Songs of Joy and Lament (3)

The following is a continued reflection on songs used in worship by the handbell choir directed by Mitchell (Campus Edge’s Emerging Leader).

I Wonder as I Wander (follow link to listen)

Our December piece – “I Wonder as I Wander” – is, to me, a quintessential Advent hymn and perhaps the most contemplative of all the music in this series. The plaintive song starts with the nature of Jesus’s death in the first stanza before moving to Jesus’s birth in second stanza. All three verses contemplate Jesus’s humble and sacrificial nature:

I wonder as I wander, out under the sky,
How Jesus the Savior did come for to die
For poor ord’n’ry people like you and like I.
I wonder as I wander, out under the sky.

When Mary birthed Jesus, all in a cow’s stall,
Came wise men and farmers and shepherds and all,
And high from the heavens a star’s light did fall;
The promise of the ages it then did recall.

If Jesus had wanted for any wee thing,
A star in the sky or a bird on the wing,
Or all of God’s angels in heav’n for to sing,
He surely could have had it, ’cause he was the king.

What words stick out to you? One of my favorites is “the promise of the ages it then did recall,” indicating that this long-prophesied Messiah has finally arrived as indicated by the light of God in the star of the magi. The cosmic truth of this line comes amid the dirty, stinky and inconvenient realty that Jesus was born in a stable. (Compare this with “It Came Upon the midnight Clear”, which says there “shall come the time foretold when peace shall over all the earth, and the whole world send back the song which now the angels sing.”)

Like “Wayfaring Stranger” this piece is from Appalachia. The tune and the text were assembled by American folklorist John Jacob Niles in 1933 after he heard it being sung at a revival meeting. In his autobiography he writes

A girl had stepped out to the edge of the little platform attached to the automobile. She began to sing. Her clothes were unbelievable dirty and ragged, and she, too, was unwashed. Her ash-blond hair hung down in long skeins. … But, best of all, she was beautiful, and in her untutored way, she could sing. She smiled as she sang, smiled rather sadly, and sang only a single line of a song.

The story goes that Niles had to keep paying the girl for each additional line of the song. Like me meditating on the words, I can only think the Niles was transfixed by this sight and the almost mystical words he was hearing. What sort of scene does this song conjure up for you?

New and Old Stories
These are only some of the things that could be said about these pieces. There are also the wonderful ways in which each arranger captures the music for handbells and the contributions of the composers who devised each melody. Even so, I hope that my reflections on the music will help more fuller appreciation of the music shared above.

– Mitchell Eithun, Ringers of the Kirk, Director

Songs of Joy and Lament (2)

The following is a continued reflection on songs used in worship by the handbell choir directed by Mitchell (Campus Edge’s Emerging Leader).

Pie Jesu (follow link to listen)
The words of the Kyrie, a part of the mass from the ancient Church are “Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy.” The basic liturgical formula used today by Catholics, Episcopalians and Lutherans was standardized some time before 1000 C.E. Some of the key parts are the Kyrie, Alleluia, Sanctus and Angus Dei. The Angus Dei is a prayer for penitence (“Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us.”) It is these words that Andrew Lloyd Weber uses for the basis of “Pie Jesu” in his Requiem:

Merciful Jesus, who takes away the sins of the world, give them rest.
Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, give them rest. Everlasting rest.

Weber also uses the ending words of the Dies irae, a text used for the ancient requiem mass: “Merciful Lord Jesus, grant them rest. Amen.” Together these words are a powerful reminder of our bleak mortality, but also God’s ability to forgive.The text with Weber’s music is a beautiful song of lament and resolve.

Timbrel and Dance (follow link to listen)
Aside from “Pie Jesu”, in October we also shared joy with “Timbrel and Dance”, an original piece for handbells. The phrase “timbrel and dance” comes from Psalm 150, which offers wonderful insights for church musicians. I particularly enjoy the KJV version of the text. (The world timbrel means “tambourine”).

Praise ye the Lord. Praise God in his sanctuary: praise him in the firmament of his power. Praise him for his mighty acts: praise him according to his excellent greatness. Praise him with the sound of the trumpet: praise him with the psaltery and harp. Praise him with the timbrel and dance: praise him with stringed instruments and organs. Praise him upon the loud cymbals: praise him upon the high-sounding cymbals. Let everything that hath breath praise the Lord. Praise ye the Lord.

The driving rhythms, and joyful energy in the piece shout “Praise ye the Lord!” I picked this piece because I remember hearing it played by the youth handbell ensemble when I was young, and it always made me feel excited.

