STJ#1008, When Our Heart Is in a Holy Place

I want to like this one.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


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

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

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

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

Listen to a recording

22 responses to “STJ#1008, When Our Heart Is in a Holy Place”

  1. I’ve barely given a thought to the theology, but the tune bothers me because of the way it just doesn’t go anywhere.

    And yet it’s catchy. I’ll probably be singing it all day just from reading this post.

    1. I would like to leave a comment but is this blog censored?

      1. I moderate initial comments because of SPAM. And I don’t always get to it every day.

  2. I find your analysis a little over the top–after all, there is no “only” in the text; it says “when”, repeatedly, not “only when” or not even “because”.. I see the text as a description of those occasions in group worship (or other group experience) when some kind of positive and expansive energy flows through us; if it did say “only” I’d agree with you. (I’m with Amy Zucker Morgenstern above about the tune, by the way, and I don’t find the interaction of the tune and text particularly interesting, but then, that’s a feeling I have about so many tunes and texts in this and other hymnals…..maybe I’m just too picky!)

  3. I’m with you on this one, Jim! Well, at least the first part. This hymn has replaced Spirit of Life as my second favorite hymn. (For the Earth Forever Turning will always be my favorite.)

  4. completely off the subject, but I can’t figure out where else to ask–I see that people have pics next to their names–how do I do that so I no longer look like a white blob?

    1. finally figgered it out!

  5. Thank you for acknowledging one of my pet peeves, which is the grammatical weirdness of this song. It drives me around the bend every time I see it. Why??? It would be so simple to fix this without changing the meaning (agreed also that it’s dubious, theologically): “when our hearts are in a holy place….”

  6. I got curious to see everything on Kimberley’s Nope List and learned something: Every one of these eight posts also has at least one comment. I’m not sure what it means, but I think it means something.

    1. Okay, I spoke too soon. Several just have pingbacks and not comments. Please ignore this.

  7. Change WHEN to AND. We’re blessed.

  8. I like this song because of who taught it to me, because it is easy for children and other who are not theologically or verbally sophisticated to “get” and because as a rotten singer, I can sing it. Because the tune is easy I don’t have to think about hitting or missing notes, I can think about the words and let them warm my simple heart.

  9. I disagree with this blog’s author. “We are blessed with love and amazing grace when our heart is in a holy place” yes, yes, also in other million instances that remain unexclusive of each other – why does the author of this blog assume they are? The composer is suggesting conditions that do make our heart to be in a holy place. This does not mean that there are other million conditions. And our hearts are not always and already holy places … some serial killers would disagree with this statement. Also love the poetic “our heart” for the inclusivity it implies of our different selves.

  10. I disagree with the author of this post, mainly because nowhere in the text it is expressed that the conditions are exclusive. “We are blessed with love and amazing grace when our heart is in a holy place” Yes, yes. When our heart (and I love the inclusion of our plural selves here) is in a holy place we are indeed blessed with love and amazing grace. This does not mean, from a grammatical standpoint, that we are blessed with love and amazing grace under a million other conditions. Our heart is not always and already in holy places, to believe this is to turn our backs to the injustices happening in our world from people whose heart is not in holy places. There is no condition to the lyrics, I invite you to read it again with an open mind!

  11. UU’s believe in the worth/goodness/love inherent in all of us – as opposed to some theologies that suggest we are all born in sin. I certainly believe in our goodness, but that’s not to say we’re perfect. We’re all capable of unkindness, self-righteousness, prejudice and a host of other negative attributes. It’s part of being human. But practising an intention to be kind and tolerant is how we keep in touch with that holy place inside each of us. This is a song about opening our hearts to more love and understanding, and in the process, creating sacred space where we can all grow.

    As for my ‘unorthodox grammar’ – I’ll leave that for another time.

    1. Thank you, Joyce, for your words.

    2. This is exactly why I love this song so much. Thank you for it, Joyce. And I interpret the “our heart” as an acknowledgment of our oneness.

  12. I have much to say about this post. I doubt it would all fit here. If I can find a way, maybe I can write to you pri ately about it. I would love to discuss it with you.

  13. Kris Nobis Cervantes Avatar
    Kris Nobis Cervantes

    I agree with this post, and yet I love the song. When our theme was “Grace,” I began my reflection by examining the bad theology of it, just as Kimberly did here. At the end of the reflection, I came back and connected the song to our human ability to be instruments of grace: perhaps when our hearts are in a holy place, we are more easily able to spread OUR love and amazing grace to others. It rehabs the song, in my mind, but it does require explicit explanation.

  14. When Our Heart…. is a favorite of mine and my congregation. I was bowled over the first time I heard it. I interpreted it quite personally. It serves as a reminder to me to practice what the Buddhists call right intention. I think the heart in this song is a metaphor for intention. When my circumstances seem extremely unpleasant, the only thing I can control is my heart, my feelings, my thoughts. And when I can do that I see blessings and opportunities where I only saw obstacles before.

  15. FWIW, I agree with several folks here: there’s no exclusivity stated or (as far as I can see) implied.

    I’d also note that this hymn is very much about community:

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

    And “heart”, singular, then makes perfect sense: the community exists as a shared “heart” for that time and place. As Joyce notes, it’s not permanent. But it can be recreated.

  16. […] Singing Together      #1008 When Our Heart Is In a Holy Place […]

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