Changing Church: Orion Pitts, Director of Music & Administrator, First United Lutheran Church, San Francisco

Orion Pitts

Over the years, I have become much more discerning about the music and the texts that we use. There are many—MANY—hymns that I have dearly loved since childhood, that I just will not use any more, because the theology in them does not reflect an experience of the Divine that I wish to perpetuate. So I constantly ask myself whether my love for those hymns comes from the text and meaning, or whether it’s a connection to the tune. We use many familiar tunes with many different texts. It can be challenging for congregations, but they adapt. Ever since I’ve been dedicated to inclusive language, I’ve become more and more discerning about texts. What a gift to be no longer blindly following along like sheep, but rather to be asking myself, “What am I saying here? What am I teaching?”

These comments reveal the importance Orion Pitts gives to the selection of hymns for his congregation to sing. Since 1995, Orion has served as Director of Music at First United Lutheran Church in San Francisco. When Orion became music director, this church had a policy on inclusive language that included the statement: “We believe that language shapes the way we perceive the Divine.”

This inclusive language statement expressed his own beliefs, Orion says. “This fit in just fine with my own experience of God, which is neither male, female, nor in any way anthropomorphic, but rather as Source integral to all that is. That does not mean that in our worship language we cannot refer to that Source as ‘He’ or ‘She’ or ‘Creator’ or ‘Creating’ or ‘Lover’ or ‘Friend.’” Orion further acknowledges that biblical writers “reflected the dominantly patriarchal society in which they lived, and too often that has been used as a force for exclusion rather than reflecting the all-encompassing source of love that is the God whom Christ revealed.”

Prior to serving at First United Lutheran in San Francisco, Orion served as choir director/organist in various Lutheran, Episcopal, and Presbyterian congregations in New Jersey, North Carolina, and South Carolina. His eclectic career also includes serving as Professor of Theatre/Chair of the Department of Theater at Newberry College in South Carolina and pianist in the US Navy Band. He earned a BA degree in Music Education from Lenoir-Rhyne University, a Master of Fine Arts degree in Acting from Rutgers University, and a certificate in Interspiritual Wisdom from the Spiritual Paths Institute. In addition, he has done graduate studies at Westminster Choir College and the University of Hawaii.

Orion tells about awakening to the power of language in hymns. “While in graduate school and rooming with some other church music majors, I was playing the hymn known as ‘Once to Every Man and Nation’—it goes on to say, ‘comes the moment to decide, in the strife of truth with falsehood, for the good or evil side.’ A roommate, who was far more astute than I, stopped me, and he said, ‘Do you really believe that?’ Well, I’d never really thought about it; I just liked the tune.”

Continuing to expand his thinking, Orion has been on what he calls a “ceaseless journey to the Spirit, with an intense interest in mysticism and Christian meditation.” He comments on expansive sacred language and symbolism as signs of humanity’s spiritual growth. “I think that the spiritual trajectory of human history is toward an ever-greater expansion of humanity realizing its all-encompassing spiritual nature. What does that mean? It means that the story of humanity is one of not limiting itself to the spiritual revelations of the past, but rather continued growth outward—with many, many bumps along the road—to full realization of all creation as a manifestation of God. Therefore, what we are doing, or experiencing now, in ever-widening uses of language and symbolism, is growing, maturing outward as the Spirit guides us toward full realization. In the never-ending attempt to realize (‘realize’ meaning not ‘to understand’ but rather ‘to experience fully in every moment’) our God-nature, the more that we get beyond the limiting view of God as a being—male, female, or otherwise—the closer we get to full realization. And that is the church’s role.”

To implement these beliefs in the worship services of his church, Orion avoids exclusively male references, balances female and male divine names, and often gives precedence to the female Divine. “We attempt to avoid exclusively male gender references to God as frequently as possible, and that is not easy. Beyond that, when we do make gender references, we include both female and male, God as ‘Mother’ as well as ‘Father,’ and we avoid the pronouns ‘He’ and ‘Him’ in reference to God. We frequently will stress the feminine to the exclusion of the masculine; and that’s okay; with two thousand years of an exclusively masculine tradition, it may take another two thousand to rectify that situation.”

Calling God “Mother,” Orion believes, changes some traditional views to open new understandings. “The image of God as ‘Mother’ opens up a whole dimension of the nature of God for us to know and grasp. The all-pervasive historical Christian God as a judging, angry, powerful, destructive figure does a disservice to our concept of God—and has served to create for Christians a feeling that we are shameful beings who are lost and must grasp onto the Jesus of the cross for salvation. That is not at all what Jesus taught. Jesus taught that we are all beings suffused with Love, and that Love is God. The angry, vengeful God that condemns us to a need for salvation comes from what others said about Jesus, not from Jesus’ own teachings.”

First United Lutheran Church, committed to inclusive and expansive language for more than twenty years, welcomes female references to Deity. Orion says that he only gets negative feedback, usually from some of the men, if he allows too many masculine references, such as “Lord” or “Kingdom,” to slip into the music in a worship service.

