This week’s sermon at Fuller Ave Church follows the lectionary: The Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17). This is not a passage that lends itself to a long list of inspiring songs! But as I researched the service, I kept thinking about the times that God promised to write the law on our hearts (Ezekiel 11:19 and 36:26, Jeremiah 32:39 and 31:33, and Hebrews 8:10). Soon I was at the piano writing this little bonbon of a Gospel chorus, “A New Heart, O God.”
It was refreshing to take a little break from some larger projects I’ve been working on. These short-form songs give me the opportunity to hone my craft in bite-size chunks in the same way a visual artist uses sketches to stay sharp. Specifically, this song gave me the opportunity to explore Jazz/Gospel harmonies and chord voicings. There’s lots of spice in there. (But I also wrote a “mild” version for churches who aren’t ready for the heat.) It also let me continue to experiment with drum miking. Last, but not least, I finally got an electric bass sound which I quite like.
A new heart, O God, for this heart of stone, and a spirit you’ve renewed. Write your law, O God, in my flesh and bones. Give me a new heart, give me a new heart, a new heart for you.
God’s omniscience. How do we speak about it without using hifalutin words like “omniscience”? How do we sing about it? And does this esoteric theological category have any bearing on our life and faith?
Hunter Lynch addresses these questions in his new text, “God of Knowledge, All-Consuming.” What I love about this is that Hunter begins with God’s omniscience as wisdom, mystery, and discernment, rather than painting God as a celestial Santa. (“He knows when you are sleeping.”) He quickly moves to how God’s endless knowledge matters to us humans–”you know my need.” In verse 3, he takes a turn from God knowing to God making himself known. In the final verse, we will no longer see “through a glass darkly,” but all beauty, truth, and mystery will be revealed.
I drafted three tunes for this text. Each had its merits, but after a weekend of living with them, both Hunter and I gravitated toward this one. It is both dignified and down-to-earth with a melody that wears well with repeated singing. For those who care about such things, I’ll make a few musical observations: The meter is very fluid. I finally decided on 3/4, but the pulse actually changes throughout. For example, I could have easily notated the first six beats in three measures of 2/4. Something I like about the melody is that the B at the end of the first and fifth measure–the leading tone–leaves you waiting for resolution until the high C at the pickup to measure 9. Musical geekery, I know, but these are the details that make a melody tick.
1. God of knowledge, all-consuming, source of wisdom’s flowing stream, shadowed depths from you hide nothing, every dormant secret seen. By your hand, which holds all mystery, bid me stand when answers flee; for in soaring breakers swelling, even there you know my need.
2. Were the fathoms of your nature fully seen by mortal eye, tongue would falter, mind would waver to describe such radiant light. Here on earth we see mere shadows of the beauty soon fulfilled, but what stands beyond our vision will in glory be revealed.
3. Unseen God, you gave us vision when in darkness we despaired. As we fell for lesser wisdom, mercy came our sin to bear. What a gracious, kind unveiling! Leaving glory, crown, and throne, God of knowledge, all-consuming, made himself to sinners known.
4. When my final breath is taken and the part is seen in whole, fleeting doubts shall be forsaken as my eager eyes behold God enthroned and Christ arisen, advocating for his own. Lord from whom no soul is hidden, hide me safely in your Son.
How cool is this? My friends at Church of the Servant made a music video of my song “Let Us Go” for the COS Psalm Contest premiere Sunday. It was great to see old friends from the COS Choir, Guitarchestra, and Joyful Noise Orchestra, as well as contributions from friends in Jakarta, New York City, and LA (via Pakistan). Thank you!
One of the traits that makes me annoying (among so many others) is my pursuit of perfection. I’m not a perfectionist in the traditional sense of the word–abusing myself for every short-coming–but I do seek excellence. (Making me an excellentionist?) In music, that means I edit relentlessly, striving to achieve “balance and beauty” as another song put it.
“The Perfect Song” started out with musings on this topic and then branched into all the other areas of life in which we can imagine something–we can practically taste it–but it remains just out of reach. Perhaps the thing’s elusiveness is part of its allure, our desire propelled by the dream of consummation.
What I like about this song is that it is exceedingly simple but asymmetrically balanced. Each verse ends with a space where a fourth line would ordinarily go; it is both balanced but seemingly incomplete. The same is true of the chorus. “Will it be enough?” repeats three times and feels like it should end with “enough for me” or something else to complete the thought, but instead it revels in the unfulfilled longing that is the very subject of the song.
What I like about the recording is that it counters the intimate simplicity of the vocals with moments of instrumental chaos–just like life. Yet somehow it all holds together: chaos without, order within, and a never-ending search for the perfect song.
1. I’ve been searching for the perfect song. I’ve been searching for the perfect song. But it’s been here all along.
2. I’ve spent my days chasing dreams. I’ve spent my days chasing dreams. So beautiful, but just out of reach.
Will it be enough?
3. I’ve been trying to find my place. I’ve been trying to find my place. But everywhere I go is already taken.
Harry Plantinga, the guru behind Hymnary.org, is fluent in computer code. But lately, all his work with Hymnary.org is rubbing off on him and he has also started writing hymn texts. “Joy” is a short, meditative lyric based on the writings of St. John of the Cross.
