I confess, I have now been part of a ukelele flash mob, back when mobbing was not a public health crisis. But enough of that.
Every year, the curmudgeons, musicians all, who inhabit the couch and chairs at Fretted Instruments of Homewood, contribute tracks for a Christmas CD that is given away. This is one I did a few years ago–ukelele, mandolin, dobro and guitar played by yours truly. Oh, and banjo, just for good measure. Merry Christmas!
“It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” was penned by Edmund Sears. Sears was a divinity graduate of Harvard and became a Unitarian pastor who “preached the divinity of Christ” according to Dr. Michael Hawn, a church musician and scholar of hymnody. By age 37 poor health forced Sears to give up pastoral work and he spent the rest of his career in publishing and writing.
According to Dr. Hawn,
Sears’ context was the social strife that plagued the country as the Civil War approached. This hymn comes from a Boston publication, Christian Register, published on Dec. 29, 1849. The original stanza three, missing from our hymnals, sheds light on the poet’s concerns about the social situation in the U.S. in the mid-19th century:
“But with the woes of sin and strife The world has suffered long; Beneath the angel-strain have rolled Two thousand years of wrong; And man, at war with man, hears not The love-song, which they bring: O hush the noise, ye men of strife, And hear the angels sing!”
Thinking of this hymn in this way makes us hear the final two verses very differently. In the third verse we know in present versions, humanity, bent low under the crushing loads of our insanity and wars, do not yet know the hope that God sent forth in Jesus. They (we) are exhausted and nearly hopeless. Hear the words repeating through that verse: toil, climbing, painful steps, weary. The world is a heavy place. The angelic singing comes as a musical respite, notes of hope in the night.
Early Bethlehem was not much better. I wrote about this in another song on my last CD, “Down in Bethlehem.” There is a realism about the human condition in the gospels that we do not pay much attention to in the prosperous West, at least not until lately. The multiple burdens of the year 2020 and a world in pandemic lead us back to this hymn in a new way, don’t you think? Now, we too yearn for the fulfillment of that birth,
when peace shall over all the earth its ancient splendors fling, and the whole world send back the song which now the angels sing.
Now it becomes a prayer, a troubled thought in the night. We are not the first people in history to toss and turn in the night.
It’s time change Sunday agaiu. We “Spring Forward” (move clocks forward one hour) just as in the fall we “fall back,” as in move them back an hour. We spend an inordinate amount of time dreading, hating and complaining about the changes. It’s fairly well known that it messes up our sleep patterns, too.
According to the website, LiveScience, it was Ben Franklin that first came up with the notion. The Germans were the first to do it, during the first World War. Woodrow Wilson and FDR also followed in wartime, to save fuel and economize. They also point out that today only forty countries follow it. Farmers, contrary to the myth, hate it because they lose early daylight.
All that said, we in the churches would have to say we dislike it the most. It does not change during the Super Bowl. It does not change during the NBA Finals or the opening bell on Wall Street. No, it changes just before we are trying to raise the dead for Sunday morning worship. Priorities, I say. Our choir email included a clever hymn text about time change, which inspired me to write my own. I hope that it may ease thy misery by turning it into song. Rise, O Sleepers.
Henry Francis Lyte was an Anglican priest who originally intended to be a doctor, but then entered the ministry. He was a prize-winning poet during his university years, and best known for his elegant hymn, “Abide With Me.” He continued to write religious poetry through his life. He was born in 1793 and died when he was only fifty-four years of age. The first verse captures a transcendent and haunting mood:
“Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide.
When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, O abide with me.”
It is uncertain when he penned this text. It has been connected to the death of a fellow clergyman, of which he said
“I was greatly affected by the whole matter, and brought to look at life and its issue with a different eye than before; and I began to study my Bible, and preach in another manner than I had previously done.”
Regardless, it’s reflective and somber tone nearly always takes me to a melancholy mood. It is often sung at funerals. In one of the eight original verses is the line “Change and decay in all around I see.”
