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Thursday, March 6, 2014

Songstories 25: Change Our Hearts (NALR, 1984; OCP 2000)

For those who don't already know this, the title of my new book for Lent was Mary Carol Kendzia's idea. "Change Our Hearts" was a song on our first album, You Alone, and has been continually in worship aids of one kind or another since 1986 or so, with the first volume of NALR's Assemblybook. It has been in Glory and Praise, Volume 4, as well as Glory and Praise Comprehensive, and after that, in every issue of Today's Missal Music Issue since OCP acquired the assets of NALR in the early 1990s. Change Our Hearts also appeared in the first edition of Gather Comprehensive, and has been in all the succeeding editions so far. So maybe, as a marketing idea anyway, it was a good title. Thank you, NALR, OCP, and Mary Carol.

After Tom Kendzia heard Terry sing in the studio when we were recording You Alone (she was singing a duet with the amazing Steve Rio on a song called "Yours Today"), he informed me that I was even stupider than he already thought I was if I didn't have her sing on more of the songs. So "Change Our Hearts" became one of the other songs she introduced to the church with her incredible voice. As you know, she is the voice of Cooneytoons for these 30 years, but she also sang on the original recordings of other well-known songs, like Lawton's "The Cloud's Veil," Kendzia's "Endless Is Your Love," Schutte's "Table of Plenty" and "River of Glory" and others.

Not long after the album was released, NALR sponsored a Bangladesh-inspired concert at the NPM convention in Cincinnati, I think, that was called "The Cry of the Poor." The concert, which was produced by Tom Kendzia on behalf of the company, featured many NALR artists performing together as a choir and instrumentalists, with composers leading the singing of their compositions with the arena full of musicians. It was a tiring but exhilarating and memorable experience. Carey Landry, the St. Louis Jesuits, Michael Joncas, Tom himself, and many others performed their compositions with a performing audience. Paul Quinlan led an energetic singing of "Sing to God a Brand New Canticle." I'd love to go back and see that playlist again, but alas, my copy has long turned to dust. I'm virtually certain, though, that David Haas accompanied Michael when he performed "On Eagle's Wings," and weird as this is, I remember them dropping the second chord of the refrain to the 6 chord from the (repeated) tonic as it is in the printed music, and I thought, "Well, if it's good enough for them..." and I've never played it any other way since that night.

At any rate, we got to do a song too, but since Terry was going to be at the convention, there was no need for the composer to mess up the song with his voice. In this sea of male composers and singers (the only exception that comes to mind was Carol Jean Kinghorn, who performed with Carey, and I think that Gloria Weyman might have been involved in a performance with Fr. Deiss in some way), Terry was a standout as she took the microphone in a sweet red dress that might as well have been bought just for the occasion, and she brought the house down with her performance of "Change Our Hearts." At least, that's how I remember it happening in the golden glow of distant memory. And if it didn't happen quite that way, it should have.

Though the song was recorded in 1984-85, it had been around for a few years before. I don't have any specific memory of the occasion for which it was written, but it was probably for Lent. I know that the phrasing, "Change our hearts," was intentional, a prayer. So much Lenten rhetoric (I heard this as recently as yesterday) is about the athletic rigor of Lenten practice, as though we could change our hearts just by doing some spiritual calisthenics, but if that is the case, why isn't the world, why isn't the church, different? Yes, there is some work we must do, of course. But take the example of David (in the traditional myth, at least) and Psalm 51. He prays, "Create a clean heart in me." If we analyze those words, he is asking something remarkable, something he knows only too well. By "heart," of course, the psalmist doesn't mean the muscle that circulates blood. He means his person, his whole self. The psalmist is, in fact, probably speaking Israel's heart, the heart of the whole nation, certainly by extension, and probably primarily. More importantly for us, though, the verb "create" is used, a verb that in Hebrew is never used unless "God" is the (understood) subject of the sentence! In other words, the psalmist is saying: "Look at me, look at us! We are damaged beyond our ability to repair, we can't fix who we are. Create us again! Start over. Make me, make us something new so that we can be who we know we are meant to be."

So "Change Our Hearts" is addressed to God, with the awareness that, well, for me at least, the ability to fix myself is out of my reach. When I look at the world around me, when I consider the church I'm a part of, I think I'm not the only one, so the song, like the psalm, speaks on behalf of the whole community of believers. Like Israel in the desert, we long for the fleshpots of slavery. "Your milk and honey seem distant, unreal,/ When we have bread and water in our hands." Our sharing in God's dream of freedom for us is a frightening prospect. What little life we have seems good enough to us. We want to cling to it in fear, even when we know it's not enough. We need more than a vision, we need someone to push us forward in faith. Maybe, like Saul, someone to knock us off of our violent horses, and concuss a new world into our hearts!

Yes, there's blowback from some folks who think that "one foot in paradise, one in the waste" is a silly or profane line, but nevertheless it's true. My life certainly straddles that border between the reign of God and the wasteland that is the world of borders, insurance, competition, class, and violence. I don't see anyone living much differently, so I don't think I'd change that line even if I were writing the song today. My advice is, if you don't like this text, sing something else! There are a lot of songs out there; I'm sure that you can find one that suits your worldview. Probably several, in the same hymnal.

Thank you to everyone who has supported us over the years since "Change Our Hearts" was first published in 1984, thirty years ago. The Bruno family at NALR, the OCP family in Portland, and yes, the GIA family here in Chicago who made "Change Our Hearts" a part of their hymnals' repertoire too. I'm grateful to you, and to everyone who has had the same thought as I had when I wrote it, have already lived thirty or so Lents, and not seen a lot of change: "Lord, this time, change our hearts."

OCP page for the song, click here.

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