Magnificus: An artist ministering to a broken and hurting world

written by Stanton Nelson
2018 GLFCAM Dave and Gunda Hiebert Fellow, Cycle 6

Snippets of music and theology have always rummaged through my heart and mind - most of the time subtly, but on occasion loudly and intensely.  For example, I will find myself singing the Schumann Piano Concerto in A Minor, Op. 54 for weeks or that I dream about justification and sanctification for a while.  Sometimes, though, music springs forth from my soul so vigorously that I can’t help but sing at the top of my lungs “Be Thou My Vision” or some other hymn (Don’t worry, this usually happens in the car).  Almost all the time, however, I'll find myself humming. 

Frankly, I don’t really know why this happens, but part of me thinks it’s the Holy Spirit groaning through me (Romans 8:26).  Who knows?  But case in point: Music and “God-thoughts” have circulated within my spirit and soul since I was born.  In fact, my mom likes to share with people that I rocked and sung myself to sleep when I was a baby.

So, at Boonville in May 2018, my spirit was constantly humming with music and energy. Meeting Gabriela Frank and the other musicians as part of Cycle Six to work with Duo Cortona definitely stirred the water in my soul.  Plus, hearing all their ideas, testimonies, and music almost created a maelstrom inside me.  I wanted to sing and shout “I LOVE THIS!” throughout the whole week, especially when I gave my “share-and-tell” session.  Each composer had an opportunity to connect with the other composers by sharing their own music and life story.  I was displaying some of my scores (with recordings of my own performances alongside) when Gabriela said in effect, “Stanton, your piano playing is so full of nuance which is not shown on the page.  I encourage you to notate even those tapers, slight rallentandos, and other subtle enhancements, for the more you implement intentionality onto the page, the more protected (from possible stale performances of other pianists) and powerful the score becomes.”  I resonated with the comment and became deeply excited about how I could incorporate that idea into the pieces I was currently composing. 

Indeed, the whole experience in Boonville was quite invigorating, but what made it extra special for me was the text I was meditating upon right around this time -- Mary’s song from the gospel of Luke (1:46-55).  Known as the Magnificat, this song of praise has been on my mind since December of 2017, months before the residency.  The congregation I help shepherd (as the Cox Chapel Music Pastor and Organist at Highland Park United Methodist Church in Dallas, TX) had been studying the four Lukan canticles the four Sundays in Advent.  I was smitten with the Magnificat, however, and it has transformed my thinking on a few things.

First, this text concerns worship because my own theology of worship has been dramatically impacted.  Before being accepted into the GLFCAM residency, I used to primarily worship God for his wonderful creation and his many attributes (Just, loving, all-powerful, pure, etc.) as my magnification was based on the Trinity’s characteristics.  After chewing on the Magnificat, however, my worship focus shifted because I was particularly attracted to the phrase “all generations shall call me blessed.”  Hmm, was Mary prophesying without much comprehension or did she really know that even today thousands call her blessed?  And was it purely because of God’s grace the incarnation happened through her or did her “lowliness” have something to do with it?  Lots of other questions began to simmer in my mind, and not long after, I started to apply the text to my own life: Just as Mary was the God-bearer, the theotokos, for generations to come, was there a specific type of theotokos in my life?  And did he or she have “lowliness” as a quality as well?  

A few months before I arrived in Boonville, dots were then connected quite quickly, giving me goose bumps and a sense of awe.  Time stopped for a moment.  I thought about my mom, Sara, who sacrificed her Sunday mornings to take my brother and me to church; I thought about mom’s “lowliness” in many regards, but most notably for her beautiful humility; I thought about her faith and the evident fruit of the Holy Spirit.  Mom was my God-bearer in the sense she had borne the lineage of faith to her children.  The same thing can be said about my mom’s mom, wonderful grandma Nyla.  She has always been faithful to her family and the church; she is also lowly in nature, but very much exalted by God (Luke 1:52); she is full of vibrant faith, joy, peace, patience, and other fruit found in Galatians 5:22-23.  In actuality, Grandma Nyla was my Lois and Mom was my Eunice, making me Timothy (2nd Timothy 1:5). 

And what is startling is that I see SO much of myself in Timothy!  So much so, looking back on what has transpired so far, I don’t think this whole combination of circumstances concerning the Gabriela Lena Frank Creative Academy of Music, the studying of the Magnificat, my family lineage, and finally Grandma’s, Mom’s, and my own peculiar characteristics happened at random: God definitely orchestrated this. 

The question is now “Why?”  I think part of it is that my worship would be transformed, that it would become much more multi-faceted: I now worship God for what he has done in other people’s lives.  Once I became so incredibly grateful for Mom and Grandma’s legacy of faith, I worshipped God for blessing them abundantly.  I praised the Trinity for orchestrating the situation that my possible children and grandchildren could render Grandma and Mom to sing “generations shall call me blessed.”  

But it didn’t stop there, for a domino chain soon developed.  A couple weeks after the residency, I started to magnify Father God for all the blessings he has afforded my ancestors; I now praise Jesus for the abundant grace and mercy he has given to my friends and colleagues; and I exalt the Holy Spirit for doing Kingdom work…in even my enemies

And whoa!  Where did that come from? My enemies!?  Yes, only by God’s might, am I now able to worship the Creator of the Universe for giving grace and daily bread to those who persecute the Christian church and to those who do/speak ill on my family and me.  Why? I know that in the moment of them doing their acts, it is prime time for the Holy Spirit to utterly breakthrough and completely overhaul their souls (Acts 9).  Simply put, all people are redeemable and I want to have Jesus’ heart portrayed in 2nd Peter 3:9.  So all in all, my worship is now broadly categorized into five categories: His creation, God’s humongous saving acts through Israel and Jesus, His attributes, the Trinity’s gifts towards me, and now His gifts towards other people - including my enemies.  Who would have thought this would all start with making a connection between the Magnificat text and my mom & grandma?  

