How shall I give thee up Ephraim. Cantata 89

I am pretty sure our minister, Claire Earl, didn’t know that the text she preached on this morning, Hosea 11, is used as the opening chorus of one of the Bach Cantatas for this very Sunday (the 22nd after Trinity)

Was soll ich aus dir machen, Ephraim, How shall I give thee up Ephraim? takes up the theme of judgment from the gospel of the day, the parable of the unjust steward in Matthew 18:23-25.

As in so many cantatas, the journey from law and judgment to grace and gospel leads to this wonderfully joyful aria. At the least the music is joyful. At first glance, perhaps the words less so.

Righteous God, ah, do you judge?
Then for the salvation of my soul
I will count the drops of blood from Jesus.
Ah! Reckon the total to my account!
Indeed, since no one can fathom it,
it will conceal my guilt and sin.

In his liner notes to his Bach Cantata Pilgrimage records from 2000, John Eliot Gardiner has this to say:

Given the seriousness of the text – a balance sheet of sins committed against the drops of Jesus’ redeeming blood – the ensuing aria for soprano and oboe seems astonishingly secular in it gaiety. [1]

But Gardiner has misunderstood the nature of the balance sheet. Jesus redeeming blood is, as Isaiah says in Isaiah 40:2, a complete match (doubled over as an exact covering) for all our guilt and sin. There is no possibility of a deficit.

The message of Hosea is stark. Israel (like us) was “bent on turning away” and deserved death for rebellion and sin. This is portrayed the starkest of terms. And judgment does come. And yet God says in Hosea 11:9, “I will not execute my burning anger.” How can God keep his covenant of love and grace, and at the same time show his justice and righteousness? Kevin Logan comments:

When Hosea first received this message from God, a huge question mark must have hovered in his mind. His faith in the justice of God must have been tested to the outer limits. Nevertheless he passed on the message…God had made his decision. There was no more to be said . . . at least not for another 700 years [2]

Here’s the answer. Bach understood this, and so does the incomparable Joanne Lunn in Gardiner’s recording from his cantata pilgrimage.  Jesus paid it all. No wonder this aria is so joyful. Nothing secular here. Bach didn’t understand the meaning of the word. This is Jesus calling his true love (as he does in most of Bach) to join us in the dance.

You can watch the movement here (sadly not with Joanne Lunn singing though)

[1] Liner notes to SDG171, Bach Cantata Pilgrimage volume 12. p. 8
[2] Logan, K. (1978). What is love?: Hosea. London: Fount Paperbacks.

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If Bach were my worship leader…why bother with Bach?

Over 20 years ago a Japanese organist and conductor, Masaaki Suzuki, embarked on a project to record all the sacred cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach. Suzuki introduced the first recording of what ended up as a series of 55 CDs of 196 works which make up what we have today of Bach’s output of sacred cantatas, with the following words (dated in the CD liner notes as “The 50th anniversary of VJ-day, 15th August 1995”)

It may seem strange to think that the Japanese perform the cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach, who was one of the most important figures in the history of German music…  ‘How is it that the Japanese, with such a different cultural heritage, dare play the music of Bach?’ – this is typical of the sort of question with which I was often confronted when living and performing in Holland a number of years ago…[1]

Suzuki talks about what caused him to embark on such an ambitious cycle, finally completed 18 years later in 2013. He says that “the God in whose service Bach laboured and the God I worship today are one and the same.” Bach’s music is “a true product of German culture” which gives a Japanese some difficulties, but “what is most important in infusing a Bach cantata score in real life in performance is a deep insight into the fundamental religious message each work carries” [1]

Concluding his thoughts in the last volume (volume 55) of the series, Suzuki implies that Bach’s cantatas are God-breathed in the same way as the scriptures.

