NOTE: At 10:30 AM this Sunday, members of the music ministry of First United Methodist Church will present Feel the Sprit. Assisted by soloist Cheryl Clansy and chamber ensemble, you can find out more about this worship event by CLICKING HERE.
In preparation for that event, I have asked FUMC Director of Music Ministries Matthew Robinson to offer thoughts on this unique and meaningful service on my blog. He does so below.
In comparison to European musical history, there are very few purely American music forms. Most scholars agree on three — folk songs, spirituals and jazz. These evolved as travelers came (or were forced) here over many decades, adding to our musical “soup.” Thus, our American understanding of music was strongly influenced by our collective human condition, cooking various life-journeys down into singable tunes and texts steeped in human joy and suffering.
In the spiritual, we find much to consider. The slaves who turned to Jesus knew the difference between the Christianity they were seeing practiced and the Christianity they were hearing described in the Bible. They chose to follow the Jesus they heard from the Bible, the Jesus who provided the hope and power they needed to survive slavery. It is amazing today to consider that instructions for the safe passage of a human being would have to be hidden (Deep River and Steal Away), or that slaves would gather secretly on Sundays, naming and praising a Savior who suffered and died unjustly — much the same manner and form that they and their loved ones did, all the while taunting their God-believing enslavers in joyful songs such as I Got a Robe (“everybody talking about heaven ain’t going there . . . “). These spirituals are the legacy of the faith of those who, from an earthly standpoint, had cause for despair.
While we must consider the historical significance of these songs, we don’t linger there. Today, these songs are offered in all denominations and secular settings of varying race and creed. The question becomes “How can we be transformed through these songs?”
We answer that question by looking to the one thing that binds us — Jesus Christ, the author and perfecter of our faith. Although this set of spirituals arranged by John Rutter was never conceived to be a set of Holy Week pieces, we can draw parallels between the songs we share on this Palm Sunday to the life of Jesus, especially when placed alongside readings, prayers and scripture passages reflecting the ministry and life of Jesus up to the Crucifixion. We experience moments of joy and celebration (Every Time I Feel the Spirit), triumph and deliverance (Joshua Fit the Battle), while knowing what will happen as we move toward Good Friday.
It should be noted that in addition to the spirituals by John Rutter, we will sing “psalms, hymns and spirituals songs” that reflect moments in our local traditions: Hosanna, a modern praise song, and All Glory Laud and Honor, both of which complete our own version of this “musical soup.” These are hymns and songs from our Open Skies and traditional worship services. More importantly, they set the scene for the day . . . Palm Sunday . . . and offer tuneful praise of our Savior entering into our midst triumphantly.
Of note, our choir has worked very diligently to prepare this music. They have spent many hours in rehearsals struggling and learning the notes in which to praise. Some have helped provide musicians to play. Several of our own band members and instrumentalists are playing in the ensemble, too. Each believe that music in worship is important, not as something to simply do or perform for a supportive congregation. Rather, they provide this as an offering to a God that allows us all to sing, pray and praise in such a way as this . . . and remember through song the struggle of a people and a savior.
(A slightly different version of this blog will appear in the Sunday worship bulletin THE CONNECTION.)