Songwriting Tips from the Experts, Part 13

5d10e581b206f.imageAs America continues to find its way forward, in fits and starts, following the summer of 2020’s racial unrest, it’s perhaps timely to lead off this week’s look at songwriting expertise with Bruce Hornsby’s “The Way It Is,” with its powerful rejoinder, after hearing, repeatedly, “That’s just the way it is . . . some things will never change”: “Ah, but don’t you believe them!”  Other gems in the Hornsby canon include “Mandolin Rain” and “Jacob’s Ladder” (written around the time of the televangelist scandals of the 80’s), which show the breadth of Hornsby’s stylistic capabilities.  If you like bluegrass, check out the latter and dig the bass solo at the 3:35 mark.  

Hornsby got a degree in jazz studies, which informs his musicianship in sometimes startling ways:

I’m really glad I went to music school, because I think it really broadened my horizons.  I’m just a guy from a small town in Virginia.  [I w]asn’t turned on to a whole lot of interesting music there.  But at school there were a lot of like-minded, kindred, searching people, looking to do [new] things.  So consequently I got turned on to everything from Stockhausen to George Jones.  So if I want to move my music to another level, take a left turn, I don’t have a problem doing it, at least on the knowledge level, because I’ve studied a lot of different kinds of music.

Would that more songwriters for the church could go to music school or, absent that, would expose themselves to influences outside of the close-knit, potentially inbred current soundtrack of contemporary worship music (cwm).  I think it would make a difference. 

If there’s one wish I had for cwm songwriters, it would be for a little more willingness not to settle for the obvious chord progression, the predictable melody, the Christianese-drenched lyric.  I might be wrong, but it seems as if that happens a lot, when the same type of four-chord power ballad dominates the current lists of today’s “hottest worship songs.”  I’d love to hear popular cwm songwriters say something like Hornsby says here:

The process of writing, for me, is not very cut and [dried].  One thing for sure, it’s one long process of self-editing and self-critique.  I think a lot of [songwriters are not] . . . tough self-critics or self-editors.  

To combat his own penchant for laziness, Hornsby takes scrupulous notes and jots down ideas whenever he feels the inspiration:

Now comes the work; the inspiration only takes me so far.  I carry a notebook with me at all times.  I read your Tom Petty interview, and I was interested to see that he has all his old notebooks.  Well, I do, too.  Somewhere. . . .

Sometimes–like I saw Petty does–I go through [them] if I’m kind of barren, kind of dry.  Because there are a lot of things in there that never became songs.  I go through there, and generally I don’t find much.  But every now and then I [find] something that . . . emotionally gets me in some way.  So I accumulate a bunch of different bits. 

Practicing a lot can’t help but give you song ideas. . . . Something that feels great to you and feels like something you can really develop.  When I get a germ of a melody, I press “record” on my little box and accumulate a cassette of maybe twenty thirty-second bits.  It could be a chord progression; it could be a groove. . . .

The modern equivalent here, of course, would be the audio-recording app on your phone.  Hornsby continues, with refreshing honesty:

So I’ll accumulate this tape, and when it’s time to write the record, I go to this little wealth of information that I’ve accumulated, all these hopefuls–hopeful ideas–and I’ll listen to the tape, and a lot of the time I’ll wonder what it was I thought was good about something.  Because it’s in the moment, and sometimes something in the moment is really truly special, and sometimes it’s . . . not really that great.  I’m not good at identifying at the time something that is really [fabulous].  The real thing.  So it helps me to have a little distance and to go back.  

Throughout this series, we’ve heard songwriters discuss the differences in writing at the piano vs. writing with a guitar.  Here’s one more option for those with the means to be this creative.  Responding to Paul Zollo (whose book Songwriters on Songwriting has been the starting point for this series), when asked whether he, a jazz pianist by background, writes only at an acoustic piano, Hornsby says,

Generally.  But . . . I wrote some songs on accordion years ago and I liked that.  Because it takes you to a different place.  It’s good to get away from your typical trip.

Most of us don’t have access to an accordion and wouldn’t know how to play it if we did.  But I wonder what cwm would sound like if a few songwriters, on occasion, forced themselves to write via a $50 ukulele from Guitar Center or, in the spirit of Leonard Cohen, on a cheap Casio keyboard from Wal-Mart. 

Diversity is such a buzzword these days and appropriately so the vast majority of the time.  How about a little more diversity–melodically, harmonically, lyrically–in contemporary worship music?  Bruce Hornsby could serve as a great model for two of the three, anyway.  Consult your local Psalter for the third.

