Tuesday, November 14, 2017

The Legacy - Michael Phillips

Passing on a vision of life with God

The Legacy (Secrets of the Shetlands, Book 3)
Author: Michael Phillips (www.fatheroftheinklings.com)
Publisher: Bethany House Publishers (www.bethanyhouse.com)
Pages: 451

I normally would not think of starting with the last book in a three volume series. I hesitated, wondering if I should seek to acquire the first. I received a review copy, and instead of seeking to acquire the first two books, I decided to start with what was provided. Now that I have finished it, I don’t feel like I have lost out by not starting at the beginning. Like any volume in a series, it should be written well enough to stand alone. The Legacy by Michael Phillips does not disappoint in that regard, nor on other levels.

Phillips and his wife Judy spend time each year in Scotland. So Phillips writes with meticulous detail about life in the fictitious Whales Reef set in the Shetland Islands, right down to the foods, plants and customs. J. R. Tolkien has been rightly lauded for creating such a fully-realized alternate world in The Lord of the Rings. Although this series is not fantasy, I applaud Phillips for doing something similar in creating such a true-to-life story in modern and pre-modern settings.

This tale flips back and forth between the beginning of the twenty-first century and the early to mid twentieth century. The time periods are tied together by the stories of two families and their ancestors: one in America and the other in the Shetlands. At times the continual back and forth was hard for me to follow, but I think it’s more of a challenge for me than a problem on the part of the author. It’s all well done, and the chapter headings make the time and place clear. Plus, the chapters are short in length, which makes for easier reading. As I have said before, Phillips is an excellent writer. I enjoy reading his books just for the writing alone, but fortunately he offers much more than that.

You get two grand, sweeping love stories, which develop slowly, but are ultimately worthwhile, especially towards the end. If you like rich character development, you find it here. I was captivated by the villain that readers meet towards the end.

In a time when even the best of our race can seem sullied just by being in this world, we meet honorable characters facing real-life situations. Don’t believe that fiction is just escapist entertainment and has nothing to offer.

This book highlights what really matters: themes of family, love and most importantly, passing on a spiritual legacy. The inheritance of land, as important as that may be, is symbolic of something deeper, as Phillips writes of the father of one of the main characters:

For him the land was life. It was a legacy that had been passed down to him and that was his responsibility to love and protect and pass along to his descendants with the same devotion. It is what he called the Deuteronomy legacy. The land was a biblical symbol for something deepera permanent family legacy that can only be passed down from fathers to their sons and daughters (359).

That legacy is “the spiritual vision of life with God.”

This thought is bolstered by the interest the author shows in Quaker spirituality. The first reference highly esteems it:

Among America’s Christian denominations, Quakers had always been at the vanguard of progressive thinking. Had it not been his own ancestor, Quaker John Woolman, who had awakened the American conscience against slavery fully a century before the Civil War? Quakers, too, were socially ahead of their time in respect of women and their standing in the world (26).

A little further on we find two Quaker literary references. The first pertains to Hannah Whithall Smith’s autobiography. The second is her book A Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life, regarded as a Christian classic.

I delight in the literary references sprinkled throughout these pages. Of course, Phillips would be remiss, if he did not make some mention of the beloved Scotsman, George MacDonald. He and C. S. Lewis have been his mentors in writing and the spiritual life.

Being a book lover, I appreciate the thought that passing on one’s books can be part of sharing one’s faith with future generations. We can be enriched by the writings of those who have gone before.

Having authored more than seventy books, Phillips is at the top of his craft. His maturity makes me hope for even more books to come. His vision of life with God is helpful and instructive.

Check out the website (link provided after author’s name at beginning of review) to find fiction and nonfiction that you might enjoy reading. 

Thursday, November 2, 2017

The Porter's Gate Volume 1 - A Live Worship Record

“A light that beckons world-weary strangers to come in and find rest.”

The Porter’s Gate Volume 1: Work Songs
A “sacred arts collective” (www.Portersgateworship.com)
Label: The Porter's Gate
Length: 13 tracks/52 minutes

The Porter’s Gate Volume 1: Work Songs connects worship with vocation, “who we are to be in this world” as recording artist Audrey Assad sees it.

