The Community of Christ has published a new hymnal titled “Community of Christ Sings.” The Community of Christ is known by many as a Church that has Peace and Social Justice as a major part of their world mission. Section 163 of the Doctrine and Covenants of the Community Christ, issued on March 29, 2007 by President Stephen M. Veazey, states the following instructions on peace:
3 a. You are called to create pathways in the world for peace in Christ to be relationally and culturally incarnate. The hope of Zion is realized when the vision of Christ is embodied in communities of generosity, justice, and peacefulness.
b. Above all else, strive to be faithful to Christ’s vision of the peaceable Kingdom of God on earth. Courageously challenge cultural, political, and religious trends that are contrary to the reconciling and restoring purposes of God. Pursue peace.
c. There are subtle, yet powerful, influences in the world, some even claiming to represent Christ, that seek to divide people and nations to accomplish their destructive aims. That which seeks to harden one human heart against another by constructing walls of fear and prejudice is not of God. Be especially alert to these influences, lest they divide you or divert you from the mission to which you are called.
4 a. God, the Eternal Creator, weeps for the poor, displaced, mistreated, and diseased of the world because of their unnecessary suffering. Such conditions are not God’s will. Open your ears to hear the pleading of mothers and fathers in all nations who desperately seek a future of hope for their children. Do not turn away from them. For in their welfare resides your welfare.
b. The earth, lovingly created as an environment for life to flourish, shudders in distress because creation’s natural and living systems are becoming exhausted from carrying the burden of human greed and conflict. Humankind must awaken from its illusion of independence and unrestrained consumption without lasting consequences.
c. Let the educational and community development endeavors of the church equip people of all ages to carry the ethics of Christ’s peace into all arenas of life. Prepare new generations of disciples to bring fresh vision to bear on the perplexing problems of poverty, disease, war, and environmental deterioration. Their contributions will be multiplied if their hearts are focused on God’s will for creation.
The newly published hymnal of the Community of Christ, titled “Community of Christ Sings” is one tool that can be used as a part of the “endeavors of the church equip people of all ages to carry the ethics of Christ’s peace into all arenas of life.” It is chock full of Hymns of Social Justice, both old and new. Classics like “We Shall Overcome” are side by side with new Hymns of Social Justice like “For Everyone Born.”
Below is the review of “Community of Christ Sings” I wrote for the Association of Mormon Letters. It originally appears at the AML Book Review website.
Review of “Community of Christ Sings”
Price: $23.00 (pew edition) $50 (Musicians/Large Print)
(This review focuses on the “Pew” edition.)
In July 1831, just three months after he organized the “Church of Christ,” Joseph Smith dictated the following in a revelation that was given for his wife Emma and for the whole Church: “And it shall be given thee, also, to make a selection of sacred hymns, as it shall be given thee, which is pleasing unto me, to be had in my church. For my soul delighteth in the song of the heart; yea, the song of the righteous is a prayer unto me, and it shall be answered with a blessing upon their heads.” (D and C 24:3b-3c CofC; D and C 25:11-12 LDS). Ever since then the publishing of hymnals and the singing of hymns has been important in all of the branches of the Joseph Smith Restorationist movement. After many trials and delays, Emma’s hymnal was released in 1835 and two more Church-produced hymnals were published before Joseph Smith’s martyrdom.
The first hymnal of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, titled “Latter Day Saints Selection of Hymns,” was actually planned in 1859, one year before the Amboy conference where Joseph Smith III accepted the role of prophet and president of the Church. The “Latter Day Saints Selection of Hymns” came out one year after that conference in 1861. Now, 178 years after Emma’s first hymnal was published, and 152 years after the “Latter Day Saints Selection of Hymns” came out, the Community of Christ has produced its first full hymnal since the Church voted to change its name from the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in 2001 (a “supplemental hymnal” was produced in 2004). The new hymnal, titled “Community of Christ Sings,” replaces the “Hymns of the Saints” which was released in 1981.
“Community of Christ Sings” is an elegantly produced hymnal. The binding is solid and the cover is a beautiful, deep blue with silver gilt lettering. Much thought went into the production of the cover which incorporates several symbolic elements. These elements include the font and design of the lettering which are meant to suggest “movement and underlying joy”, and a “debossed element” surrounding the name of the hymnal that “is inspired by the timeless mark from (the) Community of Christ nameplate and is sometimes seen as the hint of the universal symbol of the spiral” (information from http://www.cofchrist.org/hymnal/FAQ.asp).