The Lord be with you!

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Songwriting Tips from the Experts, Part 12

The spring semester at Judson University pretty much launched, I’m going to try to finish up this series on excellent songwriting in the next month or so.  My mom purchased volume 2 of Paul Zollo’s Songwriters on Songwriting for me for Christmas, and the second collection is equally massive, so I’ll probably share insights from it next fall, Lord willing, after I digest its 700 or so pages over the summer.

Since it’s been a while, let me bring us up to speed on this series.  As a Christian academic with advanced degrees in both English and worship, I sometimes despair of the quality of that which songwriters writing for the Church put forth and ask me to sing.  When I began this series last summer, I wanted to challenge worship leaders who felt God was calling them to write songs for His people to sing corporately to up their game–contemporary worship music (cwm) has enough four-chord power ballads to last until the new millennium–and to consider elements of traditional songcraft as they compose. 

Zollo’s interviews, though certainly not a definitive collection, have introduced us to some of the giants of popular song over the past 50 years, including Leonard Cohen, Lamont Dozier, Carole King, and Paul Simon.  Though none write from a specifically Christian worldview (I answer that and other objections to this exercise in the post, linked above), if we subscribe to the notion that all truth is God’s Truth, we humbly acknowledge that even athiests and agnostics, by virtue of bearing Imago Dei, have, in their better moments (like all the rest of us, part darkness, part light) something to offer this discussion.  

SuzanneVegaLebanonNHWe pick up with an artist some would consider a one-hit wonder, but, oh, what a hit it was.  Suzanne Vega’s “Luka” bounces along like any number of examples of late-80’s pop fluff until you stop and digest the lyrics and realize she’s singing about the horrors of child abuse.  Though nothing else she produced topped “Luka” for culture impact, Vega nevertheless wrote numerous excellent songs, including an elegy to loneliness, “Marlene on the Wall,” and the haunting “Men in a War.” 

As was the case with earlier writers we’ve looked at, not all of Vega’s responses to Zollo’s questions serve our purposes, but a couple of quotes related to the artistic muse–which, of course, believers would describe as the Holy Spirit–struck me as I read.  When asked about a song that came to her “like a bulletin,” Vega said the following about those pieces that come fairly easily:

[T]he best songs are just like that. . . . It’s when you are connected with something outside of yourself.  It’s when you are connected with something happening in life.  It relates back to paying attention to the situation that’s outside of yourself. . . . It’s not enough to just invent it.  It has to be connected to something real outside of yourself.

Her notion of writing “outside of yourself” strikes a chord when we sing so many songs that focus on our own, self-referential experiences in cwm.  To be fair, these kinds of devotional songs are rife in the Psalms, complete with first-person pronouns galore.  But the overall diet of the Psalter, of course, includes a wide variety of styles (especially lament) we hardly ever encounter in cwm.  A good question as a rule of thumb: As you survey your worship set on any given Sunday, ask yourself who gets the best action verbs.  If the answer isn’t the Father, Son, and/or Holy Spirit, there’s a problem.

In reference to a lyric that just appeared “as though I had nothing to do with it,” Vega noted the following interesting occurrence related to rhyming:

[Y]ou know you’ve really got it when everything starts to rhyme of its own accord . . . the rhythms and the rhymes just seem to be right there.  And it seems inevitable.  And you’re kind of held in the grip of this for a few hours.  For two or three hours you’re just held by this and you have to finish it.  You can’t just leave it.  You’re completely absorbed by this thing.  And it seems to be taking place in front of you as though you’re watching it.  It’s a very peculiar thing.  And it’s wonderful when you feel it.  And later you look back and think, ‘How did I do that?’  And it’s almost as though you didn’t do it.  And it’s very scary, because you’re sure it’s not going to happen again.

I was watching a special on JFK.  And I noticed that people, when they are very moved by grief, that their language became very condensed and would start to rhyme.  And they weren’t being poetic.  They were trying to express something that meant a lot to them.  And I noticed that the quality of their language changed.  Suddenly they started to speak in that way that you speak when you’re writing songs, if you’re close to something truthful.

Fascinating stuff.  So often I think we’re just scratching the surface of what’s available to us, even when considering an artform as utilitarian (in the best use of that adjective) as congregational song.  Here’s to “fuller, richer, and truer” cwm songs in 2021!

The Lord be with you!

