LISTEN: “Let There Be” by Michael and Lisa Gungor, on Ghosts Upon the Earth (2011)
Darkness hovering Grasping everything it sees Void, empty Absent life and absent dream
Let there be Let there be Let there be Let there be
Angels toil and crack open scrolls of ancient dreams Countless worlds of his Brilliant stars and breath and stream
Let there be Let there be Let there be Let there be Let there be Let there be Let there be light
Let there be light Where there is darkness Let there be light Where there is nothing Let there be light
The opening track on Gungor’s Ghosts Upon the Earth, “Let There Be” narrates God’s creation of the universe. What starts out as ethereal becomes increasingly more solid as the floating notes on piano and guitar coalesce into chords and meld with the cellos. Represented by a small choir, the Triune community voices its fiat: “Let there be . . .” A synthesized xylophone and tremolos from the strings suggest lively activity—“angels toil”—as the cosmos begins to take shape. In the second refrain the voices crescendo to a thunderous climax, a drum beating loud and steady as if laying down a foundation.
While this song is most fundamentally about the Genesis 1 creation story, it can also be read in light of John’s Gospel prologue, where he describes Jesus as light coming into the world, and similarly, Luke’s Annunciation narrative, where “ancient dreams” put down in prophetic scrolls are fulfilled in the conception of Christ in Mary’s womb, initiating a new epoch.
The Advent season begins in darkness. Taking stock of this darkness, we ask for God’s light to break in once again—into our hearts and lives, our communities, our world.
In the beginning the Spirit hovered over the void and breathed life into it. Millennia later the Spirit hovered over a virgin’s empty womb and did it again, making the Word flesh. And into our present lack, into our chaos, the Spirit still is coming, re-creating, so that Christ, the light, might be born in us.
Here’s a recent cover of “Let There Be” by IAMSON, which he combines with another Gungor song, “Crags and Clay”:
I’ve compiled a playlist of songs of thanks to God for life, beauty, family, salvation, fruitful harvests, and countless other blessings, and for God’s very self. To make a list on this theme is difficult, as every praise song, of which there are millions, is essentially a song of thanksgiving. So many songs and other musical pieces, including those from outside the Judeo-Christian tradition, testify to experiences of goodness. Perhaps I’m being too literal, but I focus (though not exclusively) on songs that explicitly say “Thanks.” I also want to make clear that God deserves thanks not just for what he’s done but for who he is.
To save the playlist to your Spotify account, click the ellipsis and select “Add to Your Library.”
The list is bookended by the seventeenth-century Trinitarian doxology written by Thomas Ken (“Praise God from whom all blessings flow . . .”), which many churches sing weekly to the tune of OLD 100TH. While the first on the list is in English, the last is in Hawaiian.
Several of the songs are settings of the biblical psalms. The Abayudaya community of Jews in Eastern Uganda, for example, sings the call-and-response Psalm 136 in Luganda; led by J. J. Keki, the congregation responds after each line with “His steadfast love endures forever!” Banjoist Béla Fleck [previously] and mandolinist Chris Thile use this melody from Abayudaya as the basis of their “Psalm 136” duet, which appears on Fleck’s new album, Bluegrass Heart.
There’s also Psalm 92 (“It is good to give thanks to the Lord . . .”) from Poor Bishop Hooper’s EveryPsalm project, Wendell Kimbrough’s Psalm 107, and a classical guitar rendition of Jewish singer-songwriter Debbie Friedman’s “Hodu” [previously], a setting of Psalm 118:1–4. Rebekah Osborn also sets Psalm 118, in English.
“We Thank You” is by Broken Walls, a musical group comprising followers of the Jesus Way who seek to build bridges between the church and the First Nations people of North America. Founded by Jonathan Maracle, a Mohawk from Tyendinaga Territory in Ontario, Canada, the band uses indigenous instruments and sounds to share the Creator’s love.
Across the Atlantic, the monks of Keur Moussa Abbey [previously] in Senegal sing “Nous Te Louons, Père Invisible” (“We Praise You, Invisible Father”), accompanied by balafon (a gourd-resonated xylophone). The French lyrics translate as follows:
Lord of immortality We praise you, invisible Father You are the source of life We praise you, invisible Father The source of all light We praise you, invisible Father You are the source of grace We praise you, invisible Father Friend of mankind, friend of the poor, you draw everything unto yourself through the coming of your beloved Son! We praise you, invisible Father
I’ve also included a dedicatory instrumental piece played on kora and oboe for the inauguration and consecration of the abbey.
