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Everything Is Holy Now

(A sermon delivered at Throop Unitarian Universalist Church in Pasadena, California on 2 April 2017. Copyright 2017 by Everett Howe.)


Earlier in the service, we heard live performances of Peter Mayer’s song Holy Now and Susan Werner’s song May I Suggest. Here are YouTube videos of those songs:

Holy Now, performed by Peter Mayer:

May I Suggest, performed by Red Molly:


Endless trouble.

Endless trouble is what certain words can cause, especially in religious communities. The most famous example for modern-day Unitarian Universalists is the word God, but there are other contenders too, like prayer, and the holy.

Coincidentally, the worship theme at Throop Church for the month of April is “The Holy.” Let’s see how much trouble we can get into!

Part of the problem with all of these words is that they mean different things to different people. For example, some people might think of God as a God with whom one can have a personal relationship, a God who answers prayers, a God who forgives sins. Others might think of God more abstractly; they might think, for example, that God is the “absolute infinite.” Some might think of gods in the plural, with a lower-case g. And some might prefer Paul Tillich’s idea of God as the “ground of being.”

So it’s no wonder that it’s hard to have a conversation about God; people are literally using the same word to talk about different things.

There are similar problems with the word holy, and one of the reasons why I like Peter Mayer’s song Holy Now, which we heard earlier, is that it is about how his understanding of the word holy has changed over the course of his life.

One definition is that something is holy if it comes from God, or is approved by God, or has some divine quality. Of course, that leads us right back to the problem of agreeing on what God is! But there’s a second definition that I personally find much easier to handle:

Something is holy if we respond to it with veneration and reverence.

With this understanding of the word, it’s easy to tell if someone believes something to be holy: Do they treat it with respect, and with reverence?

And the beauty of thinking about holiness in this way is that more and more of your life can be holy; things become holy if you treat them with reverence. And this is Mayer’s song. When he was a boy, holiness was something that came from God, that came from the church: holy water to dip his fingers in, a morsel of consecrated bread, a sip of consecrated wine. But now, he sings, everything is holy: a child’s face, the new morning, a red-winged bird. He says that he walks through the world with a reverent air because everything is holy now, but I wonder… has he reversed cause and effect? Maybe everything is holy now, because he walks through the world with a reverent air.


This conception of holiness suggests a spiritual practice. Throughout the day, remind yourself to pause; to perceive where you are, and what is around you; and treat it with reverence.

For instance, right now — let’s pause.

See the light coming through our windows.

Listen. Sense the vast space of air above you. Can you hear how it affects sounds?

Feel the presence of all that is around you, the life in this room.

Remain present here and now, but at the same time, feel a sense of all the paths that have led people here today… how all of our lives have converged here, now… threads of consciousness, brought together at this moment, and this place…

Feel how this moment is holy.


This sense of holiness, these holy moments are what Susan Werner’s song May I Suggest is about.

There is a world
That’s been addressed to you
Addressed to you, intended only for your eyes
A secret world
Like a treasure chest to you
Of private scenes and brilliant dreams that mesmerise
A lover’s trusting smile
A tiny baby’s hands
The million stars that fill the turning sky at night

All of the things that you have seen, all of the things that you have heard, all of the things that you have felt, all of the things that you have thought — they make up your own secret treasure chest of holy experiences, known only to you because you are the only one to have experienced them. By pausing and observing, by being present, you can add more to that treasure chest.


A few years ago, as part of a project for a world religions class, I attended Saturday services at the Zen Center of San Diego. I arrived at the Center much earlier than I had planned, because the Saturday morning traffic was much better than I had allowed for. The Zen Center is a large house in a residential neighborhood, and when I arrived, I walked around to the main entrance in the back yard. There was only one person there at that hour, and he was busy sweeping the back patio and the adjoining paths. I offered to help, and he handed me a broom.

As you may know, sweeping is an established form of Zen practice. So I thought to myself, “Huh! Here I am, at the Zen Center, with a broom. I guess I had better be mindful.” And so I was. As I swept, I paid attention to the walkway, to the leaves on the walkway, to the plants that brushed past me, to the trail of ants that I avoided sweeping up, to the whsshh! whsssh! of the broom as it brushed against the brick path. My mind did wander from time to time, but I returned my focus to my task and to all that was around me on that cool morning, all that was around me on the brick path through the garden.

And you know what? The time that I spent sweeping the walkway turned out to be the part of my visit that I remember best. I can still envision the walkway, the broom, the leaves, the grass. Because of the attention I paid, an ordinary task became part of the secret world of private scenes that Susan Werner sings of in her song.


It is not just Buddhism that encourages us to focus on the present. Other faiths have traditions of meditation as well, and researchers on human behavior have tried to make connections between paying attention and being happy.

In the sermon I delivered here in January, I mentioned how researchers at Harvard developed what must be the most annoying iPhone app ever. Their app interrupts you at random moments throughout your day and asks you a series of questions. The questions include:

How are you feeling right now?
What are you doing right now?
Are you thinking about something other than what you are currently doing?

