Music is not enough: a strange tale of three musicians

Twenty-one years ago, despite my having strong support from the Head of Keyboard and the Head of Woodwind, Brass and Percussion, I was rejected by the Director of Music for entry into the sixth form (this is two years before university here in the UK) at Chetham’s School of Music. The name of the man who rejected me? Michael Brewer – currently serving a custodial sentence for the sexual abuse of some of his former pupils and stripped of his OBE.

Imagine: I would have been one of his former pupils; one of his protegés. And my heart goes out to all the many excellent musicians who really and honestly thought that he was a good guy; those who were given opportunities to grow and develop and fulfil their potential as musicians under his guidance – and especially at Chets. As it is, Michael Brewer is only a part of my story in the sense that his belief that I was not good enough to be with the other pupils that were going into his sixth-form that year meant that I ended up going to another school that I might not ever have considered – and my life has been so much better because I went there instead. My development as a musician would have been very different if he had said ‘yes’ – exponentially more focussed – but God has called me to do more than just be a great musician. But at the same time, He has also called me to be the best musician that I can be.Which adds to the strangeness of this tale.

~

In 1998, I took my very first trip to New York City for the sole purpose of spending time checking out the jazz scene. And I had the privilege of meeting a great number of my heroes in the music. One of them was the great piano player Kenny Kirkland – and I had no idea that four months later the ‘Doctone’ would be dead. It was not an overdose. It was not suicide. It was a complex physiological breakdown with heart failure at the centre. And this breakdown was due to the fact that he was a serious drug user – one who had refused medical attention despite the earnest entreaties of those closest to him in the music.

When he died, I went into mourning. And the hardest truth for me to accept was this: the music was not enough. The music was not enough. Despite having the level of artistry that feeds both heart and mind, he still needed dope, and did not see that he could ever be free.

~

Fifteen years later, the third musician of this strange tale took her own life after testifying against Michael Brewer. Her name: Frances Andrade, and she was by all accounts an amazing violin player. Raw and untutored, Brewer said ‘yes’ to her and his decision was vindicated. But it was not enough for him to be a teacher and mentor. He saw something in this girl that pushed buttons within him, and despite being married – and she being below age – and vulnerable in many ways due to the difficulties of her own earlier childhood – he followed his lust-fuelled sexual gratification and took the most precious gift a girl has – her feminine innocence – and gave her a tawdry substitute for affirmation and love.

For Michael Brewer, music was also not enough.

But for Frances Andrade, despite becoming a wife and mother of four children, and doing wonderful things as a violinist, playing amazing music with amazing musicians, the scars that were caused by the abuse inflicted upon her by Michael Brewer were just too much. But one of the worst things about her sad story (as far as I am concerned) is this: although she took her life two years ago, an investigation has shown that (yet again) the mental health services failed someone vulnerable and that her suicide was eminently preventable.

But as more and more people learn more and more about the healing propensities of music, the question can now be asked: surely, there would have been something therapeutic about being involved in such an amazingly emotive  – and spiritual – activity such as music?

Frances Andrade is dead – 35 years after she entered Chets thanks to Michael Brewer. She was two years short of her 50th birthday and now a family has lost its wife and mother.

Music was not enough to tame the savage passions of Frances’ abuser.

Music was not enough to heal and sustain Frances herself. It was not enough to keep her emotionally – and mentally. It was not enough to overcome the horrors of what she experienced. In my case, I was a 15-year-old who was not as advanced as pupils of that same age at Chets, and Michael Brewer said ‘no.’ For Frances, she was a 13-year-old who was not as advanced as pupils of that same age at Chets. Michael Brewer said ‘yes.’

Frances Andrade may well have been exponentially more talented than myself. I’m not getting into that. But I can only wonder – if Michael Brewer had said ‘no’ might she still have been alive today? Her gift for music opened a door for her. Michael Brewer – faced with the same type of decision that he had to make for me – gave her the gift of entering a music institution which recognised her talent and let her shine. But he took something essential away from her, and all those years later, even as she faced him in court, even if she embellished some aspects of how this abuse took place, the fact is that walking into Chets may have been the worst thing that ever happened to her. Without Chets, she may never have learned the Sibelius Violin Concerto or Ravel’s Tzigane. She may never have known that she could have been that good. But she may still have been alive.

Music was not enough to keep Kenny Kirkland away from drugs. It was not enough to live for. He refused to get help. Death came as a release. Whatever was in him, he was at his best playing the music. Only then was he free. But that ‘freedom’ was not enough.

