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.

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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…

Part 1: A devastating conclusion for contemporary music ministry in UK Adventism

When the author of Ecclesiastes talked about the fact that much knowledge brings much grief (1:18), he was not talking about mere information (or data). He was talking about knowledge in the truest sense of the word – that of actual understanding.

The word ‘knowledge’ has become weak and underpowered. That’s why I have made this point in this way. But if you do actually look at the text for yourself, you will note that the author also says that with much wisdom comes much sorrow.

Now, given that the author of Ecclesiastes is also the author of Proverbs, then how come in Proverbs he personifies wisdom as being someone who cries in the streets, waiting to be pursued – the idea being that we really need to pursue wisdom as something necessary – whilst wearily declaring in Ecclesiastes that much wisdom brings much sorrow?

The contention of the blog post rests on the premise that if you are truly serving in ministry in any capacity, then you will eventually come face-to-face with this paradox for yourself. And if you are a true minister, then your heart IS GOING TO BE BROKEN at some point.

No-one has more power to break a person’s heart than someone close to them. And in church communities, this also applies. Jesus ended up marvelling at the faith of those outside the chosen people of God. He wept over the fact that He could not save His own, because they would not receive Him. But He did not allow them to determine who He was and how He was to live. They were not qualified to determine His ministry calling, and He found the necessary strength to love everyone without ever compromising the highest ideals of His own identity.

Today, I am waking up to the fact that God has taken a dream away from me – and one which I never really knew how much I cared about until I have had to face the fact that it is not what I have been called to do. The thing is: while God does actually thwart us in certain direct and explicit ways at times, on other occasions He simply facilitates the true realities and consequences of certain of our decisions in order for us to see for ourselves why what we thought was right and correct and the way forward is simply not how things were and are meant to turn out for us. This is especially true in every situation in which we have looked at what other people are doing in life and ministry and tried to model our own lives along what we see that we admire and that makes sense, given the context of our own lives and gifts.

I am a Seventh-Day Adventist living and working and practising my faith in the UK, and for many years I have dreamed of having the privilege of directing an Adventist choral group of my own that would work to a very high standard. I even dreamed of taking this group on mission trips where we would be heavily involved in various forms of evangelism by day, and we would sing by night (of course there was going to be some crossover, but that was the general idea and trajectory). Years have passed, and this dream is not only very far from being fulfilled, it has positively crashed and burnt. And as I now survey my music ministry output over the last decade, some patterns have emerged which, upon ruthless analysis, now mean that I have enough evidence to be sure of what I am saying in this blog post. These patterns could only be seen in hindsight – but now they are clear and indisputable.

British Adventism is hardly unique in the fact of its’ having great strengths and profound weaknesses. But the nature of both has meant that my aspirations are going to be extremely difficult to reach. I refer to British Adventism as ‘UK Blackventism’ because it remains the unfortunate truth that although there is nothing whatsoever in our ‘constitutional’ identity as a Bible-believing movement that stipulates this in any way, here in the UK the Seventh-Day Adventist Church has – to all extents and purposes – become a ‘black majority church’ even though we have nothing to do with the actual ‘Black Majority Church movement. If you are not black, you are both an ‘ethnic minority’ and an ‘endangered species’ in UK Adventism.

So ‘black music’ forms tend to be dominant in UK Adventist churches. However, there are other cultural communities who have a real interest in music, such as the growing number of Filipinos who have tended to be organised and focussed on various Western music forms – but also on their own terms (which are not necessarily those of the music itself). And there are also small conclaves of Anglo-European Adventists who have their own musical commitments and ideals.

But in the overwhelming majority of cases – regardless of where one is on the cultural/racial continuum, or on the musical aesthetic continuum – one truth is all-pervasive, namely: the fact that the word ‘good’ (and all related synonyms and superlatives) is (are) frequently used to describe musical performative actions that do not merit any such positive epithets. The most elementary of musicianship failings are rampant, and at times I wonder how it is possible that our congregations can continue to support music-makers who offer nothing spiritually or musically when they get up to perform – because the defensiveness of both congregations and music-makers themselves that is exhibited when one points out that what has been played and sung has failed to be coherently musical on any level is in fact frightening. It makes it impossible to know if and how this will ever change, because now the music-makers have become drunk on the approbation of the church members, and it is now more important to them that they hear words that tell them how good they are – as opposed to being motivated by actually being good.

