Sunday, October 25, 2009

Everything Sad is Coming Untrue - Jason Gray

Gray has become one of my favorites.

Everything Sad is Coming Untrue
Artist: Jason Gray (www.jasongray.com)
Label: Centricity Music
Length: 13 tracks/49:12 minutes

Everything Sad is Coming Untrue by Jason Gray is the kind of recording that Rich Mullins might make if he were still alive today. People like Mullins, Andrew Peterson, Derek Webb, Randall Goodgame, Chris Rice and Jason Gray have something in common. They see things a little differently. They write in imaginative ways. Their words are sometimes quirky but that can be the setting for some revealing insight.

I am thankful that when we lose people like Mullins, or when other luminaries fade from view, it seems like God brings along others to carry on. Jason Gray is one who stands in that line of faithful witnesses. From my perspective, he has come out of nowhere to become one of my favorites.

“How I Ended up Here” is a fine example of what I find so endearing about him. It’s humorous, self-deprecating, honest and peculiar enough to make it stand out. How many are willing to say that they don’t like people at all? (I’m sure that he’s just expressing how some of us feel at times.) Who would admit that they fear someone talking their ear off, which is how they ended up hiding in front of a lobster tank?

On “The Golden Boy & the Prodigal,” like the two sides of a coin, Gray sings of the ideal self that we tend to project to others and our actual selves, which we tend to hide. Care to guess which one Jesus died for?

“Jesus, Use Me, I’m Yours” is a stripped-down, self-effacing (“I’m not much to look at”) song of surrender. As I listened while driving one day, my heart melted like wax. It was deep calling to deep with my spirit echoing his cry.

“I Am New,” a joyous celebration of all that we are in Christ, is a favorite. It contains a wealth of Scriptural affirmations and music that soars. Listen to this to bolster your spiritual identity.

“Fade with Our Voices” is right up there with the best in contemporary worship. It’s a reminder that worship is more than a song, it’s what we do with our lives. May our devotion not fade with our voices.

Just the title alone of “Everything Sad is Coming Untrue” is a winner. This is definitely in the spirit of Mullins with its poetic imagery of the reverse of the curse. The background calls and the captivating music that breaks in on the chorus are terrific. It even ends with a hammer dulcimer playing along.

Jason Gray makes a believer out of me. I am reminded as I listen to the title song that the effects of the curse—no matter how real and trying— are as nothing before God’s truth and faithfulness.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Sacred Singleness - Leslie Ludy

Letting God script your love story

Sacred Singleness: The Set-Apart Girl’s Guide to Purpose and Fulfillment
Author: Leslie Ludy (http://www.setapartgirl.com/)
Publisher: Harvest House Publishers
Pages: 184

This is one of the best books that I have read on singleness, and this is written for young single women. It was easy, however, for me as a guy to apply the material to my own situation. Who doesn’t need to let God occupy first place in their lives? If guys follow this approach by not chasing after women and focus on becoming mature in Christ, they will become the kind of men that godly women are seeking.

This is not a how-to-find-someone type of book. It’s the opposite of taking matters into your own hands. You could summarize Leslie Ludy’s perspective in a favorite phrase of Oswald Chambers: Let God engineer. In her words, it is “trusting God to script our love story in His own perfect time, without manipulation on our part.” In a broader context, “This book is about laying down your life for Jesus Christ; surrendering every hope, dream, desire, and ambition to Him. Exchanging your agenda for His. Awakening to His glorious purpose for this sacred season of your life.”

Ludy acknowledges that this self-denying view of singleness is at odds with mainstream culture and even many Christians. She spends the second part of the book using Scripture to demolish “lies” that are floating around Christian circles. She says that “the majority of Christian single young women today are surrounded by messages that encourage them to follow their hearts, take matters into their own hands, and find themselves a husband as quickly as possible.” In marked contrast, she believes the best way to find a marriage partner is to stop hunting for one and instead focus your entire life around Jesus Christ and His priorities. She writes, “God has not called us to build our lives around the pursuit of our own selfish desires, but to be poured-out sacrifices for His kingdom.”

Ludy wants to help young women live full and satisfied lives now, but she is not discouraging women from holding on to the dream of marriage. As she says, most people are meant to be married. It’s a natural, God-given desire. Through her testimony and that of many others in this book, she makes it clear that it’s a mistake to let that desire control our lives and put off present opportunities to serve.