The researchers found that people’s minds wander a lot — nearly half the time, in fact. They also found that people are less happy if they are not focussing on what they are doing. Even if you are doing something unpleasant, and your mind is wandering to something nice — even then, you’ll be less happy, on average, than if you were paying attention to what you are doing.

So, does a wandering mind cause unhappiness? Or maybe it’s that when you are unhappy, your mind is more likely to wander. The researchers considered this question, and by comparing each person’s responses throughout the course of the day, they found strong statistical evidence that in fact it is the wandering mind that creates the unhappiness, and not the other way around.

If you pay attention to what you are doing, you will likely be more happy, and you may find more holiness around you than you expect.


The two songs we heard today — Peter Mayer’s Holy Now and Susan Werner’s May I Suggest — both bring out this idea of a holiness that is everywhere we look. It turns out there’s a connection between that conception of holiness and the ideas about God that were expressed by one of our Unitarian ancestors, William Ellery Channing.

In 1828, Channing delivered a sermon in which he discussed his conception of God. Channing argued that we humans discover the nature of God by looking within, by observing our own souls. Channing wrote that “the idea of God, sublime and awful as it is, is the idea of our own spiritual nature, purified and enlarged to infinity.”

Channing knew that people might object to this; he knew that people might argue that we get our ideas of God not just from our own souls, but also from seeing God’s influence throughout everything we see and experience. Channing wrote:

The universe, I know, is full of God. […] [T]he effects and signs of [God’s] power, wisdom, and goodness, are apparent through the whole creation. But apparent to what? Not to the outward eye, […] but to a kindred mind, which interprets the universe by itself. […] We see God around us, because he dwells within us. It is by a kindred wisdom, that we discern his wisdom in his works.

So Channing acknowledges that there is evidence of God throughout all of creation, in the same way that Peter Mayer says that everything is holy; but Channing also says that we only comprehend this holiness because of God’s image within ourselves. This private comprehension of holiness connects with Susan Werner’s “secret world” addressed to us; just as we make things holy by treating them with reverence, Channing says that we only see the evidence of God around us because of the presence of the Divine within us.


When we are facing pain or oppression, or when we confront evil in the world, the belief that “everything is holy,” or that “everything can be made holy,” can seem hopelessly naïve. How can we reconcile this theology with the existence of pain, and oppression, and evil? Let’s think about this by looking at a situation where holiness seemed very far away.


In the late spring or early summer of 1945, just as World War II was ending in Europe, the British Broadcasting Corporation’s European Service broadcast some interviews with German soldiers who had been captured by the Allied forces.1 One of these German prisoners of war talked about his Christian faith and his unhappiness with what the National Socialists had done. He ends by telling a story which has since been repeated, and retold, and embellished over the years. The story, as he told it, is this:

In a shelter in Cologne, where young Catholics were keeping some Jews in hiding because their lives were threatened, American soldiers found the following inscription:

I believe in the sun — even when it is not shining.
I believe in God — even when He is silent.
I believe in love — even when it is not apparent.

How do these words, and the story told about them… how do they fit into the idea of holiness everywhere?

For some theists, the answer might be that underneath everything, God is still present. God may be silent, and human evil may have temporarily obscured the Divine, but God is still there. The words in the shelter are words of faith that God is never entirely gone, and that the Divine will reappear eventually.

I believe in the sun, even when it is not shining.
I believe in God, even when [God] is silent.
I believe in love, even when it is not apparent.

There are other ways of finding holiness in these words and the story behind them. In 1946, a Lithuanian-born Jew named Zvi Kolitz published a short story in a Yiddish newspaper in Buenos Aires.2 The story uses the “I believe in the sun” quotation as its epigraph; but it complicates and transforms the image. Kolitz’s story is in the form of an imaginary note, hidden in a bottle and found in the rubble of the Warsaw ghetto. Kolitz’s imagined note is written by a Jew who fought fiercely with his comrades against the Nazis who were destroying the ghetto. Kolitz’s narrator tells of his friends and his family dying; he tells of the Germans he has killed; he tells of how he himself will soon be killed. And he does tell of his belief in God; but, more, he tells of his argument with God, of his complaint to a God who would permit such destruction.

In Kolitz’s story, belief in God is not the point. For Kolitz’s narrator, the holy lies in his identity as a Jew, in the traditions and history of his faith. “I love God,” he says, “but I love God’s Torah more.” So here we find another version of the holy: Being true to one’s self, being true to one’s community, being true to a tradition.

I believe in the sun, even when it is not shining.
I believe in God, even when [God] is silent.
I believe in love, even when it is not apparent.

As a humanist, I see another way of finding the holy in these stories. The German POW tells of words inscribed in a shelter. Zvi Kolitz’s narrator leaves his testament of faith in a bottle, for others to find. Both of these stories have this common thread: a message left for the future.

For a humanist faced with bleakness and oppression and the likelihood of death, the answer might be that while there is no holiness right now, I can have faith that one day I will see it again; and if I do not survive, then one day someone else will come who will see hope, and who will create holiness — and who will recognize that I had been here; someone in the future will empathize with the present me, will honor my struggle, and will create holiness in that way.

