Singing like David
As I thought ahead to World Communion Sunday, Thanksgiving, and the prayers that arise around those celebrations, I began to reflect on our relationships with our neighbors, both nearby and around the world.
This year the plight of refugees has weighed heavily on many of our hearts. Zechariah reminds us, “Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor” (7:10). How can we then lift our voices to sing our prayers in solidarity with those fleeing for their lives? I am also mindful of the brokenness of our own communities. What can we sing when our communities are torn apart by violence, whether it is gun violence or the violence of hatred and oppression that we inflict on each other?
Given the grim realities of our aching world, how can we still “make a joyful noise to our God?” (Psalm 98, 100). Indeed, the challenge to celebrate and to praise God is made particularly poignant when we must do it amid a palpable heartsickness for the troubles of the world. Our commitment to Christian unity and ecumenical cooperation, which we celebrate on World Communion Sunday, is hampered by broken relationships and broken lives.
Liturgical theologian Don Saliers reminds us that we are called to prepare a radically inclusive table to which we can bring our full selves as an offering to God, whether we are grieving or praising. He tells us that at the heart of our table rites is God’s own vulnerability, expressed as divine kenosis (self-emptying). He recalls that the “world’s history of suffering and death, and the forces of injustice and oppression are figured in the cross” (Worship as Theology: Foretaste of Glory Divine, Abingdon Press, 1994, p. 67). Our own experiences of brokenness and suffering are therefore met by “God’s humanity made visible and palpable” (p. 61).
As the world’s “already” meets God’s “not yet,” we are invited to express deepest lamentation and longing as part of what Saliers calls expressing “humanity’s full stretch.” In this spirit, I offer four hymns as a way to express our “full stretch.” I am also always searching for ways not to just sing songs from other places, but to “to pray in new ways, and in solidarity with others who embody these sung prayers” (Michael Hawn, Gather into One: Praying and Singing Globally, Eerdmans, 2003, p. 250).
“God defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing.” (Deut. 10:18)
In Canada, many of us have been lucky enough to make our hopes and faith tangible by actively welcoming Syrian refugees to our country with food, friendship, housing, and clothing. We have been able to embody God’s wish for us expressed in Deuteronomy 10:18. This work is not without challenges, yet Canadian media abounds with buoyant stories about the living out of this call to be welcoming.
In that spirit, whether your community is able to welcome refugees or not, I offer this lively Arabic song, that we might sing it in solidarity with those struggling for peace in the Middle East and as a way to welcome those who arrive in the midst of our communities. It could be used at any point in the service. However, if this song is new to your congregation, it would be best to include it at a time when the congregation is really focused on singing and not distracted by other liturgical actions.
This version was transcribed by members of the Abrahams Herberge Lutheran Church in Beit Jala, Palestine. My sung translation is based on their literal translation from the Arabic, but I kept the original Arabic in the chorus, which is simple enough that the whole congregation can easily learn it. Teach the chorus before the service by modeling the first line and having the congregation repeat it and then doing the same with the second line. I suggest having a cantor or the choir sing stanza 1 and then having everyone join in on the second stanza. Or the cantor/choir could sing all the stanzas, with the congregation joining in exuberantly on the refrains.
This piece can be sung a capella, but I do recommend a small hand drum accompaniment, like a tambourine or a dumbek. The rhythm could range from a simple quarter/eighth/eighth repetition to a complex improvisation when an experienced percussionist is available (and once the congregation is comfortable with the melody). A solo instrument doubling the melody, like an oboe, clarinet, flute, violin, or saxophone would be a nice addition. If the musician is able, it would be appropriate to improvise above the melody line on the choruses of stanzas 3 and 4. Chords are included on the score for guitar or piano accompaniment, which should be strongly rhythmic, drawing out the percussive nature of the piece. If your praise team is adventurous, they could listen to the YouTube recording at tinyurl.com/immanuil and learn the accompaniment to this song.
Peace Comes Crying
Our brokenness is made particularly poignant as we pray for and with the victims of gun violence everywhere, and particularly in the escalation of violence against African Americans in the U.S. As I write, I find myself shaken by the news that there has also been a Canadian school shooting that resulted in the death of four people in the tiny remote community of La Roche, Saskatchewan. The teacher killed is someone known and loved in my extended circles. Our Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, expressed the grief of Canadians when he said that “as a nation, our heart is breaking.”