In Christian circles it’s been said that worship isn’t just what happens on Sunday morning. We worship not just with voices but our lives. The 13 “modern hymns” on this release imagine what that looks like.

The Porter’s Gate is a collective of artists from diverse backgrounds seeking to build a community that invites conversation and collaboration. The hope is to become a welcoming presence in an inhospitable world. Founder and producer, Isaac Wardell, believes hospitality can impact the culture more than any other belief and practice of the church.

“Little Things with Great Love” featuring Madison Cunningham is a surprising opener in its stark beauty. It sounds like the resurrection of an ancient hymn:
In the garden of our Savior, no flower grows unseen
His kindness rains like water on every humble seed
No simple act of mercy escapes his watchful eye
For there is One who loves me
His hand is over mine

I could not find a songwriting credit but see that it is included on Evergreen, the Audrey Assad release scheduled for early 2018. Assad is on three tracks but not on this one.

This track is evidence that music is more than notes played. It’s also the silence in between, which in this case gives this a haunting quality. Strings add a classical presence.

“Wood and Nails,” which pairs Assad with Josh Garrels is also available as a single on Noisetrade. Though this release is all about serving others, I take delight in the work done on our behalf, highlighted in the first two lines of the chorus:
The work was done with nothing but
Wood and nails in Your scar-borne hands.

The first sounds on this memorable song are solitary piano notes, gentle strumming and Assad’s voice. Garrels joins in on the second stanza.

In a time when the world can feel like a dreary, overcast day, we could use more joyful songs. “Father, Let Your Kingdom Come” blows the clouds away. It’s a lively, gospel-flavored romp featuring Urban Doxology and friends. Urban Doxology is a group of artists dedicated to racial reconciliation and urban ministry in Richmond, Virginia’s Church Hall neighborhood, which is being renovated. Their soulful voices also enliven “Establish the Work of Our Hands,” another track with a delightful gospel influence.
How do I describe what I hear on “We Labor Unto Glory” sung by Liz Vice? It sounds like a Carrie Newcomer song. It’s a mixture of folk, pop and African American spiritual.

“Christ Has No Body Now But Yours” is Josh Garrels reverential adaptation of the famous Teresa of Avila quotation. The sound of a church organ stands out. The simple lines, which contain no additional thoughts, are repeated throughout with the sound swelling at the end with a congregation of voices.

Isaac Wardell co-founded Bifrost Arts and is the director of worship arts at Trinity Presbyterian in Charlottesville, VA. Readers familiar with the three unique Bifrost Arts recordings will find that the production and styles here are similar. It’s stripped-down, organic, and on the mellower side with thoughtful lyrics.

The promotional materials convey an image of the hoped-for welcome intended here: “The Porter’s Gate seeks to provide an environment in which artists can reimagine the vocation behind their gifts and create music that sets a light at the door of our churches, a light that beckons world-weary strangers to come in and find rest.” Thanks to projects like this and many others there has never been a better time for those who appreciate expressions of praise and worship.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Come to the Waters (Collector's Edition) - Children of the Day

Genuine come-to-Jesus moments make this a classic

Come to the Waters (Collector’s Edition)
Artist: Children of the Day
Label: Born Twice Records (www.boonesoverstock.com)
Length: 9 tracks/38 minutes

Simple, diverse, sincere, earnest, and wise. It’s all here and more on Come to the Waters (originally released 1971) by Children of the Day.

It starts with the pleasant, straightforward “New Life,” a welcome-to-the-family song. A surprise follows.

The sound of a flute, followed by some woodwinds, and then harpsichord. The baroque-influenced melody and melancholy lyrics of “As a Child” extend for six minutes. It laments a former childhood openness that has disappeared.

“All Breathing Life” is a cappella, sung in the style of Handel’s Messiah, where parts of words are elongated, and the verses sung in rounds by the four members.

A Jewish rhythm animates the energetic “Children of the Day.” The combination of male and female harmonies, a folk style with no electric guitar, mainly acoustic instruments, electric bass and occasional drums (courtesy of John Mehler – Love Song, Richie Furay Band), with thoughtful, pointed lyrics, made Children of the Day a premier group.

It is unashamedly about a relationship with God through Jesus. We live in a different era. This kind of directness now might be considered preachy, but this does not sound forced. It’s a natural overflow from hearts that are full. It’s the desire to share treasure meant for everyone.

Records like this can remind Christians of their first devotion when God’s presence seems so near. It’s easy to let that slip because of cares and desires. Listening can actually rekindle lost aspirations.

Thanks to my mother, who played early Jesus music records on a stereo that went through our whole house, I had a soundtrack for my early experience just before and then after coming to Christ. Before I ever heard Larry Norman, Randy Stonehill, Phil Keaggy and 2nd Chapter of Acts, my mom was playing The Way, The Joy Album, Let it Shine by Suncast, Love Song, The Praise Album, Come Together by Jimmy and Carol Owens, and others. The soft rock and simple lyrics were memorable, calling me. I never forgot some of those songs.

No doubt my mom had heard, “For Those Tears I Died,” the closing track on this record. It became one of the most popular songs of the period. It’s a genuine, moving come-to-Jesus moment, composed by group member, Marsha Stevens, who was only 16 when she wrote it. Mark Allan Powell calls it “an absolute masterpiece … it expresses adolescent piety better than any other Christian song ever written.”

New listeners may not feel a sense of nostalgia, but they can appreciate the sincerity and the primitive excellence.

Another classic invitation, “Two Hands,” written by Chuck Girard (Love Song), is elegantly covered here.

The song that follows, “Jesus Lives,” features background vocals that echo the female lead, all leading to an exuberant chorus that becomes euphoric when they begin to sing, “because of his love.” At that point, just when you think their voices can’t soar any higher, they do. Paradoxically, it’s a joyous song about Christ’s suffering and dying. It celebrates what that makes possible.

We have Born Twice Records to thank for reproducing this classic. As they detail in the liner notes, the masters were long gone, so they purchased a sealed vinyl copy and converted it to digital. Most people won’t be able to tell but those who pay attention to such things will notice. It sounds fine, and if you are into vinyl, you can find this album where used records are sold.

Born Twice Records has produced other classic Christian albums from the 60s, 70s, and occasionally the 80s. You can get the recordings at their website (see the address on the “Label” line).

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Alisa Turner EP

Your daughters shall prophesy

Alisa Turner EP
Label: Integrity Music
Length: 6 songs/26 minutes

Lauren Daigle. Audrey Assad. Mandisa. Sandra McCracken. Hannah Kerr. Now Alisa Turner. I marvel at how God continues to raise up new voices to declare his praise. I wonder if it’s a partial fulfillment of the prophecy, “your sons and daughters shall prophesy” (Joel 2:28c ESV, italic added).

Declaring the truth is one aspect of prophecy, and that is what these young women are doing in psalm-like ways. Of course, many other women could be added to the list, and even seasoned artists, like Jaci Valesquez, Nichole Nordeman and Amy Grant are finding new voice in declaring the riches that are in Christ. God continues to pour out his Spirit.

On this six song EP Alisa Turner expresses the confidence that comes through experiencing God’s faithfulness in the face of challenges. At age 20 Turner suffered the loss of her father and shortly thereafter debilitation caused by Lyme Disease, which left her bedridden for six years.

So she sings not of self-reliance or self-confidence but faith in God’s ability to sustain her. Ongoing health challenges make life difficult, and some days all she can do is just worship. It gives her the kind of perspective heard on the chorus of “Not Even Now,” one of her boldest declarations:
Not even if the sky is falling
Not even when the enemy roars
Yours is eternal glory
You are forever strong

These songs were birthed at the piano where God continually draws her back to himself. The music reflects this, being a soothing blend of keyboards, guitars and percussion. The other instruments continually add pleasant accents. Delicate guitar chimes grace the chorus of “Lift My Eyes.” A well-placed percussion echo adds punch to “Not Even Now.” Just before the bridge on this same track a delightful guitar interlude adds a rock edge.

Songs like “Not Even Now” and “As it is in Heaven” carry further impact when Turner’s voice merges into a chorus of voices.

