Monday, October 31, 2011


It was 1985, and I knew very little about actually doing music ministry full time. I had assumed some months earlier that I would be crafting a life that did not have music at the center. In fact, in late 1984 I was not even entertaining the notion of vocation in ministry. I told my Karen on my 29th birthday that at 30, I would symbolically put my personal set of Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians up on the top shelf - a memorial toa rich and satisfying music education, and a silent witness to my amateur status. Then the phone rang, that winter got complicated, and before I knew it we lived in a different state, I was in a new career, and these people celebrating my birthday were barely known to me.

I was 30 years old, and a brand new pastor for worship and music. It was a Sunday. I was surprised that (a) they knew, and (b) they cared.

20 years later, and I was supposedly "seasoned" - ordained and now in my second church. I can barely believe that two ministries have failed to see through the sham, and here I was about to turn 50. That birthday would fall on a Thursday - rehearsal night - so my Karen agreed that a special birthday trip would allow me to miss a birthday night rehearsal. Perhaps not surprisingly (a) they knew, (b) they cared, and (c) they schemed. I was genuinely surprised one week early.

Time passes, and things change. But a vocation in church music is a great vantage from which to mark the passage of time, the changing of things. It is also (perhaps not unlike youth ministry) a vantage from which to notice . . . "man, you're old!" Especially in our fast-changing culture, there are few places in church life where one's age is so evident. A public role in worship - and people notice the hair changing color. The vairety of media to explore and discover new songs - and it's hard to keep up. The pop culture references among a staff mostly young enough to be my kids - and I'm thankful that my own grown kids help me track at least a little bit.

But it may be true in churches all over, the worship pastor that survives in that role past 50 (especially if he looks over 50!) is uniquely endangered. I can't - and don't - claim to be wise, so this is not a personal observation: but a biblical respect for those who have lived and served well ("elders" in a cultural, not an ecclesial, sense) is often no protection for the music ministry man. Even the aging hippy in a contemporary church will, ultimately, be the old guy.

Well, be that as it may, I approach another birthday with joy and satisfaction. I have a renewed perspective on my vocation. And I can even begin to see how certain limitations may make me a better minister. Not to mention, that a lot of young bucks cannot sing, convincingly, the song that is taking me to my birthday later this week:

Down the decades every year
Summer leaves and my birthday’s here
And all my friends stand up and cheer
And say man you’re old
Getting old
Getting old

Yeah, I'm right behind you, Paul Simon. And I can't wait to celebrate my birthday at your Chicago appearance!

Monday, October 24, 2011


It seems wrong, somehow, to end a long blog silence with a rant; even a mild rant. At least, I console myself, I am writing again . . .

My Karen and I got out again to City Church in San Francisco. Let it be established that our primary purpose for getting to SF is to see son Chris. Attending a service at City Church is just a delightful side benefit. We like the well ordered Reformed liturgy, the good clear preaching, the weekly communion. We like the songs the people sing, and enjoy the exceptional musicianship of the several-cuts-above-average "worship band." (It seems demeaning to call them the worship band, that's how good they are.)

I always come home with at least one new song from CCSF. This week was no exception. It was nearly a "2 new song" Sunday, except for the unfortunate, ubiquitous, iniquitous, misplaced use of syncopation in a song I'd never heard, and want desperately to have our people sing at College Church.

First, the good news. Matthew Smith's tune for an early 19th centruy hymn, "All Must Be Well" (Mary Bowley-Peters, 1813-1856). In this tune, there are two types of syncopation employed in the 6/8 meter. The first is a duple feel (2 strong pulses where you'd expect 3 flowing 8th notes). They are ideally placed on strong words: Savior, favor, healed us, shield us / Truibu-lation, sal-vation, con-fiding, guiding / to-morrow, sorrow, re-lying, dying. Not only apt for the natural emphasis on the words themselves, but aptly used for the sense of the lyric in each verse.

The second type of syncopation I will complain about shortly. But it worked here because (a) it is used sparingly, (b) it is used consistently, and (c) it actually reinforces the text: "all will be well / all is well / all must be well" in each stanza; with the words "be well" syncopated across the bar line so that the word "well" falls on the & of beat 1, rather than on the downbeat. (If you don't follow that, let me assure you that if you have sung any praise and worship music, you have sung this sycopation many times.)

Here is Matthew Smith singing "All Must Be Well" - I like it better as a congregational song, as led at CCSF.

So, if for no other reason, the foregoing is offered by way of demonstrating that I have absolutely nothing against syncopation per se (otherwise, whither music of any era?). But I do have serious disputes with the ubiquitous, iniquitous use of the praise and worship syncopation that so often [I had to go back and change the word "always" to "so often"] delays the strong syllable, and/or the important word in a lyric, placing it on a weak beat (the & of a pulse - as in 1 & 2 &, etc.]. The unfortunate victim in yesterday's otherwise excellent selection of songs is a Red Mountain Music setting (Bryan T. Murphy) of an 18th century hymn by Anne Steele (1716-1778), "Come All Ye Pining, Hungry, Poor."

Excursus - I applaud CCSF, and many other churches, for finding and using these old texts. This one is so powerful, and was completely unknown to me. I am thankful to have been introduced to it. I'll have to look for another tune (that won't be too difficult), and yet wish this one could work for me. This is so often true of the new guitar-driven hymn tunes. They could be better.

Just to give a quick picture of the issues here. (I'll claim these as my issues. But I'll argue the rhetorical issues with anyone interested in the argument.) Here are the opening 2 lines of verse 1:
Lord we adore thy boundless grace, the heights and depths unknown.
Here are the same 2 lines, with the strong syllables or important words underlined:
Lord, we a-dore thy bound-less grace, the heights and depths un-known.
And the same lines again, with the words or syllables underlined that are actually emphasized by the rhythms:
Lord we a-dore thy boundless grace, the heights and depths unknown.

Sorry, I am not making this up. Maybe I'm making too big a deal of it. To be fair, Bryan T. Murphy has written a really nice tune, that is easy and pleasant to sing. I suppose there is an affective quality to it that reinforces the "adore" posture of the hymn. I simply wonder - which came first? The text or the tune? How, in the refrain, are we left with the phrase (to use the accenting demonstration above) the Sav-ior's. Again, I want to be fair: the tune carries a feeling that I argue is completely apt for the text. And the musicians at CCSF made it work. I guess I'm just arguing that if - as is true in this case - there is all syncopation, so that no emphasis falls where it would naturally in speech, then none of the words stand out as innately more important.

Syncopation is (or ought to be) a device employed for effect. When it is used wholesale through a hymn text, in my view it undermines that text. Your results may vary. And now, here is the Red Mountain recording of Come All ye Pining, Hungry, Poor. If you listen, you will perhaps agree that given the style of Red Mountain, it is a really nice song. But me? I'd rather hear this than sing it. I'm glad to have been introduced to the song, and I shall now begin a search for a hymn tune that I feel a congregation can sing both with the mind and the spirit.