Back in 2001 I wrote the lyrics to this hymn for Epiphany. We are going to sing it Sunday at the church I attend in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. This hymn has only been sung a couple times before, once in Pittsfield right after I wrote it, with lovely original music by Lou Steigler, and once at Green’s Farms Church in Westport, Connecticut, where the then minister of music, Eileen Hunt, set it to Darwell’s 145th. I look forward to hearing it this way for the first time. Thanks to Ron Hanft for matching up the lyrics with the tune for the bulletin. It is copyrighted to me, but you may use it with attribution.
The Berkshires are widely acknowledged as a mecca of culture, especially for great music. We all know about Tanglewood and South Mountain Concerts. We read about them in The New York Times and The New Yorker.
These venues, and several others, feature some of the world’s best professional talent, and we are grateful for it. But what often flies under the media radar here is a number of homegrown, grass-roots community organizations that produce some first-rate music. Continue reading →
Since the numbing election I’ve been imbibing in the music and poetry of Leonard Cohen. I didn’t start out on this road as some sort of masochistic exercise. I just wanted to reacquaint myself with the work of this troubled genius who juggled so many contradictions within himself and his art.
Cohen was God-haunted while denying any traditional understanding of God. He followed Buddhism “religiously” while he still never stopped being deeply informed by his Jewish identity. Much of his poetry and song verse bristles with Biblical imagery and apocalyptic vision. Continue reading →
I wrote the baptismal hymn text “Come here by the waters” early last year, and though several pastors have told me they have used it in worship, I had never heard it sung by a congregation until this morning.
We worshipped this morning at the church in RI where my daughter, Rebecca, is pastor. She administered five baptisms, and they sang my hymn. She has chosen it before, but never when I was present.
She made a clever move with it that I hadn’t thought of. She divided the first two verses and the final two, singing the former before the baptisms and the latter right after. This makes sense because the first two are invitational (“come bring us your child) and the latter two are blessings (Bless us with your presence, your Word, and your power) and doxologies. Here are the words.
Come Here by the Waters
Come here by the waters, come bring us your child.
We’ll call on God’s Spirit, so loving and wild.
These people and parents will speak their firm vow.
This child full of blessing belongs to Christ now.
Your promise enduring will follow her* days,
And lead to a life filled with service and praise.
You’ll bless her** and keep her** and always be there,
Through life’s many changes you’ll watch her with care.
Bless us with your presence, your Word, and your power,
That we may be faithful in every new hour.
Let church be a place that is brimming with love,
And bless these dear children with grace from above.
We praise you and thank you for all you provide,
For blessings and graces that reach far and wide.
Praise Father, praise Son, and the Spirit divine,
Both now and forever, and far beyond time.
Here’s a special event for you on Memorial Day weekend. The community chorus I sing in will be performing this:
On May 29 at 3 p.m. the 100 voice Berkshire Lyric Chorus, accompanied by a full orchestra, and joined by a stellar solo vocal quartet will sing the great Mozart Requiem at Tanglewood’s Seiji Ozawa Hall . Don’t miss this masterpiece of the choral literature and a work of deep conviction that was Mozart’s final opus as he was dying in 1791. Continue reading →
I am singing with Berkshire Lyric Chorus in concert on December 20. I hope some of my Berkshire friends can come. Here are the details:
Berkshire Lyric presents “Called by Angels, a Concert of Christmas Music” at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church on Park Square in downtown Pittsfield on Saturday, December 20 at 7:30.
The 90 voice Berkshire Lyric Chorus will be joined by the 30 voice Blafield Children’s Chorus in a wide ranging choral program of some of the most beloved music of the season. Now in its 52nd year, Berkshire Lyric most recently performed at Tanglewood’s Seiji Ozawa Hall in the spring, and the big chorus is back for this annual holiday concert. The St. Stephen’s concert is an expanded version of Berkshire Lyric’s traditionally sold out Stockbridge Main Street Concert.