It is like a person who would rather buy a certificate that says that they have a degree and then accept the plaudits that come from having such a degree instead of making the sacrifices to actually earn one honestly.

~

When the Son of God came to the earth and the time came for Him to begin His public ministry, he looked for twelve men who would say ‘yes.’ And they were not the most highly esteemed or highly vaunted of guys. They were ordinary. But in God, they did extraordinary things. But they had to say ‘yes’ to Jesus first.

In order for my dream to work, enough music ministers have to say ‘yes’ to God first before they can say ‘yes’ to any other character (of the human variety) who calls them to go on a mission. But if the praise of men matters more than the praise of God, then one has not said ‘yes’ to God (John 12:43). And this is where things get really intense. Get ready for what’s coming, those of you who have made it this far.

If you have settled for praise of the church members – too many of whom have reduced God to being a mere object of knowledge – then you have also reduced God to being less than who He really is.

If you make God less than He really is, then all sorts of other things will also be reduced by definition. This means that music – which is the work of God Himself, because it comes from no other source – is also going to be reduced. And for many people in churches, music is less than they are. They are bigger than music; they control it, they bend and manipulate it to their will.

So musical values – as expressed in that crucial word ‘musicianship’ are non-existent for such people – because they set the standard for music itself!

~

But music is like – but not the same as – language. Language is something that we have found ourselves with as human beings, but we have no power to give ourselves life. We can take the life of another more easily than we can ever give life to another – and even that God has to permit. We cannot ensure that if we try to produce a new human being through sexual reproduction, that this will definitely happen. We have not been given that authority over life. We do not have that power.

We can invent new language frameworks, but we are not the authors of the actual capacity for language itself – and language is impossible without cognition. But neuroscience at least has the brain to work with. Psychology has the mind, and as no-one has ever seen a mind in any tangible form, we are now fully in the realm of the speculative here as far as strict empiricism is concerned. And yet, more people believe in the existence of mind itself than in the existence of God Himself.

All these things are bigger than us, which in turn means that a phenomenon like music is also bigger than any human being. We discovered it; we did not invent it. But if the actual content of our thinking means that we are mentally on-it enough to know that music cannot be smaller than us, but we effectively operate as if it is smaller than us, then we are deceived by our own weak constructions whilst actually daring to think that our music brings glory to a holy God!

Satan does not even have to send some demons to send deceptive thoughts into our psyches. We’re capable of sending ourselves down the road to spiritual ruin all by ourselves. So when his demons do turn up, they finish the job. And only divine intervention can change that.

~

I know the extent of what God has done for me, and I cannot accept the level of musical praise that so many Adventists have settled for. My recent efforts to try and put an all-Adventist group together have ended in failure. My recent efforts to try and work with all-Christian ensembles (i.e. interdenominational ensembles) have also failed. Others are doing this kind of thing, but it has not worked for me and God knows why. But if I have been called to share faith in music and express faith in music to the highest standard of my ability, then I must now find the best musicians and singers that I can find who are willing to work with me and give God some musical praise that is honestly musical. Whatever their own backgrounds, if they are willing, then we ride together. As leaders, we can only work with those who say ‘yes.’ And if the depth of a secular person’s ‘yes’ to (sacred) music is exponentially greater than the depth of a Christian’s (Adventists included) ‘yes’ to God, then I am taking the secular person every single time from this day forward.

Jesus’ own people broke His heart. Even His own disciples broke His heart. But He did not let them stop His quest to fulfil his destiny. I have allowed others to do this to me, and today marks a new era in my life. I still hope to have a real opportunity to make some sort of serious impact on the thinking of Seventh-Day Adventist music ministers. And I am sure that God will open one or two doors in the future. But my daily standard of music-making needs to go up 300% with immediate effect and then keep going onwards and upwards with the level of consistency that is so necessary for true artistic and spiritual excellence.

So whoever you are and wherever you come from, I will see you at the heavy level if that is where you have been called to be. Bach, Mozart, Stravinsky, Ellington, Coltrane, Kirk, Donnie and Fred – we’re just getting started…

 

 

A response to Christian Berdahl; #1 – Syncopation (Part Three)

Okay, okay, so before you say anything, I am holding my hands up and apologising for the stupendous length of time that has elapsed since our last conversation…

Theomusicologist!!!!

Okay, I really want to know if there is a specific reason why you disappeared on our conversation – is there?

