MM: An inviting invitation (musical settings of Matt 11:28-30)

[This is an installment in the sporadic Monday Music series which deals with topics related to Christian music.  Other, related posts may be found here.]

In mid-2016 and again in early 2017, I was invited, in a manner of speaking, to reconsider an invitation from Jesus’ own lips, as recorded in Matthew 11:28-30.

Even if it didn’t possess an intrinsically openhearted quality, this passage would stand out because it has been memorized a lot.  It was also “my” passage to recite during my college chorus’s scripture-and-hymns program, performed every evening while on tours.  At the time, despite my sometimes having to stutter out the initial plosive consonant on “Come to me,” I was complimented on my delivery and the perceived match of my vocal timbre with a preconceived idea of the Jesus behind the saying.  Now, however, I have negative associations with a couple of people from that time, and I definitely had a less mature understanding of the text back then, so it’s with mixed feelings that I recall the experience.

At some point, I became acquainted with the Leonard Burford song “Come Unto Me.”  The legally blind “Brother Burford” was director of the chorus at Abilene Christian College and had studied at Juilliard.  This song is available in only one of my hymnals.  I suppose it was sung in only a very few churches and would hardly be known now.  It is an inviting, near-choral-type setting and is of good technical quality (speaking musically and poetically), but it seems to excel in terms of musical form and harmony more than in communication of a text (and context).  Here is a sample:

Another setting, used several times a year in the church of my youth, was more accessible to large, untrained groups.  Both of these songs employ a good deal of repetition, but the latter is more approachable and singable.  The stanzas below, written for soprano-alto duet, are only indirectly related to the text.  The men’s voices enter emphatically at the chorus, which was the actual setting of the Matthew text.  This version, in my estimation, is somewhat better than the Burford one.  Given its era, the quasi-instrumental-accompaniment setting of the refrain here was effective.  The textual emphasis at primary cadence points (ends of lines 4 and 6) seems to be on “rest for the soul.”

It might even be supposed that the writers of many other “invitation” or “altar call” songs had Matthew 11:28 in the backs of their minds—loosely and implicitly if not explicitly.  I think here of the likes of “Come, Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy,” “Jesus Is Tenderly Calling You Home,” and “Softly and Tenderly Jesus Is Calling.”

Years transpired after my college choral days, and I became less interested in choral music.  Incidentally, I became increasingly averse to the whole churchy “invitation” thing during that time.  Nevertheless, in 1996, I wrote my own “Come To Me,” tied more directly and strictly to the passage—and specifically spurred by Gary Collier’s book The Forgotten Treasure:  Reading the Bible Like JesusA sketch history of this song goes something like this:

At what I might say was just the right time of my life, I read The Forgotten Treasure.  Bothered as I was by what I took as legalistic, un-grace-filled approaches to people within certain churches, I felt a deep impact from much of the book and keyed in on the middle of Matthew (including chapter 11), based on Gary’s emphases and structural suggestions.  Compelled, I wrote the song and shared it with the author of the book, having been in touch with him through a Bible discussion e-mail group.

A group called Lights, audiowhich I directed and sang with through the 1990s, was available to me, and I naturally went in the direction of a musical arrangement that played to that group’s strengths and resided in its comfort zones.  Lights ended up using the song in performances at youth events, church retreats, etc.  Lights made two recordings, and both recordings strike me now as acceptable, given what I had to work with, but dated.  A bass voice is heard on the solo, and my younger sister’s voice and mine are heard in countermelodic bursts in the final chorus of the recording stored here.  I am still pleased that the overall demeanor of the song is different from that of the run-of-the-mill, more churchy appeals the Matthew text with which I had been acquainted.  This song is more targeted, more insistent . . . and even the conclusion is a comparatively forceful invitation, with a half-cadence that suggests the Son of Man’s unending, energetic interest, not a namby-pamby “just lie down and go to sleep with gentle Jesus.”

I moved on from Lights, but I never forgot the song and still periodically turn to it for personal devotional use.

Last summer, a conference was held, organized in connection with the Institute for the Art of Biblical Conversation.  When the theme was announced as centering in Matthew’s gospel, an obvious opportunity arose to revisit my song that had also been based in that document, so I did just that.  It turned out to be the 20th anniversary for my “Come To Me.”  Having become largely disenchanted with the a cappella medium of the first version of the song (excerpt shown here)—and particularly with the accompaniment style I had used for the Lights performance group—I knew it was time to abandon that approach.  Few really sing that way anymore, and the group was perhaps even in a time warp during part of its history, too.  In trying to function within the niche-world of a cappella church music, Lights appealed to some but perhaps outlived our usefulness.  I digress.

Looking back, I’d say the song is conceptually and creatively among my 10 or 15 best.  (There were many others written during that decade—some, barely mediocre.)  Gary’s book had pointed me in a focused way to Matthew’s portrayal of Jesus, so I think the song carried an authentically scriptural, strong message.  Since 1996, my understanding of Matthew (and of texts in general, and the newly inbreaking reign of God, and more) have grown immeasurably.  Here are sections of the sheet music for the updated version of “Come To Me”:

A home recording of this version is here, for what it’s worth.  It might need to be downloaded before playing it, depending on your setup.   The pre-recorded keyboard part is 5-10% too fast, and my out-of-shape voice is found wanting.  (A more in-shape female solo voice would have been better on this song!)  This 2016 update incorporated several minor musical and lyrics changes—plus adding a bridge that solidifies and significantly strengthens the whole, I think:

Hear and learn from the Master.
Understand the reading of the Old and the New.
Go and follow the Master of mercy!
He brings the Kingdom into view!

A responsible interpretation of Matthew 11:28-30 must not merely take some poetic expressions and make them sound sweet in a song.  One ought to consider those words of “invitation” apart from the “altar call” or “invitation” dynamic in traditional congregation settings.  Further, one ought to pay attention to Matthew 11:28-30 within the striking contextual arrangement of Matthew’s gospel.  No song could succeed in every detail, but in pursuing such a biblical text contextually, in this way, what Matthew’s gospel says about the Master can become clearer.

