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Thursday, May 2, 2013

SongStories 8 - I Am for You (Vision, 1992, GIA)

With the feast of the Ascension being today for some of us, and a week from Sunday for the rest of us, I thought it was an appropriate time to do the backstory behind "I Am for You," since part of the impetus for that song is the end of Matthew's gospel. Although it's not read this year, it is the most familiar version of the Ascension story in the gospel.

One of these days, I'll tell you the story of our Very Big Adventure of the Big Island Bus Ride of 1992. This was the last time I was in Hawaii, at the Big Island Liturgical Arts Conference (BILAC). It was our second trip to the conference, but this year was especially wonderful because Joe Camacho and Fr. George had asked me to write the theme song for the conference. I was more than a little intimidated by the task of writing a song for this conference, held in those years in the Hawaiian homelands outside of Hilo, at Malia Puka o Kalani (Mary Star of the Sea) Catholic Community. Mostly it was the usual self-doubt - what could a bourgeois white boy write that might even be mildly appropriate for a community like this to sing? I couldn’t really think about that, I just had to do something.

One of the tasks I set for myself with a commission like this was to write a song that would be useful beyond the days of the conference. The conference was at the end of a Luke year,  early November 1992, so Matthew was hovering a month away. Could I include some major Matthaean theme in the lyric that might make it serviceable in the following year? I’m sure that the conference also sent me some notes on the theme of the conference itself, which I incorporated into my preparation. This became part of one of two trips I made to the “wilderness” to write, and during which a lot of songs that became part of the Vision CD (and later, Gary’s Praise the Maker’s Love) were written. “Roots in the Earth,” “Create Me Again” and “All Things New” were written in this week, and in a different trip “May We Be One” and “Covenant Hymn.” This trip must have made some kind of impression on my subconscious, because I still have dreams about having a notebook like I kept that week, but it contains more unfinished songs. In my dream I can’t find the book. (That’s because it doesn’t exist, but don’t try to tell my dream that.)

I had brought with me, to the Prescott, AZ, “wilderness,” a Jerusalem bible that I spent time browsing every day, both to be anchored in the texts I was trying to set and to find further inspiration. Honestly, I can’t remember where or what it was that I found it, but there was a convergence of images around a footnote in the Bible that started the ball rolling on “I Am for You.” As I mentioned, one of the things I was trying to do was incorporate some overarching theme from the gospel of Matthew, and for me, this theme is the presence of Christ to the Church notwithstanding his beyondness in God. In Matthew, the name there are at least four explicit indications of this. The first is Mt 1: 23, in the story of Joseph’s dream, in which Jesus is called “Emmanuel - which means ‘God is with us.’” The second is the Ascension account (Mt. 28:20), in which Jesus says, as he is taken up to heaven at the end of the gospel, “I am with you always, until the end of the age.” These two texts, I think, form an important inclusio for the whole gospel, that is, set at the beginning and the end of the text, they teach us to read what falls between with eyes looking for the presence of God-in-Christ among us. The other two clear examples are in the community discourse, Mt 18:20, in which Jesus, instructing the community on how to act as a group, tells them “wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” So there’s an indication of his presence in the community, acting as community. And the other is in the last of the great parables of Matthew 25, the story of the king, the sheep, and the goats. It’s only necessary to remember the shocking response the king makes to those who are surprised to be counted among the blessed because they had ministered to the king. Their king says, “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.” Again, a statement of presence, this time identification of the Lord with those who are in greatest need. This matrix within the gospel of Matthew was the core out of which I was hoping to write.