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A Few Podcasts You Might Really Enjoy

Full disclosure: I don’t regularly listen to podcasts for the following reasons: 1) I have already mourned, for many years, that unless I live to be 120, I am going to go to my grave with numerous fabulous books left unread on my various shelves, so, given an hour to kill, I’d just as soon spend it with Dostoevsky, Lewis, or even Christie (if I need a little escapism); 2) I am the son of a music educator who preached that all music–high-brow, low-brow, and in-between-brow–had merit potentially.  “Warren, there’s good classical music and bad classical music,” he’d preach.  If he were alive today, he’d say, “There’s good screamo and bad screamo,” I have no doubt.  There’s just too much good music for me yet to explore; 3) I am also my father’s son in the sense that I function best doing something if I’ve going to be “held captive” by someone talking for any great length of time.  The ADHD strain in Anderson males takes root more noticeably in my brother, but I’ve got a touch of it, too, and because I don’t want to think too much when I’m engaged in other affairs like chores around the house, music is usually my background noise of choice.

That said, if I were to begin listening to podcasts, I’d start with these.  In the endless sea of talking heads available, I’m happy to suggest you consider the following.  I have a personal relationship with each of these entrepreneurs, and three are former students of mine.  That said, as the opening paragraph would suggest, I have only casually listened to two of these, and, for the other two, I am featuring them based solely on my experience as their hosts’ professor in recent years.  In other words, you listen at your own risk, and any opinions expressed on the podcasts, though they come from the hearts and minds of Judson University alumni, do not necessarily represent positions (political, theological, or otherwise) consistent with any similar positions espoused by Judson University.  (Once such a disclaimer would have been unnecessary–when the benefit of the doubt was offered far more universally–but that era is long gone, and, in our fractious times, it feels important to emphasize this.)  With that caveat, consider these for your podcast pleasure, offered in alphabetical order of the entrepreneur:

karinDr. Karin Anderson Abrell is a former psychology professor, a terrific author and speaker, and my sister, so I’m stupid biased when I say she offers great things to anyone in any circumstance related to relationships.  She has a complete-package social-media world encompassing numerous platforms under the general umbrella of Love & Life, including a Monday podcast.  She writes, “On Love & Life we explore research methods for happy, hopeful, positive living.  I delve into all the good stuff–how to have true intimacy in romantic relationships, more meaningful friendships, healthier family connections, and more fulfilling careers.”  You can access all of Karin’s materials at her website.

MattMatt Calio serves as the worship pastor at Crossview Church (EFCA) in DeKalb, IL.  I’ve known of Matt all his life, as his mom and I were at Judson together in the 80’s, but I really came to know and appreciate his deep thoughtfulness regarding the Christian faith when he came to JU, and he has continued his lifelong learning via his current pursuit of a master’s at Denver Seminary.  His podcast, called Bible, Books & Culture, airs every Friday.  Of the podcast, Matt says, “Our tag line is ‘seeing the grace of God in our literature and lives,’ so our hope is whether we’re reading a book, talking about our lives, or engaging in the world around us, we’ll be able to point out the grace of God in it all.”  You can access the podcast at Spotify and Apple Music

AaronI have worshiped under numerous worship leaders, and I’ve had the distinct privilege of helping to train many others who are truly excellent.  That said, if I could be led in worship by only one person, it’d be Aaron Niequist.  Raised low-Church evangelical, Aaron encountered high-Church liturgy in his late 20’s and 30’s, and it changed his life, a process eventually leading to his writing the excellent The Eternal Current, upon which his podcast is based.  He writes, “Even if your faith container seems to be failing, don’t give up.  You may give up on certain versions of religion, but let’s learn how to enter more deeply into the way of Christ.”  Aaron’s big-tent, both/and approach to worship is refreshing, and you can access the podcast and a bunch of other resources here.

SarahThe final podcast entrepreneur, Sarah Reynolds, was a student in Communication Arts, one of Judson’s most eclectic majors, so it’s no surprise that hers in the most idiosyncratic, perhaps, of all the offerings here.  Her brand-new Fresh Out of Spoons podcast features a look at how to survive and thrive, even while living with chronic illnesses.  Sarah’s goal is to “create a fun and safe space to discuss life with chronic health conditions.  We also enjoy sharing tips on finding great doctors to work with, pain management techniques, and any other advice we can share based on our experiences with various conditions.”   

I’m pretty stoked to share these with you.  I might have to become a podcast convert myself!

The Lord be with you!

