Behind the Music: Part 1

A bunch of us were sitting around in the big field at Camp Yamhill. Me (Josh), my wife Tanya, Jennifer Davis, I think Evie Toll and maybe a few other Praise Team types. I think it was 2003. Tanya and I had been back at Westside for a couple years and were fully engaged with the Praise Team and leading worship on Sunday mornings. My Dad, Ron Stump, was the Family Life Minister at the time and he and I had been talking more and more about Sunday morning worship and different ways we might try to enhance the experience for the folks at Westside.

My Dad walked up to us as we were talking about introducing some new music from the latest Zoe CD which at the time was my favorite source of new acapella music for the congregation. Randy Gill and Brandon Scott Thomas and many others opened my eyes and ears to fantastic new songs to sing with my Church family and I loved the process of finding a great new song, learning it with the Praise Team and then seeing it take hold in the congregation.

My Dad was my all time favorite story teller and he was somewhat obsessed with "story." I think it was that passion that led him to make a suggestion that has brought me closer to God than perhaps any other single thing in my life.

"Wouldn't it be great", he said, "If we had a song that was inspired by the way God is moving and working at Westside? It could be part of our story, like old storytellers used to sing their stories. Do you think one of you musician types (I assure you he was not looking at me when he said that since, you know, I am not very musiciany), could write a song?"

As we have since reflected, Jennifer Davis and I (both suffering from a bit of an over-achiever complex) both secretly took this as a challenge (I'll coax Jennifer into sharing her stories here too at some point). We never talked about it and I didn't tell anyone that I had been secretly wanting to write music since I was in elementary school. But I lacked the musical training or discernible skill or talent I assumed to be a prerequisite to such an undertaking. What I lacked in skill, talent or training however, I tried to make up for with blind confidence and a desire to please.

So, when no one else was around, I began working on a song. I thought to myself, if I was going to write something that we might sing, then I should try to write something that I actually enjoyed singing and perhaps filled a gap in our musical library. I had already been planning worship for years at various places by then and had often thought that it would be nice to have more upbeat, clapping (or even stomping) kind of songs to get us out of our seats and excited about praising God. For whatever reason, it seems like there are 100 contemplative hymns written for every one "Blessed Be Your Name" or "Shout Hallelujah".

With this frame of mind, I decided to start with the clapping. I wanted to write a song that made you want to clap, so I started by just clapping out a beat. For some reason, whenever I would do this, the John Denver song, "Thank God I'm a Country Boy" would so invade my thoughts that for a while I didn't get much further than spending an inordinate amount of time humming in private about "cakes on the griddle". Eventually though, a new melody sort of emerged in my psyche. With it came the phrase, "I've got a friend in Jesus, He's my friend for life." Then came a sort of call and response bass line with the words, "He's always been there with me mornin, noon and night." From there an actual chorus of what seemed like might be an actual song began to take shape.

I just ran those same two lines over and over in my mind for weeks, playing with different combinations, different melodies, different rhythms, etc. Before too long I had the chorus and then the verses came pretty quickly and easily built around the idea that Jesus has been with me (and you) all my life: walking beside me, pursuing me, protecting me, redeeming me even when I failed to realize it.

This idea came from a process of examining the way God works in your life that my Dad had begun working with called Genograms (sp?). The idea is that you look back at God's activity in your own life as it is so often the case that you see Him best looking backward. I had heard countless stories from my Mom and Dad and dozens of Bible classes and sermons driving home the point that Jesus was not merely an historical figure or far away deity, but a friend always with me, always dependable, always seeking me even when I turned from him.

This theology of recognizing God's pursuit of His children had become an important teaching for Westside. I have had more conversations than I could count with Westsiders over the years on this topic and it seemed to be the perfect starting place for a song that would tell part of our story.

Once I had the chorus the way I thought it should be and the verses more or less rounded into shape, I needed a test audience to confirm that I actually had a song and not just some kind of auditory delusion. But for all my self-confidence, I was essentially terrified at the idea of sharing this new song-like creation with anyone. What did I know about song writing? Who was I to think I could do this? I imagined the forced smiles and pained expressions of my friends as they strained to be polite while listening to something I was calling music. I couldn't face that....not yet.

Fortunately, I had a built in focus group in the form of my (by that time) 4 year old son and newborn baby. The baby seemed to love the song so long as I was also bobbing and weaving around the living room and keeping him well fed. My precocious 4 year old would be more of a risk. Yes, that's right, I even feared rejection from my 4 year old. But he liked it. I sang it for him on walks or at "bednight" time when his Mother was out of earshot. I wasn't ready to share this with a person who had heard more than 8 songs in their life, seven of which seem to focus on fruit salad or hot potatoes. Having received the stamp of approval from my sons, I got the confidence boost needed to continue the process.

