Giving Voice to Justice
Back in the days when I was responsible for song selection in worship, I found that there were frustrating gaps in the repertoire of most of the churches I served. It was easy to find songs about God’s love for us or our love for God, but it was much harder to find something that gave voice to horizontal relationships. (Don’t ask how many times I settled for using “They’ll Know We Are Christians by Our Love”!) I also had quite a selection of songs that encouraged going out to faraway places in missional service, but not many that focused on personal transformation for the mission of justice and mercy in our own homes, cities, and relationships.
In the selections for this issue of “Noteworthy,” I am pleased to introduce you to songs that fill in those gaps. These songs remind us that justice is not just something we do, it is a core characteristic of being Christian.
Several of these songs were recently field-tested in an Ecumenical Service of Unity involving the churches of the University Park area of Denver. Tony Haas, the music director at the local Catholic church, and I planned a service that invited the congregation to thank God for the example of unity we find in the Trinity, to confess our own participation in breaking bonds of unity by having competitive and condescending spirits toward one another, and to celebrate our unity in Christ that opens us to diversity of expression.
While the service itself didn’t elaborate on specific justice issues this year, we recognized that the ways we treat our brothers and sisters in the faith is a foundation of the ways we treat others in the world. Justice begins at home. We hope that we will have more influence in our community for justice and mercy when we agree to be fair and kind to one another.
“Let Justice Flow”
Composer Douglas Romanow is an award-winning producer and gifted songwriter based in Toronto. These talents, combined with his personal commitment to public justice, are what drew two organizations that champion justice and mercy to commission Romanow to write their anniversary songs. Recently, Romanow wrote “We Sing Hallelu” for the 50th anniversary of World Renew (worldrenew.net). Twenty years ago, Citizens for Public Justice (cpj.ca) commissioned him to write “Let Justice Flow.”
The title and text of this song (LUYH 295) clearly reflect Amos 5:24: “But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” The refrain captures the text with an opening phrase expressing hope that justice will come and a second phrase that requires the singer to participate in this coming justice: “let righteousness flow through us forever.” The stanzas specify groups of people for whom justice needs to flow: people who are hungry, orphans, war victims, people who are homeless, prisoners, and those in the justice system.
This is a catchy song, and it will be easy to learn the chorus in just one try. Soloists could sing the stanzas, allowing the congregation to clearly hear the many places where God’s justice is needed in our communities and our world. Note that the last two measures of the chorus “flow down” the scale, mimicking the call for justice to flow down, and the words ask God to lead his people into an unending stream of righteousness. You could emphasize the personal commitment by repeating those two measures several times as you conclude this song.
It’s easy to imagine “Let Justice Flow” played by a band with guitars, djembe, shakers, or a full drum kit enhancing the rhythm that is already embedded in the melody. If you don’t have those instruments, or if that’s not your style of worship, a piano or organ can also provide rhythmic accompaniment. In fact, voices alone would be an excellent choice for this song’s chorus.
“We Sing Hallelu” (or “Sing Hallelu”)
Files with the words and music of this song can be found at worldrenew.net/50th-anniversary—scroll to the bottom of the page and click on the zip file for the “Hallelu song.” For an inspiring and fun video version of the song, visit tinyurl.com/SingHallelu.
“Koinonia” with “Oh, How I Love Jesus”
Koinonia is a directed transliteration from the Greek κοινωνία, meaning “fellowship.” The text of this song by V. Michael McKay (LUYH 258) confesses our common failure to obey Jesus’ words that have become known as “The Great Commandment,” or the “summary of the law.” The lyrics assume that we are more likely to profess love for God in our prayers and songs than we are to embrace people who are right near us.
The opening lines pose a thoughtful question, but it’s possible for it to get lost in its length: “How can I say that I love the Lord whom I’ve never, ever seen before and forget to say that I love the one whom I walk beside each and every day?” As you teach the song, guide your congregation to see beyond the new notes and rhythms and grasp the entire question, admitting the common gap between our profession of loving God and our active love for others.