~

I didn’t go to Chets. I didn’t get that musical education that I craved. And even after all these years, I have certain musical weaknesses that would not exist if I had been able to build a more solid foundation in terms of music education when I was still of school age. These days, I conduct the very music that Michael Brewer never thought I would, and for a long time I thought that I would give up jazz forever. As a result, I still have some unfulfilled business as a jazz pianist. I listen to Kenny Kirkland and realise how much work there is to do. If I live another decade, I will have lived longer than he did. But while he could never be a role model for young musicians as a wider human being, his essential faithfulness to his craft remains a rebuke to many of us jazz musicians.

I don’t have the baggage of Class A drug addictions. I don’t have the baggage of having had a patron and mentor who turned out to be such a terrible human being. But I know that not all of those who have been good to me have done right by other people in their lives. I have made many mistakes in my own life. God knows. Musicians know. People know. But for all the problems, there has been so much positivity and so much joy. And yes – success too, if not in ways that everyone would understand.

~

The most important lesson I have learned is that the music is not enough. BUT – the greatness of the God who has saved me from each of the fates that have befallen the three musicians in this story now means that I must leave no stone unturned to become the best musician that I can be – in the context of being the best version of me that I can be. That is the greatest ‘thank you’ present that I can give to God, and that He gets to be part of making it happen is even more special.

God will do that for you too – if you will let Him…

The final response to Christian Berdahl – on everything

So!

Theomusicologist, you do realise that I’ve been waiting for the LONGEST while for you to pick this unfinished business up – but when we spoke on the phone, you said that this might not end how we’d both expected. Care to fill me in? Hang on, let me guess…

…is this by any chance along the lines of: you’re no longer sure what the point of this exchange actually is? Because I’ve come to wonder that myself…so if I’m wrong…

…wow.

Wow.

God is good!

Why do you say that?

Because you’re right!

Really?!

Absolutely.

So…can I get this in your words instead of mine? Sure. You have been – and will continue to be – a good friend and conversation partner. And you know that I have NEVER once tried to tell you what you are supposed to think for yourself. This is indeed true. Of course, I have expressed certain viewpoints very forcefully…

…that’s one way of putting it…

…but in the end, everyone is supposed to weigh evidence and think for themselves.

Sure.

Something has happened in our church that has caused me to realise that this type of explanatory endeavour is in many ways a complete waste of time. What exactly do you mean? Well, you know that we have been debating this whole business of women’s ordination for the last several years.

Uh-huh.

I have heard on outstanding authority that in the end, no-one on either side has changed their mind on the subject.

What does that mean?

Well, I could offer all sorts of answers to that question, almost all of which would make me deeply unpopular with most Adventists…

…since when has that ever stopped you, Theomusicologist?!

*wry smile* I own that, but this is the point: Jesus is coming soon, and we are unquestionably the remnant church of Bible prophecy. The biggest way in which I know this is that we have no biblically-grounded and fully codified theology of music and of worship. We have no worship concept as a church. And for nearly ten years I have been hoping to make a difference in this area of our church life, but in the short term, there is no point in trying to begin a revolution of thought when actual thought has essentially died in many of our churches. Now, before you say anything, I know that this doesn’t sound like I’m going soft, but I honestly tell you that this is a soft answer, and I’m now going to tell you how this applies to the ideas and concepts of our good friend Christian Berdahl.

Okay!

Have you heard the saying:

“A man convinced against his will

Is of the same opinion still?”

No, I can’t say that I have, but I understand it, of course.

Of course.

Wait… Go on! Well…what you’re saying is that no amount of argument will convince anyone who has made up their minds that whatever Christian Berdahl says is right that they are wrong and that he’s wrong – so there is no point in trying to make that point any more. Have I got it?!

Hole in one, my friend. The only people who are going to make a song and dance about this are Seventh-Day Adventists who have such a screwed, uneducated, weak, powerless, ignorant, confused and spellbindlingly naïve concept of the phenomenon of music that nothing and no-one except the Triune God Himself could change their minds, and with some, I think even He would struggle. The institutional myopia, the cultural blindness, the historical ignorance, the musicological bankruptcy – it’s too much to fight all that. Folks who have decided that all syncopation is the work of the devil, and who insist that true worship must look, sound and smell like only what they know have no real idea of what early pioneer worship looked like (EGW has some amazing testimonies), and no real idea how diversity and unity can co-exist in the Spirit without compromise. The biggest shouters against music are not the ones who have studied the subject thoroughly. They are ALL musicological laymen.

