I have written on some heavy topics in the last couple of weeks. Today I want to change gears a bit and write autobiographically. Let me share with you my journey to becoming a songwriter. It is inextricably tied to the publication of my first piece, Near the Heart of God.
One of the main reasons I started this blog was to provide exposure to my own songs in a way that is edifying to others. It’s a difficult balance to strike. Jesus repeatedly warned his disciples to avoid living like the hypocritical religious leaders of their day (Matthew 6:2,5,16). Those leaders took pride in their good works. Jesus said, “Surely, I tell you, they have their reward.” They lived for the attention and praise of others.
Yet Jesus also said, “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). So what’s the difference between shining and showing off?
I would say, in a word, pride. Pride makes good works an end of themselves, when really our good works ought to function as a means of reflecting God’s glory. Pride exchanges short-term name recognition for the eternal treasure of making God look great. Jesus, as a humble servant, calls us to follow his example (Philippians 2:1-11). I could write this story out of pride, but I pray that I won’t. I hope you look past the human vessel and see the glorious glimmers of God’s sovereign hand.
Curiosity & Opportunity
I enjoyed a childhood full of opportunity. My family always played music on the radio in the car or at home. My dad loved to blast organ music from his old record player. If I wanted to try out an instrument, I could. And I did. I started out on cello, switched to violin, started voice, then stuck with the violin and voice. Meanwhile, however, I tried my hand at piano, organ, trumpet, guitar, and French horn. It was a world of opportunity for a curious boy.
Our siblings also formed a string quartet, with my sister on first violin, me on second, my oldest brother on viola, and my other older brother on cello. We earned some cash and attended a few nice rehearsal dinners playing for weddings. We also enjoyed participating in a homeschool group, Colorado Advocates for Home School Arts (C.A.H.S.A). There I sang in choir, played in orchestra, and even acted in some musical theater. I loved musical theater so much I ended up on cast for a few musicals at the local community kid’s theater.
At church, my music pastor (also my voice teacher) gave me opportunities to sing in the choir and music ministry at church. The church ran a Christian school, and I joined in state competitions for the school (pressure!). My youth pastor asked me to make a music schedule for youth group, complete with pianists and song selections. And then he told me to lead the singing (gulp!). These men were and still are humble pastors and disciple-makers. They impacted me for life. I credit their influence to God’s sovereign goodness.
I am deeply grateful for my parents who encouraged me and even rebuked me when I wasted opportunities. I didn’t feel pressured to be the best, only to do my best. Isn’t that what God requires of us? “This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found faithful” (1 Corinthians 4:1-2). God will not chide two-talent servants who end up with four, as if they should have miraculously made ten talents. No, he will commend them for being faithful with what they had. But if we bury our talents, even what we have will be taken away (Matthew 25:14-30).
Amid all this curiosity and opportunity, God planted a dream in my heart. I’m not sure how it even happened, but one day one of my brothers and I discovered some cheap music composing software on our family computer. It made every sound conceivable. I never cared much for music theory, but this was fun. We tinkered around, and co-wrote our first piece—a middle-eastern sounding, minor key tune with a heavy rhythm section of random percussion instruments. I proudly called it “Oriental Rhapsody,” though I didn’t have a clue what “rhapsody” meant. That music no longer exists, except in my head. But God used it for a greater purpose. He planted the love for writing music in my heart.
Rest for the Weary
At the end of high school, I said my good-byes to family and friends in Colorado and headed to a Christian college in South Carolina. I knew I wanted to be in pastoral ministry of some kind, but I also loved music. I decided to take on a Bible major with a minor in music. But I didn’t realize it was the heaviest major/minor combination in the college at that time. A few weeks into basic harmony and sight singing I started to wake up. Surrounded by other students with much greater talent and ability, I felt intimidated. What was I doing? I was a little fish in a big pond.
After struggling through part-writing and theory, I found relief over Christmas break in the creative world of songwriting. It felt like a breath of fresh air. On our old piano at home sat a hymnal, Great Hymns of the Faith. I gently opened it so as not to damage the already unraveled binding, randomly flipped through the tattered pages, and “happened” to land on McAfee’s “Near to the Heart of God.”
There is a place of quiet rest,
near to the heart of God.
Ah, yes. That’s so true! I need rest, I thought. But the tune was a little outdated with all those naturals. Felt a bit stuffy. So I started tinkering around. And during that time, my love for hymn writing started to grow.
Waiting… And waiting… And waiting…
Anyone who has ever published music realizes that patience is the name of the game. After I wrote my tune to Near to the Heart of God, I didn’t know what to do with it. I had no connections to any songwriters or composers. None of my friends cared about songwriting, so I just left it, untouched and in my head, for six years. Occasionally I might play it for a friend or family member, but I had no outlet.
Whenever we try to discern the will of God, we will receive one of three answers. Yes, no, or wait. Of the three, the third option is probably the one we like the least. But God loves to test our faith, to grow our trust in Him, and to teach us to delight in Him more than we delight in receiving an answer. In waiting, God shapes us into the image of Christ.
Wait for the Lord;
be strong, and let your heart take courage;
wait for the Lord!
In college I attended the same church that Ron Hamilton, aka “Patch the Pirate,” served as music pastor. Ron has written hundreds of songs for children and adults through the years. During those years he also successfully directed his company Majesty Music. He gave me a ride to church a few times and even let me lead the choir in practice once. That was an experience!
It was my first time to know someone of his caliber. I didn’t say anything about my own songs. Why? Fear. Yes, it’s true of many musicians; we fear too much what others may think. We fear rejection. And sometimes people can be brutal. One time I had a kid in a church tell me, “My mom says she’s sick of your songs.” Ouch. If I choose to fear man, that comment really stings. But there’s a better path.
“The fear of man lays a snare,
but whoever trusts in the Lord is safe.”
Through my experience with Ron Hamilton, God started teaching me to trust in Him for safety. I don’t need the approval of men, just the approval of my Lord. And who knows what my four-year-old has told other people about me! As time passed, I ended up moving along to help in a different church ministry, and I missed the opportunity to learn from Ron. Or so it seemed.
A Second Chance
The good news for you and for me is, in spite of our own failures and weaknesses, God still accomplishes His good plan for our lives (Genesis 50:20; Romans 8:28). Of course, we don’t sin blindly, acting as if God doesn’t care how we live (Romans 6:1). But God knows our weak frame and chooses to use our weaknesses to display His glory (Psalm 103:14; 2 Corinthians 12:9-10). He delights to give us second chances.
When I met and married my wife, I began working on staff at the church where she grew up in Greenville, SC. And, just before I came, God brought Faye López and her husband to the same church. She probably suspected I might drag her into this! Faye has accomplished a lot in the sacred songwriting world. She’s known especially for her piano arrangements, but her choral works are equally impressive. I had sung her songs in many choirs and had her as a teacher in aural skills. She is as competent as she is kind, and I never felt like a failure around her.
Finally I decided I would try something crazy. I wrote down the music for “Near to the Heart of God” and casually handed it to her when we started to practice for an upcoming solo I had in church. I may have been fearful at that point, but hey, at least I tried this time. She was kind about it, but I couldn’t really tell what she thought. The next time I saw her, though, she had made up her mind. She really liked it!
Faye began teaching me about the songwriting process. She recommended I focus on my strengths of lyric and tune writing. I devoured the first book she gave me over yet another Christmas break (The Craft of Christian Songwriting by Robert Sterling), and we cleaned my new tune for congregational use. I tried submitting Near to the Heart of God to a couple of companies, but they rejected it. Thankfully, though, God showered His grace on me. Faye encouraged me to patiently persist, and the rejection I once feared didn’t seem so bad anymore.
In the meantime, Faye recommended I attend the Composer’s Symposium in Atlanta, Georgia. This conference proved to be my gateway into the songwriting world. I met several accomplished composers, some of them guest clinicians. People often say, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” There may be some truth to that statement, but I’d suggest that what you know paves the way for success when you start meeting the “who you knows.” Consider this wisdom from Proverbs 22:29,
Do you see a man skillful in his work?
He will stand before kings;
he will not stand before obscure men.
What you know is just as important as who you know. While we may not always “meet the right people” when we wish, we do always have the knowledge available to us to prepare us for those moments.
At my first Composer’s Symposium I reconnected with a friend in composition, Brian Büda, who I knew from my days at Ron Hamilton’s church. Brian usually gave me a ride to church, and I sang in his graduate composition recital. He would play movie soundtracks in the car, then I would try to guess (usually incorrectly) what movie the song was from. While Brian and I didn’t do any writing together before, now the time was ripe in God’s plan. To my surprise Brian asked me to send him some of my music.
I went home excited but unsure. My tune had been rejected before, what would be different now? Then one day, on the way home from work, the perfect tune “popped” into my head that answered all the old criticisms. It flowed, it sang well, it was great. Brian created a beautiful arrangement for my tune and alternate text. Two months later, nine years after I had first written the original tune, Lorenz accepted it for publication.
What I cherish in this story is God’s sovereignty. The hand of God patiently guided me, a weak servant, down His winding but perfect path. He still is doing that!
Wait on the Lord.
Let Him work through your weakness.
God is good! It may mean more to me than it does to you, but I hope you take time to listen to “Near the Heart of God” and marvel at the goodness of our sovereign God.