More than a collection of songs, Life in the Key of God is a divine narrative of friendship and grace. For 58 years, I didn’t play an instrument. I only sang in church and the shower—and never well. Then I started hearing songs. And so it was that in a single year, I learned enough piano, composition, music theory, choral training and notation software, to write all the music and lyrics for these ten songs. It’s hard to wrap my head around, even now. Still, my greatest joy is in the way the songs came to life. You see, I’ve been blessed to call a lot of really talented musicians my friends.
ENTER HERE was the first song I had recorded. I “heard” it two years earlier, while lying on a slab of Travertine at the Getty Museum during the initial week of my training in Christian Formation & Spiritual Direction. The song stayed with me for almost two years until I had no choice but to learn music to birth it. Early on, I had the sense that it should be sung by my dear neighbor of 24 years, Rachel Pollack. The first time I showed it to her, she used a great many expletives to describe the beauty of it. “I can’t get the hook out of my head,” she said. “We need to talk to Jonas.”
Her former-husband, Jonas Sorman, was a gifted composer & producer, who quickly stepped in to arrange Enter Here for the piano. He joined in the harmonies with the musicians, Xander Hitzig and Nicole Olney, who lived in the tiny house between us. None of them are “church people,” but all could hear the spirit of God alive in this song and wanted to be a part of it. They worked tirelessly, not only on the single, but on this beautiful video, which Rachel directed and edited: a gift for a lifetime. Their enthusiasm gave me confidence in the power of the song…and of the others soon to come.
FEAR NOT! is the opening song of a liturgy I co-wrote with Blake Flattley of Communion Arts. Blake and I have shared a love of cultivating the ancient and the modern through the arts for the good of the Church since 2015, when we first met in NYC. Since then our paths have crossed in LA, OC, ATL and always, virtually, as we’ve built our friendship and, now, a quarantine-friendly version of our Fear Not! liturgy. I consider Blake “responsible” for leading me to this new musical path by asking me to work on this liturgy with him. I will never forget the moment in the shower when I heard the first sung lyric that ever came to me, “I want to know what angels knew when they said, fear not!” and I ran to message Blake who talked me thru how to download the My Memos app so I could record it while it was still fresh.
FULL CIRCLE DAY is sung by Donna Bullock, the featured vocalist I’ve known the longest. We were part of the same mom’s group along the Venice canals and came to attend the same church, First Lutheran Venice. Donna helped bring The Renaissance Service to life for me by lending her exquisite voice to these arts-based liturgies. Some will know Donna from reading about her in passages of my first book, Baptism by Fire. You might also know her from TV or movies or the New York production of Ragtime where she played the lead role of Mother, bringing down the house at the end with the song Back to Before. I know. I was there to celebrate with her,
just as she and her husband Howard came to hear me speak about Man Turned in on Himself in New York a dozen years later. Now living a quieter life in the woods of Massachusetts, she was delighted to get to play a part in coming full circle again in our friendship to sing this song, dedicated to Remy, who Donna has known and loved and prayed for her entire life. Donna was the first person to come to my house when Remy was in the hospital as an infant and sit on my bed and take my hand and say, “Let me pray for you.”
WIDE was a song I began hearing just as I became aware of—and leapt to enroll for—a two-year program in Christian Formation and Spiritual Direction (CFDM) in January, 2018. The program put my fledgling musical gifts on pause as it freed my heart and spirit to sing a new song.
Two years and a bit later—just when I thought this album was complete—I found my old, warbly vocal and knew that Wide was the last piece. It expresses musically one of the most essential teaching nuggets I use whenever I give a theology talk: that the Hebrew word yasa is at the root of the word “saved.” And a big part of the meaning of yasa is “to make wide.” This is the Gospel I think people long to hear about—and I knew that Sydney Forest Taylor was just the person to deliver the message. She and her husband, JT, were in my CFDM cohort and we spent hours together listening for the Spirit of the Living God at work in each other’s stories—the God who makes all of our lives wide if we let Him. Sydney is a well known singer/songwriter, and the recipient of the National Academy of Songwriter’s Lionel Richie Songwriting Award.
