spirituality


“I will sing of your steadfast love, O Lord, forever.” (Ps. 89)
So the Psalmist promised.

There is something in the human spirit that wants to sing.

Listen to the voices. On the picket line, they’re chanting their message. At the work bench or in the kitchen, folks are unconsciously humming a familiar tune. The radio and TV sell products by singing about them. As she plays in her room, the little girl sings a nursery rhyme, and as her older brother drives to the store, he’s singing along with the latest hits, careful to keep the windows rolled up.

And, of course, faith is to be sung. The psalms sing of the steadfast love of God. As Jesus and his disciples depart from one another for the last time, they sing a hymn before they go. And we modern disciples can hardly gather for any church activity without singing a hymn of praise or commitment. Many years back, when Joan and I visited with our friends the Williamsons in Montreat, NC, we shared a CD of our Vermont congregation singing its favorite hymns, and in return Lamar and Ruthmary, former missionaries to Zaire, played a recording of African seminary students singing their favorites.

There is something in the human spirit that wants to (or needs to) sing.

Someone at a Montreat music conference pointed out that music is such an integral part of our faith that we can hardly express the faith, tell the story and embrace it, without a song. How can we speak of Easter without singing a rousing resurrection hymn, such as “Jesus Christ Is Risen Today.” What would Christmas be without its carols? From the beginning, the gathered Church has sung its songs to praise the God who planted the song of God’s steadfast love so deep within us.

Do you remember the TV show about that fictional Boston lawyer Ally McBeal? An associate at her firm suggested she see a therapist, and that therapist prescribed a personal theme song. Adopt some song as your own, the counselor said, something to center on when you begin to feel unsettled or anxious or lonely. The assignment was to choose a song she could play back in her mind (or in her heart), listening for that special healing lyric and tune as someone more religious might listen for the voice of the Spirit.

As a radio producer/host, I had several theme songs (back when radio had actual recordprograms!). One of the first songs I used to close my program was called “Soul Coaxing.” Another was Larry Carlton’s “Smiles and Smiles to Go.” For my jazz show, “The Swinging Shepherd Blues.” But that was for radio. What song would I use for my life?

What about yours? It’s not to be your favorite song, necessarily. Or, one that holds special memories. It’s to be a song that reflects something of who you are, your ego, your spirit, your gifts, maybe your deepest needs, or the very best you have to offer to the life of the planet.

I’ll tell you the first song that came to my mind. The Thomas Dorsey spiritual, “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.” We sang it at Montreat one summer, a powerful prayer, 600 voices strong, filling every empty space in my heart. Yes, that’s the one: my theme song.

When my light is almost gone
Hear my cry, hear my call
Hold my hand lest I fall
Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home

And yours? You needn’t respond in the comments section; it doesn’t have to be public.  You’ll have to think about it. Audition a few songs in your heart, and choose just the right one.  And remember, it doesn’t have to be “religious.” It might be a hymn, of course, but it could be from a Broadway show, an operatic aria, something “country and western,” or an instrumental piece without words.

If there is a theme song for the church, what would it be?
If there is a theme song for the ministry of Jesus, what would it be?
If there is a theme song for the teachings of Paul…?

Back to your own theme song. What music will best express (and remind you) who you are as a child of God?

The Psalmist promised, “I will sing of your steadfast love, O Lord, forever.”

James Luther Mays says that the Psalm book is Hebrew poetry at its best. “In Hebrew, the lines were composed so that they could be chanted or sung in a rhythm.” [Mays, Interpretation, Psalms, p.5] Psalms require “an imaginative, open, evocative reading that involves feeling as well as thought.” And it is the feeling part that leads to music in our hearts and in our voices.

One more thing: while you may stick with your personal theme song for quite a while, it’s OK to let it go and move on to another. Life goes on, and so does its music.

 

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One of the highlights of my college choral experience was “A German Requiem” by Johannes Brahms. It was his longest work, and according to an NPR website:

Appealing To The Masses: Brahms’ Requiem With its German text and emphasis on consoling the living, Brahms’ decidedly non-Latin Requiem was unlike anything that had come before it.