The next step was trying to create sheet music with standard SATB harmony parts that could be sung by the Praise Team and the congregation. I downloaded free songwriting software and started trying to create sheet music. After spending a couple hours and getting about 8 notes down I was only moderately sure about (you see, I wasn't kidding about having no musical training or skill...I don't even know the first thing about how to play piano for example), I realized that this process would take me approximately 10 years to complete. That seemed....less than ideal.

That is when I had my only true stroke of genius I have had regarding my song writing. I realized that some of the songs we had been singing at Church were arranged by a guy named Ike Graul. That was significant because I knew people who knew people who knew Ike and he was actually living in Portland. I decided to reach out to Ike and see if he might be willing to help me turn my new melody into a singable song. To my delight, my email inquiry to Ike was answered almost immediately with a very friendly, "how can I help?"

So, unable to play the song on an instrument, I had no choice but to send Ike a recording of me singing the song with some notes about how I wanted it structured. But how? Not like I lived in a recording studio. Ike, as it turns out, had a solution to that as well. With a bit of his help I finally got a digital dictation microphone and some software to record for my PC. I then attempted to record the song the way I wanted it approximately 200 times. Not an exaggeration. Turns out, I am not what you would call a "precise" singer. Finally, I had to just call it "good enough" and I sent the digital file of my song to Ike.

It was a truly horrible recording. It was inconsistent, off key, just downright painful to listen to. To my astonishment a few weeks later, Ike sent me a digital music file of the melody that had been bouncing around my head and sending my boys to their dreams for more than a year. It was what I had written only better. Ike and I spent the next several weeks going back and forth changing and creating what would become my first song. If it wasn't already clear, my little melody would never have become a song if it weren't for Ike. And without his role in the process, I would never have written my second or third much less 50th song. Ike has all the talent I lack and more in just the places I lack it the most. Not only that but he is natural born teacher with incredible patience. I never felt foolish. I never felt judged. I just felt like I was making a new friend and learning from someone who was and is a true expert.

Meanwhile, I had finally amassed the courage to confess to my Wife that I was endeavoring to write a song. She loved the idea and worked and worked to convince me that my fears and doubts were all in my head and that I should absolutely share whatever I created with the Praise Team. If it worked, great. If it didn't, who cares? The people there were going to love me the same way either way. That was the last bit of confidence I needed.

I cried the first time I heard the digital piano file of the completed song emailed from Ike. I know this seems melodramatic, but I really felt like some new part of me had come to life. I was overwhelmed with emotion. I probably listened to that .midi file a thousand times. Did I do that? Really? Is it possible? I mean, it actually sounded kind of not too terrible. Maybe even....gasp...good.

I shared it with Tanya and she seemed to actually really like it. Then the big test -- introducing it to the Praise Team. This post is already about a hundred times longer than I intended when I started writing, so I will skip past most of the remaining details. The bottom line is that my friends on the Praise Team were so loving and gracious and supportive, so full of the Spirit, that they allowed me to overcome every insecurity and share my new song in a safe and supportive environment. Then they smiled and clapped and seemed genuinely excited that we were on the brink of creating our own music together.

A couple months later, now 2005, we introduced the song to the congregation. Westside seemed to simply collectively smile back at me as we sang it for the first time that Sunday morning. More than just approval, it was reassurance that this was something that could be good. And my Mom and Dad liked it too....or so they said, I mean, what are they going to say?

It was really an unmitigated success, not because I wrote a good song, but because I was beginning a new way to express my love for God and in the process I made a new friend, learned something new and fantastic and was reminded how many people love me not because of who I am, but because of who they are.

A couple years ago, probably 10 years after I started writing that song, Westside Praise was singing at the Pepperdine Bible lectures for the third or fourth time. A man sitting in the back of the room, raised his hand near the end of our concert and said, "Do you guys still sing "I've Got A Friend in Jesus?" as if it was some dusty old relic. It was a surreal moment to realize that monumental (for me) first step was now a distant spot in my rearview mirror. What was once the beginning had become something almost forgotten. It made me reflect on those last 10 years of songwriting and I realized that the theology that inspired the song in the first place had come full circle. I looked back and realized that from the moment I took the first step on the path of trying to create a new expression of praise to the God I love, He had been with me every moment, guiding me, pursuing me and blessing me. Ten years later, it still makes me smile and want to clap and maybe even stomp.

This was the first. Thank you for letting me have a second.

--Josh Stump

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