It happened again. Someone in a position of worship leadership said recently, “Wow! What a great hymn. I had no idea that was in the Book of Praise.” It should have royally ticked me off to hear this from yet another Presbyterian, except that the person speaking was me. Three years ago, I taught an Iona Community setting of Behold the Lamb of God to the choir of Trafalgar, Oakville, Ont. Three weeks ago, I opened my Book of Praise and there it was.
Thus chastened and humbled, I continue my train of thought as I promised in my last posting, with examples (mostly) drawn from the Book of Praise. These writers are still alive and writing, and are meeting contemporary issues of faith with contemporary language.
Anglican Bishop Gordon Light is a member of the Common Cup Company, a singing and songwriting group founded in Winnipeg in the early 1980’s. Now retired from his work in the Anglican Church, Gordon Light composed She Comes Sailing on the Wind in response to someone asking their group why they didn’t have more songs with feminine imagery. He remains surprised—mystified, actually—at the song’s popularity, as well as its notoriety. He feels that Common Cup has produced songs far more deserving of wide use. True or not, She Flies On succeeded in touching a nerve. My Love Colours Outside the Lines, a song about thinking differently, and Draw the Circle Wide, are two of his other songs which have won wide use, touched nerves and given people new ways of thinking and singing about their faith.
Glen Soderholm is well known to Presbyterians. He transformed his ministry from local pastor to traveling troubadour and congregational song consultant. Steeped in the singer-songwriter tradition, with a love for the observational writing of Bob Dylan, he brings poetic and sometimes mystical language to his songs for worship. On his recording World Without End, he brings a strong rhythmic swing to the hymn Praise to the Lord, the Almighty (#321 in the Book of Praise). Look for his driving yet melodic re-working of Psalm 69 on his CD Rest.
Patrick Matsikenyiri, composer, conductor and university professor at Africa University in Mutare, Zimbabwe, is known for Jesu Tawa Pano (#514 in The Book of Praise). In his song, Zviro Zvacho Zvanyana (“Life is Broken at its Core,” translated by Daniel Charles Damon), Matsikenyiri writes of conditions faced by ordinary people in today’s Zimbabwe, with “division among each other … by tribal line, by our colour, by haves and have nots.” The song, from his recent collection entitled Njalo (Always), prays for the presence of the Holy Spirit in the midst of the falling dollar and “skyrocketing prices.” Like John Bell, Matsikenyiri uses language concrete and colloquial to witness to God’s presence in the midst of ordinary, contemporary life.
Here are some more:
Safe in Your Hands, O God Who Made Me, (#14) and O Lord, the Refuge of Each Generation (#56) marry contemporary language with music that has a pop drive.
Mothering God, You Gave Me Birth (#312) is hymn-writer Jean Janzen’s paraphrase of the writings of medieval mystic Julian of Norwich. The words are paired with a modal melody that sounds both old and new at the same time.
Colourful Creator God of Mystery (#317), by Ruth Duck, is contemporary in its understanding of the spirituality of artists and creativity.
You Are Holy, You Are Whole (#828) is a samba that is also a two-part canon. Swedish songwriter Per Harling, who wrote both words and music, reminds us that God is “always ever more than we ever understand.”
When the Poor Ones (#762) also uses a Latin melody. It runs counter to our usual mission view of “us-helping-them” with the words, “when the poor ones who have nothing, share with strangers … then we know that God still goes that road with us.”
Allison Lynn is now working with her husband, Gerald Flemming, at an Anglican church in Toronto. Her CD, Real Big Fan, doesn’t feature congregational song, though Hymns in the Key of Grace is a collection of hymn classics. They are both fine writers composing music for worship, and I think we’ll be hearing more from them.