In this view, the holy lies in reaching out, in finding common humanity. This is the holiness that we all can feel, even when we are suffering, when a friend is there to be with us.

I believe in the sun, even when it is not shining.
I believe in God, even when [God] is silent.
I believe in love, even when it is not apparent.


Whether you are a humanist, or a theist, or both, or neither…

Whether you believe the holy comes from God, or from reverent attention…

Whether you meditate, or pray, or find peace some other way…

I invite you to notice the holy around you — the holy amidst us all. Alone, or with others — The reverence with which you treat the world will enrich your life and may give hope where there had been none before.

Today, tomorrow, this week, this month… Remind yourself to pause.

Be present; find the holiness around you; and consider, that this moment, and this moment, can be the best part of your life.

Blessed be. Amen.


Cover image:
Public domain image from Pixabay.com, uploaded by user Patrick Neufelder. Original here.


  1. A partial transcript of the broadcast was published in the Quaker magazine The Friend in London. You can read about this here
  2. You can read more about the history of Kolitz’s story here

I Believe in the Sun, Part I: Look Away

I believe in the sun even when it is not shining;
I believe in love even when feeling it not;
I believe in God even when he is silent.

— An inscription on the wall of a cellar in Cologne where a number of Jews hid themselves for the entire duration of the war.


I first saw a version of this quotation, with its remarkable attribution, in the program notes accompanying a performance of a choral work that uses the words as its text: Mark Miller’s choir-plus-piano piece “I Believe.” Here’s a video of a good performance of it.

Miller’s piece is beautiful, a moving expression of the quotation’s powerful statement of faith proclaimed in a time of despair. And the story behind the words certainly strengthens the emotional effect of the music.

A year or so later, I attended a workshop on designing effective worship. The workshop leader mentioned in passing that she had featured Mark Miller’s piece in one of her church’s Advent services. That’s when I first had a feeling that something was a little off. Here we have a story about a Jew’s faith while waiting out the Holocaust in a basement… Was it really appropriate to use this story during Advent, the time when Christians are waiting for the arrival of Christ? It felt to me that even though the identity of the author of those words is unknown, we should still respect their suffering, honor their story, and imagine what their wishes might be. Or is that being too scrupulous?


I’m a strong believer in attribution, and in understanding the context in which words were originally written or spoken. But with a story like this one — words found in the aftermath of war — it’s almost certain that there is no documentary evidence that can give us a better idea of the circumstances of the origin of the quotation.

Almost certain.

I decided to see what I could find.


This post is the first in a series of four, in which I will tell you what I have learned. In this first post, I will describe the carelessness with which people have treated the story behind the “I believe in the sun” quotation, and the uncomfortable place that that carelessness leads to.

Not surprisingly, the quotation is most often used in religious or inspirational material, so the second post in the series will discuss the Christian history of the words and the story behind them. I found what is likely the earliest printed source of the quotation, but this source points back even further in a tantalizing direction. Furthermore, this early Christian telling complicates matters, because the version of the words on the wall that it gives is different, in an important way, from the quotation as I gave it above.

The third post will focus on the amazing history of the first written telling of the story in a Jewish context: as an epigraph to a work of Holocaust fiction that first appeared in a Yiddish newspaper in Buenos Aires in 1946. This early Jewish telling also complicates matters, because the short story to which the quotation is attached completely undermines the apparent message of the quotation.

The fourth and final post will talk about how we might still use these words, given what we will have learned about them — and why it is important to care about how we use them.


Before we dive in, let me explain the subtitle of this post: “Look away.” This year, Netflix released an adaptation of A Series of Unfortunate Events, the book series by Lemony Snicket nominally written for children. The opening credits of each episode are accompanied by a song that encourages the viewer to look away, because the story will not be a happy one. I feel as though I should give a similar warning: If you like the words and music whose history I will be tracing, and if you would like to keep an uncomplicated view of them, look away. As Thomas Gray writes: where ignorance is bliss, ’tis folly to be wise.

But if you are willing to look, let’s begin.


When I began to search online for more information about the “I believe in the sun” quotation and the story behind it, I found something striking: There are several different versions of the story. The cellar in Cologne is sometimes the setting, but the details, and the city, and even the time period change from telling to telling.

The televangelist Robert H. Schuller, in his book The Be Happy Attitudes (1997)1, neglects to mention a city when writes that “[s]crawled in the basement of a German home was a Star of David next to these words […]”

Many sources speak of the wartime cellar in Cologne, but add that the Jews were being sheltered there by Roman Catholics. In some sources, the friendly shelter is transformed into something darker. For instance, David Adam, in the introduction to Clouds and Glory: Prayers for the Church Year, Year A (2001), writes: “It was a Jew, but I know it could only be a person of prayer, who wrote the following on the wall of a prison cell in Cologne as they awaited persecution or death […]” Michael Mayne, too, in the third sermon in God’s Consoling Love: Sermons and Addresses (2013), writes that the words were “written by a Jewish prisoner on a wall in a prison in Cologne.”