She has written and performed original songs for both TV & film, including “Once in a Blue Moon” from the movie Simply Irresistible. In late October, 2019, we found ourselves together in the waiting room at the UCLA Medical Center where her dad was undergoing open heart surgery just as Remy was having ten holes drilled into her skull for a depth electrode study. Grace abounds, we all got the good outcomes we prayed for.
WHEN YOU FALL is a sliver of chant based on a line from the teachings of theologian Olivier Clement. In the future I hope it will be sung in repetition by many voices—in the tradition of Taize—but for this album I wanted one acapella voice. I first met seminarian Mason Vieth when he attended a lecture I gave at Concordia Seminary St. Louis. We built our friendship online—and over a three-hour coffee at St. Louis’s hometown hang-out, Kaldi’s— as we discovered a shared love for the haunting melodies of monastic chant and the mission to make all things new.
After he shared a clip of a solo he did of the Lord’s Prayer, I knew he would be the one to sing it. His enthusiasm and care in getting the vocal just right simply affirmed it. Mason is currently a 4th year seminarian at Concordia, St. Louis.
ADELANTE! was written specifically for the music/worship leaders at my church, HOPE LA: Ernie “Chico” Perez (of the LA funk/soul band, the Boxing Gandhis), Stephanie Garcia, and classical guitarist Matt Purpura. Adelante! means “keep going!” and it has been the guiding encouragement that we’ve used for the past 5 years as we’ve navigated the hard work of letting an old church die and a new one be born in and through us.
This song had a life of its own and led me places I never imagined—I just kept following. This required the giftedness, training, and dedication of Matt Purpura to arrange and produce the song, and make the many styles and sections come together as one. In the process of the writing, the song came to include the voices of the LOVE RISES Community Choir, which we started at HOPE LA six weeks before the pandemic.
The choir continued to grow via ZOOM during the quarantine, gathering members from around the country–and even a few in Europe! The LOVE RISES Community Choir is directed by Virginie d’Avezac de Castera who graciously works with eager singers of all different levels of experience—even me! The choir was named for the mural we commissioned Ruben Rojas to create for the massive wall along our parking lot. When he shared this short video I replied with a wink, “Gee, Ruben, it sounds just like 1 Corinthians 13: 4-8.”
PRAYER OF TEARS is sung by my friend Kristin Schweain, who is the Director of Worship at St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Cape Girardeau, MO. We first met while I was on a speaking tour through the Midwest in 2018.
I had no idea at the time that Kristin was once part of a Christian teen pop and rock trio called Zoe Girl, which was awarded the Gospel Music of America’s best new artist award in 2002. As I prepared for my visit, she was eager to learn about leading Taize services, and creating a more contemplative worship space, and so we worked together long distance to craft a service for their coffee house church plant called STA.
I was so taken by her voice and her gifts that I asked her pastor, John Dehne, if they would send her out to L.A. later that year to co-lead a Taize service with Blake Flattley and me at The Gathering in Long Beach. I am praying that the chorus of this song—”Oh, God, break through!”— will one day be brought to all its fullness in a live performance featuring Kristin and the members of the Laudamus choir at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis.
SOPHIA was the penultimate song I wrote for Life in the Key of God. It came about as I pondered whether there would be any other songs or if the album was complete. The answer came as a question: “Is there anything you want to say that you haven’t already said in these other 8 songs?” It turned it, there was.
I have been studying the person of Sophia/Wisdom (in the Hebrew, Chokhmah), for almost twenty years. Her presence in Proverbs 8 & 9, and throughout the Book of Wisdom (which Protestant bibles do not include) is essential to the knowledge of the fullness of the Living God, but, sadly, she is little known in the Western church. This song is a celebration of her unique identity throughout Scripture and, I suspected, had the power to speak beyond church walls in game-changing ways. I knew Sophia had to be a duet, with the balance of the male and female voices embodying the wholeness of the Created world. Rachel agreed to tackle this challenging song, along with my new friend Steve Zank, a singer, songwriter, producer, sound recording engineer, ordained minister and the Director of Theology-Center for Worship Leadership at Concordia University, Irvine. The exquisite melding of their voices became the last great surprise of the album.
