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The Labor of a Church Musician, Part 1

Note: This is the first of a two-part series, delivered by Harold Best at the 2014 Doxology & Theology Conference.

Consider these thoughts:

Labor out your salvation in fear and trembling, knowing that God Himself is working within you, both in deciding and doing what He’s called you to decide and do…

Your labor need not be in vain…

Come to me all that not only labor but are in it up to their eyeballs, and find rest… take on my work-yoke: my foolishness, my rejection, my cross, my God-forsakenness, my being raised and watching my Church mix its home-grown foolishness with my kind of foolishness–take on my labor; it’s easy and my yoke is light – take all of it and don’t turn around and mix it in with your former shtick; otherwise you’ll wish your eyeballs were on stilts.

I’m sure you’ve noticed the last two words in the title of this post: Church Musician. Too gray headed? Too pipe organ-ish, choir loft-ish, un-drumset-like?

Well, these are the only words that properly describe what you are doing, right along with Dr. Peter Pedal Pusher on the pontifical pipe organ, accompanying his Grammy-winning Early Music Choir. “Church” simply means the Bride of Christ and “this-or-that church” is where the Bride dances on weekends with Her Groom in a teepee or a cathedral. And “music” simply means music – all of it.

If we overwhelm this gloriously ubiquitous, life-wide thing called continuous worship and squeeze it down to a gift package – not sure whether the gift is music or worship, or the wrapping worship or music – we’re laboring in vain.

The true labor of a church musician, first of all, means returning to basics, or in Jeremiah’s words (6:16), asking for the ancient paths where the good way is, walking in them and finding rest. But “ancient” does not mean “traditional” or “classical” any more than “new” means “contemporary.” Asking for the ancient paths has nothing to do with how many ways you can decorate the paths, but what the paths themselves are, what they mean, and where they lead, irrespective of decorations or paving stones.

When we get it backwards, when we forget the paths and dote on the decorations, then watch the whole thing pervert itself. Then it’s the decorations that count and might even become the path itself.

Do you see where this goes and how this might apply to the kind of labor you choose? Do you labor to keep the decorations alive and well, crafting your own paths no matter where they lead or what they mean? If so, you do worldly labor and find worldly reward; your burden is light, so it seems, yet its yoke kills with pagan weight.

Call this Babel.

But the ancient paths – this is real labor, but not hard labor. And keeping your eyes on the good way, on the ancient paths of crucified, dying, resurrected, soaring Biblicism, paradoxically, is Kingdom-lightness, the lightness that the Christ offers to His ambassadors. And there are countless and wide decorations along this path, because Jesus is the path. “Let all the world in every corner sing, ‘My God and King!’”

Call it Pentecost.

Which way do you labor? Your music will never determine this. The path you choose will.

Observe: I’ve not fired off any beauty-truth code words or given you a list of approved styles. I don’t know what your practitional style is. I don’t know how you think or theologize, whether your theology is tuned to your guitar or your guitar tuned to your theology.

Here’s what I do know – permit these personal words. It has been a blessing and a curse for me to be schooled in the rich and glorious tradition of classicism. I know that celebrating multiple musical kinds and styles, as I now joyfully do, does not compromise my love for the classics. In fact, one kind of music will set another kind in working perspective, and if you multiply that principle, you sharpen and expand your perspective without sacrificing your sense of quality and appropriateness.

So while I’ve repented of a former equation of selective beauty and spirituality, I’ve come back to ancient paths. I’ve learned that Bach and Ravel, Palestrina and Stravinsky, powerful and lovely as they are, must surrender to the ancient paths, just as all music everywhere in all styles must do. Newness, let alone relevance, is no longer chronological but kairotic — no longer self-consciously contemporary, but creatively ongoing. I’m more disturbed than ever about those who persist in condemning this or that style without a single scriptural principle or musical example to bolster them. I’m equally at odds with those who rip the air with their “anything goes” babble, musically libidinous, suckered by false and undiscerning relativism. Both of these extremes are in false labor up to their eyeballs.

I’m an old rascal and except for an occasional journey into your Promised Land and some leftover writing to do, I’m done. But it’s not just personal rest; it’s corporate, thus vicarious. This rest is on behalf of you — all of you — in your labor, whether it’s that of Babel, Pentecost, or an all-too-typical mixture of the two.

Harold Best is the Emeritus Dean/Professor of Music of the Wheaton College Conservatory of Music. He is the author of numerous articles on the relationship of Christianity to the arts and worship as well as three books, including Music Through the Eyes of Faith and Unceasing Worship: Biblical Perspectives on Worship and the Arts.