For me personally, as a college kid experienced only in the standard repertoire of church choir anthems… yes, this major work was “unlike anything that had come before it.” We were more than 120 voices strong in that college Vesper Choir, and when the choir director and Professor of Music Clarence (Clancy) Martin distributed the intimidating gray book containing the seven movements of what has been called Brahms’ magnum opus, I thought this might be too great a challenge for me. I didn’t read music well, I’d never sung a requiem (our Presbyterian church didn’t expose us to many of those!), and it was long.

With solid soloists, and a chamber orchestra, and the magnificent new Moeller pipe organ in our college auditorium Mr. Martin knew the result of the choir’s hard work would be a stunningly beautiful performance. We in the choir didn’t know that, of course, but page by page, movement by movement, we were realizing the power of this glorious music. One thing we didn’t have to contend with in “A German Requiem” was the German part. We sang the work in English.

I know that in years since I sang the bass part, I’ve heard many admirers of the work call the language choice a cop-out. The text was written in German; it must be sung in its original language they say. But I think there is a legitimate reason for singing the Requiem in English, and not just because it might have been a reach for the average (or even above average) college choir. Brahms chose to use a German text rather than the traditional Latin texts, using the so-called “Luther Bible.” He wanted this work to be in the vernacular, the language of the intended audience (I am told; I didn’t know him at the time).

As I grew up and even through my seminary years, we Presbyterian types understood that if our choirs did sing a Latin text in our worship services, the English translation was always to be included in the worship bulletin so that the words would be clearly understood by the listeners. Singing French or Spanish or German or Latin texts without a printed English translation meant the congregation might be spiritually enriched by the music but wouldn’t have a clue about the meaning of the lyric.

I read that Brahms had even considered calling this work a “Human Requiem,” with the implied desire that its message of hope over despair be universally understood by the masses. Thus, if any audience best understands the text in its native tongue, we may sing it in that language, not Latin or German,  and Brahms might indeed smile on that effort, assuming that he smiled at all.

One of the movements I have most enjoyed singing through subsequent years is “How Lovely Is Thy Dwelling Place,” based on Psalm 84. (There are several versions on YouTube.) In addition, Joan and I have sung the entire work whenever the opportunity has arisen. I’ve joined choirs just to sing that masterpiece, and then deserted those choirs to await the next invitation. (No one complained about my fickleness; I’m expendable as a singer.) Admittedly I’m more prone to sing the English version, but having taken some German in college, I could stretch my comfort zone just to sing Brahms in his native tongue!

I regret that many solid church choirs have moved away from the discipline of learning and performing such masterworks. Yes, the music has its challenges. Yes, great commitment is required. But the reward for singer and listener is rich and lasting. In this Lenten season, how inspiring it would be to hear the text from 1 Corinthians that affirms the Easter message:

In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye…  the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.
. . . then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory.
O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?

But Brahms or not, we are getting ahead of ourselves, are we not? It is still Lent.

 

{Lenten “notes” refer to notes of music, with music being my theme for an almost daily discipline of writing during this forty day season. We continue…}

A couple of Sundays ago, our pastor Rev. Pat Raube mentioned an experience she had with conferees at the Presbyterian Mecca: Montreat (NC) Conference Center. The gathering was in one of the larger meeting spaces there, appropriately called “The Barn.” The story of the Prodigal was being shared via the reading of scripture. When the verses reached the point of the Prodigal being welcomed home by his father, something startling happened. Here’s Luke’s description and the surprise:

 ‘Quick! Bring the finest robe in the house and put it on him. Get a ring for his finger and sandals for his feet.  And kill the calf we have been fattening. We must celebrate with a feast,  for this son of mine was dead and has now returned to life. He was lost, but now he is found.’ So the party began.

Pat said that as soon as the words “So the party began” were spoken, almost half the people gathered there suddenly stood up, a blue grass band started playing, and the room was filled with dancing, and not only dancing, but clogging. After all, Montreat is in the Smokey Mountains of Western North Carolina, and clogging is a thing there! So, bluegrass music, the rhythmic and loud clunking of clogging shoes on the wooden floor, and the whoop-de-dos of celebration made sure everyone knew a party was in full swing. The scripture’s classic story of grace, forgiveness, and restoration came alive. The Word made fresh through music, lyric, and action.