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A New Old Book You Will Want to Read

I have a handful of go-to writers when it comes to worship.  If I want to put contemporary worship music (cwm) into historical context, I consult my former Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies professor Lester Ruth.  If I want to focus on worship’s potential for corporate spiritual formation, I turn to Marva Dawn.  If I want to look at the rich contributions of the African-American church to worship, I grab anything by James Abbington.  If I want to rekindle my first love where worship is concerned–and see how all the above intersects in holistic and beautiful ways, I take one of my 19 books written or edited by Robert Webber off the shelf.

rory-header-3But if I had to choose only one author whose work I’d want to have with me on a desert island, it would be Rory Noland, director of Heart of the Artist ministries and a former adjunct professor at Judson University’s Demoss Center for Worship in the Performing Arts.  I’ve known Rory for many years and knew of him before that.  Because I live in the northwest Chicago suburbs, I’ve been impacted by the ministry of Willow Creek Community Church, where Rory served for many years as music director.  When years ago I encountered a young man whose last name was Noland in one of my classes, I casually asked, “You wouldn’t happen to be related to Rory Noland, would you?”  He smiled and said, “That’s my dad.”  Soon thereafter, I invited Rory to share thoughts on The Heart of the Artist with an Intro to Worship class I was teaching, since we were using the book as the class text.  The rest is history.

I am very pleased to use this space to alert readers to the publishing of a second edition of that classic, The Heart of the Artist, newly revised.  From Noland’s preface:

The second edition contains a great deal of new content.  As I’ve taught this material over the years, I’ve continued to add new insights and illustrations.  While this edition contains the same basic content as the original, it reflects additional learning I’ve gained since the book’s first publication.  I’ve updated the scenarios at the beginning of each chapter that, along with the discussion questions, introduce the chapter’s topic.  People often ask me whether these short, slice-of-church-life stories are true.  I assure them they are; each one is based on real people I’ve known or encountered while ministering in the church.  But I jokingly add that the names have been changed to protect the guilty.

Let me stop with that sentence to highlight what I love best about Noland’s efforts.  Unlike so many authors–all of whom, understandably, must promote themselves in some fashion since their writing helps support their families and careers–Noland never seems to make grandiose self-referential splashes or pronouncements.  He’s hardly ever on social media, the obvious place to blow your own horn (however justifiably), which no doubt costs him some prestige and renown.  And I just thumbed through all four of his books looking for one–just one–photo of him.  There were none to be found, and at first glance I don’t see one in The Heart of the Artist, 2nd ed.  Perhaps the motivation for this admirable humility comes from a bit of wisdom from the School of Hard Knocks.  More from the preface, honesty that has endeared Noland to so many:

I’m embarrassed to admit how spiritually immature I was in my early days of ministry.  Whenever conflict occurred, I was convinced it was everyone else’s fault.  Certainly not mine!  Much to my surprise, I began noticing that more often than not I was to blame; I was the cause of the strife.  Or at the very least my stuff was exacerbating the problem.  My immaturity and lack of character threatened to undermine the ministry I was trying to build. . . .

I didn’t write The Heart of the Artist because I had life all figured out and had conquered all my shortcomings.  I have struggled with every character defect discussed in this book, and I continue to wrestle with my old nature.  I have learned much along the way, most of which grew out of my quiet times with the Lord.  I’m happy to report that I have made significant progress over the years.  The Lord, in his mercy, has grown me up in significant ways, but I certainly haven’t arrived yet.  I continue to apply the things I share in these pages, and I feel privileged to be able to pass on what I’ve learned to the next generation of church artists.

I am so grateful that students at Judson University have over the years been some of the “next generation of church artists” whom Noland has blessed.  I am eager to dive into the revised edition of The Heart of the Artist.  The first one was a milestone in practical theology for church musicians and worship leaders.  This one will be even more significant, I have no doubt.

Just in case you don’t have them already, also consider Noland’s . . .

  • Thriving as an Artist in the Church, excellent for all the various creatives in your church
  • The Worshiping Artist, a fabulous handbook for growing worship leaders
  • Worship on Earth as It Is in Heaven, a primer on worship as spiritual formation.

The Lord be with you!

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MLK, Current Events, and 135-Year-Old Corporate Worship

Today Americans celebrate the legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. This year’s martin-luther-king-jr-9365086-2-402remembrance, in light of recent national events, provokes interesting social commentary, to be sure, given King’s penchant for non-violent responses in the face of aggressive resistance to the pursuit of justice. To whatever extent it’s true that “silence is violence” (a fascinating discussion for another day, assuming one is  willing to engage in dispassionate, heuristic dialogue), newspaper op-eds and the various spheres (Twitter-, blogo-) of social media are rife with pacifists, such is the significant volume–quantity and loudness–of the commentary these days.

