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Singing the Sovereignty of Christ

The coming liturgical season is one in which we reflect on the mystery of the Easter event, witness Christ’s ascension, and participate in the stirring day of Pentecost. It is a time focused on the departure of the Christ, whose earthly ministry turned lives and prophecies upside down and who reigns as the sovereign Lord of all.

Theologies of the heavenly sovereignty of Christ that emerge from these post-Easter narratives are strongly bound up with imagery of the earth and our responsibility for the care of God’s creation. The heritage of this eco-theology is grounded in the psalms; the ancient Hebrew community sang, “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it; for he has founded it on the seas, and established it on the rivers.” The prophet Amos cried, “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream!” Genesis establishes humanity’s first home as a garden, the same setting in which Christ spoke anguished prayers on Maundy Thursday. Paul speaks of the whole creation “groaning as in labor pains” as he exhorts his communities to live out the example of Christ.

Writers such as Barbara Rossing have pointed out the damaging quality of theologies that do not place value on creation. “[Although] Revelation proclaims a ‘new heaven and a new earth,’” she warns, “that does not mean that God gives us a replacement for this current earth when we damage it beyond recovery.”

The idea that “the earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it” also intersects with Mark 12, in which Jesus verbally spars with the Pharisees and Herodians over paying taxes. Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan point out that when asked the trap-question “Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” Jesus turns the question on its head by arguing that the very land we live on is borrowed from the Creator. Borg and Crossan write, “Recall Leviticus 25:23, which says that all are tenant farmers or resident aliens on land that belongs to God. The vineyard belongs to God, not to the local collaborators, not to Rome. Indeed, the whole earth belongs to God. . . . What belongs to Caesar? The implication is, nothing” (The Last Week, HarperOne, 2006, p. 65).

Rossing agrees that we live in a borrowed vineyard, and she is troubled by theologies that emphasize Revelation 21’s image of the “former” earth passing away in favor of a new one. She sees the possibility of a different reading of Revelation in a beloved children’s novel, The Last Battle, the concluding installment of C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. In a closing scene that seems to be a vision of heaven, Lewis describes, according to Rossing, “going through a door more deeply into God’s picture, into the world. The travelers slowly come to realize that the place is the very same place as the world they left behind. . . . but everything is more radiant. The color blue is bluer. It is ‘more like the real thing’” (The Rapture Exposed, Basic Books, 2004, p. 8).

There are many hymns and songs that celebrate the beauty of creation. Some are descriptive, seeing God’s handiwork in the natural beauty of life (“All Things Bright and Beautiful,” “For the Beauty of the Earth”). Other more recent hymnody has begun to give voice to the need for justice and stewardship of God’s garden.

In this season in which we celebrate and contemplate the sovereignty of Christ, let us also sing and live out our love and care for the earth, acknowledging that the place where we stand is holy ground.

“O God, You Planted a Garden”

Background

The song “O God, You Planted a Garden” was written for the 10th Assembly of the World Council of Churches (WCC), which occurs once every seven years and took place most recently in November 2013 in Busan, Republic of Korea. The song, which focuses on the human relationship to the earth following the departure from the garden of Eden, picks up the assembly’s theme, “God of Life, Lead Us to Justice and Peace” and turns it into a rallying refrain. The songs of composer and guitarist Andrew Donaldson, who serves as worship consultant to the WCC, are rich in scriptural allusion in the manner of other hymnists such as Fred Pratt Green, John Thornburg, and fellow Canadian Gordon Light. The song’s prophetic edge makes it a good fit for a service focused on themes of justice and creation care, as it turns the image of departing from Eden into a reflection on our culpability in pollution and climate change.

Analysis

Donaldson begins each stanza with a reference to God’s formative act of planting a garden as a home for humanity “eastward in Eden.” “You formed us there, you named us there,” stanza 1 begins, alluding to Adam’s formation “from the dust of the ground” and so to humanity’s innate humility or “closeness to the earth.” Following stanza 1, Donaldson diverts the narrative from the familiar one of Eve’s culpability in partaking of the apple to one of humanity’s culpability in the ongoing exploitation of the earth’s natural resources. First “we plucked, we ate,” then “we mined, we drilled, we squandered, spilled,” and, echoing creation’s groaning in labor pains in Romans 8, “now all earth cries out for release.” The confessional, urgent imagery of each stanza culminates in a stirring one-line petition: “Lead us in your way of justice, O God. Lead us in your way of peace.” The shift in tone from stanza to refrain is emphasized by a temporary harmonic shift from E minor to E major. Donaldson comments that in writing this song he wanted the lyrics to emphasize our continuing participation in this story, which is grounded in the creation narrative of Genesis: “The point of the story is not that it happened, but that it happens.”

