So God loves sin…

Warning: this is not a blog post for those who are unable to read in straight lines and think rigorously…and also, if you are not familiar with ‘satire’ then this may be an injudicious use of your time…

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The $64,000,000 question remains: what exactly, pray tell, is the gospel?

Is it what about people who sing/play ‘gospel music’ say it’s about? In words and music?

Is the gospel all about love? Because if so, then surely the idea of God is not necessary for love…is it? I can love my partner or spouse, or my cat, or my car, or ice-cream…

Oh….riiight, with you now. You’re saying that basically, God sent Jesus to die on the cross so that we can basically keep going as we are. We don’t have to change – other than go to church, pick up a Bible off Amazon and dust it occasionally, and be seen carrying Christian books from obvious authors every so often – be they Joyce Meyer or E.G. White…okay, scratch Joyce Meyer if you’re Adventist, because only Adventists speak the truth, right? Best get rid of those C.S. Lewis books and make sure that your KJV is prominent when you come to church!

Pentecostals, as you were. Evangelicals, you got problems. John Stott and John Piper are (were) literally as far away as east and west from each other on certain things, so you guys have decisions to make as well… Anglicans…okay, every type of belief is possible, so we have nothing new for you. And RCs – some of you cannot in all good conscience take communion with the rest of us, but your work with the neediest in our world remains mind-boggling.

[If you’re not in that list (e.g. Dutch Reformed), then you just definitely keep as you were…]

So, what’s the gospel again??

Kiki Sheard has the answer for you…and the redoutable Trey McLaughlin is here to sing a version of it for you ‘with a little help from his friends:’

Okay!

Try this for size again:

You think I’m everything when I think I’m nothing
When I hate myself you still love me
Love me and…

Wowee!

Wouldn’t you love to be loved by someone who thought that you were everything?! That could be true for those who think they’re nothing and those who don’t think they’re nothing – they think that they’re something but they’d love to be loved by someone who thinks that they would be everything.

With respect to my sisters, these lyrics have all the hallmarks of a woman’s voice. Men want to pursue without limitations. Women want to be desired at all costs. [And yes, those are deliberate over-generalisations to make the point.] So in this song, Kiki Sheard has not told us that God loves us DESPITE our flaws. She’s telling the gospel: God loves our flaws! He loves the bits of us which actually don’t work!

Now, there are ‘flaws’ and ‘flaws.’ If an individual possesses a characteristic that is particularly idiosyncratic, this could be deeply irritating to some people. But it could also be endearing to another. [Where’s Jeremy Clarkson when you need him??] However, sometimes what one person sees as a flaw is not actually a flaw in the first place. Don’t miss that. But ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ and a really serious problem could become a deadly problem – like the father who thought that it was good parenting and good bonding to do class A drugs with his daughter, who later died from a bad reaction to something she took at his hand, compounded by the fact that he delayed taking her to the hospital…

All right, enough fooling around the mulberry bushes. Kierra Sheard is WRONG and this song is a recipe for spiritual ruin.

If God loved our flaws, the Cross would not have been necessary. Jesus died for more than our sins as we commit them through abuse of volition (free will). Jesus died for all the wrong and broken things in this world. He died for the adults who cannot seem to give up crack cocaine because they were born addicted thanks to the choices of their parents and who are more biologically wired to that than many of us could ever begin to comprehend.

He died for people who struggle with sexual temptation LONG after making a full surrender to Christ – because the issues of abuse and trauma in their lives have left wounds that are deeper than language.

He died for those who self-harm because they cannot forgive certain people for certain things. And I don’t even mean being abused.

Gospel musicians: we have a duty to preach in song. This song is not a sermon. It is a fantasy. The gifts of music and language have been utilised to create a new God – re-fabricated in human form according to one love-starved human being. Why do I say that? Because those who are fortunate enough to be truly loved KNOW that they are loved DESPITE their flaws. Only those who still don’t know what that kind of love is like can sustain a secular fantasy such as this one – made worse by the fact that it is dressed up as a manifestation of Christian faith affirmation!!!

Secular people might be absolutely disgusted at this idea of God, and they would be quite right.

Here’s a better reference point for the gospel. It comes from Micah 6:

He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God? [KJV]

If God loved our flaws the way this song says He does, He could not and would not be the God as revealed in the pages of Scripture.

Talent is NOT where it’s at…

….but you’ll have to keep reading in order to find out how that sentence ends!

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This is my first blog post of 2015 – on any site. My mother has been a cancer patient and the last several months have been entirely epic. But I am delighted to be able to announce that she did decide to take chemotherapy and that the evidence suggests that it is working. Many prayers and sentiments of goodwill have been offered by a great many people, and I want to acknowledge that here on what is the most well-read of my blogs. THANK YOU, everyone, and God bless you all.

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Now, I’d like to take a moment to reflect on the fact that it was four years ago this month – February 2011 – that I ‘picked up my pen’ and began to write in earnest here on this blog.

When I learned about blogging about ten years ago, I was excited about trying to build a community of my own here at the theomusicology blog. I dreamed of the kinds of interaction that seemed to happening all over the place.

So it was in fact August 2008 when this blog actually came into existence, and I had the idea that God wanted to do something different in my life and something with this writing business. But quite what, I didn’t know. But I was SURE that building a little community around these most emotive subjects was part of it.

