Songs for Worldwide Communion
One of my favorite churches is the beautiful Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles, California. While this church has many striking and meaningful features, I especially love the majestic earth-toned tapestries hung along each side of the nave.
The tapestries depict 135 saints and holy people representing every age and region of the world. They are hung so that the figures all stand facing the front of the cathedral with hands raised in prayer. Ancient saints such as Augustine mingle with recognizable modern saints such as Mother Teresa. Artist John Nava used men, women, and children of all races as models, giving his figures a realism that celebrates the diversity and beauty of all people. The artwork is called “The Communion of the Saints.”
How wonderful to have such a vivid reminder that whenever we worship, we are joining the ceaseless worship of God in all times and places! When you and I worship, we join Christians in Sierra Leone and Prince Edward Island, in Sri Lanka and Romania and Venezuela. We join Syrian Christians from the fourth century and French Christians from the twelfth. We join all the heavenly hosts and creatures on earth below to give our praise to God. No matter how small, plain, and ordinary our particular congregation, we are still part of this glorious throng.
One important and visible sign of this unity is the Lord’s table, where people gather “from east and from west, from north and from south” to feast at the kingdom of God. Even when we worship only with those from our church neighborhood, we join in spiritual communion with people all around the world in “re-membering” the Body of Christ.
So every week—whether that week is designated “Worldwide Communion Sunday” or not, it is altogether fitting for our congregations to use words and music (and more!) from many peoples and cultures in order to enlarge our vision of God’s kingdom and to situate ourselves properly and humbly within it.
In the relatively peaceful West, we can join our voices with Kenyan Christians who are suffering political turmoil and ethnic strife and declare that Jesus Christ is the Rock—our one source of strength and redemption.
In a culture dominated by the English language, we can wrap our tongues around Spanish song lyrics, remembering how many more Christians worship God each week in that tongue than in our own.
In a land of immigrants, we can learn the peace of God from the gentle rhythms and harmonies native Polynesian peoples use to profess their confidence in God’s faithfulness.
And in a world of increasing globalization, when we sing along with the church in China, our confident prayer that one day every created thing will give blessing and honor and glory to Jesus Christ (Rev. 5:13) receives a global “Amen.”
What follows are four songs to help congregations worship in precisely these expansive ways, celebrating the goodness of God along with the communion of the saints. The songs are not expressly about the Lord’s Supper, but are all fitting for celebration of the sacrament.
Here on Jesus Christ I Will Stand (Kwake Yesu Nasimama)
While in Uganda a year ago at a worship conference, church musician Greg Scheer learned this beautiful song of hope and confidence from some visiting Kenyans. It was clearly one of their favorites. Since bringing it back to the United States, Greg has heard from others who recognize it from their time in East Africa.
Greg’s friends translated the original Swahili lyrics sung at their church very literally into English, and then Greg paraphrased them into a more singable version. The lyrics track so closely to the verses of the Toplady hymn “Rock of Ages” that the Swahili may very well be an indigenization of that classic church song, first given as a gift by Western missionaries to Kenyan Christians, and now given back to us.
The first verse speaks of a storm and flood raging about, and finding one’s only hiding place in Christ. The refrain then testifies: “Here on Jesus Christ I will stand, he’s the solid rock of my life.” The second verse speaks of giving praise on account of the forgiveness earned through Christ’s work, and the final verse takes an eschatological turn, imagining a last judgment without fear because of Christ’s righteousness.
All these themes and images—blood, forgiveness, redemption, praise, Christ’s righteousness, and gathering around the throne—provide multiple points of connection with the multi-layered meaning of a Lord’s Supper celebration.
The song’s simple syncopation is easy to learn, and the tempo can be varied. As an enthusiastic praise song, it can clip along at 136 beats per minute (bpm), accompanied by piano, guitars, and some supplemental percussion. But I’ve also heard it done nearly a cappella at a much slower 80 bpm on a Sunday when a congregation was still reeling from the unexpected death of a beloved member. On that Sunday, the song was a beautiful testimony to Christ, the “solid rock.”
It is very nearly a perfect praise chorus—it can be learned in one singing; it’s simple but not trite; it focuses on the work of Jesus rather than on us; and the IV chord on the downbeat lets you sing it a number of times without feeling finished. In fact, it could easily work in a medley with a related song, such as “My Hope Is Built on Nothing Less.”
