For decades musician Ken Medema has moved audiences toward meaningful worship, thoughtful reflection and a lived-out faith with a wide embrace. His music comforts the weary while challenging the self-satisfaction of a too-comfortable faith.
Year after year, Ken continues to create new musical vehicles to carry out his message and mission with freshness and hope. Such is the case with his newest release, Nothing Like the Rain, now available as a CD as a USB download at kenmedema.com.
This album was a long time coming, said Ken of a project some 12 to 13 years in the making. Demos of numerous songs were considered, he said, before settling on “the ones that work.”
Nurturing Faith Journal editor John Pierce talked with Ken recently about this new project. The following conversation is adapted from that interview.
NFJ: Well, I detected some reflections on aging — along some nostalgia — in this CD. In the song “Ocean Beach,” for example, you have lines like, “For these are my best days,” and “…to love and to learn what I could not yesterday.” How so? What does maturity and experience offer us?
KM: I’m now 74 years old. And I see people around me who are settling into retirement and narrowing their field of interest. Sometimes settling into complacency. I don’t want to do that. I want new adventures. I’m always interested in new discoveries.
Actually, the song “Ocean Beach” was occasioned by walking through the streets of San Francisco where I lived for about 30 of my California years.
I lived right in the Haight-Ashbury District where all the hippie action was happening in the late-’60s and ’70s. When I moved there it was still a very exciting place to be. I would walk those streets and loved the environment with all the music and the noise and the crazy people and the coffeehouses.
When we moved to the suburbs, now six years ago, I was restless for city. I felt like something wonderful had come to an end. And I asked myself, “How will you deal with this new world — this new reality?”
And the answer had to be, “You’ll find things about this life and this stage that are exciting to you — that give you joy and pleasure.” So I look for those things. I look for them every day.
I don’t always find them. I’m still restless in the suburbs. I wish I could simply walk down Haight Street into a coffeehouse where a bunch of young people are carrying on some crazy conversation. But I don’t live there. So I need to find the things that give me pleasure where I am.
And I hope that by the age of 74 I have gotten a bit of wisdom. I’m not the brash, angry young man that I was in my 30s and early 40s.
I hope, however, that my passion for justice, and my passion for doing right, and my passion for God have not faded. I hope I can say things a little more wisely and feel a little wiser about stuff.
NFJ: Picking up on what you just said about social justice — you’ve never let listeners get by with detaching faith from the biblical call to justice and equality. In “Have A Blessed Day,” for example, you connect that popular expression to Jesus’ Beatitudes. What are hearing in the word “blessed’ that goes beyond a mere greeting or “secret code,” as you noted in the song?
KM: When I hear people say, “Have a blessed day,” I think what they are saying without saying it directly is, “Hey, I’m a Christian,” and maybe, “Are you one too?”
I’ve never really ever asked anyone about that. I don’t think people necessarily do it consciously, but it’s sort of a way of identifying yourself as a religious person, as a Christian. “Have a blessed day!”
Or when you ask people how they are, and they say, “Oh, I’m blessed.” Well, they probably are. We all are. But it’s like a little secret code for saying I’m a certain kind of Christian person.
I think we toss that word “blessed” or “blessing” around so lightly. So when I thought about Jesus saying, “Blessed are those who are poor” and “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” I thought, Oh my!
It was like we toss the word “love” around. When you start thinking about what love is — what agape is — you realize: I must not be so trivial with language.
So I wanted to take a potshot at the easy way we use the “blessed” word — and also to use the song as a mini-Bible study.
I’ve gotten lots of interesting responses. The first time I played it for a group of friends, one of my pastor friends said, “OK, that’s it. That’s the theology; that’s it.”
When I do it in concert I get my audience to sing, “Have a blessed day.” And sometimes I say, “OK. Sing it with a little snark in your voice.”
NFJ: In “Nothing Like the Rain” you address a long-standing theological concern: that much Christian teaching still conveys Old Testament concepts of retribution rather than Jesus’ assertion that the rain falls on the just and the unjust. Of course, rain is a good metaphor — for it is welcomed in times of drought and wildfires, yet is devastating during floods and mudslides. How do you see Jesus’ words relating to our reality that sometimes life’s experiences don’t live up to our hopeful expectations, yet at other times overwhelm us with goodness beyond our expectations?
KM: I don’t have any objection to people praying for rain or relief from the cold or for sunshine. I don’t mind that. What I do mind is the thought of praying for rain because my crops need rain — although somebody else may be decimated by that rain and somebody’s house might fall into the bay because of a rockslide.
These natural things — rain, snow and sunshine— happen. I would rather pray with a sense of awe when I reflect on nature and what nature does. And also to have a sense of concern in trying to preserve whatever we can of the environment. Also praying with a sense of asking for courage and appreciation and wisdom to deal with whatever natural phenomenon I may face.
That’s why I told the three different stories in the song: about a woman who faced a minor irritation when caught in the rain, a guy whose house is decimated by the rain and an Australian worker on a cattle station who thrilled when the rain comes. We all have different reactions.