Some readers of this blog know the story: I wrote a number of blog posts, invited LOTS of people and sat back and waited for people to engage. And…only a tiny handful did. I got upset, confused, and then decided that if people were not going to interact with this blog in the ways that I had seen them doing elsewhere, then perhaps I had gotten the wrong idea. Perhaps my deranged ego had gotten in the way and I’d failed to hear God properly. Either way, I decided that it was not working and gave up writing.

Now, I have written about quite a number of life-changing ‘gear changes’ that I have experienced here on this blog. I have referred to things that have had to go ‘on the altar of sacrifice.’ One of the things that I always believed was that once you had identified your calling, things would just fall into place. I was well used to archetypal Christian clichés such as “all His biddings are enablings” and so if things didn’t work really easily, then God could not have wanted it.

Lies.

Weak, under-powered theology and wholly inadequate Bible reading will get you to conclusions like that.

In February 2011, after a period of fasting and prayer, I was sure that I had the mission statement for my life, and now things were gong to fall into place…right? Some of them did, but it is time to raise the stakes more publicly about the fact that the sheer range and depth of traumas in my life sent me into depression. Now, how does a lifelong Christian who has just received a huge answer from God then fall into depression? That’s not something for which there is any sort of quick answer and I will not trivialise that story by attempting to answer that question here. But integrity to this blog post demands that I tell you what I have, and as such, 2011 now ranks with 2001 as the two worst years of my entire adult life. Those were the two years where I came closest to abandoning my faith – and this is not exaggerated rhetoric, I assure you. It is why when I re-examined the precise reasons for the precise nature of my religious beliefs, I had to find something deeper and more enduring than almost everything that I had been taught in standard church attendance. It’s why I am increasingly committed to both philosophy and theology. It’s why I read six Bible translations as I prepare to study Biblical languages for myself. And it is also why I write for a readership that is wider than the church.

It is exactly why I write in the first place.

I wrote a LOT of words in 2011, and perhaps most of them will never be read publicly, because they were for my devotional journal. But a lot of them were on this blog, and some posts were about far more than just ‘theomusicology-related’ issues. What I found was that as I stopped worrying about getting feedback and interaction and just concentrated on writing, people began to seek me out off the blog and tell me that they were reading and that I should continue writing. And a great number were people who do not share the fundamental religious presuppositions that govern the writing on this blog, but they offered real encouragement.

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Now, some people who are unfamiliar with the posts on this blog will be wondering how a brother has gotten to 800+ words and still not yet made his point. Sorry, it’s not that kind of blog – please keep reading!

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So back to four years ago. I’m writing away and I am sure that God has given me a talent for words as well as music. I want to use both as well as I can. But I am STILL labouring under a phenomenal misapprehension, and to help you get how this works, I need to take you to Ephesians 3:

7-8 This is my life work: helping people understand and respond to this Message. It came as a sheer gift to me, a real surprise, God handling all the details. When it came to presenting the Message to people who had no background in God’s way, I was the least qualified of any of the available Christians. God saw to it that I was equipped, but you can be sure that it had nothing to do with my natural abilities (The Message).

Some people who have known me for a long time – not just my ‘friends’ by any means – did their best to encourage me to not play as many instruments as I once did. What some knew better than others was that I was desperate to identify the instrument for which I was most naturally suited. In hindsight, I was literally obsessed with the idea of finding the instrument that was a perfect fit. This was where being particularly skilled in certain types of analysis has become a weakness as well as a strength.

I rejected the piano because my technique was not ever as naturally fluid as that of other piano players who were undoubtedly less musical. That was my first instrument, but that was not the one as far as I was concerned. [And if it had not been for certain amazing events, I’d STILL be thinking that today – more long stories…]

I rejected the clarinet because I didn’t have the kind of emotional connection to it that I deemed (in my ignorance and folly) was necessary. When I realised that this was false, I was so far behind technically that I decided I’d never catch up and despite massive encouragement from numerous gifted players, I lost faith in my ability to offer something great with this instrument.

The story of my love affair with the saxophone is complex and requires its own post. Suffice it to say that my original reasons for taking it up were pragmatic – and then I fell in love, totally and completely. Problem: of all the instruments I have ever wanted to excel at, on no other instrument has so much practice led to so little improvement. No other instrument has ever caused me so much grief and pain – and if I had to re-run the last twenty years, I would NEVER have taken up this instrument.

And as for the double bass…I never had the faith or the courage to really go for it, despite having a level of natural musicianship on this instrument that was pretty rare. I was good enough to be able to play sometimes, but never consistently good enough to be the kind of asset that professionals need with them on-stage.

Those are the four which many people know about. But there were other instruments and other (ultimately vain and futile) attempts to find the instrument on which I would make my name. I was convinced that God would never call anyone to something for which they had no natural abilities, and terrified that I wouldn’t find my destiny. And my desire to be a world-class musician and a Christian witness meant that this was only going to work when I found the instrument that was my destiny. I figured that God had provided the talent and my job was to find it. Ten years ago I even prayed over a period of weeks and asked God to show me how best I should spend my time and what I should give up musically. I got no answer and there was a reason. But that particular story is too big for this post.

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The home straight started when I sat in the office of a professor of composition at a UK university who discerned that I had a real facility for language and ideas, but that somehow I wanted to find something deeper. He then expressed his belief that writing music was in fact harder than writing words.

Until he reads this post, he may not know the true effect these words have had on me spiritually. But from that moment I began to let go of the idea that God is only interested in using us in the capacities which would seemingly be determined by our ‘natural’ skillsets. Don’t get me wrong: I knew that God uses people to do things which they didn’t think they could do. I never thought that I had anything to ‘offer God.’ But I did think that I had to be at my best – which to me meant the highest level of skill I could obtain – for God to use me in amazing ways. And I so badly wanted to do something seriously good for God.

