February 16, 2018

Songs for hope

“Remember, Red, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”
―Andy Dufresne The Shawshank Redemption

Every now and then, I encounter someone who, though having endured unimaginable hardship, still manages to radiate gratitude, joy and hope. A battle against an incurable disease, loss of loved ones, loss of everything. Yet, in faith, a defiant hope emerges, making room for love that never fails.

In these times of instant information, we see images of floods, earthquakes, and raging wildfires that destroy whole regions and leave thousands of people homeless. For people of hope, the task of rebuilding and regaining safety and security begins immediately, even as the missing remain unaccounted for. This is the way hope works.

In 1979, GK Payne coined the term “first-world problem,” an expression that has become a popular hashtag in social network parlance. It refers to the problems attendant to living in relative affluence and privilege. I catch myself whining when I am out of my preferred roast of coffee, or when a family member texts me too early or late in the day. A cracked cell-phone screen is a good example of a first-world problem.

Thankfully, God places in our path those people who remind us of what real hardship looks like, and gives us pause to adjust the attitude just a bit. Then, with a humbled perspective, we are more open to the joyous gratitude for the extravagant blessings we have, and more likely to be bearers of hope.


Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all.
―Emily Dickinson

Nature overflows with signs of life and growth, each possessing power to inspire hope. Amid last winter’s abundant rain in California, I was delighted to see the first tender shoots of grass and weeds sprouting from the tiny cracks in my front walkway. How this made my heart sing! After a lengthy and frustrating drought, life was making a quiet comeback.

One of my favorite signs of life is the human voice. We have so much to sing about – and so many songs to help us sing. The human voice has the wherewithal to giggle or to belly laugh, to chastise or praise, to apologize, to whimper, to weep. To be silent.

Our voices were made for praise to God. We join our singing with all creatures that have breath (Psalm 150). We are even known to employ the use of any musical instruments that are handy. They, too, have voices and are commanded to sing and dance.

But our songs and voices are not made for praise alone. We certainly sing of our longings: those we cannot deny, those that smolder like embers in the quiet of our hearts. We sing to welcome the stranger, to comfort those who mourn. And what of those who have no voice? Members of our human family throughout the world are starving, dying of thirst or sickness. We must never cease to sing for them, but work to help them, too. We sing to and for those clinging to life, because so many are far too weak to sing. Children. Parents. Families. Entire villages. We sing, and we work.

Closer to home, we sing of and for those who live in our own neighborhoods who need hope. Friends we do not yet know. The tired or angry person we pass on the street. If we are paying attention, we can recognize hope looking back at us in the eyes of all, whether those eyes are startled, smiling, weeping, or gazing off, lost in private thought.

Life is all around us. Wherever there is life, there is hope.
It rains down on us all,
and there is plenty to share.

Let justice descend, you heavens, like dew from above,
like gentle rain let the clouds drop it down.
Let the earth open and salvation bud forth;
let righteousness spring up with them!*
I, the LORD, have created this.
―Isaiah 45:8

"To Love Like You"

“You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself."
―Matthew 22: 37 - 39

Love is a verb, an action word. It is also a choice we make. The world may tell us that love is a romantic feeling, and sometimes it is that too. But the real, eternal love of God is that which comes to us through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Authentic love lives in the doing.

It is the people who love us first who teach us how to love. We learn to imitate what we see. Beyond childhood, we spend the rest of our lives endeavoring to love: trying, succeeding, failing, hurting, forgiving, and trying again. Only the love of Christ is perfect. We are blessed and formed by the scriptures, the sacraments, shared good works within and beyond our faith communities, but learning to love starts at the beginning of our lives.

"To Love Like You" is a song inspired by Matthew 22:37 – 38. But I learned what it looked like in real time from my mother, Esther. She taught by example. Her love for others, especially her children, was utterly Christ-like. Four years after her passing, I am still learning from her way of loving, from her doing. Because this song was written for children’s voices, I decided to have Enrica Cua, a 10 year-old girl, sing it on my recording. I later added a counter melody to be sung in the background by Enrica’s mother, Carmela. In doing this, I hoped the message would be that while Christ teaches me to love in the ways I must, it is the persistent, enduring echo of my mother’s generosity of heart that reminds me of my need to love not only in word, but deed.

"In The Arms of Your Mercy"

In the final days of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, I had the occasion to write this song for the women of Catherine’s House in Palo Alto, California. The lyrics were inspired by visits I had with the women who were in the program at the time. Their stories were incredible. Some were very young, but had already lived through years of addiction, degradation, violence, crime, and incarceration. They had all survived and lived to tell about it, but some were not yet out of the woods.