Ian Bradley, a leading scholar of Victorian hymns, names his book on this subject, Abide with Me: The World of Victorian Hymns. He notes, “John Bell, the leading contemporary Scottish hymn writer, has pointed to the damage done to the cause of reform and moving on in the life of churches by the deadening effect of [this line] from ‘Abide with me.’”
Nevertheless, the end of life is a serious and inevitable matter. In the ministry, we deal with it all the time. There are other things to talk about in life, joys and pleasures, work, goodness and family. We cannot long live in the valley of the shadow. But when it comes, it is good to know that we are not there alone.
Our church sits atop a mountain, a beautiful garden behind the sanctuary perched on the edge, looking out across the southern suburbs of Birmingham. It is a view that invites meditation and deep thoughts. Once, while there with a friend, a retired missionary and a man of great kindness and compassion, I asked what he was thinking about. He pointed to the hospital below, in the valley. “I was just thinking about all the human suffering contained in that place, every single day, and that Christ dwells with them there.”
That, at its best, is what faith can do. Today, while my own dear mother is taking her second chemo for stage IV cancer, I pray for her and for the millions every day who make the journey along the cliffs of suffering and disease. Perhaps these lines sit well here for us all:
When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, O abide with me.”
LISTEN to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sing Abide with Me, arr. Mack Wilberg.
Adapted from my newsletter column to the church this week at www.vhbc.com:
As I was looking over past writings and came upon this one, from 1994. It still seems useful for now.
“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1).
The problem of life is not faith, but fear. Fear of failure can paralyze a talented person from ever trying. The fear of success can explain why many equally-talented people seem to sabotage themselves just on the brink of success or achievement. Psychologists tell us that fear is the root of much procrastination in the perfectionist who can never begin the task until she is a little better prepared.
Fear can keep us silent in the face of evil when we should have spoken. It is the fear of change that paralyzes our wills and reduces life to discontented mumbling against fate rather than risking ourselves to move forward. The fear of death can turn us hollow and brittle, fearful of a misstep and terrified of suffering. Fear grants a thousand deaths to a cowering heart.
Change, all change, brings fear with it. Transitions surpass our past copings and leave us exposed and vulnerable. We are once again where we find ourselves continually in life: thrown back on our wits and facing the unknown.
Every day, every week, we are facing changes as individuals, as the church, as families. The creative possibility is that in the face of change we will choose with courageous faith to trust God’s new life through us rather than fear.
Parker Palmer says that “the core message of all the great spiritual traditions is ‘Be not afraid’…the failure is to withdraw fearfully from the place to which one is called, to squander the most precious of all our birthrights–the experience of aliveness itself.”
As we look at the world around us, it is not a brilliant observation to see that we are in a time of suspicion, distrust and unkindness. The cheapness of life, the anger and fear of our culture, and the rampant selfishness of too many is easy to see. But what to do about Continue reading “God’s Dream and Our Fear”→
So, then, to continue from my last post, If we are not to grieve as those who have no hope, and not to hope as those who have no grief, then only one conclusion is left to us. We should grieve as people of hope—so what does that mean?
Here is where grace enters in powerfully. “Grieving as people of hope” means that God’s grace is in the picture with us as we sorrow in life. Grace does not magically take away our pain or make it hunky-dory wonderful. I have heard preachers stand up and talk about heaven and hope in a glib and superficial silliness that emotionally slaps the faces of the grieving ones sitting in front of him or her. If it gives them a moment’s comfort, the dark shadow will soon come. If Jesus wept over Lazarus, there is something important in it for us as well. Whatever we believe about the life to come, it is always in faith, in part, clouded by the contrast between the only reality we know with some certainty against a promise that is yet to be.
Paul helps us in a second passage from the New Testament. In 2 Corinthians 4:7-9 he wrote, “But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; Afflicted but not crushed.”
