Archive for Creative Process

Inspiration

In her book, “A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,” Annie Dillard describes how inspiration works. She says a muse doesn’t tell us to “Write this!” A muse suggests. A muse prompts. “Get up. I want to show you something. Stand here and look that direction.”

I’ve found her description so true. That is the way God has so often inspired me. He doesn’t demand, “Copy this down!” He is a gentle voice in odd moments. “Read this.” “Look there.” “Ask yourself this…”. Many of my most precious and fruitful times have begun exactly that way.

I’m still learning to turn to Him when I have a few spare minutes, to stay open to small promptings, mundane tasks, and unscheduled visits. These are life’s priceless opportunities. The Lord often shows up in disguise, without warning. I never ever want to ignore Him when He comes to me unannounced.

Listen and sing:
Hymn: My Mind Is Yours
Recording
Printed Music & Lyrics

Think and Feel the Truth

The truth about God is inexpressibly glorious. As a writer, I want people not only to think this truth, but to feel it. I want the truth to grab both their minds and their hearts. Somehow, such a magnificent truth doesn’t seem content to simply speak. It longs to sing and dance and shine as well.

Writing hymns lets me participate in that process. I long for people to be moved by how absolutely wonderful God is. I long for them to know Him on an even deeper level than one knows a spouse or dear friend. Since God is a Spirit, closer than our breath, this knowing can be constant. It is mind-to-mind and heart-to-heart. Our spirits fellowship with His. We are in Him. As we know Him in this way, we are reshaped by the encounter:

We all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a  mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory. (2 Corinthians 3:18, NASB)

As we fellowship with Him, looking to Him, talking to Him, trusting Him, He makes us more and more like His holy Son Jesus. The Spirit of Christ grows within us.

I want everyone to know our God in this way, with every breath. That’s what drives me and draws me to write hymns. I want people to not only know the truth but to fully realize it with mind, heart, and imagination.

What does love for God draw You to do? How do you share His greatness and presence with those around you?

Listen and sing:
Hymn: I Have the Truth
Recording
Printed Music & Lyrics

Only by the Lord

I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5, NIV)

My fruitfulness flows from the presence of Christ within me. I am completely dependent on His working in and through me.

That’s why my devotional life is so critical – not just in those special private times but also as I look to Him throughout the day. Such prayer keeps me in touch with Him and open to His influence. Without it, I tend to sink into preoccupation with myself and lesser concerns.

Writing teaches me this dependence more than anything else ever has. Every morning when I get up and begin, I have to face my own inability and release the work to Him: “Lord, this time is Yours. I can only work as You enable me. I look to You now and will just follow as You lead.”

This is especially necessary when the task gets difficult. When I get stuck at a spot, my first instinct is to press harder. I want to get past the frustration and finish the job. But I’m learning I have to stop and pray: “Lord, I did not choose this task, nor can I make it happen. It is Yours. I am simply available to You.”

I have to open myself to Him and wait, letting Him work in His way and time. And He does – beautifully, bringing me solutions and directions I never could have found on my own.

Frequently the wait is relatively short. Something unexplainable just happens when I release the task to Him. He works so naturally and perfectly.

Yet sometimes the wait is longer. I’m forced to live with unfinished business, and I can become anxious and discouraged. During such times, I repeatedly go to Him, intent on talking about the doing. But He wants to talk about us. He reminds me to look at Him, enjoy Him, and be at peace in Him. He invites me to just rest in His doing.

I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5, NIV)

Remain in him by praying to Him throughout the day. It will help keep your heart set on Him. And you will know that He, himself, is life’s sweetest gift and the source of all your fruitfulness.

Listen and sing:
Hymn: As I Pray
Recording
Printed Music & Lyrics

Plan, Pray, and Begin

I must be rested, fresh, and alert to do creative work. Sleep, exercise, and diet all play a part. So does Bible study and prayer.

But even when I’m physically ready to work, the creative task would intimidate me if I let it.  Writing involves uncertainty and self-doubt. Even after all these songs, books, and articles, I never feel confident that I can do it again. Never!

Writing involves making tough decisions, one after another. Who enjoys making difficult decisions? No one! Certainly not me!

Because writing is intimidating, it would be easy to fall prey to procrastination. There’s always the temptation to fill your time with something less demanding just this once. Excuses and self-deceit are far easier than writing.

But every writing time is a God-given opportunity, and I avoid wasting them by taking three simple steps:

1.       Plan. Establish a reasonable schedule and stick to it. I love routine, and I’ve read that many creative people do. Other obligations sometimes intrude on my writing time. On rare occasions I even schedule a little time off. But I never skip writing on a whim. Never! I keep to my routine.

2.       Pray. As I approach time to write, I tell the Lord honestly that I can only do what He enables me to do. I lean on Him. I make myself available to Him.

3.       Begin. When it’s time to write, I sit down and start. I don’t wait for inspiration, and I don’t wait to feel like it. I’ve found that if I begin, God will be faithful to help me. But He can’t work through me until I begin working. Starting is that step of faith that I have to take, trusting that He’ll be there to help me.

Simplicity

This is the 19th in a series of Friday posts on congregational song.

When I sit at my desk, a large sign stares me in the face, shouting this reminder: Simplicity. It’s a reminder I constantly need. Simplicity is a discipline, and a challenging one. Yet it is vital to effective congregational song.

Congregational singing involves people from a broad range of ages, cultures, stylistic preferences, and personalities, all singing together. Most have little or no musical training and usually no rehearsal. Further, the music must be easy enough to be sung comfortably and naturally, leaving the singers free to focus on the words. The music must serve as a vehicle for the text.

What happens if the tunes fail the simplicity test? At best, the tune soaks up so much attention that the words are ignored. At worst, the singers grow frustrated and fold their arms in stony silence.

Often the problem is trying to use performance songs as hymns. Lacking the discipline of simplicity, such songs are more suited to be performed by a well-rehearsed artist than to be sight-read by a highly diverse, untrained congregation.

With performance songs, the leaders are counting on people’s ability to sing back almost anything they hear, no matter how complex. Go to an artist concert, and you’ll hear it happen. Fans will sing along with the band or soloist, no matter how intricate the song. But that doesn’t make the songs congregational. Devotees can join in songs they have heard many times. But what about the people not immersed in such styles? They cannot follow. They are left out. And eventually, the ever-changing music scene will leave the songs unsupported by constant recorded exposure. Complex songs, when not heard regularly, ultimately prove too forgettable.  Left unexposed, and by then out of style, most of the songs will die.

Hymns must cross barriers of time and culture to serve the diverse and enduring Body of Christ. Musical simplicity is a must.

Does that mean that the styles themselves are unsuitable for our hymnody? Do we have to abandon popular styles and limit our hymns to traditional styles? Absolutely not! Down through history the Church has regularly enriched its hymnody by adapting popular music. But our congregational songs must submit to the discipline of simplicity. Our hymns must appeal across cultural and stylistic lines, and they must endure beyond the recorded support provided by popular music.

If you are choosing and leading congregational songs, consider your entire congregation. The Church has a wealth of quality hymns in a wide range of styles. It may take some looking and careful thought to integrate them into your service. But approach the task prayerfully, and the Spirit will faithfully enable you to do what He wants you to do.

For you writers, accept simplicity as a creative challenge. Composers have usually had to write within the limits of their own situation. Such limits have often become a creative stimulus rather than a hindrance. Many great masterpieces have flowed from narrow circumstances.

No, it isn’t easy to compose hymn tunes that are expressive and musically interesting yet comfortably singable by a diverse group of untrained singers. Yet for two millennia now, the Holy Spirit has been helping Christian composers do that very thing. If you want to compose hymn tunes, do what successful composers have usually done:

  1. Prepare yourself musically. Learn the basics.
  1. Learn from the best. Go through a good, diverse hymnal and study the tunes that are the most expressive, memorable, and broadly-used. Note their use of form and repetition. Look at how they balance predictability and surprise. (Hint: many current congregational songs lack predictability and thus are too complex.) Immerse yourself in the finest tunes. Absorb their qualities.
  1. For now, forget being published and just write for your local situation. (Many of my early hymns were written for my Sunday School class.) Listen to how people respond to your hymns. Be your own toughest critic. Learn from your successes and your failures.
  1. Practice, practice, practice. Writing is like basketball or playing piano. It requires skills that come only through repetition.

Be bold! Write hymn tunes in a variety of styles. But submit to the discipline of simplicity. Keep the tunes easy and enjoyable enough for the Body of Christ to sing together.

Divine Coincidence

Have you discovered that Almighty God wants to take part in your daily work? Here’s one example from my own experience.

Matching a hymn text with the right tune can be tricky, painstaking business. But years ago I began receiving tune ideas from the Lord. Sometimes I would hear an original tune in my head. Other times I would feel prompted toward a folk or classical tune in one of my sources. I would set the tune aside in my “pending” pile, put it out of my mind, and go on with my work.

