After posting my last blog, I received quite the flurry of responses, most of them positive, some of them critical, and some quite offended, feeling that I had attacked their personal view of what worship is. What a massive subject - the definition of worship! It inspires tremendous passion. Most pastors would agree that nothing can tear a congregation apart faster than disagreements over worship styles. I’ve experienced the agony of worship wars one too many times.

I’d like to reiterate that the primary goal of my last blog was to encourage specifically those who are attempting to write modern hymns. I was not trying to pass judgement on contemporary worship choruses (though I have plentyto say on the subject), nor was I turning my nose up at simple choruses and worship songs. I have written and recorded plenty of both, and intend to do more in the future.

The discussion prompted me to think about how the critical process has been instilled in me and has become vital to me as a song writer. I’ll start with a quote from one of my favorite authors of the last century - Flannery O’Connor. Please look her up. She’s well worth the effort. This quote is from one of her lectures to college students, aspiring writers:

“Everywhere I go, I'm asked if I think the universities stifle
writers. My opinion is that they don't stifle enough of them. 
There's many a best seller that could have been prevented
by a good teacher.”

I experienced a dramatic stifling as a musician when I was 21 years old. I flew out to the east coast to audition for graduate schools in piano performance. I had worked hard for several years and knew my pieces well. I was practicing Chopin Ballade #3 one night at The Juilliard School (a friend let me in), nervous about my audition at Stony Brook the next day. Suddenly I heard the same piece coming out of a practice room down the hall. The person playing was a fantastic pianist - technique to burn - gorgeous, mature tone - deep, thoughtful musicianship. I recognized instantly that at my very best, I would never be capable of playing the Ballade as well as this person. Thoroughly intimidated, I walked down the hall and peeked into the practice room from where the incredible sound was coming. Seated at the piano was a young girl, maybe 13 or 14 years old. 

The lesson for me was huge and devastating. In an instant, I became acutely and painfully aware of the limitations of my gifts as a pianist. I was not a world-class pianist (as I had secretly entertained in my mind). I was merely a good pianist - better than average, but by no means gifted enough to compete in the classical world I longed to be part of. I fell into a depression that lasted two years as I began to sort out more honestly what musical talents I had been given, and which talents I had not been given. I look back on the whole experience and recognize God’s hand of mercy on my life.  

It was also Providence that brought me a few years later as a young song writer to the classrooms of Elaine Rubenstein and Peter Morrison - two poets who taught writing workshops at Irvine Valley College in the late 80s and through the 90s. The workshop was, for me, at first, a fairly brutal weekly event. Each student wrote a poem within the framework of whatever-it-was we were studying that week - a catalogue poem, the Art of Tea, the Navajo creation story, a psalm, or a beatitude. At the following session, we read our poem aloud in front of the class. Critique was provided by the students and the teacher. You weren’t allowed to defend yourself or argue back - just to take it all in. I was often discouraged to realize that a weeks worth of writing had rendered perhaps only one “keeper” line, or worse, a rhythmless poem riddled with cliches and sentimentality.

As I write these two stories down, I’m reminded of the important, sometimes predominant role negativity has played in the creation of my songs - so much stripping away, so much tearing apart before I can get to the heart of what I’m trying to communicate. 

There are songs I wrote years ago that I am still proud of today. They caused me a lot of sweat and agony - struggling over single words for days or weeks, pacing up and down the length of our driveway at night, driving my wife nuts. And there are songs I wrote and recorded that I now find cringe-worthy. I would have been better off starting over from scratch, or filing them into the nearest paper shredder.

All these years later, I still send most of what I write to Peter and Elaine for critique and guidance. They have keen eyes and ears, and they are excellent teachers. They are beautifully and eloquently honest. The process of getting to the heart of the matter still isn’t easy for me, but I’ve learned to welcome it. 


Every music minister knows the weekly anxiety of searching for the right songs for the upcoming Sunday service. The criteria may differ from church to church, but hopefully, the goal is to find songs that tie in thematically with the sermon or the weekly scripture reading. However, I know of a pastor on the west coast who directed his music minister to follow a grid when planning the music service - a large W - meaning that the service starts with upbeat songs that slowly give way to medium ballads, then go up again, then back down, before sending the congregation off with a happy bang. Never mind the content. The music becomes a space filler and provides the congregation with a reason to stand up and clap, or to settle down and get ready to dish out an offering, or listen to a sermon.

