‘LORD, YOU HAVE BLESSED US’ and ‘TRUST IN THE LORD’ by Mimi Armstrong Farra/ The Keyhole

It’s funny what tunes and ditties get lodged in the brain, to burrow away then surface forever after with regularity, playing themselves like a mantra.  My father, for instance, in the last years of his life whittled down the repertoire of his whistling more or less to just two tunes –one was Lara’s theme from Doctor Zhivago, the other an unidentified piece whose origin even he couldn’t remember.  I’m getting like my dad, no doubt, in this respect –except that I probably have a wider repertoire of nagging mantras in the jumbled recesses of my brain.  One such is certainly the first of these little songs from Mimi Farra, ‘Lord You Have Blessed Us’.

Nearly half a century ago, I began to discover fresh new worship music emanating from North America, firstly from an vibrant Catholic charismatic community called the Word Of God in Ann Arbor  Michigan (a bunch of fabulous albums containing songs that have endured…) and then from the Keyhole –a coffee house folk group, coming as I was soon to learn, from a wider life of ministry centred around Houston’s Church Of The Redeemer,  I was drawn in and drawn on to discover more, finding myself nourished, challenged, encouraged by this music.

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We are talking the beginnings of the Fisherfolk, of course, and it is clear that Mimi Armstrong played a key part in the early days of what was to be an extraordinary music ministry, in helping to develop something unique in the worship life of that burgeoning community.  You only have to look at the famous TV documentary on that church, ‘Following the Spirit’ aired nationally in the U.S. in 1970 (?), which one imagines gave the church suddenly a whole new public profile.  It’s a little over reverent, perhaps, by modern standards, but despite its grainy black and white artlessness, it’s still something inspirational.  And Mimi features strongly –a little interview with her in the church’s bookstore, footage of her seemingly fronting the Keyhole in their coffeehouse setting, as well as leading some simple songs (self penned songs which turn up on albums like ‘Glory’) in an informal lunch time eucharist.

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It seemed to me that where the equally exciting new compositions of the church’s music leader (Rev. Pulkingham’s  wife Betty) had a more classical kind of crafting to them, Mimi though no less musically accomplished, perhaps, seemed to favour simpler, slightly more repetitive, intuitive expressions.  I soaked up everything from this source, as has no doubt become apparent to anyone who has read much of this blog, and learned to value, and to use, the wealth of creativity that I began to perceive to be pouring from a veritable spring of authentic loving worship.  I sent for all the vinyl albums, including one that seems to have settled into a kind of obscurity –‘Room In The In’, featuring a Christmas folk mass which Mimi had composed presumably for use in the Way In coffeehouse?  Side two of the album featured others of Mimi’s own meditative compositions.  It’s a while since I heard the whole album, but I seem to recall that for most of it at least the accompaniment was one simple acoustic guitar.  The Christmas folk mass needs rediscovering, I think, each little bit of liturgical interpretation an unadorned gem in its own right.  But let me turn my attention to this quiet mantra: so brief I might as well quote it all – ‘Lord you have blessed us with your love/Lord you have given us such a longing/ to find, to know, to share with your saints/ the love, the life, the very presence of you’.  It’s that simple, and its second verse reiteration turns more into a prayer ‘Lord as you bless us with your love/ may we remember that great longing/ to find, to know, to share with the world/ the love, the life, the very presence of you’. It’s a prayer that comes from the very heart and ethos of the worshipping community that Mimi Farra was part of, to be an incarnational Christ-presence in a broken world; and appropriately on the album, in the mass, it is conceived as the post-eucharistic ‘thanksgiving’ song so that the ‘you have blessed us’ has specific as well as general reference.

Mimi Farra and husband Bill are still part of the Community Of Celebration, more pared down in number, but I imagine no less committed in the prayerful intentions which that song represents.  Since the days of ‘Following The Spirit’, the relocation to the UK, the re-relocation to the States, a host of changes within the community, Mimi’s creative output appeared to the casual (obsessive) observer perhaps a little more muted as a remarkably impressive team of other songsmiths emerged, producing a range of worship material, psalm-like meditations and thoughtful lyrical/musical reflections from the same source.  Fewer songs from her, then, but still classic ones: ‘We Cry Hosanna Lord ’ is still the seminal palm Sunday hymn, for me.

And in my two visits to the community’s home in Scotland in the seventies, when I attended daily evening worship in the Cathedral Of The Isles, I got to see Mimi leading worship with her guitar, and there was something solidly impressive about the ease and commitment with which she did this, modestly but confidently drawing others in without any ostentatious badgering (which ‘worship leading’ can sadly become.)  I was pleased to see, too, the community revisiting, in some of their recordings there, a few of her earlier gems including the song which opens side 2 of ‘Room at the In’ – ‘Trust in the Lord’. This is an setting of verses from Proverbs , using chapter 3 verse 5 as its refrain.  [I wish I could say that the setting has helped me follow the injunction consistently (!) but at least having it in my head has been a reminder..!]The same  gorgeous simplicity, and musically one notes  that Mimi makes good use of the ‘E sus’ for the  subtlest of chordal variation (She does the same in her lovely ‘Song of Simeon’). There’s a really nice story about the Fisherfolk’s re-recording of this song (for the ‘Sing the Word’ album) to be found in Betty Pulkingham’s ‘Mustard Seeds’ book – about the calming of a gale, and the unexpected addition of birdsong that accompanied the recording; somehow all in keeping with the unaffected beauty of the song.

In the substantial canon of Mimi Armstrong Farra’s work, these two songs might seem insignificant –   – well, that’s a neat ‘mustard seed ‘ link too – but  like I started saying, the mind and the heart have their own reasons when it comes to the kind of songs they choose to squirrel away for the life’s use. And these have proven enduringly useful, so… I honour the composer for her faithfulness in firstly ‘listening’ to the still small voice and, to having shared, musically, so significantly.