Perplexed but not driven to despair
Persecuted but not forsaken
Struck down but not destroyed
What sustains us in life is not to escape affliction, questions, persecution and suffering. It is being rooted in the life that transcends it. This means accepting
The reality of death—as well as the truthfulness of grace. It not only does not avoid the worst features of human life, it enters into them. Grace is seeing the worst about us and still loving us. I once wrote a song to try to express the anguish of this, called,
The necessity of grief— Grief is part of life just as death is on its path. If we are to imbibe life as a gift, we have also to taste its bittersweet transience. In the nineteenth century, Ray Palmer wrote the great hymn, “My Faith Looks Up to Thee,” and penned these wonderful words:
When ends life’s transient dream, When death’s cold sullen stream shall o’er me roll; Blest Savior, then in love, fear and distrust remove; O bear me safe above, a ransomed soul!
I have written about 110 songs at this point, bits and fragments of maybe 250 more, but looking over them, I realize how much time grieving has occupied in my mind. I am sure much of this has to do with my vocation–I cannot avoid walking through the valley of someone else’s shadow weekly–but I am also impressed with the massive energy spent on avoiding the subject in our culture–and the price we pay for it. One song on this subject for today, “Trying to Remember”Continue reading “Death Grief and Hope: Songs for the Shadows (2)”→
our latest collective effort. It springs from experience
in our spiritual lives of prayers
composed by others that have “spoken” to us.
The Trinity group is a self-named group of friends, all Ph.D. grads
in theology or closely related fields who have chosen to journey together theologically for 25 years. The group was initiated by our teacher-friend Fisher Humphreys. It includes missionaries, pastors, college and seminary professors and a chaplaincy supervisor.
Through the years, we have created a space, meeting once or twice a year for multiple days, to have intellectual, spiritual and theological freedom to read, study, comment, question and debate any subject together that interested or troubled us. The glory of such freedom has enhanced all of our lives.
One of our founders, Philip, died six years ago this March. He was the first close friend some of us had lost, and he was in so many ways a force and center of our group. His loss was enormous, but we carried on. That experience, of walking with a friend to his grave, literally in my own case, was profound. And it mirrors what happens in the theological journey—it is always, inevitably, personal at the same time that we seek the loftiest and most universal of vantage points from which to do theology. Continue reading “Our new book: Encountering God in the Prayers of Others”→
I once heard someone say that Loretta Lynn described country music as consisting of three kinds of songs: “Songs about love, cheatin’ songs, and songs about Jesus.” That may be so, but I don’t know of anything that a good song can’t touch. In my last post, I mentioned songs that had spoken to me in my own grief through the years. Usually they are songs that simply “find us,” a synchronicity of expression and need. You hear it and it unearths sorrow or whatever from the deepest part of you, puts it up where you can feel it and when it’s done, you have a sense of relief or having found a treasure.
There is no “this will speak to you like it did me” list. Maybe it will, maybe not. But I do like to hear about songs others have liked. So here is a partial “songs that touched me in the journey of grief and pain.” You probably have some great additions to this.
Peter Rowan, Legacy “Father, Mother” This is one of the most poignant, most beautiful songs about sorrow and hope mingled. A family walks together on a cold morning to the cemetery and remembers. It is achingly beautiful with a stunning vocal ending.
Pierce Pettis, Everything Matters “God Believes in You”
Emmy Lou Harris, Roses In the Snow “Wayfaring Stranger,” “Green Pastures,” “Darkest Hour is Just Before Dawn,” and “Jordan.” Rickie Skaggs, and a ton of talent plays and sings on this old CD, but Emmy Lou’s voice and these haunting old gospel songs is beautiful.
Lynda Poston-Smith, Sigh of the Soul, Songs for Prayer and Meditation
Ashley Cleveland, Second Skin “Borken Places” I had the privilege of opening for the Grammy winner a number of years ago. After a long career singing with people like John Hiatt and others Ashley went through a dark place in life, but during recovery rediscovered her faith again by remembering the hymns of her childhood.
Second Skin is a wonderful collection original songs in collaboration with her gifted husband Kenny Greenberg. is a terrific talent the song that spoke to me so much on that CD is called broken places
Chained to the past, chained to the fear chains on the floor, broken for years
Freedom is calling me and my heart races I feel it in the broken places.