“Community of Christ Sings” is introduced by the First Presidency. Their brief foreword states that this hymnal is to be considered “a vital mission tool” for the members of the Church and that it “articulates the identity, mission, message, and beliefs of the church.” The message then goes on to explain that this hymnal celebrates both the unity and diversity of the Church and gives a brief history of congregational singing in the Community of Christ and a brief history of the preparation of the hymnal. Next comes a preface that gives the organization, content, and layout of the hymnal and explains the purpose of the “Core Repertoire” of the hymnal (more on that later). The introductory materials also include the Communion Prayers (as given in the Doctrine and Covenants and in modern language versions) in English, Spanish, and French.
One of the amazing things about “Community of Christ Sings” is the great detail and precision that went into the order and arranging of the hymns. The songs in the hymnal are divided into seven sections: “God, Jesus Christ, Holy Spirit,” “Praise,” “Confession-Renewal,” “The Church,” “Christian Year,” “The Sacraments,” and “Discipleship-Commitment.” The hymns in each section are further divided into sub-topics. For instance, “The Church” is divided into “Invitation and Hospitality,” “Sanctuary,” “Justice,” “Pursuit of Peace,” “Blessings of Community,” “Christian Unity,” “Interfaith Respect,” “Mission,” and “Zion-Reign of God.”
As great as everything is that I have described so far, the best thing about “Community of Christ Sings” is ,of course, the hymns themselves. The variety of the hymns in this book is absolutely amazing. There are many old Christian standards included in the collection. Among these are “Amazing Grace,” “I Know That My Redeemer Lives!”, “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” “All Creatures of Our God and King,” “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty,” “For the Beauty of the Earth,” and many others. There are also classic hymns of the restoration such as “Rejoice, Ye Saints of Latter Days,” “O God in Heaven, We Believe,” “Redeemer of Israel,” “We Thank You, O God, For Our Prophets,” and “The Spirit of God Like a Fire is Burning.”
Some of these restoration hymns include important updates and changes. For instance, in this hymnal “We Thank Thee, O God, For A Prophet” has become “We Thank You, O God, For Our Prophets.” In this old favorite the language has been modernized and some lines have been altered to emphasize current Community of Christ teachings. For instance the last line of the first verse has been changed from “We feel it a pleasure to serve thee, and love to obey thy commands” has become, “We lift up our promise to serve you, to bring healing and peace to all lands.” With “The Spirit of God Like a Fire is Burning,” in the last two Community of Christ/RLDS hymnals, only three verses had been printed. In “Community of Christ Sings” the fourth verse has been restored, but it is now the third verse and has had some changes made to reflect current teachings of the Community of Christ. The verse now reads, “How blessed the day when the lamb and the lion shall lie down together in peace with a child. With one heart and mind may the Lord call us Zion: a people of justice, by God’s love inspired.” Along with these hymns there are many hymns (about 16 percent of the included hymns) that are unique to the Community of Christ. These include hymns such as “There’s an Old, Old Path,” “O May Your Church Build Bridges,” “Onward to Zion,” and “Tenderly, Tenderly, Lead Thou Me On.”
