Commentary
By John Duffy 11-27-2018

On November 12, news broke that Christian songwriter Kurt Kaiser had died at 82. His work, which included memorable songs such as “Pass It On” and “Oh How He Loves You And Me,” spanned nearly 50 years. Kaiser’s name appeared on more than 25 albums and he received a lifetime achievement award from the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers for his contribution to Christian music. One of his songs remains one of the most important in my life, some 30 years after first hearing it.

Many who went to a Christian summer camp in the last 40 years sang Kaiser’s “Pass it On.” I was one of them. The tune was easy to sing, easy to strum along with using those first folky chords I learned, and the words were easy to remember.

It only takes a spark to get a fire going

and soon all those around can warm up to its glowing

That’s how it is with God’s love once you’ve experienced it

You spread his love to everyone, you want to pass it on.

It’s a song that doesn’t tell you what your faith is supposed to be, how you’re supposed to pray, praise, celebrate, or magnify. It doesn’t judge or preach. It simply tells you that feeling in your heart is real. I’ve spent most of my adult life writing about music and culture, but almost never about Christian music. It didn’t appeal to me. But “Pass it On” was somehow different. Why? Because I’ve never heard a recording of the song. And I don’t want to.

The arrangement in my memory — angel-voiced kids under the spark-filled starry sky in dusty tie-dye shirts and friendship bracelets — is where it will always stay. At my camp, we sang it to close out each week. We stood on a hill under a rugged pine cross, held candles, and passed the flame as we sang from one person to the next until the entire circle, some 150 people, was lit.

What a wonderous time is spring when all the trees are budding

The birds begin to sing, the flowers start their blooming.

For countless youth, it captured what summer camp truly felt like: a sudden feeling of spiritual fullness, that first connection with the Holy Spirit that was yours alone, not fed to you by your parents or Sunday School. And you wanted to pass it on when you went home, but it was hard to do with the autumn realities of school, peer pressure, and tests of faith. Camp seemed like a different world, and it was hard to take it with you. But you wanted to. “Pass It On” reminded you to try.

Years later, when my daughter was still small enough to tuck into bed, she asked me to sing “that fire song you and Mommy sang at camp.” I did. Often. By the time she got to camp, she knew the entire song already.

Over a decade ago, the camp where I grew up spending summers was closed and sold to real estate developers. It now sits vacant awaiting the earth movers. All that is left is beautifully overgrown meadows, crumbling foundations, and singing if you listen hard enough.

Songs become more and more of our lifelines to the past, to the people and place that mattered, our inner spiritual geography. As we grow, our faith must evolve. It must be renewed or die. When camps close, church pews drain. When ministries fail, it’s like the very structure of our faith is undercut. We cling to the touchstones that keep us afloat.

I wish for you my friend this happiness that I’ve found

You can depend on him, it matters not where you’re bound.

“Pass It On” makes you wish that faith can be that simple and that strong as it was when you were 14. It was your faith, not your parent’s or your pastor’s. It felt grown up to have it. This was a faith that had yet to be fractured and trampled by the world.

Today, I am on the advisory of a church summer camp that, like many, is working hard to stay afloat. As specialty camps, year-round sports, and family budget pressures increase, summer programs falter. Buildings need repair, and the money isn’t there. It’s not as simple as I remember it being.

I’m sure Kurt Kaiser knew what his song meant to people. “Pass It On” appeared in songbooks for more than a generation. What a wonderful gift to give to the world, a song that touches people in a way most pop music doesn’t. 

John Duffy grew up in Maryland. He is now an English/Social Studies teacher living in Pennsylvania. He is a member of Christ Church (United Church of Christ) in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania.

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