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Tuesday, June 4, 2013

SongStories 10: Walk in the Reign (1989)

"Tank man" in Tiananmen Square
Today is the 24th anniversary of the standoff at Tiananmen Square in Beijing. The protests in China
were already a couple of months old, and with the violence of 3-4 June at Tiananmen ("Gate of Heaven") square, the protests largely came to an end with hundreds, maybe thousands, of civilians dead. It seems to be a good time to remember a song I wrote in that year that was quite aware of the events in China, and which tried to see, with hopeful if naive heart, those largely peaceful demonstrations as a sign of the inbreaking reign of God.

We were approaching Advent in 1989. I’d been in my job at St. Jerome for 6 years, and felt like things there were going well. We were done with our two year certification program at the Corpus Christi Center; in fact, I taught the music piece at the branch school in Las Vegas. I had written the musical Lost and Found and it had been performed professionally at the National Association of Pastoral Musicians that summer in Long Beach at a theater, and would be performed again at the Los Angeles Religious Education Conference in a year. We had a new publisher. After years of languishing in the failing financial environment of the local but mismanaged North American Liturgy Resources, Gary and Terry and I had decided to try another route, and so we decided to take our next project to GIA Publications in Chicago. That decision would be finalized in late autumn of 1989 when the three of us made our first trip to Hawaii for the Big Island Liturgical Arts Conference.

I had decided that I wanted to write an Advent song that year, with the themes of the advent Sundays in the verses. Earlier that same year, I had done this with the Lenten gospels in the song “Jerusalem, My Destiny,” and it seemed to have been really successful. Since it was a Matthew year, I decided I wanted it to have as a theme the idea of “Emmanuel,” God-with-us, since one of the motifs of the first gospel is that of the presence of the risen one with the church, even though he had passed to resurrection life with the Father. So, I started reading the readings for Advent A, and thinking about stuff.

Lech Walesa and the dockworkers
What a time it was! Do you remember? The fall of the Berlin Wall, the students standing up to the tanks in Tienanmen Square, the gradual dissolution of apartheid and the pending release of Mandela, glasnost and the incipient disintegration of the Soviet Union, when only  two decades before the popular opinion was that there would be two nuclear superpowers until there was only one standing after a nuclear war. They were heady times, and the words of the prophet Isaiah seemed as fresh as if they had been written that week. And there was a more personal version of the story for Gary and me as well. Our friend and mentor, Fr. John Gallen, the Jesuit liturgist, had had a heart attack and undergone heart surgery from which he emerged healthy and as focused and energetic as ever.

As I started to write “Walk in the Reign,” some of these things worked their way into the lyric:

Walk in the Reign  © 1989 GIA Publications, Inc.


Close as tomorrow the sun shall appear,

Freedom is coming, and healing is near.

And I shall be with you, in laughter and pain, 

To stand in the wind and walk in the reign,

To walk in the reign. 


In  the refrain, above, the great “theme” of Advent, the approach of the reign of God which is “at hand,” or “close as tomorrow.” Freedom and healing are two signs of the reign, and right before our eyes were the nations of Eastern Europe and South Africa. If I needed anything else, there was the recovery of our friend John.


In days to come, the desert shall bloom.

Rivers will run there, soon, very soon.

So what shall we fear though death do its worst?

The word of our God is the last shall be first, the last shall be first.


See especially the first reading on Advent 3 for this imagery. “Be strong, fear not!” is the exhortation from Isaiah.


O comfort each other, for pain soon must end. 

A day comes when lion and lamb shall be friends.

The sightless shall see then, the speechless sing songs.

The name of our God is “the righter of wrongs, the righter of wrongs.”


Some of this language comes from Isaiah 40, but some also comes from Isaiah 11, which is the reading for Advent 2 of year A, and also Isaiah 35, Advent 3.


A curtain of fear is being torn down,

Prisons are open, the lost have been found.

So go tell the seeker what we’ve seen and heard:

The name of our God is the keeper of word, the keeper of word.


Here I was thinking of the Iron Curtain, and Mandela. The third line, echoing the words of Jesus to the disciples of John, refers to the gospel of Advent 3 and the exhortation to believe what you see and hear about signs of the reign of God around you.


Bethlehem!
You think you’re so small that God doesn’t notice your children at all!

This little 8 bar bridge is a reference to Micah 5, that the village of Bethlehem (probably not the same Bethlehem, but if it didn’t matter to Matthew it doesn’t matter to me) does not escape God’s notice, and in spite of its inferiority complex it will give birth to a ruler for Israel.

Death in Soweto


The streets of Soweto, the docks at Gdansk,

Tienanmen Square, the slums of the Bronx:

When we stand together to stand against hell,

The name of his people is Emmanuel, is Emmanuel.


Here, I just let it all become explicit, with the last couplet expressing the christological reality of the ekklesia, the community of those called out by God, and marked with the cross in baptism, to be the presence of God in the world (Emmanuel.) It is through our surrender to the liberating, healing Spirit of God that the world comes to see the reign of God emerging right before its eyes.

Later that year, I wrote two less topical verses for use during the series of Sundays in Matthew where some of the parables are read. These, too, encourage us to walk in the reign of God:


A sower in planting in acres unseen

The seeds of the future, the field of God’s dream.

Those meadows are humming, though none sees them rise.

The name of the sower is God of surprise, the God of surprise.

Oh, one day we’ll know them, the treasure, the pearl,

That capture our spirits and brighten our world.

We ache to possess them, the burden that frees:

The treasure of justice, the pearl of God’s peace, the pearl of God’s peace.


Finally, after 9/11, I wrote another final verse that we use sometimes in concert. Borrowing its language from Isaiah 9 (the first reading on Advent 4), it turns us to a hope for the future based on something started in the present, God present here among us in our very humanity.


That morning of madness - Manhattan in flame.

In Gaza and Baghdad (or Kabul), the cry is the same:

Has God turned against us, his people reviled?

The same sign is given: a woman with child, a woman with child.


I think “Walk in the Reign” came out really well. I’ve taken a little heat over the years for the “cutesy” play on words between “rain” and “reign,” but sometimes you just try something even though it’s not high art. There are certainly a lot of plays on words throughout the scripture, so it’s not like I’m not in reputable, if not high class, company. ☺ I feel like the suggestive imagery (“close as tomorrow”) and the gentle, singable tune work together to make an anthem of hope. Now that some years have passed and all the promise may not seem to have come to full stature the way we had dreamed, we need the hope all the more. And in an ever more isolated nation whose values seem more and more to degenerate into individualism and personal liberty, we need the reassurance more than ever of hearing one another sing, “I shall be with you.”

iTunes link: Walk In the Reign - Safety Harbor