I’m one of billions on this earth who need to deal with rain — some of whom will be glad and some of whom will be sad. So I think my best prayer is, “Give me a sense of appreciation of the human family, realizing some people are loving this rain and some people are weeping because of it.”
And the same thing with all of these natural phenomena, like cold. I may be glad that it’s not 20 below zero. There are other situations on this earth where cold is needed. So I want to have a sense of connection to all of God’s creation — so that I’m grateful for things like rain and sunshine and snow — even when I suffer.
Good things and bad things happen to all people. That’s just the way the world works. I don’t know that I believe God chooses somebody like, “You know, that’s one of my best players so I think I’ll give you the rain.” No, I think God is so much larger and so much more inclusive than that.
NFJ: It’s often said that if you have to explain a joke, then it is not a joke. I guess the same could be said of a song. However, sometimes context helps. So, where did the song “Space Between” come from — and why is such space needed?
KM: I’m a part of a group that leads a retreat in the summer for church musicians. One of the things we do is try help people find space to reflect and to contemplate, and to find time to be silent and to be alone — time away from the rush and rumble of life.
There is a poem we always read called Fire by Judy Brown. It begins, “What makes a fire burn is space between the logs, a breathing space.”
If you pile the logs on the fire too tightly, they can’t get air and the fire will be choked out. There has to be space between the logs — space to breathe.
Then she makes the point that if we pile too much of even good things on ourselves, we choke out life. There has to be empty space in between all these good things we do.
People have responded so emotionally to that poem every year. They just sigh and say, “Yes, I want to find that space.”
So, having reflected on that poem, and in realizing the way it has made me think about my life, I thought, “You’ve got to put this to music.”
NFJ: With all the convenient technology that connects us constantly, it is easy to just work and interact all the time unless we are intentional about creating such space.
KM: What we say at the retreat to these ministers of music is that you can’t change that but you can get to work 10 minutes early, sit in your car and close your eyes and breathe deeply.
Turn your mind off just briefly. Take a few minutes to be silent and appreciate life before you go dashing into work. People react to that. They say taking such time changes the whole aspect of what they do. It’s a good lesson.
NFJ: Another theme I detected is the acknowledgement of ongoing change, and the choice of facing it with faith over fear. Is that accurate? If so, does resurrecting the song “There’s a Turning” from decades ago address that concern?
KM: Oh, yes. The first reason we brought back “There’s a Turning” has to do with what’s happening in the country.
There is great darkness in the country when lying becomes an everyday occurrence, when all the social structures we thought we knew are being turned upside down, when Washington is more divided than before, when people in the country are more divided, and maliciousness springs forth and white supremacists march in cities and racial tension is higher than it’s been in years.
That’s the kind of turning that makes me frightened in a way. Yet at the same time I hold hope in this craziness, this uncertainty, this disorder, this chaos, because people are doing good things.
I get word everyday about people who are doing good, loving and caring things. So I have to hold to the hope that there’s something beyond this. This is not the end of it all.
Martin Luther King Jr. said: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” I’ve got to believe that. I believe there is more than this chaos — that somehow we will come out of this with a new vision. The world has done it before.
So that’s why I brought that song out. And the fact that I’m singing it as a duet with an African-American friend [Cynthia Wilson], for me, is significant. The notion that black folks and white folks can do things together, even if it’s just a duet.
NFJ: In “The Real Thing,” you are clearly calling for authentic Christian community at a time when many churches and organizations are creating litmus tests for inclusion or exclusion that Jesus would not recognize. Any reflections or added background you might offer regarding that song?
KM: Communities of faith are tearing themselves apart over issues that for some people seem so drastically important — issues of theology and doctrine, and who’s in and who’s out.
In my experience over the last 10 to 15 years, the churches that seem most vital and are showing the most excitement and the obvious fruit of the Spirit — now, this is only my observation — are churches that are open to all people; that welcome people no matter who they are.
That’s where I see the energy: people being joyful and not ridden with conflict. People who are living and loving their faith — living wide and living deep. When I see the Christian community tearing itself apart over these theological issues I just feel like there needs to be room for people to be together and to disagree.
I’ll tell you this about Baptists. I remember when a Baptist association came together because the churches were united in mission. They didn’t necessarily have the same doctrine. There were liberals, conservatives and churches in the middle, but they came together because of a passion for mission. Now it seems that groups of churches come together because they have a particular, very specifically narrow theological orientation.
I find that regrettable and I’d like to see it changed. I’d like to see there be room for disagreement, but passion about loving and caring for people and bringing the good news everywhere.
NFJ: Well, we didn’t hit on everything on this CD. Anything else you’d like say about this project or your music overall?
KM: My favorite moment on the CD is on the last song, “The Song is Alive.” The words are, “The song is alive everywhere, and blessed are the ones who get to give the pitch.”
I think that’s my perception of the Christian community. God’s song is alive everywhere and our delight, our task, is to recognize it, point it out and say, “Here’s how we can start singing it!”
What a great sense of the task of the church — to recognize God’s song and be able to say everywhere, “We can help you get the first note.” That’s my favorite moment.