Hang on…are you saying that ONLY those with a college or university degree are qualified to talk about music?

So glad you asked. Not at all. Think about all the most effective speakers we have who are untrained. Is there evidence that they have done some hard reading and studying? Yes. And the Holy Spirit has helped them. But watch this: David Asscherick, no less, has come to a position on music that contravenes the standard ‘conservative’ position on music, and folks don’t know what to do with that. The very fact that a rumour has started that GYC won’t ask him back tells us that regardless of the truth of the rumour, there is no security in the notion that a person’s thought can evolve to something outside the archetypal Adventist party line and that there is still room for a diversity of opinion on an issue such as music when on the most important doctrinal questions we have no reason to doubt his commitment to this cause.

Wow…so you’re saying that despite a lack of a formally grounded theology on music, there is still an unwritten position that – if you don’t espouse – you might never be viewed favourably in certain high-up circles in our church?!

Another hole-in-one. You see, there is a whole massive literature on the phenomenon of music. There are so many disciplines in music it is crazy. Here’s a quick list:

  • Musicology (historical)
  • Musicology (critical)
  • Ethnomusicology
  • Music philosophy
  • Music psychology
  • Performance Studies (academic)
  • Music Performance (practical)

I didn’t realise that music could be studied in such an extensive way…what’s the difference between the those last two? How can ‘performance studies’ be academic?

So glad you asked that too. You know, there is a whole academic sub-discipline that looks very critically and very analytically into the metaphysical dimensions of musical performance – but that is not the same thing as learning how to play and sing to a very high standard – which we call ‘music performance.’

And how many of these have you studied, Theomusicologist?! Don’t say all of them…

…erm…

….okay, really?!

…yes, really. Each one of those disciplines is something that I have learned about and invested time into understanding. And that’s exactly why – as a theologically conservative Seventh-Day Adventist – I now spend my time triangulating between classical music, gospel music and jazz.

Yeah…and I know that you’ve tried to say very little about that in church, but can you just summarise for me how that works in your spiritual life?

Gladly. As I’ve said elsewhere, I regard jazz as the greatest creative challenge in all of Western music, and because of that it is a monumentally spiritual challenge. Creativity is one of the ways in which we know that we are made in the image of God, so as divine gifts go, that one has a huge threshold of responsibility. And the sad truth is that of late I have returned to certain forms of secular jazz for no other reason than the fact that these musicians and this music has more integrity than nearly everything we do in church. No-one wants to change. We keep the status quo. But most of what I play is sacred jazz, and that is a phenomenal blessing.

So what about gospel music? Is that not creative?! Yikes. It can be, but the biggest issue with gospel is that it has become all about ‘celebration’ and weak paradigms of praise. And the weak ways that gospel singers and instrumentalists try to appropriate jazz is frankly appalling – but that’s ignorance, and it remains bliss. The harmonies are frequently trite, clichéd and conceptually surface-level – and that’s why secular people love gospel music – especially commercial gospel – because too often, it offers no true sustained spiritual challenge to an unbeliever.

WOW!

So the gospel I do is questioned by some inside and outside the church, because it’s not ‘American’ enough or ‘loose’ enough or ‘hearfelt’ enough. I love this music, but I hate what it has become for too many people. I do gospel music my way and leave others to do what they do. I believe that God is as much a God of the groove as He is the good of non-syncopated beats. The devil did NOT invent music and there is NO beat or rhythm that belongs to him alone. Now, that doesn’t mean that I’d bring trance or trip-hop into church, but won’t be afraid of syncopation either. If I told you that there were studies that showed the power of drum therapy, you might be shocked – but no amount of serious empirical research in auditory perception that proved that syncopation could actually have a healing effect on the emotions at certain times would ever be enough for Christian Berdahl and his followers. Ivor Myers and Dwayne Lemon and lots and lots of others have also gone south on this matter, but they preach other things very well indeed, and I am determined to see the big picture and not get bent out of shape.

Sure! And classical music?

Well, what would you say if I told you that jazz was a classical form?! Don’t answer that – classical music is the greatest intellectual challenge in Western music. And it has wonderful abilities to heal in more ways than I could express. I love Bach, Handel, Brahms, Bruckner, Stravinsky and Messaien – but I can tell you that at certain moments when my faith is weak, I need Fred Hammond and Donnie McClurkin. And when I’m confused and nothing makes sense – jazz helps me put the pieces back together. And when I need to knit my mind together, classical music is the one. They ALL play a part in my ongoing sanity and spirituality.