Harmonically, the stanzas move through a circle of fifths, beginning in measure 5 with A minor and moving through dominant relationships (D major, G major, C major, and so on). Donaldson employed this progression, which for musicians trained in a Western idiom has a strong sense of forward harmonic pull, in order to mirror the driving compulsion evoked by the text. “Then I spiked it with flat tenth chords,” Donaldson notes, his training in classical and jazz guitar showing through.

Performance Suggestions

The style of this song invites accompaniment by one or more guitars (electric, acoustic, or steel-string), piano or keyboard, and hand percussion, cajón, or drum kit (perhaps using rutes or brushes). The melody could be supported by recorder, violin, or flute (consider taking the melody up the octave in places), or a combination. If you have multiple instrumentalists, experiment with changing the instrumentation for the four-measure refrain to support timbrally the change in key and narrative tone.

A music ensemble called Lift! associated with the Lutheran Church in Hungary has made an imaginative realization of “O God, You Planted a Garden” that is available on YouTube (tinyurl.com/LiftGarden). As this group does, consider adding one or more bars of instrumental “vamp” on E major following the refrain before a new stanza starts. This allows some musical (and literal) breathing space.

In using this piece in worship, build in some time—perhaps near the start of the service—to teach the melody to the congregation. Consider teaching the refrain first, using a lining-out technique; this approach of “beginning with the end,” so to speak, not only allows you to start with the simpler material but gives a satisfying sense of arrival once the more complex material is learned. Next, demonstrate the melody of the stanza in short phrases, with light harmonic support, having the congregation echo back as you go. Once you have taught the melody in chunks, sing the whole thing through. By the time you come to sing it in worship, the song will already feel like a familiar friend. This song and many other newly-composed selections are available in Hosanna! Ecumenical Songs of Justice and Peace, an ecumenical and multilingual collection in the spirit of the Busan Assembly.

“Lament for the Earth”

Background

Communities familiar with the texts of Shirley Erena Murray will recognize the prophetic tone that characterizes “Lament for the Earth,” which like Donaldson’s hymn begins its call to justice with the image of the garden of Eden. Murray has already given voice to the call to care for the hungry and poor, welcome the stranger, and pursue justice for those marginalized by status, race, gender identity, or sexual orientation in hymns such as “Child of Joy and Peace,” “For Everyone Born,” “Community of Christ,” and many others.

Recently, Murray has consciously turned her efforts toward articulating an insistent eco-theology in song. Writing from New Zealand, Murray’s engagement with the Pacific Islands makes her and those around her intensely aware of the effects of climate change on their way of life. Responding to the developing effects of climate change that disproportionately affect the world’s poorest and most vulnerable populations, Murray’s recent hymn laments the melting of ice floes, widespread loss of habitat, and depletion of natural resources as the human invalidation of a contract made with us in Eden.

Analysis

Murray’s well-known text “Touch the Earth Lightly,” written in 1991, is an exhortation to “use the earth gently,” treating with care and respect the world that is ours, as Psalm 24 suggests, only on temporary loan. Its compelling line “let there be greening, birth from the burning” brings to mind the surge of new growth that can follow a forest fire as heat from the burning pops open the pinecones and seed pods. It also hints at the image of the mythical phoenix, who rises from the ashes of its predecessor like the dawn of a new sun.

The tone of “Touch the Earth Lightly” is insistent but plaintive, concluding with a call for unity of Christ’s people as servants of each other and of the earth. Some 25 years on, in contrast to this, “Lament for the Earth” is a frank call to action on behalf of a world whose care we have neglected, even scorned. Long-gone is the confident pastoralism of “All Things Bright and Beautiful.” Like “O God, You Planted a Garden,” “Lament for the Earth” draws on scriptural imagery to voice its prophetic message. Murray references Romans 8 with the line “now all creation groans as nature changes form,” a reference that suggests, like Paul’s letter exhorting a radical change in community consciousness, that we are called to hard self-examination of our part in “desolation’s day.”

Performance Suggestions

Murray’s lament would be most effective if sung from an invitational stance, particularly by saying a few words about it to establish the context—and even set the stage—for its message prior to inviting the community to share in singing it. Swee Hong Lim, in composing his tune CARTERET ISLANDS, was also concerned with the impact of the text. Located in the South Pacific and forming part of Papua New Guinea, the Carteret or Tulun Islands have recently been affected by serious flooding as climate change causes water levels to rise. The storms and floods of salt water have eroded land areas, swept away homes, destroyed local crops, and contaminated supplies of fresh water, turning many of the island’s inhabitants into climate change refugees.

