I suspect this piece doesn’t get used much in our congregations.

The reason is probably that it’s in Spanish and is unfamiliar. And that’s too bad. I’d rather the reason be that we don’t often preach on Oscar Romero and liberation theology, or that we don’t often use any part of a Catholic mass in Unitarian Universalist services.

Because that’s what this is – a Sanctus from a Catholic mass. In this case, it’s the Misa Salvadoreña by Guillermo Cuéllar, which blends the folk music of Central America with the traditional words and a heavy dose of liberation – not surprising, as it was commissioned by Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was assassinated while conducting mass, for his anti-poverty and human rights work that criticized an oppressive government. (Quick memory: I attended a service at Union honoring Romero, where Dr. Daisy Machado purposely stood with her back to the door as she preached and officiated communion, evoking Romero’s final moments.)

In the 1990s, Cuéllar described the political context in a letter to the Rev. Gary Campbell, a Presbyterian minister:

“I know what peace is; I can enjoy it now with all my being after a long drawn-out war that I suffered in my own flesh, in my time and my country. . . . I saw babies thrown into the air and caught on military bayonets. I had to bear the howling of women machine-gunned en masse; the roaring of rockets launched by human beings at other human beings. And I stood and watched while entire towns were swept away by showers of bombs; starving old men blown to pieces by the explosions.

“ . . . For thirteen long years I lived with my bitterness and consternation. It seems a miracle to me that I am alive now, sharing my sufferings with you. But now the warm sun of peace comforts me again, and I know that I could not be different for anything in the world. I rediscovered peace, not only because the arms fell silent, but because in my heart I renounced hatred and vengeance. That peace that springs up inside of each of us is the peace that our Lord Jesus promised to all people of good will.”

Wow.

Here are the lyrics:

Santo, Santo, Santo, Santo,
Santo, Santo es nuestro Dios.
Señor de toda la tierra, Santo,
Santo es nuestro Dios.

Santo, Santo, Santo, Santo,
Santo, Santo es nuestro Dios.
Señor de toda la historia,
Santo, Santo es nuestro Dios.

Que acompa ña a nuestro pueblo,
que vive en nuestras luchas,
el universo entero, el único Señor.

Benditos los que en su nombre
el Evangelio anuncian,
ta Buena y gran noticia de la liberación.

And the lyrics in English:

Holy, Holy, Holy, Holy,
Holy, Holy is our God.
Ruler of the earth and heavens.
Holy, Holy is our God.

Holy, Holy, Holy, Holy,
Holy, Holy is our God.
In our present, past and future,
Holy, Holy is our God.

Who companions all the people,
who lives within our struggles,
the universal Sov’reign, One God leading us on.

Blessed are those who, in God’s name
give witness to the Gospel,
the news of liberation, for all peoples of earth.

You see, it’s pretty much your standard Sanctus. If it were translated into Spanish. With an eye toward liberation. And written by a San Salvadoran.

And it’s a song we shouldn’t shy away from. Because we should be preaching liberation. And really, it’s a joyful and easy song to sing once you learn it. Here’s a YouTube video to help:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” and thus begins my own story, A Tale of Two Memories.

The first memory of this song is set in a hotel suite in St. Paul, MN, where the inaugural group of students in the Music Leader Credentialing program gathered to talk about discernment and the call of this kind of ministry. The facilitator – who shall remain nameless but is, not surprisingly, white – invited us to hear the call of the Mystery in several ways. That section ended with, also not surprisingly, singing. We were asked to sing this song without context (except that it’s in STJ) and let it be the invitation to hear our call to music ministry.

Oops.

Hush, hush, somebody’s callin’ my name.
Hush, hush, somebody’s callin’ my name.
Hush, hush, somebody’s callin’ my name.
Oh my Lord, oh my Lord, what shall I do?