Since I’d been in the presence of Montreat’s square dance Caller-in-Chief Glen Bannerman, and had experienced first-hand the creativity of the school* where Glen taught recreational ministry and I taught media courses, that account of the Party for the Prodigal brought a broad smile of recognition.

And a reminder of another time when music, Word, and action combined to enrich the biblical story. Richard Avery and Donald Marsh were the ministry team at the Presbyterian Church in Port Jervis, NY for many years. Avery was the pastor and Marsh the church musician. Together they wrote music for worship in a contemporary vein, decades before so-called praise music or “contemporary Christian music” became popular. Many churches still sing their songs, such as “We Are the Church,” “Every Morning Is Easter Morning,” and “Love Them Now (Don’t Wait ’til They’ve Gone Away).” One collection of their songs was called “Hymns Hot and Carols Cool.” They even had a calypso version of the Doxology.

Our school invited them to lead a continuing education event, and during one service of worship at a local church, Avery and Marsh used not a hymn of their own, but the somber Holy Week hymn based on Hassler’s “Passion Chorale,” “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded.”

Sadly, some of those powerful hymns of old are so familiar to worshippers that we sing them almost matter-of-factly, as if they are just another piece of business we need to accomplish before moving on to the next bit of ritual. But this hymn is so profound in lyric and music we do ourselves a disservice if we treat it as routine.

O sacred head, now wounded, With grief and shame weighed down;

Now scornfully surrounded With thorns thine only crown…

The words of the hymn are attributed to Bernard of Clairvaux, and if not actually written by him, the text surely reflects his theological thought. The harmonization of Hans Leo Hassler’s tune is by Bach, a far cry from the lighter musical fare of the Port Jervis team. But what we witnessed that day in the chapel of a Richmond church was so profound the image has remained with me decades later.

The first thing was to sing the hymn slowly. With depth of feeling and sensitivity to the text. Ponderous? Why not, if one is actually pondering the meaning of the words as they are sung. The four part harmony helps.

What Thou, my Lord, hast suffered Was all for sinners’ gain:

Mine, mine was the transgression , But Thine the deadly pain.

Avery and Marsh had recruited four or five volunteers to enter the chapel as we sang. One pantomimed carrying a heavy cross, while the others pretended to bear whips, violently lashing at the stumbling, suffering cross-bearer. Marsh was into drama as well as music in his life in theater and television prior to his church work. So the pantomime was no quick trick; the volunteers took their roles seriously and were no doubt deeply  affected by the hymn as it was sung. The physical movements of the actors brought tears to us singers, so powerful was the union of music, text, and actions. Lashes, nails, cross planted, Jesus crucified.

When the last verse was completed, the tableaux remained in place, the worshippers remained silent.

O make me Thine forever; and should I fainting be,

Lord, let me never, never, Outlive my love to Thee.

(I’m trying to remember if Marsh had added an actual hammer and wood to this scene. The wordless, prop-less actions might have had the addition of that one disturbing sound of a hammer slamming into a board just before the actors lifted their Jesus from the ground to stand with arms out-stretched before the singing congregation. One would think I’d remember that more clearly.)

Through the ages the Church has communicated its stories through drama. Mystery plays, morality and miracle plays, passion plays — in village squares and church sanctuaries the drama of faith has been enacted and re-enacted, with lessons embodied, and new meaning made clear.

Sometimes, it is enough to sing. Sometimes, enough to read. But sometimes adding some movement, some theater to our stories and hymns would remind us that the Word is most alive when it is put into action.

  • The Presbyterian School of Christian Education was a graduate center for educational ministry in Richmond, Virginia. It was absorbed into Union Presbyterian Seminary a few years ago.

 

I grew up with Lent, but not with its songs.

As a kid, I recall those Wednesday night Lenten services leading up to Holy Week and Easter. But, oddly, I don’t remember what hymns we would have sung mid-week. As I look at The Presbyterian Hymnal, the section designated “Lent” has a few hymns I know from my more recent past, but titles and tunes aren’t the best known songs in the book. “Kind Maker of the World,” “My Song Is Love Unknown,” and “O Love, How Deep, How Broad, How High” (attributed to Thomas à Kempis) aren’t in the league of “Amazing Grace” or “A Mighty Fortress” when it comes to familiarity.