Whatever its strength or weakness of this song, I hope that you are taken further, or maybe just a little differently, into Matthew’s riches and Jesus’ invitation.

In this time of year (4)

Worship words for Messiah Jesus on Sunday morning . . .

Jesus, Son of the Father

Verse 1:
We have been with Jesus, believing in His name,
And we have known His saving blood.  We refuse to be the same.

Verse 2:
Ancient words of kingdom spread—confirmed in wonders true.
Life’s Prince was raised Who once was dead—God’s Messiah, giv’n for you.

Verse 3:
Gathered here, devoting all at table, pray’r, and song.
We pledge to heed His loving call; to our LORD they’ll know we belong.

Chorus
Jesus, Son of the Father—risen, ascended, reigning at His right—
We are compelled in worshipping You, Lord.
You’re present both here and in eternal light.

Words and Music by Brian Casey
© 2011 Encounter Music

Lord of All

Lord of All, we come to You with our hearts and our voices.
Now we sing with one accord to the Lord of All.
Alleluia!  Alleluia!
Oh, sing to the Lord of All.


Words and Music by Brian Casey
© 2004 Encounter Music

Issues with literalism

Some literalism is a good thing, but I’m afraid my son is now in training for the ranks I unwittingly joined long ago—those or us who are often over-literal (and who are hindered in life because of the trait).

Image result for literal wordsThinking and hearing and reading over-literally can keep me from understanding things.  I’m not dealing here with the overuse of the word “literally” in common speech.  No, it’s more of a sometimes-exaggerated sense of what isolated words mean within a passage of text or in a spoken message.  In the middle of a conversation, my brain can get hung up on a word, trying to make sense out of it and wondering about its strict meaning . . . and going into an exploratory hermeneutical limbo while the unsuspecting person finishes her sentence.

When I read the redundant, presumably erroneous phrase “recapitalizing the operating capital,” I wonder if I need to adjust my literal understanding of at least one of the instances of the root “capital,” or perhaps the phrase wasn’t written well.  (And I miss the rest of the paragraph.)

I get stuck on the list of “principal parts” of Greek verbs, because I try to figure out what the parts are parts of, literally speaking.  (And I remain confused about, say, imperfect middle/passive vs. aorist middle, and pluperfect middle/passive.  [I know.  Who wouldn’t be confused?  But my comprehension issues can be partly related to over-literalism.])

I hear the prophetic phrase “every mountain will be brought low,” and I wonder just how the figure of speech might have been intended 3,000 years ago, and how it should be understood today.  Is it topographical mountains or conceptual ones?  Maybe both?  And what does it mean to be “brought low,” exactly?  A given interpretation might be more or less literal, and more or less related to mountain type.  (And I try not to worry too much, for many greater minds have read and understood prophecy in terribly different ways, to each other’s chagrin.)

I rather randomly turned to a page of scripture in a supposedly “literal” translation and found these phrases without even trying:

  • “deserting Him who called you” (not a physical desertion; and, except in Paul’s case, not likely an audible calling)
  • “beyond measure” (a phrase that expresses extreme actions, not literal measuring)
  • “advancing in Judaism” (a verb that suggests physical motion used with reference to some kind of conceptual progress)
  • “He who had set me apart, even from my mother’s womb, and called me through His grace” (I count four figurative expressions here—two actions and two prepositional phrases)

– Galatians 1, NASB

Literalism in scripture reading and interpretation can actually be a bad thing, although the phrase “take God at His word” is generally meant as a positive notion.  It is possible to read some expressions of scripture (and, verily, to understand common phrases spoken in daily life) quite figuratively, thinking all the while that one is reading literally.  Even the idea of taking words in the Bible “at face value” can be a smokescreen for taking them as some individual wants you to take them. 

It is often a particularly bad idea to take prophecy literally, but even phrases in the epistles and sections in ostensibly narrative texts can involve symbolism and figurative meanings.  Quite a few of scripture’s idiomatic expressions, if understood truly literally, would make an exegete bark up the wrong tree.  (See what I did there?)  Poetry appears in scripture, too (sometimes, right alongside historical narrative!); surely it is clear that poetically conceived words should not be confined to “literal” interpretation.  Ponder Peterson’s preface to poetry in prayer:

Poetry is language with used with personal intensity.  It is not, as so many suppose, decorative speech.  Poets tell us what our eyes, blurred with too much gawking, and our ears, dulled with too much chatter, miss around and within us.  Poets use words to drag us into the depth of reality itself.  They do it not by reporting on how life is, but by pushing-pulling us into the middle of it.  Poetry grabs for the jugular.  Far from being cosmetic language, it is intestinal.  It is root language.  Poetry doesn’t so much tell us something we never knew as bring into recognition what is latent, forgotten, overlooked, or suppressed.  The Psalms text is almost entirely in this kind of language.  Knowing this, we will not be looking here primarily for ideas about God, or for direction in moral conduct.  We will expect, rather, to find the experience of being human before God exposed and sharpened.