Humbly I state that J S Bach and I believe in the same God. I am directly linked to the music of Bach through God. I have come to understand how Bach believed in God, as Bach inscribed his inner belief through his cantatas… With the help of his disciples, God left us the Bible. Into the hands of Bach, He delivered the cantata. This is why it is our mission to keep performing them: we must pass on God’s message through these works, and sing them to express the Glory of God. Soli Deo Gloria! [2]

So with the words, Soli Deo Gloria, to the glory of God alone, which Bach wrote at the end of his sacred and secular works, Suzuki proclaims Bach as the fifth evangelist, as others have done before him [3].

It is not only Suzuki who has been inspired to Herculean efforts by Bach’s cantatas. On Christmas Day 1999, in Weimar, John Eliot Gardiner embarked on his Bach Cantata pilgrimage with the aim of “performing all Bach’s surviving church cantatas in the course of the year 2000, the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death.” Further cycles of the cantatas are underway or have been recently completed from Ton Koopman, Philip Herreweghe, Sigiswald Kuijken, and almost every week another cantata recording seems to appear, not least in this year (2017) of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.  John Eliot Gardiner doesn’t mince his words as he claims that Bach “gives us the voice of God – in human form” [4].

I am fascinated by the impact that Bach’s music has had over the centuries and still has today. From Soviet communist students in the 1970s [5], to the Japanese of the new millennium, where Masaaki Suzuki has been reported as saying that he is convinced that tens of thousands of Japanese have been baptized because of Bach [6].  I myself have found Bach’s music to be very helpful in my Christian faith, pointing me back, as Suzuki puts it, to the God that Bach worshipped and that I worship today, and to his Word in the Bible.

Much research has been undertaken into the music of Bach, the cultural and social context and theology of the time, as well as the transmission of his music since, and impact today. Encouragingly, as Jeremy Begbie has noted, “there is much to suggest that the time is ripe for a new and rewarding conversation between theologians and musicians regarding this stupendously gifted craftsman of sound” [7].

But as far as I can determine, few if any have applied this to the context of a musician working in the church today. Even fewer have thought about his relevance to the work of a worship leader using contemporary worship music in the evangelical church, as I do. So, I have to ask myself, why not? Bach worshipped the same God that I do.  His pastors preached the Bible, as mine do.  And although Bach was not a committed Pietist, there are many aspects of Pietism that influenced the libretti of his cantatas [8], and appear to me to contain many of the same elements of mainstream evangelicalism and the charismatic movement (with quite a few of the same criticisms). We can trace a line from Pietism down to the present day, a recent example I have encountered being the influence of Count von Zinzendorf on Pete Greig and the 24×7 prayer movement [9].

Ruth Tatlow, in her book Bach’s Numbers, has written, in a musicological context, of the problem of hearing and thinking as Bach did.

The many philosophical and musical differences between Bach and ourselves are increasingly irreconcilable. A face-to-face conversation with Bach would be the simplest way to answer many of these questions, but as this is impossible the musicologist has to confront the problem and decide: either to give up any ambition to hear and think as Bach did, content to discover twenty-first-century resonances in his music; or to continue to attempt to hear as Bach did, and strive to understand the universe and music as he understood it. [10]

Like Tatlow, I choose the latter, and believe there must be value in attempting to understand the world in which Bach wrote, and therefore what makes Bach music speak to us of God so directly today, and how we could take those principles and apply them the worship of the church today, and especially to the context in which I mostly work – contemporary evangelical church worship.

I am not saying that all evangelical churches should add the occasional Bach Cantata to their repertoire of Chris Tomlin and Matt Redman [11], although Keith Getty has used the music of Bach in at least one of his songs (A Worker’s Prayer) and has called him “my hero for sure” and “the model of a church musician’’ [12]. I am saying, however, that Getty is right. Bach is the model of a church musician and, as such, there are things in the life and music of Johann Sebastian Bach, which can teach us how to be better church musicians, and something about how we use music in worship today.  That will help us in our day to day task of leading worship, and will also lead us to a deeper appreciation of Bach’s music itself.