With words by New Zealander Shirley Erena Murray and music by Singaporean Lim Swee Hong, “Peace Comes Crying” is a fitting response. The first line, repeated at the end of each stanza, echoes a sense of grief at the violence of the world: “Peace comes crying through the world, crying for her life.” The simple aching melody could be played on a solo instrument like an oboe or flute to bring out the poignancy of the line as an introduction to the hymn. In fact, it would be fitting to sing the piece with only the melody line, entirely unaccompanied, like a chant. But Lim Swee Hong has also written a lovely Kyrie to support the melody and Shirley Erena Murray’s beautiful words. This Kyrie can be sung by a choir or schola cantorum, or it can be taught to the congregation so that a soloist can sing the melody. Indeed, the Kyrie can be sung on its own elsewhere in the service—as a prayer response, for instance—omitting the third line where the four-part texture stops.
Consider having a small group sustain the Kyrie as an ostinato. Then ask a soloist to sing the stanza. Have all the lower voices sing stanza 2 and all the upper voices stanza 3, or the other way around. Then have all voices sing the last stanza together. This mix of voices allows congregation members to experience contemplation as well as lamentation as we become witnesses to each others’ cries.
A gentle accompaniment on the organ with flute stops playing the Kyrie and a gentle solo stop, like an oboe, playing the melody, is a lovely alternative. It would also be fitting to support the singing with gentle accompaniment on the guitar or piano.
This hymn and the next are best suited to contemplative moments in the service, perhaps between readings, during communion, or at the time of prayers.
Hymn of Lament
In Canada, many of us are wrestling with the dark side of our missionary inheritance. As we contemplate the cultural genocide that has come to light through our Truth and Reconciliation process in response to the history of residential schools for aboriginal peoples, how can we possibly respond in song?
I suggest this newly written hymn, a collaboration between Canadian Ellen Clark-King and Lim Swee Hong. In the tradition of the psalms, this simple and longing text cries out to God. There are few hymn texts that express this kind of sentiment and fewer still that do it so elegantly. When we are faced with atrocities on the magnitude of the treatment of aboriginal peoples by settlers in Canada and the U.S., only a cry of anguish seems appropriate. “Out of the depths of fear we cry to you, O God. The world we know is shaken. Our certainties are lost.” Astonishingly, Clark-King stays with the uncertainty of grief and anguish; she doesn’t try to fix it. Yet there is a glimmer of hope at the end: “We turn to you in anguish in hope that you still hear. We are your own—where are you, God?”
Like “Peace Comes Crying,” this piece is well suited to a solo instrument and a simple, tender accompaniment on organ, piano, or guitar. The gentle chordal support offered under the melody would sound lovely with flute stops or soft reeds on the organ, and a solo stop for the melody. A piano could play it as written or arpeggiate the chords. Likewise, a gentle finger picking style on the guitar would be a suitable accompaniment. If a vocal ensemble is available at the church, this peace could be also sung a capella with singers singing a soft “oooh” on the accompanying parts. This piece would also be lovely as a musical offering from a solo singer, allowing the congregation to meditate on the words.
“Hymn of Lament” (like “Peace Comes Crying”) would also be an appropriate response to other circumstances, like the anguish of a community dealing with gun violence or as a way to simply acknowledge the reality of heartache in our lives and world. It could be a beautiful way to help a community or family express the grief of losing a loved one. I caution that the stark and beautiful language of the hymn, set so tenderly and longingly, may open up congregation members to unexpected emotions. It is important to anticipate such responses by making appropriate pastoral support available.
Si el Espíritu de Dios (If the Spirit of the Lord)
To close, I’d like to offer an utterly joyful thanksgiving suggestion: “Si el Espíritu de Dios” (“If the Spirit of the Lord”). This could be used in a service focused on World Communion or in a Thanksgiving service.
I learned this corito from a member of the Latino/Canadian Anglican congregation of San Estéban in downtown Toronto. It is an especially wonderful way to kick off a service or to send people on their way when a lively mood is desired. I suggest singing it in Spanish with a cantor leading the first part and the congregation joining in on the refrain. I have also provided a singable translation in English, if that is desired.
Each refrain, except the first one, has movements: orar/pray (hands clasped together), alabar/praise (hands raised), saltar (jump), danzar (danse), and reir (laugh—say “ha, ha”). Even the most reserved congregation member might get caught dancing (a little)! This song is an easy way to introduce the Spanish language to a congregation that might be uncomfortable singing in other languages. It is especially important to include pieces like this in contexts when Spanish speakers or people of Latino descent might be present.