But one hymn, unknown to me as a child, has become a favorite over the years, with words and music and “singability” (spellcheck doesn’t like the word, but I know I didn’t make it up) putting it in my top three Lenten hymns. “What Wondrous Love Is This” is sung to a tune from Walker’s Southern Harmony (1835). The tune itself is called “Wondrous Love.” According to Wikipedia (not exactly my usual go-to source for hymnody), this is

a Christian folk hymn, sometimes described as a “white spiritual”, from the American South. Its text was first published in 1811, during the Second Great Awakening, and its melody derived from a popular English ballad.

A tie to an English ballad about Captain Kidd sounds intriguing, but that reference has been debunked by most hymnologists. The words probably come from an 1811 camp meeting song book, and have a wonderful ambiguity in the repeated phrase, “What wondrous love is this…” See, it’s a punctuation thing. Do we place a question mark at the end of the phrase? Or, an exclamation point. As in ‘wow!’ Or, what a cute baby it is!

What wondrous love IS this? Or, what wondrous love is THIS! I’m leaning toward the “wonder” feeling, though the question mark doesn’t necessarily lend itself to simple inquiry so much as admiring the mystery of such love that moved “the Lord of bliss” to “bear the cross.”

And there is another note regarding the lyric. The panel that included this hymn in the Presbyterian hymnal chose to replace the traditional first verse phrase that referred to bearing “the dreadful curse” with bearing “the heavy cross.” The curse no doubt referred to the concept of original sin or human depravity. The cross reference (so to speak) leads more directly to the road that Lent takes toward Good Friday.

The first verse actually sings not to God (as most hymns and psalms do), but to our own souls. “What wondrous love is this, O my soul…” The second verse begins, “To God and to the Lamb I will sing…” Not right now, it seems, but ultimately. And the choir will include millions. And then in verse three, the ultimate happens, for it begins, “And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing on…” and it promises to be a joyful song throughout eternity.

I can hear the tune beginning so reverently, with quiet awe, but as the lyric builds, the sound of the hymn gains volume as the determined and committed singer insists on raising her/his voice in defiance of everything that would keep the song from being sung at all. I hear echoes of that verse from Luke 19:40. When the Pharisees urged Jesus to quiet his boisterous fans, “Jesus replied, ‘If they kept quiet, the stones along the road would burst into cheers!’” Or, as it was sung in “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “…the rocks and stones would start to sing.” The scrappy, obstinate, even rebellious response to all that would hinder our hymn is, “I’ll sing on!” What the heck…give it two exclamation marks: I’ll sing on!!

Because that love is not just flowery or fuzzy; it is remarkably, faithfully wondrous. And my soul knows it.

So there.

[Tomorrow…music and memory.]

 

{So…we’ve been away, and these daily meditations/essays/whatevers have been absent during the past several days of Lent 2019. My intention was to write some notes about music during the weeks leading up to Easter, but that previously-scheduled Panama Canal cruise meant giving up Lent for part of Lent. We resume…}

My wife Joan and I like cruises. As vacations go, they are fairly affordable, and we are at a stage in life when it’s nice to have a linen napkin placed on one’s lap at the dinner table. If that sounds uppity, well, it’s Lent and we’ll repent. Now that we are home.

The ship was full of music. There was the obligatory steel drum player; it was a cruise through the Caribbean, after all. Two violinists played tunes from Strauss to showtunes to soft rock in the atrium, accompanied by an offensive pre-recorded rhythm track. A gleaming white piano provided background music too, maybe using the same pre-recorded tracks as the violins? The lounge/bars had live ensembles for dancing and pop songs. And the ship had a talented group of eight or nine musicians playing for three live evening  shows in the big theater. (Two other live shows were performed with pre-recorded music tracks, presumably larger orchestras for more sophisticated productions, the same show staged on all the ships in the Princess fleet.)