MORNING SONG was arranged and recorded at home in Nashville by my friend of 20 years, Kate Campbell. I have written more about her than any other artist friend because her music, her voice, her spirit, and the knowledge of her as a kindred spirit for the journey have meant so much to me. You may have seen my post of her sung version of The Prayer of Thomas Merton or, one of my most popular blogs, Kathy, I’m lost, about our unlikely friendship. I first heard her sing “The Way Home” (featured above) thru a wall in our dorm at The Glen in Santa Fe, where we had been paired as liturgists; I started weeping then, and every time I heard it for the next several years.
Kate has been a touring singer/songwriter for 30 years, including an annual pub music tour she leads thru Ireland. We have a shared love of contemplative prayer and the riches of the Celtic tradition, which are so apparent in this song. I had first heard the opening lines as I looked out the window in my little room at the St. Columba Hotel on the Isle of Iona during Holy Week, 2018. I’d sung them into my phone and forgotten about them until I started playing piano and writing music in earnest. I reached out to Kate who gently shared that some of my chord notations were off but that the melody was perfect. That’s the gift of old, dear friends: truth and grace in equal measure.
HEAVEN ISN’T FAR AWAY is a big, joyful pub song that has never been sung in a pub (yet). The original plan was to have friends from all different parts of my life gather at my house on my birthday-May 12, 2020—to record and celebrate. Then 202O became, well, 2020. Thankfully, the creative spirit led me to a quick pivot and a host of wonderful friends with gifted musical families who agreed to help me make it work from afar. The song is dedicated to my brave and faithful friend, Eric Trickey, who had been battling stage-4 cancer for the whole of the six years I knew him.
Before he passed, I was able to share the sheet music & dedication with him, to which he replied, “Oh, Wow!!” Eric finally left his tortured body to be at peace with His Heavenly father on May 28, 2020. As only he could, he delivered a pre-recorded sermon at his own memorial service entitled: Eric Trickey is now in Heaven! Eric celebrated 10 years sober a few weeks before he passed: he loved the idea that this song would capture the Spirit of a pub sing.
This album’s journey began in earnest on July 26, 2019 when I saw Phil Cordaro’s car pull up on our street. He’d been teaching neighborhood kids piano for years and I had come to think of him as a friend. But on this day I suddenly toppled my chair, ran out the door, and said breathlessly, “Do you teach adults and will you teach me?” It is not an overstatement to say that none of this music would be possible without him sharing his lifetime of training, his boundless patience, his firm hand, his willingness to go where I needed to go, and his joyful, faithful spirit. Rare is the day that I don’t text him with a question. And he always answers. Promptly, thoroughly. Sometimes I have to say, please don’t explain the whole history of music theory, just tell me what you call a Dm7 that also has a G:)
When in-person lessons became impossible, we switched to Facetime without missing a beat. And although he’s not a fan of this picture, it feels to me like the season when so much of this music was written. At least once a week I walk thru the house and exclaim, “Phil is a total Godsend!” to which Lon replies, “yep.” His gifts are evident in the song Wide, which he arranged and produced.
One final note re: the image up top. I only met the artist, Elizabeth Decker once in person but we have corresponded frequently online and even on a few real phone calls about our journeys. As I began to envision what I wanted the album cover to look like, her work came instantly to mind. “Quietly thinking of Him” feels introspective, human, girly, messy, deeply-rooted and celestial all at the same time.
Midway through the production process I was sent an unexpected check to help me complete the album. I am eternally grateful to Tim & Linda Fox, who learned from the life and witness of Martha Ann & David Fox to treasure and support “beautiful things.”
Life in the Key of God will be released on November 12, 2020. If you would like to interview me for a podcast or arrange for me to speak virtually at your conference, church, or creative gathering about the songs, the process, or the deep theology and prayer that undergirds all the lyrics, let’s talk. I trust that, just as the album was a rich and beautiful collaboration, so too will the process be of getting the word out.
Until then, please join me in praying that these songs go out in the world and bring us all closer to the Living God.
Soli Deo Gloria