I didn’t know it – I couldn’t know it – but I had fallen into the trap of a type of perfectionism (religious and psychological) and this type of perfectionism is in fact tantamount to self-abuse of the highest order. It is no wonder that in certain ways my mind and my emotions came apart at the seams!

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Now, I have been putting these pieces together for some time, but as I am now less than a month away from conducting my very first Bach passion – St John – I see that the incredibly difficult journey to become a conductor of classical music (which I have posted about here) was all about being moved away from my ‘natural strengths’ as a gospel choral director and being taken to a place outside my comfort zone and ‘natural’ talent space PRECISELY so that I would be less predisposed to defaulting back to my ‘natural’ talents and forgetting God! This piece has changed my life, but this would never have happened if I’d remained in the area of my ‘talents.’ And so when – in the early hours of this morning – I came across this text in my devotional, I realised that it was time to ‘take up my pen’ and write this post – firstly as a devotional activity in and of itself, and secondly as an action of ministry in which I reach out and share with whosoever will.

Paul was enormously gifted, but his calling was about something more than his ‘natural abilities.’ Today, I am publicly putting my desire to be outstandingly gifted on the altar of sacrifice, because what I also hope to do for God has – in the final analysis – NOTHING to do with my natural abilities, and as I consider the years spent searching for the wrong ‘Holy Grail’ I very much hope and pray that whoever you are and whatever you believe, that you could take a moment to think about whether you may also have placed more strain on yourself by focusing on what you can ‘do’ as a person with talents (we all have something) and less on who you can ‘be’ as a person. Talent is totally NOT where it’s at – because each one of us is worth far more than our skills and abilities and God did NOT die for our sins just so that we could pay Him back by being amazingly gifted.

Talents are wonderful, but to be a good human being is worth more than what the world calls ‘talent.’

A personal introduction to jazz for Seventh-Day Adventists (and other Christians)

For those of you that clicked the link on the ADM Productions jazz page, thank you so much for coming through to this blog – your desire to understand where I am coming from is not taken for granted in any way.

For those of you who found this post by some other route – and to the regular subscribers of this blog – you are, as ever, warmly welcomed.

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As I have stated elsewhere: jazz – as far as I am concerned – is the single greatest creative challenge in (Western) music.

If you genuinely understand and appreciate jazz, then you will know why this music matters. But if you don’t – and if you (also) happen to be from my church – then you most probably need to read this really rather carefully. And if you are curious for some other reason about my involvement in jazz and unique nature of what we do in jazz at ADM Productions, then do please read on!

Here’s a newsflash – jazz is in fact one of the most incredible mediums that we have found as human beings in the nexus of music itself. It lends itself to integration with so many non-Western music traditions, and it also lends itself to the expression of whatever ideology you believe. [For those interested, I was grilled seriously about my work in jazz on a televised interview, in which this very issue surfaces.]

Like many Seventh-Day Adventists, my parents warned me sternly away from jazz. It was the ‘devil’s music’ along with rock’n’roll, blues, reggae and the rest. But classical music?? This was the highest form of music – but somehow the problems of secular classical music were not as great as the problems with jazz. And we return to the issues of the previous paragraph; many people in my church really don’t seem to understand that it is the same deal in classical music. Mozart may have written some operas with some quite scandalous plots. But his psalm settings are incredible. Do Bible-believing Christians ignore those just because of the salacious opera scenes that he wrote? Hmm.

Handel also wrote some highly secular music – but what’s he best known for? That’s right, an incredible piece of sacred choral/orchestral music entitled Messiah…so the genre is indeed not as important in and of itself – it’s about what you make of the genre!

I only discovered this after I started playing jazz and realised that this music was the exact opposite of faith-denying. At 18, I began to play really seriously. At 19, I had become an early-career jazz professional. And the year I turned 20, I celebrated my birthday in New York, having flown out there specifically to spend part of the summer getting into the jazz scene. By the time I flew back I knew that this was what I wanted to do – to become a truly world-class jazz musician and be an Adventist witness to this community of musicians and to do more than merely entertain people (which is largely all that I ever saw taking place in our church gospel concerts. Occasionally, someone would sing or play in such a way that it really did become ‘ministry’ but this was exceedingly rare). I wanted to do more than ‘entertain.’ I wanted to communicate.

To get my head around that at 20 was one of the biggest journeys I have ever made and will ever make. And from that time, I have been both theologically-conservative Adventist and professional jazz musician.

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So, to brass tacks. If you’re not a Christian believer in any way, you may very reasonably wonder why  I am trying to do something called ‘sacred jazz.’ Why bother? Either play jazz as jazz, or don’t bother, but why try to mix the two?

And if you are a Christian, you may be wondering the same thing, but worded differently with different emphases and from different angles…

So all parties will get the same answer. Why is jazz part of what happens at ADM Productions? Well, because I’m the ‘AD’ of ADM, and I know that God has given me an interest in, feeling for and desire to make music in three genres. Classical music is fantastic, but there are times when only gospel music will do. But at other times, I need something that is more cerebral than gospel, but not as scripted as classical music. I need to ‘be’ in that moment. And I need to think outside the boundaries of language.

