Dr. Terry W. York
Professor of Christian Ministry and Church Music
George W. Truett Theological Seminary
Baylor University, Waco, TX
Offering Our Best in Church Music
All music is written in the same key. I can hear your thoughts: wow, he is old. He’s forgotten the circle of fifths. He’s forgotten that “Battle ends and down goes Charles’ father.” He’s forgotten that “Father Charles goes down and ends battle.” I haven’t forgotten (that, at least). Remembering those things, I still stand to declare that all music is written in the same key: the key of hope. Even the sad songs, even the dark and desperate songs are written in the key of hope. There is, indeed, both a major and a minor expression of the key, but whatever we compose or sing or play, whenever we make music, or listen to music, we do so in the key of hope.
Someone once said that all songs are love songs. That person and I may be saying the same thing. But, “All songs are written in the key of hope” is my story, and I’m sticking to it.
We could say the same about any, and all, art. All painting is in the color of hope. All dance moves and stretches toward, hope. All sculpture is in the shape of hope. All literature tells the story of hope. All poetry hopes beyond words. All music is written in the key of hope.
In its minor mode, hope sings lament into the air, hanging on to the possibility that someone will hear, hanging on to the hope that God is. In that sense, threadbare and frustrated as it might be, hope prays as it sings.
In its minor expression, the key of hope sings protest into the air, shaking a musical fist in the face of the oppressing power, even if that power is God, God’s self. Protest, itself, seldom works, but its song, written in the key of hope, gives evidence of a spirit not squelched; a spirit still alive. All songs are written in the key of hope, are sung and played in the spirit of hope. Bagpipes blare, even in battles that cannot be won. Misguided and horrendous as it was, the Nazi’s had hope of world conquest as they sang the tune we call AUSTRIAN HYMN in WWII. All songs are written and performed in hope.
With its lowered third, hope attends funerals and accompanies sad anniversaries. Even the crushing unaccompanied acknowledgement, “There is no hope” passes the banner and stewardship of hope to those who hear and mourn. Hope can be misshapen and misplaced, but all songs are written in the key of hope.
In the key of “Hope Major” hearts soar, beams of light penetrate dark clouds, and arms reach through the bars of every kind of prison. Some of you may have heard me say before that one of the most stunning paintings I have ever seen hangs in the Kremlin in Moscow. The painting depicts a boxcar stopped near a depot loading dock while the steam engine fills its boiler with water.
This boxcar is designed to carry people on their way to prison camp. In fact, people are in it; an old man, a young man and his young wife, and their two or three-year-old child. The faces of these four are pressed up against a small window with no pane. Reaching through the bars of the window, the parents are helping their toddler feed the last bits of a bread crust to a flock of sparrows gathered on the loading dock, under the window of the boxcar. They may well be on their way to starvation, but they do not feed the bit of bread to their baby, they help the baby feed the birds. Hope stopped me in my tracks and slammed me onto the bench that anticipated my weak-kneed response. I sat there, eyes frozen on the painting. Hope. Symphonies and oratorios, hymns and anthems filled my head even as tears filled my eyes. Hope: it is the tonal center of all songs.
In the key of hope, people dream impossible dreams, have climbed every mountain, have pushed through every hardship.
My i-tunes collection includes a recording of Aaron Copland’s playful setting of the children’s folksong “I Bought Me a Cat.” [Check It Out on YouTube]
Is that a song of hope? Yes, of course. It’s a fun song, a silly song full of the hope of childhood innocence and the hope that our children will remain safe and carefree. It is a fun song that transports us to times and places of lightheartedness and laughter. It is, indeed, written in the key of hope; Hope Major (or is it hope “minor,” given the shooting tragedies of our day?).
The title of my presentation this morning includes the phrase, “our best.” I would suggest to you in these moments, that the best we can do in any musical situation is to mine the hope contained in music. Dig around in its text, if the music includes words. Dig around in its notes and harmony and rhythm; dig around in it. Study the score looking for nuggets of hope. Mine it. This, of course, presupposes that you have selected rich music to perform. Dig, look for what sparkles with hope. Then help the performers to find it. Some they will find on their own. Some, you will have to point out as conductor. Say to your choir, “Here is hope.” Say to your congregation, “Here is hope.”
To do “our best” is to mine the music for its hope, and then to bring that hope out into the open. Your baton will become a pick as you chip away at difficult passages, but the mining of the music is your job, your call. Let it become your delight. Your difficult passion.
This mining isn’t complete when the music has been selected and rehearsed. Mining the music for its treasure of hope includes the performance, as well. Nuance in performance is the refining portion of the mining enterprise. Sometimes the nuance emerges from the fires of performance and surprises even you, the conductor, with its beauty and its insight. In performance you finesse a phrase moving, from “f” to “p,” from forte to piano, at a slightly slower tempo than you took in rehearsal, because the refinement in the moment calls for it. This is completing the important work of mining the hope that is in any piece of music.
All music is written in the key of hope. To do our best with it is to mine the piece, exploring, looking for all the hope that it contains.
The title of my presentation also includes the qualifier, “Church Music;” offering our best in church music. “Church music” enters the scene and suddenly art has a job to do. Music’s art has a function to perform. We say this without apology. We return to God a portion of the God-given gift of music in the context of liturgy. Music in worship is an act of tithing. Baptists love talking about tithing. If you’re not a Baptist, I’ll rephrase it for you: “Music in worship is an act of Christian stewardship.”