Many of the global songs we know in the West come through World Council of Churches channels, but since most of the global south is Pentecostal it’s nice to add to our repertoire a non-Western song that is essentially a praise song at its core—pop music with evangelical lyrical content.
In many churches of the global South, the preaching of the Word is often followed by a time of response: a ministry of prayer and healing, often accompanied by an anointing with oil and the laying on of hands symbolizing the invocation of the Holy Spirit. In many Western congregations, this ancient practice has been adopted as a supplement to Lord’s Supper celebrations—a way to become more aware of the Spirit’s work in the church (and, not coincidentally, more open to tangible signs of God’s sacramental grace). As the congregation communes (usually by coming forward to receive in groups), elders and other church leaders are available nearby for those who wish to go to them for prayer and healing.
Healing, in this context, is understood quite broadly: not merely as recovery from a physical ailment, however small or significant, but rather as a return to wholeness and the flourishing shalom God intends for all. Likewise, anointing in this context is not merely pouring oil and blessing someone, but it refers to the ongoing process of sanctification by which the Holy Spirit works within each of us to free us from sin and the pain it causes.
This popular song from Puerto Rico, then, is perfectly suited for use on just such occasions. The lyrics in Spanish are simple enough for native English speakers to manage, and, sung at a gentle tempo (about 68 bpm) atop gentle arpeggiation from a piano or guitar, can withstand a number of repetitions by adding and subtracting instruments and texture to facilitate the ebb and flow of the song.
The music offered here is in “lead sheet” format typically used by musicians who read chord charts and who are able to improvise the particular arrangement they will play based on the instruments available and the leading of the Spirit in the moment.
Chip Andrus, a Presbyterian pastor in Harrison, Arkansas, tells of the time he was in Montreat, North Carolina, for a youth conference when Jorge Gonzales and a group of about a dozen students from Puerto Rico gathered around a hotel piano and began singing “La Unción.” In a short time, a significant crowd had assembled, holding each other and singing with a depth of emotion that the simple chorus made possible.
Faithful Is Our God (Kamana O ‘I’ O)
When I arranged music for my own congregation’s Worldwide Communion service last year, the Revised Common Lectionary assigned the familiar “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” text (Lam. 3:19-26) as the “Psalm.” We will often read the lectionary psalm antiphonally, with the congregation singing a short musical refrain at certain natural reflection points in the reading of the text. Looking for something easy to learn, something fitting for the theme (God’s faithfulness in the face of hardship), and something from the global church, I found “Kamana O ‘I’ O,” a lovely Polynesian chorus from Hawaii.
The song has a gentle confidence, and should be sung no faster than 80 bpm. The guitar is an instrument at home in Hawaii, and so fits this song well as the primary accompaniment. Add a flute on the melody, and perhaps a soft shaker playing a consistent eighth-note pattern.
If you wish to continue the music softly underneath the reading of the text, the guitar could repeatedly play the first line. A choir or other vocalists could also hum that line, but without any rhythmic articulation, as if humming half-notes at each chord change. Cue the congregation to sing by moving to a ii-V7 turnaround (Am7-D7).
Another musical possibility is to have the choir sing the Hawaiian words “Kamana o ‘i’ o, o ko ka kou akua” after which the congregation responds with the English translation: “Faithful, faithful is our God.”
This theme is, of course, fitting for a congregation’s celebration of the Lord’s Supper or for antiphonal use in many Psalms, including 31, 111, and even 69.
According to Chinese musician Swee Hong Lim, Chinese music is all about the melody—about symmetry and simplicity and the perfection of its line. The pentatonic melody of the benedictory Amen (SNC 290) is characterized by this sort of beauty. It is a single musical idea stretched out so that it contains qualities of both eternity and completeness. It works most fittingly, then, at the conclusion of a worship service.
The arrangement suggestion offered in the Leader’s Edition of Sing! A New Creation provides the melody and a countermelody (the melodic pitches stated in reverse). Another accompanying option that helps a congregation to hear the distinctively Asian tone of this song is to play the melody in a high range, adding an octave and a fourth below the melody. Arpeggiate this partial chord, punctuating the song with low Ds (again in octaves) in the left hand both before singing and again between the two lines. A tranquil pace (54 for a half note) and the addition of wind chimes or finger cymbals will help your congregation to consciously add its Amen to those of their Chinese sisters and brothers.