This no-nonsense approach is not only refreshing, but it has the potential to be life-changing and world-altering. The last section of the book provides a wealth of information on how singles can get involved and help change the world.

This is very much in the spirit of Elizabeth Elliot’s Passion and Purity, a classic on relationships. Ludy alludes to Elliott several times, and this is like a modern-day successor. The singular focus on becoming all that God wants us to be make this one of the best single books available. It’s a strong incentive to develop an intimate relationship with Jesus Christ as the best preparation for marriage.

“Prince Song” by the 2nd Chapter of Acts fits so well with the theme of this book. The song exudes the “first love” kind of relationship that Ludy continually advocates. If you are able to find the song, give it a listen, but here are the lyrics:

I got a brand new story though you have heard it a time of two,
About a Prince who kissed a girl right out of the blue.

Hey this story ain’t no tale to me now,
For the Prince of Peace has given me life somehow

You know what I mean.

My sleep is over. I’ve been touched by His fire,
That burns from his eyes and lifts me higher and higher.

I’ll be forever with Him right by my side.
He’s coming again on a white horse He’ll ride.
He’ll clothe me and crown me and make me His bride.

You know what I mean.
You know what I mean.


The song describes the true Prince of many a girl’s dreams. This is the One that Ludy rightly directs young women to have as the object of their supreme love and devotion.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Once Was Lost - Sara Zarr

Found delight in Zarr’s storytelling

Once Was Lost
Author: Sara Zarr
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Pages: 217

The small town of Pineview is in a heat wave, and flowers are not the only thing wilting.

Fifteen-year-old Sam is feeling the absence of her mother, who is in rehab after her drinking finally led to an accident. Her dad, a pastor who always seems to have an answer for everyone else, never has the right words for her. Suddenly, the whole town is reeling from a tragedy that no one can explain. It’s like the day after 9/11; nothing will ever be the same.

Sam goes beyond doubting the religious convictions that have always been part of her life. She tells herself, “This is something I’ve never felt before, a total absence of whatever it is that’s made me who I am, on the inside, all my life.” Thoughts like this are a highlight of the book. Sara Zarr gives us the honest, questioning monologue of one who is searching.

The light exploration of spirituality never feels artificial or forced. This pays more attention to story and character development, which makes scattered observations more compelling. I never lost interest, and Zarr kept me guessing.

Thankfully, she leaves sordid events to the imagination, never getting graphic. On the other hand, she interjects a sobering realism that avoids fairytale endings. Sam could see the shadows that were left: “It makes me think of Lazarus. He must have had those shadows, too, after, his miracle. You don’t spend time in the tomb without it changing you, and everyone who was waiting for you to come out.”

This third novel of Sara Zarr’s was the first fiction book that I have read in some time, and this reminded me of the pleasure I have missed.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

The Lost Get Found - Britt Nicole

Day Dawns for Britt Nicole

The Lost Get Found
Artist: Britt Nicole (www.brittnicole.com)
Label: Sparrow
Length: 11 tracks/38:31 minutes

Strings that you might hear in an epic movie scene open the title track. Percussion kicks-in like a thunderclap. It’s a sublime start to a song that in Nicole’s words is “simply about being who we are called to be as Christians, and through that, seeing the lost get found. I believe that when we become who we are called to be, the lost will come to know God.”

That means more than the song being #1 for at least five weeks on the Radio & Records Christian Hit Radio chart. The CD opened at #63 on Billboard’s all-genre Top 200 albums chart. It was also #10 on their Christian chart for the week of 9/13/09. It’s impressive for the 23-year-old’s second recording, which follows Say It, her debut, which yielded three #1 singles and gained airplay on MTV’s “The Hills.”

What impresses me is a wonderful blend of organic and programmed sounds. The world of pop music has changed with the influence of hip-hop, urban and dance, all of which are felt here. It’s a real art to combine old and new in such a delicious blend. “How We Roll,” like all of these songs is completely modern, but it also has a vintage organ sound that is a perfect complement to the funky groove.

Watch out Lady Gaga. Nicole is blessed with pipes that are the dream of aspiring singers. She is quite the expert at making monosyllables ripe for consumption. I am not always sure what she is singing about—spiritual references tend to be subtle and some songs are in the celebratory dance mode—but it all sounds so good.

The weaker moments for me come on “Welcome to the Show” and “Glow” which tend toward rock. The execution is fine, but the music is not as catchy. I guess I have been spoiled elsewhere by infectious rhythms and ballads that sound fresh.