And that is just the tip of the iceberg of the transformation which has been taking place with this Gabriela Lena Frank Creative Academy of Music project. 

I could easily go into how my theology of the incarnation has changed since the residency, but I want to stick with this worship idea some more.  From what I’ve written already, it should come as no surprise I’m naming this piece for Duo Cortona, my performer mentors, “Theotokos” and it will be dedicated to my mom, Sara, and my grandma, Nyla.  It will magnify their lives and testimonies, but ultimately glorify the Giver of life. 

What may come as a surprise, however, is how I’m now approaching my piece.  My compositional process has somewhat changed since the ‘worship revelations’ and my time in Boonville.  I now want to make this piece as incredibly meaningful as possible, and two ideas come to mind on how to accomplish that.  First, I’ve taken Gabriela’s advice to heart and notated all the subtle enhancements of each phrase (little crescendi and decrescendi on certain notes, an accelerando with specified metronome markings every other measure, numerous articulation markings, et cetera). 

Secondly, I’ve embedded symbolism behind the notes and rhythms.  For example, I’ve now created a motif for grandma: a gentle five-note turn which emulates her tenderness and even sounds like her name (Ny-la-Mae-Stue-we).  I’ve also created one for mom, a joyful four note grouping which resembles her radiance and mimics the way she laughs.  Those motifs appear throughout the whole piece, but they happen subtly and quickly amidst the Holy Spirit’s unpredictable, undulating movement inside the musicians. 

Furthermore, I intend to take this ‘symbolic approach’ more seriously with my future compositions.  Most of my previous pieces have been narrative in nature, definitely rhythmic to some degree, and noted for the melody and counterpoint.  I, indeed, hope that will continue as time goes forth, but I also want to add this extra layer of meaning behind everything.  I could see myself becoming a mix of Olivier Messiaen - a 20th-century French composer who has inspired me since he was a devout Christian and a lover of God’s creation (especially birds and their songs) - and J. S. Bach, a Lutheran (just like me!) who had a tremendously fruitful musical legacy. I already compose new music each week for the Sunday service (Bach), now I just have to add lots of bird sounds (just kidding).  But I am thoroughly impressed with the symbolism in Messiaen’s music, and I intend to study him more in depth to glean some compositional ideas.

So there we have it.  A new view of worship (and other theological ideas) and a new way of composing.  This would not have been possible without my experience with Gabriela and the fellow composers in Boonville.  I am eternally grateful for the opportunity and praise God for aligning the circumstances together.  I am even worshipping and singing out loud as I write this paragraph.  Not to the same degree of Mary perhaps, but I feel anointed by the Holy Spirit to magnify the Trinity in this moment:

All praise, honor, and glory to the One who can keep people from stumbling.  And hallelujah to Him who is a stumbling block to some and a cornerstone to others - to Jesus, who was obedient unto death, even death on a cross…all for our trespasses, short-comings, and sins…goodness, how can my heart thank him enough?…being smitten, stricken, and afflicted so that people can enter into an intimate, right relationship with the Father…not only that, but giving eternal life to those who believe…He has indeed disarmed and made a public spectacle of the dark powers of this world, all because of the triumph in the cross…and his resurrection!…Wow!…Praise the Almighty for raising Jesus by His Spirit on the third day, just as predicted…and now the King of Kings and Lord of Lords is interceding on our behalf…oh, what gifts!…Hallelujah to the One who chose Mary to bear the Savior of this world…just a lowly, humble girl…a young woman who is now forever etched in history…Praise, praise to the all gracious and all-powerful God who sovereignly placed Grandma Nyla and Mom into my life…All majesty, power, and authority to Him who gives EVERYONE - yes, even my enemies - daily bread…so that people can be thoroughly redeemed with hearts of love…pointing all to Yeshua Hamashiach, the Alpha, the Omega, the Kinsman-Redeemer proclaimed throughout all of Scripture…Oh, oh my!…what wondrous love is this, oh my soul, that the Father has lavished through the sacrifice of the spotless Lamb…again, at that moment of Calvary where all my transgressions - and many, many others’! - were placed on the ONLY person who could take them on…giving everlasting life and no fear of death to a multitude of people…and now we can enter the Holy of Holies and have direct access to the Father…Goodness!…I just can’t begin to repay…Hallelujah!…Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanks and honor and power and strength to our God forever and ever!  Amen!

Phew.  Maybe this is just a sliver of how Mary felt two thousand years ago?  Ha - and perhaps she was similarly exhausted as I am right now. 

As I conclude this blog, low baritone notes are still rumbling out of my soul, and I’m guessing I’ll be dreaming about the incarnation of Jesus tonight.  Indeed, this season is full of music and theology.  And can I just exclaim “WOW!”  How lucky am I to delve into these disciplines and minister them to a broken and hurting world?  And as the world seems to unravel towards its oblivion, I have a deep conviction: I feel we artists must rise up, sharpen our craft, and be courageous in healing and delivering people.  It doesn’t matter what religion or denomination they come from, the world needs creative artists with high craftsmanship to develop a healing community for people to thrive in.  Maybe then, just then, God will manifest in such big ways that people are utterly transformed.  That is my deepest prayer and hope.  May the Transformer let it be so.  Amen.  


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Stanton Nelson, Cox Chapel Music Pastor and Organist at Highland Park United Methodist Church, comes from Long Island, Kansas. As a pianist and composer, he has released four albums with a fifth underway in the Fall of 2018. Learn more on Stanton's bio page.

Gabriela Lena Frank