And there was the ‘party band,” playing on the stage near the big pool on an upper deck. That music was frenetic, designed to keep the celebration going, to get everybody into a dancing mood: “You’re on vacaaayyytion!! Let’s paaarrrty!” The party began as the ship moved away from its home port, and continued through the cruise, with the amped-up bass heard anywhere the sea winds blew. That included our cabin’s balcony where I was trying to read. SONY DSC

And therein lies the problem. Don’t get me wrong. I LOVE music. Almost all music. But honestly: there can be too much of every good thing. Having left Upstate New York’s seemingly eternal winter, I took full advantage of that balcony, to feel the warm Caribbean breezes, hear the ocean’s complaint as the ship coursed through its waves, and to read (for the first time!) John Steinbeck’s delightful 1960s book “Travels with Charley.” But there was that persistent boomity-boom-boom-boomity (no, I have no sense of rhythm even as I type) invading my sea space peace. I knew enough to not shout it, but I was thinking it: Stop the music!

Sometimes, as much as we appreciate music in its myriad forms and forums, now and then, can we not just enjoy the natural music of near silence? (Good luck finding perfect silence. I’ve been to monasteries, and they ain’t that quiet either. So, “near silence” suffices.) Those celestial sounds from overhead aren’t from heaven; they’re coming from speakers in nearly every public ceiling. Restaurants, stores, medical offices, and, of course, elevators all serenade us with music we didn’t ask for, may not care for, and may even find obnoxious. It’s there to set a mood, as in faster tempos to hurry us out of the fast food venue, and quieter voices to accompany our dinner in that place with the cloth napkins.

And sometimes the volume is so high that conversation is impossible. More than one correspondent has written to “Ask Amy” how to handle that dilemma. Do we have a right to a quiet dinner in a public place? Or, should we be more tolerant so that others can boogie down their filet mignon or Big Whoppers accompanied by the Doobies or somebody known as Post Malone? I understand Amy hangs out at the nearby Queen Diner. Maybe I’ll ask her myself…if she can hear me over the P.A. system. (To be less curmudgeonly, I’m not sure the Queen diner even plays music from their regal ceiling.)

If the music were to stop now and then, we might hear the earth sounds that inspired it. The rhythm of the rain, or of the waves on the shore. Our heartbeat. The whistle of the wind. A bird’s chirp-song, or a hummingbird’s wings, or a woodpecker’s racket. Maybe we could better appreciate the human mind at work in poetry read silently. Or, in my case last week, Steinbeck’s sometimes lyrical phrasing about his and Charley’s adventures finding America. There is music in the air of our breathing, our footsteps, and our imaginations. Even a composer has a hard time hearing that heart-fed tune that originates between her or his ears if there’s not a quiet moment without the assault of the party band echoing from the upper deck poolside.

So…just thought I’d throw this in here before I again write a few words in the Lenten days ahead. Tomorrow, maybe I’ll write about some “Southern Harmony” and wondrous love. Now, it won’t come as any surprise  that I won’t have any music playing from the old stereo as I write. As much as I love music, I can’t write with even the loveliest melodies in the background.

So, now that I’ve written this and you’ve perhaps digested it, let’s feel free to put on some music and paaarrrty! Oh, wait. It’s Lent. Never mind.

 

[Yesterday was heavy; today some lighter lifting. I’m writing about music each day in Lent, except for the days when I don’t.]NAV_2694.jpg

No, those are not the Beatles. They are only pretending to be Beatles, even including a left-handed Paul McCartney look-and-sound alike. We saw this “tribute band” on a cruise ship last year, and they were really good at what they do, that is, pretending to be the mop-headed musicians from Liverpool.

Last night, our local symphony orchestra filled every seat in the concert hall playing back-up to still another Beatles tribute band. They too had a boyish-looking Paul (though right-handed), and fairly good John Lennon look/sound alike. “Ringo” was a decent drummer with a weak chin, but shaggy, mustachioed “George Harrison” looked more like Tony Orlando. All four of them took on British accents in both singing and speaking. More pretending. But, they had the music down, and the crowd adored them.

I assume many members of the philharmonic were pretending too. This may have been the “pops” contingent of the orchestra, used to playing with a “pop/rock” edge to their music, but they were also called upon to provide some Beatles background sound effects, providing applause, some cheering of Sgt. Pepper, and even twisting and shouting at the finale. The musicians were hardly visible behind the plexiglass drummer’s cage and amps, but I couldn’t imagine this was all that much fun for the seasoned cellist who  will be playing Wagner’s Ring Cycle in a week or so.  [Maybe it was fun; I know well that serious musicians do have fun, and I did see lots of smiling faces in the philharmonic, maybe even among those who grew up with the Beatles through their various incarnations.]