What a good question…yes, there is, as it happens. Great, I’m listening! Okay it’s like this: have you seen how many people in my church – the Seventh-Day Adventist Church – conduct their debates on music? Er…yes, I can’t say I’m unaware. You’ve got loads of people in your church who have their opinions and they are all experts. Every last one. University professors. Grammy Award winners. No-one is telling them ANYTHING. As it happens, we’ve got the same thing going on in my church too!

What a world, huh?! Say that again, brother! But look, get to the point, will you?! Okay okay, sorry! So this is it: I kind of went through a stage where I really questioned the very point of this whole public conversation. I enjoy talking with you as you know, but I was not sure that there was any point in continuing on this particular subject. And a big part of the reason why is that I reached a level of total frustration with people in my church. It seems as if the overwhelming majority of people in my sphere of existence who really and truly have an issue with syncopation are members of my church. This does not mean that there are no other people from other denominations who have issues with syncopation – but not to the same extent that appears to be the case in my church due to certain very high-profile speakers who have spoken out against it. Sure, with Christian Berdahl being a particularly obvious example right now… Uh-huh. But for so many other people, how it could be the case that we spend this long talking about syncopation is just crazy. And as many people will not even manage to stay in the conversation with us long enough to really get why this whole anti-syncopation thing is a very big problem, I had felt that if – by and large – the only people who need persuading on this matter are SDAs whose views are already fixed, then I can write that off as a complete waste of time. But as it is, I can see that I need to see this one through with you and anyone else who makes it with us. People have been encouraging – and the levels of sincerity and ignorance are just the kind of thing that get us ministry-types going – so I’m back!

Okay, thanks for sharing that. I’m glad, because I am genuinely interested in your views on this subject; as you say, it’s about more than just this one issue.

Absolutely. And I fear that this will be a shorter conversational installment, but there is a very important thing that I knew I needed to share with you asap. Sounds serious! It is. It really is.

You know that it is a sore spot with me that much of my thought-life has been better shared with non-Adventists than Adventists. But you also know that I’m not about to leave my church. Christian Berdahl’s specific statements have brought out the fire-breathing dragon in me, and I can see that this very systematic way that I have been looking to take apart his whole thesis on this has been pretty heavy-handed.

Hmm. I’ve not thought that – but it is true that I have gotten used to you over more years than we both care to think about. I know you. I know your style. We can joke about it, even. But as I think about it, sure, some of our mutual friends still find you intimidating, even when you say nothing and smile and just be really friendly. They sense that you’re holding back. We’ve managed to get along from the get-go and that’s ’cause we were both committed to that. Um, you mean present tense, yeah? Duh. Obviously that is STILL the case, or we’d not be having this conversation, you crazy, over-analysing gimp! Okay, okay, sorry! Accepted. So as I was saying before someone interrupted me…seriously now, has someone been talking to you about all this and how it comes across?

This is why we’re friends…yes indeed. Okay Theomusicologist. Well, I do make allowances for you that I don’t make for everybody. I see what you’re saying. And I know a bit about where you are coming from. Christian Berdahl may have made some huge academic howitzers but he is still a member of your church and you are not partisan in these matters – you work on the principle, regardless of the affiliations of the person in your gunsights (to use one of your expressions!) That’s one reason why I respect you as I do. But you now think that by slating him in this way it does not help the cause of your church?

Couldn’t put it better myself. I’ve basically laid into his statement and the thinking around it like he is a serious bad guy. I have to hold my hands up and say that as a ministry practitioner, I think I would rather have taken a kinder approach to pointing out the errors in his thought. I’ve been very sincere and very focussed and tried to spread it all out and not just bash him hard. But I believe that I can be gentler in this critique, and I want for my whole approach to just be a bit gentler when we pick this up next. I’m beginning to realise that my forensic critique of all manner of things makes the process of being around me more intense than may be ideal (at times!).

Theomusicologist, I am with you all the way. I’ve watched you grow over the years from the firebrand-in-your-face intellectual combatant who has verbally beaten up anyone in your way to a guy who wants to do good for God in whom you believe with the gifts He has given you. I know you. Not everyone knows you. And yeah, I am glad I’m not you, because the more I learn and grow, the more I see how big ministry is – for all of us. You’ve got a tough, tough job, but we serve an amazing God. He’s got you and He’s got this. Okay, so you’ll let me know when next, okay?

Deal. And thank you.

What are friends for? I’ll see you later. Get some sleep!

