Rocky Roads to Freedom
Fifty years ago this week, as this oblivious 2-year-old was busily enjoying the privileged life of white, middle-class suburban Chicago, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. sat in solitary confinement in a Birmingham jail writing one of the greatest letters in American history.
Funds for posting bail had long been depleted for the hundreds already arrested in the nonviolent boycotts, sit-ins, kneel-ins, and marches against the city's segregation system. By early May the Birmingham Campaign had achieved progress and forced some tangible reforms. But even as 'Whites Only' and 'Blacks Only' signs were being taken down, a new wave of violence rained down from the ardent segregationists, including bombings, police dog and firehose attacks. Four months later four young girls lay dead in the aftermath of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing. Amid hope for change, a city and a nation mourned.
Comparisons are numerous between two prophets who led their people toward freedom - the ancient Moses and his contemporary counterpart Martin Luther King Jr. As I meditated on Dr. Brown's chosen scripture for this Sunday - Exodus 14:8-15 - one verse leapt out at me in particular. The Israelites fled slavery in Egypt and followed Moses into the wilderness with visions of a Promised Land. No sooner had they savored their first taste of freedom when they looked back and saw Pharaoh and his army bearing down on them in full pursuit. Scared for their very lives, they cried out to Moses, "Were there not enough graves in Egypt that you have brought us out to perish in the wilderness?"
The Israelites quickly discovered, as did Dr. King’s supporters, that subscribing to Dr. King’s dream or following in Moses’ footsteps required the willingness to endure great pain and suffering in the short term. The long difficult road towards freedom was filled with potholes of doubt and discouragement. As Dr. King himself acknowledged in his acceptance speech for the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize, "The thrilling story of how Moses stood in Pharaoh's court centuries ago and cried 'Let my people go'...is a kind of opening chapter in a continuing struggle."
This Sunday in worship we will sing two African-American spirituals which are paramount expressions of that continuing struggle. It is hardly surprising that the songs generations of enslaved people in America sang would closely identify with oppressed peoples of the Old Testament and look to the biblical prophets as sources of hoped-for deliverance in this life as well as the hereafter. After recounting the story of Moses and the Hebrews' flight from Egypt, "Go Down, Moses" (which will serve as our middle hymn) concludes with this verse: "O let us all from bondage flee, and let us all in Christ be free." I feel these direct and powerful words speak to Dr. Brown's message of "Stepping Forward." We can choose to step beyond whatever it is that binds us, and in doing so we can discover a freedom in Christ which transcends every earthly circumstance, no matter how trying.
And as the Festival of Voices will sing in a rousing arrangement on Sunday: "Didn' my Lord deliver Daniel from the lion's den, Jonah from the belly of the whale, the Hebrew children from the fiery furnace...and why not EVERY one?" (We will depart from the lyric "why not every man" to underscore that ALL are included in the promise of deliverance.)
Songs of Birds and Bees
Our parallel theme on Sunday will be a musical nod to Earth Day which is celebrated on April 22nd. Outside my window I am marveling at the sight of magnolia trees exploding in vibrant defiance of their winter captivity. It serves as a reminder of the inner life that has been teeming within nature, while outwardly all appeared dormant and dead over the last few months. All nature lives to sing God's praise; why should we be any different?
British composer John Rutter has created new music to a beloved old Sunday School song, "All Things Bright and Beautiful" that serves as the choir's anthem this week. Underneath this charming text and tune the gentle organ accompaniment flows like a trickling stream. This musical landscape painting is that of a serene, intimate garden with fluttering butterflies and gentle breezes.
To honor the flip side of nature - the awesome, powerful and transcendent side - we will open worship with one of my very favorite hymns. (I know, I say that a lot because I adore hymn singing!) In the final year of his life St. Francis of Assisi (1182-1226) wrote "Canticle of Brother Sun, Sister Moon and All Creatures." It is an early example of Italian vernacular religious song, the Lauda spirituale, which flourished in the early 13th century. Seven centuries later St. Francis' poem and lovesong to nature was translated into the English hymn "All Creatures of Our God and King" by William Draper of Yorkshire. Draper dropped the 'brother' and 'sister' from Francis' original, and he did something else interesting as well: he made use of the ambiguity of the Italian word 'per,' which can mean either 'for' or 'from'. Instead of merely expressing praise FOR creation, Draper's text became an expression of praise FROM all creation to the Creator God. According to the text, every aspect of creation sings God's praise using its own unique voice. Not until verse five do we humans get our turn at praising. And what is our unique voice by which we sing God's praise? It is through the voice of forgiveness and long-suffering, two songs that we will never stop learning on this earthly journey.
The Song Within - May 1 at 7:30pm
Please join us for our gala Spring Choral Festival with the Marble Sanctuary Choir and Festival of Voices!
Thomas Nashe reminds us that “in every street these tunes our ears do greet”. Continuing a tradition of choral excellence and unparalleled variety, these two Marble choirs present joyful music from South Africa, foot-stomping African-American spirituals, selections by contemporary Christian composer Ken Medema and heart-penetrating classics by American composers Frank Ticheli, Mack Wilberg and Rene Clausen. Come revel in music that expresses the universal longings of the soul and the joyful rebirth of spring!
Look for notes about the music and an audio preview of the concert's highlights coming in next week's blog!