A Hymn: For Schoolchildren and All Who Love Them

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Robert Putnam’s new book, Our Kids: The Crisis in the American Dream, laments the decline in social capital (how we are connected to others and care for them) with its devastating impact on poor children today. Past generations of poor children often had more opportunities because they benefited from connections with churches, teachers, coaches, and other mentors who supported them. Putnam, a respected Harvard sociologist, documents how too many children are missing these caring adults in their lives today. He offers "purple solutions" to the growing "opportunity gap" and poverty that includes support by all for public schools.

Many churches witness to their concern for school children with a "Blessing of the Backpacks" service. Some churches invite the children in the congregation to bring their own backpacks for a blessing before a new school year begins. This is a way to acknowledge that school is a common yet very important part of our children’s lives. Other churches collect school supplies for children in need, assemble the donated supplies in backpacks, and bring them to church for a blessing in worship.

The tune of the following new hymn is the same Gaelic melody used for "Morning Has Broken," and it seems appropriate to sing a joyful "morning" tune as children, parents, and teachers start to get up earlier in the mornings to head off to school.

Leonard, Will You Smoke?

Leonard Cohen in Florence in 2010 / Route66 /

Leonard Cohen in Florence in 2010 / Route66 /

On September 21, Leonard Cohen Turned 80. With or Without a Cigarette, It’s Time to Celebrate.

“I hope I stay on the road a little bit longer - but you may not be so enthusiastic when you hear my reason. You see I want to start smoking next year when I'll be 80. It's been a long barren time. I think it’s the right age to recommence.” Leonard Cohen

I dreamed you were in Florence, singing on some stage. Your back was to the men, the women by your sides. Your melody was tranquil, just humming do-re-me-fa, la-fa-re-me-do. And when there was commotion, some men quarreling behind the scene, you turned and faced them calmly, beseeching, “Gentlemen, let’s sing.”

You have left us these past months, ceased your universal tour. It gives us time to miss you, and wonder what you mean. This week you will be eighty, there’s no question, you are old. Your bones may creak or ache and I’ll guess your heart’s a little tired, but from outside looking in you seem settled in a pretty gentle space.

So in the dream your melodies kept coming, like a river from its source. “You’re doing it,” someone shouted. “It’s exactly what we want!” People were casually swaying until your voice started to get hoarse. “Well, I’m glad you like it,” you croaked joyfully, “I call this solemn mingling my little Florentine Prayer.”

Gown of Grief: The Collection’s Songs of Mourning and Celebration

Photo by Stephanie Berbec Photography

Photo by Stephanie Berbec Photography

No abundant bright bloom of flowers on the CD cover or obscure Latin in the title or gentle dance of cursive font describing the song list, nothing can hide that this is not your light-and-breezy summer release of cruising-with-the-top-down jams, but rather, a full-blown concept album of folk hymns about the art of dying.

The Art of Dying (officially Ars Moriendi) represents a brave and risky move for the make-it or break-it breakout album of an up-and-coming band. The Collection’s courageous collection of orchestral pop hymns chart and curate the grieving heart of a gifted songwriter and the community of bandmates and fans that surround him.

At a time when the flame of the alternative folk explosion still burns bright despite much backlash, this North Carolina ensemble shows up as the son of Mumford and Sons, married to Edward Sharpe’s second cousin, with too many members to pack the tiny stages of clubs and bars, with a sound fit for mountaintop vistas, and songs as mystic visions that pierce the veil between life and death.

Despite the heavy earnestness of the entire package, it’s exactly the grief-support-group that my ears need, and I imagine a rendering of fragile faith and hope against hope that our world craves. The Collection manage to sing about Jesus and Thomas and the prodigal son without getting pushy, dancing on the fringe of explicit CCM, exploring sacred-meets-secular crossover paths and gritty crossroads that groups like Needtobreathe, Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors, and Gungor have already traveled.

Death remains that earthly finality to render our denial mute — and our religious musings about whether it represents cosmic reunion, bodily resurrection, or eternal rest are powerless when we admit that the mysterious premonitions of the “heaven is real” crowd are but passing glimpses and not bulletproof facts. The Christians that remain relevant in our world have invested in the Kingdom here, now, and all around us, and they don’t shove tracts that guarantee afterlife fantasies in our faces on the same street corners where tramps and hobos sleep and sometimes starve.

Electric Burma and Amnesty International's Musical "Toast to Freedom"

Nobel laureate and Burmese opposition leader, Ang San Suu Kyi.

Nobel laureate and Burmese opposition leader, Ang San Suu Kyi.

In celebration of its 50th anniversary, Amnesty International has released a new song, "Toast to Freedom," recorded by nearly 50 artists from around the world.

The original tracks for the song were recorded in Levon Helm's famed studio in Woodstock, N.Y., known as "The Barn," where acclaimed artists like the Black Crowes and My Morning Jacket have made recordings and where Helm, a four-time Grammy winner, for years stages his intimate, multi-artist concert performances known as the “Midnight Ramble.” (Helm passed away in April after a long battle with cancer.)

Artists who sing and/or play on the recording includ Kris Kristofferson, Roseanne Cash, Keb Mo, Carly Simon, Marianne Faithful, Donald Fagen (of Steeley Dan), Sunny Landreth, Shawn Mullens, Ewan McGregor (who knew he could sing so nicely?) and the late Mr. Helm himself.

Have a listen to the song and read about the "Electric Burma" concert later this month in Ireland honoring Burmese justice champion Aung San Suu Kyi, where some of the "Toast to Freedom" artists will perform the song live, inside the blog ...