April 28, 2019
Sanford Baran: In this moment of stillness it is our greatest privilege to let Spirit move. As it does, something absolutely marvelous and unspeakable happens—the spark of creation is brought to the fore, uplifting, blessing and bringing vitality, richness and wonder to all that it touches. It is such a pleasure to let this be our own experience, allowing the power and magnificence of who we are to be known in everything that we do.
Linda and I recently went to see a very special film called Amazing Grace. It has had a most improbable journey to the screen, taking almost fifty years to get there and requiring substantial patience and perseverance on the part of those involved. But it has been well worth the wait, as the experience of watching it, I think, is best described as joyous, moving, healing, and sacred.
The film is a documentary capturing the historic recording sessions in the making of Aretha Franklin's all-time best-selling Gospel album of the same title, Amazing Grace. The filming takes place over the course of two evenings in January of 1972.
By the late 1960's Aretha Franklin had already secured her place as the reigning Queen of Soul and was a cultural and musical icon the world over. But her roots were in Gospel, a style of singing that she mastered in church—the very church in Detroit that her father preached in. This album would be a real departure from her monumental work as an R & B singer and be a vehicle for her to embrace her spiritual upbringing and heritage.
It could have been recorded in a studio anywhere but in order to really capture the authentic character and lively spontaneity of the Gospel experience Aretha insisted that it be recorded in a church. It was decided that it be recorded at The New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Watts, an impoverished neighborhood in south-central Los Angeles scarred by riots just four years earlier. And in that setting she was surrounded by connections to her earliest days in the church. Her father was there and can be heard giving remarks on the album. And for musical direction, she was accompanied by New Temple's Reverend James Cleveland, who had actually lived with the Franklins in Detroit years earlier and been a piano and singing mentor to Aretha in her youth. Also accompanying Aretha was an incredible local choir, the Southern California Community Choir founded by Cleveland.
Gospel itself was going through a transformation. Cleveland had moved to L.A. in the sixties and released several big gospel albums of his own. In 1970, he was fired by the church where he was working because of the perception that he was pushing popular rather than sacred music. When he founded his own church most of the congregation came with him in support of his envelope-pushing ideas about how gospel music could sound—ideas he and Franklin shared.
So, changes and ferment were definitely afoot in the world of Gospel and it was into this setting that Aretha would bring her presence, power and grace to those magical two evenings of recording.
It really is remarkable that the film ever sees the light of day. It turns out that a very serious technical blunder prevented the sound and footage from being synced. While the album gets released and goes on to win a Grammy, the film aspect of the project is abandoned, and all the reels of film end up in a vault somewhere collecting dust for some 36 years. Fast forward to 2008; advances in digital technology then enable a team to miraculously synchronize the audio with the footage, and the film actually does get completed. But then for various reasons Aretha herself refuses to allow the film to be released and this lasts for another ten years until her death. It isn't until after Aretha's passing that there emerges enough support within the Franklin Family that permission is granted for its release. So finally, some forty-seven years after it was filmed at The New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Watts, it now is being shown in theaters across the country. Quoting from the New York Times, "Amazing Grace was born, buried and resurrected." And I'm sure anyone who does have the opportunity to see it, is incredibly grateful for its resurrection.
Watching the film, it really does capture Aretha at her finest, not only musically but spiritually. What a presence she commands, an atmosphere of beauty, stature and grace. There is this calm solemnity about her, a deep humility and yet she exudes this steadfast confidence that whatever is vibrationally required, she is right there to let it come forth. You notice that she doesn't speak very much—really no need—her countenance and mastery of her craft does all of the speaking. It's clear that in this setting she's not there as an entertainer, but rather an angel, there to sound the tone, to honor what is sacred, in fellowship with her other fellow angels in the room.
The energy in the room is positively electric, a real celebration. The interaction between Aretha and the choir is no less than thrilling. And what a choir they are—their spirit, body language, their moves, a real sight to behold. Watching Aretha and the choir together, the way they play off of one another, the flow of energy back and forth, encouraging, responding, reinforcing and supporting each other is an absolute delight. And the congregants are very much part of the picture as well. No one in the room is sitting still. Spirit is definitely on the move, to say the least, and pretty much everyone joins in, playing their part contributing to the tapestry of substance.
Anyway, words can only take us so far. So, I thought I would play for you a short excerpt off of the Amazing Grace album, so you can experience for yourself more of what I've been describing. I'd like to play the first couple of minutes from the piece, "Precious Memories," a classic hymn from the Gospel cannon. My hunch is that for Aretha, "Precious Memories," very much has to do with remembrance of her first love, her deep connection to Spirit. As you listen, you'll find that there's a lot going on—the interaction between Aretha and the choir, the chemistry between Aretha and her mentor James Cleveland, who is on piano and vocals, and of course the ever-present response and spontaneous participation of the congregants. You'll also hear the distinctive language of Gospel—and being music of the church, it will have some religious baggage. But if you can get beyond that, listening with the heart, focusing on what vibrationally is back of the words, I think you'll be impressed and deeply moved by the resounding vibrancy and sacredness of what transpires. Click this link to listen: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hMYqsfbZHqk
I've listened to this song a number of times over the last little while and each time I am particularly struck by the way the word sacred is emphasized. It almost sends shivers down my spine listening to Aretha and James echoing off one another. And I realize that my attraction to it is a recognition that nothing is more important, nothing matters more than to consistently allow spirit to infuse the quality and substance of my/our living. Letting spirit move is our sacred responsibility, our primary reason for being here.
