Victor Chininin Buele
I am as Andean as it comes. Minor keys. Give me a song in A minor or D minor any day. I can turn any song into a melancholic Andean tune. And love it.
I also happened to have gone through the days of the Young, Restless, and Reformed, and I benefitted greatly from a renewal of theology that produced a lot of songs that prompted me to think about the depths of the knowledge, wisdom, and beauty of God.
And then, life all fell apart–my sin and the sin of others brought something that was very dysfunctional to a necessary end. I have not led a congregation in singing in many months, and it has taken a while to even find the desire or the affections to sing on Sunday mornings.
Abuse resulted in a strange adventure, one that would take me down some strange paths. I had written earlier about reformation over deconstructionism. I had to think about a lot of things I had taken for granted and try to line them up with what God actually says, not what others told me God said. I had to learn to think in Nicene categories: social Trinity thinking creeped up everywhere to justify unorthodox views of many things.
But my adventure also has a musical side to it. Today I’m writing about that.
The last song I led at the church before the wheels of what I knew to be life came off the bus was fresh out of the oven from Sovereign Grace Music:
O Lord, my Rock and my RedeemerMusic and words by Nathan Stiff © 2017 Sovereign Grace Worship/ASCAP
Gracious Savior of my ruined life
My guilt and cross laid on Your shoulders
In my place You suffered, bled, and died
You rose, the grave and death are conquered
You broke my bonds of sin and shame
And there I was, holding secrets, not letting anyone know my shame–both the shame I knew came from my actions but also the shame of the inevitability of exposing the mess. How can a pastor sing about the Savior that rose from the grave, conquered shame, while living in shame–my own and the one that was drilled into me. Be loyal, be the guardian of the stories entrusted to you, be the guardian of your pastor’s reputation. Those kinds of words drag you into shame when the reputation of an abuser is on the line.
I led that Sunday. No one in the team knew what I already knew. That I would never play with them again. I have not spoken to any of them in many months.
Speaking with brothers and sisters in retrospective, I learned that while seeking to be theologically sound, there was ever hardly any space in my song selections for people to breathe, for people to emote, for people to rest, for people to wander to where the Lord would lead them. You see, singing the kind of songs we love in Reformed circles is exhausting. It requires great discipline. But it also at times makes you feel pretty dumb because you don’t seem to be able to keep up. And when a culture is already dysfunctional towards abuse, you have a big problem because the leader and those in the inner circle don’t need one more thing to set them apart from “the rest of the sheep”–they get these songs, we don’t. They are special, we aren’t. That is just not how God works.
This is not, please, do not misunderstand, any kind of dirt on the hard and beautiful work of the Gettys, Matt Papa, Matt Boswell, Nathan Partain, Indelible Grace, and many others. I am thankful. I remain thankful. Your music has affected me deeply and still does.
But, I had no idea what the next stop of the journey would involve.
I crashed against Latin coritos. There is this sort of Latin Pentecostal-originated little choruses. Very simple songs that are definitely the opposite in the spectrum of theology. “The sweet presence of God is in this place. The Holy Spirit over His church is going to be poured out. Just praise Him, Just praise Him, Just praise Him with the heart.” No nuance. No description of the presence of God in the believer, no ecclesiological understanding that God dwells with his people and not in a place or a building or a temple, as they say in Spanish. What does “just praise Him” mean exactly? How does one do that? “If you want to feel like me the presence of God, raise up your hands, and open your mouth and praise the Lord.” Well, how does that line up with repentance or the conviction of sin, with the Lordship of Jesus, and the call to believe and repentance? “He arrived, He arrived, the Holy Spirit arrived. I feel Him in my hands. I feel Him in my feet.” What does that mean? What are we singing?
And of course, there were translated songs that I used to sing when I was in college. Celebrate Jesus! Come, Now Is the Time to Worship, things like that.
And one day, a light came on: “Immerse me in the river of Your Spirit. I need to refresh this dry heart, thirsty for You.” And I said, this is such emotional language. It reminds me of… Oceans! “Spirit lead me where my trust is without borders/Let me walk upon the waters/Wherever You would call me/Take me deeper than my feet could ever wander/And my faith will be made stronger/In the presence of my Savior.” Which is actually just fine, especially translated. Hillsong music is particularly great in Spanish because a lot of the nuanced, obscure statements that are wide enough for an unorthodox trailer to drive through are just not there. The translators had to fill the void with legitimate theology. But I had a seed of thinking–why do people want to sing the same thing over and over and over and over and over and over again?
I mean, I knew the joke of Chris Tomlin’s bridges to old hymns. He had to be my attempt to give space in the songs I picked for services for many years since he shines in that gap between the kind of hip, kind of modern, and still retaining what I love about old hymns (weight, lyrics, eschatology). But his incredibly high keys and range made it quite strange for me to always be lowering him to singable keys, for example.