Hmmm. I just said, “…I couldn’t imagine…” Ordinarily, my imagination is alive and well. I was just thinking that for many up on that stage, behind the pretend Beatles, this whole concert might have been just another paycheck.

Of course, we in the audience were pretending too. We who have had more modest paychecks in our lives couldn’t afford to see the Beatles in concert back then, or the surviving ones today. Tickets for major rock concerts were a luxury beyond our reach. (Elsewhere I’ve written of my radio career where I had the opportunity to interview rock musicians whose tours brought them to our less-than-major city venues. I couldn’t afford the admission prices, so I had to meet the “stars” at their hotels or in the radio studio.) But with these tribute bands playing at casinos, local clubs, and larger theaters, we get to pretend we are at an Eagles concert, or seeing Jimmy Buffet, or enjoying one of the 293 Elvis impersonators on the road.

Last night, the audience cheered each Beatles song, offered standing ovations, and probably even shed a tear or two when “Lennon” sang “Imagine.” Lost in nostalgia, or connecting with the times of our lives in the ’60s through the ’80s — we knew those four guys in our hall weren’t the real thing, but it didn’t seem to matter. We could pretend, or “Imagine.”

I have to admit I’m conflicted about tribute bands. I’ve joked that even smaller towns are relegated to tribute band tribute bands. In Podunk, NY, maybe some bar presents the Doobie Brothers Tribute Band Tribute Band. “They sound just like the real tribute band!!” I wonder what it’s like when this 30-something guitar player who can sing like John Denver winds up building a career around pretending to be John Denver. He’s never really experienced a Rocky Mountain high or sunshine on his shoulders, but he pretends. And we in the audience kind of squint enough to ignore the makeup, and listen for every note exactly imitating the RCA record we bought back then… yes, pretending we are there at John Denver’s feet.

I once remarked to a very talented jazz trumpet player that I thought it was “kinda pathetic” that a talented musician would make his/her living off such an act. Instead of making their own way, playing their own notes, developing their own style, they take on the persona of someone already there, someone whose name and fame bring recognition, applause, and sell tickets. “Pathetic?” my friend replied. “That’s pretty harsh. I don’t see a problem. They get to use their talent, make a living, make people happy… That’s more than many people can say.”

Good point. But does my friend want to go on the road pretending to be Miles Davis or Maynard Ferguson? Or, is he happy being himself, playing gigs as they come, with his own name on the program?

Maybe I could get a wig, work on my drawl, and go on the road as Billy Graham…the Billy Graham Tribute Preacher, coming soon to a stadium near you! I could memorize his sermons, his gestures, every technique…and people would come from east and west to pretend I was he. Maybe they’d be truly inspired. Maybe they’d respond to my altar call, as I asked them to come forward. I guess I’d have to pay royalties of some kind. Oh, and I could hire the George Beverly Shea Tribute Band.

But I’m not Billy Graham. And I can’t pretend to be, for a parcel of reasons. But the choir is singing, “If you cannot preach like Peter, if you cannot pray like Paul, you can tell the love of Jesus, and say, ‘He died for all.'”

If you cannot sing like Paul (McCartney), if you cannot play like John (Lennon), you can still be your authentic self, using your own God-given gifts to be a peacemaker, a reconciler, a person of integrity and grace. No need to pretend.

I said I was conflicted about this. For Lent, I must give up passing judgment, and let the tributes ring out. In sharing some thoughts about this topic with my wife Joan, I realized that almost every singer is also an actor, a pretender. Among the most famous 20th century song writers, Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer could sing their own songs. But those songs were “covered” (people say these days) by the Sinatras, Comos, Fitzgeralds, and Bennetts. The singers didn’t write or live the lyrics; they just acted as if the words were theirs, as if they had lost the love, felt the warmth, had Georgia on their mind, or rode the “Acheson, Topeka, and the Santa Fe.” The greatest singers of the “Great American Songbook” merely pretended.

And sometimes, pretending or imagining that something is so…is a step in the right direction, and that will bring joy, and maybe a standing ovation.