With regard to the latter, the closer, “Have Your Way,” is stunning. It’s vulnerable, intimate and has spiritual depth and maturity. It’s about choosing to trust and worshipping with one’s life even if everything is lost or stripped away.

This is not the kind of music that is familiar to me. It’s far removed from the adult contemporary pop that was so common among Christian artists. I am surprised at how much I enjoyed it. It’s creative and fun, but it also has substance. Unlike early Christian music, which could suffer from poor production, this is on par with anything in the marketplace.

The day is just dawning for Britt Nicole. As she continues on this path, I expect her future will get brighter and brighter (See Proverbs 4:18).

Bringing Theology to Life: Key Doctrines for Christian Faith and Mission - Darren C. Marks

Making theology clear, precise and applicable

Bringing Theology to Life: Key Doctrines for Christian Faith and Mission
Author: Darren C. Marks
Publisher: IVP Academic
Pages: 190

In “Why the Care of Language is More Important than Ever” (Christianity Today, September 2009), Marilyn Chandler McEntyre writes, “The discourse of the church, the subtleties of biblical language and the nuances of translation, the ear for poetry and care for theological distinctions may be eroded when the language of popular media is allowed to overtake the dialect of worship and conversation among believers. We need to help one another—reading, speaking, and praying thoughtfully together—to maintain the strenuous pleasures of precision, clarity, and lively confrontation that are mutually empowering and that keep us accountable to one another, to the responsible reading of Scripture, and to the God we serve.”

This is why a book like Bringing Theology to Life is important. It is an attempt to “maintain the strenuous pleasures of precision, clarity, and lively confrontation that are mutually empowering and that keep us accountable to one another, to the responsible reading of Scripture, and to the God we serve.” Recognizing and understanding theological distinctions are part of growing spiritually. We are impoverished when we speak and act without a substantive knowledge of what we are doing. It is like taking communion without knowing the significance.

Having come from a church background that gave little thought to history and theology, I find the book rewarding, even when I am unsure if Marks is correct. I appreciate the discussion. This is one man’s attempt to communicate the depth and richness behind the teachings that are fundamental to the Christian faith. You find one of many samples of this in the chapter titled “The Doctrine of the Bible and Sacraments,” Marks pulls back the curtain to integrate a theology of Scripture with preaching, which he contends rarely happens. We learn the purpose of preaching.

The value of this kind of precision is that it can be corrective, so that we can adjust our thoughts and actions to be more in line with God’s intent as revealed in the Scriptures.

Having coming from a non-sacramental background, I found his discussion on this subject fascinating and enlightening. He avoids controversy by not concerning us with the number and nature of sacraments, but giving us his view of what they do. He briefly provides non-sacramental perspectives in the book, but the sacramental views have greater depth and inform his theology. Those like me in non-sacramental churches may sometimes feel like a foreigner, but what keeps me interested is a desire to know the truth. This is what Marks seeks to convey even if some of the finer points are debatable.

This book arises from the author’s conviction that “theology, or rather academic theology, is largely divorced from needs and concerns of members of the community of faith.” Marks seeks to “redress that imbalance by clarifying that Christian theology is exactly the content of the life of the Christian community in terms of its worship and therefore its understanding of Christ.” He does this by introducing the insights of academic theologians. This is one of the delights, meeting key figures from the past and learning how their thoughts contributed to our understanding of foundational teachings. In learning why the doctrine of the Trinity is important, for example, the influence of Karl Barth (1886-1968) is reviewed. Each section ends with a bibliography that is grouped into introductory, intermediate and advanced levels.

Some theological distinctions are hard to grasp, but I appreciate the author’s view of the big picture. He continually relates everything back to the Church, rather than focusing on the individual. He reminds us that we are called to community, something our highly individualized society finds hard to accept.

This would make an excellent textbook for a class on the subject. It’s not intended to be an exhaustive book of systematic theology—its scope is limited to the Trinity, Sin, the Incarnation, the Holy Spirit, the Bible and the Sacraments, Heaven, and the Church. The author believes that every Christian should be familiar with these concepts to “live and serve the gospel fully.” Marks succeeds in being clear, precise and confronting with the truth that empowers and make us accountable to each other.