I…I need to go away and think about all of that…

I understand. For a good Adventist brother, that’s just too much…

…I didn’t say that…

…true, my bad, sorry. What I meant is…

…I know what you meant. And I understand. I understand. And I get enough to totally agree with you that no-one who has made up their mind on this subject is going to let anyone change it easily. But are you going to continue to work in music and theology?!

You had better believe it. But as the SDA church in the UK has largely rejected what I would offer, this blog is now the main forum for my work in the theology of music and worship. And I’m planning a book!

Really?!

Really. By the end of 2016, it will be finished. Watch this space!

Wow, that is going to be one explosive read… You betcha. But you know the most important thing about all this?

Tell me.

In the end, the music will tell its own story. It will tell listeners what you believe, and if you believe. And so I am leaving these public controversies along to spend more time on becoming a better musician – a better Levite – and a better human being and a more faithful Christian. And as philosophy grows in my life, so does my vision of God. I can’t tell others how to read, think, live or play their instruments unless I have the express authority to do so. But I can conduct, compose and play to a God-honouring standard, and use syncopation and abstruse harmony to the glory of the Triune God, without whom I would have no mind, no heart, and no hands.

Amen and amen!

Talent is NOT where it’s at…

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

~

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.

~

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.

~

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!

~

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.

~

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!

~

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.’

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…

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

So, Theomusicologist, you want us to talk about Christian Berdahl. Who exactly is he? Click here.

Why are you ‘responding’ to him? Because we come from the same church, share a commitment to both music and ministry, and yet the current evidence suggests that  it is impossible that we could ever be partners in ministry.

So what? Paul and Barnabas parted company because Paul didn’t want to give John Mark a second chance. Who says everyone in the same faith has to always be best buddies? Good point – but here’s the difference: we have no reason to presume that John Mark’s theology was anything other than on point, or else Barnabas would not have been going out to do mission with him. This was about character, not doctrine!

My issue with Christian Berdahl is not even theological. It is his ideology, his pseudo-musicology and the way that this affects his theology which concern me. He seems a perfectly nice human being and I like to think that his Christian sincerity really is just that.

Oh come on! Give me a break! That’s not very nice, is it? What qualifies you to criticise him, anyway? Well, this is not about criticism for the sake of it, my friend. This is about truth. Truth matters – Berdahl himself would say that. And he believes that he is propagating truth. I am coming out publically and saying that while some of what he teaches is nothing but the truth, some of what he wants you to believe really is not the truth and therefore should not be believed at all. This is objective, and both ‘academic’ as well as ‘ministry-centered.’ If you’re going to ask me what qualifies me to talk about this, I can show you my resume  – or CV if that’s more familiar. But this is not about academic apropos – this is about me exercising my right as a member of that same church to raise some very serious questions about that intellectual integrity of his output. So if you want to hear my side of this, you need to keep reading! 

Okay, fine. So what’s the problem? Oh wait: you said three things…you and these long words. [sigh] Guess we’d best go one at a time. Why did you use the word ‘ideology?’ Well, let me ask you a question: how familiar are you with the actual meaning of this word? Well…I know the word, of course, and I’ve heard it used and read it and stuff, and I’m pretty sure I could use it in a sentence, but…not sure I could, like, actually define it… OK great, thanks for being honest. It doesn’t always happen and it just hacks me off when folk pretend so as not to lose face! I’ll gladly explain.

An ideology is a set of ideas that constitute one’s goals, expectations, and actions. So, it is basically a comprehensive vision, a way of looking at things (as in a worldview), or as in several philosophical tendencies, or a set of ideas proposed by the dominant class of a society to all members of this society (a “received consciousness” or product of socialization).

Ideologies are systems of abstract thought applied to public matters and thus make this concept central to politics, religion, constructions of social behaviour… STOP right there. OK! I’m pretty sure I’m following you. Now before I get confused, link this to what you’re saying about Christian Berdahl. Sorry, yes, I switched into lecture mode, my bad! So this makes me think that I had better break my response to him down into smaller and more manageable chunks…

What, you mean there really is going to be more than one post responding to his ideas? Absolutely! Is that really necessary? Well, he has twelve hours of teaching on five DVDs which appear to be selling like fresh-out-of-oven-baked-confectionery-of-whatever-description, so as I don’t yet have a media setup which allows me to do that, I am very happy to set down some shorter written responses. 