Once the cellar has turned into a prison, there is no need to keep it in Cologne. Tim Baker, in Jesus Is for Liars: A Hypocrite’s Guide to Authenticity (2009), writes of “the Jewish prisoner who wrote these words on the wall of his Auschwitz prison camp” (p. 146). Likewise, Monsignor William McCarthy, in The Conspiracy: An Innocent Priest (2010), writes that the words were “[on] one of the walls of the concentration camp of Auschwitz, Poland” (p. 267).

At some point, some tellers of the story must have thought it would be more effective to replace the anonymous writer of the quotation with someone that everyone has heard of. Lenya Heitzig and Penny Pierce Rose, the authors of Pathway to Living Faith (2002), go so far as to attribute the quotation to Anne Frank (p. 263).

Still others move the time period forward nearly half a century. Peter Sidebotham, in Growing Up to Be a Child (2014), notes that the words were “allegedly found somewhere in Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall” (p. 65). The source Mr. Sidebotham cites for this is www.searchquotes.com.

Rev. Gerald Kennedy, formerly the United Methodist bishop of Los Angeles, is responsible for spreading a particularly irresponsible version of the story. On page 56 of the December 1970 issue of Pulpit Digest, he writes2:

A young Jewish girl in the Warsaw ghetto managed to escape over the wall and hide in a cave. She died there shortly before the Allied Army broke out the ghetto. Before she died, she had scratched on the wall three things. First: “I believe in the sun, even when it is not shining.” The second thing she wrote was: “I believe in love, even when feeling it not.” The third thing she wrote was: “I believe in God, even when he is silent.”

I hate to break it to Rev. Kennedy, because it makes his story slightly less poignant, but the Allied Army never liberated the Warsaw ghetto. Hundreds of thousands of Jews from the ghetto had already been shipped to the Treblinka death camp by the time the ghetto was completely destroyed by the Nazis in April and May of 1943. The final destruction was delayed by heroic resistance, but in the end more than 56 thousand Jews who were present at the final battle were either killed on the spot or sent to concentration camps.

The seed cast by Rev. Kennedy fell on fertile ground. Lightly modified, the Pulpit Digest version of the story appears on page 74 of Stephen W. Plunkett’s This We Believe: Eight Truths Presbyterians Affirm (2002); on page 279 of Holman Old Testament Commentary Volume 10 – Job (2004), written by Steven Lawson and edited by Max Anders; in chapter 33 of Maxie Dunnam’s3 The Grace-Filled Life: 52 Devotions to Warm Your Heart and Guide Your Path (2010); and in chapter 10 of Dr. David Jeremiah’s The Coming Economic Armageddon: What Bible Prophecy Warns about the New Global Economy (2010).

And at the beginning of Chapter 4 of E. Carver McGriff’s book Hope for Tomorrow: What Jesus Would Say Today (1999), we find the logical endpoint of this game of telephone:

I believe in the sun, even when it is not shining.
I believe in love, even when feeling it not.
I believe in God, even when he is silent.

— Words scratched on the wall of a cave, next to the body of a Jewish girl who had escaped the Warsaw ghetto.


In this relentless progression, we see an ugly aspect of the urge in Christians to retell this story. The words of faith start out as something written by a Jew who survives the war by hiding in a cellar. But apparently the story becomes stronger and the words more significant if we can say that the Jew who wrote the words died in the war — so the story is retold, and now we find the words in a prison cell, or in Auschwitz. But it’s not good enough to have the reader imagine who this Jew might be — after all, we might imagine someone who complicates the story — so next we find out that the author was a girl — an innocent young girl. (One version even specifies that she is 12.) But the story would tug at our hearts even more if the girl had died but had only just missed being rescued — “If only she could have held out a bit longer!” — so we ignore the historical fact of the hundreds of thousands from the Warsaw ghetto who actually died, in order to dramatize the death of our imaginary 12-year-old girl. And finally, finally, we reach the conclusion: the story won’t be good enough, the point won’t be made well enough, the statement of faith won’t move us enough — unless, right there next to the inspirational words on the wall, we see the body of a dead Jewish girl.

I don’t think that these changes happened purposefully, intentionally. The problem is more subtle than that. The problem is that many of the people spreading the story did not care about the actual facts. I’m sure if you were to ask them whether they cared about the truth, they would say that they did; but their actions show that they did not care about it enough to go through the trouble of giving a reference or finding a source.4 And sometimes, when they did not bother to check what they half-remembered about a story they had once heard, they changed a detail, or added a bit of color, in a way that made the account better match their unconscious prejudices. And so we end up with E. Carver McGriff’s vision of Jews as innocent; passive; able to flee and hide but not strong enough to fight; long-suffering; and dead.