It can legitimately be asked how a 20th Century musician leading a worship band can learn anything from an 18th Century musician leading concerted music with a baroque orchestra and choir in a cavernous, and often freezing Lutheran church.  I think this is a bit like the question that Suzuki has said was posed to him: ‘How is it that the Japanese, with such a different cultural heritage, dare play the music of Bach?’ [1]. The issue for us is not simply geographical/cultural or theological but also chronological distance. But the answer is the same one Suzuki gave which I referred to above: we worship the same God, Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever. As Christians, we may be able to find something in the music of Bach which people who don’t share his faith, although knowledgeable, might miss. Jeremy Begbie expresses a similar view when he asks:

Why should serious scholarship not consider the possibility that Bach’s music might articulate a disturbing resistance to some of the metaphysical and, indeed, theological (or anti-theological) axes on which modernity and much modern scholarship have habitually turned. [13]

If we use what Begbie calls a “biblically rooted perspective” [14] then I believe we can find the principles behind Bach’s music, and extract them from the time and place and give them a more eternal perspective which sounds down into the present day. Then we will have found something extremely valuable.  And if we think there is nothing to learn, then could we not be guilty of what C. S. Lewis called chronological snobbery?

This is not just hagiography, along the lines of those who claim that Bach was “never known to speak a word of complaint” [15]. A quick flick through Bach’s letters in A New Bach Reader will soon dispel that illusion [16]. But there’s value there too. The frustrations Bach had are not that different from those of any church musician, and we can learn both positively and negatively from how he handled them.

In the end, none of the above is particularly controversial. You might suggest that I am largely wasting my time, but if something good comes out of it that’s fine. However, there are a couple of areas which have got me into trouble before which I would like to explore.

Firstly, Harold M Best’s statement that music is without moral quality has always troubled me [17]. It troubles quite a few others in the more conservative evangelical stable too, but seems to have been accepted as orthodoxy elsewhere.  I would like to explore the nature of Bach’s music and, if possible, unpack a thought that there is something inherent in way Bach’s music is put together which makes it particularly suited to carry Biblical (propositional) truth. In this context, Ken Myers has argued that “Theologically conservative Christians adept at defending propositional truths often neglect the task of learning to discern non-propositional meaning” [18].  I will try to argue that Bach’s music is full of non-propositional meaning of the most Christian sort!

Secondly, the other orthodoxy is that music from all periods, all traditions of the Christian church is equally valid to be used in worship.  Let’s use (from a very non-exhaustive list) Gregorian Chant, the Eton Choir Book, Josquin, Palestrina, Tallis, Byrd, Purcell, Wesley, Fuguing tunes, Sankey, Elgar, James Macmillan, John Taverner.  My heart says yes, but my head says, wait a minute.  We would not use words from all periods of the Christian church in evangelical, bible-based worship.  We would recognise that there have been periods in the church that have been particularly fruitful in Christian thought, writing and preaching. We might cite (in another all too short short-list) the Reformation, the Puritans, the Wesleys and Whitfield, Spurgeon. Why could there not be periods in the Church that have been particularly fruitful in producing music for worship? I think particularly of periods of revival for example. I’m not so convinced of this second proposition. But I think it’s worth exploring, particularly in the context of understanding why Bach and his music came at the time it did.

So, if we can, in Ruth Tatlow’s words, “strive to understand the universe and music as [Bach] understood it” [9], and understand Bach’s music itself, perhaps we will be able to find why his music continues to have such an impact, and perhaps bottle some his “secret sauce” to pour liberally over our own efforts at leading music in worship today.


