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.

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