Okay, okay. So… I see. Syncopation – that’s what you want to start with? It sure is! Okay, I’m listening.

There are several things that Christian Berdahl has said that have impugned his academic integrity on the subject of music – and in the context of Christian worship. But syncopation has been a ‘hot’ topic in the ‘worship wars’ across the denominational spectrum for years – and in my church, it continues to be a subject about which those who know the least pontificate the most (this is not limited to music…)!

Check out this video:

If you begin to watch from about 6:40 or thereabouts, things are getting interesting, and by 7:12 he’s just about to launch into one of the most jaw-dropping statements I heard at any point in the last calendar year!

Yes, yes, fine. That’s the build-up, got that…now please get to the point!! Okay – here’s what he said:

“Syncopation…all occult experts around the world agree…syncopation is the source of all occult power in pagan worship services.” 

Really?? Interesting – that’s exactly what the interview said when he heard that, too! So, what are you saying exactly? You disagree?

“Disagree” is both the right word and the wrong word. That word puts us onto the threshing-ground of subjective opinion. There is nothing in what statement which leads the hearer to think that he is offering an ‘opinion.’ He is telling us exactly how it is, and he expects to be taken seriously! So you’re now saying that this is not true? Are you accusing him of telling lies? Oh man, why do some people always assume that if a person accuses another person of speaking something other than the truth, that they are therefore accusing them of lying? Because that’s the opposite of telling the truth, innit? Er…no. Not that simple. To tell a lie presupposes actual intent to deceive. To be genuinely misinformed and speak an untruth is not necessarily driven by an intent to deceive. These are the types of over-simplistic folly that make it much harder to be credible in conversation, whoever you are and whatever you believe! 

I understand. So you would have us believe that Christian Berdahl has made an untruthful statement in this regard, but that he has not necessarily set out to deceive anyone? Yes, from a ‘legal’ standpoint you have expressed this correctly. BUT – this particular statement worries me more than usual. Why? Well…it’s like this: was it necessary to try that hard to convince the interviewer that ALL of the occult experts around the entire world agree on this point? What kind of research project would it take to be able to make that statement truthfully? How much research has he actually done on the subject? And in how many languages? Over how many years is he talking? What’s his definition of ‘occult?’ That word is less straightforward than many Christians like to think…

And then, what exactly is syncopation? How does that work? And in the context of the ‘Jesus Loves Me’ example, are  his use of the words ‘beat’ and ‘accent’ even technically correct?

Whoa. Okay, you are not here to play fun and games, are you? Not for a microsecond. And I will tell you why. Seven years ago, I attended some seminars by a gentleman called Brian Neumann. He stood up, told us that he had “studied these things…he knew” and almost everyone took him seriously. I was a graduate student in the anthropology of music at that time and I went and spoke to him. It was not a good exchange. I soon discovered that he had no formal qualifications in musicology or theology. 

That was not and is not a big deal in itself. What was a big deal was that he made a number of point-blank erroneous statements. The kind which no self-respecting student would allow themselves to make when presenting their ‘research’ to an audience. I tried to explain this to a few people in my church, but no-one listened. 

Since then, Brian Neumann has had to resign his ministry due to personal indiscretions. But he had already impugned his integrity by publically making statements that were not the truth, and insisting that he had ‘studied.’ We all make mistakes. Large and small. But why try to make out that you have studied more than you have?

Okay. Are you saying that you think that Christian Berdahl is doing the same kind of thing? Hole-in-one. I’m not  equating him to Brian Neumann, who is still a child of God and who I am told is on his way back spiritually (Praise God!), but I am saying that this is the same sort of vibe. Berdahl is a media professional with a gift for music who appears to have overstepped the bounds of his technical knowledge and now wants to propagate ideas which will not bear scrutiny. This time, I’m not going to let the ignorance and myopia of my church members get in the way of me making a public stand against these wrong ideas. But I can see that we had better halt this conversation and pick it up next time. How does that sound?

That sounds good. Okay, until next time. God bless! God bless you too!