Making Your Emotions Work for You - Harold Sala

A Sure Guide to Emotional Health

Making Your Emotions Work for You
Author: Harold Sala
Publisher: Harvest House Publishers
Pages: 236

Emotions may not have the best reputation. We don’t want to base our lives on fluctuating feelings, but are all emotions bad? On the contrary, as Gary D. Chapman, the author of The Five Love Languages, writes in the foreword: “God made us with capacity for emotions. In God’s design, emotions were meant to help us process life in a positive manner. . . . Emotions are not designed to control our lives, but to draw our attention to life. Positive emotions help us enjoy life, while negative emotions inform us that something needs attention.”

Author Harold Sala maintains that our greatest struggles are fought within our hearts as we deal with “frustration, stress, lack of self-confidence, fear, feelings of inadequacy and inferiority, and the inability to cope with circumstances that are not to our liking.”

Choices can make us better or bitter. Sala walks us through relevant Biblical principles that we can choose to apply. We can thereby make our emotions work for us in the process of becoming more of what God wants us to be.

The first two chapters, which deal with our uniqueness and God’s acceptance of us in Christ, are worth the price of the book. It’s not that this introductory section, or any of the material that follows; is anything new. I just like how clear, concise and complete these first two chapters present the importance of having an identity established in Christ. If like me you have struggled with esteem and acceptance issues, this material alone can be life-changing. Just reading it I felt a little like Pilgrim being relieved of his burden in The Pilgrim’s Progress. Grasp these truths and feel the weight of negative emotions roll-off your person.

On the matter of self-acceptance, Sala writes, “When you can accept yourself as a person of worth and value, you can then accept adverse circumstances in life and realize that God has not forsaken you nor is He punishing you, but rather He is still guiding in the affairs of your life and home no matter what happens. . . . You don’t consider difficulty to be punishment because you know your sins have been dealt with and you are God’s child.” Sala doesn’t discount the fact that at times God will discipline us. I just appreciate him highlighting that when things go wrong, it doesn’t mean that God is not there or that He is necessarily against us.

Another thing I like about Sala is his liberal use of stories to illustrate his points. This is not dry reading. Sala draws on many years of ministry experience, which includes a radio program heard on more than 1,000 stations around the world. Over the years he has collected numerous responses to his broadcasts, and he often judiciously shares correspondence and anecdotes for interest and emphasis. If sermon illustration is becoming a lost art, you would never know it from reading Sala.

Even so, his writing is not cluttered with too much of a good thing. He knows how to be brief, which makes this a reference that one can turn to repeatedly for inspiration and help. It’s written for lay people, but church leaders will also find that it’s a good resource.

Sala is never heavy-handed, but his easy to follow applications gently challenge. For those who are hurting, this book offers a wealth of practical steps toward recovery.

In addition to several chapters focusing on the intricacies of emotions, separate chapters are used to explore anger, fear, boredom, stress and burnout.

Reading Sala is like having your own personal counselor who encourages making friends with your emotions. We must respond rather than react to them, and Sala is an expert at showing us how. His aim is that we become all that God wants us to be.

Alive Again - Matt Maher

Multi-faceted worship from an emerging singer/songwriter

Alive Again
Artist: Matt Maher (www.mattmahermusic.com)
Label: Essential Records
Length: 12 tracks/55:34 minutes

Alive Again, Matt Maher’s second release on Essential Records, solidifies his emergence as a recognized worship artist. It also highlights his ability as a songwriter. He is best known as the author of “Your Grace is Enough,” which appeared on his Essential debut, Empty and Beautiful.

Maher is one who believes in songs born out of community. These songs were written with Jason Ingram, Chris Tomlin, Matt Redman, up-and-coming writer/vocalist Audrey Assad, Mark Byrd and Mia Fieldes (Hillsong). I appreciate the honesty and vulnerability in some of the lyrics.

Originally from Newfoundland, Canada, Maher has gone from full-time ministry at his home church in Mesa, Arizona to leading worship around the world.

That is not to say that Alive Again is just the typical fare found on modern worship recordings. There are songs like “Shout of the King,” a driving anthem that would be right at home on a Chris Tomlin recording. But you also find a more than average variety of styles. Maher sings with a Bruce Springsteen-like swagger on “Hold Us Together,” which with its sing-a-long chorus could pass for a folk anthem. The plainspoken sentiments about love make it a song that I can imagine the Boss singing.

