The Holden Village Podcast

John Tirro

August 21, 2023 Dev Bach
The Holden Village Podcast
John Tirro
Show Notes Transcript

John Tirro is Pastor of Worship at St John's Lutheran Church (ELCA), in Knoxville, TN, and a composer of hymns, such as "To You All Hearts Are Open" (Holden Prayer Around the Cross, All Creation Sings). He has written hits for the pop end of Country radio (“So Much for Pretending” for Bryan White. “Imagine That” for Diamond Rio), as well as songs on best-selling albums by LeAnn Rimes and Rascal Flatts.

Trained in classical and jazz piano and voice, he learned guitar while writing on artist’s tour buses and uses all three to lead workshops in new hymns and worship at regional and national church gatherings. John is an experienced band leader, choir director, and record producer; he loves monasteries, mindfulness, and retreats; his music leans toward the contemplative; and his favorite sound is people singing together.

Visit and for bulletin and hymnal accompaniment files.

To learn more about Holden Village, visit: or to listen to more audio recordings visit: The Holden Village Podcast is accessible through Apple iTunes, Spotify, TuneIn, iHeart Radio, and most podcast apps. For questions and inquiries, contact

John Tirro

[00:00:00] Intro: Welcome to the Holden Village Podcast. Holden is a community of education, programming, and worship located in the remote wilderness of the Cascade Mountains. These snapshots provide a glimpse into the learnings taking place in our community. Let's tune in to this week's highlight. 

[00:00:22] Dev: Okay! So, welcome to another special edition of the Holden Village podcast. I am your host Dev (he/him pronouns) and I am with the wonderful John Tiro.

[00:00:35] John: Also he/him pronouns. 

[00:00:36] Dev: Sweet from...did you say Sicily? 

[00:00:39] John: No, but the name's from Sicily. Some chunk of my family. I'm currently from Knoxville, Tennessee. 

[00:00:46] Dev: Excellent. What's your favorite thing about Knoxville? 

[00:00:49] John: My wife lives there.

[00:00:51] Dev: Beautiful. That's all you need. 

[00:00:54] John: And also my grown son Andy and his wife Kate live there. My younger son Trevor goes to NYU. I also love my church. 

[00:01:04] Dev: Excellent. Shout out to the church. 

[00:01:06] John: St. John's. St. John's. Oh, John from St. John's. Mm hmm. That's right.

[00:01:08] Dev: Oh! John from St. John's.

[00:01:10] John: We're probably both named after the same figure.

[00:01:13] Dev: Maybe the church was named after you actually.

[00:01:16] John: Like just retroactively? 

[00:01:17] Dev: Right, exactly. Are you into Sci-Fi?

[00:01:19] John: In 1888 they just knew. I went back in the time continuum and messed with things and got my own church. 

[00:01:27] Dev: There you go. That's how churches start, actually. So, for all the listeners out there, we're in one of the Narnia rooms because it was requested that a piano be close by. John is our resident musician for the week. And so you might just hear some random piano things.

John plays random piano thing

[00:01:50] Dev: Whoa. Okay. Excellent. 

[00:01:55] John: That was random. 

[00:01:55] Dev: That was beautiful. 

[00:01:57] John: Scaring away the ghosts. 

[00:01:59] Dev: Right, of which there are this building specifically. Have you been to the downstairs? 

[00:02:05] John: No. 

[00:02:06] Dev: Neither have I actually, but that's like where all... 

[00:02:08] John: Who's buried there? 

[00:02:10] Dev: All of them. Right? I feel like we need like a musical representation you know...something in E flat. 

[00:02:20] John: Let's see.

Baby Moses Song

Sometimes it seems like there's no way of knowing 
Why it's all worth it and where we belong 
Sometimes we pray for a way to keep going 
And sometimes it's clear that we're carried along 
Safe as baby Moses and the rushes
Floating tall But God has planned

There's another verse and a bridge. And you know, one notable thing about that; we wrote that before I was broadening our understanding of God's gender and of people's gender. And I think one of the things that this song nudges toward is recuperating father as a potentially gentle and caring thing...which bears some witnessing. 

[00:03:55] Dev: Wonderfully played. The D flat also like in that song. That's the magic sauce for me. 

[00:04:02] John: Oh, there's a neat moment too that comes later. Check this out. So  when we get to the bridge, it goes from that you're basically taking from this note and you're breaking out to these things.

