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Podcast: The Surprising Power of Classical Hymns


I'm shameless for the colson center for christian worldview. What is it about the power of classical hymns and worship that involves not just our minds and our voices voices but our bodies as well today on the breakpoint podcast warren cole smith interviews songwriter recording artist and episcopal priest josh bales about his music music and ministry bales. Who's our newest colson center senior. Fellow also talk about his participation in colson fellows residencies and the wilberforce weekend here are warren cole smith and josh bales. Gosh bills welcome to the program. I've been a fan of yours for a long time. I don't know how long will you and i have known each each other personally but you've been coming to the cultural centers wilberforce weekend and leading worship there for a number of years and plus. I've i've i've got your your albums on heavy rotation in my car so it's it's great to visit with you face to face and one of let's talk first about your latest album. Come away from rush and hurry talk about that. Yes so come away from russian hurry. <hes> is a project of hymns. <hes> what's unique. The unique about these hymns is that they were songs. I grew up in the church but i had never heard most of these hymns and tell i became an anglican look-in priests in the piscopo priests and we sang them in my parish which is a cathedral so i i heard for the first few years i heard these him for two years of being a priest i heard these hymns done with organ and choir men's choir women's choir boys choir girl. I mean beautiful and the more i heard them. The more i started to think oh my gosh these would sound amazing with some kind of little sparsely produced acoustic kind of kind of thing and i ended up recording morning most of the songs in in the cathedral like after after the church staff would leave i would go to cathy set up my piano and mike's and and whatnot it was it. It was a blast well. So what did you do a song of old hymns eighteen because i know i mean i know you do a lot of other people's songs especially as a worship leader but you're also also a singer songwriter. You've got a ton of your own music. Why this why now well i have another project hens called <hes> the birds their carols raise it has sort of more widely tone him that would be widely known in the evangelical world through this is my father's world be thou my vision these hymns on the new project act where hymns that growing up as an evangelical christian. I had literally never heard so. I'm thinking of <hes> blessed are the pure in heart thinking of that we did that one thinking of some hymns by john henry newman some tax and then one song that we seeing that i'd never saw until the lynton season and we did we were doing praying the stations of the cross around holy week and in between each each station of the cross traditionally for now. I don't know a few hundred years has been sung. The stubach matair were it's called the at the cross her vigil keeping keeping and it is a hauntingly beautiful reflection on jesus through the eyes of his mother as she's watching this his passion i mean it is it's just wild so so actually i heard i hired this lady from the netherlands who do did a string arrangement for it and i mean it. It was the most fun i've had recording probably in all five or six cds so well we should probably pause and backup and talk a little about your background because you've already sort of clashed two worlds together here just in the few minutes that we've been talking and that is this idea that you grew up in the church but it was more of an evangelical church and you've had this spiritual pilgrimages spiritual journey towards anglicanism in and more liturgical forms of worship as well and that has become a passion of yours to to sort of <hes> interpret the ancient traditions of the church <hes> the of the beautiful awful but largely forgotten traditions of the church to the jellicoe world. At least that's the way it is. That's precisely that is my passion it. It is to <hes> bring a what is so common book of common prayer and some circles to bring some of that into the other. They're part of my my growing up years. The the people that i grew up with the church that i grew up with i think growing up in a baptist church and then sort of <hes> john macarthur bible kind of church setting and then i worked in the presbyterian church of america for a while and all of those traditions so settings i learned to love jesus. I learn to think about the faith <hes> but it was some of the church history part that i lacked and when i entered an episcopal church just haphazardly at age eighteen and heard the nice in crete for the first time growing up as a christian never heard decreed i mean my mom worked at a church. I was there every you know every day. Every time the doors are open and i wept nice increased i and everybody everybody around me with saying it with eyes closed and it was memorized but with a part of the problem with the episcopal church though is they'll say it and not believe it and part part of the problem with modern evangelical churches that they believe it and yet never say never say it out loud never really articulate this beautiful clear direct statement of the essentials of the christian faith. Yes right i mean i feel that my mentioned my pilgrimage. I feel so so blessed that i got to grow up with the piety of evangelical ism and i get to use