– Eugene Peterson, Answering God:  The Psalms as Tools for Prayer
(c) 1989 Harper & Row

I wish I had at hand a similarly provocative introductory piece on prophecy.  Failing that and staying with poetry, please consider a few songs with me.  These are examples of song lyrics that I once took literally and decided, at least for a while, that I could not conscientiously sing:

1.  “I know not when my Lord may come—at night or noonday fair, or if I’ll walk the vale with Him or meet Him in the air.”  – st. 4 of I Know Not Why God’s Wondrous Grace

Sometime in my twenties, I decided not to sing that stanza.  The either-or statement in the second half of the stanza appears to preclude the possibility of interpreting “vale” as “valley of the shadow of death (if one takes the grammar literally).  The only remaining possibility is allowing for the possibility of a millennial reign on earth, and that is not part of my eschatology.  These days, although I still don’t expect that kind of reign, I don’t really care how it eventually turns out for the good of those on God’s side, so I suppose I could go with a less literal approach to the song and sing along.  The thing is, I think I’ve missed the chance, because this song really isn’t sung much anymore.  I can still remember the strength of its chorus.  When discouragements run rampant, it’s a good one (and pretty literally taken from scripture, at that):

“I know Whom I have believed and am persuaded that He is able to keep that which I’ve committed unto Him against that day.” (2Tim 1:12)

2.  “Through this world of toils and snares, if I falter, Lord, who cares? ” – st. 3 from Just a Closer Walk With Thee

When my college chorus sang that song, I would confidently clam up during those words.  I wouldn’t sing them.  I felt quite justified in my literalism, but I was stupid (or, if you’re into showing grace, “stupid” could be paraphrased as “befuddled by college-aged, pseudo-spiritual passion”). 

As with pretty much everything, the idea in that verse is better interpreted in context (wait … what? context? like, it matters in songs as well as in scripture?).  The verse continues, “Who with me my burden shares?  None but Thee, dear Lord.”  I now think the entire verse means something like, “If I falter in this world, I won’t let it cloud my overall view that you are with me!”

Thinking that the expression “Lord, who cares?” should be taken literally is as dumb as thinking that Ps. 51:5¹ is proof of the Calvinists’ hallmark doctrine of total depravity.  Here is an excellent example of Peterson’s suggestion of “intestinal” import of language, of expressions that leave the “experience of being human before God exposed.”

It’s poetry, people, not literal doctrinal instruction.

3.  Farther Along (Tempted and Tried)

This one may not fit in the same category.  It wasn’t the same type of question of literalness that kept me from singing this song, really.  It was the whole idea of the song.  It just bothered me to be so whiny.  At some point I allowed myself to lead and sing only the final stanza and chorus—and that only after one of the darkest discouragements of my life—but I still didn’t want to whine through all the whiny stanzas.  The fourth sufficiently expressed the negatives of this life in perspective:

“When we see Jesus coming in glory, when He comes from His home in the sky, then we will meet Him in that bright mansion.  We’ll understand it all by and by.”

These days, I’m not so sure I wouldn’t heartily sing the whole song.  There have been many times since that I have been “made to wonder why it should be thus all the day long” and have dealt, on a pretty literal basis, with other questions the song raises.  At this point, despite the ostensibly bad attitude and the hick-ish musical style, I suppose the whole song is okay by me.

Maybe you think I’ve caved with respect to my later decisions on the above songs.  On the other hand, maybe I’ve succeeded, in these few cases, in not being an over-literal interpreter.


¹ Ps. 51:5:  Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me . . . (KJV)


For more on literalism and literal interpretation:

Literal instructions (1/30/10)

Do we really take it literally? (Leroy Garrett) (12/11/09)

Interpretations and ironies (B) (interpretation of prophecy—pretty heavy) (12/8/15)

Strike That:  A Take on “Battle Hymn of the Republic” in Hymnals (today!)

BONUS:  A fresh Logos Academic Blog writer on words, semantic range, context, and more.  This is not for the faint of heart, but it’s also entertaining, mixing Humpty Dumpty, Japanese missionary humor, linguistic instruction, and context.

Image result for literally

Blocked content

A Netflix history series caught our eye, and we watched nearly an entire episode, but I decided to quit because of issues related to narration style.

A Social Justice Week lecture by a nationally recognized speaker had much to offer, but I left in the middle—with acute ear pain.  Again, I had to quit because of peripheral issues.

For me, the sound of things can get in the way.  A lot.  Another way to say this is that the content of things can be blocked by side factors.

It can be difficult for me to concentrate on important material when there is a lot of hubbub.

The hum of a machine can drive me up a wall.

I have a tough time listening to voices that speak in grating tones (e.g., overly nasal, very scratchy-sounding, a lot of high overtones) or with monotone pitch, uninteresting declamation, halting/agitated bursts, or unvaried tempo.

At most contemporary-style churches, sound gets in the way for me, too:  maybe it’s bad sound, poorly mixed sound, or just way-too-loud sound (or all three).

When I play an instrument in a group, I sometimes choose to stop playing because of intonation issues.  When I’m distracted and it seems impossible to tune well with the sounds around me, it is better to stop than to add to the problem, I figure.

Various sound factors are distracting, and I can become almost claustrophobic (soniphobic?).  Above, I referred to the history series titled Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States.  I didn’t really even know who Oliver Stone was (still don’t know much), but he has a national reputation, which makes his terrible narration habits all the more surprising.  Someone should have taught him how to read aloud!  The narration is so sonically distracting to me that I have trouble concentrating on the information he’s relaying.  He routinely pauses between word-pairs  that are inherently connected:

  • a preposition and its object
  • a verb and its complement
  • an article and the word it attempts to specify
  • the “to” and the other component of an infinitive

90% of the time, he mispronounces “a” as “aye” (never correct) and “the” as “thee” (only correct when the next word begins with a vowel sound).  Arrgghh.  Here are sample extracts with intentional misspellings, forced punctuation, and line-ends that I hope will somehow visually demonstrate the sonic effect:

This went on in . . .

far greater proportion than has ever ||

been officially admitted.

 

Such was their pride:  many refused to || 

evacuate thee ||

city when given thee | 

chance….

 

Stalin now began thee | greatest forced evacuation in …

human history, evacuating some 10 million people to the | east of the || Ural Mountains in Central Asia and | 

Siberia and to thee | South and to |

Kazakhstan

… to rebuild thee | U.S.S.R in a second Industrial Revolution that matched that of thee |

1920s and 30s 

The transfer of thee || greatest part of thee |

Soviet economy was accomplished in two incredible years and by ||

1943, thee |

USSR was the equal of |

any industrial power in Europe.