Up above my head…

This post is in response to a previous request to elucidate on some comments I made regarding a song with the title of this post as the opening line – not just any old version of this wonderful African-American spiritual. And, even as I type these opening lines, I’m listening to this track and turning up the volume and getting excited – the praise going on here is in fact very serious. I’m talking about the Kirk Franklin and God’s Property version of this spiritual. I really need to arrange and direct a version of this track as soon as God wills, because I think we could do certain things chorally that would bring the spiritual message out even more strongly…

Let’s start with the lyrics:

Up above my head I hear music in the air
Up above my head there’s a melody so bright
And fair
I can hear when I’m all alone
Even in those times when I feel all hope is gone
Up above my head I hear joybells ringing
Up above my head I hear angels singing
There must be a God somewhere
There must be a God somewhere

I hear music in the air
I hear music everywhere
There must be a God somewhere

There must be a God somewhere
There must be a God somewhere
There must be a God somewhere

~

Martin Luther wrote:

“Whether you wish to comfort the sad, to terrify the happy, to encourage the despairing, to humble the proud, to calm the passionate, or to appease those full of hate — and who could number all these masters of the human heart, namely, the
emotions, inclinations, and affections that impel men to evil or good?—what more effective means than music could you find?”

Readers of the last post will recall having been introduced to Sir Colin Davis, the uber-renowned British conductor who is fast becoming a hero of mine, as he also seems to be for one of my own great teacher/mentors. He has some very serious things to say about the power of sacred music – he recently conducted one of the hardest pieces of classical music ever written, a major choral/orchestral work called Missa Solemnis by Beethoven  – that little-known composer who may or may not have written something called the Moonlight Sonata…

Now, if you are a honest church musician who has not really ever properly considered the effect that sacred music can have on those who do not confess that Jesus Christ is Lord – and that God exists – take a very good look at what Sir Colin has to say:

“That piece is a hell of a task: it’s so difficult for the orchestra to play and the chorus to sing that performing it is like failing to reach the top of Mount Everest. I think it’s one of the great statements of any time… At the end of the piece, in the final movement, the Agnus Dei, Christ has gone back to heaven, and Beethoven gives us this image of humanity left behind, crawling about in this mud, loaded with sin. The music is saying that humans cry for peace – and make war. That’s what Beethoven means. It’s absolutely clear. The music reaches an intensity of protest which is almost unbearable. And yet, there’s the power with which he sets the words: ‘Credo in unum deum!’ [I believe in one God!] You’d better believe him when he says it. And I do. I believe every word of the Missa because Beethoven makes it possible. But when I’m left alone, I can’t believe anything. So it’s even more poignant for me. But for that brief hour and a half when I’m conducting the piece, I do.”

Now, I had – and still have – the huge privilege of being able to come to the conducting table of European sacred music with a rather greater technical theological knowledge than most conductors. It was absolutely amazing to have had the opportunity to study this work even briefly as a conductor. I have found that many of the finest conductors do in fact get their theology confused and muddled at times (well, they are not Christians or theology students and not claiming to be), but their sincerity about getting the best interpretation that they can is in fact humbling. There is also the fact that Beethoven did indeed do some very, very unusual things in this particular piece – but I don’t want to be too distracted by those technicalities at present. It is the essence of what Davis is saying that matters right now –

– namely, that the spiritual power in this piece of music is so great that for the duration of it’s performance, he actually suspends disbelief in order to faithfully conduct the work. The Missa Solemnis is actually pointing him towards God!

So then: are we suggesting that only the very grandest music points to God? Is it only classical music from the proto-European vanguard that can bring people face-to-face with the idea that God really might just be real? Or can this happen with other music as well?

Liturgical musicologist Mary McGann writes the following:

“A Latino community singing cantos, accompanied by a conjunto or Mariachi ensemble; an Indian assembly singing bhajan to the accompaniment of a tabla and harmonium; a Vietnamese assembly chanting sacred texts and prayers in doc khin – an a capella form of chanting based on the tonal scale of the Vietnamese language. Each idiom is not only an acoustic/sonic tradition, but a carrier of social customs, or ritual expectations, of spirituality, and of cosmology.”

Now, that might be a little bit harder to unpack, but what she is saying is that each of these different religious music traditions is more than just a music tradition or style or genre – they are actually carriers of spirituality itself, and of spritual worldview!

So there are two massive implications for us:

  1. When we hear music, it really can and does point us towards a reality beyond itself. The question is: which spiritual reality are we being drawn towards? Music can make us feel so much and so deeply that we can be fooled into thinking that the sense of fervour aroused within us is the worship of the true and only God, when in fact we have only tapped into the inherent spirituality of the music itself! People can hear music and be drawn towards (and closer towards) God – but they can also be drawn towards (and closer towards) the enemy himself! But ultimately, the kind of music – be it vocal or instrumental – that actually truly lifts the spirits and brings peace to the soul and mind can only come from one side – the side of Truth – as in, the person, not the concept…
  2. Wouldn’t it be amazing if all true Christian believers made a firm commitment to never ever perform a piece of music other than as praise to God?! Whether secular or explicitly sacred, such a policy would have a huge impact on the choices we make as Christian musicians…

I know that I have experienced the positive truth of someone hearing my music and knowing something different about it – it pointed them to the truth. They HEARD it in my playing – no words – no Bible – no theology. Just the music itself carried the spiritual content that made two unbelievers think that there had to be a God somewhere. That was a moment which changed my life as a musician forever.