[1] Suzuki, Masaaki (1995). [Liner notes]. In Johann Sebastian Bach, Bach Collegium Japan, Masaaki Suzuki – Cantatas Vol.1 [CD]. Åkersberga, Sweden: BIS Records AB, 4

[2] Suzuki, Masaaki (2013). [Liner notes]. In Johann Sebastian Bach, Bach Collegium Japan, Masaaki Suzuki – Cantatas Vol.55 [CD]. Åkersberga, Sweden: BIS Records AB, 5

[3] According to Christoph Wolff, “The course was set in the nineteenth century. With the authoritative writings of Spitta and Rust, the concept of the ‘Fifth Evangelist’ was preordained.” In a footnote (12) he notes that “The notion of “Bach the fifth Evangelist” goes back to Nathan Söderblom, [1866-1931] the Swedish theologian, cf. Hans Besch, ‘J. S. Bach. Frömmigkeit und Glaube’ 2d ed. (Kassel, 1950), p. 3.” Wolff, C. (1999). Bach: essays on his life and music. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 285 and footnote 12.

[4] Gardiner, John Eliot (2013). Music in the Castle of Heaven: A Portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach. London: Allen Lane, 558

[5] Robin Leaver (2001). Bach, a Preacher? at 8’43’’. Retrieved from http://www.veritas.org/talks/bach-preacher/

[6] Weigel, G. (2001). Bach Converts Japan. Retrieved from  https://eppc.org/publications/bach-converts-japan/

[7] Begbie, J. (2015). Music, modernity, and God: essays in listening. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 41.

[8] Pelikan, J. (2003). Bach among the theologians. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 56-71.

[9] Greig, P. (2017). Dirty Glory. London: Hodder & Stoughton

[10] Tatlow, R. (2016). Bach’s Numbers: Compositional Proportion and Significance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 34

[11] Although, why not? One of the most wonderful performances of a Bach cantata I have heard was of Cantata 140, Wachet Auf, in the context of an evensong at an evangelical Anglican church, with a sermon preached (in this case before the cantata, not afterwards) explaining and expounding the Bible passages on which the cantata is based. It probably helped that my daughter was playing the oboe obbligato. The involvement of family for a worship leader is something we might explore further when we look at Bach’s own family and heritage.

[12] 9marks (2017). Music for the Church: Mark Dever Interviews Keith Getty. Retrieved from https://www.9marks.org/interview/music-for-the-church-mark-dever-interviews-keith-getty/, at 11’57’’

[13] Begbie, J. (2015). Music, modernity, and God: essays in listening. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 72.

[14] Begbie, J. (2015). Music, modernity, and God: essays in listening. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 48.

[15] Kavanaugh, P. (1992). The spiritual lives of the great composers. Milton Keynes, Eng.: Word Publishing, 34

[16] David, H. T., Mendel, A., & Wolff, C. (1999). The new Bach reader: a life of Johann Sebastian Bach in letters and documents. New York: W.W. Norton. For example see Bach’s resignation letter from Mühlhausen on page 57, or his dispute with the Rector Ernesti of the Thomasschule, Leipzig, on page 189ff.

[17] See Best, H.M. (1993). Music Through the Eyes of Faith. San Francisco: HarperOne.

[18] 9marks (2014). Music and Meaning: Some Forms Are Better than Others. Retrieved from https://www.9marks.org/article/journalmusic-and-meaning-some-forms-are-better-others/

A Musical Advent Calendar – 9.This is the Record of John

In style, this piece for Advent is not a carol at all. It’s a verse anthem by the great Elizabethan and early Jacobean composer Orlando Gibbons, alternating tenor or alto soloists and choir. It was written sometime before 1620 for Archbishop Laud and his college, St John’s, Oxford – the college being dedicated to John the Baptist.

Gibbons sets verses from the gospel of John (John 1:19-23) from the Geneva Bible – a translation widely used at the time while the Authorised Version was still in its infancy.

This is the record of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, Who art thou? And he confessed and denied not, and said plainly, I am not the Christ.

And they asked him, What art thou then? Art thou Elias? And he said, I am not. Art thou the prophet?  And he answered, No.