“As it is in Heaven” adds violin. I like the phrasing in the chorus that summarizes the longing of the children of God, and even all creation:
On the earth as it is in heaven
Oh, let it be with us here right now
Where your word is fulfilled and your glory revealed
Oh, let it be with us here right now

Surely, this is cry that God delights to answer. Lofty sentiments and elegant music make this a majestic track.

The string-laden, piano ballad “My Prayer for You” conveys blessing on the “bruised reed” and the “smoldering wick.” Christ’s passion ensures that it will not be broken. It will not be put out (see Matthew 12:20). Though the melody conveys a touch of sadness that initially may be off-putting, it becomes memorable with repeated listens. This is empathy in music and verse.

Perhaps the most sublime moment comes on the closing “Psalm 13.” It starts out in lament, but then, as is often the case in the Psalms, it ends in praise. It’s just Turner and the piano. It’s the same way that Lauren Daigle ended her debut, and once again I find it to be one of the most moving moments.

This stands in the line of recent worship-oriented releases that are more articulate than the early efforts in this genre. That’s not to diminish the value and importance of simple choruses or songs conducive to a congregational setting. I just appreciate the growth and maturity. Sons and daughters are proclaiming God’s truth in new settings.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Overflow - Hannah Kerr

Young women leading the way

Artist: Hannah Kerr (www.hannahkerrmusic.com)
Label: Black River Christian
Length: 11 tracks/43 minutes

Hannah Kerr and Lauren Daigle have something in common. They each give voice to a maturity and wisdom beyond their years.

They sing to God in a musical language of todaypop/rock with underlying hip/hop rhythms. I also hear some Euro rock influences on Kerr’s Overflow. In between driving guitars subtle accents from over the pond shape the tapestry of sound. These small sonic details are among my favorite moments.

Kerr has a hand in the songwriting, which teams her with some of the best: Scott Krippayne, Matt Maher, Joel Houston and Meredith Andrews, to name a few.

Similarly, many of the musicians are seasoned pros; Stu G one of the prominent ones. Is that shades of Delirious I’m hearing?

Mark A. Miller does an admirable job of blending organic and programmed styles. I wonder though why the peak levels seem high, saturating the sound. Was this intentional to give it more of a raw and rugged feel? Or is it just my imagination and/or a limitation of my sound system?

Warrior” is a metaphor for life as a battle, and serves as a terrific opening song.
Staring down the face of fear Gotta keep breathingWhen the negative is all you hear Gotta keep believing

I easily identify with the thought that we live in a time of fear and negativity that seems to be getting worse. It’s a challenge but essential to stay in an attitude of faith, as suggested in the song.

Kerr did not have a hand in the songwriting, but she sings the chorus with forceful conviction:
You’ll never stop me, I’m a warrior When I fall down, I get stronger Faith is my shield, Your love is the armor

Pummeling guitars and strong vocals make this powerful song her own.

Never Leave Your Side” is a plea set in the context of a ballad. The chorus is sung from God’s perspective. In addition to the comforting sentiments, what makes this standout is the beautiful wash of keyboards and gentle guitars.

Kerr co-wrote “Your Love Defends Me” with Matt Maher. His imprint is recognizable in the structure and lyrics. It builds to a crescendo at the end with a gospel chorus.

The closing, “Be Still and Know,” features Mark Hall of Casting Crowns. It’s more subdued than the other tracks, being primarily piano and string-driven, but it’s a highlight. The opening lines set the stage for the encouragement contained in the title:
When your heart is anything but quiet And peace feels a million miles away When the world is heavy on your shoulders And you don’t know the path that you should take

Debuts like this and How Can it Be by Lauren Daigle add depth to the modern worship genre. This kind of praise and adoration appeals to me more than some of the simplistic forms that emerged at the beginning of this movement. I don’t mean to discount their value at the time or even now. I just appreciate the growth and maturity in music made by Christian artists, in all categories including modern worship.