It’s kind of ironic, because for someone who loves instrumental music as much as I do, I use a lot of words in the course of my life. But we all have times when it’s not about verbal language at all. As Goethe (no less) once observed, “music begins where words end.”

That is the literal truth, whatever you believe. And as someone with Christian faith, there are times when expressing and articulating aspects of my faith journey (and also serious reflecting on this journey) requires something other than language. The Bible talks about meditating – how do we do that? Is it not possible that one can use artistic mediums to reflect? And why would I only  choose to find a pre-composed piece of music – the outworking of someone else’s personal journey – when I could in fact play something that I myself have created in the moment that is the outworking of my own journey and true to that moment? In case you missed that (apologies to jazz musicians!), that is precisely  what true improvisers do!

Jazz facilitates a level and a type of musical profundity that simply does not exist in any other Western music genre. Many people still don’t know or understand that the major genius composers of times past were not just ‘composers’ in the way that we construct nowadays. They were ‘musicians’ in such a deep sense of the word – and many were consummate and prolific improvisers. The negative connotations imposed by neo-colonial black people on improvisation and most forms of non-scripted music are but one example of the cruelties of ignorance. And this ignorance is hurting the Church in more ways than many people have dared to even think about (which is one of the major reasons why I do ministry).

[Indeed, some even believe that if a musician does not read music, then they are not a real musician. What’s scary about this is that I personally have ONLY EVER heard black Christians say this. My word, we do class and caste better than others at times, we really do!]

But here’s a very interesting thing: badly-performed classical music is so ubiquitous it is beyond contempt. And as for badly-performed gospel music – just don’t get me started (plenty on that subject elsewhere on this blog). The church is an excellent place to find both.

But unlike those two genres, I would contend that jazz really only  works for any audience when it is played well. Properly. And I distinguish between “jazz/gospel” and “sacred jazz” because jazz/gospel is essentially gospel music – but sacred jazz is actually jazz – with a requisite amount of rhythmic/harmonic/melodic intensity and complexity to qualify as actual jazz – but the message is one of faith and hope and assurance – and in a very spiritual sense.

Nearly all the jazz musicians who work with me do not share my faith in any way, but they share a real commitment to a brand of music-making with far more integrity than many Christians (including musicians) will EVER comprehend. And I am delighted and honoured to have them as compadres  in music and that they have been willing to be part of my own faith journey in music.

There are some very big names in SDA ministry who are anti-drums, anti-contemporary music, and more – and while I had planned to cite some of these names, this will not help. Enough controversy has been aroused courtesy of my decision to take apart certain statements by one well-known Adventist who fits into this category. And it shows me that folks convinced against their will will remain of the same opinion still.

And so, as a jazz pianist, I’m fond of ‘quipping’ that I  don’t just play any old jazz stuff – I play ‘faith.’ And while it is true that this statement applies specifically to my work in ‘sacred jazz,’ it is in fact the case that whatever the material is – as long as the song/folksong/standard/original is genuinely compatible with Biblical Christianity, then the way I play it is going to exemplify who I am and what I believe. In truth, my secular jazz colleagues worked that out regarding my playing long before I did!

For all these reasons and more, my team and I have some big plans for sacred jazz at ADM Productions. There are a couple of major writing projects which I really want to finally get off the ground. It was no less a person than Gustav Mahler who said that “if a composer could say that he had to say in words, he would not bother trying to say it in music.” Developing a new, gospel-inspired language of sacred jazz for big band (and more) that is spiritually and theologically truthful is going to be an even bigger challenge than conducting the St. Matthew Passion  – but there are certain things that transcend language, and composing this sort of jazz is in fact the work of a lifetime in and of itself!

In the context of life and ministry, it is an unalloyed privilege and pleasure to be able to engaging with fellow jazz musicians and audience members. This is totally about breaking beyond boundaries and barriers of style and concept  ‘playing faith’ – but without compromising who I am or what I believe. Sadly, as I write this post, I can see that even a bunch of youngsters playing standards from the Real Book in a jam session will usually find a greater level of musicianship integrity than that found in the types of jam session that take in church sanctuaries after services. There is more listening. More technical facility. More space (sometimes). More preparation mentally (frequently). And much stronger song forms. Of course, there are some jam sessions in which the medium of jazz music is seriously abused. That is the fault of the PLAYERS, not the music (and this of course applies to gospel music and other musical genres as well!).

And so this blog post actually caps a very serious historical moment in my life. Five years ago, when called to full-time ministry, I honestly thought that I may never, ever play jazz again. But the truth is that my ministry extends far beyond the boundaries of the church walls, and it requires me to be the best version of me. Jazz was more than the mainstay of Phase 1 of my professional career; it was something which God Himself facilitated to keep me sane and to express some deep things in me that I could not express in language. But as I survey a gospel music landscape where market forces drive musical and ‘ministry’ choices, which result in a spiritually impoverished gospel scene, and a classical music landscape where at the highest level, true Biblical Christian faith is extraordinarily hard to find, I realise that to be both composer and performer in ‘real time’ is a gift from God, and while improvisation is hardly exclusive to jazz, there is no other music form that forces the highest level of spontaneity in creativity quite like jazz, and I cannot wait to return to serious concert jazz performance – in 2015. I have something to say and words are not enough…

The scariest reason why we don’t sing in church

Growing amounts of words have been and are being written on the question of congregational singing – or lack thereof –  across denominations. It does not appear that the ‘charismatic’ traditions suffer from this problem in anything like the same way other denominations and movements do. All sort of interesting theses have been put forward; as ever, these vary in cogency, rigour, cultural savvy and theological/Biblical literacy.