Every diver knows there’s a lot at stake
But to the depths he goes as the water breaks.
And for every secret, well there’s a pearl he takes
Vaughn Williams, “Five Mystical Songs” with the London Philharmonic. Based on the poems of the Anglican priest and mystic, George Herbert, the whole set of songs is worth listening to again and again, but “Love Bade Me Welcome” and “The Call” have been constant companions in my listening life.
Hugh Prestwood, “The Suit,” performed by James Taylor. I like Hugh’s own recording of the song, about an old Nebraska farmer. The song speaks for itself. Listen to James Taylor do it here with Jerry Douglas. CLICK TO LISTEN
Johnny Cash, American IV, The Man Comes Around. “Hurt.” I guess everyone has seen this one, but the video is one of the most overwhelming music videos ever made. It’s not his song, but Johnny sings about the train wrecks of his life and makes it his song. The moment when his beloved June looks at him with sad eyes brings me to the edge of tears every time in a genuine way.
Andrew Lloyd Webber, Requiem “Pie Jesu,” sung by Sarah Brightman and a boy soprano. Webber wrote his Requiem in tribute to the death of his father. I listened to it again and again in the 1980s. “Pie Jesu” is so tender, and the innocence of the child’s voice in their duet conveys a transcendent feel for me. Classical music is filled with great help in this journey, too many passages to mention, but for a couple of decades I listened through the great classics just for my own enjoyment and found so many great expressions of sorrow and grief.
Rosanne Cash Black Cadillac This makes a wonderful companion to your Johnny Cash collection and a necessary correction to the simplification of the movie, “Walk the Line.” When Johnny died, daughter Rosanne did this musical tribute to her experience of her father. Even without respect to Johnny’s life and music, it stands on its own as a great artistic accomplishmenr.
Vince Gill, When Love Finds You, “Go Rest High On That Mountain.” Originally Vince started this song as a tribute after Keith Whitley died. It languished for a while, but then upon the death of his own brother, he completed the song. It has become one of his most lasting and loved songs. It is out of synch with the tone of the rest of the CD, mostly country love songs in vintage Vince style, but I have been asked to sing this song at more than one funeral (a half octave lower, of course!). You can listen to it all over YouTube. It continues to speak to those who grieve.
Kathy Chiavola, From Where I Stand: A Personal Tribute. Kathy is a well-known backup singer, performer and vocal teacher in Nashville. It was recorded as a tribute to her partner, Randy Howard, a great fiddle player from Alabama who died in 1999. Randy is on part of the CD, as the album was underway when he died. My own favorite song is “Across the Great Divide,” a Kate Wolf song that describes death through the metaphor of that mystical peak in a mountain range where the rivers begin to flow the other way…
I’ve been walking in my sleep Counting troubles ‘stead of counting sheep Where the years went, I can’t say I just turned around and they’ve gone away I’ve been sifting through the layers Of dusty books and faded papers They tell a story I used to know And it was one that happened so long ago It’s gone away in yesterday And I find myself on the mountainside Where the rivers change direction Across the great divide The finest hour that I have seen Is the one that comes between The edge of night and the break of day It’s when the darkness rolls away
Could I even talk about death and grief without mentioning the hymns? They have been my companion and comfort and for countless others. Everyone has a list, but mine are often connected with memories of funerals I have conducted over the years—now in the hundreds. Singing “Victory in Jesus” congregationally years ago at the widow’s request as the recessional, while the wife, left penniless by her pastor husband, walked out with the family, head lifted up, tears streaming down her face, and defiant hope on her countenance. My other favorites (only a few!):
“The Old Rugged Cross”
“It is Well With My Soul”
“Great Is Thy Faithfulness”
“Blessed Assurance” I sang this one with a group of pastors in Israel in 1983 in Jerusalem while one of our leaders stood on a hill and wept over a loss in his family shortly before the trip. I will never forget his silhouette in the morning sun, hand braced against a solitary tree, head down, face buried in a handkerchief, while we sang, “This is my story, this is my song, praising my Savior, all the day long.”