Sounds like freedom, somebody’s callin’ my name…

Sounds like justice, somebody’s callin’ my name…

Soon one mornin’, death comes creepin’ in my room…

I’m so glad that trouble don’t last always…

The second memory of this song is set at Union Theological Seminary, in two chapels. The first is Lampman, a tiny space full of amber tones and gorgeous iconography, was where we met for a class on the spirituality of spirituals, led by a woman of color (who, for parity, shall also remain nameless). It was in that space that we learned about the deep call to freedom for enslaved Africans that these songs expressed, and how our singing – no matter how we identified – must carry that knowledge explicitly, recognizing that our own prayer must affirm theirs. At the end of the semester, our class conducted a chapel service in the large, seemingly cavernous James Chapel – we greeted folks outside in the narthex while our teacher sat at the back of the room, singing this song as a call to freedom, beckoning us to follow the hushed sounds and hear stories and songs of hope.

Aaaah.

The End.

Image is of James Chapel at Union.

 

An explosion of ideas and thoughts and tears greet me this morning as I make my way through this hymn. This amazing, loving, gorgeously composed by Bobby McFerrin hymn.

McFerrin recasts one of the most familiar passages in the entire Bible and not only changes “he” language to “she” language and thus re-gendering God, but also personalizes it ways that blur the lines between the divine feminine, the earth, and moms. These changes offer a healing mother image to those who need it, a nurturing divine image, a grounded, grounding image. And a holy image. McFerrin’s tacking on of a Gloria patri at the end is a remarkable bit of theological jujitsu, reminding us that women are holy, God is bigger than any box we can devise, and there is love and comfort in the Mystery.

The Lord is my shepherd, I have all I need,
She makes me lie down in green meadows.
Beside the still waters, She will lead.
She restores my soul, She rights my wrongs,
She leads me in the path of good things,
She fills my heart with songs.

Even though I walk through a dark and dreary land,
There is nothing that can shake me,
She has said She won’t forsake me, I’m in her hand.
She sets a table before me in the presence of my foes,
She anoints my head with oil,
and my cup overflows.

Surely, surely goodness and kindness will follow me
all the days of my life,
And I will live in Her house,
forever, forever and ever.
Glory be to our Mother and Daughter
and to the Holy of Holies.
As it was in the beginning,
is now and ever shall be
world with out end. Amen.

And that’s just the lyrics. McFerrin’s recitative style here offers some gorgeous harmonies and melodic emphases on phrases we might not notice otherwise. It is ancient and new all at once.

And I’m not sure I’ve heard a congregation sing it, because many people don’t know what to do with a written recitative. It looks odd on the page for those who haven’t encountered it before. So I recommend, at least to start, having a small group or choir sing it with a clear conductor. Oh… and don’t do it as a solo, because that misses the richness of the piece too. It just doesn’t sound the same with a piano in the background.

That being said, it’s still one of my favorites. It’s a gorgeous recasting of a familiar text that can help to reclaim the beauty of this source for those who struggle with their religious pasts. It is also one of the most beautiful, holy pieces of music I’ve ever sung, bringing me to tears every time I sing or hear it.

Amen.

 

I think I first learned this song in high school, about the same time I heard about apartheid in South Africa. Yet I am pretty sure I never related the two – I know our music teachers didn’t do that, and at that age I wasn’t in a religious education program that helped me understand the world in context (I was in a youth group at a small non-denominational, more-or-less fundamentalist church where we talked bible, not justice).

I began to wonder, as I sought recordings of today’s hymn to share, and found mountains of YouTube videos of high school choirs, if music teachers are doing a better job of connecting the music they sing to the context the music comes from.

Because the context is rich – there is much we can learn about the United States past and present from examining South African apartheid, from the creep of discriminatory legislation to the ways in which resistance to those laws bend the moral arc of the universe toward justice.

And as we see over and over again, music makes a difference. We have talked about it here a lot – the enslaved Africans in America, the civil rights movement, Estonia’s singing revolution, and more. Music spreads, music informs, music reaches deep in and grabs hold of our spirits, music shifts our energy and can change our minds.

Oh freedom, oh freedom,
oh freedom, freedom is coming!

Oh yes I know, oh yes I know,
oh yes I know, freedom is coming!

Oh freedom, oh freedom,
oh freedom, freedom is coming!

