I don’t know where I first heard the song, Be Not Afraid, (written by Bob Dufford a Jesuit priest from St. Louis, based on Isaiah 43:2–3), that we’ll sing in a few minutes. It’s from 1975 and it might be that my parents had a recording of this song, probably a cassette but possibly an 8-track if you’re old enough to remember what those were. My parents had a quirky selection of music that would often get played as we drove kilometres on summer vacations. The Medical Mission Sisters, The Monks of the Weston Priory, and Buffy St. Marie were among the eclectic selections my parents played through a very poor, by modern standards, sound system. I remember Sister Miriam Therese Winter belting out “as the miles fly by.” It was quite literally true for us.
So “Be Not Afraid,” must have been in there. It was 1975 and that was probably the last trip I took with my parents and family. We travelled across Canada from Ottawa to Nanaimo where dad took up a new pastoral charge at Brechin United Church. It was a difficult trip in some ways as we were all going sight unseen, mom was going through a difficult time, and 3 out of 4 us children were teenagers—enough said! We arrived intact, but that must have been where I first heard “Be Not Afraid,”
Dufford was part of a musical group in the ’70s. The Roman Catholic Church really opened up church music that rippled out throughout the Western Liberal Church. They were the first denomination in the late ’60s and into the ’70s and ’80’s to introduce drums in worship, bands, folk music. Lots of new music was being written. Very soon, other musicians in other Protestant denominations took up the challenge and began to write contemporary music very much influenced by the folk music scene and by the Roman Catholic Church.
This was after the Vatican 2 Council, which opened in 1962 and closed in 1965. It was about the relationship of the modern world to the Roman Catholic Church; there were many reforms: worship now in the language of the people; changes to the hierarchy; an opening up of worship, music; changes to the monastic orders for both men and women. It was the worship change that had influenced other denominations including the United Church. We became more experimental with music and worship, began to observe the church seasons, added colour and drama to our worship and learned about the roots of worship tracing all the way back to the early church. More than anything, though, it was the music of that time that left its mark on me.
I liked “Be Not Afraid” for a number of reasons. The tune itself begins lightly and with a low voice and then it increases in intensity and the voice is lifted. There’s a poetic, dramatic lilt to the tune that lifts the words and provides a charge to the idea that we are not alone. The music and the words work together in this piece.
And the words, like the words of Psalm 91, “On Eagle’s Wings,” that so many love, are equally powerful. They echo Isaiah’s words and generalize them for us all. Even in the desert, or raging waters, or a burning fire, or foreign lands, we shall not be alone—we shall see the face of God and live. If we face persecution because of our proclamation of justice and hope, we will not be alone. The song also echoes Luke’s version of the beatitudes.
I don’t know what struck me as that 15-year-old teenager, but those words have stuck with me. We must have sung them in church, too, and I must have heard them later as an adult. They are not in any of our hymn books. I confess that I was a bit of a church geek; I liked going to church as a teenager and was quite involved in Brechin.
But the song also appealed to my more mystical longings, which though I didn’t understand in my teen years, I experienced. I used to love to walk in the winter at night because of the stars, the northern lights we’d seen in Northern Ontario, the moon in its various phases, and the way the light played off the snow and the cold held you in some kind of embrace. There was something magical about all of that. In the summer, we’d spend hours in nature, on the water, hiking in the woods, exploring. And I would often love to just stop and pause and close my eyes to listen to, or experience in some way. And I felt something that I couldn’t articulate or even ask about; sadly, mystical thinking wasn’t a big deal in the United Church in the ’70s and I couldn’t ask my parents about it. So, I kept it all inside and let those expressions of mystery come through in the music I listened to and appreciated, and in words and poetry and drama.
Luke affirms very clearly, when Jesus came out of the water of the River Jordan at the hand of John the Baptist, that the sky opened up and the Spirit as a Dove descended on him and words of love and authority were given. Jesus received this message, according to Luke, while in prayer. And there’s the link between mysticism, justice work, and life—through prayer we are connected to the Holy One, to each other, and to the source of healing and hope. Prayer links us to one another, grounds us to continue the fight for freedom and justice with peace, and opens us to be re-formed. Prayer opens us to look beyond our ego-centric wants and needs to the deeper power of life to bless, to make whole, and to accompany.
This song that we will sing in a moment is a prayer and affirmation that in all that life might throw at us, we are not alone, that the deep mystery of the Holy Spirit, the Dove, will, has and will again descend upon us and declare, “You are my beloved; on you my favour rests!”