“Shall We Gather At the River”
This blog is drawn in part from some chapters I’m writing for a forthcoming book on prayer from Insight Press. I’ll announce it when it is available for purchase on this site.
Moments of sensitivity to God’s presence happen in the oddest places—foxholes, pinned in a car wreck, hospital waiting rooms, lying in bed when you can’t sleep. People report God’s presence when life is unraveling, but also sitting on the porch on a quiet afternoon. Holding a baby. Counting blessings. Waking up and drinking coffee. Chance encounters. Prison cells, torture rooms, earthquakes and financial ruin. A meal with friends, a good book, listening to a hymn in church and singing to yourself. God can show up anywhere, unannounced.
I had one of those moments in a basement laundry room in a retreat center just before worship. I had spent a great deal of time alone that day, thinking, praying, and resting. That evening, we were scheduled to have communion in the chapel before dinner.By the SS
During free time that afternoon I took some laundry to the basement and sat there, alone, except for my old twelve
string guitar, which I had owned since the age of sixteen. I took along a hymnal to play and sing some songs to pass the time, and did a wide variety of songs. After a while, I stumbled upon an old favorite, “In the Garden.” Theologically sophisticated people do not generally like this hymn—it has no sense of the social or community, no ethics, no grand sweep of history or lofty notion of God. It is all personal and private.
The words “I, me and my” occur twenty times by the time you sing it all the way through, most notably as, “And he walks with me and he talks with me and he tells me I am his own.” It can be seen as a rather undeveloped view of faith, infantile and self-absorbed.
But as I sang it, something remarkable happened. I began to think about my grandfather, a self-taught worship leader in Baptist churches in NC who taught shaped-note singing schools. We moved from there when I has only seven. Until then, my grandfather was nearby and always present in my life.
I am from the old school. Because I am of Welsh ancestry, I am musical, emotional and mood-swingy passionate. But because I am an American man, I am half Marlboro cowboy. I only cried at the acceptable times—maybe once per grief, or, like my father in law, who said the only time he ever cried was getting kicked in the groin in football.
The only time American men can cry acceptably like little children is when their chosen sports team loses. Then they perform tantrums. They also cry watching certain movies and shows, but it always seems to be about something else.
Now, I sat in a windowless basement in California, singing “In the Garden,” when suddenly a vision of my dead grandfather came to my imagination, but now he was alive, singing with the hosts of heaven, and I felt the tears welling up. It was twenty-five years after I got the news.
Not that I had failed to grieve at all. The very first song I wrote, “The Last Freight Train,”(CLICK to listen)is where I put my loss. I wrote it around age fifteen, and the lyrics sound like a fifteen year old, but I made it the first cut on my first CD, “permanent world of pretend,” because it was my “starting place” in songwriting.
Grief can make you crazy, or, if you handle it halfway right, it can make you well. Up to you. Ignore it, and you can destroy everything around you without a clue why. Move through it and you can live for the first time like you were supposed to live. Running away is pretty common, of course, except this is more like running away to escape a terrible tattoo.
Music is a wonderful tool to put in your “grief box.” Since my grandfather, and my families on both sides, were singers and players, music helps me. But if you can’t play anything except a radio, music can help.
At our church, we are blessed to have an incredible musician, Dr. Terre Johnson, who leads our music. He is an amazing musician and minister, worked at Carnegie Hall for several years with a choral company there. He is a terrific arranger and composer of
choral music. He has written some astounding pieces for grief and out of grief. One, after a tornado hit a school in Alabama years ago, has been performed at the White House, an arrangement of “Come, Ye Disconsolate.” (LISTEN-click) He knows that the right music at the right moment can do more than soothe—it can elevate the moment above hopelessness and sorrow.
I say all of this because as a songwriter, I am always dealing with feelings of one kind or another—happiness, sadness, hope, fear, you name it. You want to feel something in a good song, not just talk about it. I write out of those wells of feeling. Disconnect from them and the song never happens.