To do our best in church music is to guide our choirs and congregations into the mine, teaching them how to use their daily picks and shovels to find hope. There’s a lot of “fool’s gold” to be found in the world. It is shallow; easy to pick up here and there. All music is written in the key of hope, but hope can be misguided, misplaced, and misshapen as easily as truth can be misguided, misplaced, and misshaped.
I know I’m not supposed to preach until this evening, and even that is to be a “Reflection.” But, if you all don’t mind, I’m going to preach a bit here.
God’s Word, the Bible, is a light unto our feet and we would do well to take that light with us as we explore the depths of church music, looking for hope. There is hope that is secure, but it is not to be found in institutions, propaganda, or style. Our hope is in Christ. Help your choirs help you as you show the congregation what real hope looks like. Help your choirs help you as you show the congregation where to dig and how to refine and invest, even internalize, hope. Some music is richer than other music, but all music is written in the key of hope. Mine it. Find it. Teach your congregations to desire and to grasp real hope. Teach them that the God who has been our help in ages past, is, indeed, our hope for years to come. Teach your congregations to desire music rich in the hope found in God: Creator, Sustainer, and Comforter.
As an Academic Dean and professor at a seminary, I’m working to shape future pastors. You work with your pastor, to shape your choirs and your congregations. Teach them to mine hope; properly guided, properly placed, properly shaped hope.
When I was a minister of music, I would hear from time to time the admonition, “No hymns or anthems in a minor key.” But I say to you, and to the future pastors in my classes, church music cannot offer authentic worship to God, cannot offer truthful expression to its congregation, cannot offer courageous welcome to the world in the key of Hope Major only. To do so would be only “half-best Church music.” (say it fast). Our best in church music means writing, singing and playing music that tells the truth about and brings hope to all of life; on earth, and as we imagine it is in Heaven. We must sing in Hope minor, as well as Hope Major.
There’s one other word in the title of my presentation that remains to be considered. The word is “offering:” Offering our best in church music.
You know, as well as I, that worship is first, and foremost, to, for and about God. There is no agenda item that deserves to sit on the throne next to God. Worship is not to be efficient nor productive. Marva Dawn said it to us and for us years ago: worship is to be a “Royal Waste of Time.” We offer our best in church music to God, because God, and God alone, is worthy of worship, and no one else; nothing else is worthy of worship.
But, when we worship full on with all our heart and mind and soul, some of it overflows and splashes out and in that baptizing, we are transformed. Some worshippers get more wet than others, but that’s how transformation is in any given worship experience. That secondary wave of blessing washes out over the followers and the seekers in attendance. In worship we are baptized in hope, and you, lowly servants, carry the water. Carry on until Jesus turns plain ol’ water into the finest wine. Carry on! Sing hope! Mine it, refine it, sing it; sing hope.
Offering our best in church music must be allowed to walk alongside offering our best in Christ-following. Our music making, offered to God, must be in harmony with, must be the soundtrack of our daily living, which is to be daily offered to God. Our living, like our music making, is to be an offering to God, an offering that splashes out on those around us. In that living and in that music making, we give our all; all our skill, all our talent, all our striving. Yet we stumble. Stumbling must be accepted as inevitable. I don’t mean that disasters in performances and in life are inevitable, but we stumble. I hope you grant yourself and your choirs grace when that happens. We stumble, but stumbling does not stop us. We rehearse to reduce the amount of stumbling but, our best will be marked, now and then, by noticeable imperfection. Our prayer is that our stumbling will be in the right direction; the direction of hope.
All our songs are written in the key of hope.
We humbly hope that our best will be acceptable to God, and we hope that our confessions will be met with God’s forgiveness. Our society and culture hope that “someone in the great somewhere hears every word.” As church musicians, we call that someone God: the loving, forgiving, redeeming God who is our hope. Before speech, in its soaring, finally gives way to silence, it extends and stretches through song. Hummed, whistled, sung, or simply remembered; every song is written in the key of hope.
In our world, we see crumbling before our very eyes the institutions, structures and concepts in which we have traditionally placed our hope. Our society and culture are approaching a state of hopelessness. Beware, because hopelessness is the most dangerous state of mind and heart on earth. Its danger lies in the fact that hopelessness is an emotion without a song. Misplaced hope can be transformed, but hopelessness (the death of hope) must be resurrected.
I do not think it naïve or narrow to say that we have the songs of transformation. We have the songs of transformation and resurrection because the Church’s song is the song of hope in Christ. This is not a boast. It is the acknowledgement and acceptance of a solemn call. We can no longer consider music making at church to be nothing more than a steady gig. We can no longer see the Church’s mission simply as the preservation of beautiful musical. For the sake of the world we are called to always offer our best in the many facets and forms of Church Music.
The concept of offering our best in church music can ripen us to courage. But we must not allow it to spoil us. We must not allow the desire to offer our best in church to drive us to frustration and despair. Rather, we must embrace the offering of our best in church music as a source of hope. Primarily and ultimately, offering our best in church music is an act of worship. Secondarily, our best in church music is a gift of hope, offered to our congregations, and then, through them, to the world.
Terry W. York