Music to My Ears
Fr. John Finley · November 3, 2008
In his first episode, Fr. John gives us a little background on himself and his musical experiences as written in an article for AGAIN magazine not long ago.
Five years ago, in 2003, Conciliar Press and Again magazine celebrated it’s twenty-fifth year in publication, and they asked me to write an article reflecting on the musical journey of the former Evangelicals into the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America. In some ways I don’t really… I play around with words a lot, considering their meaning and their implication. We often referred to, and even referred to ourselves, as former Evangelicals. Well, am I? Am I former Evangelical? I don’t think so. I hope not! I would pray that at least my understanding of Evangelical coming from the Great Commission, Matthew28:19-20 would fit right in to being an Orthodox Christian. Would fit right in to being united to the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church in the Patriarchate of Antioch that sent out the great missionaries Peter and Paul to evangelize Western Europe, the Mediterranean area, and sent out other missionaries to do the same.
To begin and inaugurate this new podcast I’d like to share with you that article that I wrote for Again magazine, and then we can go from there. Here we go…
How does one summaries the twenty-five year musical journey in just a few pages? I was twenty-five years old when Conciliar Press and Again magazine were born. Twenty—five years later it’s not hard to guess how old I am. Between Christmas and New Year’s Day in the winter of 1977 I journeyed from Nashville, Tennessee to Galena, California on a mission from God. I stopped in my home town of McAlester, Oklahoma, celebrated Christmas with my parents, and headed out to California by way of Amarillo, Gallup and Phoenix. Long curly black hair, a full beard, blue jeans, team jacket, pair of sunglasses, driving across country in my beat-up red Volvo Sedan with my front-seat companion — an acoustic double-bass. You might have thought I was one of the Blues Brothers! My “blues,” however, were church blues. I was in search of the true Church.
I enjoyed growing up in the Baptist Church in Oklahoma. My time as a camper at Falls Creek Baptist Assembly and as a student at Oklahoma Baptist University is still vivid in my heart and mind. During my college career, however, I came to the conclusion that there had to be something more to the Christian life than what I had been experiencing. I was young, single, with nothing holding me down, so I went looking for an expression of the church that proclaimed the One Body in Christ.
My first stop after graduating from Oklahoma Baptist University in the Spring of 1975 was Nashville. My older brother was living there and worshiping with a group of people led by Gordon Locker. Gordon was one of the leaders of the Network of Christian Fellowships led by a number of former members of Campus Crusade for Christ. I joined this group of like-minded Christians in what was then called Grace Fellowship Church, now Saint Ignatius Orthodox Church in Franklin, Tennessee.
It had not been easy for me to move to Nashville, but upon graduation from OBU I had been offered an editorial position with Word Incorporated in Waco, Texas. From the standpoint of my musical career it was nuts for me to turn this opportunity down. Kurt Kaiser & Company were really moving and shaking the Christian music world with their youth musicals and their new Church sound, but the fever that accompanied my spiritual quest did not lead me in that direction. I thought maybe I could accomplish both of my goals in Nashville, be a rock-and-roll Christian and find the undivided Church all at the same time, so I went off to Music City, USA.
A few weeks later I realized I wasn’t going to be an overnight success in Nashville’s Christian music industry. So in the summer of 1975 I knuckled down and got a job with Street Piano Company in downtown Nashville. Street Piano Company was right across the street from the Baptist Sunday School Board, now Lifeway, which had published four choral pieces which I had submitted to them while a student at OBU. I would occasionally go in and see my friends there, but I knew my spiritual quest was slowly but surely burning a significant bridge to any future musical career with them. Learning and practicing the piano tuning and repair trade while at Street Piano Company sustained me both financially and in many other ways during that period in my life. I learned a number of life lessons under the mentor-ship of Orville DeVille Palmer, Head Piano Technician at Street Piano Company. Mr Palmer could accomplish more at half-speed than I could at full-speed or even double-time.
I knew I needed to slow down, not only in the piano business but also in my soul. There were some bones that needed to be set. I needed to become clear about what I believed as a Christian. I kept writing songs and I would sing them or teach them to the congregation at Grace Fellowship in Nashville. Occasionally I would perform at the Yellow Belly — it was a Church down on 18th Street — and was gradually working my way into the Christian music scene.
One artist Mike Johnson who had been attending Grace Fellowship picked up a song Tom Walker and I had written with another girl named Ginger Lang called Psalm 92, “It is good to give thanks to the Lord.” Mike recorded it on his album More Than Just An Act which was released by Paragon in 1977. That tune rose to #5 on the Gospel charts at one point, and gave me a real confidence boost. During that time I was being exposed to some really good teaching coming from a triumvirate of men located out in Galena, California.
In 1976 (Fr.) Jon Braun came and did a teaching series on “Union with Christ.” He meticulously worked through the theological distinction between person and nature, not only in God but in Man. It spoke of our need to be united to Christ’s life-giving flesh in baptism in order to participate in eternal life. My whole spiritual world was turned upside-down. If I was to believe what he said, I would have to do a lot of changing. And once I had accepted this teaching about baptismal regeneration I realized that my identity as a Southern Baptist had been severed. I wasn’t a Baptist any more. I didn’t know what I was at that time other than a Christian but that’s really all I wanted to be, and still all I really want to be — just a Christian.
The hymn Praise to the Incarnate Word which I wrote a few years later was rooted in the theology I learned that weekend, and through the study of St Athanasius’ book On the Incarnation. When I review the lyrics I still flash back to that pivotal moment in my life.