How does a man whose music preference is more like Sojourn Music lead a worship service? For years, a song that has captivated my heart is Sojourn’s May Your Power Rest on Me. I’ve found nothing like it. Musically, lyrically, in tone and care, in emotion and in expressing what my heart wanted to say to the Lord in my weakness.
Yet, on my third stop of the journey, I was taken back to my roots. And I was incredibly uncomfortable in it. I couldn’t sing some of the songs without memories of difficult things, of loved people who just simply will not speak to me, of loved people we hurt when we thought we were standing on the right side of things.
And then one Sunday, one of the music leaders hit me with a ton of bricks with this one. I had never heard it before:
Bring your sick, your restless fevered, filled with anxious shaking moans,
Who would kill for some relief from, all the itching in their bones.
Who still search for some elixir, that could ease their gasping breath,
Some sweet drink to drive the poison, from the writhing in their head.
Bring your wounded, all your broken, who can’t stand up on their own.
Who are weak beyond dignity, who will never become strong.
They will only need more helping, each investment is a loss.
Yes, bring all those who could never, return any of their cost
Jesus Christ, says “Gather to me, all you lost, you poor, you dead!
I’m your sacrifice, your ransom, I was given in your stead.
I have found you, freed you, healed you, my compassion you can trust,
I redeem the undeserving, I am generous with my love.
Bring your fearful, bring your cowards, bring your hiding cornered strays.
Those who fly at every shadow, those who run without a chase.
Bring the cursed, abused, neglected, who have lived their lives in caves,
Who distrust the light as darkness, while they long to be embraced.
Bring your bound, the souls imprisoned, bullied by the threat of pain,Nathan Partain, 2014
Who have tried and tried for freedom, but have always failed escape.
Those who live with their aggressor, whisp’ring doubts into their ear,
Who dare not hope on a savior, lest they be crushed by despair.
WOW! I couldn’t sing it. I was weeping. Driving to church I had all these doubts from years of conditioning to being OK with abusive environments. And there it all just came to a halt. Jesus Christ called me to gather me to Himself.
I remember being led to sing from CityAlight:
Come rejoice now, O my soulCityAlight Copyright © 2016 CityAlight Music (APRA)
For His love is my reward
Fear is gone and hope is sure
Christ is mine forevermore
And mine are keys to Zion city
Where beside the King I walk
For there my heart has found its treasure
Christ is mine forevermore
Yet, somewhere along the way, because of a track where Marcos Witt (it is impossible to separate him from the influence of a church I could not possibly affirm, Lakewood, with leaders I could not possibly affirm either, Joel and Victoria Osteen) featured Funky, one day during the pandemic, we got sent down a rabbit hole where we found Funky, Alex Zurdo, Redimi2, Musiko, Indiomar, Lizzy Parra, Natan el Profeta, Jay Kalyl, GabrielRodriguezEMC, Madiel Lara, Evan Craft, Jaydan, VAES, and all of their friends. I was struck by something. Their evangelistic zeal and their passion to connect the hard realities of life and sin to the hope of the gospel. We had enjoyed for a number of years the work of Juan Luis Guerra to make much of God through music that most would not touch with a ten foot pole. But this was a whole other level of fun but also lyrical richness. Yet, one cannot overlook doctrinal differences and areas of disagreement. However, the unity they display is quite remarkable. The UNO album that Funky, Redimi2, and Alex Zurdo put together during the pandemic was certainly an amazing testimony to God’s faithfulness to make His church one.
So, that’s where we are. We are back to singing dense songs on Sunday mornings. We are listening to urban music. Our time at the piano is some mixture of the two. My girls are back to singing. For a while at the beginning of everything my oldest daughter just quit singing. That grieved my heart greatly.
A dear brother asked me where I stood with relation to Sovereign Grace Music after everything.
It is impossible to separate the music from the leadership structure and the BCO and the polity and the deaf ear towards the suffering of people. Even if we pretended for one second that Sovereign Grace has been victim of a massive work of Satan to deceive hundreds of people to arrive at the wrong conclusion that they have been abused within Sovereign Grace, that they have not been silenced, that they truly are gossips and slanderers, tools of Satan, snared by the enemy to destroy humble servant leaders who love their congregations and Jesus Christ, the lack of responsiveness and of humility in reaching out to such “tools of Satan” shows a different story. The degree of abuse that has been covered up is unreal. I have email correspondence where we are explicitly told to not read the accounts of people exposing things to light and discouraging our congregations from reading it. It is impossible for me to separate Behold Our God or Jesus, Thank You or any of those beloved songs from this massive mess. Even if it were all made up, I would expect people who sing every Sunday rich lyrics of the greatness of God’s grace to respond differently to people who have had their lives turned upside down.
Where do I stand in relation to the music of Elevation or Hillsong or Bethel?
