Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Hymn 013: World Falls by The Indigo Girls

For this week’s entry into the Jukebox Hero Hymnal, we have another request, this time from Cari Donaldson, author of "Pope Awesome and Other Stories (go buy it, it’s a lot of fun)." Her suggestion is “World Falls” by the Indigo Girls, a song she finds “to be an amazingly sacramental view of the world and humanity's role as the crown of creation.”

Now for those who may not know much about the Indigo Girls beyond their few radio hits and their vocal activism for homosexual causes, it may come as a bit of a surprise to learn that the duo both have religious backgrounds. Emily Saliers is the daughter of a Methodist minister, while Amy Ray is a former religion major who once considered entering the seminary. That goes a long way towards explaining why religious themes often pop up in the pair’s music, particularly in those songs written by Amy Ray, who admits to still enjoying attending church services.

In an interview with On Being, Ray spoke of her religious tunes. “I'll write gospel songs, you know, that are more like Appalachian mountain gospel songs,” she explains, “and that's a sacred song to me and spiritual in a different way than maybe an unrequited love song might be or a story song about my family or something. It's coming through me and I don't try to edit it too much… I mean, not to say that all the music's not spiritual, but there is definitely for me a place that I go into if I write a little gospel song.”

Such an emotional response, pretty common in Appalachian mountain gospel, is an appropriate vehicle for singing about a sacramental view of the world. As a sacrament is a tangible sign of the invisible grace of God, to view the world sacramentally is to see it as such. So it’s easy to see how Mrs. Donaldson discovered such a sentiment in “World Falls” when you hear lyrics like, “This world falls on me with hopes of immortality, everywhere I turn all the beauty just keeps shaking me.” It echoes the poets of old when they gazed upon the Earth and saw the hand of its creator in His work.

“The earth is the Lord's and the fulness thereof: the world, and all they that dwell therein.” (Psalms 24:1, DRB)

Purchase the single "World Falls" at Amazon

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Hymn 012: Lost and Found by OmU

It’s about time we added a jazz influenced tune to The Jukebox Hero Hymnal, don’t you think? Now a lot of folks feel the improvisational nature of jazz makes it an uneasy fit for spiritual music because, in theory, it puts much more focus on the human achievement rather than on God.

But it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way. As acclaimed jazz guitarist Fr. John Moulder explains, “That’s one of the things that is really special about the experience of being an improviser––many times you do experience moments of transcendence. I guess we could call it a little bit of self-forgetfulness… you become immersed in a way that has parallels with spiritual practice and meditation, like being in the moment and letting go of our egos for a moment. It’s a unitive experience.”

Case in point, OmU’s track, “Lost and Found.” What’s that? You’ve never heard of OmU? Don’t worry, most people haven’t. In fact, I only stumbled upon them by accident on my local college radio station a few years back. OmU was pretty much a one-off, it’s main contributors quickly moving on to form Blue Paradox. What’s that? You’ve never heard of Blue Paradox either? Don’t worry, most people haven’t. They’re sort of the house band for the Sacred Fire Community, a relatively small affiliation of folks whose beliefs are a jumble of various new-age style wisdom traditions.

Now, most wisdom tradition types aren’t usually big on Christianity, it being a tad bit too organized for their tastes. They also don’t seem to appreciate anyone suggesting their individually chosen spiritual paths might not actually be leading anywhere good. Bummer. And yet, despite the wisdom traditions movement’s antipathy towards dogma, the members of OmU can’t help but give a musical nod in “Lost and Found” to the awesome concept of grace as taught by the Church. “Grace is favor, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adoptive sons, partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life.”

Hmm, sounds like there might actually be some good stuff that comes along with all those doctrines, doesn’t it?

“But God, who is rich in mercy, because of the great love he had for us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, brought us to life with Christ (by grace you have been saved), raised us up with him, and seated us with him in the heavens in Christ Jesus, that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.” (Ephesians 2:4-7, NABRE)

Purchase the single "Lost and Found" at Amazon.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Hymn 011: Sunday Morning People by Honey Cone

Like her big sister Darlene Love, Edna Wright grew up singing gospel music before transitioning into R&B with the vocal group The Blossoms. From there, she moved into backup gigs for artists such as Johnny Rivers, Ray Charles and the Righteous Brothers. Finally, in 1969, she joined with Shellie Clark (one of Ike Turner’s Ikettes) and Carolyn Willis (former member of Bob B. Soxx & the Blue Jeans) to form Honey Cone.