You can drown in them, of course, but that’s another blog. The point isn’t to get stuck in sorrow, but to “man up” and stay in the room until the door opens into peace and acceptance.
I’ve met more than my share of crazy people in my line of work, and I’ve got to say many of them have some kind of terrible grief that they flounder around. And instead of moving into it, they run the other way and make themselves and the rest of us miserable with their determination to will it out of the picture. Too bad. A good cry on a regular basis or a healthy helpin’ of blues, hymns, an adagio or two, and they might climb out of the tarpit.
Next time I’ll share a list of my own favorite “grieving songs” over the years. Usually their significance has more to do with the synchronicity of occasion and song and not merely with the song itself.
Until then, don’t wait for a kick in the groin. Grief is a powerful secret that you can’t keep down in the basement forever. You don’t have to carry it around on your sleeve or talk to everyone. But find your way to sit with it, feel it, and draw on your faith to outwait it.
I nearly always prefer the hidden, obscure, local and unnoticed to the Big Stuff. Celebrity…zzz…even small pond big fish I find relatively uninteresting. It’s just all so predictable and often pompous. When I opened today’s Birmingham News, the top of the front page, as usual, was about Alabama and Auburn football, which is as always. You just have to understand that in Alabama, I would fully expect to see this on a front page:
TIDE LANDS FOUR FIVE STAR RECRUITS
AUBURN HOPES NEW DEFENSIVE COACH WILL “TURN THE TIDE”
NUCLEAR WAR PROBABLE IN NEXT FEW DAYS (Section B)
GOD SAYS ARMAGEDDON IS AT HAND
MARTIANS LAND ON EARTH
COACH SABAN COMMENTS ON NEW RECRUITS: “Next year looks bright,” Coach says at local Walmart.
Over the past year, while reading biographies of Elvis Presly, Sam Phillips, Hank Williams, and a host of other Alabamians, it was striking to see how powerful church music was in forming both their artistry and their musical imaginations. It took me back to all the little churches of my childhood, some great and some very, very small, but they all had a couple things in common. First, they were all Baptist churches, the Southern variety. As I heard people
say, “We were often more Southern than Baptist and more Baptist than Christian.” Who else would move to Wisconsin and plant a Southern Baptist Church because they didn’t have one? We did when I was in the sixth grade. Two families, mine and another, with about eight kids between us, launched a little church that is still there today.
Churches, for a long time, offered graded choirs, the only choirs I ever sang in, most of the musical training I received, and gave me most of the opportunities to sing in front of people regularly. Not to mention a vast collective memory of hymns.
If you knew how many of the great singers and performers in American entertainment began in the church and around gospel music, it would stagger the reader. Aretha Franklin? Started in church. I could go on but why? The entire early canon of country music was transmitted—and claimed for credit—by the Carter Family, but their musical teeth and a good bit of that canon came from the churches.
I am grateful for it all—anthems, quartets, homely sings around the piano on Sunday night. A way of life is disappearing. Church looks a lot like karaoke in too many places to me. But old hymns still take me back to a different time when we sang and played a lot. I am glad for it.
The German pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was martyred by Hitler for trying to overthrow the Nazis, came to New York and taught at Union Seminary before returning to die at Flossenburg. While here, he attended the Abyssinian Baptist Church where Adam Clayton Powell was pastor. He was mesmerized by the gospel singing and took albums back with him of the spirituals. He said that there, for the first time, religion changed for him from “phraseology to reality.” Don’t tell me the arts don’t matter.
It is a truism that when we need the arts the most we usually defund them, downsize them and de-emphasize them. When do you need songs more than during a Dustbowl, a Depression or a Great Recession? I know we need engineers and mathematicians and psychiatrists. But Lord Help us if none of ‘em can sing. Humorless and tone-deaf people create a lot of the misery in this world. So, a salute to the Ella Jones’ of the world for keeping us alive and giving yourselves to make us all better.
Some of those people who taught me how to sing, “Jesus wants me for a sunbeam” and “Jesus loves the little children” are long gone. But somewhere down in us, it is remembered after most of the sermons have turned back into empty space. It matters.