All this has put me in mind of one of my favorite hymn texts, “Lead on, O King Eternal.” Andover Theological Seminary student Ernest Shurtleff, apparently at the encouragement of his peers, wrote the song in 1887 for his graduating class’ commencement ceremony. Kenneth W. Osbeck, in the classic Amazing Grace: 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions, quotes Shurtleff’s motivation: “We’ve been spending days of preparation here at seminary. Now the day of march has come, and we must go out to follow the leadership of the King of kings, to conquer the world under his banner.”

If that sounds eerily like rhetoric emanating from our nation’s Capitol a week and a half ago, stay with me here. Take a phrase or two from “Lead on, O King Eternal” out of context, and you can make a case for all kinds of behavior that is irresponsible at best and directly counter to the cause of Christ at worst, what with talk of “lift[ing] our battle song” and the “crown [that] awaits the conquest.” “Lead on, O God of might,” indeed.

a315258ffc553b14d316c93cf796b392_400x400But the “might” to which Shurtleff alludes is what the brilliant theologian Robert Farrar Capon refers to as “left-handed power,” in his theology of Christ’s parables: Kingdom, Grace, and Judgment:

Unlike the power of the right hand . . ., left-handed power is guided by the more intuitive, open, and imaginative right side of the brain.  Left-handed power, in other words, is precisely paradoxical power: power that looks for all the world like weakness, intervention that seems indistinguishable from nonintervention. . . .

Which may not, at first glance, seem like . . . an exercise worthy of the name power.  But when you come to think of it, it is power–so much power, in fact, that it is the only thing in the world that evil can’t touch.  God in Christ died forgiving.  With the dead body of Jesus, he wedged open the door between himself and the world and said, “There!  Just try and get me to take that back!”

Following graduation, according to Robert J. Morgan in Then Sings My Soul (Book 2), Shurtleff pastored several churches in America before accepting a call to plant a church in Frankfort, Germany, where he and his wife ministered to European students.  “When World War I broke out, Ernest labored to exhaustion in relief ministries, feeding the poor and the displaced.  He died in Paris in 1917, during the war.  His life was the embodiment of his hymn. . . .”

As we inaugurate a new President on Wednesday, as rhetorical uncivil wars and rumors of literal civil wars abound, I commend, in the spirit of Dr. King, the second, lesser-known, verse of Shurtleff’s “Lead on, O King Eternal,” especially the concluding quatrain, my prayer for my fellow American Christians in 2021:

Lead on, O King Eternal,
Till sin’s fierce war shall cease,
And holiness shall whisper
The sweet amen of peace;
For not with swords’ loud clashing,
Nor roll of stirring drums,
With deeds of love and mercy
Thy heav’nly kingdom comes.

The Lord be with you!

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A Prayer for Corporate Worship at the Beginning of a New Year

Happy New Year!  I hope 2021 has started well for you.  May God grant us grace to survive and thrive amidst whatever comes our way over the next 12 months.  Doctoral dissertations in sociology will be written in the years ahead concerning our collective understanding of thriving during the COVID-19 pandemic, I have no doubt.

I am also quite certain doctoral dissertations in ecclesiology will be written in due time regarding the contemporary Church’s corporate response to the coronavirus, deep dives unearthing salient cause-and-effect relationships between any number of physical realities and spiritual applications in congregational worship.  A cynic would jump in here to say, “Duh!  Contemporary worship in the past 25 years has traversed one long syncretic slippery slope that ends up with complete abdication to Hollywood values.  The pandemic has only exacerbated what was an inevitable transformation from content-rich to style-rich worship in our contemporary churches.”  (One writer who tends to land in this arena with regularity is Jonathan Aigner, and although I don’t usually agree with him wholeheartedly, he certainly provokes thought, for which I’m grateful.)

Dan-Wilt-Circle-Shot-2-300x300If there’s anything I had reinforced in 2020 it’s that all-or-nothing approaches don’t tend to be helpful (for most non-emergency matters) in the midst of a prolonged disruption to the status quo.  A writer who is a bit more nuanced in his concerns for current worship trends is longtime worship trainer Dan Wilt, who has designated this year as a year of worship renewal for himself and those who would join him.  If you can spare the time, I’m sure this Saturday’s webinarThe Worship Disruption: A New Paradigm of Worship Whose Time Has Come–will be worth the hour’s sacrifice.  I have used Wilt’s material off and on in my worship classes at Judson University and have friends who have interacted with him quite a bit more than I who greatly applaud his efforts, hence the confident recommendation.