“I believe in the sun, even when it is not shining.” When we tell the story of these words, when we think of the person who wrote them, do we think of an actual person? Do we think of a living, breathing human? A person with strengths and with flaws, someone who has done wrong to others and who has been wronged themself? Someone who has fallen in love, someone whose heart has been broken, someone who has broken the hearts of others? Someone who has sometimes stayed up too late drinking with friends, but who has also done mitzvahs for friends and strangers? Someone with thoughts, and hopes, and dreams? Someone whose life has been ripped apart, whose friends have been killed, whose property has been stolen, and who has been living in a cellar for months? Someone who may have fought on the way to the cellar? Someone who may have supported the resistance? Someone who might care about the words they were inspired to write, and who might care how we use them?

Maybe that’s too hard. Maybe it would be easier to erase that actual human, and replace them with an idealized, pure, 12-year-old girl, whose life was cut tragically short, whose faith in God was uncomplicated, and who certainly won’t complain if we use her words for our own purposes.


So what do we do, if we want to get closer to the truth of the story behind the “I believe in the sun” quotation? There are so many variations on the story — how can we tell which one to believe? Or indeed, how can we tell whether any of them is true?

The first step is to trace back, as best we can, the origin of the story. In the next post in this series, we will go back to London in 1945, and we will hear, surprisingly, the words of a German prisoner of war, as translated by a Quaker woman who was later honored as a British Hero of the Holocaust.


The posts in this series:
1. Look away
2. The Friend
3. The secrets of tigers
4. Conclusion


Image credit: Annular eclipse “ring of fire” by Kevin Baird. Original here. Reproduced under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported.


  1. I found the example in Schuller’s book, and most of the examples cited in the next few paragraphs, by searching Google books; I do not have full copies of the books I cite. Where possible I have given page numbers, but for some sources I was only able to identify the chapter in which the quotation appears. 
  2. The Pulpit Digest is not available online. Beth Kumar, a reference librarian at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, went to the stacks and photographed Rev. Kennedy’s article for me while I was far away in San Diego. Thank you, Beth! 
  3. Maxie Dunnam was the only one of these authors to give any sort of reference for the story; she cites the Pulpit Digest (although she gives the wrong page number). It was through her citation that I found Gerald Kennedy’s article. 
  4. As I noted earlier, the one exception in the examples I gave above is Maxie Dunnam, whose citation of the Pulpit Digest I greatly appreciate. Peter Sidebotham’s citation of searchquotes.com does not count; it’s about as trustworthy as citing a Facebook meme. 

Swaying the Future

(A sermon delivered at Throop Unitarian Universalist Church in Pasadena, California on 25 September 2016. Copyright 2016 by Everett Howe.)


[Earlier in the service we had sung both Once to Every Soul and Nation and Building Bridges.]

Once to every soul and nation
   Comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth with falsehood,
   For the good or evil side…

We sang those words together just a few minutes ago. I don’t know how familiar most of you are with that hymn, but for some of you that may have been the first time you sang it, or the first time you’ve heard it.

The first time I sang that hymn was probably about 10 years ago. At that point I had not been a Unitarian Universalist for very long, but I remember thinking “That hymn is not like most of our hymns.” Our hymnal is full of songs about peace,1 and about reaching out — like Building Bridges, the meditation hymn we just sang. We’ve got hymns about recognizing how other nations are just as beautiful as ours, and have citizens just as patriotic as us.2 We’ve got hymns saying how we are stronger together.3 We’ve got songs of struggle and abiding hope, like We Shall Overcome, which speaks of the peace and freedom we shall one day have, after injustice has been defeated. And even our protest songs highlight our gentleness: Hymn #170 is We Are a Gentle, Angry People.

Once to Every Soul and Nation is not like that. Once to Every Soul and Nation says,

There is good, and there is evil. You have to decide, now, which side you are on. And by the way [says the hymn], most people have chosen evil; the people in power have chosen evil; and choosing good may lead to your death.

Those are stong words, and strong thoughts. Where did they come from? How does the hymn fit into Unitarian Universalist history? And how can this good-versus-evil worldview coexist with a Unitarian Universalist commitment to peace and understanding?


The easiest of those questions is “Where did these words come from?” It turns out that they came originally from an anti-slavery poem.

The 1840s were a contentious time in the United States. For years there had been political arguments about whether and how to annex the Republic of Texas. In 1845, on March 1, Congress passed a joint resolution saying that if Texas acted to meet certain conditions, it could be admitted into the Union as a state. The Republic of Texas took those actions, and on December 29, 1845, President James K. Polk signed legislation that formally admitted Texas into the United States. The resulting border dispute with Mexico was one of the causes of the U.S.–Mexico war of 1846–1848.

In the United States, the central conflict about whether to admit Texas to the Union was all about slavery. Texas would be admitted as a state in which slavery was legal, so its admission to the union gave more power to the pro-slavery faction in Congress.

In December 1845, in the midst of all of this controversy and just prior to the formal admission of Texas to the Union, James Russell Lowell wrote a poem that appeared in the Boston Courier.4 Lowell was a young man, the son of a Unitarian minister, and he had become active in abolitionist circles. His poem was titled “Verses Suggested by the Present Crisis,” but afterwards it became known simply as “The Present Crisis.”

