The Beauty of the Lord

Ed Fontaine, daughter Christina, and me.

In late April this year, Jubilate—a choral group co-sponsored by University Baptist Church and the University of Virginia, Charlottesville—celebrated its 50th Anniversary.  Started in 1973 by Carl Beard, then music minister at UniBap, it first drew 12 auditioned University students, then 28 the next year, until reaching 44 in its third year, a number it has maintained for most of its 50 years.  During the 50th Anniversary 149 people made up the alumni choir!

In 1974 I showed up at the University to begin a PhD program, started attending University Baptist and began writing for and singing in their marvelous Sanctuary Choir.  I wrote for Jubilate, too.

I left the University in 1977, PhD in hand, taking a position at North Central College in Naperville, IL. But I was devastated to have to leave the area. I hoped for a position, any position, at Uva. Before leaving I took my first born, Rick, just weeks old, up on Sky Line Drive, overlooking the Shenandoah Valley and the eastern ridges of the Blue Ridge Mountains. He could just barely hold his head up, but I kept saying to him, Remember—You come from here—You come from here.  We traveled back to Charlottesville every chance we got, even spending an entire summer there around 1980, I think, when I accepted an NEH Fellowship there.

The times get fuzzy, but around 1979, when we were there for another visit, Carl Beard called me in to meet a new member of Jubilate, Ed Fontaine.  “Why don’t you two jam a little,” he said.  I sat at a piano in the church’s basement.  “It was right about there,” said Ed when we met again this year at the 50th Anniversary. “You were playing something that reminded me of some Stevie Wonder song, so I fell right in singing some Wonder-like words and melody.”  Ed was 19.  He had (and still has) a magnificent tenor voice, full of range and texture.  He can sing with grit and also float effortlessly, light and high. Afterwards, Carl said, “You think you could write a piece featuring Ed?”  I said, Why not try.

The following Sunday I was in church and one of the hymns was “For the Beauty of the Earth.”  It struck a chord in me.  The “Beauty of the Earth” soon became “The Beauty of the Lord” in my mind, and before long “The Beauty of the Lord” was born.  That’s what the Audio/Video below is: Ed Fountain, backed by Jubilate, singing a song I wrote for him. “What a gift you gave me,” he says every time we meet, and now his daughter Christina, also a Jubilate alum, says something similar.  The first time we met, she just gave me the biggest hug after her Dad said, “This is the man who wrote ‘The Beauty of the Lord.’”

It’s not a simple piece. “It’s a good thing your music is so good,” said Gary Walton, part of the Jubilate group that first did the piece, “because it’s hard.”  It also uses a verse from Julia Ward Howe’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” “That took guts,” said church friend Howard Newland.  There’s talk of Ed and his daughter doing the piece together for the 55th Anniversary concert.

Sometimes I wonder why I stay in the church, though the first answer is always obvious: it’s the people. They become friends. We deepen our friendship as we work together.  I have directed our church’s homeless shelter program for around 20 years now, and the others who volunteer with me have become close friends.  Yet as I work as a consultant on anti-racism issues for the Northern Illinois Conference of the United Methodist Church, I learn more and more about the church’s complicity in condoning and building racist structures and policies.  It’s taken the Pope till this year to renounce the Doctrine of Discovery, for example, the result of Papal Bulls in the late 1400’s that gave license for the Christian west to kill, enslave, and take land from indigenous peoples all over the world.

Still, I think of the friends I have and how the church provides means to work together to serve the poor and to lift up the message of anti-racism.   Most of all, however, I think it finally comes down to the beauty of Jesus, the Beauty of this Lord.  We fail this Lord mightily, we distort his meaning so much, but his beauty continues to call us and embrace us.

Go to the GuzMusic section of this site for more music by me and the family.

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