I think an overarching summary of the feelings of some who study worship trends can be summed up in the words of Paul, from my try-to-be-daily devotional reading this past Sunday, which encompassed 1 Corinthians 2.  In vv. 3-5, Paul says (as rendered by the NLT),

I came to you in weakness–timid and trembling.  And my message and my preaching were very plain.  Rather than using clever and persuasive speeches, I relied only on the power of the Holy Spirit.  I did this so that you would not trust in human wisdom but in the power of God.

As I contemplate the preaching under which I’ve virtually sat over the past several months, rare was the delivery that featured any timidity or trembling.  Yes, of course, Paul’s speaking metaphorically, and, yes, God deserves our best, which includes effort spent in preparation.  But isn’t Paul addressing something deeper here, something that, if applied more often, could help stem the tide of the leadership failures we’ve seen in recent years, that which has prompted so many concern-for-celebrity-culture editorials, this one here being representative of many?

My study-bible notes on the passage above say this:

Human weakness is no barrier to God’s work (2 Cor. 12:7-10).  The real power is not in charismatic preaching, finesse of presentation, or logical persuasiveness (cp. 2 Cor. 10:10), but in the message itself, centered on Christ and his death for our sins, and in the power of the Holy Spirit, who convicts the human heart.

In that spirit, I conclude with a prayer for corporate worship in the contemporary church as we embark upon this new year, acknowledging the “strength for today” that has brought us to this place through frequently dismal circumstances and the “bright hope for tomorrow” in which we rest as best we can on any given day–sometimes confidently, occasionally anxiously, often gratefully, always with God as the source of whatever strength we can muster at the moment:

Sovereign God, Subject and Object of our worship, grant us, in the words of the great hymn, “wisdom [and] grant us courage,” especially where congregational worship is concerned, that our sacrifices of praise might to greater and greater extents form us spiritually “for the facing of this hour,” “for the living of these days,” “lest we miss Thy kingdom’s goal,” and “that we fail not man nor Thee,” through Jesus Christ, our Lord, and by the power of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

P.S.  I hope to finish up the “songwriting tips from the experts” series in the weeks ahead, culminating in a look at some current and recent songwriters writing for the Church whose work any aspiring Christian songwriter would do well to emulate.

The Lord be with you!

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Thoughts on Worship in the Academy at the End of a Rough Year

CWPA Demoss Stacked FC Logo PRINTWe celebrated the blessed end of a really difficult semester this past Saturday in the Demoss Center for Worship in the Performing Arts at Judson University.  (OK, we really celebrated Christmas, as is our wont in early December, but this year it certainly felt putting 2020 to bed for good earned a silver medal where reasons to be festive were concerned.)  I offered up a few reflections at the beginning of the worship concert, and I thought they might bear repeating here.  I pray they will be a blessing to you.

Good afternoon.  My name is Warren Anderson, and I’m the director of the Demoss Center for Worship in the Performing Arts at Judson University.  Welcome to the annual DCWPA Christmas Concert of Worship.  We’re so glad that you’re with us—either in person, as part of our live stream, or viewing the concert after the fact.  Thanks so much for taking the time to celebrate with us.

And what an unusual celebration it is this year!  Twenty-twenty has been a year for the history books in so many ways: from a global pandemic affecting millions around the world to civic unrest and contentious political elections here in America.  Both at home and abroad, many now live with new-found economic instability. 

On our own campus, we have had community members lose loved ones to the coronavirus, some at the end of long, well-lived lives, others well before their time, at least as we commonly understand that concept.  Normal campus life—for administration, faculty, staff, and students—has been altered so much and so often that embracing myriad accommodations has turned into the norm, the default setting for business-as-usual at the end of 2020.

And yet . . .

Here we are.  We are finishing up this semester . .  . on schedule.  We will graduate the December class of 2020 next Saturday . . . on schedule.  We are celebrating the DCWPA Christmas Concert of Worship today . . . on schedule. 

It has been difficult, yes, but along the way we have, by God’s grace and mercy, been stretched beyond what any of us could have imagined last year at this time. 

We have had meaningful, sometimes painful, but always fruitful conversations together regarding racial reconciliation. 

We have wrestled with the notion that all Truth is God’s truth and that all of us, even those on the polar extremes of any spectrum we encounter (be it theological, political, or cultural), bear the Image of God and cannot be canceled or dismissed if we are to follow the example of Jesus. 

And we have learned—and are continuing to learn—what it means to be a faithful, Christ-centered academic community in the midst of a confluence of circumstances the likes of which have not been seen in any of our lifetimes.  Yes, it has been hard.

But here we are.