Technically, this song – if unfamiliar – will require some good song leaders, as the power comes from the interwoven parts. Drums will help too. Each part is really easy, but the coordination of them can be complex – hence the contradictory singability tags.

But oh, is it worth it. This is such a joyful, lively, energizing song.

May all feel the freedom this song demands.

One of the Facebook memes going around right now is about memories – namely, asking for people to post memories of you, with a fair bit of delight at the answers. If my friend and colleague Ashley DeTar Birt were to ask, I would be hard pressed to pick just one memory, as our friendship, which began the first week of seminary and continues to this day, is full of great moments.

But the moment I would choose right now would be hearing her sermon “The Prism and the Paint” wherein she used Genesis 1 to search for better ways to talk about light and dark, white and black, good and evil. Using acrylic paints, crystals, and a lamp, she reminded us that the creation story calls day and evening “good” because it is not “void.” As Ashley reminded us, white is the sum of all colors when using light, and black is the sum of all colors when using paints. Light and dark are fullness. Light and dark – whether about the natural world, or our souls, or our skin colors – are good.

This Taizé song, by Jacques Berthier, expresses the fullness of darkness, where we can find sustenance for the journey.

Spanish:
De noche iremos, de noche
que para encontrar la fuente,
sólo la sed nos alumbra,
sólo la sed nos alumbra.

English:
By night, we hasten, in darkness,
to search for living water,
only our thirst leads us onward,
only our thirst leads us onward.

French:
De nuit nous irons dans l’ombre,
car pour decouvrir la source,
seule la soif nous éclaire,
seule la soif nous éclaire.

Italian:
Di notte andremo, di notte,
per incontrare la fonte,
solo la sete c’illumina,
solo la sete ci guida.

German:
In Dunkler Nacht woll’n wir ziehen,
lebendiges Wasser finden,
Nur unser Durst wird uns leuchten,
nur unser Durst wird uns leuchten.

One of the things I love about the music of the Taizé Community is that it’s meant to be sung in the language you choose; in a Taizé service, you will sometimes hear the words of many tongues crossing over one another in the same rich harmonies. It’s a beautiful thing to experience. And I am glad our Hymnal Commission offered the words in five languages here.

It is beautiful, haunting melody, perfect for a Winter Solstice vespers. (If only I’d gotten to this one last week, cry my clergy friends who led solstice services last night!)

It is beautiful, haunting, and full.

It is good.


For your listening pleasure:

Let us live in peace… let us die in peace.

Wow.

The song’s origins are, not surprising, found in the years following the attacks on 9/11:

This song is the inspiration of a Muslim residing in the United States, Samir Badri. Samir recruited the composer(Ted Warmbrand), a Jew, to set his words to a tune, after they both were featured at a Peace rally in Arizona before the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan and then Iraq.

As a song of peace in time of war, it is simply perfect.

And to me, considering how many are fighting ‘the wars at home’ – poverty, racism, xenophobia, homophobia, sexism, ableism – it is in fact a perfect song for today too.

Daoona nayeesh beesalaam;
daoona nayeesh Beeamaan;
daoona nansij;
Ahlaam;
daoona namoot beesalaam.

The English translation from Arabic:

Let us live in peace.
Let us live in inner peace.
Let us weave our dreams together.
Let us die in peace.

Imagine if we sang this with energy at marches and protests against discriminatory laws and tax scams. Imagine if we sang this as a lament at our vigils for transfolk being murdered, for people of color being denied justice, for what will now be a growing number of people dying from poverty and lack of health care, for families torn apart by deportation.

Imagine if we actually lived and died in peace.

Some useful musical/performance notes from the UUA Song Information page:

This song can been shared in different ways: Energetically, meditatively, with audience singing along (as echoes after each phrase), and/or with instrumental breaks allowing for English translation during the piece. It has been sung in 3/4, 12/8, and 4/4 time. Sometimes the composer adds the one word ‘tag’ “aHlaam” (dreams) only at the end and sometimes the song fades out with it. At other times he uses it as a bridge to return to the verse. When unaccompanied or with only percussion “aHlaam” can become a descant under the melody. It was put there to assure people could sing at least one word in Arabic. A pause can be added before the last line, “let us die in peace.”