We can be grateful to live in such a time as this when artists have a vision for continued innovation and service to others. Young women like Kerr and Daigle are among those leading the way.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Words from the Hill - Stu Garrard

Not a law to observe but a grace to receive

Words from the Hill: An Invitation to the Unexpected
Author: Stu Garrard
Publisher: NavPress (www.NavPress.com)
Pages: 219

Has the gospel become too Pauline? Those who think so see the Christian life being shaped to its detriment more by the teachings of Paul than those of Jesus. Others see it as essential revelation: “You can judge any man’s preaching or teaching by this ruleIs he Pauline? Does his doctrine start and finish according to those statements of Christian doctrine uttered by the Apostle Paul? No matter how wonderful a man may seem in his gifts and apparent consecrationif his gospel is not Pauline, it is not the Gospel and we might as well get our minds settled at once as to that.”

Michael Card, perhaps best known as a recording artist, but also an author who has extensively studied the life and teachings of Christ, might take issue with the preceding statement. A gospel that is strictly Pauline, might be deficient in both content and application in relation to Christ. “Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing.” How can the message be complete if in form and outworking it does not make visible that Word of the Father?

I’ve read enough to think that a Paul versus Jesus dichotomy is false. Despite apparent contradictions there is harmony. We need not put the teachings of one against the other, just like some do when they pit Paul and James against each other in relation to saving faith.

What something meant to the original hearers may differ in how it applies today, which brings me to the Sermon on the Mount. Some today teach that only Paul’s teachings are formative for Christians. They say the Sermon on the Mount is part of the gospel of the kingdom, a message to the Jews, not to those who have been justified by faith in the gospel that Paul preached. How then are Christians to apply the Sermon on the Mount?

This was my impetus for turning to Words from the Hill by Stu Garrard, best known as the guitarist for the British band Delirious? A number of music artists have shared their stories in recent years, and I have enjoyed some of them, but I can’t help thinking that few of the many available can rival this in importance. It’s due in large part to the subject matterthe teachings of Jesusbut also because Stu G, as he is known, approaches the text with an honesty and humility that is vital to rightly discerning and applying the truth. I’m not saying that it makes him right about everything; just that his approach as a learner is not only necessary but refreshing. All of this makes this book one of the best by a rock star. I call him that lightheartedly because I’m sure that he sees himself more as a follower of Jesus. His gospel is assuredly not too Pauline.

What he shows through his own life, and the lives of the many friends that we meet through him, is what the outworking of the Beatitudes might look like today. His theme is a noble one: Jesus “tells us, when we find ourselves at the end of our rope, at rock bottom, God is there, God is on our side” (xiii). You could say that this is a refrain that he sings over and over again.

Those who look to Paul are sensitive to the division between law and grace. I think one of the unique aspects of this book is Garrard’s seeing the sermon on the mount on the grace side of the ledger: “When I look at the story of Jesus and the message of the Beatitudes, I’m struck by how confronting it is to my comfort level. I really have to fight the feelings of trying to attain something or of not ‘doing’ enough. The temptation to keep measuring myself against others who ‘do’ awesome things is always with me, but it’s such a distraction. It’s so easy to fall into ways of attaining, which completely misses the point. This is about who we are and not what we do; it’s about being and not doing” (43-44). This emphasis alone makes the book worth reading.

Garrard makes the Beatitudes not a law to observe but a grace to receive. It’s more or a description of who we are than something that we should strive to attain. Even so, there is a balance between comfort and challenge. It’s from that place of rest from our strife that God can use us to multiply his family.

Has the gospel become too Pauline? The problem may be in creating division where it doesn’t belong. These words from the hill are incorporated into Paul’s words. There may be a progression of revelation but there is no reason why they need to be at odds with each other. Paul said, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1 ESV). The line that begins in the Old Testament, which culminates in Christ, runs through Paul to us today.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Where the Good Way Lies - Steve Bell

Bell’s most mature effort makes the Good Way inviting

Where the Good Way Lies
Artist: Steve Bell
Label: Signpost Music (www.signpostmusic.com)
Length: 13 songs/42 minutes

The attitude in “Bring it On” by Steve Bell on Where the Good Way Lies makes it one of my favorites among all his songs. He could not have picked a better way to open his latest recording. It’s the mindset of “come what may” I can handle it. It is a wisdom born of walking with God for many years:
Less to conquer, less to do
Less inclined to suffer fools
Just happy to grow old with you
Bring it on, bring it on

Written with Murray Pulver, who once again in working with Bell is outstanding as a producer and musician, this epitomizes the wit, beauty and excellent craftsmanship that you find throughout this release.

