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Music

November 23, 2016

We’ve all heard people make fun of a Kum Ba Ya moment—times when somebody thinks a corny little song means we’re glossing over the harsh realities of the world and having a feel-good moment instead of taking real action.

I see that differently after listening, a couple of weeks ago, when Krista Tippett replayed an interview with a former civil rights activist on her NPR show On Being. Tippett, who will speak here at First Presbyterian Church in April as part of our Willard Lecture series, had interviewed Vincent Harding, a leading voice in the civil rights movement of the 1960s and beyond. Krista Tippett describes Mr. Harding, who died in 2014, like this:

He was wise about how the Civil Rights vision might speak to 21st century realities. Vincent Harding pursued this by way of patient yet passionate cross-cultural, cross-generational relationship. The Civil Rights Movement, he reminded us, was spiritually as well as politically vigorous; it aspired to a “beloved community,” not merely a tolerant integrated society.

At one point in the interview, Mr. Harding was talking about some of the songs that were a part of the Civil Rights Movement, songs like We Shall Not Be Moved and This Little Light of Mine. Then he talked about how the experience of singing that song in the African American church had become something people made fun of. He told a story that shed new light on the old song from Africa.

Whenever somebody jokes about Kum Ba Ya, my mind goes back to the Mississippi summer experience where the movement folks in Mississippi were inviting co-workers to come from all over the country, especially student types, to come and help in the process of voter registration, and Freedom School teaching, and taking great risks on behalf of the transformation of that state and of this nation. There were two weeks of orientation. The first week was the week in which (Michael) Schwerner and (Andrew) Goodman and their beloved brother Jimmy (Chaney) were there. And it was during the time that they had left the campus that they were first arrested, then released, and then murdered.

The word came back to us at the orientation that the three of them had not been heard from. Bob Moses, the magnificent leader of so much of the work in Mississippi, got up and told these hundreds of predominantly white young people that, if any of them felt that at this point they needed to return home or to their schools, we would not think less of them at all, but would be grateful to them for how far they had come.

But he said let’s take a couple of hours just for people to spend time talking on the phone with parents or whoever to try to make this decision and make it now. What I found as I moved around among the small groups that began to gather together to help each other was that, in group after group, people were singing Kum Ba Ya. “Come by here, my Lord, somebody’s missing, Lord, come by here. We all need you, Lord, come by here.”

I could never laugh at Kum Ba Ya moments after that because I saw then that almost no one went home from there. They were going to continue on the path that they had committed themselves to. And a great part of the reason why they were able to do that was because of the strength and the power and the commitment that had been gained through that experience of just singing together Kum Ba Ya.

There are so many places in our world and in our lives here in 2016 where we desperately need God’s presence. There are global issues—Syria, Isis. There are national issues—racism, economic inequity, political division. There are local issues—schools, affordable housing. There are personal issues—health, family.

For me, this is one of those times when we need to pray Kum Ba Ya—Come by here, Lord. Take a moment and think about some of those areas when we long for God to be present.

Kum bah ya, my Lord. Kum bah ya.

Someone’s crying, Lord. Kum bah ya.

Someone’s praying, Lord. Kum bah ya.

Someone’s singing, Lord. Kum bah ya.

O Lord, kum bah ya.

– Chuck Williamson

Read more about the history of this song as a plea for God’s intervention  from a generation of African Americans.

September 2, 2016

Erika croppedOcean waves are intimidating. Growing up close enough to the Pacific to hear the waves crashing at night, I find the beach is a safe and familiar place. I also developed a healthy fear of the ocean.  Tsunamis, tidal waves, storms at sea filled my nightmares as a child. I will not see movies like The Perfect Storm or Titanic.  Sorry, George and Leo, your beauty is not enough to overcome my fears of giant waves and sinking ships.

