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Even while embroiled in another summer of extreme heat and drought all over the world, churches are all too often completely silent in response the climate crisis. I could name any number of reasons for that culpable silence—or vocal dismissiveness. But for churches who hear the urgent moral call of these frightening days, we now have a growing number of resources to help us respond, including resources for worship.
Publishers and climate organizations are developing new eco-focused sermon commentaries and liturgies. The Season of Creation, from September 1 to October 4, is now an international, ecumenical phenomenon. And musicians, too, are getting on board to write new worship music that helps us respond to our divine call to heal a damaged earth.
With their just-released album, Climate Vigil, The Porter’s Gate aims to help the church wake up to “one of the greatest moral challenges of our time.” This ecumenical, diverse group of musicians collaborates to develop worship songs that fill gaps in the church’s repertoire. So far, they’ve released albums of work songs, neighbor songs, lament songs, justice songs, and Advent songs. Now, with this new album, they are “calling on Christians, and all people of goodwill, to gather in local communities to bear witness to our climate crisis—and take action to end it.”
To be fair, we’re not going to end the climate crisis; climate impacts are now “baked in” for generations, no matter what we do in this moment. Our task, in partnership with people of all faiths and no faith, is to mitigate fiercely so as to avoid the worst impacts, to repair as much as we possibly can, and to build a more just and beautiful future. This is a moral calling, a divine calling, and The Porter’s Gate offers the church musical solace and challenge along the way with these thoughtful, innovative, vibrant songs.
In the excellent source materials that accompany the album, Porter’s Gate founder Isaac Wardell explains that the album deliberately covers three main modes: praise, lament/repentance, and call to action and mobilization: “music for the movement.” I’m impressed, throughout the album, with the neat side-stepping of cliché, the emphatic avoidance of anthropocentrism, and the persistent attentiveness to the beauty and resilience of an aching creation. Climate Vigil is great music as well as a generous and timely gift to the church.
The Worship Guide, available at the album website (click on the image and you can get it free with signup), is a terrific resource. Besides listing all the amazing musicians involved in the project, the guide works through each song, presenting lyrics along with commentary and a brief devotional reflection. These reflections, written by an all-star cast, include an apt biblical passage, some substantial musings relevant to each song, a brief prayer, and some reflection questions. The end of the book is a primer on climate change and a theological case for Christian action. (Note the significant contributions from friend of the RJ Kyle Meyaard-Schaap.) Lead sheets for the music are also freely available.
The rest of this post/review is for those who plan and lead worship and other interested parties.
Can you use this music in congregational worship? Sure! I’ll take a cue from one of the songs, “Water to Wine” and examine a few of the best songs (at least in my opinion) in the style of a wine review. Ready?
“God of Grace and Mystery“
Tasting notes: Notes of innocence and simplicity are complimented by affection, ending with a smooth, gentle finish.
This song portrays a God of grace, mystery, generosity, and hospitality. We humans join in creation’s already ongoing song, a symphony, a dance. I appreciate how the third verse presents creation as present action—“God creating all we see”—and calls upon us to join with God in “Ever making all things new.” We are invited into humble, joyful participation.
A simple, strophic verse form culminates in refrains of “holy, holy, holy.”
Pairing: A great opening hymn of praise for congregational singing. Also good as a sanctus leading up to communion. Simple keyboard accompaniment would work fine, but if you’ve got a good cellist, get ‘em on it.
“Where Were You“
Tasting notes: Flavors of sighs, wonder, and melancholy sharpened with wryness. Deep notes of poignance make for a heartbreaking finish.
What moxie to write a song in the voice of God from the end of Job! But it’s fantastic. Rather than depicting God’s voice as a “dressing down” of poor Job, this song regards the words out of the whirlwind as a love letter to creation. God asks the listener, with surprising gentleness, “where were you?” and “do you know?” Focusing the song on God’s questions brings us up short in our anthropocentric arrogance.
In the final verse, the human listener responds, “I don’t know. / But in the whirlwind of my weakness / O my God I hear you speaking / and when I think of all your secrets, I shake and rejoice.” This helpless reply falls into silence with the song musically unresolved. Oof. Absolutely heartbreaking.