And so this afternoon is a microcosm of the fall semester at Judson University in the year of our Lord 2020.  We have probably changed the details of this concert 20 times in the last four weeks, each time conceding various aspects of the norm to COVID. 

But here we are. 

Like the instruction that has occurred in our classrooms this semester, some of this concert is going to take place live, and some will be “online,” to use that term loosely. 

But here we are. 

Like our students, some of you are going to worship with us face-to-face, and some of you will do so from the comforts of home through the miracles of various technologies.

But here we are.

Yes, in the words of the Apostle Paul, “The show must go on,” an admittedly performer-friendly paraphrase of Phil. 3:13-14: “Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us.” 

Thanks again for being with us.

And then I prayed this prayer, amended slightly from a version that appears in the wonderful The Worship Sourcebook, with which I close this blog post with blessings for Advent!

O God, whose will is compassion for the poor, hope for the hopeless, and peace for the afflicted, let your herald’s urgent voice pierce our hardened hearts, steel our timid spirits, and announce the dawn of your kingdom.  Before the Advent of the one who baptizes with the fire of the Holy Spirit, let our complacency give way to conversion, our oppression to justice, and our fear to joy.  We ask through him whose coming is certain, whose day draws near: your son, our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever.  Amen

The Lord be with you!

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A New Christmas EP That Put a Smile on My Face This Weekend

mass-anthemAt the end of a sometimes frustrating week, at the end of an often difficult semester, and at the end of a frequently laborious year (but at the beginning, praise God, of a still hopeful Advent season), I was made aware of the latest recorded offering from Mass Anthem, a Nashville-based pop group compromised, in part, of former Judson University students of mine.  Mass Anthem Christmas features a few fresh arrangements of familiar Christmas fare, a song or two new to me, and a beautiful instrumental.  I commend it for your holiday listening pleasure.  After listening to the EP, I enjoyed some of Mass Anthem’s back catalogue, as well, and was reminded of my fondness for their sweet vocal arrangements and tasty production values.  If you’re new to this group, I think you’ll enjoy this introduction.

The Lord be with you!

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Bidding Farewell to The Practice

We interrupt for one week this series on songwriting to bid a fond farewell to an important voice in the contemporary American church, The Practice, a contemplative worshiping community self-defined as “seeking to live our everyday lives more fully in God’s presence so we might be formed by Jesus to be like Jesus.  We long to become the kinds of people who can put Jesus’ words into practice for the sake of the world.”  The six pillars upon which the founders, seven or so years ago, built this ministry promote being Kingdom-focused, equippers, practice-based, ecumenical, Eucharistic, and community-driven in all their endeavors.  Founded by Aaron Niequist and a number of curators, the ministry has been led most recently by Jason Feffer with a similar band of wonderful co-laborers.  Ironically enough, this contemplative community was birthed in the midst of an institution not known for serenity and introspection, the suburban megachurch, in this case, the most influential suburban megachurch ever, Willow Creek.

It’s to Willow’s credit that this “experiment,” as Niequist initially defined it, has lasted for these several years.  To support for as long as Willow did a ministry so intrinsically out of step with Willow’s (and every other megachurch’s) MO or raison d’être or defining ethos is indicative of a level of high-mindedness not often seen in the pragmatism-rules world of contemporary American ecclesiology (especially as seen in larger churches, whose management strategies so often seem as influenced by Wall Street as by the New Testament).  Indeed, The Practice, loved by many (full disclosure: I am in those ranks) for its breath-of-fresh-air willingness to defy all the prescriptive how-to’s deemed common and essential knowledge for “doing church” in the 21st century, was also feared by some for its embrace of a big-tent Christianity, including dipping corporate toes into pre-Enlightenment ways of understanding our common faith (i.e., stuff that doesn’t lend itself readily to highly polished and produced worship experiences).  Their informal motto down through the years, “Sunday is not the main event,” has run counter to so many of the unspoken messages coming from so many contemporary American churches.  So credit where credit is due to Willow’s leadership team’s endurance, grace that runs out at the end of 2020.

20201108_181222Over the years, the Judson University Choir has been privileged to contribute once or twice a year to worship at The Practice, singing in the round over and with those assembled.  These services have been a highlight of our usual year’s worth of choral ministry, so it felt particularly special to help lead last night, near the end of the run for The Practice.  Protocols (good and proper) at both Willow and Judson meant I traveled with only four of the Choir’s officers, and half of our contribution came in the form of pre-recorded, in-concert videos of the Choir down through the years, which we have curated on the Demoss Center for Worship in the Performing Arts’ YouTube channel.  Still, as with so much of our response to the pandemic, anything was far better than nothing, and it felt sacred to be gathered, even with a small subset of the usual, to serve and worship together.  An archived recording of the entire service can be accessed here.  (Dig our just-purchased, duck-billed-platypus-looking singers’ masks created by a NYC Broadway company.)  