The hymns that are the most exciting to me however, are the new songs. It would take up too much space to discuss every hymn that I like in “Community of Christ Sings” so I will highlight only a few from one small slice of the book. Let me say here that one thing that I have understood and loved about the Community of Christ for a long time is that it is a Church that has as its central mission the spreading of Christ’s peace. In 1986 President Wallace B. Smith received a revelation on the priesthood and the building of the temple in Independence that included the following verse: “The temple shall be dedicated to the pursuit of peace. It shall be for reconciliation and for healing of the spirit” (D and C 156:5a). Then, 2007 President Steve Veazey received a revelation that included the following message:
“You are called to create pathways in the world for peace in Christ to be relationally and culturally incarnate. The hope of Zion is realized when the vision of Christ is embodied in communities of generosity, justice, and peacefulness. Above all else, strive to be faithful to Christ’s vision of the peaceable Kingdom of God on earth. Courageously challenge cultural, political, and religious trends that are contrary to the reconciling and restoring purposes of God. Pursue peace. There are subtle, yet powerful, influences in the world, some even claiming to represent Christ, that seek to divide people and nations to accomplish their destructive aims. That which seeks to harden one human heart against another by constructing walls of fear and prejudice is not of God. …God, the Eternal Creator, weeps for the poor, displaced, mistreated, and diseased of the world because of their unnecessary suffering. Such conditions are not God’s will. Open your ears to hear the pleading of mothers and fathers in all nations who desperately seek a future of hope for their children. Do not turn away from them. For in their welfare resides your welfare. … Let the educational and community development endeavors of the church equip people of all ages to carry the ethics of Christ’s peace into all arenas of life.” (D and C 163:3a.-4c)
These heaven-inspired ideas of peace and social justice are very prominent in some of the new hymns in “Community of Christ Sings.” Hymns of this nature can be found throughout the hymnal including in the sections on “Forgiveness,” “Reconciliation,” “Healing and Wholeness,” “Sanctuary,” “Justice,” and “Pursuit of Peace” to name just a few. Some of the newly included hymns of social justice are likely already familiar to Church members. “We Shall Overcome” and “Let There Be Peace on Earth” are two examples of such hymns. Another hymn new to the hymnal is a recently written hymn which has a message that is near and dear to me. It is called “Leftover People in Leftover Places” (hymn 275). By career I am a job coach and a vocational counselor. Many of the people that I work with and try to help every day have lived lives similar to those described in the words of this thought-provoking hymn:
Leftover people in leftover places,/troubled, disabled, the needy and sad,/scavenging crumbs from society’s plenty,/sick to the soul when their life has gone bad,
Leftover people, disposable people,/locked into prisons of drugs and despair,/poverty’s children in poverty’s spiral,/locked out of learning and earning their share,
These are the ones in God’s upside-down kingdom/deemed to be worthy and called to the feast,/soup-kitchen people invited to banquet,/valued as greatly as royal and priest.
Another hymn of this nature reminds us that Christ spent much of his time with the lowliest of the low. It is called “Friend of the Streetwalker” (Hymn 289), and its message fits in very well with teaching President Veazey’s vision of a Church membership that is more Christ-like: “Friend of the streetwalker, beggar, and child, lifting and blessing the weak and reviled, welcoming those the devout turned away: Jesus, we need your example today.” Similar hymns are “When the Poor Ones” and “Companion of the Poor.”
I know that I am risking making this review very long but I want to mention three more hymns, one of which is quite challenging, that really touched me. The hymn, “Till All The Jails Are Empty” (Hymn 303), challenges its singers to remember that Christ calls us to minister even to those that we might consider unworthy, unpopular, or unimportant. It asks believers to confront their own hate, their own violent tendencies and prejudices. Here is the first verse: “Till all the jails are empty and all the bellies filled; till no one hurts or steals or lies, and no more blood is spilled; till age and race and gender no longer separate; till pulpit, press, and politics are free of greed and hate: God has work for us to do.”
The hymn “Peace Salaam Shalom” (hymn 310) has a very simple message of peace that is meant to be sung in a round in multiple languages. It is in the hymnal with the permission of its creators, a group that calls itself “Emma’s Revolution” (there is no connection to the group name and Emma Smith). According to “Emma’s Revolution,” the inspiration for the song came to them as they were traveling between Washington DC and New York after the attacks of September 11, 2001. They felt horrified at the feelings and desires of hate and revenge that they saw gripping the nation in wake of the attacks and desired to write a hymn of healing. “Peace Salaam Shalom” was the result of that desire. The words of the hymn are in two parts. One singer or group repeats the words, “Peace, Salaam, Shalom” while the other sing first, “We believe in peace” then, “We will work for peace,” and finally, “We can live in peace.” Members of the Community of Christ from all over the world have created a unique recording of this song titled “Peace Through All People”; it can be viewed at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lBQ-KsGo_BI or http://vimeo.com/63948690.