As a humanities geek who now crosses the divide between both philosophy and theology, I’d usually have a lot more to say about this. But I have come to type this straight from my devotional this morning. Have a look at this:

The voice of rejoicing and salvation is in the tents of the righteous; The right hand of the Lord does valiantly.

That’s Psalm 118:15 in the KJV. That’s not necessarily going to get you to the import of the text. Try this:

Songs of joy and victory are sung in the camp of the godly. The strong right arm of the LORD has done glorious things!

Now that’s the New Living Translation – one of the many that is berated by various ministry-types and while on one hand I could never recommend it for non-basic Bible study, I refuse to kowtow to the conservative-Biblical mindset that dumps on all but the handful of approved versions. I’m more literate than many people and I grew up with the King James (aka the ‘Authorised’) version and I love literature, but I had to get away from the KJV in my twenties to get back to actually reading the Bible. So I say: any Bible you can and will enjoy reading is better than an excellent translation that you don’t read.

This is relevant because I love Psalm 118 but had never read it in the NLT, and here’s what jumped out at me: what do we hear in the ‘camp of the God-fearing and God-believing?

Songs.

What kind of songs, pray tell?

‘Joy’ and ‘victory.’

Hmm.

I have to ask myself when last I went to church and I could describe the singing as manifesting ‘joy’ and victory.’ I know that people are trying to get people to sing louder – with varied results. I know that people are trying to get people to be more ‘lively’ – with varied results. But far, far, far too often, I am not at all sure that the praise teams or song leaders – and this is before we even consider the pastoral team and the congregations at large – are convinced by what they are singing. You can tell when ‘they like the song’ – but this is now about aesthetics! People like the beat, the flow, the melody, the words (and you can like the beat without there being a drumkit in sight, by the way). But that’s not the same sound as when you are singing out of the depth of your own experience!

I once went to a football (soccer) match. It was set to end in a draw…until the very last minute of the game, the home side scored a winner. I was one of the home fans, and I had the unforgettable experience of standing to my feet with thousands of people and singing the following charming ditty (to a tune that was essentially based on the ‘Bread of heaven’ chorus of the hymn ‘Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah):

You’re not singing,
You’re not singing,
You’re not singing any more;
You’re not singing any more!

That was as HEARTFELT a singing experience as any I’ve been part of. Perhaps the use of a religious hymn contributed to that… Anyway, here’s a final translation – this time, from The Message:

Hear the shouts, hear the triumph songs in the camp of the saved? “The hand of God has turned the tide!

Interesting how it is put in the form of a question-and-response. Let me now give you my personal paraphrase of this verse:

“Can you hear the shouts of joy [Psalm 32:15 is a very sobering text on the question of those who are qualified to ‘shout for joy’] coming from that church over there? Can you hear the songs of deliverance? God has done something for these people, and you can hear it in their praise!”

The scariest reason why we don’t sing in church?

It’s not because “we had a bad week.” Or because “we don’t know the song.” It’s not even because “I don’t like this style of music” (or, to be more ‘Christian’ about it: “this music is unholy and not fit for the house of God”). And worse yet, it’s not even because “I know that the keyboard player is having an affair with the first elder’s wife.”

It is because we have not experienced victory over sin and self in Jesus Christ.

You ain’t going to sing about what you don’t know unless they’re paying you or you’re auditioning for X-Factor (or something else in that dimension).

We’re not QUALITATIVELY different to anyone else. So we cannot get too close to God in praise and worship, because coming into the presence of a holy God would mean we’d have to change.

So the football fans and the rock concert attendees are freer to worship than we are, because they’re not playing the same game we are. Their game does not involve worshipping one’s own existence whilst pretending to worship God…

 

 

 

“Music is not for the ears!”

Many years ago, I had a good friend whose focus and discipline as a musician used to act as a regular rebuke to me. Not her words – just how she lived her life as a musician. She possessed a basic certainty of drive and overall direction as an undergraduate music student that I knew that I did not possess – and she played two instruments!

On the face of it, you might never have known that I was uncertain of my place in music. But those closest to me knew that I had too many balls in the air and that I needed to be more focussed. But I could not for the life of me figure out which way to go. So I kept all my balls in the air as best I could and supported my friends who were more secure in their musical identity. And this lady was one of those. Her interest was – and remains – in early music, particularly baroque music – something that interested me vaguely, but not seriously.

I was, however, very serious about my own Christian faith, and I did not hide this from her (or anyone else). This did not always make our relationship as friends an easy one, as her secular lifestyle at that time meant that we could not possibly see eye to eye on certain things, and at times I am sure that in my zeal to stand up for biblical morality I did manage to offend her (something that I factor in these days when I talk about faith and morality to people who don’t share my Christian presupposition – by God’s grace we learn). However, I could never shake off the nagging feeling that she was looking for something more and that was why I kept taking the risks with her that I did.

Given all of that, I will never forget the moment when – sitting in a London music venue eating hors d’oeuvres whilst waiting to play a jazz gig – she rang my mobile phone from another country and told me that she was going to be baptised.

Years passed, and I became a conducting student and developed a serious fascination and ferocious commitment to the sacred music of J.S. Bach. This has since led to an increasing interest in the multiple phenomena of the baroque musical era. I have not seen this friend of mine for many years, but when next we meet (by God’s grace) we will have much to talk about!

I’d like to share something that she herself shared, and then respond to it.