Praise be to God, too, for natural wonders large and small. You’ll want to be sure to check out Alanna Boudreau’s setting of “Pied Beauty” by the poet-priest Gerard Manley Hopkins. (For you Hopkins lovers, Boudreau also set “My own heart let me more have pity on” and “God’s Grandeur,” the latter appearing on Spotify as “Wb / Bw.”) There are also classics like “This Is My Father’s World” and, retuned and retitled by Ben Thomas, “I Sing the Mighty Power of God” [previously].
“For the Beauty of the Earth,” which opens with gratitude for creation and then expands into other areas of thanks, is one of my all-time favorite hymns. Andrew Laparra’s straightforward rendition is so lovely, even though it does omit two of the verses—on the wonders of the human body (“. . . the mystic harmony linking sense and sound to sight”) and “the joy of human love . . .”
For the provision of food, there’s a delightful little song that Kim Gannon and Walter Kent wrote for the 1948 Disney short The Legend of Johnny Appleseed, the American nurseryman, conservationist, and folk hero. The song became popular in primary schools and children’s camps and at grace before meals, and in 2003 Mary Thienes Schünemann included an adaptation in the songbook and accompanying album This Is the Way We Wash-a-Day, which is what I’ve put on the list.
For another prayer appropriate for mealtime, see “Multilingual Grace” by Jaewoo Kim, Grace Funderburgh, Abraham Deng, and Josh Davis of Proskuneo Ministries [previously]. “Here in our community, we eat together a lot . . . and that means Koreans, Latinos, Americans, Burmese, and Sudanese and more coming together around the table,” Davis writes on the Proskuneo blog. “We wanted something we could sing to thank God together. And so we wrote this.” The chorus says “Thank you” in Arabic, Korean, Spanish, and Swahili:
Relishing simply being alive is a common theme that comes across especially in songs like “So Glad I’m Here” by Bessie Jones, covered by Dan Zanes [previously] and Elizabeth Mitchell [previously], and “It’s Such a Good Feeling” by the Mister Rogers(!), charmingly jazzified by Holly Yarbrough.
Michael and Lisa Gungor sing of the gift of their second daughter, Lucette, in their song “Light.” Lucie, as they call her, whose name means “light,” was born in 2014 with Down syndrome and heart complications. Seven years and multiple heart surgeries later, she continues to fill the Gungors’ lives, and others’, with brightness.
Gratitude in all circumstances is another theme that comes up, in such songs as “Hallelujah” by the Sons of Rainer, “Sing” by Jon Batiste, and the traditional hymn “How Can I Keep from Singing.” And India Arie’s gorgeous “Give Thanks,” which expresses an attitude of welcome and embrace for all that life brings. In the refrain “Give thanks for all that is,” “Give thanks” is substituted in repeats with the words “Selah” (an untranslatable Hebrew word from the Psalms that probably indicates a reflective pause in the music), “Hallelujah” (Hebrew for “Praise the Lord”), “Namaste” (Sanskrit for “I bow to you”), and “Ashé” (a multivalent concept in Yoruba religion that carries the meaning, in one sense, of “So be it,” similar to “Amen” in Christianity).
Recited daily upon waking up, “Modeh Ani” by Nefesh Mountain is a Jewish prayer of thanks that translates to “I give thanks before you, King living and eternal, for You have returned within me my soul with compassion; abundant is Your faithfulness!” It’s based on the belief that every morning, God renews every person as a new creation.
There are also gospel songs aplenty by artists including Shirley Ann Lee, Mahalia Jackson, Beyoncé [previously], Regina Belle, Roberta Martin, Janice Gaines (covering Andraé Crouch), and others from the Black church tradition.
Bob Marley’s “Thank You, Lord” from 1967 isn’t on Spotify, but an admirable cover by his fellow Jamaican reggae artist Max Romeo is. Sam Cooke’s recording of “I Thank God” by Jack Hoffman, Elliott Lewis, and Bebe Blake is also missing from the streaming service, but I love what the Avett Brothers do with the song, so I’ve featured them instead.
Our gratitude for God’s love and hospitality should overflow into our relationships with other people, animals, and the earth, and our trust in God’s goodness means we should receive with openness what comes from his hand, even if it’s not what we asked for. In the playlist’s penultimate song, “The Welcome,” David Benjamin Blower sings, “Just as Love has welcomed you, my friends / Welcome one another and all things.”
This blog site and the thematic playlists that accompany it take an enormous amount of time to put together. If you have been blessed by either this year, please consider making a financial contribution to support me so that I can continue doing this work. And thank you, all, for engaging with and sharing the content!