If the problem wasn’t clear, it could be because you’re used to seeing PowerPoint slides poorly laid out, so try reading a few of the above lines aloud, observing the indicated breaks.  Oliver Stone’s hiccup-infused style blocked a lot of the content for me, raising my blood pressure a couple of points, because I was actually trying to learn something and couldn’t.

John Leonard Harris

Content can become obscured by other sound factors involved in transmission.  Just this afternoon, I intentionally cleared some time so I could go hear a speaker during the local college’s observance of Social Justice Week.  I figured I could use more education and personal connection around civil rights and just treatment of people of color in this country.  The lecture was free and student-organized, and those factors were plusses for me, too.  The speaker’s content turned out to be strong, and he certainly knew how to present, both dramatically and persuasively . . . but whoever was running (or not running) the sound mixer was asleep, deaf, or missing.  My eardrums were bursting, and I simply had to leave.  I could speculate that the rest of the (mostly younger) crowd was more polite or tolerant than I, and that may be true, but it’s equally likely that their ears are simply more damaged than mine since they’ve been using .mp3 players and earbuds since they were this high.  In this case, the sound didn’t entirely obscure the content, but it surely made it difficult to listen to.

Some of my problem with sound (and other peripherals) getting in my way, I’ve come to know, is that my ears are extra sensitive—because of (1) anatomy and (2) musical training.  I’m actually kind of tired of having non-central things get in the way of my experiences, but I can’t change the ear pain, and I wouldn’t trade being a musician for anything . . . so I think I’ll carry earplugs with me more often.  I wish the content weren’t blocked so often, but I can probably also work to become even more adept and comfortable with leaving sonic crime scenes when I need to.

B. Casey, Friday, 2/17/17

A lady and her songs

400.  It’s not a magic number, but when it refers to a collection of songs by a single person, it might just elicit a “wow.”

Almost four years ago, an acquaintance had been in touch with a mutually respected undergraduate music professor.  My parents regularly see the same man at church meetings, and the subject of the prior dialogue came up in conversation with him.  Within a couple of weeks I was in contact with Carole, a dear lady, and we began work on her musical creations together.

The backstory:  Carole Obrecht, born in 1935 in rural Indiana, now lives in Nebraska.  Now a widow, a few years ago, she was taken to the hospital with a serious illness (MRSA), and her children were told she had about two weeks to live.  She spent 43 days in the hospital, recovered, and was referred to as “a miracle patient.”  With a new lease on life, about a month later, she experienced a fountain of gratitude in her soul and began composing words and melodies—most of them in the broad category of congregational gospel songs.  Many times she has looked back in amazement at this burst of creativity.  For each song, Carole would eventually

  • type a lyrics sheet (in Word)
  • sing the melody into her computer’s microphone
  • (initially) use her keyboard to devise rudimentary harmony

By the time I got to know her, Carole had created more than 100 songs.  She needed someone to edit and notate them properly for potential church use and for posterity.  That’s where I came in.  It takes a certain complement of proficiency and experience to do this type of work.  I happen to be agile with music notation/engraving, I have some good software, and I know fairly well the kind of music Carole creates.  In the spring of 2013, I also had some extra time available, so Carole sent me a handful of songs, and I began work.  It soon became clear that I would not be able to use her keyboard work as a basis, so I would work out new harmony in all-vocal arrangements.

Carole and I worked with each other patiently (she, all of the time; and me, most of the time) in the early phases, trying to figure each other out.  Almost always by e-mail but periodically by phone, we would discuss this issue or that.  We worked through a standard template (the style, typeface, size of musical staffs, how to show her name, the copyright, my name, etc.).  I believe she still overestimates the limited value of filing her materials with the U.S. Copyright Office, but one of her goals is to make things easy to navigate for her children, should any issue arise, so it’s understandable that she would spend time and money on copyright filing.  Carole has been a perpetual model of consideration and grace in responding and thinking out loud with me, even when she doesn’t quite agree.

Behind the backstory:  When Carole and I began our partnership, I was deep into what I might call a disadvantaged phase of vocational life.  My musical creativity had begun to be squelched and constrained.  I have written more than 100 songs myself and have arranged many more than that, not to mention a sizable catalog of instrumental works, but I’ve had little inspiration to produce music in the last decade.  When one is discouraged, he needs something to do in order to feel useful, and a little extra money would be good, too, but how to negotiate. . . .  Although I had arranged for hire before, I had not engaged in any sort of ongoing relationship.  Carole and I easily reached an agreement under which I would be paid on a per-song basis.  Now that that was out of the way, we moved ahead with the substance.

The process:  I receive a dozen songs at a time, each song consisting in a .docx lyrics file and a .wma audio file.  These are the three phases of work on each creation:

  1. Melodic dictation—listening to Carole’s recorded voice and notating the melody (perhaps 20% of the time spent here)
  2. Harmonic arrangement—writing three underlying voice parts, arranging each song for congregational use (perhaps 50% of the time)
  3. Lyrics insertion—either retyping or reformatting and importing (30%)

carole-listWhen a sheet music draft is complete, I e-mail it to Carole, in the form of a .pdf file with an accompanying .mid sound file for her to listen to.  She will often note words or phrases she wants to change; seeing music and words on a page together can give her new eyes.  (At times, the changes can be extensive, and it’s back to the drawing board, but this is relatively rare.)  A typical song might require 75-90 minutes of initial work on my end, 2-3 e-mail exchanges, and 15-20 more minutes of editing work.  The final steps for each song are (1) my sending edited files (to the left is a group of the .pdf files) and (2) Carole e-mailing to confirm the files are received and saved on her end.