Quote of the day: “The aim of music is to glorify God and to move the affections of the listener” (Johann Mattheson, c. 18th). He also believed that music was able to cure mental and physical diseases and hated it when “merely the EARS of the poor, simple and self-righteous listeners are tickled, but their HEARTS and MINDS are not aroused in proper measure.” Hence the title of a paper I wrote many years ago…: “Music is NOT for the ears!” May we use music according to its original design and purposes!

Now, if you click on this link about Mattheson, you will see that at present he does not enjoy the kind of consistent, conspicuous respect that would have been the case in times past (even the last century). But that does not mean that he was not onto something. We know that musicologists ranging from Alfred Dürr to Susan McClary have robustly questioned the legitimacy of the position that Bach was a true confessional Christian. We also know that the weight of both historiographical, musical/musicological and theological evidence is against the skeptical position advocated by them and others. As such, we can infer that in our post-Hegelian, post-modern, Western-centric 21st-century world it is going to be extremely difficult for the position enumerated in the very first sentence of the quote above to be taken seriously by contemporary millenials who may well believe that music is bigger than us as human beings, but would utterly reject the idea that music’s chief aim is to glorify God.

Here’s where I am going: we don’t accept that something is true because someone well-known (and well-respected) says so. We don’t accept that something is not true because someone well-known (and well-respected) has or has not said it. Something is true because it is true – and vice-versa. And the only exception to that is the Son of God, who was Himself truth (John 14:6) and therefore incomparable with any other human being.

Music is becoming an increasingly important tool in modern healthcare with no religious affiliations or attachments. Growing numbers of NHS trusts in the UK are starting what are known as ‘well-being choirs.’ Music is being appropriated in all sorts of clinical care settings as part of actual therapy. The effect of singing on the emotions is being taken increasingly seriously by those who work in depression recovery in the USA and Europe.

I am both a serious musician and a theologian, and I am fully convicted that the work of Jesus encompassed healing, teaching, and preaching. Healing is not necessarily the work of doctors, nurses and their associates. It is the work of all those who show love and compassion. Those who give a smile and a hug to a lonely and hurting heart. Those who visit someone who has lost physical mobility and feels forgotten even by their biological relatives. Those who have lost hope for many reasons as the cards of life just keep on stacking against them. So that means that I cannot merely live a life of music and words. I too have to be part of the work of healing!

Musicians have a serious and profound calling to do more than merely make people feel good. Our job is to actually sing, play compose, arrange and direct ensembles in such a way that our actions of creativity make a real and tangible difference in this increasingly dissolute and broken world. Rather than pander to the whims of those who want what is quick, popular and transient (precisely because it offers  no challenge to the listener), we need to be bold innovators who are less obsessed with the notional construction of ‘being original’ and instead are committed to faithfulness in message – and a message that is worth hearing; one that offers real hope beyond that which this world can ever offer – in and of itself.

But in a typically nuanced analysis, I would like to gently disagree with the very title of this blog post. Of course I know what is meant, and I agree with the essential sentiment. But music is exactly for the ears – however, my question: do people actually still listen in order to hear (which requires the use of the ears by definition) – or do they listen with their emotions, thus taking in the sonic embodiment of music through the physical faculties of auditory perception, but never really ‘hearing’ what they are listening to?

A new vision for the rest of my life in music

Last week, a huge door closed. [see this post for more details.]

And in the days that have passed which have served as the (entirely necessary) processing time, it has become very clear that this is indeed the way forward. It is not that I will never once work with members of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church in the UK on anything musical from henceforth. I never said that and it could not be further from the truth. However, the standard of music making – and indeed, musical praise – in which I am involved cannot drop below a certain level and there is no way in which I will continue to be spiritually and emotionally blackmailed into facilitating levels of musical praise where the actual music-making is totally and inexcusably sub-standard.

If the musical praise is in fact genuinely musical, there is always a chance that the actual truth about God can be told. But it is impossible for an act of music ministry to be musically substandard and still be spiritual. Somehow, our church (and we are not alone) have now almost made a new spiritual gift (a type of ‘virtue’ for those who don’t know) out of what I will now call ‘anti-musicality’ and this is something that I will resist forcibly for as long as I have breath.

It has not been easy to express these things, as one has no real desire to talk about all the things that do not work in one’s church. But I have been trying to gloss over these failings for nearly twenty years, and that in and of itself has been damaging. The truth really does matter – even when it hurts – but better honest pain than dishonest coherence – because it is precisely this ‘dishonest coherence’ that is hurting our evangelistic witness as a church. I love my church and I am serious about people becoming part of our community. I do not believe because I get what I want. I do not believe because I am loved and respected. I believe because my own intellectual and spiritual convictions have led me to the conclusion that the teachings of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church are true. And all these sorts of ‘ecclesial’ problems are not going to be a good enough reason to leave for a church community (or any other) in which music is respected more honestly and taken much more seriously.

While in other Christian churches music can at times be much, much better, I have been involved in interdenominational musical activities for twenty years. I have been shocked to find that even in the matter of a gospel choir, secular people are often more keen to sing this music to a really high standard than church-goers of all stripes. So for those who think that I have the right religion but the wrong denomination, I do have news: I see all types of sacred music – from Palestrina to liturgical jazz to contemporary gospel music – being sung and played to a consistently higher standard by secular people than by Christians of all denominations – be they evangelical Anglican to ragingly intense Pentecostal as well as Roman Catholic. Seventh-Day Adventists have a huge amount of work to do, but we’re not alone on this one, folks.