I used to serve in a church that followed a similar grid. It was always those dang happy songs that gave me the hardest time. Not that there wasn’t a plethora to chose from, but the upbeat songs were always so corny and utterly forgettable. These days, no one sings the ones we used back then and I imagine the same fate will follow many of today’s happy slappy modern worship songs.

Now that I’m in an Anglican church the weekly song search is much more complicated than the W model. There’s the lectionary to deal with - scripture passages that are appointed for every week of the year - an Old Testament reading, a Psalm, an Epistle reading (or one from Acts), and finally the Gospel reading. These readings are arranged according to the narrative of the Christian calendar: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, Easter, Pentecost, and Ordinary Time (the season after Pentecost). More often than not, there’s an obvious theme that ties all the readings together such as contrition, service, God’s faithfulness, baptism, etc. I have learned to love the challenge of discovering that theme and finding the perfect songs to underscore and enhance the various portions of the Anglican mass. This process in the last year and a half has opened the door for me to many rich and beautiful hymns that I have never heard before. It is how I stumbled upon the stunning hymn Come Down, O Love Divine (lyrics: Bianco De Siena - Music: Ralph Vaugh Williams) in the weeks before Pentecost Sunday last year. Here are the verses as we sing them at our church:


Come down, O love divine, seek Thou this soul of mine,
And visit it with Thine own ardor glowing.
O Comforter, draw near, within my heart appear,
And kindle it, Thy holy flame bestowing.

O let it freely burn, til earthly passions turn
To dust and ashes in its heat consuming;
And let Thy glorious light shine ever on my sight,
And clothe me round, the while my path illuming.

Let holy charity mine outward vesture be,
And lowliness become mine inner clothing;
True lowliness of heart, which takes the humbler part,
And o’er its own shortcomings weeps with loathing.

And so the yearning strong, with which the soul will long,
Shall far out-pass the power of human telling;
For none can guess its grace, till he become the place
Wherein the Holy Spirit makes His dwelling.


I am drawn to the specificity of this hymn. It’s about something. It’s about a specific event in the Christian narrative. The humble stance, the plaintive tone; it’s a perfect hymn about God pouring out his Holy Spirit on a contrite heart that has found redemption through Jesus Christ. 

Let this be an encouragement to modern hymn writers- a cause for inspiration to those who are suffering from writer’s block. There are so many Biblical scenes to chose from that would make for beautiful songs - for instance: the transfiguration of Christ. The feeding of the five thousand,  the woman at the well, the stoning of Stephen, water baptism, washing of the disciple’s feet, the betrayal of Judas. If just a few good modern hymn writers tackled some of these subject, the anguish that untold thousands of music ministers suffer weekly could be greatly diminished.

It’s easy to write a chorus that says

God, you are a Holy God
I need your grace to see me through
I need your mercy to make me new
Let me live each day for you.

I just made that up in 2 minutes and there’s nothing wrong with it. It would fit easily and competitively among the hundreds of worship songs that are available to chose from. Compare those lines to the third stanza from the above hymn:

Let holy charity mine outward vesture be,
And lowliness become mine inner clothing;
True lowliness of heart, which takes the humbler part,
And o’er its own shortcomings weeps with loathing.

It took some real thought to craft those lines, but they are timeless. They set a standard for all of us who write music for the church. 

I didn’t set out to write a didactic blog. I’m writing to myself. Be specific when you write songs about God. Avoid cliche. Avoid convenience. Avoid an obsession with the consumer. Avoid the temptation to make commercial success your central goal. Write with intelligence, employing all the craft, skill, and experience with which God has endowed you. 

Fernando Ortega Interview by Huffington Post Writer

Fernando was recently interviewed by Ryan Thomas Neace, writer for Huffington Post. See the interview below. 

 You can find the complete interview here.

Fernando Ortega is a profoundly gifted musician, singer, and songwriter, who grew up in New Mexico near the Rio Grande, and spent time in Ecuador and Barbados due to his father’s work with the US Department of State.  He is the product of eight generations of family hailing from Chimayo, New Mexico.