Then within days the Lord would give me a lyric idea separately, from my Bible study or from an audio book I was listening to. Sometimes it happened the other way around. The text idea would come first, then the tune.

What was amazing was how often I’d find the perfect match for the text or tune there near the top of my “pending” file. I had forgotten about the first one until the second showed up and I went looking for a mate. The two had come to me entirely separately, though in the same time frame.

At first, I considered it mere coincidence. But it began to happen so regularly that I coined a term for it: divine coincidence.

But it wasn’t just texts and tunes that came together so marvelously. Often a thought or scripture would come to me from my daily reading or listening that was exactly what I needed for some current writing endeavor. I hadn’t gone looking for it. It just jumped out at me.

Some would explain such phenomenon as the subconscious working of the mind. And I can’t claim to explain all the workings of this amazing brain the Lord has given us.

But God regularly uses divine coincidence to remind me that He deeply, personally, constantly cares about my daily activities. My work is His work, and He doesn’t abandon me to it. He works beside me all day, every day. The Spirit of the sovereign, almighty, universal God works through me. He will work through you as well. How wonderful is that!

Father, all our work is Your work. Keep us open. Keep us listening. Keep us dependent on You.

Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power that works within us, to Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen. (Ephesians 3:20-21, NASB)

Consider Fresh Sources

What raw materials do you use in your creative work? They may be physical materials, or they might be sources of ideas or inspiration. Have you considered using fresh materials or fresh sources? Let me tell you about my experience.

Though my formal training is as a composer, in my earlier years I primarily wrote lyrics for other composers to set to music. On the rare occasions when I wrote hymns on my own, I primarily wrote them to fit familiar hymn tunes. Of course, I am always careful to only write lyrics to tunes that are already in the public domain. “Public domain” means they are too old to still be under copyright. Thus they are free for anyone to use however they wish.

I still write lots of hymns to familiar hymn tunes. Many congregational song leaders strongly prefer these hymns because they involve no teaching. The congregation already knows the tune, so you just give them the new text, and they’re ready to sing. I try to write a steady supply of such hymns. It’s a way I can serve those congregational song leaders who would gladly use a new hymn if they don’t have to struggle to teach a new tune.

But I enjoy going beyond the finite supply of familiar and well-used hymn tunes. I find it creatively stimulating, and it is an investment in the future. Sometimes I write original hymn tunes myself.

But many years ago I discovered folk tunes. It began with Christmas carols. I realized that many familiar Christmas tunes either lacked Christian texts entirely, or their texts were so archaic that congregations rarely sang them. So I began writing accessible new hymn texts to these tunes. Here are just a few of many: Peace, Peace, Peace; Infinite Lord; Here We Come Rejoicing; Jesus, the Gift of Christmas; and My Soul Exalts You Lord. Our most widely used hymn is one of these: Love Has Come!

Beautiful Christmas tunes in the public domain drew my attention to folk tunes in general. I began buying printed collections of folk tunes and going through them, tune by tune, looking for those that might make interesting and singable hymn tunes. I had had no idea how many multiplied thousands of public domain folk tunes are to be found in various cultures around the world! What an incredible resource! I started a file of tunes that might work as hymn tunes, broken down by tempo (“down”, moderate, and “up”). Most needed arranging. Many needed some degree of revision to work for my purposes, and some needed almost complete rewriting.

But the arranging and rewriting were well worth the effort. This massive body of tunes from various times and cultures provided far greater variety and creative range than a single composer like me could ever hope to match. And because they were written for the common folk to sing, they were often inherently congregational.

In the years since, I’ve written hundreds of hymns based on folk tunes. Here are only a handful of samples: O Living God; All We Need; By Faith; Christ the Lord Is with Us!; and Ephesians 1.

Then I discovered that classical melodies could also be a rich resource for hymn tunes. Unlike folk tunes, they are not inherently congregational. They require more patient searching and more thorough rewriting. But they richly repay the effort. A few of my favorites are: Be Still, My Child; Bless This Seed; Breath of Life; Christ and His Bride; Isaiah 53; Jesus, Full of Truth and Grace; Our Destiny Is Jesus Christ; and The Father’s Face.

But folk and classical melodies have enriched my writing in another way. When I write to familiar hymn tunes, I generally start with a lyric idea, then go searching for a tune to match it. With folk and classical tunes, I’ve grown to enjoy starting with a tune that moves me. Then I write a text that fits it. This change has been creatively stimulating and enriching.