I want to place on record my gratitude to those UK Adventist music ministers who have been willing to work with me to a real musical standard as well as a spiritual standard. It is not a big number, and each one of you has something to do for God in this world. Those of you who are still working with me, we’re only just getting started.

I also want to place on record my thanks all those who are not of my faith, but who have been part of my activities in sacred music-making for the entirety of my career to date – whatever the reasons for your saying ‘yes,’ it has been really important that we respect music as something bigger than all of us and that we have found – and continue to find – a place of true common ground in the process of making music together as honestly as possible.

In the last two months, I have spent a great deal of time with a certain book called The Path by Laurie Beth Jones. I would like to wholeheartedly recommend this to anyone and everyone. It has enabled certain pieces of my life to now begin falling into place with shattering force as I now continue to take the necessary difficult decisions to ensure that the reason for which I came into being actually does get fulfilled in my life. It is for both my benefit and others who would like to understand why I am as ferociously driven as I am that I now publish the following two statements.

What I thought was my mission statement for life and ministry came at the end of a period of fasting and prayer in early 2011. But now in July 2014, thanks to Ms Jones, I now have a much deeper  mission statement. With the help of other thinkers and the Holy Spirit’s guidance, I can see that what I have now found with the help of Laurie Beth is in fact a vision statement. And she has also taught me that I also need a goal – which in turn written down.

~

Personal Vision Statement:

My vision is to understand, promote and inspire true worship to a holy God.

~

Personal Mission Statement:

My mission is to share Christian faith and the (Seventh-Day) Adventist message to the highest standard of my ability using both words and music.

~

For the rest of 2014 I will be working out how the ‘goal’ side of this will work in real life and how I can express it clearly, simply and accurately in my first language of English. The practical applications of both my vision and mission need to be carefully tracked so that my decisions are all congruent with both vision and mission. But those huge decisions of the last week are all a consequence of recognising and accepting the two statements that you have just read, and realising that my goals have to be reconsidered in order to ensure that I stay on track with who I am, how I have been designed and who God Himself has called me to be.

May God be with you as you work out these things for your own life and ministry in Jesus’ Name.

Part 2: A devastating conclusion for contemporary music ministry in UK Adventism

In response to what has now become Part 1 on this subject, I was asked some searching questions by a friend, ministry colleague and brother in Christ. They were worthy of a serious response, so please see the dialogue below as follows.

Q: Are you aware of a time within UK Adventism, when the depth of musicianship you desire, has ever been a reality? If not, can you point to some Adventist locales that are successful; what do you think their reason is for success?

A: There is one outstanding example in my mind – in terms of what I have personally experienced for myself. The output of the London Adventist Chorale from 1994 to 2002 was, in a word, outstanding. But that was a time when they were rehearsing for 3 Sundays a month from 1-5:30pm, doing serious sectional rehearsals and then full choir (tutti) rehearsals. That was the only way a bunch of mostly non-music-reading singers were able to learn whole two-hour concert programmes from memory – in eight parts. It was a phenomenal achievement in any language and it remains one of the highlights of my life (for two years I was part of that).

There were some others – and one also belongs to Ken Burton. In 1994 the Croydon Gospel Choir hosted a concert at the Fairfield Halls in Croydon, and I can remember some of the music that was sung and played to this day. It was hard to believe that one local church could work to that standard, and then when Ken played a solo piano version of When Peace Like a River – and received an entirely justified standing ovation – I just became increasingly determined to emulate him.

Apart from that, other groups have come close to excellence. Mahlon Rhamie directed a choir called New Hope that did some wonderful things in terms of contemporary gospel music from c. 1997-2002, and for a period of time in the last decade another gentleman called Clive Shepherd was Music Director for the London Youth Federation and for a few years they sang really well.

No instrumental groups have come close to the standard of excellence I would ideally desire. A tiny number of classical ensembles are now doing a few things, but there is a huge amount of work to do there. The gospel bands have really improved over the years, and if one of two of them keep going they will eventually become excellent. But at their best, the London Adventist Chorale were actually world-class, and that is a big, big thing. We have a handful of individual instrumentalists who have achieved real excellence on their own terms. For the sake of political harmony I will not cite any of those, but they know who they are.

Outside of the UK, there is much more to celebrate in the USA and also Europe. And even in the Philippines, where one of our Adventist Universities produced a choir that won a very big award at a recent Eisteddfod in Llangollen, and they worked hard for that. In the USA, it is the departments of music at our big universities who produce very strong choral ensembles – the chamber choir of La Sierra have sung to an outstanding standard at times. The Andrews University Singers do very good work, as do the choral groups of Southern University. I have also heard one or two choirs from Adventist universities in Latin Americe which were not mind-blowing, but they were light-years away from almost everything we do here in the UK. But although their stylistic range is more limited than many appear to accept, on the basis of my own ears and my own experience (and I have not heard everything in the entire Adventist world), the most outstanding ensemble in global Adventism right now is at Oakwood University. Jason Max Ferdinand is a very, very well-trained conductor, and his blend of maverick intuition and well-trained musicianship is perfectly suited to the Aeolians. At their best, they do achieve a superlative standard, but they cannot always reach that. I have not heard a single instrumental ensemble that plays as well that the Aeolians sing from any of our universities. And if there is a better choral ensemble in the world church, I cannot wait to hear them for myself!

