Stephen Kirk writes really lovely contemporary Christian Catholic music. It’s clear from this contribution to the How Can I Keep from Singing? series that he has some excellent influences inspiring his compositions.
It was in the Fall of 1992 that I came to America. I landed in San Diego from my home town of Canberra, Australia and made my way to my new home-for-a-year: the campus of UCSD. I was immediately struck by how similar it was in some ways to my own country. I wandered through the dappled light of the eucalyptus groves and bathed in the mild, clear Californian sunshine. I breathed in the new northern hemisphere air and wondered with excitement and a tingle of trepidation what would come in this exchange year adventure.
I had always led a safe life in Canberra, not straying too far from societal stereotypes of a ‘good boy’ (albeit a somewhat quirky one). Young and foolish as I was, I saw this year as a chance to break free from the strictures of the fairly straight-laced life I had constructed for myself back home; a chance to cast caution to the wind and embrace all the wildness I could find. I wanted to seek pleasure, to search for joy, to fill my cup to overflowing with anything and everything in life that promised excitement. Yet I found that my attempts to suck the marrow from the bones of life only resulted in an emptiness within the core of my being.
Enter a man and a song. You see, the real reason I had chosen San Diego as my destination was that my eye was caught by the presence of a Gospel Choir course in their music faculty. As the son of an avid Irish musician and the youngest of six very musical boys I was literally surrounded by music from birth; my father would play Irish music to us over breakfast in the hope of training our nascent minds to handle the intricate lilting melodies. Music for me has always been a source of joy, of solace, and a vehicle for searching out the source and meaning of life. I particularly loved the great movement of African-American music, so the chance to immerse myself in an authentic Gospel choir was too tempting a treat to pass up.
The choir was a huge hodge-podge of roughly 1200 people from all different races and walks of life, that was somehow unified and transformed into a single soaring polyphonic voice in the hands of the director, Ken Anderson. Ken was a marvelous musician, and a man who deeply loved God. I sang in the choir and loved the vibrancy, the freedom, the rhythm and rhyme of the Gospel music. But it was one song in particular that would impact upon me so profoundly and deeply that it would change the course of my life.
That song was “Jesus, you’re the center of my joy”. A composition by Richard Smallwood, it’s a beautiful, simple song:
Jesus, You’re the center of my joy
All that’s good and perfect comes from You
You’re the heart of my contentment
Hope for all I do
Jesus, You’re the center of my joy
I would sing the chorus with the choir, swaying and immersed in the music, and then listen as Ken would sing the solo:
When I’ve lost my direction
You’re the compass for my way
You’re the fire and light
When nights are long and cold
In sadness, You’re the laughter
That shatters all my fears
When I’m all alone, Your hand is there to hold
You’re why I find pleasure
In the simple things in life
You’re the music in the meadows and the streams
The voices of the children, my family, and my home
You’re the source and finish of my highest dreams
Ken has a beautiful tenor voice, a full and deep sonorous voice, filled with honey and infused with smoke. And yet I can’t clearly remember the sound of his voice as he sang that solo, because as his singing washed over me I was surprised to find myself suddenly aware of the simple, unassuming presence of God. This wordless smelling of the scent of God awoke in me an aching yearning to know him, and a realisation that, compared to this, all that I had sought to fill my life with to this point was as dead as dry dust.
Unlike St Paul, my first conscious encounter with God came with no voices from above, no blinding flash, but simply an awareness, carried into the core of my being through music, that God was real, and with me. But like St Paul, this first encounter has shaped the rest of my life and my sense of mission. How can I keep from singing, when the centre of my joy was revealed to me through song? I look back, over twenty years later, and the words of the song ring even truer for me today than they were in the initial flush of new life discovered in America.
Can a man be born again? Surprisingly it seems the answer is yes; a grown Irish/English/Australian man can be born into new life, with an African-American as a father and music as a mother. And it seems that a man can not only be born, but also grow up again, as I discovered as I travelled from my re-birth in Christ in California back to my homeland to re-evaluate the Catholic faith in which I had first grown from my birth. But that’s a story for another day.
Stephen Kirk is a Catholic singer, musician and worship leader who lives in Canberra, Australia. He was born in 1971 as the youngest of six boys in a very musical family, and throughout his life has been heavily involved in various types of music; from classical to black gospel, funk to folk. His music – contemporary but deeply rooted in the ancient beauty of the faith – has been compared to Matt Maher, James Taylor, and John Michael Talbot amongst others. Stephen’s latest album “Rising” was released on Easter Sunday 2014. He regularly provides workshops, seminars, and keynotes for schools and parishes, and leads worship and directs music for liturgies and youth conferences. For more, visit his website.