I didn’t do that. The Holy Spirit did. And now that I am in ministry, sitting in my house in this first phase of Sabbath, preparing to serve as Worship Pastor in my home church tomorrow, I am desperate to be filled with the Spirit so that everything that I do as a musician for the rest of my days on this earth will point someone to God. If Beethoven could explore faith in music to such an extent that an agnostic like Davis is intellectually persuaded by the music itself – even if only for the duration of the music in real-time performance – then it is possible – absolutely possible – for any seriously committed and well-trained Levite to sing, play, direct, conduct, compose and arrange music in such a way that folk will say…

THERE MUST BE A GOD SOMEWHERE!

Believe it.

That is the only reason I am in music – to offer the highest level of praise that I can to my God – and to share faith. Music means everything to me for one reason only – it has helped me to worship God in ways that transcend language, and through it I have learnt what it means to “make melody in my heart unto the Lord” (EGW). God has used music in a powerful way to help me on my spiritual journey and so I can only give it back to Him. It is the highest privilege a musician can have – to praise God in music.

~

I hear music in the air
I hear music everywhere
There must be a God somewhere

~

Music really is one of the ways in which we KNOW that there is a God. What are you going to say to Him today?

My greatest battle…

…is not against the forces of hell themselves.

And Satan himself, while the arch-enemy of souls, is not even my greatest enemy.

Now, a church-attending nay-sayer (who may or may not be a true Christian) may argue that anyone who could say what I just did cannot possibly be a Christian. Some might even call it heresy.

But before I respond to that, I need to bring the other strand of this post into the mix…

As both a Christian AND a musician, I face the same enemy. Enemy who is not the devil, that is. And if I am defeated by this enemy as a musician, I lose my effectiveness and my usefulness to that profession. If I am defeated by this enemy in my spiritual life, I lose my capacity to be someone truly worth knowing. And what is the point of being alive if one is not a human being worth knowing?

I propose to enlist the assistance of no less a person than Sir Colin Davis – one of the most outstanding conductors of this era – to help us understand the message of this post.

Earlier this year, the journalist Tom Service wrote: “Sitting in his north London home, surrounded by the accoutrements of a life at the heart of classical music – busts of Berlioz and Beethoven, a letter by Sibelius, a slew of scores on his table – Davis tells me he has spent a lifetime fighting a battle. Not against orchestras, managers, or musicians, but against his ego.”

Now, I’m a conducting graduate of a fairly prestigious institution in the English-speaking world, and I studied with some of the top conductors in the world (not only the UK) – including a three-time Grammy award winner. I’ve become much more involved in the world of professional classical music – as a prospective conductor – and this kind of admission is more common than many people might think. But – only behind closed doors! This is just not the kind of stuff that conductors tend to talk about in wide public forums! So this is not just another sound-bite from a highly-decorated musical public servant – this is a little ‘leftfield’- as contemporary parlance has it.

So, what has this got to do with anyone’s Christian journey?

Let’s now hear from A.W. Tozer (google him right now if you’ve no idea who he was):

“The reason why many are still troubled, still seeking, still making little forward progress is because they haven’t yet come to the end of themselves. We’re still trying to give orders, and interfering with God’s work within us. ”

This failure to “come to the end of [oneself]” sounds pretty similar to the idea of ‘battling one’s own ego” to me… Let’s hear from Sir Colin himself:

“One’s ego becomes less and less interesting as you get older, to oneself and to everyone else. I have been around it too long.

“The less ego you have, the more influence you have as a conductor. And the result is that you can concentrate on the only things that really matter: the music and the people who are playing it. You are of no account whatever. But if you can help people to feel free to play as well as they can, that’s as good as it gets.”

Davis is telling me that whether I get to his exalted level, or somewhere less high-flying, as a conductor, my role is HELP people to feel free to do the best job they can by the music – and that I (me, myself and I) am of ‘no account whatsoever.’

