Losing someone close opens up new perspectives and a deep gratitude for that person’s life. Songwriter, worship leader, and Renovaré Director of Communications Brian Morykon reflects on worship in the light of the loss of his mentor and friend Scott Baker.

You can hear more of Scott’s music at colporteur.bandcamp.com

The podcast includes a reading of an essay Scott wrote for the website of his publishing company, EarReverent. The text is below.

One of my earliest memories is sitting on the floor in our living room before a small china cabinet the bottom of which contained my father’s small but growing collection of LPs. From a sensory standpoint, those cardboard and vinyl objects played as influential a role in my personal formation as the Lutheran catechism and liturgy in which I was thoroughly soaked by the age of twelve. It wasn’t long before Dad convinced Pastor Garth to let us take drums and bass into the sanctuary and play a couple of spiritual numbers for the congregation. This was the same bass guitar on which all of us had taken a turn playing the ubiquitous opening line from “Smoke on the Water.” Down in the church basement, during a lull in youth group, you could play it all on the lowest string. Looking back, I think we may have been the original Praise Band. Most of the good Missouri Synod Lutherans accepted the move, I guess, but my Dad told me one of his choir companions apparently had a word for any attempt at permeating the line between secular and sacred inside the church building: “schmaltzy.”

For some reason, many of us officially charged with crossing that line over the years (i.e. “contemporary worship leaders”) seem to have taken this characteristic as a mission statement: “Schmaltzy: of, relating to, or marked by excessive or maudlin sentimentality.” Getting at it from the direction of the thesaurus: “hokey, kitschy, maudlin, mawkish, schmalzy, bathetic, sentimental, slushy, soppy, soupy, mushy, drippy.” The over-compensating cure for schmaltz, of course, is being cool, a quality as elusive to the touch as a blob of mercury. I didn’t try to achieve coolness in church until after I had tried it at sundry times and diverse manners outside the church.

By the time I returned, in the late 1980s, those of us in newly acquired musical leadership positions satisfied our urge to speak the language of Christian worship in our own musical vernacular while justifying the project as follows: we were bringing appeal to the dusty act of going to church for those disaffected members of “the younger generation.” Any coolness we eventually appropriated derived from the sonic dens of FM, LP, Dolby-cassette, and CD, and we tried to hit two cultural birds with one musical stone.

Sooner or later members of the past few generations found out that the Kingdom of Coolness is a hobo train car paneled inside with mirrors. When you catch a glimpse of your own reflection, you either have to hold your sides laughing, turn into Narcissus, or look elsewhere for artistic meaning and purpose.

Somewhere along the line, I hoped to do more than strum passionately along at the front of the room. Like all presumptuous owners of a six-string possessing mastery of the shift from a major chord to a suspended chord and back again, I figured I could write contemporary congregational music just as well as the next guy. So, between 1993 and 2004, under the wing and embrace of Grace Evangelical Free Church, I trotted out a string of freshly penned “praise songs” and invited (read: “made”) the casually-dressed attendees to look at the words projected on the wall and then try to sing along.

My first installment emerged from a kitchen writing session where I opened the Old Testament during Advent and wrote a song called “With Us Jesus” right out of Isaiah 9. This habit of keeping the songs grounded in the lyrical language of scripture (and the rhythms of the lectionary calendar), using multiple texts to comment back and forth on each other, became a songwriting principle.

I founded a music publishing company, EarReverent, a cheeky pun meant to declare opposite refusals and complimentary demands. Church songs need not be organ-classical nor must they be “happy-clappy” kitsch. At the same time, they should merge current musical strains with timeless, “pre-Modern” truth and the liturgical posture of the ageless church. The music we envisioned would be naturally tied to the folk-rock roots of our existing abilities and proclivities but would also strive to transcend that contemporary delivery system by seeking sufficient depth of content and liturgical purpose. Songs crawled and jumped out of the sound hole of my Takamine: droning confessions (“Forgiveness Prayer”), moody Psalms (“Out of the Deep”), and celebratory hand-clappers (“O Most High”).

When the song had the right musical feel (that’s the Ear side) and the appropriate liturgical function and language (that’s the Reverent side), it would march right up to the overhead projector and have a go. Nothing could really stop it from the human side (that is, sometimes unfortunately, no one has the heart to tell a worship leader “No”). Nevertheless, excusing the boldness of the following observation, quite often there seemed to be a big “Yes” from the divine side. We sought to hallow the everyday while wrenching the familiar out of its given shape and remolding it for holier use. Every once in while, it seemed to work. To me, “Raise a Song” said it best, borrowing from Paul’s exhortation in 1 Corinthians 14: “I will sing with my mind, and my heart, and my soul.”

To put all this on a slightly more elevated plane: every Christian in each historical generation and cultural setting has to find their place in the liturgy, the way things are done by the people of God, in time and across it. Those of us writing and singing and recording under the EarReverent label were finding a way to be responsibly creative during transcendent moments that transpire in sacred space, such as, say, the tiled store-front of a rented strip mall unit.

May God bless those adults who let us kids play around with the church music. In this spirit of gratitude, I’ll end by calling to your attention Harold Best’s Unceasing Worship. In it, Best provides an update on a statement attributed to G. K. Chesterton, who said something like, “anything worth doing is worth doing badly.” Best improves this by focusing on improvement itself: “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly, but not for long.” Hopefully, this selection of songs wears the stamp of successive growth in quality and depth. I know that I am not the only songwriter/music leader out there who finds himself worrying about one thing especially: what warrant do I and others like me have for adding to the sonic glut that we call “music,” especially if we’re non-professionals? None at all, it is a privilege to be taken both seriously and lightly. If you elect to include any of these selections in your church’s gathering-song, may you find a way to make them more EarReverent than they were when they started out. Let’s leave this place better than we found it.

— C. Scott Baker

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