Murray’s text repeatedly uses the line “the greening of all life is dying in our care,” and it is this message that Lim wished to foreground with his poignant tune. He kept the tune very simple; the drone-like harmonic underpinning could be supplied by a lightly-voiced organ or keyboard, with flute or oboe supporting the melody. Lim’s many hymns and songs draw on a wide variety of musical influences, including many from across the Asian continent, resulting in what ethnomusicologist I-to Loh might refer to as “a pan-Asian idiom.” Lim describes this tune as a kind of minimalist Tibetan- or Korean-style meditative song, whose spare harmony and stepwise, deliberate melody foreground the weight of the text.

Where “O God, You Planted a Garden” ends with a rallying cry to action, the prophetic message of “Lament for the Earth” is more open-ended, uncertain, even longing. This open-ended quality would make it an excellent choice in worship as a lead-in to another liturgical action. Consider using this hymn as a communal meditation prior to a sermon on climate change, or leading in to some other form of call to action. It would also be effective if single stanzas were interspersed within a sermon or message on eco-theology and climate justice.

It is tempting in worship to want to “wrap things up,” to end a hymn or worship action on a positive and conclusive note. Hymns like “Lament for the Earth” resist this impulse, holding us instead in a place of poignancy, dissatisfaction, or unsettlement; the congregational song equivalent of the tense moment just after Jesus had overturned the tables in the temple and no one knew who to look at. If we can trust moments of uncertainty such as this and make room for them, the Spirit may lead communities, congregations—and even us, the planners—in surprising and revelatory directions.

“Let Justice Flow”

Background

This driving stanza/chorus song with a contemporary feel was written as a theme song for the Canadian lobbying organization Citizens for Public Justice. Based in the capital, Ottawa, and comprising some 1,500 individuals, participating churches, and religious orders, this organization describes itself as “inspired by faith to work for justice.” Their stated goal is to work toward a better Canada in which no one lives in poverty, where care for the earth is a way of life, where refugees are treated fairly, and where the rights of Aboriginal people are respected. Through research and analysis, publishing, and public dialogue, they work to keep public justice front and center in policy debates. This song, written by Douglas Romanow—an accomplished Canadian songwriter, producer, and member of the Christian Reformed Church—articulates some of these motivating concerns. It echoes Amos 5 in calling on justice to flow down like a river to the mouths of the hungry, to the streets of the homeless, and through the courts of our nation. This song appears in the hymnal Lift Up Your Hearts #295 with melody and piano accompaniment and in Reformed Worship 112 p. 17.

Performance Suggestions

Where text is the most important concern of Shirley Erena Murray’s “Lament for the Earth,” rhythm is the motivating feature of “Let Justice Flow.” The chorus in particular should be sung with a sense of drive and pulse, like you might sing along to a Top 40 song on the radio.

The melody line could be brought out by trumpet, saxophone, or one or more violins. The style lends itself to a rhythm-section accompaniment style, with a driving piano rounded out by electric or acoustic guitar, drums, and bass. A drum kit would be appropriate with this song; if none is available but you want to evoke the spirit of this sound, consider splitting it up among various hand percussion. The djembe can provide a basic pulse in the manner of a bass drum, whether simple or with improvised inner-beat embellishments.

The higher kit sounds can be created by another player combining the sound of crisp high shakers (such as egg shakers) on the sixteenth-note divisions with tambourine attacks on beats 2 and 4. This is done by playing the shakers with your dominant hand while holding the tambourine in the other hand; the attacks on 2 and 4 are done by whacking the edge of the tambourine with the back or side of the shaker-playing hand.

Consider varying the accompanimental texture to create variety across the singing of the song. You could employ the full band only on the chorus, then pull back to piano or rhythm section for the stanzas. A score with guitar tablature and a descant for a melody instrument is included on page 24.

The chorus following the final stanza is a chance for some improvisatory play with your congregation; consider repeating the final chorus several times as the spirit is captured by the gathered singers. Vary the repetitions, and consider throwing in an extra a cappella chorus with percussion only. You might have the congregation sing throughout, or distribute the stanzas among soloists; consider also varying the congregational texture by having women sing stanza 1, men sing stanza 2, and all sing stanza 3. To conclude the song, you might like to turn the final line of the chorus (m. 8-9) into a repeated “tag,” repeating it two or three times as the singing comes to a close. An instrumental rendition of the chorus makes an effective introduction.

“Let Justice Flow” would be well-placed as a sung response to the prophetic Amos reading (Amos 5:1-24), or to the Beatitudes (Matt. 5:1-12). To give this pairing a touch of dramatic flow, consider underpinning the concluding phrases of the reading with the instrumental introduction, then rolling on without a break to the singing of the song. In a worship service whose themes focus on social justice and stewardship of the earth, consider pairing this song in a suite with Shirley Erena Murray’s “Lament for the Earth,” with “Let Justice Flow” serving as a conclusive call to action following the more plaintive introspection of Murray’s “Lament.” A realization is included above for a segue from the modal D minor of “Lament for the Earth” into the energetic G major of “Let Justice Flow Down.”