The point is this: whatever your field of creative endeavor, don’t overlook the beautiful, infinitely varied raw materials all around you. You may find them fresh, inspiring, and deeply relevant, no matter what their age. Apply your imagination to transforming what is already available. Give it your own touch. Or let these existing materials inspire fresh directions for your own work.

If the existing material has a copyright notice, or if it was created in the last 90 years, you should probably leave it alone. But don’t be afraid to draw from resources that our Creator has already placed at your fingertips.

Interruptions

As I read the gospels, it seems that most of Jesus’ miracles, most of His teaching opportunities, most of His chances to display His Father’s words and works, arrived as interruptions. As He went about His day, He encountered people–all kinds of people: hungry people, sick people, seeking people, devious people, desperate people. People were His priority. And let’s face it: people are the main source of interruptions. Deal with people, dare to respond to people, and you’ll have interruptions.

We resent interruptions because they intrude on our agenda. Jesus had no agenda but the Father’s. Thus He didn’t resent interruptions because He received them as from His Father. He welcomed them as opportunities to express God’s grace and truth in the lives of needy people. He dove into such opportunities with all His heart and soul.

We flinch at interruptions because they are unexpected and unsought. They blind-side us and drag us where we’re not prepared to go. Jesus was completely and comfortably dependent on His Father, so He was never threatened by the unexpected.

I deeply desire God’s moment-by-moment leading. He is teaching me that such leading inevitably involves what I have called “interruptions”. His wisdom, His leadership, His opportunities for service are often unexpected and unsought. They are intrusions on my well-planned agenda. Of course, there are times when the agenda is from Him and the interruption is not. I can’t and shouldn’t chase every rabbit, and I’ll need His discernment to tell them apart. But very often, interruptions only threaten my agenda, not His.

Over my years of serving the Lord, I’ve noticed two things about interruptions:

1. As a writer, many of my most meaningful pieces arrived as interruptions. While I was intently working on something else, He gifted me with something better.

2. When He interrupts my carefully-planned schedule, nothing is ever lost. Nothing. God never fights against His own work. I have no reason to be afraid and protective. He often surprises me with increased productivity, and all His work gets done in a natural, unhurried, creatively-satisfying way.

Join with me in learning to be more flexible, more trusting, more responsive to God’s leading. As older writers put it, be as responsive to the Spirit as a feather on a breeze. No matter what type of work we do, as Christians, people are our priority, and people bring interruptions. But God’s interruptions are always opportunities. Welcome them! After all, for blind and ignorant creatures like us, such interruptions are inherent in the privilege of serving the transcendent God. His thoughts and ways are far above are own.

He wants to make your life more fruitful in unexpected ways. Are you willing to let Him?

The Power of Influence: Timothy Dudley-Smith

As you read each post in this series,
I hope you’ll think with gratitude about those who have influenced you, and
I hope you’ll ponder your investment in the lives of others.

By January, 1983, I was feeling the need for informed and candid reactions to my hymns. I had earlier written to Timothy Dudley-Smith (1926-   ) in my capacity as director of Lillenas Publishing Company. He was already a well-known and widely-respected hymnwriter. So I worked up my courage and wrote him in a personal capacity. I told him about myself and my hymn writing and sent along nine of my hymn texts. I enclosed a check for $5.00 to cover postage for an airmail reply, since he was living in Norwich, England, and I in Kansas City.

In less than two weeks, I received a lengthy reply. He returned my check, explaining that “really I have so little to say that will help you that I should feel a fraud to keep it; and I have had so much help and encouragement from others that it is a privilege to be writing to you now about your own work.” He went on to explain his own unworthiness as a critic, ending with “…and I have many other lacks which make me hesitate to write. But since you ask me…”. My first lesson from Timothy Dudley-Smith was a lesson in deep humility.

He went on to give detailed responses to my specific hymns and as well as comments about hymn writing in general. He talked about the importance of opening lines. He candidly asked me, “Do you revise enough?”, then gave a number of examples of my typing errors, clumsy expressions, colloquialisms (he disliked contractions in hymns), loose expressions, scansion, and the lack of adequate punctuation. He gave his own take on “false rhyme”. The final third of the letter was entirely a lesson in revision.

I responded, sending him revisions of the same hymns plus one additional one. Again, he answered within days. He included an entire page of detailed responses to the additional hymn, Raised from Death to Love and Living. His praises and criticisms helped me polish the hymn, and it is still in hymnal use.