I know that highly emotional music is remarkably effective. God made music very special. It affects us in very unique ways. There is a difference between singing something a couple of times and turning it into a mantra. Back to Oceans, is there anything wrong with such a little chorus? Not really. But there is something massively wrong about singing it 8-10 times in a row with a certain synth pad and space. At one point, you stop thinking. And we cannot divorce this music from the abuse that has recently come to light, the cover-ups, the way that unpaid interns were exploited for the gain of those at the top. And there are songs that are questionable at best. Do we really want our congregations to sing music that’s marginally OK and profoundly emotional? How do we make sure we are OK with verses 1 and 3 of So Will I but not verse 2. I remember being at Revoice and hearing the profound emotional impact of hundreds of voices singing together, “If You gladly chose surrender so will I.” I remember asking a friend of mine who was also there what he thought of the second verse of that song. Honestly, he couldn’t remember it. And music is implanted in our mind like that. Does it matter that the songs we sing come from a place where the leader had coloring books made for children that featured him and read, “UNITY: We are united under the visionary” and used Romans 13:1 to support this, “Elevation Church is built on the vision God gave Pastor Steven. We will protect our unity in supporting his vision.” Whose vision exactly? Does it matter that the songs we sing come from a place where the hopes of people are played with through an abuse of the ideas of the supernatural #WakeUpOlive?
It very much does.
The music we sing matters. It matters greatly. Worship matters, after all. So does the character and integrity of those who write our music, record our music, distribute our music, play our music, lead our music before congregations.
So, what then?
Well, this excursion has shown me that there is no formula. God will speak through simple songs. God will speak through incredibly dense songs. God will minister to His people. God will shepherd His sheep with love and care and with correction and strength.
What shall we say about these things?
The key here is this: The music we present to God has vertical and horizontal implications, and it originates from vertical and horizontal realities.
We sing because we are the redeemed (Ps 107:2). The Psalter is a songbook, the soundtrack of the worship of the people of God. It is a spectrum of the realities of life, the emotions of life, the cries for God, the praise of God, the thanksgiving due to God. Thus, we do not want to manipulate people into singing. We do not want to pretend to bring them into the presence of God. We do not want to start acting a mediators of God’s presence and favor and blessing. We want to shepherd God’s people to know God, to learn from Him in His Word (read by themselves and preached from the pulpit and taught in the life of the church and discussed thoroughly by all of God’s redeemed). We want the affections that people have for God to find their expression in worship, not to trick them into emotions through music. Missions exist because worship doesn’t, John Piper has said. The Word comes first. People are to fall in love with God. Musical expression originates from there.
We must be aware that music can be a great tool for manipulation and abuse. There is a way in which high commitment organizations can use music to keep people within a certain set of unbiblical dogmas and discourage any exploration or question. The Jehovah’s Witness have a very select songbook. “So preach the word/So that ev’ryone can hear!/Preach the word,/For we know the end is near” and so they sing their way into knocking the doors of your homes. The song is not unbiblical per se, but it is greatly used to keep the group cohesive. Verse 2 of this hymn of theirs is: “Seasons of trouble we will face;/Opposition may bring shame and disgrace./Though preaching may out of season seem,/Our trust is in our God, who is supreme.” Nothing really unbiblical about it, but horizontally, this means a lot more than what it says. This is a song that they can sing to one another after I have challenged their belief in forsaking a family member for stepping out of their cult, after I have shown to them that they really don’t believe what the Bible says but what the Watchtower tells them it says.
We cannot underestimate the impact of years of believing practically and theologically that something like Sovereign Grace Music is the only good music out there. The music is many times lyrically amazing as I hope you have already gathered from this. But when we are in a culture where exclusion and seclusion are consistent with abusive and manipulative authority structures, you don’t need one more differentiator to add to this culture–not only are our leaders the only ones preaching the true gospel, but our music is also the right and the best one.
You can make the best music to God. But your life and doctrine and practice and testimony must be above reproach. Elders are to be thought of well by outsiders. They are to live lives above reproach in every area.
So, faithful pastor, know your people. Don’t be complacent to what they want. Push, yes. Teach, yes. Instruct, yes. Challenge, yes. But don’t treat them like people who cannot think or who cannot reach the levels of theological sophistication you think you have. There is great power in singing corporately–in bringing prayers and concerns to the Lord together, as His church. Do not misuse this amazing gift of music to be consistent with cultures of abuse, manipulation, and shame.
Put urban music beats to old hymns if that suits your congregation. Sing Oceans without turning it into a mantra if you have really found it would lead your congregation to God. Don’t sing lyrics that are objectionable unnecessarily. We have a long church history of lyrics that are not questionable or unorthodox. Don’t think you are reinventing the wheel. You are not alone. You are not that big of a songwriter. You are not the organization that is going to turn the tide on Christian music. Be creative, faithful, theologically orthodox. Do it all with love for God’s sheep and for those who don’t yet believe, to His glory and not your own.
Do not lose heart, Paul would say.