[00:04:20] Dev: Ah! Oh man.

[00:04:30] John: It's a really nice thing. I grew up in a household that had both a range of centuries classical tradition and choral music going on in it, which would have some crunchy chords. Some of it...but also jazz because my mom was more in the choral music zone and my dad More in the jazz zone, but they both enjoyed each other's enjoyments. But yeah, you come out of...

The darkest.
I forgot my own song. That's
perfect. Safe as baby Moses, and et cetera. 

[00:05:38] Dev: Ah! So delicious. 

[00:05:40] John: Thank you. Yeah, I wrote that with Lisa Ashman, who's one of my very best co writers in kind of Christian devotional music that opens out into, you know, maybe broader possible understandings. 

[00:05:55] Dev: When was your first memory of is my jam?

[00:05:59] John: Oh, my goodness. Yeah, there was this Asia song from like 1982. And I had just figured out how to play.

John plays Asia piano riff.

I'm in the auditorium of our high school and I think it's just me and the electric piano that I've just gotten access to because I was willing to learn enough of how to play a baritone horn so they would allow me to play the electric Rhodes piano in the jazz band. So I've got access and I'm playing this thing here. Enjoying it myself and these two girls come walking in and they say, "play it again!" And then I played it again and then they said to "play it again." I think that's the first time where it felt like my jam. 

And similarly, when I got to college, lots of people could play songs that other people knew, but by that point I'm starting to write songs. And that was a way to stand out. And I think for a while there was just was a lot of connection to getting attention. And then to is actually nice to get standing ovations when you do things...and now that I've moved into a pastoral's notably not least in my liturgical tradition...for me to get a standing ovation for anything during worship. I'm supposed to be more like the finger of John the Baptist, you know, pointing toward Jesus.

[00:07:22] Dev: I want to give you a standing ovation all the time. 

[00:07:24] John: Oh, well thank you. We can do mutual standing ovations. Yeah, just like start climbing on furniture.

[00:07:31] Dev: Everything's a competition, you know?

[00:07:35] John: That is the point. 

[00:07:36] Dev: Oh, that's great. I thought you were going to point out the gnomes.

[00:07:40] John: Oh, yeah. We have these white haired...scruffy haired...long nosed gnomes. A very happy little family...all with prehensile tails. In a mountain setting much like the one in which we find ourselves now. One dude is fishing. Like he's got an entire potato for a nose. Like a long potato at that. Anyway, that's the piano. Somebody painted this playful, friendly thing for the children's music enjoyment.

[00:08:13] Dev: I didn't mean to take you away from your train of thought. 

[00:08:15] John: I think it's nice. Also, we've got these beautiful like finger paints and leaf prints that the kids have done...and the cutest little fire rescue you couldn't wrap it around your leg.

[00:08:26] Dev: We wanted to fit into it. 

[00:08:30] John: Imaginatively. Yeah. Costumes, just hanging up on little, teeny hooks. So, so sweet this room. Speaking of the alphabet, I saw a kind of touring thing of the Dead Sea Scrolls and I forget what else. And it was pointing out that like Alpha and Aleph have to do with like the head of a thing. And Beth, I think is house.

And so the alphabet at some level is the head of the house and it's part of what does and doesn't happen here. In a patriarchal society that has been kind of aligned with a masculinity...I do dearly hope that we can either find a non-toxic masculinity to embrace...or chuck it. I think it might be easier just to work on healing a thing than destroy it and replace it. 

[00:09:21] Dev: I mean...sometimes destroying things are fun. 

[00:09:24] John: Sometimes it's part of how you respond to a thing when you've had a bad experience of it. I'm interested in psychologists and what they've discovered recently about the key to a successful relationship...especially a long-term. One is being in a safe enough place to work through whatever residual traumas you have...without combusting essentially. The pastoral role can be an opportunity for any human can be an opportunity for healing or furtherance of the problem.

[00:09:54] Dev: Do you use music as a means for facilitating that process with people as well? Or is that separate delineations for you?

[00:10:03] John: Oh my goodness, yes. Lots and lots of ways. We're doing a service tonight where we're using a song that I didn't write and I need to look up who wrote it so I can give credit for it. Should I sing it or not? Will it screw up your podcast thing? 

[00:10:18] Dev: I would encourage you to try to screw up my podcast thing. 

[00:10:21] John: Alright! Alright! And then...

Paths intertwining, shadow and light
all is touched by grace, be not afraid.