Then said they unto him, What art thou? that we may give an answer unto them that sent us. What sayest thou of thyself? And he said, I am the voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord.

The text is a simple, almost prosaic narrative as the Jewish priests seek to find out and challenge who John the Baptist really is and why he is out in the desert doing what he is doing.  The setting is straightforward although beautiful and very effective, not without the odd moment of near comedy (“and he answered, ‘no’!!”), and it’s not until the climax of John’s declaration that he is “the voice of him that crieth in the wilderness” (taking his cue from the prophet Isaiah) that the the piece really takes flight and Gibbons shows his true genius. That moment really makes the piece for me – making it probably my favourite Advent anthem.

In this version it’s performed with tenor soloist and a consort of Viols rather than just organ.

 

 

 

A Musical Advent Calendar – 7.Tomorrow Shall be my Dancing Day

You might not immediately think of this carol as one that belongs in your Church’s carol service,  whether with the traditional tune, or in my favourite arrangement by John Gardner, which dances along with the words. The refrain seems to reflect feasting and merry-making, rather that the real Christmas story. But as I have rehearsed it and sung it with choirs over the years it’s changed for me from being the sort of carol which you might want to sing at a carol concert, to one which encapsulates the heart of the gospel.

You might be familiar with the words…

Tomorrow shall be my dancing day
I would my true love did so chance
To see the legend of my play
To call my true love to my dance.

What on earth does that mean? What is the dance?

 

The dance is, I think, a picture of what the Revelation calls the marriage supper of the lamb – you can read about it in Revelation chapter 19:

 Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the roar of many waters and like the sound of mighty peals of thunder, crying out “Hallelujah! 
For the Lord our God 
the Almighty reigns.
 Let us rejoice and exult
 and give him the glory, 
for the marriage of the Lamb has come,
 and his Bride has made herself ready;
 it was granted her to clothe herself
 with fine linen, bright and pure”—for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints. And the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.”

And again in Rev 21:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

You’ll remember perhaps another parable in Matthew where we are called to be ready for Jesus to return, as a Bridegroom for her husband. I’ve already written about that when we listened together to Bach’s cantata Wachet Auf on Day 2. It’s a recurring Advent theme.

 

So it’s clear that each of us, as part of the Church as a whole, is called to be the bride of Christ, and one day we will be united with Jesus at his second coming. That’s the dance that we are being called to – the dance of Jesus’ second advent when we will be with him for ever and those wonderful promises of Revelation 21 will be fulfilled.

But back to our song. The original song Tomorrow Shall be my Dancing Day has eleven verses, which tell the story of Jesus’ birth, life, death and resurrection.  We’ll only hear the first four in this arrangement, but each concludes with the refrain.

Sing Oh! My love, oh! My love, my love, my love. This have I done for my true love.

Who is singing?  Well what immediately springs to mind for me is that beautiful passage in the Song of Songs chapter 2 which over the centuries has been interpreted as being the song of Jesus calling his bride the Church.

 My beloved speaks and says to me:
 “Arise, my love, my beautiful one,
and come away,
11 for behold, the winter is past;
the rain is over and gone.
 The flowers appear on the earth,
the time of singing has come,
and the voice of the turtledove
is heard in our land.
 The fig tree ripens its figs,
and the vines are in blossom;
they give forth fragrance.
Arise, my love, my beautiful one, 
and come away.

What moves me so much each time I sing this, is the wonderful news contained in this simple (and seemingly rather unspiritual) refrain, that everything in Jesus’ birth, death and resurrection and ascension was done for the glory of God and for his true love – and that’s us.   This is truly the heart of the gospel – God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son. Now we can know that truth in part (and how we need to keep reminding ourselves of it) and one day when He comes again we will see him face to face.

A Musical Advent Calendar – 2. Sleepers Wake!

While not strictly written for season of Advent (it’s actually for the week before), Bach’s cantata Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme (Awake, calls the voice to us) BWV140 is always closely associated with Christmas.