Ortega’s approach to music includes elements of folk, classical, Celtic, Latin American, world, and rustic hymnody, according to Wikipedia.  These roots are made possible both by his heritage and his formal training at The University of New Mexico.

Fernando graciously spent an hour of his time with me for a phone interview on December 19, 2014.  (In the interest of time and subject matter, some parts of the interview have been omitted below.)

Personal Connection

I can’t recall exactly when I happened upon Fernando Ortega’s music, but I can recall being deeply moved, and doing a lot of crying.  It was somewhere during a very rocky transition from my former life to my current one, which included bouts of mental and behavioral dysfunction, profound spiritual searching, and emotional upheaval.

I’ve never been a fan of Contemporary Christian Music (a subject we discuss below), so I had to look in different places for balm. Fernando’s music took hymns from my childhood and infused them with new life, and often rearranged or interpreted them in a way that spoke to my experience.  When I discovered that the bulk of his albums were about his own misgivings and struggles, I latched on rather furiously and began to follow his music with devotion.

In later years, his albums grew increasingly liturgical and mirrored my own growing hunger for richer and more robust approach to God and life.  When I was married to my lovely wife in 2008, some friends of ours in Nashville, TN, transposed his music by ear and allowed our wedding to be filled with its depth.   Each time I met him at concerts or corresponded with him (he actually helped point us in the right direction for our wedding when I wrote him on Myspace!), my admiration for him reached new heights.

For those looking for an introduction to his music, I would suggest the albums StormThe Shadow of Your Wings: Hymns and Sacred Songs, or his most recent album, Come Down, O Love Divine.


Thoughts About the Interview:

Key Words: Simplicity, Doubt, Authenticity

During our interview, I took great note of Fernando’s authenticity.  I like to think of myself as a rather keen observer of human behavior, so I was greatly pleased to detect no pretense or mask-wearing.  The depth of his words didn’t emanate from their length or eloquence, but from the opposite – it simplicity and straight-forwardness.

What’s more, much of the spiritual profundity expressed inboth his time with me and his lyrics and musical composition seems to be, by his own confession, strongly driven by doubt – the kind of doubt most “professional Christians” aren’t terribly comfortable admitting is present.  It takes guts to acknowledge that we live in the tension between hope and disappointment.

The Interview (Abbreviated Transcript)

RTN: When I introduce my friends to your music, perhaps, especially, Christian friends, one of the biggest barriers is the label that has — unfairly, I think — been thrust upon you – CCM (Contemporary Christian Music).  What do you make of that particular label?  Does it apply to you?


FO: When I was squarely in CCM music – I was in contract with Myrrhrecords, Word Records, and Curb Records – I was a relentless critic of the system.  So much about it seemed so silly, awkward, and contrived.  Each year, all the CCM artists attended “our” version of the Grammy Awards (the Dove Awards) and I always felt at odds with that whole scene.

Granted, there are some people I toured with that valued CCM Music, and I highly respect them.  So I can see why I would be labeled that way.  But I don’t think my music really fits the bill.  During that time frame, fifty percent of my music was “folky-pop songs” – songs about my grandfather, about traveling through the southwest, about walking along the beach, about a homeless lady.  They made no references at all to God.  

Even back then I struggled – perhaps more with the people within CCM who thought I was trying to be theologically vague, or who would refer to these folk-ish songs as my “secular” songs.  I always resented that label as well. Just because a song doesn’t mention God doesn’t mean it isn’t influenced by Christian thought.  I resent the labels for what they did to the Christian Music Industry.  CCM has come to its right end. 

I am comfortable making the distinction between “secular music” and “sacred music,” by which I mean music intended for the church. I’ve composed a lot of that stuff and I’m not remotely ashamed of that kind of label.  When I write a sacred song, it’s very specific, and there’s no guessing what it’s about.  When I do write about God, it is very obviously about God.  I’ve always felt it should be that way and still feel that way now.  

Since my daughter was born about 6 years ago and I’ve been so much more involved with the local church,  I haven’t been traveling as much.  I haven’t written many more folky-pop songs.  

.... To view the rest of the interview, please go here: