When the author of Ecclesiastes talked about the fact that much knowledge brings much grief (1:18), he was not talking about mere information (or data). He was talking about knowledge in the truest sense of the word – that of actual understanding.
The word ‘knowledge’ has become weak and underpowered. That’s why I have made this point in this way. But if you do actually look at the text for yourself, you will note that the author also says that with much wisdom comes much sorrow.
Now, given that the author of Ecclesiastes is also the author of Proverbs, then how come in Proverbs he personifies wisdom as being someone who cries in the streets, waiting to be pursued – the idea being that we really need to pursue wisdom as something necessary – whilst wearily declaring in Ecclesiastes that much wisdom brings much sorrow?
The contention of the blog post rests on the premise that if you are truly serving in ministry in any capacity, then you will eventually come face-to-face with this paradox for yourself. And if you are a true minister, then your heart IS GOING TO BE BROKEN at some point.
No-one has more power to break a person’s heart than someone close to them. And in church communities, this also applies. Jesus ended up marvelling at the faith of those outside the chosen people of God. He wept over the fact that He could not save His own, because they would not receive Him. But He did not allow them to determine who He was and how He was to live. They were not qualified to determine His ministry calling, and He found the necessary strength to love everyone without ever compromising the highest ideals of His own identity.
Today, I am waking up to the fact that God has taken a dream away from me – and one which I never really knew how much I cared about until I have had to face the fact that it is not what I have been called to do. The thing is: while God does actually thwart us in certain direct and explicit ways at times, on other occasions He simply facilitates the true realities and consequences of certain of our decisions in order for us to see for ourselves why what we thought was right and correct and the way forward is simply not how things were and are meant to turn out for us. This is especially true in every situation in which we have looked at what other people are doing in life and ministry and tried to model our own lives along what we see that we admire and that makes sense, given the context of our own lives and gifts.
I am a Seventh-Day Adventist living and working and practising my faith in the UK, and for many years I have dreamed of having the privilege of directing an Adventist choral group of my own that would work to a very high standard. I even dreamed of taking this group on mission trips where we would be heavily involved in various forms of evangelism by day, and we would sing by night (of course there was going to be some crossover, but that was the general idea and trajectory). Years have passed, and this dream is not only very far from being fulfilled, it has positively crashed and burnt. And as I now survey my music ministry output over the last decade, some patterns have emerged which, upon ruthless analysis, now mean that I have enough evidence to be sure of what I am saying in this blog post. These patterns could only be seen in hindsight – but now they are clear and indisputable.
British Adventism is hardly unique in the fact of its’ having great strengths and profound weaknesses. But the nature of both has meant that my aspirations are going to be extremely difficult to reach. I refer to British Adventism as ‘UK Blackventism’ because it remains the unfortunate truth that although there is nothing whatsoever in our ‘constitutional’ identity as a Bible-believing movement that stipulates this in any way, here in the UK the Seventh-Day Adventist Church has – to all extents and purposes – become a ‘black majority church’ even though we have nothing to do with the actual ‘Black Majority Church movement. If you are not black, you are both an ‘ethnic minority’ and an ‘endangered species’ in UK Adventism.
So ‘black music’ forms tend to be dominant in UK Adventist churches. However, there are other cultural communities who have a real interest in music, such as the growing number of Filipinos who have tended to be organised and focussed on various Western music forms – but also on their own terms (which are not necessarily those of the music itself). And there are also small conclaves of Anglo-European Adventists who have their own musical commitments and ideals.
But in the overwhelming majority of cases – regardless of where one is on the cultural/racial continuum, or on the musical aesthetic continuum – one truth is all-pervasive, namely: the fact that the word ‘good’ (and all related synonyms and superlatives) is (are) frequently used to describe musical performative actions that do not merit any such positive epithets. The most elementary of musicianship failings are rampant, and at times I wonder how it is possible that our congregations can continue to support music-makers who offer nothing spiritually or musically when they get up to perform – because the defensiveness of both congregations and music-makers themselves that is exhibited when one points out that what has been played and sung has failed to be coherently musical on any level is in fact frightening. It makes it impossible to know if and how this will ever change, because now the music-makers have become drunk on the approbation of the church members, and it is now more important to them that they hear words that tell them how good they are – as opposed to being motivated by actually being good.