At the end of the service, Jason Feffer mentioned the possibility of The Practice moving forward as a church plant, unattached from and unsupported by Willow.  I hope this happens.  The Practice has addressed a real need in the contemporary American church, one only exacerbated by the pandemic, which has turned all churches into media producers, an existential reality potentially Darwinian in its impact on local congregations, with the fittest churches able and willing to invest in HD cameras, sufficient bandwith, and the like, and the least fit scrambling to keep their doors open.  Those smaller fellowships that do survive COVID-19 might very well end up determining that the worship practices heretofore deemed immutably necessary for cultural relevance in 2021 and beyond no longer make sense for them in our current reality.  And that might look a lot like The Practice.  Here’s hoping.

The Lord be with you! 

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Songwriting Tips from the Experts, Part 11

dan-fogelbergI get to feature a Land-of-Lincoln homeboy in today’s post, Peoria-born Dan Fogelberg, who died far too young, 56, of prostate cancer back in 2007.  I’m partial to the singer-songwriters anyway, but I’m especially partial to Fogelberg, whose “Longer” my wife Lea and I had sung at our wedding.  I had played that song in a Crosby, Stills, and Nash-type country-rock trio back in my high-school days, along with other Fogelberg gems like “Part of the Plan” and “There’s a Place in the World for a Gambler.”  If you’re new to Fogelberg, you might know “Longer” and perhaps a couple of other classic songs in his canon, both of which resonate with me: “Leader of the Band” (his father, like mine, got his start in bandleading; enjoy the backstory at the beginning of the video and the outro) and the poignant “Same Auld Lang Syne.”

Fogelberg would not, I don’t think, have described himself as a born-again Christian, but he was a very spiritual person.  When asked by Paul Zollo, in the magnum opus Songwriters on Songwriting, how songs come to him, he put it this way:

I can’t sit down in a room and say, “Okay, I’m going to write a song now.”  Or make an appointment with another songwriter, which I find absolutely ludicrous.  But I know a lot of people in Nashville make their living doing that.  That’s not my style.  My stuff has to come from the Creator.  It has to come from an inspirational source.  And therefore I’ve gotten very patient and learned to wait.  And when I force myself, it usually doesn’t work.

Zollo asks about stylistic ruts all creatives find themselves in at some point in their lives.  Fogelberg was no exception:

[Y]ou try consciously to avoid [repeating yourself].  Every time you go back to one you say, “That’s too typical, try something else here.”  But I don’t have the chops to really be able to say I’m going to write a [jazz pianist] Dave Grusin piece because I’m a guitarist first.  So I think I have pretty decent technique so I can keep it from getting too trite, but there’s definitely a style to my playing.  Which I think most songwriters have, which is fairly simplistic.  If you’re a writer you don’t really have time to devote to being a really technical player.  So for me, piano is always a second instrument.

At the end of the interview, Fogelberg quotes Eagles’ bassist Timothy Schmit saying the best parts of songwriters are “the beginning and the end,” testifying to the real work involved in crafting an excellent song.  Zollo then asks if finishing a song releases a feeling of satisfaction for Fogelberg:

Absolutely.  Absolutely.  If I think it’s a good one.  In my criteria.  I’m pretty tough on myself.  A lot of stuff I’ll let go if I don’t think it’s worth the time.  When you do a good one and it’s finished, it still feels good.  It still feels great.  Songwriting to me is the ultimate reward, [the] ultimate thing I do.  It’s the most mystical thing I’ve ever experienced–and I don’t know what this is about–I do it and I don’t understand it and it’s just so amazingly unconscious.

Zollo follows up with a question as to whether Fogelberg gets a better handle on this mystery the longer he writes songs, and it gives the latter an opportunity to profess a belief in some Creative Being at work in his life:

No.  I sure don’t.  It’s given me a little more faith in a greater being, certainly.  But it’s still unexplainable.  And at some point you’ve got to make that leap from the intellectual process to blind faith, basically.  You’ve got to learn to trust those feelings.  You’ve got to use the Force, Luke.

I don’t know if Fogelberg put a Name to that Creator before he died (I hope so), but I’m grateful for his honest and spiritual music that takes me back to the soundtrack of my adolescence every time.

The Lord be with you!

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