Then I came across this footnote in the New Jerusalem Bible, in which the editors alleged that one of the ways the teachers of the late royal period, and possibly later, had translated the name of God as spoken to Moses, the name we represent by the tetragrammaton (YHWH) and generally translate something like “I am who am”, was something like “Who I am, I am for you.” Now, this footnote might have been on a text that read, “I am not for you,” in other words, God refuting the idea that Israel could act unjustly and with impunity in the covenant relationship, but the idea of “I am for you” started to work on me. I began to see, in all of scripture, a sense that “I am for you” describes God’s relationship with humanity in creation and the Holy Spirit, Jesus’s relation to God, and therefore our relation to one another. It is a way of simply expressing agape and kenosis, that is, a way of expressing the paschal mystery: life given on behalf of others, in God’s case, perfectly and utterly.

So I chose specific images/events to wrap the text around. First,  the creation, using words which I hoped would resound in my Hawaiian patrons’ consciousness: mountain, sea, wind, strength, fire. Then I chose Mary, whose “Let it be done to me according to your word” seemed like a beautiful human echo of “I am for you.” Jesus, the man who “walked in the storm/Caught in between the waves and the lightning,” is the fulcrum of the song, with those words from the last verse of Matthew ringing out in the last line of the stanza. Verses four and five attempt to infuse the life of the church with those words and that sentiment, “Let us be the word of the Lord: ‘I am for you.’” In verse 5 there is an eschatological hope against the sin that threatens to overwhelm the little ones of the reign of God unless the community keeps the fire alive.

Now, all this was all I could do, as the song settled into a sort of folk-gospel sound. What I never could have imagined is the way that Father George ended up preaching about it on the last day of the conference at the Sunday mass. He took the second verse, which I thought I had written about Mary the mother of Jesus, and he saw in it the way a good homilist, a man of his people, sees a text. This is something that I never could have seen as a haole songwriter, however warmly welcomed I might have
“Hawaiian Madonna,” fresco by Juliette Mae Fraser
at St. Catherine’s Catholic Church, Kapaa, Kauai
been to the group. For him, the “woman, small as a star / Full of the patient dreams of her nation” became Queen Liliuokalani, the last queen of the Hawaiians, who abdicated her throne with Grover Cleveland’s navy in Pearl Harbor rather than bring war and death to her beloved people. U.S. history books tell a slightly different tale, but there’s no doubt that sugar and land business interests orchestrated the political machinations of the day. Liliuokalani, after a brief imprisonment, was allowed to live as a private citizen. (I note that, reading her story a bit, she was also a musician and songwriter, and she wrote what is probably the most famous of Hawaiian native songs, “Aloha oe.”)

Anyway, that’s the story of “I Am for You.” Thanks, Fr. George and Joe and all the wonderful people of Malia community for making the writing of this song possible.

Here are the lyrics of I Am for You - Vision (iTunes link.)

Dedicated to Joe Camacho, Rev. George deCosta, 
and the people of Malia Puka O Kalani Church, Hilo, Hawaii

There is a mountain, there is a sea.
There is a wind within all breathing.
There is an arm to break every chain.
There is a fire in all things living.
There is a voice that speaks from the flame:
I Am for You, I Am for You,
I Am for You is my name.

There was a woman, small as a star,
Full of the patient dreams of her nation,
Welcoming in an angel of God,
Welcoming in God’s bold invitation.
Let it be done, she sang, unto me:
I am for you, I am for you!
I am for you: let it be!

There was a man who walked in the storm,
Caught in between the waves and the lightning,
Sharing his bread with those cast aside,
Healing by touch the lost and the dying.
Sending us forth he says to his friends:
I am for you, I am for you,
I am for you to the end.

We are anointed servants of God.
We have been born again of spirit.
We are the word God speaks to the world,
Freedom and light to all who will hear it.
So let us be the word of the Lord:
I am for you, I am for you,
I am for you ever more.

There is a world that waits in the womb.
There is a hope unborn God is bearing.
Though the powers of death prowl the night,
There is a day our God is preparing.
Sing ‘round the fire to waken the dawn:
I am for you, I am for you!
I am for you: we are one!

Copyright © 1992 GIA Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.

I Am for You - Vision iTunes link

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