It is like a person who would rather buy a certificate that says that they have a degree and then accept the plaudits that come from having such a degree instead of making the sacrifices to actually earn one honestly.
When the Son of God came to the earth and the time came for Him to begin His public ministry, he looked for twelve men who would say ‘yes.’ And they were not the most highly esteemed or highly vaunted of guys. They were ordinary. But in God, they did extraordinary things. But they had to say ‘yes’ to Jesus first.
In order for my dream to work, enough music ministers have to say ‘yes’ to God first before they can say ‘yes’ to any other character (of the human variety) who calls them to go on a mission. But if the praise of men matters more than the praise of God, then one has not said ‘yes’ to God (John 12:43). And this is where things get really intense. Get ready for what’s coming, those of you who have made it this far.
If you have settled for praise of the church members – too many of whom have reduced God to being a mere object of knowledge – then you have also reduced God to being less than who He really is.
If you make God less than He really is, then all sorts of other things will also be reduced by definition. This means that music – which is the work of God Himself, because it comes from no other source – is also going to be reduced. And for many people in churches, music is less than they are. They are bigger than music; they control it, they bend and manipulate it to their will.
So musical values – as expressed in that crucial word ‘musicianship’ are non-existent for such people – because they set the standard for music itself!
But music is like – but not the same as – language. Language is something that we have found ourselves with as human beings, but we have no power to give ourselves life. We can take the life of another more easily than we can ever give life to another – and even that God has to permit. We cannot ensure that if we try to produce a new human being through sexual reproduction, that this will definitely happen. We have not been given that authority over life. We do not have that power.
We can invent new language frameworks, but we are not the authors of the actual capacity for language itself – and language is impossible without cognition. But neuroscience at least has the brain to work with. Psychology has the mind, and as no-one has ever seen a mind in any tangible form, we are now fully in the realm of the speculative here as far as strict empiricism is concerned. And yet, more people believe in the existence of mind itself than in the existence of God Himself.
All these things are bigger than us, which in turn means that a phenomenon like music is also bigger than any human being. We discovered it; we did not invent it. But if the actual content of our thinking means that we are mentally on-it enough to know that music cannot be smaller than us, but we effectively operate as if it is smaller than us, then we are deceived by our own weak constructions whilst actually daring to think that our music brings glory to a holy God!
Satan does not even have to send some demons to send deceptive thoughts into our psyches. We’re capable of sending ourselves down the road to spiritual ruin all by ourselves. So when his demons do turn up, they finish the job. And only divine intervention can change that.
I know the extent of what God has done for me, and I cannot accept the level of musical praise that so many Adventists have settled for. My recent efforts to try and put an all-Adventist group together have ended in failure. My recent efforts to try and work with all-Christian ensembles (i.e. interdenominational ensembles) have also failed. Others are doing this kind of thing, but it has not worked for me and God knows why. But if I have been called to share faith in music and express faith in music to the highest standard of my ability, then I must now find the best musicians and singers that I can find who are willing to work with me and give God some musical praise that is honestly musical. Whatever their own backgrounds, if they are willing, then we ride together. As leaders, we can only work with those who say ‘yes.’ And if the depth of a secular person’s ‘yes’ to (sacred) music is exponentially greater than the depth of a Christian’s (Adventists included) ‘yes’ to God, then I am taking the secular person every single time from this day forward.
Jesus’ own people broke His heart. Even His own disciples broke His heart. But He did not let them stop His quest to fulfil his destiny. I have allowed others to do this to me, and today marks a new era in my life. I still hope to have a real opportunity to make some sort of serious impact on the thinking of Seventh-Day Adventist music ministers. And I am sure that God will open one or two doors in the future. But my daily standard of music-making needs to go up 300% with immediate effect and then keep going onwards and upwards with the level of consistency that is so necessary for true artistic and spiritual excellence.
So whoever you are and wherever you come from, I will see you at the heavy level if that is where you have been called to be. Bach, Mozart, Stravinsky, Ellington, Coltrane, Kirk, Donnie and Fred – we’re just getting started…