The image is from Pixabay contributor Gerd Altmann – even though Pixabay offers royalty-free photos for editorial and non-commercial use without attribution, I wanted to name the photographer in this case because it is such a striking image.

Y’all took the joy right out of this one for me.

You know who “you” are – you who dislike this one, you who find the Zulu difficult, you who argue against the word “God” in the translation, you who think it’s overused or too cheesy, you who won’t use it for other reasons you will delineate in your comments.

You see, right before I went to prepare the coffee, I opened the hymnal, saw the title, and I started singing it while I cleaned the pot, added water, added grounds. As I got into the joyful groove, I started thinking about what to write, and I started reading in my mind all the comments you will be making, and by the time I poured my first cup and opened the laptop, all the joy was gone.

Dammit.

This is a joyful song of liberation. As written on the UUA Song Information page,

A South African freedom song that comes from the Apartheid Era. It is not clear whether the original composition was in Zulu or Afrikaans, although today we sing it in Zulu and English. It is said to have been composed by Andries van Tonder around 1950. However, we credit Anders Nyberg, musical director of Fjedur, a Swedish choral group, with discovering it on one of his trips to Cape Town. In 1984 he arranged it for a Western four-voice setting.

The structure of “Siyahamba” is cyclic rather than sequential. The lyrics consist of one phrase that is repeated with permutations. Cyclical forms emphasize a spirit of community and allow for a physical response during the performance. This may explain this song’s popularity as a processional and offertory as well as a protest or marching song. “Siyahamba” is appropriate for both sacred and secular settings for it could be sung, “We are standing in the light of peace.” The song may be accompanied by drums, bell, and shakers; and it can be sung a cappella with male voices which is favored by the Zulu tradition.

Joyful. This is supposed to be a joyful song, but in this case, criticisms I know this song faces (because I have heard them for real, not just in my imaginings) has made not only this part of the practice difficult, but also the singing part. I… I just wanted to be in that joyful place for a moment longer, as joy is so hard to come by lately.

Anyway. I like it and use a lot of words along with/instead of ‘marching’ – singing, dancing, praying, living, shouting, working, etc. etc. etc.

Zulu:
Siyahamb’ ekukhanyen’ kwenkhos’,
siyahamb’ ekukhanyen’ kwenkhos’.
Siya hamb’ ekukhanyen’ kwenkhos’,
siya hamb’ ekukhanyen’ siyahamb’ ekukhanyen’ kwenkhos.
Siyahamba, hamba, siyahamba, hamba,
siyahamb’ ekukhanyen’ kwenkhos’.
Siyahamba, hamba, siyahamba, hamba,
siyahamb’ ekukhanyen’ kwenkhos’.

English:
We are marching in the light of God,
we are marching in the light of God.
We are marching in the light of God,
we are marching in the light of, the light of God.
We are marching, marching, we are marching, marching,
we are marching in the light of God.
We are marching, marching, we are marching, marching,
We are marching in the light of God.

Now I for one will not be deterred, and I recommend the YouTube rabbit hole of Siyahamba versions. They span the globe, ages, and abilities. They are formal and informal, accompanied and a capella, inside and outside, but all joyful.

May you find something in this joyful South African song of freedom to bring you joy.

Some songs just get into your whole body.

The rhythm pulses in your blood, the melody lines hum in your muscles, the lyrics rest deep in your bones. The song feels as natural to you and as naturally yours as if it had emerged from your own mind and soul.

That’s how this one is for me. From the moment I first heard it, it made sense to me – from the 5/4 rhythm to the rolling musical phrases and the vibrant lyrical metaphors. I think I had this memorized before I realized I wanted to learn it.

I realize that not everyone has this experience with this song, by Jason Shelton and Mary Katherine Morn. Some, because it can be overused. Some, because their accompanists never got the hang of the 6/8+2/4 that is this particular 5/4 meter. Some, because the chorus goes high on the word ‘fire,’ a word that can be weird to sing because of its dipthong.

