Sinking Like a Stone

I’ve had a sketch of this song hanging around for a few weeks now. I think it started with an Evernote dictation that said, “We all want to be loved, but we’re afraid of being known.” (Does it count as texting and driving if you’re writing song lyrics?) I’ve been chewing on this idea that humans have a simultaneous desire for intimacy and fear of the vulnerability it requires. I kept coming back to words like “void,” “abyss,” and “chasm” as metaphors for the emptiness we fear in a life without love. At first, the chorus was going to be, “We’re all holding on, slipping into the void.” But in the end, I decided “sinking like a stone” was the best way to name the bottomless pit from the rock’s point of view.

But the draft lay unfinished until yesterday when someone told me that humans possess three fundamental fears: abandonment, being smothered, and ceasing to exist. With that, I knew the way forward, with a verse addressing each fear.

As noted elsewhere, I find it very effective to pair depressing lyrics with chipper music. Not only does it save the whole thing from self-indulgent pity, but it creates an artistic tension that sneaks up on. The existential angst suddenly reveals itself while you’re bopping your head to the beat. The harpsichord and accordion seal the deal.

1. We all want to be loved,
but we’re afraid to be alone.
We offer up our souls,
but still it’s not enough.

Our need, it only grows.
We’re terrified
of being left alone
with nothing but this hole:

Sinking like a stone.

2. We all want to be loved,
but we’re afraid of being known.
Naked and exposed,
we’ll always hide ourselves.

So don’t get too close;
the intimacy’s too much.
We’re vulnerable to touch;
it opens wide the soul:

Sinking like a stone.

3. We all want to be loved;
We’re afraid we’ll disappear.
Love, and pain, and fear
are better than nothing at all.

We all feel the void.
We’re all hanging on
For dear life, lest we fall
Into those dark jaws:

Sinking like a stone.

We all want to be loved,
But we’re afraid..


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Ever-Tender Shepherd

A few months ago, I was asked to compose a theme song for the World Communion of Reformed Churches’ 2017 General Council meeting in Leipzig, Germany. After three tries I got it right. One of the out-takes from that process was a hymn tune in a distinctly Bach style. I was really pleased to hear from the event organizers that they not only liked the song I submitted, but they liked the Bach-style hymn, as well. They asked if I’d be willing to write a new text for that tune; a text focusing on the suffering of the world.

After a week of drafting, crumpling, re-drafting, and editing, I’m done. “Ever-Tender Shepherd” (PDF) is a musical “collect prayer”–a prayer which petitions God based on God’s attributes. In this case, attributes of Jesus are connected to the needs of the world. We ask Christ, the Shepherd, to gather scattered refugees, for example. This seemed a good way to address the needs of the world without taking sides or naming issues so specifically that the song would be obsolete by the time it was used. I’m especially fond of the third verse. But who am I to play favorites?

1. Ever-tender Shepherd,
hear your people’s moans
as they sift through rubble
that was once their homes.

See your children scatter
as cities burn to ash.
Be for them a refuge;
Be for them a rest.

2. Ever-blessing Brother,
grant again your peace.
Breathe on us your Spirit,
that our wars may cease.

Stanch the endless bleeding
of self-inflicted wounds.
May your blood be healing
and your cross our truce.

3. Ever-wounded Healer,
feel your planet’s pain.
Fever wracks its body;
poison fills its veins.

Hear creation’s groaning,
its sighs too deep for words.
Be the re-creation
of all things on earth.

4. Ever-reigning Victor,
ever-loving Lord,
ever intercede for
us, your weak and poor.

May we ever follow
your perfect sacrifice,
offering lives of mercy,
ever-living Christ.

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I’ve been working on this song forever. A sketch has been in my idea folder for at least a year and multiple recorded fragments reside on my handheld recorder, my phone, and my computer. On a beautiful fall day not long ago, I sat outside in the afternoon sun and completed the lyrics. Since then, I’ve been adding a few tracks at a time until it was full enough that it felt like a finished recording. This is a little different for me: simple music as a frame for the lyrics, with atmospheric instrumentation swirling around in the background.

1. You’re taking the dirt
and the clouds and the rain,
and you’re making it beautiful.
Out of the ground
There sprouts a grain.
And it is beautiful.

Even the fire
and the flood;
Rising from ashes;
New life from mud.
Even from fire and from flood
There comes something beautiful.

You’re making it

2. All of my doubt,
my fear, and my pain—
can You make them beautiful?
All of the things
I can’t understand—
Will they become beautiful?