The poem is somewhat long: 18 verses of 5 lines each. It begins by saying that when a deed is done for freedom, its effects are felt throughout the world, by everyone; and that likewise, when evil triumphs, that also is felt around the world, because all of humanity is connected in spirit. Then Lowell writes the words that open our hymn: “Once to every man and nation, comes the moment to decide.” Lowell says that there comes a time to choose between good and evil, and he asks his countrymen whether they have decided. He writes that when you look back over history, it is easy to see what the momentous issues and choices were, and that it is much harder to distinguish important moments as they are happening. But if you listen to your soul, he says, you will find that the question of slavery is one of those momentous issues, and that conscience calls us to abolish it. In the final few stanzas, he writes that instead of spending our time glorifying the freedom-fighters of the past, we should instead carry their spirit forward, and fight for freedom ourselves.


Lowell wrote his poem using mid-nineteenth century poetic language — of course! — and it takes a little effort for a modern reader to untangle the grammar and the allusions. But the ideas he expresses are completely relevant for today.

For example, consider the idea that it’s much easier to tell after the fact what was important, and who was right. And consider, to be specific, the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. Over the years, the Gallup organization has done several surveys in which they ask Americans for their opinion of Dr. King. I think you will not be surprised to find that in August 2011, 94% of Americans had a favorable view of Dr. King. In fact, 69% of Americans had a highly favorable view of him, versus only 1% with a highly unfavorable view.

So looking back, nearly a half-century after his death, we see Martin Luther King, Jr. as a prophet; a prophet who asked America to live up to its ideals; a prophet who stood for good when it was hard to do so.

But what about back then? In August 1966, Gallop asked the same question. And you might expect me now to tell you that Dr. King was a divisive figure in 1966. But you know, he wasn’t divisive. Because Americans mostly agreed; with a nearly two-to-one ratio, Americans had an unfavorable view of him. And nearly half the country — 44% — had a highly unfavorable view of him.

It’s much easier to tell in hindsight who had the moral high ground.5


Lowell’s poem was reprinted in other progressive newpapers in the weeks after its first appearance,6 but over the next few decades the complete poem was reprinted only now and then. However, one particular stanza got quoted a lot: the one that begins “Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide…”. And in 1880, three Unitarian ministers took three stanzas of Lowell’s poem — including that one — edited them down to four lines each instead of five, and published them in a hymnal7 mostly used in the Western Unitarian Conference.

Here are the three verses of the original version of their hymn:

Once to every man and nation
   Comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of Truth with Falsehood,
   For the good or evil side;
Some great cause, God’s new Messiah,
   Offers each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever
   ’Twixt that darkness and that light.

Then to side with Truth is noble
   When we share her wretched crust,
Ere her cause bring fame and profit
   And ’tis prosperous to be just;
Then it is the brave man chooses,
   While the coward stands aside
Till the multitude make virtue
   Of the faith they had denied.

Though the cause of Evil prosper,
   Yet ’tis Truth alone is strong;
Though her portion be the scaffold,
   And upon the throne be Wrong,—
Yet that scaffold sways the future,
   And, behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the Shadow,
   Keeping watch above his own!

“Yet that scaffold sways the future.” That is an incredibly powerful line. “Stand up for what is right,” says the hymn. “You may have to die for your beliefs, but your death will influence the future — a God of Justice will see to that!”8


So. That’s one way of looking at the world.

But our meditation hymn gives another way. What does it say?

Building bridges between our divisions,
I reach out to you, will you reach out to me?
With all of our voices and all of our visions,
Friends, we could make such sweet harmony.

This song came from the early years of the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp, an anti-war protest in England that lasted from 1982 until 2000, originally motivated by the arrival of cruise missiles at an air force base there. The words suggest a different way of effecting change — of working with people you disagree with.


What are the strengths and weaknesses of these two approaches to changing the world — the good-versus-evil, no-compromise approach, and the building bridges approach?

The good-versus-evil approach of Once to Every Soul and Nation provides a very clear sense of purpose: You know what you stand for, and you know that you will not compromise. This clarity can get people to take action, to get off their couches and into the streets.

But it has weaknesses too. For one thing, movements based on this good-and-evil worldview can degenerate into exercises in purity. People can be excluded from leadership if they show any sympathy for positions held by the other side. The good-and-evil worldview tends not to admit doubt, and it can lead to a form of self-delusion: Because we are extreme and unpopular, we must be right. In the end, both sides of the argument can end up holding the most extreme versions of their positions, and moderates are forced out.

And if your side accepts no compromises, and the other side accepts no compromises, and you both have moved towards exteme positions… Then what?9 You’ll either have a stalemate, or you will have to fight. And it’s easy to think that, OK, we’ll fight, and maybe our side will win, but then the question will be decided and then everything will be set right. But it’s easy to underestimate the cost of the fight, and to overestimate the extent of the eventual victory. Here’s an enlightening example of someone who changed her mind about the good-versus-evil approach.