A spiritual lesson from the life of a choral director

Recently, I have had cause to reflect on the ways in which my work as a choral director continues to shape my understanding of matters that are nothing to do with music or music-making. I have recently had a dfficult-but-necessary choir meeting with one of my choirs at which it emerged that many people were struggling with the way things had been going in recent rehearsals, and not liking nor understanding why I was choosing to rehearse the things that I was rehearsing in the way that I was rehearsing them, and now they had an opportunity to express their frustrations. To their credit, they took that opportunity.

At the heart of the many of the frustrations was the fact that I had been rehearsing small blocks of music in fine detail, but that the motivation to rehearse these blocks of music out of context of an actual piece of music was definitely having a negative effect. They did understand that there had to be some point to the ‘drilling’ but they were leaving rehearsals with a serious sense of non-fulfilment. And this was clearly not a good thing.

The message that came back from a variety of voices was that most members felt much more fulfilled when they had a piece of music sounding good. It was not that they were – and are – not up for some seriously hard work in rehearsal (had that been the case this choir could not even have begun to exist). This was and is a matter of musical ideology – what I want out of rehearsals and what they need out of our rehearsals are not the same thing.

A very tough test for an MD.

You see, I had a very specific aim for this year – 2013 – for this particular choir. My interest in fine-tuning actual repertoire was always going to take a back-seat to my specific aim of taking the entire choir on a serious musicianship journey whereby all of the singers became much, much stronger choral musicians in the mould of the music that we sing (which in the case of that group is almost entirely my arrangements and compositions) and that I would want for us to sing in future. I was not ever close to being a professional sportsman, but I did an awful lot of sport in high school and as seriously as I could. [Had I not lost so many opportunities due to games being played on the Sabbath who knows how much more I might have achieved? But that was never once an option.] And right across the sporting spectrum, and especially in team sports, one word would dominate at times:

SKILLS.

You try surviving in a serious game of football (soccer) while only using one foot. In simpler games, you can just play with your strong foot, but in games with better players who may well also be fitter, you will be closed down much more quickly and you need to be able to control, pass and even shoot with either foot. Try surviving on a basketball court with a limited range of passing and you will become your own millstone, because no-one will trust you with the ball, especially when under pressure defensively.

Also with basketball, team members know each others’ shooting range, so if you are not a reliable three-point shooter and you put yourself out in space where you would normally receive a pass for a long shot, your team-mates will think twice about making the open pass – because you’re not a proven quantity at that distance!

I did not want to spend more time fine-tuning pieces without working on the actual choral-musicianship skills of the choir. Each of them struggles with different things in different ways at different times. So pieces are learnt, drilled and refined, but skills don’t actually build. The choir’s ability to sing stuff collectively improves, but the individual musicianship profiles are not really building. And so if I do something surprising – say, a new warm-up drill, or some other choral exercise, if it has hard intervals, someone’s tuning is getting tested. If it has hard rhythms, someone’s rhythmic ability is being tested. And if it requires a certain ‘feel,’ someone else is trying to ‘think’ the placement rather than ‘feel’ it.

And these are just continuing all the time!

There is a serious point to be made here: this choir is a supreme embodiment of the principle that the total sum is greater than the parts. What they can achieve together is so much more than what any of them could ever do on their own. And we have appreciated this fact. But my desire for each of them is to become more. I’d love to see them overcome more and more of their own individual weaknesses so that the total sum becomes even more as the parts become more.

But if some of them would read this and say that they want this too, I would have to a) question that in and of itself, or b) question whether or not their capacity to espouse the ideal is actually based on a credible understanding of how such an ideal is to be achieved based on actual practical music-and-life realities. Skills are learnt, and applied. Skills are not learnt in the context of playing games. A sporting equivalent of the breakdown in comprehension would be along these lines – a women’s netball team decides that they want to be a better team. But the players don’t enjoy doing training exercises that much. They persevere with them because they know that it is supposed to be beneficial. But they really only enjoy the moments when they can actually play the game of netball in training.

The team may get better, but the lack of emotional commitment to the technical training part of the training sessions will immediately cap the level of prospective achievement. Even if the players don’t love those sessions, if they don’t engage with them with a serious level of personal commitment, they will not get out of those sessions what they would have done, and as such they become the stumbling block to their own development.

And the team will only ever go so far.

In the days that followed this meeting with the choir in question, a spiritual truth hit me like a hammerbolt.