You might use this as a confessional response after the reading of the summary of the law. It would also fit well following a sermon based on one of many texts in which God’s people are taught to show love to one another. In the Ecumenical Service of Unity in Denver, Tony and I chose this song as the call to confession, and we approached it by first singing several choruses of “Oh, How I Love Jesus” (LUYH 676). The congregation was engaged in our lengthy time of mutual greeting—we wander around, greeting and hugging one another, so it gets quite noisy. After a few minutes, the musicians started singing “Oh, How I Love Jesus” over the hubbub, and people began to sing along. After a few times through the chorus we were all together, and then we transitioned into “Koinonia.”
Singing a familiar, simple song like “Oh, How I Love Jesus” served both as an object lesson and as a companion. It demonstrated how easily songs of love for God roll off our tongues, setting us up for the confession that it’s harder to say “I love you” to those around us. Pairing the songs also gave the congregation something comfortable to lean on while they were learning the new song.
These songs look like they fit together since they’re both in E-flat and they both have the triplet feel in either 6/8 or 9/8. But tempo is the key to success. You have options, but be sure to decide on one of them ahead of time and communicate with whomever else is playing with you. One option is to sing both songs at the same tempo; somewhere around (♪=180) will work well. The dotted quarter notes of both songs will take up the same amount of time, but there’s still a change in the feel because you’ll be moving from a sense of two strong beats to three in each measure. The music leaders need to be confident about this switch.
Another option is to play much slower on “Oh, How I Love Jesus” (♪=90-100), and three times faster on “Koinonia” (♪=270-300). This arrangement will match one dotted quarter note of “Oh, How I Love Jesus” with an entire measure of “Koinonia.” If you feel “Koinonia” in three beats, it may be easier to think of (♩=90).
While I enjoy the slower pace for the first song—partly because it allows the instruments space for a gospel triplet feel—I’ll agree that it feels very fast for the second song. But before you scrap the idea, listen to this version of “Koinonia” directed by the composer, and decide if your congregation can keep up and understand the words well enough to try it: tinyurl.com/KoinoniaSong.
A third option is to set a different tempo for each of the songs—one that fits your congregation’s singing—and use the four 9/8 bars at the end of “Koinonia” or play from the beginning to the first repeat to adjust from one speed to the next. As I’ve already mentioned, it’s important to communicate and practice this transition with others. We learned this lesson the hard way as our congregation stumbled through the transition because the musicians had different tempos in mind.
This arrangement of “Oh, How I Love Jesus” in E-flat with lots of fun extras for the keyboard player will work best at a slower tempo. If you decide to play the song faster, eliminate some of the triplets and focus on the dotted quarter note chords.
“We Are Your People”
“We Are Your People” (text by Brian Wren, music by Larry Schultz; LUYH 248) reminds me a bit of the camel-like pushmi-pullyu in the stories of Dr. Doolittle. This mythical creature with two heads could eat and talk at the same time without being rude! Like the pushmi-pullyu, the text of “We Are Your People” accomplishes several important tasks at the same time: it reflects on both internal transformation and external behavior, it speaks of both communal life and missional life, and it is both profession and confession. It seems to say: “This is who we are. Now help us to be the best we can be—in community, in diversity, in unity.”
In the Unity Service, we placed “We Are Your People” after the sermon as the song of commitment, but it fits well in many other parts of a worship service: as a gathering song, a call to worship, a response to renewal, a mutual blessing, or a parting song.
Because this song was new to our combined congregation and we were going to sing it at the end of the service, we wanted to give the congregation a fighting chance to sing well. So before the prelude began, the song leader taught “We Are Your People” to the congregation, singing a stanza for them and then having them sing just two stanzas as a warm-up. This is an excellent technique that, when done with warmth and invitation, conveys a sense of welcome and unity as the congregation takes ownership of learning together and engages in worship even before the prelude begins.
My favorite feature of “We Are Your People” is that the last line of each stanza is repeated. These are challenging lines that we might want to sing quickly and then move on, but instead we are confronted with them a second time. Are we committed enough to sing them twice? Note stanza 3: “Rich in diversity, help us to live closer than neighbors, open to strangers, able to clash and forgive”—and then we have to sing it again: “able to clash and forgive.”