In 1861, Julia Ward Howe wrote a hymn in support of the Union forces in the civil war. I bet most of you are familiar with it. It begins,

Mine eyes have seen the glory
   Of the coming of the Lord;
He is trampling out the vintage
   Where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning
   Of His terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on.

You may not be as familiar with the other verses. In fact, the final verse contains an image that is so powerful and so disturbing that most modern versions of the song either skip this verse or change the words.10 It goes:

In the beauty of the lilies
   Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in His bosom
   That transfigures you and me.
As He died to make men holy,
   Let us die to make men free,
While God is marching on.

“As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free.” In 1861 that was not just a figure of speech! It makes me think: Going to church in the nineteenth century must have been intense.

But just nine years later, Julia Ward Howe wrote something completely opposed to her hymn. In her Mother’s Day Proclamation of September 1870, she wrote:

Arise, all women who have hearts[…]! Say firmly: […] Our husbands shall not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause. Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience. […] From the bosom of the devastated earth a voice goes up with our own. It says: Disarm, disarm!

What happened in the nine years between “As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free” and “Disarm!”? What made her change her mind? Well, for one thing over a million people were killed in the civil war, more Americans than have been killed in all our other wars combined. That’s not to say that slavery wasn’t worth fighting over; it’s just to say that wars often end up being worse than we imagine — a lesson we apparently have still not learned.


So those are some strengths and weaknesses of the good-versus-evil approach. What about the Building Bridges approach? What about an approach that works within an existing system, and uses compromise?

One of the strengths is that progress can come slowly but regularly. The possibility of reconciliation between the two sides is left open. People on both sides of a question can learn to trust one another through small actions; they can find common ground, and then work outward to solve larger problems.

But there are weaknesses too. For one thing, compromise only works if both sides are willing to do it. And a commitment to working within the system can lead to complacency; it’s the apocryphal “frog in a pot of warm water” problem. Just as the frog does not notice the temperature rising, you may become so entrenched in the system that you can’t see how broken it has become.


I think we’ve answered the second question I asked at the beginning — how this hymn fits into Unitarian Universalist history. What about the third question? How does the good-versus-evil worldview of Once to Every Soul and Nation fit in with Unitarian Universalist values?

Clearly, based on our hymns, we are uncomfortable with the fit. And I have no good answer to give you, other than these thoughts:

▸ The prophetic good-versus-evil approach works best in combination with working within the system, and finding compromises. Civil rights legislation was passed because of the public pressure of the civil rights marches and protests. But while the marchers were marching, people were preparing the legislation that was needed to push the nation forward.

▸ I think that our Unitarian Universalist values demand that when we take a prophetic good-versus-evil approach, we need to at least be aware of the risks and downsides of that approach.


Here is my request of you: Throughout the week, reflect — In what situations do you try to work within the system to fix things bit by bit, and in what situations do you say the system is broken and work to replace it? Do you tend to do one more than the other? What does that say about you?

A few months ago I asked a version of this question of my congressional representative. “How do you decide when to work across the aisle and compromise, and when to hold fast to a principle?” What would your member of congress say? What would you want them to say?


There is still so much systemic oppression in the world, in our own society.11 At some point, I hope that you will think of Lowell’s words:
Once to every soul and nation comes the moment to decide, in the strife of truth with falsehood, for the good or evil side. And I hope that you will let that question stir you to action — thoughtfully, responsibly, powerfully — as a Unitarian Universalist.


Image credit: Our Banner in the Sky, by Frederic Edwin Church. More information here.


  1. Like #160, Far Too Long by Fear Divided
  2. Like #159, This Is My Song
  3. Like #157, Step by Step the Longest March
  4. I have not been able to access a copy of the newspaper to verify this. However, the reprint of the poem in the memoirs of the Boston Courier‘s editor indicates it was published there on Thursday, December 11, 1845, and this is consistent with other sources (see below). 
  5. I admit, this may be a tautology. Who we are, and what we view as right, depends to some extent on who won moral victories in the past. 
  6. For instance, on Friday, December 19, 1845, one week after it was printed in the Boston Courier, it appeared on the back page of the abolitionist newspaper The Liberator. A few weeks later, on Saturday, January 10, 1846, it appeared in The Harbinger, the publication of the Transcendentalist utopian community Brook Farm, which at that point was a Fourierist “phalanx”. 
  7. Unity Hymns and Chorals for the Congregation and the Home, edited by William Channing Gannett, James Vila Blake, and Frederick Lucian Hosmer. See hymn #68, “The Choice”. 
  8. If the hymn is not strong enough for you as the Unitarians wrote it, you might consider the verse (also taken from Lowell’s poem) that the Anglicans added to the hymn around the turn of the century: By the light of burning martyrs Jesus’ bleeding feet I track, Toiling up new Calvaries ever with the cross that turns not back; New occasions teach new duties, Time makes ancient good uncouth; They must upward still and onward, who would keep abreast of truth. 
  9. Here is a beautiful, but meaningless, historical accident that illustrates the idea that our opponents can take good-versus-evil no-compromise positions just as we can. We sing Once to Every Soul and Nation to a wonderful Welsh tune called ‘Ebenezer’ (or ‘Ton Y Botel’), but that tune was first associated to the hymn in 1916, as far as I can tell. Before 1916, the words were sung to other tunes. In 1913, in an updated version of the hymnal in which Once to Every Soul and Nation first appeared, two other tunes were suggested for the hymn. One of them is the melody for Deutschland, Deutschland, über alles. So the anti-slavery words were sung to a tune that many Americans associate with Nazi aggression. 
  10. Here are the original words, from the February 1862 Atlantic Monthly
  11. One form that is on the minds of many people: In the week preceding the delivery of this sermon, Keith Scott was killed in Charlotte and Terence Crutcher in Tulsa. In the week after, Alfred Olango was killed in El Cajon, California, minutes from my home, and Reginald Thomas, Jr. in Pasadena, minutes from our church. 