And it's a lovely thing to just to sing in unison together, but then you can split the room in half and sing it in a side to the other. It does this kind of like one side's up while the other's down and they kind of support each other.

Sometimes a round, you know, it's just people get anxious and they're just trying to figure out when the note part comes in. So that on a couple of different levels is a trust fall kind of exercise because you're leading somebody into something they don't really know and then helping them to have an experience of gaining mastery and also being okay in the space when you don't have mastery...but you're still getting to participate in something beautiful...and so like just that song all by itself is doing that kind of work...introducing the song...does that kind of work...introducing new music...changing how we do something. All these things are potentially growing our capacity to be resilient in the face of change...and it's building trust as long as you've managed it in a trustworthy way. 

[00:11:43] Dev: There's actually a musical improv exercise called musical trust fall. So, essentially,'ll just play a chord and I have to like sing the moment you play that chord. So I have no idea like what you're doing. And I just have to just keep singing and see what happens and know that we're all going to be okay. So give me a topic. 

[00:12:07] John: Finger painting. 

[00:12:08] Dev: Fingerpainting. Excellent. 

[00:12:09] John: One, two, three.

[00:12:16] Dev:

Red paint goes to blue.
These are the color spectrums of my youth.

Beautiful. Yeah, that was great. Thank you for doing that. I think that's just a beautiful,  simple exercise. You're not going to get the right note exactly. Like it's going to shift and mold and you just have to...

[00:12:51] John: I forgot if you came in on...I think you came there. And of course, depending on what else I could have been an entirely different relationship. Working with the fact that I start here...and you start there...and this is the chord I was thinking with next...and then after you sang something...and then this seemed like the way to go. Well, maybe one predictable move...and then we need to work it to something that ends. So we're handling a negotiation in that space of dissonance and consonance, dissonance and resolution.

I think I'm probably better at that in a musical field than I am in others. And so I can contribute that and we can talk about it. You know, we're doing some teaching work here...we're doing some learning work like as we noticing that we know some things or that we've learned some things...that you know may be worth sharing. I was a little bit concerned coming in thinking there is no telling what I'm going to say. I'm like still half in dream mode. 

[00:13:47] Dev: That's perfect. That's actually the best place to be. Like that, as Saskia was like talking the twilight time, you know, that in between space where the rods and cones are doing different things...colors are different.

[00:14:01] John: Liturgical theologians talk about liminal space a lot. When you're in this space, you're neither where you were or where you're going. You're sort of in this in-between space. And of course, the present moment is always a liminal kind of space...a twilight kind of space. And so when I talk about worship as in some's a retreat from distraction...a retreat from certain kinds of input...a retreat from certain kinds of expectation that you will have certain kinds of output...and to gather into a gracious space that holds you.

Church is an eternal relationship that we have with each other or an acknowledgement of the fact that we may have an eternal relationship with each other whether we like It or not...and to hold that with enough safety that we can work through the traumas of the past...and gain the healing that comes...and the learning because you know a large part of what allows humans to get along in the world is learning when we'd like something to go differently in the future...than it went in the past.

And that is what music's all about. There's a beautiful Thomas Merton Prayer that I set to music that also does some of that kind of...we didn't end up using it this least we haven't yet. 

[00:15:19] Dev: Do you want to play it? 

[00:15:20] John: Sure! I'll play it as much as I can remember. So the people just have the melody. And it goes back and forth from the cantor to the everybody. 

My Lord God, I have no idea where I'm going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.

And everyone sings:

I cannot know for certain where it will end.
Nor do I really know myself.

The Cantor:

And the fact that I think I am falling in your will 
Does not mean that I'm actually doing so 
And if I ever can You know what?

I only pulled up that much lyric. 

[00:16:10] Dev: That was perfect. That was excellent. 

[00:16:12] John: It goes like that. And it changes keys every time it goes back and forth. And part of what's going on is the only get your cue note the moment you need it...not a moment before. And that's part of how you grow. You grow in trust and in your capacity to gain faith that you actually are moving towards something and can make a way forward. 

[00:16:34] Dev: Thank you for the work that you do and for serenading the village this week and for taking the time to talk with me. 

[00:16:42] John: It's a pleasure. That was fun.

[00:16:44] Outro: Thanks for joining us. Be sure to view the links in the description for more information or visit our website to find out more about the village. We hope you will make a pilgrimage to Holden. Blessings and peace to you.