Today we’re releasing the latest song we’ve completed for our new Advent and Christmas collection. This one, “Remember Mercy” is a gospel music version of Mary’s Magnificat, one that I co-wrote with gospel music legend and my friend, Elsa Harris.
Lenora wrote these lyrics, adapted from Luke 1, where Mary sings about how, from generation to generation, God has remembered mercy. We shared the lyrics with Elsa, and then Elsa and I worked on the tune together over a couple weeks. Recorded here in Chicago, gospel music singer Leslie Michelle sings lead, supported by our band, The Many. You can take a listen here, and download it for free.
The story behind the song
It was a real honor to get to write this song with Elsa. She has been my Gospel music mentor for many years. If you knew Elsa, you would understand a little of why I feel so privileged to say that. Her bio includes extensive recording credits, directing choirs around the world and working with many of the greats in Gospel music including Jessy Dixon and Andre Crouch. Elsa also toured with Paul Simon for 8 years, and performed on two of his albums’ ‘Live Rhymin’ and ‘Still Crazy.’ She was named a Legend of Chicago Gospel Music in 2012.
Ever since I became pastor of worship and the arts at LaSalle Street Church, one of the things I've tried to do is introduce a number of different kinds of music to our congregation, as a way of opening us up to other ways of knowing and experiencing God, to move us outside of the comfort of our own limited cultural understandings. So, in one service we might sing a traditional hymn, a praise chorus from Korea, and end with a rousing march from South Africa. As a part of that, I have also gotten our congregation singing a lot of black Gospel music, and Elsa has been kind enough to help with that…first leading our choir in several Gospel music workshops and then partnering with us for the last several years in putting together Gospel Music Festivals at LaSalle, where we bring in choirs from all over the city to get to know each other and make music together.
As Lenora and I started working on these new songs for congregations to sing during Advent and Christmas, one of the scriptures we were most inspired by was the passage in Luke where Mary makes up a song, in reaction to the news that she’s pregnant with Jesus, a song which is now often called the Magnificat.
As Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian killed by the Nazis, said about the Magnificat:
"The song of Mary is the oldest Advent hymn. It is at once the most passionate, the wildest, one might even say the most revolutionary Advent hymn ever sung. This is not the gentle, tender, dreamy Mary whom we sometimes see in paintings; this is the passionate, surrendered, proud, enthusiastic Mary who speaks out here.
“This song has none of the sweet, nostalgic, or even playful tones of some of our Christmas carols. It is instead a hard, strong, inexorable song about collapsing thrones and humbled lords of this world, about the power of God and the powerlessness of humankind. These are the tones of the women prophets of the Old Testament that now come to life in Mary's mouth.
"Swelling with new life by the power of the Spirit and affirmed by her kinswoman Elizabeth, Mary sings a song that proclaims God's gracious, effective compassion. "
To capture some of that revolutionary, prophetic wildness of Mary's words, Lenora and our daughter Hannah wrote the song, “Holy Is Your Name,” which we released a month or so ago, that is musically a unique blend of indie folk and gospel.
But as we continued to explore that passage, Lenora wrote some more lyrics. And I asked Elsa if she'd be interested in writing a more straight-ahead gospel song to these new lyrics. It just seemed so appropriate, because gospel is a music born out of the African American experience of suffering and the struggle against oppression. It calls into bold relief what's wrong with the world, yet in the midst of the cries of pain, there are also cries of praise - the testimony that things are bad now but we trust that God is not going to let them stay that way.
We hope that's what you'll hear in "Remember Mercy"...that this Advent and every Advent season, we worship a God who sees the oppressed, hears their cries, and is here for all of us, the whole wide hurting world, and is not done yet.
We can join in praising that God. And we can join in working towards the world God has in mind...the world Jesus' birth is meant to usher in...where the hungry are fed, the suffering find relief and the oppressed go free.