It’s a relatively late addition to his incredible set of over 200 (surviving) church cantatas, written as part of his project to create “a well-regulated or orderly church music to the glory of God.” As a man of deep Christian faith, Bach felt strongly his calling from God as a musician, and so as soon as he arrived in Leipzig in 1723, where he was to spend the rest of his life, he started on a bout of furious cantata composing. For three years he came up with a new work for the church service every Sunday, as well as several Passions and a variety of other music. It was an unprecedented creative burst which left a lasting legacy.

For this cantata Bach turned to a hymn from the theologian Philipp Nicolai. The epistle for the day – 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 – is about preparation for the Last Judgment, but the service focusses on the Gospel reading from Matthew 25:1-13, and the parable of the ten virgins or bridesmaids, with Jesus’ reminder to his disciples that they should be ready and waiting for his coming again in glory.

The parable concerns a wedding and ten bridesmaids, five wise and five foolish, who take their lamps and go to meet the bridegroom – a picture of Jesus himself. The foolish ones take their lamps, but no oil – a mistake the wise ones don’t make.  The bridegroom keeps them waiting; they all grow tired and fall asleep.  Around midnight there is a shout: “Look, the bridegroom comes.” The foolish bridesmaids’ lamps have burned out and they have no oil to fill them. So while the foolish girls set off to buy more oil, they miss the arrival of the bridegroom himself. Only the five wise ones remain to join the feast, and for the rest the door to the Kingdom of Heaven remains shut.

Bach’s librettist expanded Nicolai’s three-verse hymn by adding recitative and aria texts. After the opening chorus, where we are invited to wake up, prepare, and search for the bridegroom’s return, Bach leads us in a dance with two of the most beautiful love duets in music – not between couples united in earthly love, but rather with Jesus as the bridegroom (bass) and the faithful Soul as the bride (soprano).  These beautiful movements, really trios for two soloists and instrumental obbligato, draw from the Song of Solomon, considered in Lutheran and Puritan tradition as an allegorical love song between Christ and the Church. The final chorale combines praise of God with a vision of the joy that awaits the faithful in the heavenly Jerusalem – complete with twelve pearly gates!

Truly in this cantata Bach provides us with some of his most wonderful music -and from what we know the cantata is one of the few that continued to be popular immediately after his death. It’s inspired by the Joy of Christmas, where we celebrate God with us, Jesus, Emmanuel, and the hope of his return in Glory, when his invitation to His true love to join the dance is finally fulfilled. With Bach, as it can with us, the dance starts now.

This performance is from eminent Bach interpreter Ton Koopman, and you can follow text and translation here. Worship with Bach’s congregation this Christmas (but in the warmth of your own home and without the lengthy sermon in German that would have followed this!)

Bach later took one of the movements and arranged it for organ, as he did with 5 other cantata movements to form the 6 Schubler Chorale Preludes.

 

God as our Father, the privilege of Adoption

Recently I have been greatly helped by a blog series on Adoption from C J Mahaney and particularly the chapter on Adoption  in J. I. Packer’s book, Knowing God.

Packer says this:

Our first point about adoption is that it is the highest privilege that the gospel offers. (J. I. Packer, Knowing God)

J. I. Packer considers adoption the highest privilege of the gospel—higher even than justification—because of the richness of the relationship with God with which it is associated.

In adoption, God takes us into his family and fellowship—he establishes us as his children and heirs. Closeness, affection and generosity are at the heart of the relationship. To be right with God the Judge [justification] is a great thing, but to be loved and cared for by God the Father [adoption] is a greater.

Some time ago I started reading Thomas Watson on the Lord’s Prayer alongside a sermon series on the Lord’s Prayer we were having at church and noted the following in answer to his question, “Wherein lies the happiness of having God for our Father?”  Privilege indeed.