Carole had piano instruction as a young girl and also remembers vocalizing with her mother at the piano.  After childhood, Carole was not trained as a musician.  She hasn’t studied, for instance, any principles of melodic contour or the important balance between unity and variety (so, for example, some melodies are relatively predictable), but she produces some pretty good songs!  Most of them are tuneful and accessible to the average person.  During the process of notation, if I find a measure or two almost like the melody from two lines above, but not quite, I adjust the notes, and Carole is fine with this.  When a melody has too great a range or suggests a nonstandard harmonic progression, I often recommend a change, and most of the time, we move in that direction.  The style of many of the songs tends to reflect the generation in which Carole grew up and perhaps a halcyon sense of congregational singing that is on the decline, but the music is an expression of her genuine faith, and she trusts that the Lord will use the songs according to His pleasure.

A few challenges:  Carole’s voice is remarkably strong, so it’s rarely difficult to take melodic dictation on her tunes.  She has a wide range, but she sometimes starts a song too low for congregational soprano lines.  This doesn’t typically present much difficulty—I just transpose it up two or three steps—unless the melody ranges high as well.  Once in a while, she seems to meander a little, and I suspect such instability is attributable to her having had a cold at the time, or perhaps she was less focused than usual because the next song was on her mind, too.  Sometimes, apparently feeling some out-of-genre expressive impulse, she changes keys midstream; on a few occasions, we have decided to leave the key changes intact in the final product.  (Changing keys is difficult for an a cappella group to navigate.)  Her sense of rhythm is fine but sometimes presents challenges, as do a few other technicalities that require adjustments.

If I can’t figure out how to notate one aspect or another, I just say so, and Carole suggests something else or sometimes goes back to the drawing board herself to record another version of the melody.  My Sibelius music software has some bugs in the way it handles lyrics as they are being imported, matching syllables to notes:  it thinks “trials” has one syllable and “Savior,” three, so I have to manually divide those words and a few other frequently used ones.  The software also has no idea what to do with the word “reigns,” so I have to trick it and correct after the fact.

A few characteristics:  Carole loves words and phrases such as “thrill in His glory” and “our Savior has conquered sin.”  Even more, she loves faith- and hope-filled expressions that look toward Heaven.  In her catalog may be found strong notes of gratitude to a loving God, and of evangelistic concern for others, that they might share in what she has found.

Carole loves choruses and codas, and I have sometimes picked up that her others-conscious heart just can’t bear to let a song rest with the last word in the final stanza.  She is compelled to say just one more thing—in the hope that, eventually, some soul will be a bit more inspired to faith in God . . . and so she adds a chorus or a coda to say that one more thing.

Sometimes, in our e-mail exchanges, one or the other of us will refer to a song as though it is a “child” of hers:  “this one seems a little unruly and needs some parental love” or “you must feel this is a special child.”

My feelings:  We have been working together for nearly four years now, and I remain grateful for this working relationship.  My available time for “Carole songs” ebbs and flows, and Carole understands this and works with it beautifully.  She has become a friend.  We surprised her once by dropping in on her at church while we were traveling.  Carole is also my elder sister, sort of a “great aunt” in faith.  She prays for me and my family with great empathy, even as she cares for many others, including her own family.

Carole, thank you for your constancy and your example of faith.  They are treasures, as are the poetic expressions of your sincere heart—a heart so very thankful to God.  At times, you and your songs have amounted to a spiritual rope to hold onto—a constant in a sea of uncertainty and negative circumstances.

Our respective loose-lwp-1485716870438.jpgeaf binders full of songs grow by the month.  A couple of days ago, we reached song number 400.  As we celebrate this milestone, and as we move into what may be the last hundred, Carole, I pause in gratitude for you.

B. Casey, 1/29/17

A few minutes with some Mennonites

A few Sunday mornings ago, I took an hour-long ride to visit a conservative Mennonite group.  I had met a nice, bonneted woman selling baked goods at the Farmer’s Market, and she told me where to find them.  It was way in the middle of nowhere, as they say, but it was a nice, 10-year-old, spacious, well-kept building.  Here are a few observations.

Some things are the same but different. . . .

I heard some issues with vocal pitch, but they were more along the lines of crooning and slip-sliding whereas flatting and flat-out singing-out-of-key are the prevalent intonation “sins” in a cappella Church of Christ groups.  In this 100-person Mennonite church, intra-congregational intonation was the best I’ve ever heard.

The Bible is certainly emphasized in both groups, both in Bible classes and in the assembly proper.  In the former setting, the Mennonites traveled along similarly out-of-context tangents and loops, although the specific commentary had a distinct, other-worldly flavor.  That is to say:  (1) these Mennonites were other-worldly themselves, and (2) their dialogue compellingly emphasized the over-arching, compelling Kingdom of God and their place in it, and their interest in bringing others into the Reign.  I take #1 as something between neutral and mildly undesirable, whereas I take #2 as convicting and absolutely to be desired.

Both groups have a plurality of teacher-pastors.  Both seem to use relational terms such as “brother,” “sister,” and “Christian”  frequently.

And some things are more different than same. . . .

One notable difference in a conservative Mennonite church is the seating:  men are all on one side, and women, on the other.  (I shouldn’t make a deal out of which side was which, because, assuming the leader’s lectern represents God’s vantage point, the women were on the “goat” side.  I once had a similar communication issue with hanging “I Am” and “Jesus the Messiah” banners.  I digress.)  In thinking that anyone would actually have men and women separate in this day and age, most “modern” (and I use that term advisedly) people, Christian or not, will shake their heads in disbelief or disapproval, but the idea of sitting that way merits some consideration.  Think of the better teen focus when no one is holding hands with the girlfriend of the month.  Think of  the “divide and conquer” that can occur in terms of parenting when men have their little sons and women have the daughters.  And think of the solidarity in terms of vocal range and voice parts.  The sound is surely enhanced by a sense of strength in numbers.