Honey Cone had a decent three year run, churning out hits like "One Monkey Don't Stop No Show," "Girls, It Ain't Easy" and "Stick Up." But it’s the 1971 single “Want Ads” that the group is most remembered for. The tune, which climbed to number one on both the R&B and pop charts, details a cheated-upon woman’s plan to place a want ad seeking a new young man, single and free, one preferably experienced in love, but trainees will be accepted. It’s pure pop gold and earned Wright her place in music history.

But just because Wright found secular success doesn’t mean she forgot her gospel roots. For evidence, look no further than the lead track off Honey Cone’s debut album, “Sunday Morning People.” Penned by Motown legends Holland-Dozier-Holland (with an assist by award winning songwriter Ron Dunbar), the song addresses a familiar concern with anyone who has spent time in a pew…

“Sunday morning people, better listen to me (you better take heed). You go to church on Sunday, hate your neighbor all week. You can pray as loud as you can, now. Turn your back on your fellow man, now. You swear you're on the level, then you shake hands with the devil. You got to help your brothers seven days a week if peace and happiness is what you seek.”

Of course, the problem of Christians who give lip service to their faith, but never act on it, is hardly a modern problem. Just ask James, the “brother of the Lord,” who noticed the problem already surfacing in the early days of the Church…

“Do you want proof, you ignoramus, that faith without works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by the works. Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,’ and he was called ‘the friend of God.’ See how a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. And in the same way, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she welcomed the messengers and sent them out by a different route? For just as a body without a spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.” (James 2:20-26, NABRE)

Yeah, that’s right. If you’re one of those Sunday morning people who doesn’t live out their faith during the rest of the week, the “brother of the Lord” just called you an ignoramus right smack dab in the pages of The Bible. It might be time to get with the program.

Purchase the single "Sunday Morning People" at Amazon

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Hymn 010: 40 by U2

Yeah, yeah, I’m well aware that’s it’s nowhere near cool to like U2 right now, what with their beyond megastar status and that whole iTunes debacle. But you know, if I cared one iota about being cool, I wouldn’t really be writing this blog, would I?

The story behind “40” is pretty well known. The band was recording their album “War” and, with little to no studio time left, found themselves without a good closer. "So then we had this slightly unusual piece of music” explained The Edge, “and we said, 'OK, what are we going to do with it?' Bono said, 'Let's do a psalm.' Opened up the bible and found Psalm 40. 'This is it. Let's do it.' And within forty minutes we had worked out the last few elements for the tune, Bono had sung it, and we mixed it. And literally, after finishing the mix, we walked out through the door and the next band walked in."

There’s a duality in Psalm 40, combining as it does both a thanksgiving and a lament. So joyous is the psalmist over his salvation at God’s hands that he breaks into a new song, but there are still troubles at every turn, and so he begs God for more protection.

Bono encapsulates the essence of this duality with one simple lyric, “How long?” In his introduction to the Book of Pslams (yes, he actually penned one in 1999), the singer noted, “’40’ became the closing song at U2 shows, and on hundreds of occasions, literally hundreds of thousands of people of every size and shape of T-shirt have shouted back the refrain, pinched from Psalm 6: "How long (to sing this song)." I had thought of it as a nagging question, pulling at the hem of an invisible deity whose presence we glimpse only when we act in love. How long hunger? How long hatred? How long until creation grows up and the chaos of its precocious, hell-bent adolescence has been discarded? I thought it odd that the vocalizing of such questions could bring such comfort -- to me, too.”

And it does bring comfort, and that’s pretty cool, whether U2 itself still is or not.
“Though I am afflicted and poor, my Lord keeps me in mind. You are my help and deliverer; my God, do not delay!” – Psalm 40:18, NABRE