God has his church, filled with those who claim to be his followers. Many Christians are trying very hard to be faithful Christians. They want to do stuff for God. They want to keep it real. They want to reach the world with the saving message of the gospel.

God is not as interested in how much stuff gets done by His followers as He is in them being better people – inside first, then outside. But we have learnt from society about how to think from the outside-in rather than the inside out – and so we are negotiating our understanding of how to better serve God by how our religious actions are perceived by others. God, however, wants us to be better people at the moments when no-one sees us. He wants us to be more.

This is just like this situation with me and this choir of mine. They are serious and committed and they want to do a seriously good job of singing my music as well as possible. And they even understand that I intend to write more serious music that will demand more of them. What they don’t really and truly understand is that I don’t just want them to learn how to sing the harder music collectively and fine-tune our older music that they love. I want them to be better musically so that I can write new and more challenging music that will not bully them into submission while they are in the process of learning it!

I want them to be more.

But they really and truly only want to be able to sing the music together as well as they can. They genuinely want the product, but they want to be more emotionally connected to the journey that will take them there. And so rather than connect to the bits of rehearsal that are not enjoyable, they want the fabric of the rehearsal process to be re-jigged.

There are so many more ramifications on a musical level, but I want to pause on that and join the spiritual dots here. The fact is that the harder music I want to write cannot be achieved this way, so I cannot write it for them. God wants to do more in and through us, but if we don’t want to instil greater spiritual discipline into our lives on a deeper, more fundamental level, then we limit His very ability to give us more!

How is it possible to limit an omnipotent and omnipresent God by virtue of our own choices? No wonder non-Christians think that we are crazy! But this is exactly how it is, and I’m not doing a big theological lecture to bang home the point. I’m going to trust that if you have read this far, then you have followed the flow of this post and grasped enough of what I am saying to get the point.

I’m not planning to give up on this choir, even though I am disappointed that they don’t want what I want. I live in the real world. Instead, I am going to put this to God and let Him direct my path on this. Even though the precise musical challenges that I know I need for me may not be for this particular choir, God has surprising ways of working and I am going to work hard to make the next few rehearsals as enjoyable as possible and let Him work in this situation. We may or may not survive beyond our next gig. Only God knows the future, and I refuse to speculate as to where this choral project will end up. I have too much other work to do!

And by the stripes, I am grateful for the lesson that I have learned and what that has done for my ministry understanding. Even in our disappointments, God continues to work salvation in our lives.

 

Is Controlled Worship Keeping Churches from Fulfilling the Great Commission?

‘Controlled Worship?’ Surely a contradiction in terms…!!!

Yes, it is. But at the same time, no, it really isn’t. Not in practical terms – i.e. how many worshipping communities organise themselves. This blog post has beaten me to the punch on a subject on which I have some very strong views, and so why not re-post this for others to read? The subject matter could not be more relevant, and the timing more appropriate. While I work on the next post on prayer, this can provide something for all of us to chew on…

Is Controlled Worship Keeping Churches from Fulfilling the Great Commission?.

A suggestion from Socrates…

Well, it is great to be back in the land of blog – the past few months have been quite insane, but God is good and I am still alive and breathing. This post is written for a very good friend who asked me a recent question on facebook in response to something I had written.

That ‘something’ was in fact a ‘status update’ that read thus:

Heads-up to all those serious about self-discovery: don’t start the journey if you’re not ready to live with the fact that you may not like some of what you discover…

I can tell you quite categorically that as we come towards the end of 2011, I am not the same human being who began the year. Well, on one hand I am. However, at the same time, I am not. I’m really not. And a major part of this has come about through circumstances allowed and indeed ordained by God Himself which have been expressly set up to bring me to the most serious position of self-awareness that I have ever possessed.

The price has been monstrous. I have a completely new level of sympathy for those who run away from self-discovery on a truly genuine level. But I would still not encourage anyone to do anything other than go on that journey for themselves.

It was with no small measure of déjà-vu that I came across this article from Scientific American recently; check it out for yourself:

We humans are introspective. We observe patterns of our own behavior and we have memories for review. So you probably think you know yourself pretty well, right?

Not so fast. In fact, others can have much more accurate impressions of us than we do. That’s according to a review article in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science.

The challenge in knowing oneself is that we have blind spots. These gaps are fueled by fears and an unconscious drive to maintain a particular self-image or self-worth. One study showed that even watching a recording of yourself that may be at odds with your self-perception does not change that self-perception. But others watching the same tape easily spot the inconsistency.