You’re taking my failures,
and my scars
and making
a canvas for your art.
The night is dark,
But it’s full of stars.
They are so beautiful.

You’re making it

3. I burn a bridge,
can you part the seas?
Lord, I need a miracle.
O God, make a way
When I can’t see
How it could be beautiful.

A story of sin
Told in regrets;
A history
Written by mistake…
Will there be hope
When morning breaks?
Will it be beautiful?

You’re taking it,
You’re making…

All things new. All things new again.
All things new. All things new in the end.

For the record, yes, the atmospheric background vocals were a tip of the hat to 10cc’s hit “I’m Not in Love.”

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WCRC Take 3: Renew Us, O God!

In a Goldilocks’ moment, my third and final porridge…er, song…is just right. This time, my theme song for the World Communion of Reformed Churches 2017 General Council brings together the best of my earlier drafts.

My first attempt was too “slogan-y”. This version takes that slogan’s idea (“transformed and transforming; renewed and renewing”) and puts it in prayer form: “Renew us, O God.” This prayer serves as a refrain that can be sung joyfully, as on the recording, or introspectively, like a Taizé chorus.

My second attempt had a solid text, but stolid music. (Okay, “stolid” is probably too strong of a word–but it wasn’t festive enough for the occasion.) This third one recycles that same text, but matches it with more vibrant music. It is a lively 6/8 melody that could be accompanied in a variety of styles: hymn-like with organ accompaniment, in a liturgical folk style with piano, or with guitar and even full praise band.

I knew I was onto something when the song continued to come back to me throughout the week. It’s highly singable, but has enough Scheer™ twists and turns to keep it interesting. The first four chords, for example, are pretty far off the beaten track. The D (I) chord moves to an F#m (iii) chord, which should head to a Bm (vi), G (V), or even A (V). Instead, it goes to an Am (minor v), a surprising shift that doesn’t go off the rails because of the stable melody.

But enough harmonic geekery. Take a listen to the recording above or take a look at the PDF.

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WCRC Take 2: God of All Creation

My second attempt at a theme song for the World Communion of Reformed Churches 2017 General Council was inspired by their meeting place: Leipzig. Leipzig, of course, is famous as the city in which Bach worked for almost three decades and the where he is laid to rest. My second draft, then, is an homage to Bach: a four-part chorale with as many Bach-isms as I could muster.

It is a sturdy tune with all the harmonic twists you’d expect of imitation Bach. The text was also a step in the right direction. Instead of getting at the theme, “Living God Renew and Transform Us,” in slogan form as I did in my first draft, this time I approached it in strophic form. The three verses address the three persons of the Trinity and explore the ways they lead us to renewal. Check it out: PDF.

In the end, though, it felt too backward-looking for this assembly. They have thousands of historic hymns to choose from when planning worship–including chorales by the actual Bach–and likely don’t need any historic sounding hymns in the mix. So I decided, once again, to move on.

Stay tuned for the exciting conclusion of Greg writes a theme song for the WCRC 2017 General Council!

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WCRC Take 1: Semper Reformanda

I’ve been asked to write a song for use at the World Communion of Reformed Churches 2017 General Council.

The difficulty of this sort of assignment is that–with intuition rather than information–I have to project what might be needed and what the vibe of the gathering is likely to be. The theme of this global assembly is “Living God Renew and Transform Us.” This is both a prayer for the ongoing work of the Spirit and a tip of the hat to the 500th year anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.

You likely know the phrase “Semper reformanda: Reformed and always reforming” that captures the spirit of the modern Reformed Church. I began my composing with this as a starting point. I liked the way phrases such as, “Reformed and reforming; transformed and transforming; renewed and renewing, forgiven and forgiving” show both what we’ve received through faith and what we, in turn, offer the world. However, in song form, I felt the phrases were quickly turning into a laundry list, a lyrical dead end. (I often refer to this kind of song as a “contest hymn”; they use enough catch phrases to win a contest, but never really catch on in real-life congregations.)

While I like the Medieval music groove and believe it will be immensely singable with the right lyrics, I decided to pull the plug and move on. If you want to take a stab at writing new lyrics, please feel free to download the PDF and get to work. Otherwise, stay tuned for WCRC Take 2.

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Die Alone

If you follow this blog you know I have a tradition of writing depressing birthday songs. And depressing Christmas songs. Come to think of it, I write all sorts of depressing songs.

We’re all going to die alone. Happy birthday!