I’m Just a Poor Wayfaring Stranger (follow link to listen)
In November, we played “I’m Just a Poor Wayfaring Stranger”, a piece of American folk music probably first sung in Appalachia in the early 1800s. Little is known about the song’s origins, but the hardship expressed in the song could reflect any number of antebellum issues including famine, hardship and immigration. The song has probably persisted because of the universality of the lyrics. Consider the first verse:

I’m just a poor wayfaring stranger,
I’m trav’ling through this world below;
There is no sickness, toil, nor danger,
In that bright world to which I go.
I’m going there to see my father,
I’m going there no more to roam;
I’m just a going over Jordan,
I’m just a going over home.

The journey of the wayfaring stranger could be a life of physical hardship or a spiritual lament yearning for the presence of God. What do the words mean to you? 

– Mitchell

Songs of Joy and Lament: Amazing Grace

Apart from being enjoyable and enriching the soul, music has a story. While many of our psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs are familiar and well-worn, there are still stories to be told about where our music comes from and why it matters. This fall I (Mitchell) delighted in taking my church on a journey through some of my favorite music written for handbells. I’d like to explain some of the fascinating meaning and history embedded in this music, hoping that it will enliven your worship and provide some insights for the journey.

Amazing Grace (follow link to watch video)
Despite our sentimental attachment to the song, the story of Amazing Grace is inexplicitly linked with the story of the transatlantic slave trade and is more nuanced than many people know.

While his mother hoped that he’d join the clergy, English hymn writer John Newton renounced his Christian faith after joining the Royal Navy. Reflecting later Newton writes, “Like an unwary sailor who quits his port just before a rising storm, I renounced the hopes and comforts of the Gospel at the very time when every other comfort was about to fail me.” Newton was so headstrong that his vulgar disagreements with shipmates caused him to starve and he was later enslaved on a plantation in Sierra Leone. He was later freed by his father, who was an influential shipping merchant.

In 1748, abroad the Greyhound, a violent storm knocked one of Newton’s crewmates off the almost-capsized ship. To keep from being thrown overboard, Newton tied himself to a pump on the ship, telling his captain “If this will not do, then Lord have mercy upon us!” Newton survived and landed in Ireland two weeks later.

After the incident on the Greyhound, Newton rethought his relationship God after years of mocking others for their faith. (Saul of Tarsus, anyone?) Even so, Newton continued to work on salve ships and led several voyages through Africa and North America as a ship captain, participating in despicable acts of coercion and violence against Africans. (Despite the well-known refrain about “the hour I first believe”, Newton described his faith as a more gradual experience. “I cannot consider myself to have been a believer in the full sense of the word, until a considerable time afterwards,” he later wrote)

In 1750 Newton finally quite sailing so he could return to England to be with his wife Polly. While working as a customs agent, Newton taught himself theology and his friends suggested he become a priest in the Church of England. He was ordained in 1764, after being initially turned down since many of his friends were a part of the emerging Methodist movement headed by John and Charles Wesley. Newton joined a small perish in a village of 2,500 residents, mostly poor and illiterate. He was noted for preaching about his own weakness during a time of elitism by clergy. Inspired by texts of legendary hymn writers Isaac Watts (e.g. “O God Our Help in Ages Past”) and Charles Wesley (e.g. “Angels We Have Heard on High”), Newton wrote his own hymns for local prayer meetings. In 1772, “Amazing Grace” was first presented as a poem at one of these meeting. (The modern tune for the text, New Britain, would not be composed until 1822, during the Second Great Awakening in the United States.)

Despite the dramatic story told in movies and plays that Newton was saved from a shipwreck and turned his life to God, it was not until 30 years later—in 1788—that Newton finally came to condemn slavery. In Thoughts Upon the Slave Trade, he described the horrific conditions of slaves and apologized for “a confession, which … comes too late … It will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me, that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders.”

Why is this story important? Certainly God uses imperfect people to accomplish great things and Newton’s life was certainly complicated. However, while researching this story I was struck by the fact that justice and redemption take time. Despite working in the slave trade and being a priest for several decades, Newton was only able to realize the horrors of slavery much later. Luckily he lived to see the passage of the Slave Trade Act 1807, which finally abolished the African slave trade.

How are systems of injustice still perpetuated today? What might be preventing us from recognizing systems of injustice that are clearly wrong? Once we recognize our privilege, justice is only achieved by organized and consistent efforts. This takes time. Jesus told a parable about the persistence of justice-seekers and the difficult of facing the powers that be:

Jesus said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’” (For the full story see Luke 18:1-8).

Like John Newton’s remarks on slavery, I hope that all of us consider the ways in which our world is unjust and work toward mending the breach.

– Mitchell Eithun