The Dark Past

This is the weekend to revisit, with greater understanding and appreciation, one of our country’s finest – and darkest – moments. The Civil Rights movement shaped most of the mid-20th century and has more recently expanded in scope to include differences of sexuality, physical abilities and ethnicities. Standing up to injustice by sitting down at lunch counters…naming systemic inequalities by making those on the winning side of the imbalances uncomfortable…choosing love over hate…when does the work of seeing what is wrong in order to make it right end?

In recognition of the powerful work of reconciliation effected by Dr. Martin Luther King, that great hymn Lift Every Voice and Sing will undoubtedly be sung by millions of voices around the country this weekend.  It was first performed in 1900 as a poem read during a celebration of Lincoln’s birthday in a program at a segregated school in Jacksonville, Florida, an event at which Booker T. Washington was the honored guest that day.  Imagine the power of these words on the ears and hearts of people just 35 years from slavery.

Lift every voice and sing, ‘Til earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty; Let our rejoicing rise
High as the listening skies, Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun, Let us march on ’til victory is won.

Stony the road we trod,  Bitter the chast’ning rod,
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
Yet with a steady beat, Have not our weary feet c
ome to the place for which our fathers sighed?
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered,
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,
Out from the gloomy past, Til now we stand at last Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.
God of our weary years, God of our silent tears,
Thou who has brought us thus far on the way; Thou who has by Thy might
Led us into the light, Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee,
Lest, our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee;
Shadowed beneath Thy hand, May we forever stand,
True to our God, True to our native land.

There are A LOT of recordings of this song on YouTube, and I spent more time than I should to find just the right one.  I didn’t want a soloist, or something glossy and over-produced. I didn’t want it to be sung by a highly skilled Gospel choir or a staid, perfectly in-tune, yet soulless, choir.  This is a hymn for all people.  True story – I memorized this hymn and we sang it as my husband and I walked down the aisle at the end of our wedding in 1999. A hymn for all people, and all occasions!

There is one line that I ponder each time I play this hymn though, the final line True to our native land.  What is our native land?  Were African-Americans in 1900 thinking about some part of Africa?  About the United States, where everyone in that first audience was mostly likely born?  Or could we claim this song for everyone by thinking about our native land as that heavenly land where we are loved regardless of skin color or political beliefs or “differences” of any kind?  Perhaps a native land where reconciliation is not just a goal, but already complete.

I am reading a biography of Harriet Tubman these days. Her story refuses to allow us to see slavery as anything other than the cruelest institution, one that was damaging in different ways to people of every skin color. If an audience just 35 years away from that dark past can sing about facing a rising sun and marching until victory is won, then we are obligated today to continue rising, continue marching, continue standing, true to what is right, because the past has followed us and demands to be examined.




I began an adventure this past week, moving temporarily to a new city where I know almost no one, working in ways that require me to spend a lot of time alone. Like a lot of introverts, I don’t mind being alone, and I am blessed in never feeling lonely, but that isn’t to say I don’t enjoy all the daily interactions with others that I do have, in rehearsals and meetings and while exploring new places around me.

Author and social researcher Brene Brown has written and spoken, including most recently as the preacher at Washington National Cathedral, about loneliness as the greatest predictor of premature death – more than smoking or obesity.  She was quoting from a British study that’s making the rounds and which has caused the British government to take notice about the health care costs of loneliness.

Church as antidote to loneliness is not a new idea, but to my delight Brown mentioned that singing with people she doesn’t know is one of the best reasons to go to church. She then turned to the Cathedral’s superb choir seated behind the pulpit and, getting a good laugh from everyone, said something to the effect that those particular strangers would do!

YES! a well-trained choir is there to sing with a congregation. Occasionally, at Evensong for example, they are singing on behalf of a congregation, but never instead of, and certainly not despite.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who loved music so much, believed singing in unison was the best way for a community to pray together. The clarity and purity of unison singing – even when it’s somewhat out of tune croaking from the least musically-inclined –  for Bonhoeffer was the most joyful way to illuminate “the Word in its mystery.”

When voices come together in the words of a creed or in the tune and words of a hymn these are things which express the collective wisdom of many across time and place. Some can’t bring themselves to believe parts of the creeds we say, some cannot sing well…and yet these are still unison expressions of a community. Collectively we can believe the creeds, and collectively we can sing as one. Saying corporate prayers and singing in unison become the voice of the Church, not simply a collection of individual voices.

We need to know how to be alone as much as how to be in community, just as we need both self-sufficiency and human interactions in order to survive and to thrive. I believe that harmony and dissonance are as important to music as they are to social discourse, but as a musician I can say that it is training a choir to sing well in unison that is actually one of the hardest things there is to do. And I firmly believe that we are called on a regular basis to practice doing hard things.


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This blog represents my attempt to put thoughts together on various things that seem to connect – in my mind anyway. More often than not new ideas first involve reaching back to what was and I can only hope that the prehistoric San cave painting at the top of this page inspires all kinds of new connections between old and new.

Feel free to pass this message along to anyone who might be interested. You can simply subscribe (look for the “Subscribe” button at the top of the post) to get a reminder of new posts, or you can register with a user name and password in order to comment. If a community conversation comes out of this, all the better. We have so much to share and so much for which we can be grateful.



If there is one image that sums up Christmas for many people it is the crèche. The scene at the manger that is being set up in churches and homes and communities around the world. At its heart, of course, is the baby lying in a manger, helpless and adored by all those gathered around, and it is this gathering which is such a powerful part of the story being told by the crèche. Shepherds in the field, angels hovering nearby, kings on their way from distant lands, and even the animals in a humble shed are gathering around this baby.

Something happens when people gather. It’s hard to measure, but science tells us about all kinds of health benefits associated with participating in a community which gathers around shared interests. There are potential downsides, I realize. Group-think and mob-rule have dangerous consequences, but when communities are welcoming and loving, the potential for good is unlimited. I remember hearing a story years ago about the aftermath of the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti. The people had left the rubble of their impoverished homes and gathered together to sing. Singing to create community when they had nothing else.

No one has spoken more eloquently or worked more elegantly to create community around the human voice than composer, arranger and conductor Alice Parker, who celebrates her 91st birthday tomorrow on December 16. She was interviewed by Krista Tippett on NPR’s On Being in an episode titled Singing is the Most Companionable of Arts which aired recently. In it she describes the human voice in choral singing as our best tool for discovering what emotions lay beneath the surface, for overcoming the differences among us in the kind of face-to-face way that is required to build understanding, and as a means of balancing intuition with the rationality that is overly glorified by our society.

But Parker says it so much better and listening to this interview is an hour well spent:

Alice Parker interview-“On Being”

I think there is a reason that choral singing is the predominant form of music-making at this time of year. Parker talks about the incredible space that exists, when we sing about our faith, between our human story and those things we cannot understand. Singing together gives us another way of gathering around the baby. Even the angels sang that night.


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Where I’ll be:

November 27-January 1– organist/choir director at Christ Episcopal Church, Rockville, Maryland, while their Music Director is recuperating. (

December 14, 7:30 p.m. – concert with Zemer Chai, The Mansion at Strathmore. (

December 13, 15, 16 – World Bank/IMF Chorus concerts, Magnificats by John Rutter and Johann Pachelbel for choir and orchestra. 1:00 p.m. (

December 17, 10:00 – Washington National Cathedral, Bethlehem Prayer Service, simulcast (

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This blog represents my attempt to put thoughts together on various things that seem to connect – in my mind anyway. More often than not new ideas first involve reaching back to what was and I can only hope that the prehistoric San cave painting at the top of this page inspires all kinds of new connections between old and new.