After a late evening of visiting with the women, I drove home weeping for all that they had experienced – but full of gratitude that they had invited me in to learn of it, and to know them. The song "In the Arms of Your Mercy" was a kind of summation of some of the women’s thoughts during our conversation. The message is that the road back from their hell was not a sure thing, and that it would be hard work – but that with God’s mercy, each of them could emerge “stronger than before.” Every time the road bend, veers into chaos, or plunges into darkness, there are tough gifts waiting to challenge us, to call us back to life and wholeness.

After the song was finished, I realized that it was in some ways a reflection on my own battle with anxiety and depression as a result of certain trauma I had suffered in my early adulthood. Once the pain is over, the next task is to forgive, and welcome the mercy of God, whose loving power is waiting to heal and restore. As a composer, I now feel that every experience, no matter how devastating, can become a source of strength and renewed faith. It is my hope that, with these “tough gifts” tucked away in my tool box, I can write and sing songs that, with the grace of God, might help other people who are struggling.

"The Lord is Near"

I love gospel music. Having grown up in the East San Francisco Bay Area (and a stone’s throw from the famed gospel choirs that are native to Oakland), I have a feeling that black gospel singing has permeated my music-making in ways that I cannot seem to repress, probably because they feel so natural and so good. The soulfulness, the groove, the earthiness all invite a much deeper, authentic expression of faith than any other genre of music.


I originally set this text as a responsorial psalm for the youth cantors of the Saint Meinrad One Bread, One Cup Summer Liturgical Leadership Conferences. But "The Lord is Near" did not stay on Holy Hill in Indiana. It followed me home to my parish of Corpus Christi in Piedmont. When I transferred to my current parish, it traveled with me there, too, and was pressed into service as a communion song.

When I was invited to select music for my new OCP collection, I could not imagine excluding "The Lord is Near" on the lineup. It was by no means a stretch to give this psalm a place in a collection whose sub-title is Songs of Hope for Our Time. Hope is a natural by-product of trusting in God’s endless presence. This psalm reminds us that the only appropriate response to that gift is to offer endless gratitude and praise to the eternal Lover of Our Souls. I hope people will listen to the ending strains of this track (just before the fadeout), when the gospel singers repeat, over and over, “The Lord is near to all who call upon Him.” 

Every day, every hour, God is near to all who call upon the Lord in sincerity of heart.

Groove with me on this. Sing with me. And let us never forget to keep on singing.

"Our Eyes Fixed on You"

When I was in my twenties I did some backpacking in the High Sierra with a hardy group of folks from St James Episcopal Church in Fremont, California. Some of the hikes were pretty challenging. Sometimes the switchbacks would have us zig-zagging up, up, up the face of a mountain. Sometimes we would walk hours without encountering water, and our throats would grow parched and dry. But the worst part for me was the long stretches of trail where the dirt was fine, soft, and very deep. You couldn’t walk very fast, and with the intense sun beating down, the trudging was slow, difficult, and endless. I remember gritting my teeth, muttering "My Lord and my God, help my unbelief!"

When I set out to record "Our Eyes Fixed on You," I considered the movement of the tribes of Israel as they wandered in the desert, and wondered how one could backpack for 50 days – much less fifty years. Especially with that deep, soft sand underfoot.

Don Turney, my wonderful recording engineer, suggested a groove that had a buoyant gallop to it, a way of cheering the heart of the faithful believer whose journey is long. After that, the arrangement took shape, and the track came alive in a happy way. Of all the songs on this album, this might be might just be my favorite driving song. The verses of the song describe the lifelong “exodus” our ancestors in faith each endured on their own sojourn to the land of promise and hope. Each of us continues on our own path at this very hour. We will run the race until we reach our Sabbath rest.

It’s easy to grouse and whine when things are not going so well. But if we lift our faces from the dust and search for strength in our loving and faithful God, we can better appreciate the companionship of those who travel with us, and find courage to persevere.  When we look into the eyes of our companions, we can see the eyes of our Lord Jesus. It is he who invites us to lay down every burden and shame, and to joyfully run this race together.

Find these songs on Janèt Sullivan Whitaker’s new collection


Photo of Janèt Sullivan Whitaker

Janèt Sullivan Whitaker

Everyone loves “In Every Age” and “Here at This Table,” but not many know the brilliant and talented woman behind those classic worship songs. In addition to her work as a composer, Janèt is also a parish music director.

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