But for me, this song, written for the celebration of First Unitarian Universalist Nashville’s 50th anniversary in 2002, is practically perfect.

From the light of days remembered burns a beacon bright and clear
Guiding hands and hearts and spirits Into faith set free from fear.

Chorus:
When the fire of commitment sets our mind and soul a blaze
When our hunger and our passion meet to call us on our way
When we live with deep assurance of the flame that burns within,
Then our promise finds fulfillment and our future can begin.

From the stories of our living rings a song both brave and free,
Calling pilgrims still to witness to the life of liberty.

Chorus

From the dreams of youthful vision comes a new, prophetic voice,
Which demands a deeper justice built by our courageous choice

Chorus

I think it’s so strong in so many ways. Morn’s lyrics are expansive, hopeful, and to me, theologically sound. Shelton’s music is alive with joy, energy, and anticipation. I haven’t studied music composition, but as a singer I know that just as there are keys that evoke certain mood, there are also certain feelings that you get from different time signatures; my experience with songs written in 5/4 is that there’s an anticipatory feel to them, like something is not quite finished – and that’s either a good thing or a bad thing, depending on the song.

Anyway. If you haven’t had a chance to really hear the song the way it should be, check out the recording from Jason’s album – you can hear the addition of percussion helps keep rhythm; additionally, playing the accompaniment with the emphases in the right hand also keeps it driving forward.

I love this song deep in my bones, and I am grateful to Jason, Mary Katherine, and all who worked to bring this song to the fore and plant it in our living tradition.

“Fire Chalice” by PeacePeg – see this and more of her beautiful work at http://peacepeg.tripod.com/index.html

One of my favorite December Sundays is the one a minister designates as “Mitten Tree Sunday.” For those who haven’t experienced this wonderful service, it begins with a Christmas tree on the chancel, empty but for some lights. Often, the Candace Christiansen story that inspired the service is told, other times different stories about giving and grace appear – told, acted out, or otherwise referenced. And then the invitation comes, and everyone has the opportunity to decorate the tree with mittens, and gloves, and hats and scarves and other cold-weather accessories. After the service, those items are donated to a group that can suitably distribute them to those in need.

It is a small, but a tangible way to live out the call reflected in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 25, verses 31-41. Which, of course is also the call of this hymn, by Jose Antonio Oliver, which is inspired by the liberation theology of Peruvian priest and theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez, which emphasizes a concern for the liberation of the oppressed.

Cuando el pobre nada tiene y aún reparte,
cuando alguien pasa sed y agua nos da,
cuando el débil a su hermano forta lece,
va Dios mismo en nuestro mismo caminar;
va Dios mismo en nuestro mismo caminar.

Cuando alguno sufre y logra su Consuelo,
cuando espera y no se cansa de esperar,
cuando amamos, aunque el odio nos rodee,
va Dios mismo en nuestro mismo caminar,
va Dios mismo en nuestro mismo caminar.

Cuando crece la alegria y now inunda,
cuando dicen nuestros labios la verdad,
cuando anoramos el sentir de los sencillos,
va Dios mismo en nuestro mismo caminar,
va Dios mismo en nuestro mismo caminar.

Cuando abunda el bien y llena los hogares,
cuando alguien donde hay Guerra pone paz,
cuando “hermano” le llamamos al extraño,
va Dios mismo, en nuestro mismo caminar,
va Dios mismo en nuestro mismo caminar.

The English translation is by the Rev. Martin A. Seltz, a Lutheran (ELCA) minister/musician:

When the poor ones, who have nothing, still are giving;
when the thirsty pass the cup, water to share;
when the wounded offer others strength and healing:
we see God, here by our side, walking our way;
we see God, here by our side, walking our way.

When compassion gives the suffering consolation,
when expecting brings to birth hope that was lost;
when we choose love, not the hatred all around us;
we see God, here by our side, walking our way,
we see God, here by our side, walking our way.

When our spirits, like a chalice, brim with gladness,
when our voices, full and clear, sing out the truth,
when our longings, free from envy, seek the humble,
we see God, here by our side, walking our way,
we see God, here by our side, walking our way.

