Juneau. They were so good that very few lasted in the baskets all the way back to our home. Not an analogy – just remembering.
    Be well.

  5. Actually I think that the song could hit a sore spot for others as well, like a man and woman who cannot have children or single people without partners or children. Yet, the male-female-child-connection is something useful to all of us as born beings. The way we are reproduced has a tremendous impact on our species. Because reproduction is sexual (as in two different genders) there will be a participant who is pregnant and a participant who is not pregnant. Imagine a world where hypothetically we could all be pregnant at once! But since it comes from a dual relation, there is a greater ability for parents to care for their young. Therefore we can be born fragile and yet have years to complete development to our full physical potential. Intellectual capacity is therefore increased…So much is different. So much of who we are as living beings is directly tied to the way we were reproduced.

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