There were more coats and ties on the Mennonite men, but not all.  (In any CofC building in my last 15 years, groups are down to something between 0 and 15% wearing a coat and/or a tie.  Baptists are probably about the same.)  Pants were mostly black or navy, but a couple had tan pants on.  I saw only black shoes.  All the women were in dresses, as expected.  Children behaved better and still had great personalities.  I would be naturally drawn to some of the families as I observed them.

Only the KJV Bible was used, but I couldn’t help feeling that that practice was more a subconscious, old-world habit than a conscious translation choice.

I believe all three pastors were on the stage, and I didn’t know what to make of that, because not all of them were really active per se.  It was as though they were collectively “watching over the flock.”  I would like to think they did that through the week in more meaningful ways.

A more subtle yet deeper difference was in what I would call a “thoughtful waiting” that characterized so many aspects and events.  In Bible class, at least seven or eight different men spoke up at one time or another, and I noticed that there was some silence after each comment, as though everyone habitually considered everything that was said.  Also, a couple of seconds transpired between stanzas of songs and hymns.  I’ve heard that this is the habit in British churches of various stripes.  It was almost awkward for me, but I think it would be worth getting used to.  The quality of the sung thoughts was, not incidentally, much higher than the aggregate in any Church of Christ I’ve experienced in a long time—and at least on par with other church groups in my experience.

As indicated above, the Mennonites emphasize being in the world but not of it.  They are pilgrims.  (And that is an eminently biblical view, of course.)  They pray more, and most prayers included kneeling.

They have their pet phrases, just as people of other denominations.  One that I heard at least a dozen times, in conjunction with handshakes, was a hearty “Welcome here!”  I believe they meant it.  And I did feel welcome.  I plan to return for singing one evening this winter.

For a few observations from a Mennonite pamphlet, please see my other blog here.

Cottrill’s reasons to keep talking about hymnals

This post continues from yesterday’s personal-journey reflections.

Robert Cottrill, a Canadian, has spent a great deal of time blogging about hymns—their background stories, their meaning, and their use.  His material is typically very thoughtful and well written (although in my circles not likely to be read or considered as much as it deserves).  In a recent blogpost in praise of hymnals, he listed 38 reasons to support and use these hardbound books.  I’ve chosen a few of his reasons to share here, with some commentary of my own.


4) Hymnals are . . . ideal for texts that present a logical argument or tell a story, over several stanzas. When we sing these from a screen, we can’t see the whole thing at once. We can’t look back and see the logic, or the flow of the story, in what is presented.

I would agree, generally:  seeing all the song at once is more helpful than one might realize at first blush.  During the past couple of weeks in my job, I’ve been reading a great deal of tutorial material screen-by-screen.  In some cases, it is not possible to revert to the prior material to get a sense of how it fits together.  My comprehension overall would have been much deeper if I had been reading a book.

A corollary to the above is this:  a map that provides an overview of an entire geographical area allows for greater comprehension of places and distances than a tiny smartphone, a car’s GPS screen, or even a computer’s display.

5) During the service time, using hymn books gives the service leader the option of selecting or omitting stanzas (even on the spot), or responding with an unplanned hymn to other things happening in the service (like a prayer request, or something in a testimony time). The service leader should aim to know the hymn book so well that he can suit to what is happening in the service with a hymn, when appropriate.

Ignoring the oh-so-common misuse of the word “service” here (for which, by the way, I do not blame Mr. Cottrill, because he writes for an audience that understands the term the way he uses it), his main point is well taken:  spontaneous shifts and changes are generally easier with hard-copy books than with computerized projection.

However—and this is a big however—few leaders will know the book well enough, or think on their feet well enough, to make choices that serve the people and the Lord in the moment.  On a couple of isolated occasions, I have been aware that a PowerPoint operator quickly pulled in a song spontaneously, and that can certainly be done if the filing system is good and the operator knows his stuff.

8) If God speaks to an individual through a hymn, he or she may want to re-read the words after it’s been sung–either during the service, or afterwards. This is easy with a hymn book, but a projected song disappears as soon as it’s been used.

That point needs no further comment, except perhaps to say that many times, I have scratched a note to myself on an attendance card (what better use for those!) or on a bulletin about a song I wanted to look up later.

11) Hymn books can promote congregational singing. The singing seems more assured and enthusiastic when books are used. (I can only describe my own experience here, having preached in many different churches.) Often when projected images are used, the singing seems listless and very quiet. Looking around, I’ve seen many not singing at all. This non-involvement is increased when what is sometimes called a worship team is up front, and loudly amplified. The people in the pews tend to become listeners and observers.

Here, I appreciate Cottrill’s admission of the limitations of his own experience.  Some years ago, many people I knew were hearing and reiterating the supposed truth that projected music (and I do mean music, not just words) would actually enhance congregational singing because people would get their heads up out of the books.  There is some truth to that assertion, although I think not as much as people once claimed.  Cottrill might never have been in a place with both (a) projection and (b) energized singing, but I have.

I would differ with him, then, as to cause and effect:  the issue is not whether books or screens are in use.  Rather, the crux has to do with such factors as recent congregational history, aggregate music literacy, congregational dynamic, leadership, and the type of music.  Most of those are loaded expressions, and I won’t go into detail here.  What Cottrill notices is important, but I believe he is crediting hymnals too much for the good observed.  The real reason that some hymnal churches can sing with more energy than some projection churches has little to do with the books.

28) It’s good for each family to have a Guest Book, where visitors can sign their names. It makes a great record to look back on in later years. But here’s an alternative idea. Instead of having visitors to your home sign a guest book, you could have them neatly sign next to their favourite hymn in your hymn book. A great memento! And each time you sing or read that hymn, it will remind you to pray for the person.

This is a nice idea, and I wish I’d started it in my home years ago, but the practice would have faded by now.  These days (see the last blog post:  my relationship with hymnals is falling apart), I’m afraid the use of a hymnal as a guest book would be considered more of an oddball idiosyncrasy than a sign of depth or of God in the home.  Fact is, I’ve only signed one or two home guest books in the last 10 decade.