When the goodness poured from heaven fills our dwellings,
when the nations work to change war into peace,
when the stranger is accepted as our neighbor,
we see God, here by our side, walking our way,
we see God, here by our side, walking our way.

I love this hymn. I love the lyrics, I love the sentiment, and I love the melody. It is rich, and flowing, and I find it incredibly moving. It’s not often I’m in tears from singing the morning’s hymn, but this one brings me to tears from just thinking about it, no less singing it.

I hope congregations use this – not just on Mitten Tree Sundays but any time of the year when we need to remember that acts of simple generosity is liberation for all.

Featured Photo: members of First Universalist Church of Southold, NY, decorating last year’s mitten tree. The photo at the top of this page is the completed tree.

Among the lessons I have learned during this spiritual practice is that the hymnals of a denomination reflect history. Yes, there’s theological history, and certainly musical history, but there’s also a reflection of political and cultural history, if you pay attention.

Singing the Living Tradition reflects the world as it was in the early 1990s – the cold war had just ended but we still had all those nukes around. Apartheid ended and Nelson Mandela had been freed, but we were embroiled in the first Gulf War with no clear objective or victory in sight. Hence, we have in that hymnal a number of songs about world peace and getting along with one another, along with the emphasis on humanism and other kinds of inclusion.

Singing the Journey, produced 12 years later, reflects the times as well, most particularly the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in 2001. Hence, we have in this hymnal supplement more songs about world peace and getting along with one another, along with an expanding emphasis on nature-based religions and musical multi-culturalism.

It is this thought that brings us to today’s hymn, an anti-war song that must have felt vital to the STJ hymnal commission. It was written by West Virginia singer-songwriter Karen Mackay, to express her “strong belief in the power of women to influence global culture and bring peace to the world.” It’s got a simple, Appalachian gospel melody that’s easy to pick up and harmonize with, and except for the lack of a verse that expands the gender spectrum, it’s a rather wonderful anti-war song – a perfect addition (especially that last verse) in those first years after 9/11.

If ev’ry woman in the world had her mind set on freedom,
if ev’ry woman in the world dreamed a sweet dream of peace,
if ev’ry woman of ev’ry nation,
young and old, each generation,
held her hands out in the name of love,
there would be no more war.

If ev’ry man in the world had his mind set on freedom,
if ev’ry man in the world dreamed a sweet dream of peace,
if ev’ry man of ev’ry nation,
young and old, each generation,
held his hands out in the name of love,
there would be no more war.
If ev’ry leader in the world shared a vision,
if ev’ry leader in the world shared a sweet dream of peace,
if ev’ry leader of ev’ry nation,
young and old, each generation,
worked for justice and liberation,
holding hands out in the name of love,
there would be no more war.

If ev’ry nation in the world set a true course for freedom,
if ev’ry nation raised its children in a culture of peace,
if all our sons and all our daughters
reached in friendship across the waters,
refusing to be enemies,
there would be no more war.

When I first learned this song in 2005, it felt very fresh and prescient. But like many of our hymns that reflect the times (in both current hymnals), it now feels a bit dated and out of fashion. I started singing this song and wishing that we had verses about today’s problems, because I love it but I am not feeling the need to sing about warring nations right now – there are more pressing issues.

Do note: I’m not advocating not having them – because heaven knows when the next war will erupt, and it will be good to have these songs at the ready. It’s just interesting to note how history informs song choices.

And so the final question, then, is what political and cultural events will shape the next hymnal? Certainly the specter of all-out war doesn’t loom as sharply (except when our Twitter feeds are filled with ill-advised taunts to North Korea); we are much more concerned with the wars at home – black lives matter, immigration justice, health care, financial inequality, feminism, the First Nations, etc. What will our new hymnody look like? And how dated will it feel a dozen years on?

Or is that the cross hymnals in a living tradition bear – that the moment they’re published they are in some ways already out of date?  It’s not a bad problem to have, but it does mean we must pay more and more attention to the new music coming out to fill those gaps between printed books.

Image is of a peace pole in Plymouth, Massachusetts.