“Can young children be reverent? Can older people be silly?” Bryan Moyer Suderman posed these questions at Camp Kintail’s Speaker Series on May 5, 2015. His musical style combines both, even in the same song. Making space for both reverence and silliness reflects his view of God’s action in the world: “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy.”
Since January of 2001, Bryan has been active as a songwriter, musician and worship leader. Among his first audiences was his then-three-year-old son, to whom he sang, “God’s love is for everybody, everyone around the world. Me and you and all God’s children, from across the street to around the world.” He founded SmallTall Music with the mission “to build up the body of Christ by creating and sharing songs of faith for small and tall.” The songs are simple yet profound.
Singing in the present tense
At the Speaker Series event, one of Bryan’s opening songs was “On The Emmaus Road,” based on the account in Luke 24. Attendees and camp staff sang the chorus while a few volunteers acted out the parts of Jesus, Cleopas and the unnamed friend, now named for the volunteer actor, Jessie. Incorporating the names of the people in the room is characteristic of Bryan’s style. Of the biblical narrative, he believes, “this is our story that we continue to be part of.”
We sang together, “We’re walking, walking, walking, walking on the Emmaus road.” As in this song, Bryan intentionally sets most of his songs in the present tense, drawing attention to God’s present action in the world and prompting our active engagement with the stories of the Bible. He pointed to Deuteronomy, in which Moses retells the law before the people enter the promised land. Moses says, “The Lord our God made a covenant with us at Horeb. It was not with our ancestors that the Lord made this covenant, but with us, with all of us who are alive here today” (5:2-3, NIV). This statement is not true in a literal sense – that generation had passed away – but Moses’ statement invites the present generation to take up the covenant with God anew. Bryan suggests that every generation since that time has had the same challenge, to take their part in an ongoing covenant with the living God.
Improvisation within structure
In his introduction to his songbook My Money Talks, Bryan says his songs are not artefacts to be preserved; he invites individuals and communities who use the resource to make the songs their own. He showed one way to do so when he invited the group of us gathered in MacDonald Lodge to create new verses to his song “When God’s in Charge.”
My table group, working with the rhythm of Bryan’s verses and the text Isaiah 11:6-9, came up with: “When God’s in charge, the weak ones lead the great. All this harmony on earth is cause to celebrate. When God’s in charge, the weak ones lead the great.” Another group, working with Isaiah 25:6-8, wrote, “When God’s in charge, the people will be one. We’ll banquet on the mountain, and out will come the sun. When God’s in charge, the people will be one.” With Bryan leading on guitar, we sang each other’s fresh new verses.
The freedom to create and keep creating has a theological significance to Bryan. The words of scripture, and the structures offered by folk music, make way for creative expression in the belief that, as Bryan sings in a nativity song, “Make Room,” “There’s something here that God wants to do. You can be part of it, too.”