the forms of historic christianity and my the parish in in in fact my diocese. We're one of the last conservative diocese you might say in the episcopal church. We're one of seven or eight orthodox christian russian diocese so everyone's that way everyone loves jesus the way we love jesus in my baptist church when i was seven years old but we use is these forms that have been used for thousands of years and it's just a special blessing well. I pray that lasts though the evidence is not in your favor as you know i've come out of the episcopal church and into the anglican church which is more in more of a guess you could say intentional about the anglican church in america right now is kind of a bunch of lifeboats lifeboat's of folks that have fled the episcopal church and but they're now coming together under this umbrella of the anglican church of north american so he would be a wonderful thing if you guys can if your diagnosis can maintain fidelity but at least we're i am. That's no longer the case we had to go. We had to leave and go elsewhere right y- yeah maybe it's not even a possibility and who knows what the future holds for anglicans in america who hold to traditional orthodox christian truth but i do think that either way the larger idea remains intact and that is that there is something about the history city in about the liturgy of the <hes> of the church that is largely lost to evangelism today and it's a shame that it is that it has been lost because it is didactic it does teach allows us to approach christ in ways that mere reason or mere logic does not quite allow all it did was in touch with mystery in other words and and it puts us in touch with our bodies. I think if there's anything that's the most difficult piece of <hes> come into a completely liturgical setting for evangelical christians and this is this is my opinion. This was the case for me. It is the idea of that my i body matters in worship and even if my brain is slow to catch up something about making this physical gesture like the sign of the cross or kneeling for for confession or the holding the host the eucharist in my hand and then tasting and smelling it and all i mean it is a bodily really experience and if you're coming from a heavy enlightenment driven kind of setting them sometimes that can be lost. Well you know in that's what evangelical church has become largely as as an enlightenment driven experience where we we are spectators in a service rather than active participants in service which is what liturgical churches do and it is interesting to note that the word liturgy means the work of the people right so i mean it really does compel plus encourage us invite us into active participation in worship absolutely absolutely and you also mentioned mystery i think in addition addition to bodily experience embodied experience in worship the liturgical history of worship in christianity it gets he l. L. calls where they dislike. The most which is in mystery and i remember a friend came and visited our church one sunday and and at the end of the service said oh i loved it was it was it was awesome. It was beautiful. I didn't really know what was going on some of the time but josh not this much. I need to go learn an understand everything that that we just did so that i can kind of get it to the fullest now. There's a lot of merit to that kind of statement but in fact it it's actually the opposite in church history. It's more of a you do the mysteries and then you come to understand them over a lifetime but to be to live in the tension of not understanding fully what's happening at god's table for example or in baptism or whatever that's part of the deal is very uncomfortable well yeah it is and i know ah josh off shared this with you must part of my journey us virtually was that i was raised in a fantastic evangelical church baptist church large mega church and i would go there <hes> wing college and just out of college i would continue to go to that church on sunday morning but on sunday night i would sneak into the bag view of the local episcopal cathedral for their even song services and in that's that was my entry point into the anglican tradition and if you know even song you know that there's not a lot of preaching happening associates it's mostly music and prayers and scripture reading scripture reading and yet it was for me it was a healing experience <hes> and not not that had been abused in any way shape or form by my upbringings thanks virtually but it was just it was just a place of peace and for me and sort of the hustle and bustle of the world and even the hustle and bustle of the of the normal normal evangelical service yes so what i hear and i make could be reading into what you're what you're saying but now we're sort of we're venturing into the other other part of my life which is my work as a mental health therapist so i would say that liturgical worship has been i mean i love that word healing. It's been healing for me. You have to be present in the moment with your day with your emotions with the people who were there with your body. I mean all all now. We're we're talking. This is a current trend and the counseling world but it's mindfulness christians have been doing mindfulness for thousands of years in worship shit bright so yeah. It's just the i have exactly the same experience josh i wanna pivot just a little bit in our conversation and talk to you about your your own in songwriting process for example you and i are here in colorado