Living as if… just might get us there. Imagine.

 

This is another in my Lenten series of reflections on music, all kinds of music, almost. I’m not including certain genres about which I know nothing. I’m also excluding music that doesn’t play a part in my particular story. I’m happy for folks who enjoy “country and western” music and polkas, but that’s not part of my experience. Unless one counts the polka music that accompanied our racing around the gym at junior high school dances, some kids only one generation away from their Eastern European roots, and so out of control the dancing was dangerous. That’s another story, not to be exegeted here.

What makes this reflection different from the previous entries is that I write with tears. I mean, serious tears. I’ve just watched a video that is referenced below. My emotional response to this particular music is familiar. It has brought tears before. Mostly tears of joy. But I’m guessing that my emotions are tied to something deeper than joy.

Jack Noble White is the composer of a church anthem Joan and I have loved for decades. Based on the poetry of Isaiah 12, the piece is called “The First Song of Isaiah.” Joan and I always served two different churches, I in a pastoral role at one, and Joan as the church musician at another, maybe just down the road, or almost an hour away. Which of us heard this first, I don’t recall. Maybe we heard it at the same time at the Montreat Worship and Music Conference. What I do remember is that both our churches used the anthem, and both congregations loved it.

At my church, we went for the whole musical enchilada. Adult choir, children’s choir, organ, and hand bells…and congregation! At Joan’s smaller church, the music and text may have been performed more simply, but the effect was the same. People found this offering of music inspiring. And often, there were tears. The repeating phrases, “Surely, it is God who saves us; we will trust the Lord and not be afraid…” hit people deep inside.

Who in church hasn’t wanted to receive that assurance and reassurance that God saves us and that we can trust God to do it. When we are full of doubt; when we have received frightening news about a medical condition; when a child has gone astray; when war threatens; when death is at the door. Surely, certainly, of course…it is God who saves. Through this anthem an angel sings the familiar, but never tired, refrain: do not be afraid. And we are the angel: “I will…not be afraid.”

I found several versions of this anthem on the Internet. Please take the time to listen:

https://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=first+song+of+isaiah&view=detail&mid=5766A4B5C42946A5569A5766A4B5C42946A5569A&FORM=VIRE

After Joan had moved from one church to another (in a different state), the earlier church family suffered an unspeakable loss, one of those tragedies that brings people together, using their shared faith to come to grips with the reality of their sorrow. Someone remembered the powerful promise of that anthem, and contacted Joan to get the details of where the song could be found so that it could be used at the funeral. There, it would sow seeds of hope.

The church to which I had moved had a strong tradition of music, but Jack Noble White’s anthem wasn’t in the collection there. So I bought it for them. We had a small congregation, no hand bells, no children’s choir…but I found that having choir and congregation sing the various verses, and sometimes even just have a reader speak some of Isaiah’s words before the refrain — well that carried the message still: “Surely it is God who saves me…”

One more memory of that anthem. I developed an exercise routine while still at that first church (Bon Air Presbyterian, Richmond, Va. to be exact), and I laminated the text of the song to carry with me as I jogged and suffered the aerobic exercise stations along the path. I would sing to myself the refrain as I moved from station to station, and before doing the particular exercise, I would read one of the verses. Thus, three times a week, I would use that anthem as the spiritual soundtrack to my physical exercise. I was in good shape.

When we retired, we bought the anthem for our present church to use, thinking that the gift would be uplifting to our new church home. However, the choir director just didn’t like the piece. I guess he felt some obligation to use it when I sang in the choir, but he took it as a straight anthem, no embellishments (no bells, again, and no congregational refrain), and had the choir singing it at a pace that destroyed the meaning of the words. The way the song was sung that week convinced the choir that the refrain was too repetitious, and “The First Song of Isaiah” was never used again. (This is not a reference to the musician who now serves our congregation; just need to make that clear.)

I know in my heart that this is an anthem, a prophetic text and an assertion of faith in hard times, that finds its meaning especially when one needs its assurances, when one strives to believe, and when one prays for comfort and healing. The more the need, the more the assurance, the more the appreciation for Isaiah’s words and Jack Noble White’s music.

“…For the Lord is my stronghold, my sure defense,

and God will be my savior.”

Tears.

 

 

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