The tune for this corito is very catchy. A syncopated but fairly straightforward rhythm can be greatly enhanced by rhythm instruments, especially claves or shakers. I would also strongly suggest guitars as the main accompanying instrument, preferably with someone who can play in a Latin American style, though an up-tempo vigorous folk strumming style works quite well also. If there is someone in your community who can play in a montuno piano style, that would add greatly to the feel of the piece. A soloist (saxophone or trumpet) can also add to the fiesta atmosphere, especially if it is someone who is comfortable playing with syncopated rhythms. And if your community has a praise band, this is sure to be a hit.
Since I learned this song I have found out that it is widely known among Latin Americans, who have been singing it for years. I have discovered in conversations with friends that this corito has been sung for many years in Cuba, Guatemala, Argentina, and elsewhere. It has also been sung for many years in parts of French-speaking Africa.
A version of it was published in 1978 and then reprinted in 1990 in the International Songbook for the Mennonite World Conference as an anonymous song from Latin America. Then in 1996, Fred Hammond recorded his own version as “The Spirit of the Lord,” on his album entitled The Spirit of David in 1996. It continues to move around the globe, especially versions based on Hammond’s, and is available in multiple arrangements. It’s identified as a “transnationalized” or “globalized” song, yet it is adapted distinctly in each local embodied expression. Particular local versions are associated with a strong sense of Christian identity and a universal Christian expression.
I note that the question of who owns the music could be said to be a Western preoccupation. Many of the communities that sing these songs reject notions of individual ownership and understand ownership as something that belongs to a community. In his writing on Latin American Pentecostal coritos like “El Espiritu de Dios,” well-known Latin American church music scholar Pablo Sosa observes that such songs
were usually not annotated, but transmitted orally and spontaneously in a worship context, and their authors not identified—either out of respect for the biblical text . . . or because the song was a collective creation or a melody already familiar to the communities” (Pablo Sosa, “Christian Music in Latin America since 1800” in Tim Dowley, Christian Music: a Global History, Fortress, 2011, p. 208).
For Latin American Christian communities, what matters is that they have taken on ownership of the song, shaping their own identities as Christians, making meaning in their own contexts.
Your praise team could listen to Hammond or any of the other many YouTube versions in order to make their own version. There are a wide range of styles available: from Anil Kant of India, to a light pop version by the GKPB Fajar Pengharapan group in Indonesia, to a country western version by a small U.S. Pentecostal Holiness congregation, to the Scandinavian metal rock version, to Petra, to a slow reverential Jewish version. Though the origin of the song is unclear, now it can be considered a truly transnational song. By recalling David, the great biblical singer and dancer, it reminds us that we are called to use our whole bodies to praise God. What better occasion than when we offer our thanksgiving!
In the community of Holy Trinity where I served for many years in downtown Toronto, the English-speaking congregation learned the song for bilingual services that were shared with our Spanish-speaking sisters and brothers in San Estéban. We even sang it on Easter Sunday! Everyone loved to sing it and to move to it—young and old, Spanish- and English-speaking. A simple text like this with movement allows space for maximum or minimum participation.
I always recall the refugee who taught this song to me, and I offer it now to you as a prayer for those who are far from home, seeking peace, seeking safety, seeking community.
As I draw my own reflections on singing our lamentation and joy in celebration of World Communion and Thanksgiving, I offer a responsive prayer that could be used in any of the contexts described above. It beautifully encapsulates the range of “humanity’s full stretch” and draws us toward our God, who is with us even in times of doubt and anguish.
Affirmation of Faith
(from the Iona Abbey Worship Book, Wild Goose Publications, 2003, p. 74)
Leader: In the midst of hunger and war
All: We celebrate the promise of plenty and peace.
Leader: In the midst of oppression and tyranny
All: We celebrate the promise of service and freedom.
Leader: In the midst of doubt and despair,
All: We celebrate the promise of faith and hope.
Leader: In the midst of fear and betrayal,
All: We celebrate the promise of joy and longing.
Leader: In the midst of hatred and death,
All: We celebrate the promise of love and life.
Leader: In the midst of sin and decay
All: We celebrate the promise of salvation and renewal.
Leader: In the midst of death on every side
All: We celebrate the promise of the living Christ.