30) Hymn books can be used by those on the platform, or when members of the congregation are sitting or standing behind taller people. Or when singers are sitting in a circle, as is done at Bible studies. People don’t all need to be facing a projected image.

In the first part of #30, Cottrill seems relatively inexperienced.  Many church halls have screens that leaders can see, or synced tablets, or something.  It’s quite possible these days that anyone on a stage/platform can see a diplay of some kind.  This does beg the question of why multiple people are on a platform at the same time in the first place.  In my view, that practice tends to make things come off as over-formal.

However, the small group setting is worthy of note.  Congregational singing could once be shared whether a group had 800 or 80 or 8 people in it.  These days, it’s rare that a small group will consider any kind of participatory singing or worship.  If an object (whether a hymnal or a piece of paper) could be held in the hands, singing together might be more common.

This conversation might not be over

My relationship with hymnals has been on the rocks for a while.  We have a long history together—hymnals and I—but we haven’t spent much time together in a decade or more, and I find myself vacillating between (1) last-ditch attempts to save our relationship and (2) acknowledgment that it’s time to move on because of mounting pressures and other factors beyond our control.  Whatever the underlying reasons, there’s only a fading romantic connection.  Hymnals and I do share a solid foundation and important values, but we’ve definitely been growing apart.¹

I have deep historical connections both to hymsongbooks.jpgnals and hymnology.²  Relatives past and present, friends and acquaintances, and many significant others have been associated with the use of these books (and all this adds to the wistful feelings about hymnals).  An explicit accusation was made against my dad in the 1990s, and, although he had served on an advisory council for Great Songs of the Church, Revised (the brown-covered books seen faintly in this picture, over toward the right), no one in my immediate family has ever had financial interests in mass-marketed hymnal production.  Dad had spent many hours reviewing and corresponding about that hymnal, which is one of the two best in its class, and the very best available at the time.  Never was any hymnal elevated to the Bible’s pedestal in my home.  Collections of them were on my parents’ bookshelves, and the hymnals were sporadically used in devotional group singing in the living room and around the dinner table, but the books weren’t worshipped.

I have continued my parents’ practice of owning, displaying, and periodically using hymnals . . . although the frequency, amount, and depth of use have been decreasing.  A couple years ago, I realized that I had no use for 25-or-so single-copy hymnals in my collection.  Not having interest in trying to sell them on eBay or at a yard sale—any profit would surely have been dwarfed by time and expense—I tried to follow the “if you haven’t needed it or used it in 7 years” rule and threw them in a dumpster.  I did experience a slight twinge of conscience and have so far kept another 30 or 40 hymnals:

  • Ten copies of Great Songs of the Church No. 2 that was last regularly used in our home in 2013
  • Eight copies of a previous edition of The Methodist Hymnal (historically the best mainline denomination hymnal with which I was acquainted, and a source for several purposes) and one Presbyterian hymnal
  • Two copies of Praise for the Lord
  • Misc. other CofC hymnals and handful of other single copies such as The Mennonite Hymnal

More hindsight
I’m now considering the growing-apart nature of this “hymnal relationship” from 2016 backward. . . .

We have visited three congregations in our new area.  Two of them have hymnals, and we are considering an ongoing relationship with one of those groups.  Most of our church groups from 2007 until now have owned and used hymnals, to one degree or another.  Two churches from 2003-2007 did not use hymnals at all, and one did.  The last time I was in a congregation that regularly used hymnals was 15 years ago, and that was prior to the ubiquity of PowerPoint (and the Paperless Hymnal) in many church gatherings.  It does seem clear that there is a trend—among the churches we would consider working with, if not churches as a whole.

In 2016, most of the hymnals in the church halls we enter seem to be dusty and musty, but a few groups still pull them out of the racks periodically . . . perhaps because the projector bulb blew out when the machine was turned on Sunday morning.  Or, perhaps an especially (a) thoughtful or (b) backward-thinking³ or (c) committed-to-hymnals leader wants to use a song that’s not electronically available.

It’s a shame when hymnals fall into disuse.  My soul still needs the nourishment that came from the better songs and hymns of my earlier years.  (I don’t intend the preceding statement to speak in any respect to the value of contemporary songs.)  A couple years ago, I was blog-traversing my personal “worship history” and wrote this along the way:

I was starving.

Then my parents reminded me that a family we knew was working with a church on the north side of town — Hixson, to be precise.  During a visit there one Wednesday night, I got tears in my eyes during a devotional time led by Danny Cline.  Forethought was in evidence, and Danny led sensitively — and led a song with some spiritual depth to it.  Sensitivity and depth were not to be taken for granted in the 80s of my life, for more than one reason.

A big part of me does look with longing at the unused richness of some songs in hymnals.  Another part of me reads the handwriting on the wall rather acutely, realizing that hymnals and I—and hymnals and many entire congregations—are going separate ways.

Is the conversation over?  Is there no hope for this relationship?  Maybe not, if we’re only thinking about the physical item called a hymnal.  I do want, though, to find ways to discover and rediscover the good content of hymnals in ways that non-hymnal people will also pursue.

Next:  comments on a few of another blogger’s reasons to value the hymnal


¹ Please take no offense at the allegorical language here.  I mean no disrespect toward God’s thoughts about human marriage.

² I’m much more interested in hymns themselves than hymnology per se.  While I know a few factoids about the history and study of hymns, there’s only so much time in the day, and hymnology is not really one of my life’s pursuits.

³ The use of hymnals is not inherently backward-thinking.  In the use of “backward,” I’m thinking of a few leaders who seem merely to be resisting learning anything new.  Leaders’ song choices are certainly not always based on thought or intent.