He asked if I “had an old hymn tune hanging around that would be good for this text,” preferably in a Taizé style. I’m sure he knew full well that it was unlikely I had a 220.127.116.11 meter tune just hanging around–and also knew that I am incapable of saying no to challenges like this.
Desire enjoyment in nothing, Nor knowing nor having nor being, To come to enjoyment in all things, To living and loving and seeing.
I met Kate Bluett through a Facebook group in which we’re both members: Liturgy Fellowship. After she won first place in a song contest and I placed second (always the bridesmaid!) I introduced myself and asked if she’d like to collaborate. The first fruit of our collaboration is a fresh setting of Psalm 57.
Kate did a great job of capturing a difficult Psalm. The first verse teases out the storm imagery that accompanies the famous “I will take refuge in the shadow of your wings.” The second verse focuses on the Psalmist’s foes who are laying traps. The third verse is my favorite; Kate not only includes the beautiful “I will awaken the dawn with singing” of the original Psalm but concludes with the point that the temporary terrors of the night are momentary, whereas God’s love never ends.
Musically, I wanted something bold and energetic. The opening octave leap does just that. “Pow!” It says. The above demo borders on stoner rock, but I could also imagine it being sung in the style of a sea chanty. (Any TikTokkers want to cover it?) The tune name, by the way, is DO NOT DESTROY. (David already named it in the Psalm itself. Who am I to argue?)
1. The thunder’s rage is roaring, and lightning flames on high. I lift my voice, imploring, but who will hear my cry? My God, come down; restore me! From heaven now draw nigh! Your guarding wings spread o’er me ’til storms have passed me by.
2. My foes, they hunt and hound me; my grave they have prepared. Like lions they surround me, their words as sharp as spears. My God, come down; confound them and catch them in their snares, Your saving love has found me and held me in your care.
3. O God, my heart is ready to sing and wake the dawn, for thunder fades already, the storm will soon be gone No night outlasts your heaven, where terrors all are done. Your mercy lasts forever, your love goes on and on!
Sylvia Dunstan wrote the beautiful hymn “You Walk Along Our Shorelines” in response to Mark 1:14-20, in which Jesus calls the first disciples. It is often paired with the tune AURELIA (“The Church’s One Foundation”), but I felt it needed something simpler–a story rather than a proclamation. My tune has a classic AABA structure, a hint of nostalgia, a 18.104.22.168 D meter, and a little bonbon of harmonic surprise. Could you ask for more?
I came back again to Adam Carlill’s Psalms for the Common Era, this time his version of Psalm 56. This Psalm is a plea for mercy when being hotly pursued by enemies. Have you ever felt like David did when he wrote this–slandered, hunted, trapped? The Psalmist petitions God for deliverance, reaffirms his trust in God’s care, and throws in a few ideas about what God might want do to his enemies. Interestingly, the Psalm ends with a future/past tense statement of faith: “I will present my thank offerings to you. For you have delivered me…” Now that’s faith!
Musically, I thought a Medieval Celtic sound would fit this text well. Instead of the standard pentatonic scale, though, I used the Dorian mode. That raised 6th scale tone gives the melody a unique contour that keeps it from becoming predictable.
If you want to geek out for a minute, pay attention to the form of the song. Usually, folk ballad forms are AABA or ABA or something similar, with each phrase of music being the same length. (Take a look at “Sally Gardens,” for example, which is AABA.) This allows a song to have a good deal of singable familiarity, while also having some variation. My tune is an ABAC form with each A being four measures long and the B and C being two. Even more interesting is that the music’s form doesn’t exactly match the text’s form. This creates an oil-and-water tension that keeps the song interesting over its seven verses.
1. O God, in mercy look to me, for I am trampled low. All day they challenge me and fight, oppressors watch me from their height, to strike and overthrow, to strike and overthrow.
2. When I am nervous and afraid, I trust in your decree. In God, the Lord, whose word is dear, in God I trust, and will not fear. What can they do to me? What can they do to me?
3. All day they falsify my words, with evil schemes and strife, while secretly they trail and track, they keep a watch behind my back, to take away my life, to take away my life.
4. Will they escape their wickedness, who wait to snare my soul? You count my wanderings as I pass, decant my tears into your glass; you note them in a scroll, you note them in a scroll.
5. Bring down my foes in wrath, O God, confirming your decree. In God, the Lord, whose word is dear, in God I trust, and will not fear. What can they do to me? What can they do to me?
6. I call to you, and then my foes withdraw in disarray, for God is with me, this I know. I pay in full the vows I owe, my sacrifice today, my sacrifice today.
7. For you deliver me from death; my feet are sound and shod. I will not stumble during strife, but follow you, the light of life, to walk before my God, to walk before my God.
It seems that my recently written “My Days Are in Your Hands” was timely. A number of people downloaded it for use in their New Year’s services. One of those was was Joel Jupp, who recorded this beautiful rendition for his church’s first (virtual) service of the new year.
The next is from my own church’s service. At Fuller Ave CRC, we try blur the lines between traditional, contemporary, global, etc. All instruments are called upon to play all musics. In this case, Chad Boorsma and I felt the combination of guitar and organ fit the song well.
My hope is the variety of styles in which “My Days” has been sung in its first few weeks of life speaks to its potential for crossover appeal in the future. Nothing makes me happier than hearing my songs sung by big, small, modern, historic, monocultural, and multicultural churches.