springs and <hes> at the colson fellows residency and and we just sang a song you call our modern hill. I guess you can say that you wrote call him for all the world that was based at least impart. You're on that famous quote by abraham kuyper which i'll paraphrase. He wrote it in dutch so i feel the liberty to offer the warren's translate. There is not one square inch of mall of creation over which christ who is sovereign overall does not declare mind you owe to him about that. Yes yes and not just a him about you know the authority of christ the lordship of christ or the sovereignty of christ but how that trickles down into people's lives all people's whose lives so you've got verse one sort of sets the stage of the tim him for all the world jesus is king. He's the lord verse two as crying out to the lord to watch over his creation people who may not even have enough food to eat and of course we were saying all the time. We're trusting all the time. They got his bringing his kingdom keenum to the earth and yet there are people even now all over the world who are barely alive then verse three we pray we sing for our brothers and sisters missionary janeiro. He's the lord of the missionaries he's lord of all the little corners of the earth where mission is happening. Where kingdom is coming that quote. How many songs could you could you right from that quote well yeah. That's exactly right but but talk to me about the process so you know the quote for you say to yourself. You know what i want to make this idea this quote from kuyper but really more the nat the idea that god is sovereign that he is lord of all. Do you want to make that come alive musically. What does that sound like for you. I usually need some kind of instigating factor like i need a bit of emission almost every every song like if it's a client i'm sitting with at the end of the session. I may be thinking oh my goodness. That was such a powerful emotional experience that i wanna wanna capture that in the song for him for all the world i wrote that for <hes> trinity evangelical divinity schools day of prayer i think it was in two thousand and five or two thousand and four and we this this was our theme the lordship of christ and we're going to be praying for our brothers and sisters all around around the world and it just a bunch of things came together all at once the night before the day of prayer is when i wrote it played it for the the folks the next day and they said yes. Let's let's do this in the service so it was awesome. Josh let me ask you about another song. It's not a new song well. Of course i was on a new song. Either you wrote down when back when you were in seminary another song songo that has been around for a while that that i love the called count the stars also then i think the name of one of your albums all right title track of the album yep so talk about that's where did this one come from one of the fun things about being a pasture and a mental health therapist and songwriter is that i have lots of material real to to work with right all the time so but but honestly i love remember a great songwriter. Mentor of mine told me that song it songs are never are written in a vacuum. You know like you gotta get out there and live to get material for for song so i have plenty of it. Count the stars my pastor pastor at the time i was associate. He was teaching through the story of abraham and sarah and of course the line count. The stars is this is is what the lord told abraham in the midst of infertility right struggling of course we know now at the end of the bible story that that like the whole story of the bible able hinges on this moment we'll abram have children or not and then he does in the line of jesus and then we are abraham's children now so it it's it's a beauty the full concept all through the scripture at the same time my wife and i were meeting with a couple who were struggling with infertility and it it was so the grief was overwhelming. It was paralyzing to them. Somehow all of these things collided in an. I just thought i wanted wanted to write a song of hope. I wanted to write a song hope the sort of the the catch line of the song i if you could call it that is that god's promises are are bigger than our dreams basically and certainly that was true for abraham. I think it's the ultimate expression of that is jesus that all of god's promises oh scripture find are embodied and she's but even in small ways if we're being a little loose here even small ways right god's promises to me. We are way bigger than even what i can picture for myself so yeah that that's the song count the stars it turned out to be so i sent that to ed cash and in nashville just just sent him an email. Yeah let me pause. Some folks might not know who had cashier right but that's only because they don't follow oh christian music right because ed cash is like a rockstar literally <hes> in christian music. He is produced some of grammy winning award-winning wingstop. He's just like the go-to guy right so i didn't know ed. I didn't know i knew i just knew of him but i sent this to him. On a whim you know through his his website like send me songs he does so so. I send you and they wrote me back. It was wild started a relationship around the song and then i i did a crowd funding thing. This song was sort of like the the mascot song of the my my go fund me or kickstarter and and it was great raise raise money. It was just a major for my music career. That song count the stars was a big