Since I turned 50 this week, I thought I was due for a big shot of musical existentialism, so I wrote this ode to mortality, “Die Alone.”

One of the things I’ve learned as a songwriter is that a sad song doesn’t necessarily benefit from sad music. Sometimes that just makes it mopey. I decided to break into an upbeat soul groove on this to pull it out of a morass of self-indulgent pity. Serendipitously, as I was working on the recording, I was also at a conference with the inimitable Urban Doxology singers, so I took them out in a back hallway and had them sing the “Hallelujahs” into my laptop. They are joined by the also inimitable Latifah Phillips. Stephen Roach laid down some sweet keys on the a piano in a mostly empty conference room. This was a low tech, high skill affair.

So find a friend, make yourself comfortable, and get ready to Die Alone.

We’re all going to die alone; hallelujah!
Been that way since we were born; hallelujah!
Everyone’s hoping for a home; hallelujah!
Someone they can call their own; hallelujah!

Everybody’s looking for a friend; hallelujah!
But we’re terrified to let them in; hallelujah!
If they knew what’s in your heart and head; hallelujah!
They’d leave you on your own again; hallelujah!

All our lives are spent chasing the wind
But it’s the wind that catches us in the end.
Bones and memories turn to dust.
And another generation only coughs.

Is that enough?

Spend our days wondering what we did; hallelujah!
To deserve all this; hallelujah!
But we’ve spent our years collecting sins; hallelujah!
Maybe that’s why it’s come to this; hallelujah!

We all know that we’re going to die; hallelujah!
We just don’t know how or when; hallelujah!

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Psalm 121: Lift Your Eyes Up to the Mountains!

As you know, my dear listeners, I scour the globe for songs that might find a home in your congregation. Sometimes they come from the globe that is my head. Other times they come from far-flung lands on the globe underneath my feet. In the case of this setting of Psalm 121, it hails from Korea.

I learned this song from two Korean friends who were studying at Calvin Seminary. This is the second in a big pile of lovely songs that we sang through a few years back. What I love about these songs is that they are simple, heartfelt, and based on scripture. It fits well with a Korean spirituality that is so full of prayer and devotion. The song is by Seong Sil Chung. (If you know him, please introduce me!) I translated the text using the videos below, notes from friends, and Psalm 121 itself. There are two arrangements: the first is a piano accompaniment with guitar chords (capo 4), the second is a simple four part arrangement like you’d find in hymnals.

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One Generation with liturgical dance

We Will Extol You, God and King from Church of the Servant on Vimeo.

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Benediction (The Last Word)

How does Sunday morning’s worship relate to Monday morning’s work? That’s the question on BiFrost/Cardiphonia’s mind, one that was the impetus for a song contest. And if it’s on the mind of song contest judges, then it’s on my mind, as well.

The song’s genesis began with some phrases scratched on the back of a church bulletin. The phrase that stuck was “from the postlude to the prelude.” (That’s also the title of a book about church music administration by Randall Bradley.) From there I started to flesh out the kinds of things that could, indeed should, be understood as part of a worshipful life. Some of these seem clear: a playground feels like part of God’s world. But what about a prison?

My first draft received a two thumbs down evaluation from my son, Theo. He felt that the melody was too bouncy and trite and that the lyrics were just a big list of things that rhymed. Ouch. So I did a complete rewrite. I’m more pleased with this version. It’s in 3/4 meter, rather than 4/4 with a backbeat. That gives it a more stately feel. And the melodic contours have a more classic Celtic feel now. The lyrics were trimmed down substantially and I broke up the “from the this to the that” pattern that became tedious in the first draft. The big win was the new phrase, “the smell of resurrection.” Man I like that line!

1. From the postlude to the prelude,
Glow of moon to hope of dawn.
May our days sing benediction
And every minute pulse God’s love.

From the garden to the city,
From the studio to the stove,
From the playground to the prison:
Every inch of earth resounds.

In every thing our God will have the last word,
Echoing through the centuries: benediction.
Even death will yield to resurrection,
And the curse will kneel to blessing

2. From the midnight rain on concrete
To the meadow jeweled in dew,
Comes the smell of resurrection,
And the hope of all made new. REFRAIN

3. From the prayer room to the protest,
From the swing to seat of power,
From the birth chair to the deathbed,
O may all our labors bow. REFRAIN

This will end well. This will all end well. All will be well.
This will end well. This will all end well. God will have the last word. REFRAIN

Posted in Church, Congregational Songs, Contests, Demos | 3 Comments