“Remembrance” is a communion song with lyrical depth and an ethereal sound that highlights the mystical aspect of the rite. The stripped-down, all-acoustic sound on “Letting Go” fits perfectly with its theme of relinquishing all. The quiet, gentle nature make this one of my favorites.

“You were on the Cross” is a stark song of lament from the perspective of someone who is in the winter of discontent. Yet when life falls apart, it still has the faith to direct the hard questions to God: Where were you when …? Songs like this are a heartening sign of maturity. Others have pointed out that modern worship recordings have often lacked this aspect of grief and sorrow.

Anytime anyone successfully incorporates the beautiful picture of God singing over his children (Zep. 3:17), it is worth noting. That is what you find on “Sing Over Your Children.”

“No Greater Love” celebrates the Incarnation with drums that shuffle and atmospheric guitar. Kudos to the producers, Paul Moak and Christopher Stephens, for helping to give this CD a raw, organic sound that makes this a little different from the many similar-sounding praise and worship recordings. My first exposure to Moak was his hot guitar-playing on one of Derek Webb’s tours. I can hear his influence.

“Garden,” another acoustic gem—one of two songs that include female harmonizing and the album’s closer—rejoices in the fruit of God’s cultivation of the heart.

This CD is like a fresh garden of delights. It’s not hard for me to imagine the gentle breeze of the Spirit carrying these songs of praise and worship heavenward as they fill the hearts of God’s children.

Hello, Stranger - Catie Curtis

No longer strangers

Hello, Stranger
Artist: Catie Curtis (www.catiecurtis.com)
Label: Compass Records
Length: 11 tracks/42:11 minutes

I had never heard of Catie Curtis, but now that I have listened to Hello, Stranger, I would welcome the opportunity to hear more. There is more—nine solo recordings over a 15-year career—but I am thankful for this introduction to such a friendly voice.

Those in the know have clamored for stripped-down versions of her classics, something that captured the spirit and intimacy of her live shows. Those who enjoy the sound of string instruments don’t have to wait any longer. This is a gentle feast for the ears from some of Nashville’s finest pickers.

The highlight is a warm voice anchoring songs that range from whimsical to thought-provoking. By focusing on acoustic instruments, occasional light percussion (no drums), and unadorned vocals, this has a pleasing organic quality. It is a delightful blend heard through a variety of styles.

The title track is a rousing country duet with Mary Gauthier. “Walking On a Wire” has a relaxed feel that makes its confession of falling seem so natural.

What drew me to this recording was “Tuesday’s Dead,” the Cat Stevens gem, which is still relevant and one of the highlights.

“Dad’s Yard” is ever so soothing with its beautiful harmony. “Passing Through” is similar to a gospel song, reminding us that life is transitory. The most moving for me is “Don’t Want to Know (No Evil).” Here she sings of shunning evil and wanting to know love.

I appreciate the authenticity in songs like “100 Miles,” where Curtis wonders if she is ahead or behind. She is not afraid to engage in a little humor at her own expense. Nor is she shy about posing challenging questions. It makes it easier to get to know her.

This is a lovely initiation to the music of Catie Curtis. I hope she counts me as a friend.

Billie Jean - Dr. BLT with Kim McAbee

“Billie Jean” goes alt-country

Billie Jean
Artist: Dr. BLT with Kim McAbee of the Buckaroos (formerly Buck Owens and the Buckaroos)

Billie Jean is one of Michael Jackson’s best-loved songs. The video has over 37 million views on YouTube. The song is found on Jackson’s 1982 Thriller release, which was number one in the US and the UK.

To record such a beloved a song and do it justice is risky and a challenge. I suspect that Dr. BLT chose it as a tribute to Jackson’s legacy. He succeeds admirably in making this his own. Who would have guessed that this could be made into a country song, but the subject matter fits well with this genre.

This classic fares well under the influence of the Bakersfield Sound, and is among Dr. Thiessen’s best work. Though Buck Owens is an influence, the rhythm reminds me of Johnny Cash.

I like being able to hear the lyrics more clearly than on the original. Thiessen’s rugged voice brings out the defiance in the chorus: “Billie Jean is not my lover!” This is balanced by Kim McAbee’s smooth background vocals and harmonizing. This more than meets the remake challenge; it’s like listening to a new song.

The song has been released as mp3 and is on the downloadable edition of the CD, From Buck Owens Blvd to Merle Haggard Drive, which is available at (http://www.drblt.net).

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:...