A 2010 study found that friends are significantly more accurate in judging traits like intelligence, talkativeness and creativity—traits that are observable and measurable. So when a friend says, “You know, you’re really smart,” it’s very possible that you really are smart.

What we can accurately gauge is our own levels of anxiety and self-esteem. So when giving a presentation, for instance, you’re probably much more aware of state of mind than your audience is. And speaking as a presenter, that’s a good thing to keep in mind.

—Christie Nicholson

Now, without question, there are huge questions that would need to be addressed before one could accept many of the statements in that mini-article as literal fact. But it certainly provokes some questions that one may not otherwise think of…and this is precisely where I am going. How well does anyone actually know themselves? More pointedly, how well do we know how well we know about anything at all? Let me break that down. Let’s say that my (imaginary) friend Rosie claims to know herself really well. How does she know this? How does she know that she really has gotten a true insight into herself and that her own perception of who she is does actually correspond with the ACTUAL reality of whom she really is?

Yes, the evidence does suggest that it is easier for us to figure other people out more easily than we can figure out ourselves. Therefore, for many people, it is now a ‘given’ that any given person does not know themselves as well as others do – because external people see us more ‘objectively’ than we see ourselves.  However, is it reasonable to make this a ‘given?’ Is it not also true that people make value-judgements about the character and make-up of other people’s personas based on their own experiences, presuppositions, biases and more? I certainly know what it is to be with people who refuse to accept my own serious and palpable enthusiasm for whatever it happened to be was in any way real – because they themselves could not muster any real kind of enthusiasm of that nature themselves for anything at all – and in imposing this on everyone else, they were somewhat cynical of the ‘realness’ of my own cynicism.

A few took on the challenge of exploring the vibe, and some have become great friends as a result. Others continue to think that I am a strange and not-good person. We cannot win with everyone!

So this is where this particularly well-known bit of advice from Socrates comes into its own: “know thyself.”

Earlier in my adult life, I was one of those people who spent vast amounts of time analysing, assessing and appraising other people’s characters. I became particularly good at this – but then what I did not realise was that I was unconsciously yet deliberately using this as a chief deflecting tactic to avoid the same ruthlessly clinical analysis of myself. It was not until I read the marvellously candid-yet-wonderfully-hopeful Confessions of a Pastor by Craig Goeschel (a book that I will soon be giving to a friend of mine who is a full-time pastor himself – I feel led to do that for him, much as I want to keep it for myself and I do now believe that God is behind this impulse) that I realised the simple truth that we judge others by their actions, but we judge ourselves by our intentions!

I spent my ENTIRE adult life doing that until I read that statement – and from that moment, my world turned upside down. Not that I always get everything correct and in sync first time round these days – but more that I no longer harbour the quiet complacency of my own state of being based on what I meant to do  – even if I didn’t actually do it. I now have no choice but to constantly assess the relationship between my intentions and my actions – and by the stripes, I do not come out well at all on more occasions than I am comfortable admitting even to myself in my most private moments.

[I have a funny feeling that this statement appears elsewhere in another blog post, but who cares?!]

This is where we’re going: as my levels of actual self-knowledge have gone up and up and up, I have found myself unable to find a place of rest where I can plateau out for a while. Everything that I could do to make my life easier without compromising my principles has simply not worked out. So when ‘easy life’ didn’t work out, I pursued ‘busyness’ instead – only to find myself with nothing to do – and I have since realised that I could have used that time to advance certain areas of my life – but hindsight is hind-sight for a reason! Any fool can be clever after the fact.

Had it not been for John Eldredge’s writings, I might have lost hope altogether – but God used those writings to keep a sense of balance within me – and far from being all-sufficient in themselves, they pointed me back to the Word. I had the strongest sense that I was being thwarted by a loving God who knew that my version of how things were supposed to work out in my life was not necessarily the best thing in the long run. One part of me fully accepted that. But another part of me could not handle the fact that I had no grasp on why things were happening as they were. And the internal conflict (and subsequent consequences) that this created is the worst thing that I have EVER experienced in my entire life. God has done some amazing things in 2011. But other things have been disastrous. Why would He allow some things to work out and not others?!?!?!?!?!?!?

