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  • 1997 1 Oct
by Melissa Riddle

"It looks like the colors are singing together."
-{{Juan Melquiades Ortega}}, Fernando's grandfather

This is a bright hour for {{Fernando Ortega}}, a bright one indeed. Not that he's been in the dark for years, and not that he's been looking all along for a higher voltage bulb, but after 16 years of independent label recordings, Ortega signed on the dotted line and made his major-label debut on Myrrh Records with ==This Bright Hour==. He has just recently released his follow-up to this Dove-winning project, ==The Breaking Of The Dawn==, a continuation of his unique brand of folk-acoustic worship music.

At the ripe, young age of 40, Ortega's near-onyx eyes seem to be adjusting well to the glare, but you'll not find him changing his musical course. You'll not find him settling in for a comfortable ride. This 8th generation weaver, descended from 300 years of New Mexican history, sees his art, his music, as anything but utilitarian.

In a sense, he says, "I'm probably an odd fit," speaking of his official entrance into the major league. "It all falls within the broad spectrum of pop music, I suppose. Mine just happens to be infused with classical training... It's kind of a hybrid of church music and pop music. You can hear the influence of the hymns in what I write."

Like most artists, Ortega doesn't particularly relish being given a certain brand, but he understands that people tend to name things. Ultimately, "the strength of [the music] doesn't come in the naming of it, but whether or not it rings true to the listener."

And what can the listener expect to hear from Fernando Ortega? A hybrid of hymnody and humanness, songs that reflect the reality of the human life and the longing we all have to know God and to know "Why?"

"A lot of Christian music becomes innocuous because there is a definite tension when you confront the idea of God in a fallen world," he says. Christian writers, in particular, "should be observant about life and the human condition and confront that, but more often than not, we have this Gnostic feel in contemporary Christianity that denies we're human instead of addressing the fact that God made us human. And we ignore the incredible statements throughout scripture about God's view of his creation."

Ortega makes it his aim to observe well the complexities and pain of life and to trust, if not fully understand, the transcendence of the living God. Prodigal sons and daughters, Job's trials and despair, and the pain Ortega and his wife, Margee, experienced when their attempted adoption of an infant girl failed--all of these themes weave through and between " I Will Sing of My Redeemer," "How Firm a Foundation," and "All Creatures of Our God and King."

"Martin Lloyd Jones, a preacher from England, says we have to start any theology with the idea that God is just and holy and true and righteous, that these attributes of God are unchangeable," Ortega explains. "The adoption was a real struggle, but this [concept] was a comfort; I felt God's transcendence, that He was high and above the situation and that ultimately I could trust Him."

"Often," he says, "I'll sing 'Hear Me Calling, Great Redeemer' back to back with 'If You Were Mine,' (the song he wrote after the adoption experience). Then I follow it with 'I Will Wait for my Change' which basically says 'none of this [pain] makes much sense, but there is still a longing after God and ultimately a faith in God and in His justice.'"

"That is the tension of the Christian life," he adds, "and that is what we are called to do as writers is to try to write it as it is, not to write escapist things, not to run from it."

We cannot run, and we cannot reduce the truth of our lives, the truth of our struggles, but the hope of escaping "this earthly prison" is found in refusing to reduce God, as A.W. Tozer put it, "to manageable terms."
An especially compelling hymn for Ortega is the Charles Wesley penned "Jesus, Lover of My Soul," written in 1738.

Jesus, Lover of my soul / Let me to Thy bosom fly / While the nearer waters roll / While the tempest still is high / Hide me, O my Savior, hide / Til the storm of life is past / Safe into the haven guide / O receive my soul at last.

"It's my constant theme so far," he says, "that life is a constant struggle.... I really take solace in hymns like that where I hear strains of the same kind of struggle from the writer, where the language is filled with longing and hope. In hymns, the thinking about God is much different--there is more of a sense of God's transcendence, and much less of the importance of self."

There is a very old soul behind Ortega's dark eyes, hearty laugh and winning smile. There is a man whose life is textured by dark hues of longing--woven with golden strands of faith--whose music preserves the truth and beauty in both. The colors are singing.
His grandfather was right.

1997 Melissa Riddle. This article first appeared in the October 1997 issue of CCM Magazine.