We Do Not Say Good-bye

At this time of year, Unitarian Universalist churches often have worship services that reference All Saints’ Day, All Souls’ Day, and/or Día de los Muertos, and that acknowledge and celebrate the influence that the dead can have on the lives of the living. These services might include, for example, the naming of people who have passed away in the preceding year, and the placing of pictures and mementos on an ofrenda or other altar. In this post, I would like to publicize a sonnet by a little-known American poet that can fit in wonderfully with such services. Four years ago I set the poem to music (which anyone can download and print for free), but even if you don’t like the music, the poem itself could be beautiful in a worship service.

Also, I will say something about the history of the sonnet and its author, and how it happens that I found the poem in a book on a shelf in our living room.


The poem is “We Do Not Say Good-bye”: 1

We do not say good-bye. Somehow the soul
Keeps all that has been loved with it always.
The bodies break, friends go, the seasons roll;
But of each cherished thing the spirit stays.
They are like summer shining on the air —
These forms, this breathing earth, these radiant friends.
From their remembered splendor I shall wear
Some light about me till my moment ends.

I cannot carve your lovely shape in stone,
Staying awhile its excellence from decay,
Nor fix your beauty into paint. Alone
A look upon my face will sometimes say
How beautiful are the things which I have known
That came from earth, that turn again to clay.

— Lawrence Lee, from Tomorrow Good-bye (Gaylordsville: The Slide Mountain Press, 1933)

Here is a recording of my SATB a cappella arrangement of the poem, and here is the score, which is free to download and print. 2


The Lawrence Lee who wrote this poem was a Southerner, born in Alabama in 1903. There is a brief biography of him on the Kent State Library page that lists the collection of his papers held by the library. His book Tomorrow Good-bye is hard to come by; its WorldCat library entry lists copies in only 23 libraries. The catalog entry also notes that only 200 copies were printed.

So how did two of those 200 copies wind up on a shelf in our living room?


What the Kent State biography doesn’t mention is that Lawrence Lee was friends with my wife Bella’s grandparents; Bella’s grandfather Lambert Davis worked for the Virgina Quarterly Review in the 1930’s, so he and Lee ran in the same literary circles — and in fact Lee was best man at the marriage of Lambert and Bella’s grandmother Isabella. One of the two copies of Tomorrow Good-bye on our shelf is inscribed to Lambert and Isabella, and includes a hand-written poem 3 that mentions that Isabella is “large with your first leaping child” — a child who would grow up to become Bella’s mother.

Thirteen years ago, I pulled one of these copies off our shelf of old, unusual, or inherited books, and leafed through it for the first time. It contains only five poems, all sonnets, and We Do Not Say Good-bye is the fifth. It stood out to me, though — because at that time, thirteen years ago, close friends of ours were facing a great loss, and the poem spoke to that loss.


Lawrence Lee died in 1978. Bella’s grandparents lived longer, but by the time I found Tomorrow Good-bye on our shelf, they had passed away as well. And yet this book, written by a man now dead, and given to friends now dead, had found its way to our living room, and spoke meaningfully to us of loss and memory. All Souls’ Day and Día de los Muertos celebrate exactly this connection we have to those that have come before us, and Lawrence Lee’s own words, shining on the air, remind us of the beauty of those we knew who have turned again to clay.


  1. There are later versions of the poem in which the first line is changed to “Man does not say good-bye.” This is how the poem appears, for instance, in H.L. Mencken’s literary magazine The American Mercury (vol. 30, p. 337, 1933), and in Lee’s collection Monticello and Other Poems (New York: Charles Scriber’s Sons, 1937), which is easier to find than Tomorrow Good-bye. I much prefer the original formulation. 
  2. Lawrence Lee copyrighted Tomorrow Good-bye in 1933, but (according to a copyright search I paid the U.S. Copyright Office to do) he did not renew the copyright after the initial 28 year period, so in 1961 the book came into the public domain. 
  3. “In Residence, Fifteenth Street,” which later appeared in Scribner’s Magazine and in Monticello and Other Poems