In the temperance zone: prohibition in hymnals

Last month, a new friend¹ mentioned temperance movement (related to prohibition) songs in hymnals, & I looked at him inquisitively, not ever having seen any songs in that category.  His Methodist experience had exposed him to these historically society-conscious songs, but he later found that he had exaggerated the number somewhat.  Regardless, he did find and mail to me four (from a hymnal titled Eternal Praise for the Church and Sunday School, © 1917, Hope Publishing Co., Chicago) that show up in the “Temperance” category² in the book’s index.

These songs are curiosities in terms of political history, Christianity, and church music!  There was a cause afoot!  Here are some choice lyrics:

God’s on our side.  He will not fail us.
Rise in the strength God gives today;
Strike down the foes that would assail us
Banish the liquor-curse for aye.

I never dreamed that words like “whiskey,” lager,” and “drunkard” would appear in a hymnal.  The chorus (and title) of the above song, “A Thousand Years of Prohibition,” might even have subconsciously suggested even that the millennium is associated with the lack of alcoholic beverages:

A thousand years of prohibition! Lift up your eyes.  Behold the dawn!
The Nation’s hope shall find fruition when from our land the curse has gone.

And then there’s this song called “Down in de Bottom ob de Glass” by J.B. Herbert.  (Git ready.  This is a hoot.)

BottomofGlass2

BottomofGlass1

The above song, written in a sort of Negro dialect, showcases these choice lyrics:

[of the red color of wine]:  It don’t look good on de nose . . . de redder an’ redder it grows.

O de foamy beer, it bring good cheer, an’ it make you glad an’ gladder;
Till it pizen (poison) your hide, an’ your whole inside, an’ bloat you up like a bladder.”

The chorus warns that “dere’s snakes an’ bugs an’ dregs an’ drugs . . . down in de bottom ob de glass,” and that liquor will “git you sure, at las’.”  I have enjoyed giving two living-room performances of this song.  It really is a hoot.

The song bears a 1914 copyright date (before modern U.S. Copyright or Prohibition laws took effect) and is arranged as a solo, musically reminiscent of basso profundo solo songs like “Ol’ Man River,” “When Big Profundo Sang Low C” and “Big Bass Viol” (historic recording here—listen all the way to the end!)

Can you imagine singing songs like these “in church”?  “Hymns” are so frequently looked down on these days (even by those trying to be nice), no matter the definition used.  But some of these anti-alcohol songs are so far from any real definition of hymn or gospel song or spiritual song that it’s difficult even to imagine their having been included in a “hymnal.”  (I had to think twice before categorizing this blog post as “church music.”)  Why would they be considered Christian songs?  Well, I wonder if the temperance and prohibition causes aroused almost the same energy then as abortion does today.  To the degree that any such cause is nationalistic, I think its place in church is tenuous at best, but to the extent that it is genuinely (if over-zealously) concerned with the effects of the over-use of alcohol on people and society, I am sympathetic.

My own views on alcohol (use, ramifications, industry, advertising, etc.) in secular society are more conservative than my views on alcohol among responsible people, most Christians included.  In the former, larger context, one can easily discern the damaging effects on people and the rampant waste of money.  In the other context, based on my up-close experience (which involves not a single sighting of anyone intoxicated and a great many people who drink moderately and stay under certain radar screens), I am decidedly concerned about legalism within conservative institutions—and the resultant hiding and combativeness—and not really concerned at all about actual consumption.  I think prohibition in any manifestation is shallow and short-sighted, but living in a “temperance  zone” is definitely a good idea.

Whatever your views, I hope you find the humor in the temperance/prohibition songs.  In the very imitable (and often-imitated) words of Larry the Cable Guy, “I don’t care who you are.  That’s funny right there.”

B. Casey, 7/29/16


¹ Thanks to Dr. Richard Davies for this interesting material!

² The Temperance category of this hymnal lists 17 songs, including a few I have sung but have never thought of as anti-alcohol in their message:  “The Fight Is On” (which very well could have been conceived in the Temperance or pre-Prohibition movement), and a few others which were decidedly not originally related to alcohol:  “Rescue the Perishing,” “Onward Christian Soldiers,” and “Stand Up for Jesus.”

MWM: technology in hindsight

A book is technological feat, and so is a slide.

My parents have boxes and boxes of slides—not the playground kind, of course, but the photographic kind.  Throughout my growing-up years (yes, this dates me), with the exception of a few ill-fated Polaroid™ shots, they took pics almost entirely with slide film.  The slide proj carouselprojector my family owned was a “stacker” that came with a side-mount contraption into which one could load an entire box or two of slides in one fell swoop.  Carousel-type projectors like the one shown here, much more common, took much more time to load and unload but were less likely to jam.  Slide projectors still exist, and I used one like this carousel projector a few years ago when I wanted to convert some family history pics to digital images for my parents’ 50th anniversary.

As for myself, I didn’t think I owned any slides, but I did find one recently:

worship slide

I had no memory of this item but had saved it in a “worship resources” file.  Before personal computers and PowerPoint, and quite possibly with a desire to supplant overhead projectors, this “Worship Visions” outfit was apparently producing slides with worship song lyrics and marketing them to churches who used projectors.  When my wife saw this slide, she asked, “What is that?  Like a time capsule piece?”  Well, yeah, I guess so.  I’ve never been anywhere where worship slides like this one were used, but I did own some transparencies until about 5 years ago, when I finally came to terms with the need to get rid of them.  (Since then, I’ve met with a group that actually still has an overhead projector, so maybe I should have donated my transparencies instead of making the assumption that they were completely obsolete.)

You know, this “worship slide” technology, in its time, would have been just as likely to contribute to real congregational worship as a transparency or today’s lyrics-only PowerPoint slides.  (Here, I won’t go into the merits of using music notation; I’ve written uber-sufficiently about that elsewhere.)  Every technology is merely a tool to be used, or not.

[This is an installment in the periodic Monday Worship Music series which looks at hymns and other topics related to worship music of the church.]