Pairing notes: Not for congregations to sing. In fact, it’s crucial that they remain silent and listen. Instead, have a pair of excellent voices do the song—or three voices! The additional voices give dimension in later verses. Let the musicians lean into the song’s quirky syncopation. Well, OK, I suppose the congregation can join, quietly, tentatively, on that last verse. For full effect, you really do need the string backup (Note to Porter’s Gate: sheet music for the string arrangements, please?).
“Declaring Glory (The Earth Sings Its Refrain)“
Tasting notes: A balance of playful and energetic joy with underlying notes of deep time.
Let’s try a song in the voice of the earth! This is a genius idea. Once again, it’s time for human congregants to be quiet for goodness’ sake and just listen: listen for the joy of creation—and the pain. On second thought, people should join in for the refrain, “Declaring glory!” But for most of the song, just go along for the ride as the earth praises the creator across vast sweeps of time. And listen as the earth resolves: “I’ll praise till my fires run out.” Yeah.
Duly immersed in our kinship with all creation, congregants can join in the coda section, too, singing with all that has breath, “I’ll praise my maker in every age.” I suppose the implied question here is: Will we? Or will we destroy this stunning, alive, praising earth?
Pairing: A small choir could sing the verses, with the congregation joining on the refrain and coda. This songs says: Step aside, humans. It’s not all about you.
“The Kingdom is Coming“
Tasting notes: Flavors of R&B deliver complex nuances of the Civil Rights era and revolution.
This is the movement song, man. This is the one the congregation can clap and dance with. I love how the refrain declares, “The kingdom is coming! / We are praying for it. … / We are waiting for it. … / We are working for it.”
Praying, waiting, working. So much for passivity. Are you waiting around for God to fix everything? Yeah, nope. Not how it happens. God is working, and we join in: “Come and join the work. He’s restoring all things.”
Pairing: Perfect for after the sermon, during communion, or as a sending song. A small choir would be great on the verses, with all joining on refrain. To do it right, you need drums, guitars, bass, and synth/strings, but you could get by with only a really good electric guitar.
“Water to Wine“
Tasting notes: An understated, philosophical opening gives way to ravishing flavors of exuberance and wonder.
This song declares that the whole creation is miracle. Jesus himself is the center of all creation’s miraculous transformations. This one has sacramental theology baked in, if you’ll forgive a sacramental bread pun. The song invites us to consider, imagine, remember: it’s all water to wine.
Pairing: I love this one, but it’s not well suited for congregational singing. Perfect for someone to sing on the congregation’s behalf during communion, though. Maybe the congregation could join in on the little refrain if they’re up to it. Needs piano, two strong voices, maybe a violin.
“All Creatures Lament“
Tasting notes: Flavors of melancholy and grief deliver complex nuances of longing love. Characterized by quiet intensity.
Oh what they’ve done with that beloved, familiar chestnut of a hymn!
“All creatures of our God and King,
lift up your voices; let them ring.
Fill the earth with lamentation!
Cry out abuses of our pow’r;
tell what we lose with every hour
to our greed and depredation.
Lord, have mercy; Christ, have mercy;
Lord, have mercy!”
Feel that stab in your heart? Yeah, that’s because this hymn is now a call for all creatures, including us, to lament the damage we humans have done to air, seas, land.
“Mourn the destruction of our home;
Weep with the fear of worse to come”
The way the song dwells in the relative minor key just twists that knife even more deeply. But somehow, grief awakens love here. Buried in the lament is a new resolve:
“Teach us to see your wonders now.
Help us to make a holy vow
here to halt your devastation.”
Pairing: Great after the sermon and/or just before intercessory prayer. You’ll need at least a guitar and lead voice. Congregation can join in on second verse and refrains. Those gorgeous string arrangements are absolutely ravishing. That tremolo at the end! Oh! (Note to Porter’s Gate: we need the sheet music for string arrangements here, too.)
Well, this is just a tasting menu. I commend to you the whole collection for your own listening edification, perhaps for study with that excellent Worship Guide. Gratitude to all the folks at The Porter’s Gate for the love and skill they put into this album. I hope churches and Christian groups everywhere will drink deeply.
Thanks to Ron Rienstra for worship consultation.
Image credit: theportersgate.com