So, I've spent some considerable time speaking about the Amazing Grace movie. But I hope you realize that this is really about what is ours to do right now. It's fantastic to go to the movies, transcend space and time and celebrate that live gathering with Aretha and friends from a half a century ago as if it just happened yesterday. And if doing that has any value, it is because of the sacredness that was represented and expressed back then, which inspires us now to bring that same current of sacredness into our worlds today. And I think it is useful that it be felt deeply. Watching the film, I felt immersed in the experience, not as some mental exercise, but literally felt the current pulsing in my body and felt it passionately in my heart. It occurs to me that this is a part of the multidimensional experience, to allow the current of the spirit to penetrate and be known at all levels of human experience. As this begins to be so, spirit now has a trustworthy and reliable means of representation through you and me and so many others the world around.
I wanted to share with you another interesting experience. Last week I attended what was billed as an "Anti-Oppression" half-day training for the board and staff of our local community radio station here in Boulder. Attendance was mandatory for all board members, so I had no choice but to attend. One of our long-term goals at the station is to find ways to generally be more inclusive, more diverse and more welcoming and this workshop was a first step at collectively thinking about this. Of course, anytime you have an event with the word anti in the title you never know what you might be in for. But I realized that at the very least it was important for me to keep an open mind.
Without getting into too much detail it turns out that I found the workshop to be generally interesting and I really appreciated our presenter who was well prepared, articulate and a likeable person. Even though I didn't agree with many of the things that she presented, I really felt a connection with her, which was definitely helpful. I also felt that it was useful to try to better educate myself about these issues because these types of grievances, some of which are clearly legitimate, are increasingly rearing their heads in these more polarized and turbulent times.
The crux of much of the workshop centered around the notion of identity. So that was positive in a way—at least a recognition that identity plays an important part in all of this. But if your overall perspective is earthbound and lacks any understanding of that which is vibrationally higher there is a tremendous amount of confusion over what identity exactly is.
So, for example, from the standpoint of our presenter, there are the privileged/dominant identities that benefit from things like being upper or middle class, being white, being a man, being heterosexual, being a person without disabilities, being Christian, having been born in the United States, etc. And then on the other side there are the targeted/oppressed identities that are unfairly disadvantaged as a result of being low income-working class, being a person of color, being a woman, being in the LGBT community, being a person with disabilities, being non-Christian, etc. Conspicuous by its absence by the way, was any mention or notion of responsibility.
Of course, none of these so-called privileged or oppressed identities are what I would call real. And ironically, to the degree that one focuses attention on these false identities, one is completely oblivious to the only real identity that matters, I Am. Being aligned with that, having an experience of oneness, being in position to let Spirit move—this is an entirely different experience and an entirely different conversation altogether.
Now I have no doubt that some of us by accident of birth have had greater tail winds during the course of our lives. And others perhaps have faced more head winds, greater challenges. From the standpoint of human nature this can seem very unfair. But is that really the whole story? I don't think so. And for those of us who have had the good fortune of having mostly tail winds in our lives here is some excellent advice. I actually stumbled upon this a few days before I attended the training. It's from a talk given by Alan Hammond entitled "Privilege, Responsibility and Meaning" which can be found in the first volume of his series of books entitled Our Divine and Cosmic Identity. I'd like to read a small section of it.
"It is said that the Law of life is that you can't have privileges without fulfilling responsibilities. I'd like to carry this a step further, to say that in the divine experience the privilege is the responsibility and the responsibility is the privilege. They are one in the same thing in reality. There's no greater privilege for an Angel than to be given particular responsibility by the Lord. It brings to focus one's meaning in Being. The true experience of life is one of privilege and responsibility."
"We may think we have certain areas of privilege already in our lives. Maybe we are not poor financially. Maybe we are not poor mentally. We may be in good health. We could classify such conditions as privileges. Well, then, there is particular responsibility attached to those areas because it's much easier for us to function in those areas than for many people, and the question arises: ‘If I've got it so easy, why? What are the responsibilities inherent in this privilege?' Because there are some, if we meditate on it. Privilege is a different kind of responsibility."
So, I have to say that it is a wonderful privilege to gather as we do, being very deliberate to reflect upon what really has importance. One thing for sure, for most of us, there really is no good reason or justification for complaint. This is a wonderful realization—whatever challenges we are facing it is a privilege to be given the responsibility to creatively address them. I'm not sure how well that would have gone over at the Anti-Oppression training, but it's true.
In closing I would offer a word of thanks for the various ones who took on the challenge of bringing the Amazing Grace film to the screen. Kudos for their tenacity and determination to take it all the way through to completion. And so it is with us. Letting spirit move is our sacred responsibility, our primary reason for being here. It is incumbent upon each one of us to let it be so, doing everything in our power to ensure that the job gets done.
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