Lord Sycamore: Understory
Come to Me: Story Under the Song
Updated: Jun 8, 2020
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Read the lyrics here.
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"Story Under the Song" for “Come to Me”
track 3 from Child Coming Home (album, 2019)
WHERE DID THE SONG COME FROM?
In summer 2017, I was working on an EP called “In a Dry and Weary Land.” It contained 5 songs, most of them Scripture settings. As would later be the case with “Child Coming Home,” I thought my track list was complete.
But one day during the process, I was sitting on my parents’s couch reading the Bible. I read Matthew 11:28-30 and “heard” in my head the words “go to the piano.” A little bewildered, I went and immediately played the melody and harmonization for “Come To Me.” In short, the song was a total gift. That version, realized by MIDI strings and sung by me, went on what became the EP.
HOW DID THE SONG GROW?
I carried that song close to my heart for the next several years. See, I was working as an elementary school teacher, and as anyone who’s done that can tell you, it’s a rare day when we don’t identify as those who, as Jesus puts it, “labor and are heavily burdened.” On many days after school my wife and I would sing Jesus’ words to each other.
After I started working as a high school choir director, I rearranged “Come to Me” (then called “Take My Yoke”) for piano and unison men’s vocals. When our group sang it for a spring concert, we connected it to our other songs with a thread of a story. In the story, “Come to Me” was the moment when the protagonist heard the call to leave his former life and come home to Jesus.
To amplify the theme of homecoming for attentive listeners, I drew from the world of classical music. Movement 2 (Largo) from Antonin Dvorak's beautiful Symphony No. 9 in E minor contains a gorgeous melody (listen here to a public domain recording here). That melody was arranged by Dvorak’s student William Arms Fisher into the song “Goin’ Home.” Because of the melody's association with the theme of "goin' home," I made it a countermelody in the piano part.
When I conceived of “Child Coming Home” as a story album in April 2019, “Come to Me” (complete with that countermelody quoted from Dvorak) found a similar place in the album’s story as in the concert’s. I intended to put my piano-and-voice version of “Come to Me” on the album. But as I thought through Jesus’ words and how they had fit in my experience, I realized something else was needed.
I thought back to the day I was saved by Jesus in 2015. The Bible had played a big role — passages like Romans 7:24-25 led me to understand my personal need for a Savior — but God also used the life example and the personal testimony of believers to draw me to him. In other words, it was people speaking to me with their words and lives that God used to call me to himself.
This is why the arrangement for “Come to Me” couldn’t be merely a single voice singing out. As much as I and the Singer may live in our heads, that’s not how God works in our worlds. Other people need to come in. For the Singer, I imagined that a group of friends would have introduced him to Jesus by sharing this passage with him.
So the song needed a final touch— namely, to become a 3-part acapella setting. Only by using other voices could capture what needed to be said about community’s role in God’s call to us.
On a vacation in Maine in summer 2019, I pulled an all-nighter and wrote the new 3 part acapella setting. I workshopped it with my wife’s family just before we all left. The arrangement was a good fit for everyone, so we practiced, recorded, and filmed the piece in the months following.
WHY DOES THIS STORY MATTER?
There’s little to say about what the song means that it doesn’t say itself. That’s the beauty of working with verbatim Scripture! It’s not my commentary that has the power. That being said, here’s what Jesus’s call in these verses has taught me.
28 “Come to me, all you who labor and are heavily burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart; and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” - Matthew 11:28-30, WEB
Jesus’s call is essentially an invitation to do two things: first, to submit to His authority. Second, to labor for and with Him. Though it can take many forms, for me, I’ve known two main types of spiritual labor in my life, and Jesus has given me rest from both.
The first kind of labor was that of spiritual self-reliance. Though I grew up in a Christian home, I often tried to be “right with God”— to earn His approval, His help, His forgiveness— by doing good things and saying the right words. In my heart, though, I didn’t trust Jesus personally, and there was a deep disconnect between my outward life and my inner motivations. I didn’t love God; I wanted to use His stuff (religious words, church life, etc.) to get what I wanted.
Eventually, realizing I was still empty, I turned toward the second kind of labor— that of carnal pleasure-seeking. Later on, I threw off the “yoke” of belief. My life from that point until I repented was full of deceit, sensuality, and many other kinds of sin. By the end of that period, I was weary of myself and my addiction to carnality, but I couldn’t escape.
But Jesus is the Lord, and He is the Savior. The passage, read by my friend David, that Jesus used to subdue and save me personally was a section of Romans 7:
“What a wretched man I am! Who will deliver me out of the body of this death? I thank God through Jesus Christ, our Lord!” (Romans 7:24-25a, WEB)
Ultimately— and I write this in 2020 while feeling both dead tired from my work and yet deeply grateful for God’s grace— I found that the rest that Jesus gives is an entrance, through faith in Him, into a relationship with God. God, it turns out, can give us true rest. That’s because He does not treat us our sins deserve. Because of Jesus's death on the cross, we are truly freed and forgiven from our sin by His finished work. What’s more, God gives us true pleasure-- "pleasures forever more," as Psalm 16:11 puts it-- through our relationship with Him.
So, in summary, two things happened when I trusted in Jesus, who died on the cross for me, and who became my Lord. First, my empty pursuits of spiritual self-reliance and carnal pleasure-seeking ended. Second, he brought me into God-empowered work and toward eternal pleasures. The new life His grace opens to us is summarized well by Titus 2:11-14:
"11 For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. 12 It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, 13 while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, 14 who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good." - Titus 2:11-14, WEB
For such a short verse, there’s a lot hidden in Matthew 11:28-30. But if you’ve heard anything else from your time listening to “Child Coming Home,” I’ve hope you’ve heard this: that Jesus calls to you today. Ultimately, I have made this album to extend that call, as well as to express the deep joy and true rest that come from answering it.
What, you may ask, does Singer hear in Jesus’s call? How does he respond to it? It’s not explicit in this song, but from the rest of the album, it’s clear that the Singer does trust in Jesus, and that this trust does lead to rest, even in the midst of his life’s labor.
Think of where the Singer started in “New Apartment” and “Aching to Be Had”: he was empty and longing. In the tracks that follow these, starting with "New Dawn," he'll become more steady and satisfied as Jesus fulfills his desire for relationship, for home, and for family.
Consider, for instance, the Singer's view of the future as a place of promise in “Lilac Orchestra”: “I want to help you plant / a thousand lilacs in our front yard.” Listen to his clear-eyed statement on “New Father” that “love taught me that it’s not about me / so now I’m living for love / because love set me free.” Even on the bonus track “Going on a Walk,” you can hear the peace he’s gained: “we don’t have talk / words could only mock what is happening… / everything I have I give to you.”
But more on those songs later. For now, that’s the story of “Come to Me.”