On the African continent, it seems that in some areas the ‘traditional’ choral singing tradition is being kept alive and also being nurtured and developed by Adventists. In 2010 I was in Lagos, Nigeria, teaching for the Royal School of Church Music (which was being inaugurated in Nigeria) and in that time I was exposed to all sorts of different church music contexts from Pentecostal to classical. But I had to wait until Sabbath to hear ‘traditional’ and sure enough, on Sabbath in the Adventist church there was a 60/70 strong choir in four parts, resplendent in purple from head to toe, singing ‘traditional’ African Christian sacred music, and the hair stood up on the back of my neck. Seems that in Nigeria the Adventists are keeping that flame burning…

Unfortunately, many of the most outstanding classical music performers from Europe in Adventism are much more theologically liberal than would be ideal, but these are the hazards of life. And on the Continent, there are some outstanding musicians. The Adventist Church also has one legendary conductor – the two-time Grammy Award winner Herbert Blomstedt – who is simply an amazing musician and someone who I want to emulate as far as possible artistically whilst being true to who I am. But Blomstedt is not in the church conferences trying to inspire people to be Levites – he is working with world-class orchestras and living out his calling in that arena. I used to be very wary of some of what he was doing, but as I have grown as a conductor, I have had to change my perspective on certain things that he does. Without going into detail, let us say that I don’t judge him anymore in the way that I did, and now I watch what he has done as I find my own way through the classical music world.

The reason why all these other musical achievements even exist is very simple – those involved had a very, very high regard for music and a genuine willingness to diligently apply themselves to their craft. That is also true for all the UK examples I have cited. But the vast majority of UK Adventist musicians have stopped trying, and still received high praise from congregations. As such, excellence is now impossible for most.

Q: Do you believe the current state of musical affairs, is retarding renewal and hampering effective witness in the UK?

A: Absolutely. This has been my contention for at least ten years when I began to try and get involved with actual music ministry in Adventist church settings. I could see the real problems with the lack of true spiritual integrity in the professional gospel world and how this was impacting the church itself – including my own church (the Adventist church). So I tried to do something about it. In 2004 I had a praise team and band that achieved some really wonderful things, but there were maggots at the core of certain people’s spiritual lives and that fell apart from the inside out. In 2007/8 there was another group that also found the right Levitical standard, and my own spiritual life changed working with them – but they were so ferociously criticised by their own Adventist peers that this also crashed and burned.

When non-Adventists come to our churches, they (often) see experimental praise teams chucking together setlists by the piano on the morning, blagging harmonies, clashing with keyboard players who often have given precious little thought to how their keyboard harmony relates to what the singers are trying to do. Sometimes they see two keyboard players and bass all clashing together beautifully, and not really supporting the singing – but they still say that it is really good. And people with ears wonder how anyone can say that this is good. Non-Adventists also see that in our concerts, the least well-prepared musical items also get more praise than those that are really well-drilled.

They will also see that we only sing what we know and what we like. It’s not about ‘singing a new song unto the Lord, all the earth.’ It is about singing what gives us the ‘feel-good factor’ and to hell with anyone else (yes, I did just say that in a serious blog post, because that is exactly what I have experienced from some Adventist music-makers).

This makes a total mockery of ‘music ministry’ because it is usually neither spiritual enough to be actual ministry nor musical enough to be music. Our special items are often also weak and underpowered and no-one is motivated enough to really work hard, because they know that they will still get a rousing ‘Amen’ no matter what. This has led to the deadly reality where singers and instrumentalists work harder to prepare songs for WEDDINGS just because they don’t want to mess up the day for the bride and groom. I have myself rehearsed singers and musicians who were more keen to work on the music for weddings than for church services, and this has become intolerable.

What we really think of God is not necessarily revealed through the clothes we wear. That’s cultural and social. Or the food we eat (also cultural and social). Or our sermons (which can also be performances based on socio-cultural values). It comes out in how we speak to people on a one-to-one basis, and how we sing about God. If the song service is called ‘praise and worship’ and we talk all the way through it – or the pastors watch their congregations instead of joining in the praise themselves – this is all hurting our witness to people who are not all that interested in our clever doctrinal arguments as prima facie reasoning for joining this church. They want to see how being in our worshipping communities make a difference. And our general failures to adhere to the ethics of music itself have a greater impact on people’s willingness to accept the truth that we teach than many of our church members have understood.

I mentioned my Lagos experience earlier and it is time to make a point that will not fill me with joy. During my time in Lagos, I attended and worked with several denominational churches. Guess which one – despite the outstanding choir – had the least fervent congregational singing and was the least friendly and genuinely welcoming?

That’s right. The Adventist church.

This leads me to a final, devastating two-tag point.

Many of our church members have not said ‘yes’ to God. They have said ‘yes’ to religion. And this includes many music ministers, who are happier living an Adventist lifestyle than going through the agonising soul-searching that is the necessary provenance of all ministers. So it is the IDEA of God that they have accepted, as opposed to the reality. God has been re-made in our own image and we worship that.

Which begs the serious question: if they actually were to come face to face with the reality of God Himself, would they then actually say ‘yes?’ Or are music ministers building golden calves as they pander to the whims of the congregations, and then joining in the worship of those same golden calves that they have built?

All of this is why the world church has witnessed a 43% loss in our baptised members since 2000. Our worship services – along with our discipleship systems – are ineffective to the point of being dead in the water, never mind not ‘being fit for purpose.’ And that’s why Randy Skeete gets away with his little digs against music, and Mark Finley is negative about the role of music in evangelism…