The answer is both simple and yet devastating. Despite having achieved a quite astounding level of self-knowledge, I still did not know enough about certain aspects of myself to be able to continue growing into WHO God wants and needs me to be for my soul’s salvation – and this before we get to the not-so-small matter of the work He has called me to do in Christian ministry. Every family has its problems, but not all problems are equal. Mine is uniquely complicated, and includes a vast number of children who were not all born into positive circumstances. One example: the extent of the irresponsible sexual behaviour on the part of certain of my progenitors has had a monumental impact on the lives of my parents’ generations, on my own generation and (if the current evidence is anything to go by) will continue to impact upon the subsequent generations that will follow. In the widest sense of the word, both my father’s family and my mother’s family have massive dysfunctions. Both families have one abiding common denominator – folk think with their emotions more than with their minds – with the result being that the cognitive damage suffered by MANY members of my family is quite extraordinary. Yes indeed – for those of you who really have not known that the emotional choices we make actually impact our overall cognitive functional abilities over time – so it really is the case that the more emotionally indisciplined we are, the more we hurt our ability to think properly in general! This is a massive concept – go look for Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Golem if you have never encountered it before (and even if you have – but have not yet managed to read about it for your own self).

Right across my family spectrum, genuinely rational thought is at a real premium. So this begs the question – what makes any of us think that we are more rational than anyone else?

And what qualifies me to comment on other people’s inability to think coherently and rationally – whether in my family or not?

Well, anyone is free to draw his or her own conclusions about my sanity or reason. I have spent 2011 wondering why I seem to be so strong in my understanding of certain things and so weak in others. And as I look at my wider family and shake my head in bewilderment at various things, I do wonder why I am not more like them…

…oh, wait up just one second –

– actually, I really am like my family, but God has facilitated numerous circumstances that have enabled me to learn, process, think and analyse very differently to virtually all of my (many) relatives. He has also shoehorned me into corners to test my faith and force me to learn to pray different prayers – real prayers, as opposed to earnest academic prayers that are so theologically careful that I end up not relating to God as a Father but as a theology tutor in whose good books I desperately want to be.

I am not fundamentally different to my family at all. But my LIFE has been fundamentally different to both the members of my nuclear family and my wider family. Moreover, my education and experiences have taught me things that even my parents have had no way to learn and know. That is what helps me to see certain things. I am not some wonderfully ‘on-it’ individual who has transcended the limitations of birth, circumstances and culture – I am a peculiar person who has been led on a unique journey by God Himself to learn two things: a) who God really is; b) who I really am.

Discovering the weaknesses in my parents and other older relatives was much more fun when I did not realise that their weaknesses were actually mine too. Some of you readers may not accept that and I won’t fight you, but I stand by that last sentence. Yes, your grandparents may have been racist and you may not be – but is that because you ARE fundamentally different, or because you have LEARNED differently? The two things are not the same!

Discovering the weaknesses in my friends was also more fun until I realised that those who you spend time with, you become like. Now, some of us may have been exceptions to this rule – but even so, we may have taken more of what we didn’t want to take from our friends and associates than we have ever realised. Just because you are not ‘easily led’ in any obvious sense does not mean that you are immune from peer pressure. Many people who become popular and respected for their independence of mind and being end up having to work so hard to maintain the things that gave them that increased social cachet that they are no longer truly independent – unless they stick with being real, in which case they may yet lose the status they once had if their views and behaviour are no longer what others choose to find socially admirable. So who chooses ‘being real’ over ‘being respected?’

The gospel message saved both of my parents, but the gospel is not merely one of many ‘lifestyle choices.’ True, too many Christians do live as if that is all that it is, but it is more than that. I have always known this, but sometimes I want to fit in too. I get tired of walking on my own and I want to belong. And the price to ‘belong?’ My real self.

Ten years ago, in 2001, I nearly left the Christian faith and the Seventh-Day Adventist faith.

In 2011, I came the closest I could ever come to leaving since my experiences of 2001, but despite everything, God has kept me right here in this message. The gospel itself means more than ever before, and the message of the SDA church remains the pathway for me as a conservative Bible-believing Christian. And in knowing myself better, I am more rounded, more empathetic than ever before, more able to connect than ever before – in short, I am a radically superior human being to the one I was this time last year. God’s training regime is never what I would have chosen if I was in charge – but as I want to avoid pain like most of us – I would have gone soft on me. Of course I would. And I would be less as a result.

There are still battles to fight and mountains to climb, but because I have come through this year with my faith still in one piece, I know that the best is yet to come. Praise God, He is the one calling the shots.

So, bring on 2012 in JESUS’ NAME!