In conducting school I learnt many things – not least that while the best conductors worked incredibly hard to become the best conductors, they were not averse to a few ‘power trips’ every now and then. The very concept of a ‘self-effacing conductor’ was a real oxymoron until I began to work (as a student with some world-class conductors behind closed doors and discovered that they are actually really humble about what they can and can’t do, and what they do and don’t know. But, as I stated earlier – these things are ALWAYS said behind closed doors and NEVER admitted to singers or instrumentalists! So for Sir Colin to express himself in one of the most-read newspapers of our time thusly is very, very interesting to me.

So, if a world-renowned conductor – who is not in any way religious –  is able to admit that his greatest battle over the years has been with his own ego, how come more of those who claim to subscribe to a faith that requires the subjugation of self for a greater spiritual good don’t achieve anything close to this level of basic humility? Indeed, why do so many Christians, having ‘surrendered all’ soon find themselves wanting recognition for having been such a self-sacrificing Christian?

I know that deep in my own heart, I have struggled at times with the temptation to view myself as being more important than I am. This has taken both a positive and negative form. The first tends to surface at times when I experience success and victory in whatever arena – even the spiritual, where I could not have less excuse for forgetting that I did not deliver myself. The second seems to take the form of guilt and personal recrimination for things I have indeed done wrong. Far from being a sign of deep spirituality, the failure of any Christian to truly focus on Jesus as opposed to their own failings, frailties and foibles is in fact one of the subtlest forms of self-absorption that exists. This will keep people going round in circles for YEARS sometimes with no progress whatsoever…

Let’s look again at something Sir Colin said: “One’s ego becomes less and less interesting as you get older, to oneself and to everyone else. I have been around it too long.” Would to God that this were true of most of us, and especially those of us in ministry!

I desperately want to win the battle against my own ego – but not just so that I can succeed as a conductor – or, even more crucially, as a pastor. I want to win because I want to see God’s face one day. And Romans 7 makes it very clear what I am up against. Let’s look at this passage from The Message translation: “14-16….”I know that all God’s commands are spiritual, but I’m not. Isn’t this also your experience?” Yes. I’m full of myself—after all, I’ve spent a long time in sin’s prison. What I don’t understand about myself is that I decide one way, but then I act another, doing things I absolutely despise. So if I can’t be trusted to figure out what is best for myself and then do it, it becomes obvious that God’s command is necessary.”

The reason why I choose to make this point using the Message is because it is absolutely impossible to miss the point of the passage – one of Paul’s toughest, and one frequently butchered by well-and-not-so-well-meaning Christians. And the narrative continues below:

17-20But I need something more! For if I know the law but still can’t keep it, and if the power of sin within me keeps sabotaging my best intentions, I obviously need help! I realize that I don’t have what it takes. I can will it, but I can’t do it. I decide to do good, but I don’t really do it; I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway. My decisions, such as they are, don’t result in actions. Something has gone wrong deep within me and gets the better of me every time.

21-23It happens so regularly that it’s predictable. The moment I decide to do good, sin is there to trip me up. I truly delight in God’s commands, but it’s pretty obvious that not all of me joins in that delight. Parts of me covertly rebel, and just when I least expect it, they take charge.

Amazing. Madness. Insanity. Paul is telling us that it is possible to be fully sold out to God, and yet do things that one actively despises. Indeed, the Biblical picture of man is incredibly dark. Although the virtuous self has proved capable of great moral feats, a wicked self lurks within the shadows of the human heart. The prophet Jeremiah famously described the heart of man as being “desperately wicked.” As someone called Paul Thompson states, “Within every human being is the capacity for great good, but also an evil that is deceitful and riddled with selfishness.”

So my propensity to do something really good in music – or in ministry – and especially both – opens me up to a situation where I really fancy myself as being a bit special. As a secular person, this is not unwarranted. But as a Christian, this is absolutely unviable. And yet, this temptation to regard myself highly is more pressing and urgent than any of the sins ‘major or minor.’

So what is the answer to the curse of self? Let’s go back to the Romans 7:

24I’ve tried everything and nothing helps. I’m at the end of my rope. Is there no one who can do anything for me? Isn’t that the real question?

25The answer, thank God, is that Jesus Christ can and does. He acted to set things right in this life of contradictions where I want to serve God with all my heart and mind, but am pulled by the influence of sin to do something totally different.

I am personally SO grateful for the saving work of the Man Christ Jesus – who literally gave His life so that I would no longer be condemned to fight my own ego-driven flesh without hope for the duration of my time on the planet. Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me!