But fears are worth confronting. And the sea has long been a symbol in the Judeo Christian faith for God’s mighty hand guiding a chaotic world. So a few years ago I had the word “aWake” tattooed on my wrist as a reminder of this. A “wake” is the joyous bump that comes after a wave.  Picture swimming in the ocean or a lake and the lovely little lift you get when a boat passes nearby. That is a “wake,” but you have to get in the water to enjoy it; in fact you have to get close enough to the larger waves to even feel that lift.

The psalmist sings of this wake in Psalm 57:

“Awake, my soul! Awake, O harp and lyre! I will awake the dawn. I will give thanks to you, O Lord, among the peoples; I will sing praises to you among the nations. For your steadfast love is as high as the heavens; your faithfulness extends to the clouds. Be exalted, O God, above the heavens. Let your glory be over all the earth.”

When we draw ourselves near to God’s presence, even when it seems frightening or risky, we ride that wake. We receive a lift to our souls. To be awake as a Christian is to stay aware of the risks and dangers of the world but not be intimidated by them. Every week we are called into community worship carrying the burdens of the week and the hopefulness of our faith with us. I have heard people say that often times an hour on Sunday is not enough to sustain us and so FPC offers a second time of worship, every Wednesday at noon. It serves as another “bump”, another opportunity to lift our souls to God and be lifted up in spirit. We read scripture together, we sing songs and we pray for one another and the world.

Wednesday Worship kicks off September 7 and the new series is called Awake my soul. For seven weeks we’ll use a combination of scripture and top 40 songs to lift our spirits and open ourselves to God’s voice. Check out the playlist for the series, Awake my soul, on Spotify. And join us at noon on Wednesday to find out what we might learn from Leonard Cohen’s song Hallelujah.

– Erika Funk

June 29, 2016
Amy Gray harpsichord 1
Former choir member and artist Amy Gray talks with Will Young about the design for FPC’s hand-painted harpsichord

While the reunion of the 1974 youth mission trip to Haiti received attention last Sunday, a more quiet reunion was also taking place—a reunion that contributed to the selection of one anthem the choir will sing during worship on July 3.

Former choir member Amy Gray, who left for seminary in Washington, D.C., in 2009, was back in the choir loft last Sunday for the first time in eight years. While in Charlotte, Amy also visited with Director of Music Ministries Will Young to tell him her history with the hand-painted harpsichord in the Lema Howerton Room.

A graduate of the Columbus College of Art and Design, Amy’s passion for art had been sidelined when she injured her drawing hand during her senior year. She had turned her attention to music, another gift she had practiced since childhood. She moved to Charlotte, started singing in the choir at First Pres and took up the harp in 2003. At the choir Christmas party that year, then-choir director Bob Ivey approached Amy with news that an anonymous donor had given funds to build a harpsichord for the church.

He wondered if Amy would be interested in hand-decorating the harpsichord.

Amy had been seeking clarity in her prayers about whether it was time for her to take up art again, despite her fears of re-injuring her hand. This request, she thought, might be the answer to her prayers.

The donor had requested that Psalm 150 be incorporated into the design, so Amy used language from the psalm along the exterior of the harpsichord: Praise God in His sanctuary with the lute and harp. On the interior, she included an image from her favorite psalm, Psalm 84: Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself.

“Working on the harpsichord was my first experience practicing art as conscious prayer,” said Amy, who is completing her MFA, with a focus on making art as a spiritual practice.

During their conversation, Will and Amy discovered that her favorite arrangement of Psalm 84 was the very arrangement Will had come across a few hours earlier when searching for music for this Sunday’s service—Psalm 84/Cantique de Jean Racine by Gabriel Faure, arranged by Hal Hopson. Amy finished the conversation happy to recognize a small bit of synchronicity at First Presbyterian, where her spiritual journey had blossomed.

“The Cantique was the reason I didn’t leave the choir loft at times in my life when I was struggling,” Amy said as her visit to the church drew to an end on Monday afternoon. “The hardest part of leaving Charlotte was walking away from First Presbyterian Church. Every time I’m here, there is connectivity, synchronicity. This place is magical for me.”