Those repeated phrases are spotlighted by the 9/8 measure, giving double time to the last three words. Count this 9/8 measure carefully to allow for the hemiola feel of the quarter notes against the dotted quarters. When I first sat down to play this song, I completely missed the time signature change and ran right over it, missing both the musical twist and the emphasis on the text.
I’ve found myself whistling this melody often, and I’ll bet it will stick with you, too. I can hear a lovely flute part on the interlude, so it made sense to write something for the whole song. A violin or another light instrument would also work well on the parts shown here.
“Blest Be God”
One of the privileges of writing these “Noteworthy” articles has been the opportunity to hear about the lives of the composers and lyricists and discover the backstories of their songs. When we learn directly from these writers, we put basic hermeneutical principles to work, examining the song in its original context before interpreting it for use in our own contexts. I hope the following words of Dr. Salvador T. Martinez, who wrote “Blest Be God” (LUYH 285), will encourage you and your congregation to prayerfully connect yourselves to those who serve and suffer for the sake of Christ around the world and inspire you to engage in matters of justice locally and globally.
Dr. Martinez has been a professor and leader in various schools and organizations in the Philippines and Thailand. I wrote to ask him about the origins of his song “Blest Be God,” and he replied with this moving story:
“Blest Be God” was written on a cold, gloomy, rainy night in Chiang Mai, Thailand, in 1989. I was then the executive secretary of the Commission on Theological Concerns of the Christian Conference of Asia. Earlier that year, the Singapore government banished our office from Singapore on charges of “subversive activities.” The staff was scattered in four different places: Hong Kong, Manila, Thailand, and Osaka. It was a very difficult time for our organization.
We were also preparing for our 1990 mission conference on the theme “The Mission of God in the Context of the Struggling and Suffering Peoples of Asia.” I was looking for a theme song for the mission conference. I began to hear tunes and was inspired to write the lyrics right there and then, with the theme of the conference in mind.
Like the prayer the Lord taught us, the first part of the song is an exaltation of God’s greatness and compassion. And because God is that kind of God, the second stanza shows that we can call on God to help suffering and struggling humankind. The third stanza acknowledges that all this is possible because we have known Christ through his words and deeds; through him we have come to know true divinity and true humanity, true love and compassion, greatness and humility.
The beautiful haunting tune is dandansoy. It is a song that comes from the Visayan island of Negros Occidental where Hiligaynon or Ilonggo is spoken in the Philippines. It tells of a girl who leaves a boy named Dandansoy to go back home. It tells of the suffering of a person in despair who seeks for justice. While it is a love song, the tune lends itself to singing God’s love as well.
To help your congregation sustain the long holds, add a quiet but persistent ostinato in the lower line. Using steady eighth notes, play a G for lines one and three, and a D for lines two and four, resolving at the end of each line to match the chord.
“We Are Called”; “What Does the Lord Require of You”
One of the most well-known verses directing God’s people into righteous living is Micah 6:8: “What does the Lord require of you? To act justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” I found two songs that focus on this text and couldn’t decide between them, so I include them both for you here.
“We Are Called” (LUYH 296) by David Haas has been sung all over the world at youth events and in worship settings. It is well suited for a variety of musical instrumentation. Here are three variations that will introduce you to the possibilities for this song:
- You can hear the basic melody here: tinyurl.com/WeAreCalled
- I also found this example of solo voice and piano in a slow ballad style: youtube.com/watch?v=CDljPsRIryo.
- This version features an enthusiastic group of young people accompanied by organ, guitars, drums, strings, and percussion: youtube.com/watch?v=jgomtIc1_yc.
“What Does the Lord Require of You” (LUYH 713) is a song that your congregation might want to adopt as a regular part of worship. Perhaps it could be your sending song for the coming year, or serve as a response to renewal for a season.
Written by Jim Strathbee, this song has three distinct parts that layer beautifully when sung as a round. To learn it, sing each line on its own first before blending lines one and two and then all three parts. The choir can serve as worship leaders, perhaps singing this for the congregation one week, then the next week separating themselves into three groups and standing in front of the congregation to lead the three sections. By the third week, embedding choir members in the three groups of the congregation will add courage and strength to the singing. From then on, your congregation will sing with confidence.