Our correspondence continued similarly through several more letters that year, and we occasionally touched base in the coming years.

My revision process is still not as painstaking as his, but I consistently employ one technique I learned from him. After arriving at the best finished draft I can produce, I let the hymn sit for several days, then come back to it again. Getting the hymn out of my mind for a few days, I can then see it with fresh eyes, and revisions and needed improvements are apparent that I would otherwise have missed.

Whatever my hymn writing is today, in 1983 it was primitive by any measure. I marvel that such a capable writer took my scratchings so seriously; that such a busy man, with so many demands on his time, took so much time with me. I still aspire to the balance of kindness and candor that he showed throughout his critiques.

Timothy Dudley-Smith was a vital part of my development as a hymn writer. He gave me one of the greatest gifts one can give a writer: a truer perspective. He helped me see my work more critically and showed me a practical road toward improvement.

The Power of Influence: Charles Wesley

As you read each post in this series,
I hope you’ll think with gratitude about those who have influenced you, and
I hope you’ll ponder your investment in the lives of others.

As a music composition major at the College-Conservatory of Music, the University of Cincinnati, I trained to be a composer of classical music. To learn our craft, we intensely studied the works of classical masters. In the years before sound recordings, composers used to learn the techniques of classical masters by hand-copying their scores.

One of the best ways to learn hymn writing is to employ the same strategy: study the hymns of the best hymnwriters. Immerse yourself in their work.

Before I had any personal designs on being a hymnwriter, the Lord exposed me to the hymns of many, many hymnists. Since I grew up in a hymn-singing church, hundreds of hymns were already engrained in my emotional memory. Then in my 20’s and early 30’s, I collected old hymnals and read many of them. While at the University of Cincinnati, I used to take old hymnals out of their rare books collection and photocopy entire hymnals on the spot so that I could read through them on my own.

In my early 20’s, before coming to Lillenas and before having any designs on music publishing or hymn writing, I bought numerous newly-published collections of songs and hymns. Some were contemporary collections from the “Jesus music” movement here in the U.S., while others were the hymns of British hymnwriters from the “Hymn Explosion” of the time—Fred Kaan, followed by Brian Wren, Fred Pratt Green, and Timothy Dudley-Smith. I read through each and every song and hymn. Often I would make notes on what I liked and didn’t like about each selection. What great training the Lord gave me! I had no ambitions. I was just following my interests.

During my first 12 years at Lillenas, I consciously prepared for the next denominational hymnal by reading through uncounted complete hymn collections looking for potential hymns. Some of the best of these found their way into Sing to the Lord (1993), which I had the privilege of editing.

I say all the above to make this point: in my formative years, I read many thousands of hymns from a wide variety of traditions. But I particularly studied the hymns of one particular writer: Charles Wesley. In addition to encountering his work in older hymnals, two projects intensified my exposure to his hymns:

1.  Around the late ‘70’s, scholar Carl Bangs went to Bud Lunn, then head of Nazarene Publishing House, and suggested that the company release a new collection of Wesley hymns. I was given the joyful task of compiling such a book, which meant combing through many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Wesley hymn texts. Wesley Hymns was released in 1982.

2.  During that same time frame, Wesleyan theologians were debating whether John Wesley associated entire sanctification with Pentecost. I contributed to the debate by doing a comparative study of the two topics as treated in the Wesleys’ hymn publications. The fall, 1982, issue of the Wesleyan Theological Journal published my study, “The Wesleys’ Hymns on Full Redemption and Pentecost: A Brief Comparison”.

As I immersed myself in Charles Wesley’s hymns, they became part of me. He wrote hymns for public worship, as well as more devotional hymns, and both were infused with his deep desire for the fullness of God.

He so beautifully and naturally balances the objective and the subjective. His fervent passion was fueled by both reason and emotion, by scripture as well as personal experience. As a result, notice the wide variety of protestant traditions that still consider his hymns a high water mark. The sheer quality of his work has taken his hymns far beyond their theological home turf.

I’ve long wanted to infuse my own hymns with his balance. And how the evangelical church still struggles to find that balance! The Apostle Paul could have been talking about Wesley hymns when he wrote:

I will sing with the spirit and I will sing with the mind also. (1 Corinthians 14:15, NASB)

Father, thank you for providing the example and influence of Charles Wesley. Continue to keep our minds and hearts open to his lessons.