Friday, March 10, 2017

John Ylvisaker: An Appreciation

John Ylvisaker has died. He composed such wonderful worship music as I Was There to Hear Borning Cry, Sweet Release, Amigos de Cristo, Rejoice, several liturgies, and other great tunes.

John's project as a musician was to compose church music that had an immediate familiarity and accessibility for worshipers. In the bargain, he managed to compose some classics that will stand the test of time.

John and I were not friends. I spoke by phone with him several times and on occasion through the years, we exchanged hurried notes. Most of what I knew of John personally came through our mutual acquaintance, the theologian and wonderful preacher, Dick Jensen.

But I did spend several memorable days with John back in the 1980s.

In fact, the most frightening car ride of my life came with John at the wheel. We were heading from Bowling Green, Ohio to the parsonage of Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Okolona, Ohio, where I then served as pastor. John was joining us to lead a singalong on Saturday night and then, our music the next morning for worship.

We traveled through a driving rainstorm and, during most of the trip, as John's mind was occupied with our conversation about music, I didn't know if we were going to stay on the road.

At one point, we found ourselves on a bumpy country lane. John kept hearing honking noises. He repeatedly looked around, making the car swerve with every turn of his head, as he tried to find the source of the honking horn. He thought that some impatient driver was telling him to get a move on or to get out of the way. It took John a while to realize that he was the one producing the honks by the loose way he held the wildly vibrating steering wheel on that piece of road. "Oh, it's me," he said and continued to talk.

I've often thought since that drive that the phrase "traveling mercies" had special meaning for John, who traveled to share his music with people across the country and elsewhere; surely, God was merciful to this musician He had called and that we all needed.

We made it to the parsonage in one piece that Saturday afternoon, for which I thanked God. That night, we had the singalong at the church and a rehearsal for church musicians who wanted to play for worship the next morning. The singalong was fantastic and our musicians were well prepared to play the special accompaniment John created on the spot once he saw what instruments and musicians he had to work with. (We had no blank musical staff paper around. So, John took the blank copy paper I handed him, graphed out the bars on the page, and created an arrangement for each musician as I watched.)

John stayed with us at the parsonage that night. He and I talked mostly music and musicians until three in the morning. He also told me some of his theories about composing music for the Church. We talked theology, our faith, the life of the Church, and mutual friends. But we always came back to music.

When, during our marathon conversation, I mentioned Canadian rocker Bruce Cockburn, I found in John someone as mesmerized by Cockburn's talent as I was. "He's got one line," I said. And with just that slim cue, John knew which line I was talking about. We ended up saying it in unison: "Got to kick at the darkness till it bleeds daylight." Then John said, "I would kill to write a line like that!"

The fact is that John wrote many great lines and many wonderful melodies that helped God's people sing praises to God, all in ways to which they could relate AND that were also faithful to Scripture. There was a theological depth and emotional honesty to John's songs that are often missing in today's "praise and worship" music. He was an incredible gift of God to the Church and to the world. We need more of John's ilk in Christ's Church today!

On the Sunday morning that followed that wee-hours conversation, we used not only Ylvisaker songs but Ylvisaker liturgy for our worship. John led us. The congregation was familiar with three of the pieces; there were nine more that they didn't know until that very morning...when John introduced them. Yet no one complained about the lack of familiar music.

In fact, at the end of the service, 300 people stood largely silent and still. It felt to me like the Transfiguration: Nobody wanted to leave this moment behind; John had ushered us into the presence of God with songs the people loved singing. One man told me afterward, "I kept hoping that we could stay a little longer." That was the power of John's music for God!

One of my favorite Ylvisaker pieces is Sweet Release. The title is rooted in the most common word for forgive in Greek, the language in which the New Testament was written by the apostles and evangelists, aphiemi. It's a word that literally means release, as in "When I am forgiven by God through Christ, I'm released from my slavery to sin." The lyrics are Biblically sound and the melody resonates of American folk music, the kind of tune that generations of Americans, no matter what their race, have sung together.

In published versions, the song is made up of three verses. But John also occasionally recorded his songs to introduce them to people. In the recorded version of Sweet Release, he sang a simple bridge he'd composed. I loved Ylvisaker's bass voice singing those reassuring words meant as a prayer to God:
When I feel afraid, I know just where You'll be
Your love is such a tender mystery
Those lines bring tears to my eyes as I remember and sing them now, serving still as a reminder of the grace, forgiveness, and life that God makes available to us through Christ.

You didn't need a verse or a line as great as Cockburn's, John. In those two lines, focused not on our efforts to bring light to the world, but on God's provision of light and love given by His grace through faith in Christ that we cannot earn, you surpassed Cockburn. You really did.

I look forward to seeing you one day again with all the saints as we exuberantly enjoy eternal life in the presence of God. You can lead us in praising our Savior and King. I know that you'll help us all, even we non-musicians, to keep up.

[My daughter, who was very young when John Ylvisaker stayed with us at the parsonage at Okolona, just reminded me that John liked to put orange juice on his corn flakes. She has a fabulous memory and is right about that, although I'd forgotten it.]

[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

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