Christians who want wide, rich, real worship expressions ignore the Psalter to their own great detriment – for within it are songs and prayers, rants and exultations, moans, lamentations, sighs of wonder and bafflement to cover most if not all human emotions. Like the News of the World’s old byline ‘All human life is there’; which is to say that the psalms help us somehow to encompass it all, and offer up in songs-of-a-kind all manner of reactions –adoring, angry and ambiguous, and the rest. This is relevant; bear with me.
Anyone who’s been part of an exciting community of believers (and this probably holds true for kinds of fellowships, fraternities and societies) will have known times of burgeoning and creativity, where solidarity is sweet, new experiences come thick and fast, and there’s a spring-like sense of learning and newness, flow and fruition…and songs of joy and praise come easy and seem natural as breath. If they stick at it, they’ll also know times of quiet fallowness and consolidation; but then there’ll also be times of reduction, of ‘paring back’, times of challenge and disagreements, where once-simple comradeships seem complex and less secure, where disenchantments are expressed, old zeals diminished and where people change course, succumb to tragedy, or simply leave. There needs to be song-prayers for these occasions too, and perhaps that’s something which this pair of songs – never far away from my current playlists – continues to remind me.
Both these songs come from the Woodland Park Community, another expression of the Community of Celebration stemming from the historic renewal that took place at Houston’s Church of the Redeemer in the 1960s. While the U.K.-based Fisherfolk (the C of C’s touring/recording musical ministry teams) produced the great majority of recordings, the Colorado community’s ‘Fisherfolk’ produced three albums in the early 1980s. The first, ‘This is the Day’ reflects more of that early stage of community I mentioned – with songs of great joy, commitment and adoration. It’s a beautiful album. These two songs – both by Margo Farra – more later – come from the second and third albums, ‘The Sun’s Gonna Shine’(1982) and ‘Willing to Row’(1983). And although these albums are no less commendable and full of vibrant praise, their joy is undoubtedly tinged with more shadowy qualities – resignation, fortitude, consolations….that suggest, perhaps, a community of worship having to confront and embrace difficulties that make their sacrifice of praise all the more steely-real.
And so to the first of these songs, ‘The Sun’s Gonna Shine’ which gives the album its title too. It ends the album, with Margo herself (I think?) taking the lead on her own self-penned lyrics. While it is indeed a song of hope and confirmation (the chorus: ‘The Sun’s gonna shine/ Just wait and see/ Spring’s gonna come/ I can feel it in me, can’t you?’), there’s an undeniable melancholy about it, underscored by the hypnotically repetitive melody lines, and explicit in its context – ‘Watching you go is the hardest thing I’ve ever done…’. There’s an elegiac quality to this (appropriate then that it was sung in Margo’s funeral some years later), but more probably it’s about someone leaving community, breaking strong familial links forged over years of common spiritual struggle and friendship. The details in it make it sound an intensely personal song, yet for me it’s personal in the same way as David’s rawest psalms, which become ‘universal’ as cries and prayers we can all tap into. Like many a psalm, too, it traces a line through the sorrow and incomprehension to a kind of faith-intuition and acceptance (‘To find your life, you’ve got to lose your life, so you say/ Well that’s hard to believe, but in your life/ I see it working that way…’) and a further step, to the faith-declaration of the chorus, where other voices join, harmonizing, to swell out to something substantial.
Margo’s contribution to album three was also the closing track, and there’s something of a similar feel to it, and once again, a similar honest psalm-like quality to its plaint – ‘Staying in each other’s sorrow/ Bearing one another’s pain/ Sometimes I wonder/ If we’ll ever, ever laugh again..’ which hints at some of the sadnesses and challenges the community was confronting in faithfully following their call. Once again, for most of the song the melodic range is repetitive, though in a haunting rather than a numbing way – and this time the lead vocal is given to Diane Davis Andrew whose sensitivity and precision give the sound a beautiful stark crispness. Lyrically here, even moreso than in ‘The sun’s gonna shine’, we have that psalmic note of yearning and enquiry – ‘Will we ever laugh..?’ –at one point ‘Sir, we’re here to ask you, will we ever…?’ The corresponding strain of faith, the answering response, comes in two ways: in a counter-song (taken up by the male vocalists) towards the end of the song, with the Lord’s promises and invitation to rest, peace, sustenance, healing… (‘Place your hurting hearts…in my love/ and let me warm them with my truth..’) and secondly in the more declarative hopeful tone of the last verse – sung now in unison, while Diane’s voice soars a joyous descant – ‘Singing in the sorrow/ dancing in one another’s pain..’ and there’s something wonderful and slightly enigmatic about the final lines – ‘Because we asked the question/ our lives will never be the same..’ Not sure I fully comprehend it, but it sounds to me like an unapologetic endorsement of the way of life the community has chosen – despite sorrowful difficulty, to live authentically with real-ness, asking questions of God (and of each other) and open to answers in ways that are literally life-changing.
I might not have recognized the beauty and worth of these two songs if they had not appeared at a time when my own awareness of church/community struggles and difficulties made them seem eminently applicable. Like I said at the start, we need songs for these stages in our communal experiences, and these fitted the bill. In a not dissimilar vein, I wrote some songs of my own at this time – ‘Calvary Love’, ‘We have a Saviour’, songs of a consolatory/encouraging tone. Perhaps Margo’s songs (and some of King David’s) helped me to find a voice.
Margo Farra – perhaps someone should write the story of how the Farra tribe and spouses got touched by God in the destiny-shaping sweep of Spirit-renewal at Houston… I never met Margo Farra in any of my visits to the Community of Celebration or various ‘Celebration Days’ in Dorset. But everything I’ve read and heard of her attests that not only was she well acquainted with grief – from childhood, through marriage difficulties, to her early death from cancer – but that she was an effervescent, creative character, with enormous vivacity alongside great pastoral sensitivity and warmth. I wish I’d known her, but all I’ve known of her is these two songs, and I am more than grateful to her for them, for they have extended for me the Psalter, encouraging and enabling me to offer even the most painful experiences up in melodic prayer.
[Since completing this I’ve discovered a youtube clip containing Wiley Beveridge’s beautiful tribute to Margo, his song ‘ I will RememberYou’