‘THE SUN’S GONNA SHINE’ and ‘STAYING IN THE SORROW’ – The Fisherfolk

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’

 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Js7xvpj8MT4  ]

‘I’D LIKE TO SIT YOU DOWN’ – The Fisherfolk

Well, yes, Fisherfolk, but also in a special way Patricia Allen of the Fisherfolk. There are two possible approaches here: I could start by writing about Pat Allen, but this feels like holy ground, and I need to tread carefully and thoughtfully.

So let’s start anecdotally, with my first – miraculous? life-changing? – flesh and blood encounters with the Community of Celebration. It was the summer holiday in between leaving my two year job with the civil service and starting PGCE Teachers’ Training, 1976, and I decided to travel around Scotland for three weeks on a ‘Freedom of Scotland’ Rail Card. There were several exciting, beautiful, funny and interesting parts to this journey – but, arriving at Edinburgh, I encountered for the first time the amazing Festival, and decided I could spare the city a few days , at least! Even then (!) the variety and breadth of Festival and Fringe events were overwhelming – my first Chekhov – RSC’s ‘The Three Sisters’ (with Ian McKellan, I recall!) , part of the ‘official festival’, blew me away. In amongst all the posters on the Golden Mile, I chanced upon one (or more?) for ‘The Fisherfolk’ – featuring in a variety of events  – a cafe/bar concert of songs; a Eucharistic celebration featuring one of Betty Pulkingham’s Eucharistic settings; and…a brand new musical entitled ‘Ah! There’s the Celebration!’

So indeed and of course, I soaked up whatever of these events I could – discovering in the process that, news to me, the Community of Celebration had relocated to Scotland, a little island called Cumbrae, just off the West Coast. The musical, held in a church  just off ‘the Mile’, featured some great songs built around the concept of a ‘family’( ie a community of Christian believers) refusing to conform to life-as-a-game-of-monopoly, subverting it by resisting opportunities to act acquisitively or competitively, instead offering sharing and kindness. Memorably the Games-master ‘Dev’ (played by David Gustafson) shouts in frustration ‘Jesus Christ! Read them the rules!’ at which point Mikel Kennedy – present throughout the action , with his guitar, as Jesus-on-a-stepladder, begins to recite some of the Sermon on the Mount. If I’ve made it sound crass or comical, it wasn’t. It was, in fact, powerful stuff. Pat Allen (and Martha Barker)’s song ‘I’d Like to Sit You Down’ beautifully exemplifies this non-competitive subversively compassionate behaviour. It’s both a reflection of Christ’s compassion for the world and a manifesto for the servant heart of a Christlike church – ‘Your feet are so weary/ From walking through problems much too big for you/ I’d like to sit you down/ Gently wrap a towel around/ And bathe your feet with my tears..’This song, like so many of Pat Allen’s, is a unique hybrid – part Broadway musical song in structure, part holy anthem. Nothing derivative or formulaic or stereotypical about this kind of Christian song; and I was deeply moved. Later in my journey I  chased up the Community to their home, centred around the Cathedral of the Isles on the Island of Cumbrae, got to meet Bill Farra, spent a night there, and was hooked for life. The following year I spent a whole week there.

Pat Allen, Pat Allen… Even on a purely vocal level there was something special there. While she seems to have been around quite close to the start of the music ministry (check out the late sixties’ ‘Keyhole’ albums, from the Houston coffeehouse ministry) her voice seems to have been used fairly sparingly – one of the earliest I recall is Betty Pullkingham’s ‘Bless thou the Lord’ psalm setting, where Pat sings the verses; then there’s her chillingly incisive rendition of the traditional ‘Mary had a Baby’ on a rather more choral album. It was a voice that uniquely melded both purity and warmth.

Her compositions, though, as I’ve said, were unusually theatrical – the still haunting composition ‘They have no Wine’ was probably our first taste of this, on the ‘On Tiptoe’ album. Then ‘The Carpenter’s Song’ (also featured in that same Fringe Musical in 1976) – a boldly human love song to the God-man Jesus. But she also had a deft touch with psalms – her setting/interpretation of ‘The Snare is Broken’ and her achingly beautiful setting of Daniel Berrigan’s rewriting of Psalm 131 – ‘May I to my Lord Hasten..’. All gorgeous.

If I ‘met’ her on my two visits to the community at Cumbrae, I never got a chance to chat. I do recall, however, a luminously peaceful smile; I also recall her giving someone a friendly back massage during one of the community meetings.. In the regular newsletters I began to receive from the Community in the late seventies, early eighties, it became clear that Pat was obeying a perceived call to a more solitary, contemplative life – within the community (I believe some kind of hut was discovered and employed within Cathedral grounds, where Pat could entertain visitors who came for prayer,  counsel, spiritual direction.) Sometime later I read she’d felt a call to live in Israel. Later still that she’d joined a Catholic Order of sisters there, and, just a couple of years ago, that she’d died there.

The existing Community of Celebration (with help, I suspect, from those many who’d left, been dispersed to other fruitful lives, but who cared, and wanted to honour how Pat has touched their lives) had the good sense to release a posthumous collection of her songs, and truth be told, I treasure this CD above most in my voluminous collection. And alongside the many new-to-me treasures unearthed, and amongst the old songs, this one, (co-written I believe with Martha Keyes-Barker) shines brightly as a statement of her own giving heart; and as a clear, quirkily unique colourful testimony to the Father’s goodness, the sacrificial grace of the Son, the mysterious and life-giving energy of the Spirit.