The last of these hymns that I want to discuss is the most challenging. It is titled “For Everyone Born” (hymn 285). “For Everyone Born” was written by Shirley Erena Murray. Ms. Murray states that she wrote the hymn in 1998 while doing work for Amnesty International because “I couldn’t find anything to reflect a broad overview of human rights in any hymnbook.” She tried to write a hymn that discussed social justice and human rights in a gospel context. Speaking specifically of the LGBT community in relation to her hymn, Murray said: “In places where exclusion by the Church is a source of injustice and pain, as with the gay and lesbian communities, (“For Everyone Born”) has been used to ask for a place at the table, along with every other believer.” (http://www.cofchrist.org/hymnal/articles/For_Everyone_Born_article_DB_TheHymn.pdf)
Here are the words of the hymn:
For everyone born, a place at the table/For everyone born, clean water and bread/A shelter, a space, a safe place for growing/For everyone born, a star overhead
For woman and man, a place at the table/Revising the roles, deciding the share/With wisdom and grace, dividing the power/For woman and man, a system that’s fair
For young and for old, a place at the table/A voice to be heard, a part in the song/The hands of a child in hands that are wrinkled/For young and for old, the right to belong
For just and unjust, a place at the table/Abuser, abused, with need to forgive/In anger, in hurt, a mindset of mercy/For just and unjust, a new way to live
For everyone born, a place at the table/To live without fear, and simply to be/To work, to speak out, to witness and worship/For everyone born, the right to be free
And God will delight/When we are creators of justice and joy./Yes, God will delight/When we are creators of justice,/Justice and joy.
This hymn, perhaps more than any other hymn in the book, speaks to the challenge of President Veazey’s vision. It has already stirred up some controversy and my understanding is that there was some debate over its inclusion in the hymnal. Much of the challenge to, and controversy about, this hymn comes from the fourth verse’s admonition to forgive and include abusers at Christ’s table. About this verse Ms. Murray has said:
“… I wrote the ‘tough’ verse 4 because I knew, under the manifesto of Jesus, that even the worst abuse has to be dealt with and faced, and forgiveness requires singing about here. Of course, I have had much reaction to this – personal stories of terrible pain and lifelong trauma from all kinds of abuse. Sometimes the verse is omitted… by insecure leaders of worship. This destroys the architecture of the text. Sometimes – less often – it is welcomed as exposing and recognizing wounds that seem impossible to heal.” (http://www.cofchrist.org/hymnal/articles/For_Everyone_Born_article_DB_TheHymn.pdf)
This very challenging hymn has become my new favorite hymn. I hope that members of the Community of Christ learn to love and sing this hymn. I hope that they sing it often and put into practice the challenge that it gives. Any church would be doing well if they lived up to the challenge of Christ that is found in this hymn.
I want to wrap up my review by writing about the “Core Repertoire” of “Community of Christ Sings.” In a talk at the 2013 Peace Colloquy, to introduce the new hymnal, President Steve Veazey said:
“Something deeply spiritual happens when the church community sings together. It is much more than just the sound of our combined voices. God’s Spirit lifts us beyond our individuality and weaves us into sacred community…congregational singing draws people into restoring community that breaks down barriers and opens them to new life. It also has the power to bind us together as a worldwide church community…Congregational singing moves us from the “I” to the “we” as we grow in our understanding of the gospel. And, the movement from “I” to “we” is at the heart of our journey as Community of Christ.” (http://www.cofchrist.org/hymnal/102013Veazeysermon.asp)
To help fulfill the goal of bringing a diverse worldwide church together as one in their singing and worship, the compilers and editors of “Community of Christ Sings” came up with the idea of 100 songs that comprise the hymnal’s “Core Repertoire.” About this “Repertoire” the Preface states:
“‘Community of Christ Sings’ contains words and music from over 50 countries…(and) includes a core repertoire of over 100 songs that provide a glimpse of the international church. The vision for this repertoire is simple: when worshiping within the Community of Christ, we will be able to share and sing these songs together, whether physically in the same place or across the globe.”
Hymns in the “Repertoire” are included because: “the culture from which each song comes offers unique perspectives and spiritual gifts to the universal body of Christ.” (Preface) The hymns in the “Repertoire” come from the many cultures and languages of the Church including: Chicewa, Chinese, Creek, Dutch, French, German, Gullah, Haitian Creole, Lakota, Spanish, Swahili and many others. The hymns in this “Repertoire” are sure to become an important part of the Community of Christ worship and a binding and uniting force in the Church.
The Community of Christ is to be commended. “Community of Christ Sings” sets a high watermark of what a fine hymnal can be and a fine example for other churches and denominations to follow.