Last year about this time, as we were beginning the season of Advent, protestors were filling the streets across the country because Michael Brown and Eric Garner were dead and no police officers were being indicted. In the wake of so many ripped apart by hatred and violence, I started thinking about how we needed new songs to sing for Advent and Christmas. Songs about how Jesus’ birth was meant to make the world right, include the excluded, bring justice to the oppressed, usher in a world in which love wins.
So, along with my 20-year-old singer/songwriter daughter, Hannah, and my wife Lenora (who came up with lyrics), we started writing some. This summer and fall we gathered to record the songs with a diverse group of local musicians, many from LaSalle Street Church, where I am the worship/arts pastor. We called the band The Many, and the album of these songs was released at the end of November. It’s called “Advent & Christmas 2015,” and it’s been chosen as “new and notable” by the music site NoiseTrade, where it’s available as a free download at this link.
As those of you who attend McCormick worship know, I love to weave together a variety of musical styles, and the band’s sound is reflective of that multicultural perspective. It’s kind of “indie folk meets gospel choir meets worship band.”
The songs seem to be striking a chord. Recently chosen as one of the 6 best Christmas albums of 2015 by Under the Radar, a syndicated radio program highlighting the “best undiscovered tunes from Christian artists,” it has been getting a number of great reviews including one from Cross Rhythms UK magazine… whose reviewer said, “In a Christmas music scene overflowing with production line carols and banal Santa songs this album is a worshipful masterpiece.”
The songs on the album came out of reflection on the Biblical stories of Jesus’ birth, along with many of the scriptures of Advent. The song “Holy Is Your Name,” for example, was based on The Magnificat, and offers praise to God, from Mary’s voice, for ushering in a new day when “the poor will see that all hope’s not lost and grace flows free.” “Remember Mercy,” also based on The Magnificat, was one I had the privilege of writing with my good friend and Gospel music legend Elsa Harris, who often joins us here at McCormick, playing the piano in our worship. You can read more about the story behind this song here.
The songs also grew out of wrestling with the Advent themes of Hope, Joy, Peace and Love in the midst of a world that feels so broken. “Room For Us All” looks at how the story of “no room at the inn” is reflected in our current headlines about refugees, Songs like “God With Us” and “The Longest Nights” affirm that God is always where the hurting are. While “In this World” begins with lament and disconnection, and moves to a discovery that God is found “in hearts that bleed, in the hands that are reaching out for me.”
We’ve also included three songs on the album you will probably recognize — traditional Advent and Christmas hymns – in fresh, reinterpretations, arranged by my daughter Hannah, a songwriting major, at Belmont University in Nashville. Hannah is also one of the lead vocalists on the album, joined by another young woman from our church, Olivia Harris, who is also at Belmont, as well as Leslie Michelle, a recent voice major graduate from North Park College, who adds a gospel music energy throughout. Among the other musicians on the album is the acclaimed Rob Clearfield on keyboards – who has been playing piano for McCormick worship for several years.
This was the first major project from a new venture I’ve been developing called The Plural Guild, a gathering of artists interested in doing worship in ways that speak honestly to the lives we live today. You can learn more about that group and download the whole album for free at the site, or directly through NoiseTrade.
Included in your download is a PDF of song lyrics (and sheet music to two of the songs) because we wrote these songs with the hope that others would join us in singing them, join us, in what Walter Bruggemann has called, the kind of singing “…which is a refusal to accept the dominant definitions of reality…an insistence that there’s another way to experience the world and there is another way to act in the world.”
Gary Rand has been leading worship and the arts at LaSalle Street Church in Chicago for the last ten years, as well as directing worship, mentoring and teaching at McCormick Seminary, while composing music in a wide range of styles, from folk/pop songs to contemporary classical music. You can catch Gary every Wednesday at McCormick’s community worship, where he directs the community choir and provides guidance to our worship team.