Through the years, it has developed into a heart warming and nostalgic evening of great Christmas music for the whole family. The concert is led by Berkshire Lyric’s Artistic Director Jack Brown and accompanied by Joe Rose. The soloists will be soprano Felicia Durso and baritone John Demler. The chorus will be singing new compositions and arrangements by contemporary composers Alan Smith, Will Todd and John Joubert. The children’s chorus is presenting music by John Rutter, Alfred Burt and Alec Wyton among others. A highlight of the concert will be a medley of “Away in a Manger,” “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” and “Silent Night,” all arranged by English composer and former member of the King’s Singers, Bob Chilcott. During a lighter portion of the program, the chorus will sing lush choral arrangements of Christmas hits such as “Sleigh Ride”, “The Christmas Song” and “I’ll be Home for Christmas.” There will be a sing-a-long portion of favorite carols and popular selections at the end of the concert. The audience can join their voices to the 120 singers of Berkshire Lyric and the great St. Stephen’s Pipe Organ in the rich acoustics of this historic church.
The Berkshire Lyric season will continue on December 27 with a Handel “Messiah” Sing also at St. Stephen’s. The new year will see four concerts: Moving to Glory: a Gospel and Spirituals Concert in February, A Feast of Operetta fundraiser in March, A Grand Opera Spectacular at the Colonial Theatre in May, and finally Into the Light: Russian Orthodox Sacred Music with the Konevets Quartet of St. Petersburg in June. Tickets for the Dec. 20 Christmas concert are $20 for adults with children admitted free. They may be purchased from chorus members or through Berkshire Lyric’s website. More information at http://www.BerkshireLyricInfo.org.
When I was a child it was the very foreignness of the church that intrigued me. There I learned about what Karl Barth called “the strange new world within the Bible,” a world where a shepherd boy could slay a giant, where angels appeared and made strange promises, where a virgin could conceive and bear a son, and where a brutal execution was somehow seen in Easter light to be nothing less than the victory of God. I was fascinated by the language.
In those days we “vouchsafed and beseeched.” I wondered what the “seed” of David was. There were weighty Latinate words such as “propitiation” and “incarnation”. There were strange ancient creeds that one said for years waiting to understand them. There were hymn texts that shaped piety and theology. One of my favorites was this one: “Crown him the Lord of love; behold His hands and side, Rich wounds, yet visible above, In beauty glorified: No angel in the sky can fully bear that sight, But downward bends with burning eye At mysteries so bright.”
What was one to make of such language? Long before I had a theology of the atonement I sang those words passionately. I still do. And then there was the music: the strange modal sound of plainsong, the emotion of gospel, the pathos of spirituals, the stately progression of chorale tunes. In my childhood our preachers had other, better gifts, so I learned my faith from singing it and hearing it. I knew this was a different world and in many significant ways a better one than the world I inhabited at Norwood School #2, where the big kids might decide it would be amusing to kick the living daylights out of me at recess. So let me suggest that “enhancing OUR song in the new century” will mean attending to this alternative world. And I think increasingly so, as the values of a global consumer society and the values of the church of Jesus Christ part ways. Walter Brueggemann suggests, rightly I think, that the best biblical analogy for church life today is the Babylonian exile. Christians today live as dispersed aliens in a foreign world. Constantinian Christianity is gone for good. And in America the day is over when the Protestant mainline is seen as the golden thread in the seamless robe of culture. We are increasingly marginal to what really matters in the eyes of the world. Or at least of the Empire. By the Empire I means the official normative construal of the world—the world as seen on TV. For advertising is the liturgy of the Empire. Take Nike’s ads. They hold out the world of the competitive autonomous individual, free from community, free from tradition, free of constraints, and free from fair labor practices. “Just do it!” If you don’t think that is a counter message to the Gospel, listen to this: There is a T-shirt that says: “The meek shall inherit the earth” on the front. On the back it says, “Yeah, right! Just do it! Nike!” Now that’s Babylonian!!
Those of us who are parents of teenagers know the power of this dominant world and its liturgy. But the church at its best offers an alternative liturgy. Brueggemann call it a “sub–version” to the official authorized version of the Empire. For in worship we exiles remember our true home. Recall Psalm 137: “By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our harps. For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying “sing us one of the songs of Zion!’ How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?’”
