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Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Songstories 16: The Trumpet in the Morning ("This Very Morning," GIA, 1998)

Once upon a time, there was a wonderful place called the East Coast Conference on Religious Education. Alas, it is no more.

But ask anyone who ever attended it in its thirty years or so of active ministry, and they'll tell you that it was the East Coast place to be. Terry and Gary and I were there a number of times ourselves for one reason or another; Gary more often than either of us, because he was part of the core team that shaped the prayer and liturgy of the conference. Its management was not without controversy, and its last years under the late good-hearted, if irascible and deeply wounded, Tim Ragan were not easy. But in its heyday, it was the place to be in February, usually a week or two before the larger LAREC in Anaheim, with a stirring line-up of animated educators and spiritual guides, engaging workshops, and well-prepared worship throughout.

I was lucky that, for the 1997 gathering, Tim Ragan asked me if I would write a theme song for the convention that would invite the participants into the jubilee experience into which we were all about to be plunged by the calendar turning over the millennium. It seemed like a good time for us in the church to think about time from the point of view of kairos, that is, God's time, the "acceptable time," the time to experience the movement of the Holy Spirit in our lives. The convention intended to have weavers and other artisans working publicly on pieces through the convention itself that would be used in some visible way during the prayer and worship times at the end of the conference, to incarnate and aspect of kairos, creation unfolding among us. The preaching and mystagogy was going to focus on millennium as an opportunity for jubilee justice: forgiveness of debt, liberation of captives, and restoration of right relationships. Jubilee, the 50th year (i.e., the year following a week-of-weeks-of-years, 7x7+1 years), was to be to human relationships as Sabbath to the week. It would serve to remind us all that "the earth and all that is within it belong to the Lord," and we need to remember to start acting like it.

In order to get a better feel for the task, I re-read Leviticus 25, which outlines the Jubilee economy for Israel:
(8) You shall count seven weeks of years—seven times seven years—such that the seven weeks of years amount to forty-nine years. 9 Then, on the tenth day of the seventh month* let the ram’s horn resound; on this, the Day of Atonement, the ram’s horn blast shall resound throughout your land. 10 You shall treat this fiftieth year as sacred. You shall proclaim liberty in the land for all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you, when each of you shall return to your own property, each of you to your own family. This fiftieth year is your year of jubilee; you shall not sow, nor shall you reap the aftergrowth or pick the untrimmed vines, since this is the jubilee. It shall be sacred for you. You may only eat what the field yields of itself....Do not deal unfairly with one another, then; but stand in fear of your God. I, the LORD, am your God.

The land shall not be sold irrevocably; for the land is mine, and you are but resident aliens and under my authority. Therefore, in every part of the country that you occupy, you must permit the land to be redeemed.
When one of your kindred is reduced to poverty and becomes indebted to you, you shall support that person like a resident alien; let your kindred live with you. Do not give your money at interest or your food at a profit. I, the LORD, am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to give you the land of Canaan and to be your God. When your kindred with you, having been so reduced to poverty, sell themselves to you, do not make them work as slaves. Rather, let them be like laborers or like your tenants, working with you until the jubilee year, when, together with any children, they shall be released from your service and return to their family and to their ancestral property.
And if they are not redeemed by these means, they shall nevertheless be released, together with any children, in the jubilee year. For the Israelites belong to me as servants; they are my servants, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt, I, the LORD, your God.
Well, that's a tall order, isn't it? It wasn't lost on me, perspicacious student of culture that I am, that there was a good dose of millennialism going around, too, the kind that sees the eschaton around every bend, the parousia peering from behind the lattice. I like the idea of the shofar blowing to announce the jubilee on Yom Kippur, which got me thinking of "trumpet." Knowing the early American hymn "The Morning Trumpet" from Southern Harmony, I started to mull over the possibility of adapting that tune to a different theological perspective, not one of rapture and end time, but one of time transformed, and earth along with it.

The original "Morning Trumpet" from Southern Harmony, melody in the middle.
As I may have mentioned in another post, there is a time in the process of songwriting at which the song begins to write itself. It generally comes for me after many hours of "input," writing notes to myself, false starts, couplets and ideas that go nowhere, studying, praying, despairing, doubting myself, all that stuff. Suddenly it's as though one idea rubs against another one and generates a spark that ignites, and the writing gathers steam. That's what happened here. With the older hymn dictating the form, my imagination with the text, mingling imagery from Leviticus with modern life and the "participating audience" I expected would want to sing my song, I was able to begin to more rapidly assemble the text. With that complete, it was just a matter of deciding on an arrangement. I nearly always write with smaller choirs (SAB) in mind, and the song suggested a sort of fife-and-drum accompaniment, with a trumpet asserting itself, um, brassily, as the song developed.

"Trumpet in the Morning" ended up as the opening cut on our 1998 CD This Very Morning, which was actually imagined as a group of songs for Holy Week and Easter through Pentecost. You might wonder why I would write the song for the millennium, knowing that such an event is once-in-a-lifetime, as long as one is living fewer than a thousand years. But for us Christians, the jubilee is not a matter of chronos, that is, time that can be measured and counted, but is a person, that is, Jesus Christ, crucified and risen. For us, Christ is the invitation to and living reminder of the kind of radical, liberating equality that is the birthright of the children of God. It is Jesus who taught us to call God "Our Father," to make our own forgiveness of debt the measure by which our debts are forgiven. So in our worship of the Father in Christ, there is no thousand year wait. The jubilee is now. That's why the song keeps coming back to the refrain:

Lowly eyes shall be lifted while the tyrants taste their fear,
For that sound is both a gospel and a warning,
When we rise as a people who proclaim that God is near,
Who will dare to sound the trumpet in the morning! 

In one of those ironic, iconic ways God gets back at you, GIA published this song with a question mark at the end of the lyric, instead of an exclamation point. Yes, I know...I asked. I suppose it doesn't matter that much, eschatologically speaking. It's a good question, if only it were phrased as one.

"Trumpet in the Morning" at

Audition or download from iTunes:Trumpet In the Morning - This Very Morning