This is probably the finest all-around recording that Bell has done in a career that stretches over 25 years and keeps getting better. I can’t help thinking that this Canadian who cites a legendary fellow citizen, Bruce Cockburn, as an influence, is following in his steps by combining faith and art in winsome and striking ways.

How fitting that once again Bell honors his mentor by recording Cockburn’s “Love Song.” As Bell writes in the liner notes, it is an example of “his beautiful melodies and more gentle sentiments.” That phrase goes a long way towards describing this release, which contains some of Bell’s best writing and music.

Native American chanting and instrumentation open the title track. This leads into some lone keyboard notes and a voice speaking the word, “seven.” It kicks into high gear with a jazz melody and psychedelic noodling on a synthesizer. Before it’s all done, in addition to Bell’s smooth singing, there is more spoken word, rap and then more chanting as it fades. It’s a wild amalgamation that reminds me of an earlier Bell song, “Waiting for Aidan,” but more advanced. I credit Bell and the producer for creatively making it all work together. With its indigenous wisdom, a reference to the seven days of creation, and allusions to what we all share together, you could consider it a song for all peoples and nations.

This adventurous ride is followed by the sparse, finger-picked, “And We Dance” which has a gorgeous hook. I find it arresting. If I’m doing something else while hearing it, I want to stop and listen. It must be one of the most delicate and tender songs that Bell has ever composed.

For those who struggle with feelings of inadequacy and failure, there is “A Better Resurrection,” a poem written by Christina Rossetti (1830-1894). The barest of instrumentation, which includes a dobro, gives this a bluegrass-feel. This is the background for lyrics that should resonate with any who are feeling a bit battered and bruised by life.
I have not wit, no words, no tears
My heart within me like a stone
Is numbed too much for hopes or fears
Look right, look left, I dwell alone
I lift mine eyes, but dimmed with grief
No everlasting hills I see
My life is in the falling leaf

One could view these lines as depressing, but I find my heart strangely warmed. It’s a reminder that we are not alone when we feel blighted by the harsh realities of life.

Variations on the next two lines become the chorus after each stanza:
O Jesus, quicken me
O Jesus, quicken me

Direct appeal, spoken or sung, is powerful.

Another simple chorus taken from a quote from Augustine“Love is our way to God, for God is love”fits well with the upbeat, shuffling rhythm on “Love is our Way.” The invitation and welcome spring from a sermon preached by David Widdicombe.
All who carry disappointment come
Those who fear the fire of judgment come
And you who teach the royal way is not for some
Shame on you
Now lovers come

The line “you who teach the royal way is not for some” reminds me that the good news about Christ is for everyone, even those with whom we disagree and/or oppose followers of Jesus. As vigorously as we might need to defend the truth, we should always seek to avoid creating stumbling blocks or obstacles for others. It is more important to win people than arguments.

What freedom and joy are expressed in the final stanza:
The only thing left for us to do is love
If this alone be done it is enough

The cheerful melody is the perfect match for this all-encompassing virtue.

Melody, instrumentation and production wizardry come together beautifully on “Ash Wednesday,” which includes harmonica and banjo. The name comes from a service on that day, which provided the inspiration. Far from solemn, this has a full-bodied sound that strikes harmonious notes as the lyrics reflect on our misbegotten attempts to respond to God’s love.

If you have a record player and can afford to spend a little more, get this on vinyl. Analog equipment, that had long been out of use, was purposely restored for this project. Before the digital age, this was the means of recording, and many believe it provides a greater dynamic range. Even on the digital version, the sound is clear and rich. How much better on black vinyl? If I didn’t already have it, I would buy the record. Some releases are worth the extra investment; this is one of them.

The Legacy - Michael Phillips

Passing on a vision of life with God The Legacy (Secrets of the Shetlands, Book 3) Author: Michael Phillips ( www.fatherofthein...