“All Peoples, Clap Your Hands”

“God goes up with shouts of joy
the Lord goes up with trumpet blast
sing praise to God, sing praise,
sing praise to our King, sing praise!”

Background

This liturgical season is also characterized by Ascension Day, which marks Christ’s ascension to heaven on the fortieth day following Easter. This dramatic conclusion to Jesus’ earthly ministry is a story equally important for its focus on how the followers of Jesus take up their own ministry and invite others to the role of Christian leadership.

Psalm 47 is the lectionary psalm for the Feast of Ascension. Its stirring imagery of trumpet blasts and shouts of joy makes this Hebrew Bible song a fitting celebration of a decisive gospel event. It is this sense of high-spirited excitement that prompted the Benedictine brother Paschal Jordan of Trinidad to write “All Peoples, Clap Your Hands.” This psalm paraphrase incorporates a repeated choral “alleluia” and raucous hand percussion. Jordan has noted of his piece that Psalm 47 is one of the processional psalms, which were sung as the people went with the ark of the covenant in procession in the ancient temple liturgy. The psalm acknowledges the universality of the reign of God—“the earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it”—and Jordan’s setting is an attempt to capture the exuberance and joy of the worshipers in praising a powerful and saving God.

Analysis

“All Peoples, Clap Your Hands” consists of a solo or cantor line that carries the psalm text, a repeated choral exclamation of “Alleluia,” and a rhythmic ostinato of leg-slapping and clapping. The rhythmic underpinning is reminiscent of a child’s clapping game or the ubiquitous accompaniment of drum kit, congas, and other percussion that drives a steel drum band. This infuses the song with the strong sense that the whole community is drawn into the act of worship.

The character of Jordan’s paraphrase owes much to a musical-cultural movement in the Caribbean around the time of the Second Vatican Council in which music leaders were inspired to write songs that allowed worshipers to sing the biblical story in their own words and style. In Jordan’s writing, this meant an emphasis on imagery of the sun and the sea, and naming explicitly that the same God who walked with Israel in the desert also walks with West Indians in their journey of faith.

Jordan also notes that body movement is integral to the enjoyment of both this psalm and his setting of it. So invite worshipers to leave the printed page behind and sing this piece from head to toe. In fact, the song is easiest to learn if you don’t use the printed score at all.

You can learn more about how to teach and use “All Peoples, Clap Your Hands” by watching Episode 1 of my web video series “Break into Song” for free on YouTube (breakintosong.ca)

Performance

As with the hymns above, this song will be most successful in worship if you take some time to teach it. I have found this piece is learned most easily by breaking it down into its various parts. Consider distributing the solo/cantor stanzas among different soloists from the choir ahead of time, and teach the “alleluia” harmonies by rote to the congregation with support from your choir. The alleluias come in on the off-beat, so as cantor I find it helpful to indicate that with a strong gestural downbeat inviting the congregation to jump in.

When I first introduce this song, I like to separate out the body percussion and singing, so singers are not overwhelmed trying to do everything at once. So people slapping and clapping just do that, and singers just sing “alleluia” (you might have the left side of the room be the percussion section, for example, and the right side sing). For further support, consider designating a leader for the slaps and a leader for the claps, while you or a soloist lead the singing.

Over time, this continual practice of supportive learning in community can help your congregation be more musically conversant and comfortable with a wider range of styles. Most important, you can show that learning together in community can be an act of worship in itself.

The language of Psalm 47 is fierce and triumphant. It calls on the people of God to praise and fear the King of Heaven who destroys our enemies and rewards the faithful with glory. Its message is fulsome and forceful, even jarring. In light of the Western church’s legacy of colonialism, some church communities who represent the majority culture may be reticent to sing from such a triumphal stance, and rightfully so. At the same time, however, it is important to consider the context in which this song of praise was written. The ancient Hebrews were a tiny and politically powerless community, and they sang this psalm in defiance of their uncertain future. In their own ongoing struggle against the legacy of colonialism, Caribbean Christian communities also identify with the Hebrews in this way. For Christians in the West Indies, the story of Psalm 47 is their story, and they look to a God who walked with the Israelites in the desert and so walks with them along the shores of Trinidad.

We know that singing together helps to forge a strong community. Songs like this one take this idea further in that they embody in themselves the essence of community: the intricate interplay of voices and percussion means you can’t sing this song all by yourself. It’s also one in which worshipers of diverse ages and abilities can readily participate.

This image of a community coming together in song and praise is a powerful one as we move through the biblical story, from the inciting story of Jesus to the unfolding ministry of his disciples of all ages and backgrounds.

In many ways, fostering robust and vital congregational singing is like tending a garden: it requires continual loving care, it takes time and patience for it to grow and blossom, and communities are strengthened and fed by it. May these songs inspire and empower us to be worthy custodians of all the gardens in our care.