The church’s commitment to inclusive language has often proved challenging because members have varied interpretations of “inclusive,” Orion acknowledges. “For the first four or so years in my position as music director here, I was happily plugging along using inclusive resources and textual changes that reflected my understanding of what that commitment meant. Then at some point in some exploration of our identity, we engaged in a discussion of our inclusive language commitment. It became clear during that process that nearly everyone in our church community had different interpretations of just what ‘commitment to inclusive language’ meant. It involved details of such things as specific textual references, traditions, and comfort level. So, we’ve continued that dialogue regularly, and practice a balancing act that remains sensitive to many different concerns and understandings.”

In this “balancing act” Orion consults numerous hymnals, other worship resources, and the internet in selecting hymns. He also creates new texts and alters existing texts. Here are two examples of traditional texts in the public domain that Orion has altered to meet the varied interpretations of inclusive language in his church:


 Original Version:

Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might,
Heaven and Earth are full of your glory.
Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest.

Orion’s Altered Version:

Holy, holy, holy One, God of power and might,
heaven and earth reveal your glory,
blessed God of Love.
Sing hosanna in the highest, holy Adonai!
Sing hosanna, hosanna,
God of heavenly peace.

Irish Blessing (combines 2 traditional blessings)

Original Version:

May green be the grass you walk on;
may blue be the skies above you;
may pure be the joys that surround you;
may true be the hearts that love you.
May the road rise to meet you;
may the wind be always at your back;
may the sun shine warm upon your face;
may the rains fall soft upon your fields.
And, until we meet again,
may God hold you in the hollow of His hand.

Orion’s Altered Conclusion

And, until we meet again,
may God hold you in the palm of Her hand.

Another priority for Orion is worship music inclusive of many faith traditions and cultures. He has compiled what he calls the “Global Mass,” with resources from various faith traditions and cultural musical styles such as Buddhist, Sufi, Jewish, Native American, Japanese, Cameroon, and South African. One example is his altered version of “Sanctus” to this Japanese melody.

Another example is his putting the text of the traditional Agnus Dei (“Lamb of God”) with the Buddhist chant “Om Mani Padme Hum.

Orion comments on his use of this piece in worship services: “The congregation has the option of singing either text, and they may do that simultaneously, and sing it as a chant throughout the distribution of communion. It’s accompanied only by chime and gong, and may have the melody line played quietly on piano, organ, or guitar, etc. Our congregation has no problem with singing a Buddhist chant during communion—it does not ‘harm’ God or Jesus, or threaten our faith; it does have the potential to broaden and enhance it however, and celebrates the all-encompassing Love that unites us; that is, God.”

Interfaith dialogue and collaboration are priorities for his congregation, Orion says. “We are currently engaged in a ‘Summer Celebrating Pluralism.’ In the context of our regular order of worship each Sunday, we have a guest speaker from a different faith tradition who tells us about that faith tradition during the sermon time and provides one reading.” Among the faith traditions featured have been Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Baha’i, Wicca, Religious Science, Humanism, and Swedenborgian. In addition, one of the guest speakers was Maria Eitz, the first woman to be ordained as a Roman Catholic priest in the San Francisco Archdiocese. On the church’s website under “Interfaith Awareness” is this statement: “We believe our wisdom will only be enhanced by continued conversation with all of our neighbors. Together we work for peace, justice, and the good of all people and all creation.”

The church’s interfaith commitment is rewarding for Orion. He relates an experience he had while leading a children’s group in music. “I wanted to make sure they understood the significance of the Day of Pentecost. So I asked this group of kids who’ve grown up in First United Lutheran: ‘What’s the third most important day of celebration in our church after Easter and Christmas?’ One bright seven-year-old piped up right away: ‘Hanukkah!’ I smiled, knowing that our commitment to interfaith community was having an impact.”

Not all churches and areas of the country are as progressive as his, Orion recognizes. “It does make things difficult when we travel outside this area to encounter ideas and practices with which we are no longer familiar, and thought had gone away long ago. It teaches us that there is much work to be done.” The main challenge Orion faces in his location is that many people have rejected any form of religion or spirituality because they are unaware that “old concepts and ideas” have changed.

Changes in the church, however, come slowly, Orion acknowledges. “The institution of ‘the Church’ is very slow to undergo change, but it is already happening. We see that in the desperation that many today feel as they see the old forms of belief that they have clung to for so long slipping away. But to give some very clear, and non-contemporary examples, most Christians today can fully understand how non-Christian the behavior and beliefs were that brought on the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition. Far too many, however, do not see the very real reflection of those same beliefs in examples today, including exclusion of certain groups or persons as unworthy of God’s love. ‘Progressive’ Christianity recognizes that the love of God is reflected only in peace, and in doing those actions that heal all humanity and bring us together under an all-loving force known as God.”

Because of the slowness of the church to change to these progressive beliefs and actions, Orion has often considered leaving. But he believes that “the Spirit is working in and through” him to keep him engaged in the church. “It’s so much a pattern of and in my life; I don’t cling to it, but it’s just inside me.”

In Orion’s expansive vision for the future of the church, language and imagery will be inclusive of both female and male, varied faith traditions, and varied cultures. He envisions every Christian worship environment looking something like that of Ebenezer/herchurch Lutheran in San Francisco. His vision includes embracing “broad concepts of the Divine” and embracing what diverse spiritual traditions “have to teach us about our own.” The creative, prophetic ministry of Orion Pitts and First United Lutheran contribute to making this vision of a transformed church reality.

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