(1) If God be our Father, he will teach us (Is 48:17)
(2) If God be our Father, he has bowels of affection towards us
(3) If God be our Father, he will be full of sympathy (Ps 103:13)
(4) If God be our Father, he will take notice of the least good he sees in us
(5) If God be our Father, he will take all we do in good part
(6) If God be our Father, he will correct us in measure
(7) If God be our Father, he will intermix mercy with all our afflictions
(8) If God be our Father, the evil one shall not prevail against us
(9) If God be our Father, no real evil shall befall us
(10) If God be our Father, we may go with cheerfulness to the throne of grace
(11) If God be our Father, he will stand between us and danger
(12) If God be our Father, we shall not want anything that he sees to be good for us
(13) If God be our Father, all the promises of the Bible belong to us. Pardon…Salvation…Healing. A Child of God may go to any promise in the Bible, and pluck comfort from it
(14) God makes all his children conquerors
(15) If God be our Father, he will now and then send us some token of his love
(16) If God be our Father, he will indulge and spare us
(17) If God be our Father, he will put honour and renown upon us at the last day
(18) If God be our Father, he will settle a good inheritance on us. ‘It is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom’
(19) If God be our Father, it is a comfort in case of the loss of relations
(20) If God be our Father, he will not disinherit us

Word and Music – taking it forward

It is a long time since I blogged here and I was inspired to have another go after seeing my former minister Michael Quicke a week so ago. Michael was the person who started me on my Christian music and worship journey.  He gave me the opportunity to play the organ at my home church in Blackburn when I was only a teenager. He gave me a job as music director at St Andrew’s Street Baptist in Cambridge when I was only 18. He set me on a course to understand that excellence in music in worship was a great thing, that music and indeed worship as a whole should reflect above all the glory and majesty and beauty of God.  He was and is an amazing preacher and communicator, and lover of all that is best in music.

Those were the days when I practised hymns on the organ over and over to get the speed just right, tried to illustrate the words with differing registrations for each verse, collected last verse harmonisations to provide a thrilling conclusion to the great hymns of praise, wrote trumpet descants for my friend Jackie to play.   I used also to choose organ voluntaries for after the service that were (for the most part) loud and triumphant – to send people out confidently to “live and work for His praise and glory.”

Those services of worship were ones where preaching and worship went hand in hand.

As an aside, even now as well as still loving great hymns and organ pieces, I get most excited at church in worship when we sing joyful gospel music, or loud songs of praise, or beautiful quiet songs, and struggle most to engage during times of “intimate” worship or response times when the focus seems to be all about me and how I feel about God, how I am going to respond, how He might want to fix things that are wrong with me, and less about who God is.   Rather than build confidence and faith in God, for me these times seem to undermine that.  I am not saying they are wrong, but I certainly struggle hugely with them.  Am I the only one?

The last time I blogged, it was about my Bach studies and how Bach’s music, particularly, is a medium for letting the Word of Christ dwell richly in us.

 

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. (Colossians 3:16 ESV)

The other passage that has been of great significance to me over the past 20 years is Psalm 40.

He put a new song in my mouth,
    a song of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear,
    and put their trust in the Lord. (Psalm 40:3 ESV)

Here the Psalmist talks about music as a medium for proclaiming the works of the Lord, above all proclaiming the salvation of God and the truth of the gospel.

So I am taking up the computerised pen again, and will use this blog to keep exploring how music can best proclaim the truth of God and help his Word well in us as richly as possible.

I want to try and look at this from an historical and contemporary perspective.  No doubt Bach will feature, but I want to see how other composers over the centuries approached this task, or failed in it.  I hope that regular blogging will gradually cause some key ideas to surface which may point to how, in our day, our worship can enable the Word of Christ to dwell in us as richly as possible.

I hope that if these ideas interest you, you will respond, comment, point me to different avenues of exploration. I am excited about how music, actually ALL music, can point to God and how all theology can and should elicit deeper worship.