That is the question for the twenty-first century: how do we sing the Lord’s song in exile? And with it the related question: how much Babylonian do we want to let in to the church’s song? When church musicians and ministers of Word and Sacrament collaborate on the congregation’s liturgy there is nothing less at stake than what version of the world the congregation will experience in worship. Will the church’s liturgy create a world where God alone is to be worshipped, where people are treated as people and things as things and we know the difference? The tools we have to work with are words and music. If we are wise we will go about our work like the scribe in the parable, taking out of our treasure something old and something new. Jesus said, “Every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” (Matthew 13:52)
On the one hand we take out something old. The church is a community of recollection. It has a culture, whose roots are in scripture and whose development has grown out of tradition. It wasn’t born yesterday, and for us to think that we are wiser than previous generations just because we came later is the silliest form of hubris. The church is a foreign country and its language takes learning. Some church people today are like American tourists in Paris who resent it when the locals don’t speak English. A tourist bureau can help make the locals more friendly to tourists, but there are limits to how much a culture can be translated. So we need to value what the church has always valued and bring out the best of what is old.
Yet we need to bring out the new as well. “Sing unto the Lord a new song.” After all God is a living God and “there is yet more light and truth to break forth from his Holy Word.” The content of revelation doesn’t change: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever.” But there are always new ways to witness to that enduring truth. There are new works of art, new texts, new music. It has always been that way. The music we now consider part of the canon was once new, and much of it was controversial in its day. Watt’s metrical paraphrases of the Psalms were considered scandalous. Bach’s chorales were considered unsingable. Much of what is new now will not last. The wheat and the tares grow together and time’s harvest will separate them. Over the generations the faithful will retain that which does the job. The ephemeral by its very nature won’t abide. As George Steiner says: “Fashion is the mother of death. Originality is antithetical to novelty. Art that is stupid won’t last.” (George Steiner, Real Presences)
So good liturgy is created by taking in proper measure something old and something new. Which means we are already acquainted with blended worship. Think about it. Let’s say you play a Caesar Franck chorale for a prelude, the choir sings an anthem by Palestrina and one by Virgil Thompson, the offertory is “Rhosymedre” by Ralph Vaughan Williams, and the hymn texts are by Michael Praetorius, Isaac Watts and Carl Dawe. That can take place within the most ordered liturgy and it is still utilizing musical and textual materials from several centuries, countries, styles and traditions.
In other words we do it all the time. The question then becomes, not whether we do it, but how do we do it so that it has integrity for Christian worship? What criteria do we use?
New or old, does it create that alternative world to the world of the Empire? In other words, is it a song of Zion? Or is it just Babylonian? Does it tell the old, old story of Jesus and his love, even if it does it in a new, new way? Can it bring people to faith, to devotion, to worship? Can it warm hearts and change lives?
In other words, the task of choosing our song for the new century takes spiritual discernment. It is a task that takes thought and prayer, knowledge and skill, an appreciation for scripture and tradition and an openness to the creative process. It is a task too important to be left to ministers alone or musicians alone but demands collaboration and collegiality. What is at stake is nothing less than how we see and hear the world which God loves and for which Christ died.
You are a church musician. At some time in your life you were moved to do this. It may have been a long time ago and you may be tired—tired from living in Babylon, speaking Babylonian, even singing Babylonian songs. I am here to remind you that you are a citizen of Zion. You have glimpsed her walls, worshipped in her temple, heard her songs. Don’t forget who you are, even if remembering Zion sometimes makes you weep.
Don’t forget who you are! Because if you forget, and I forget, musicians and clergy, who will sing the songs of Zion to our children? No one! They will learn only Babylonian.
So that is how you know what song to sing. It can be something old, or it can be something new, but sing me one of the songs of Zion. Amen.
A Sermon preached on July 27, 1998 at the United Church Musicians Conference.
Trinity Church Retreat Center, Cornwall, Connecticut.