boost and well deserved. I mean there's just really great song. I'm really grateful for it so thank you for that josh anytime i get to sit down with a guy like you create a person <hes> somebody's either song writer or filmmaker and artist of of some kind or another. I like to ask them at least a little bit about the creative process. How it how it is for you i mean in some ways i know is the we were talking about mystery earlier and i know to a certain extent it is kind of mysterious and you know who knows you know who knows why you're gifted in one way in somebody else's gifted in another way and all of that stuff is kind of beyond description one level but still you can be stewards of those gifts and you probably have some disciplines that you engage in in order to bring those gifts to fruition so. Can you talk about some of those for you. I mean <hes> where the ideas come from once you get an idea how you nurture that idea into a complete song yeah. That's a great question. So where. Where did the ideas come from. It's certainly like everybody else. You're doing life. I'm doing life in my parish with my wife or or what in the counseling office and something. It's always an emotional moment. It is an emotional moment. That's where it starts and i and i think for me that stays i true throughout the entire creative process because if i can hang with the emotion in me than i know it will be emotional for someone else else if only for one other person if at any point in my songwriting process it becomes a mind game or a word game or something or amused <unk> game really oh that's really cool but i lose the emotional and i know that sounds mysterious but this is the best i can say it so i hang with the emotion for for me that is key. I mean oftentimes if i can <hes> in the writing process if i can literally with a notebook and my guitar piano sitting there quietly. I need complete. I need to be completely alone. I can't do it with mindy my wife in the next room. I literally need to be on lockdown down probably my a._d._d. But in that moment if i can write words or communicate something musically that brings nst tears to my eyes that that is for me. That's when i know i'm on the right track after that. I feel like i'm just trying to chase down. You know to stay with it. It sounds so the'real but describing my processes pretty hard. I think the discipline part of it for me is trusting that if i do sit down if i do make time to be alone something good will come of it. Did you have a plan for doing that like once a week. Do you sit down and say this is a songwriting day or this is a songwriting our or is it. You know an hour every day or is it. You know once a quarter you go in and retreat or none of the above none of the above once a quarter going on retreat probably sounds more more sustainable formula like what i could do a one once every quarter of the year to spend time thinking about what do i want to do next musically. That's how that's how it works for me. The main reason is because i am a full time priest and i also see clients so it's this sort of like. I feel like i write songs on the on on the run. I mean a lot of stuff in the car driving around town with no music on right just just thinking through so how do you capture it. Whenever you're doing wing now you use your iphone or do you phone yeah absolutely voice the voice nimmo so are you. Are you voicing melodies or you. Voicing lyrics or we're both usually they come to me almost at the same time a some kind of little melody my count the stars i remember it was just the dunin done when i lay me down to sleep in this is just sort of like that and so then you'll find guitar it just it just developed from there. I've heard songwriter. Tell me that he thinks it's best not to do the initial songwriting with instruments sometimes because you're limited by what you know how to do on that into or you're you're limited by you sort of your default cords that you know i mean i don't know about you you. You're much. It's better guitar player than i am but when i picked up the guitar first-quarter ostrom g or the first quarter was a knee or the first quarter is a d. and so if i'm going to write a song it's probably going to be in one of those chords just because that's where i'm starting with the guitar and that's why i'm whereas if sitting on the piano my b. c. or might be you know f or something like that and i'm just just wondering if that if that resonates with you in any way where you kind of just like you know if i if i'm really wanna let the song be what the song wants to be. I need to kind of think about it apart from the instrument yeah. I think i like to write. I do like probably differently than that that perspective. I like to write with an instrument meant if i'm really gonna try to commit to something but i also don't get really intricate with the music i just want the basic chords and so that i can hear the melody in my head and so yeah i mean you you can break no matter how intricate asong sound you can break it down into a d and g any so doc i would play. I'd play the simple chord progression of what i'm working on over and over and over again without any flowery stuff. I feel like the flowers stuff comes more closer to what i'm going to record it. Virgin josh we've been having you are wilberforce weekend for the last couple of years the cultural center and in the colson fellows program leading worship and and i gotta tell you we all agree here at the cultural center that you're that you're just <hes> have become an integral part of that with that that what we're trying to do at the colson some fellows program which is not just an intellectual exercise in process. I mean it is it is intellectually rigorous. It's a year long program. You read a lot of books folks you. You watch a lot of videos. I mean it's it's real but we also think that this faith formation component this devotional component that growing richard deeper spiritual life is a really important part of the colson fellows program as well and you have been so instrumental in helping us achieve whatever serves successor progress. We've made their onto talk about what that looks like for you when you come to one of these residencies or when you are leading a gr- you worship in in a large group. We'll have nearly a thousand people at the wilberforce we in. What are you trying to accomplish. What's on your mind. What's on your heart. In those moments well first of all. I love being part of the colson center. I mean i if there ever was a group that fit my heart and my mind is i do too. I feel like on the weekends. I get to nerd out for like three days trade and that is so much fun and then to get to be the musical sorta component of that. It's just like you can't you know. I guess if we're gonna do a psychotherapy part of this. Maybe that would all three of piece of my vocation. We'd be touched but it's just so fun to be a part of this war force weekend especially when you have that many people that many christians and room and the whole goal is who in unity lift your hearts and voices together i mean first of all it's terrifying absolute. I mean it is terrifying a ah you think of the worship so-called worship worse in a small parish one hundred fifty four hundred people and then you've got a thousand people trying to backgrounds exactly etta from every tradition you know i'll be honest with you hadn't really thought about it because you don't look terrified when you're a gracious. You look like you are very confident in i and have a plan and so on and may maybe you do. Maybe you can be maybe you can be confident have a plan and be terrified at the same time but but i hadn't thought about it that way because you're right i mean we one of the things about the call sir sir we've got catholics and bobble biased in the same room to yes exactly exactly so which which is why did being anglican. Maybe helps me in some regards because that's sort of the the knicks were part baptist park catholic ways but yeah so it it is terrifying but i just i find myself thinking first of all it's not about josh and it's not even about what songs i think we should seeing or what scripture passages i. I'm just mainly planning those times of worship around commonality in in unity. What what gets the most people involve participating what so it holy whole i'm thinking if everyone knows right holy holy mighty fortress and then and then of course a vast portion of those thousand christians are so are going to be their normal musical languages like a rock band worship style sending more so you want to find the best of the best modern worship stuff to include as well as that's my goal. Oh yeah like you you mentioned a mighty fortress is our god in holy holy holy which are two favorite hymns of all time by the way and also like keith gattis in christ alone usually mix in one or two of your songs along with gregg born appreciate and from my point of view you could do even more just because i love your music but <hes> yeah it is in some ways. It's beautiful thing that we but it's also it's always a tough thing as well managing that in this environment this moment that we're in right right and i think like a particular piece of it for me is i'm coming at these events. I'm coming as a singer songwriter but i'm also coming as a worship leader so how to do there's the vast difference between maybe i'm gonna get in trouble for saying this but there's there's a difference between being sort of pastor and leading music and an an artist in being on stage it just in my mind's just two very different things but i do both of them and i and i do them. If i'm playing at a hub i'm not worried about making it about me. It is that's why people came to the pub to hear the music or whatever but in worship maybe playing a the same song i would play at a pub like count the stars at the end of a worship time or whatever it's just it's it's weird. The tension never goes away for me. It would be so much easier if i could just do hymns courses and not feel like i had to bring my art. I don't know how to make those things. Work works that well but this is the best thing i come up with us to just well yeah and that tension is <hes> you know his top of boy i think he managed really well not so we are so grateful all to you for what you do with fellows and what you do with our wilberforce weekend and it's just it's just been a real blessing to me personally and i know too many of the folks that are sort of in the orbit of the colson center so thank you you've been listening to warren cole. Smith's interview with josh veils come to breakpoint dot org and checkout josh's first monthly column in his new role as senior fellow at the colson center. It's entitled christ in my heart in my mind and in ten thousand places again again. That's breakpoint dot org. Thanks for listening and for again. That's breakpoint dot o._r._g. Thanks for listening for the call center. I'm shameless <music>.

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