Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Inspiration for times like these

Times Like These
Artist: Austin’s Bridge (http://www.austinsbridge.com/)
Label: Daywind Records
Length: 10 tracks/38:19 minutes

After winning a 2008 Dove award for “He’s in Control” (Bluegrass Song of the Year), Austin’s Bridge is back with their sophomore release Times Like These. The CD is produced by Jay DeMarcus of Rascal Flatts.

For those unfamiliar with the band, their music is modern country, a blend of country, pop, rock and a little bluegrass. A full sound is accented by a few chugging riffs and some piercing guitar solos. Two acoustic tracks, “There is a God” and “Hold on to Jesus” standout like a pleasant oasis. Mandolin and dobro add beauty to the former.

The middle tracks are highly motivational. “Dash Between the Dates” was probably inspired by the book, The Dash. The song highlights that it’s not the year we were born or the year we die, it’s how we live our lives in between that counts.

“Times Like These” and “Love is on the Way” speak to our current dilemmas with hope and encouragement. The former projects a resolute stability, while the latter is filled with infectious energy that complements the idea that we need “to turn this thing around.”

Mercy is personified in the first single, “Mercy Never Leaves”: “Mercy never leaves when others walk away / Mercy’s there for you so you don’t ever have to be afraid / When you’re feeling hopeless, abandoned and lost / Mercy pleads your case before the cross / Mercy never leaves.” It’s a comfort to think that mercy is always available; we need never fear. However divine these attributes might be, these are actions that we can model towards others.

“Good Time” brings this to a close with southern-sounding, swamp blues reminiscent of Lynyrd Skynyrd. It’s just another example of the slight style changes you find throughout.

Many of the musicians are well-known session players. The songs are finely-crafted coming from a variety of writers. Group members Justin Rivers and Jason Baird wrote “Hold on to Jesus” and “Good Time,” with Rivers also co-writing “Dash Between the Dates.” Their main contribution, however, and where they shine, are the vocals and harmonies. Jay DeMarcus co-wrote the title track and “Angels.”

This is a highly accessible fusion of country and contemporary Christian styles. Though it does not break new ground, it’s a near flawless production. Their talent and positive Christian message will find a receptive audience.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Jimmy Needham - Nightlights

Just a nightlight against a blazing sun

Nightlights
Artist: Jimmy Needham (http://www.jimmyneedham.com/)
Label: Inpop Records
Length: 13 tracks/49:16 minutes

On Jimmy Needham’s Nightlights, soul reigns.

A funky bass line finds its groove on the gospel-flavored “Moving to Zion.” What makes this a delight is Needham’s use of allegory. It’s a tale of two mountains: Sinai (representing law) and Zion (representing grace). The former is no longer his home. It’s a strong opening.

On the lyrical side, Needham’s humility and self-deprecation is endearing. He takes his cue from John the Baptist, who said of Jesus, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30 ESV). This priority comes through on songs like “The Reason I Sing”: “Make me a singer who is unsung / 'Cause You won’t share Your fame // 'Cause even accolades someday will fade away / Just like me.”

Needham closes with spoken word on the title track, which summarizes the theme: “Be Thou exalted over my reputation/ 'Cause applause is a poor form of soul medication.” It becomes a stinging indictment of self, which in “advancing His (God’s) kingdom” may “snag some acclaim.” “Do we not know it’s evil to love ourselves more than both God and His people?” he asks.

Needham admits that reading A. W. Tozer had a big impact. This is the verbatim source for that opening line from “Nightlights.” The rest of the quote reads, “Make my ambition to please Thee even if as a result I must fall into obscurity and my name be forgotten as a dream.” Sentiments like this are woven into different songs giving the recording a special beauty. This alone makes the CD worthwhile, but there are other fine moments.

One of the most striking tracks is “Grace Amazing,” which combines an aggressive rock riff with the work of hip-hop artist (Trip Lee). It strikes like a bolt of lightning as Needham sings of God’s resurrecting life. This is music to the wake dead.

Needham reinvents a classic pop tune with a soulful, brassy cover of “How Sweet It Is,” a song popularized by a host of artists, including James Taylor.

If the music industry had not coming knocking, Needham would have been content to remain a history teacher. This project reinforces that modesty. He recognizes that promoting Christ is more important than promoting himself, even if the latter is a foundation of the music industry.

Needham isn’t blinded by lesser lights. Addressing God, he sings, “Compared to you, I’m just a nightlight against a blazing sun.”

Monday, July 19, 2010

Luminate

Strong vertical focus

Luminate
Artist: Luminate (www.myspace.com/luminate)
Label: Sparrow/EMI
Length: 6 tracks/25:17 minutes

Each track in Luminate’s six-song debut addresses God at some point if not throughout. It’s no surprise given that each of the five guys have a background in leading worship. It would be a mistake though to think of Luminate as a generic-sounding worship band. They sound more like influences that include U2, The Fray, Switchfoot and The Killers. The band conveys the passion and energy of rock through great production from Christian music veteran Ed Cash.

Tyler, Texas-based Luminate is guitar-driven, but keyboards are also part of the mix. They combine pop, rock and modern worship styles in a way similar to Delirious or Leeland. They have broad appeal with lyrics that mix brokenness, longing and adoration.

“Shine (Love Is an Action),” the first single, is an anthem that redefines love as heartfelt action. It’s a social justice song that has a vision for the world.

“Miracle” conveys yearning in word and sound. It’s the cry of the fallen who are reaching back to God. He is the miracle we need; it’s not something that comes apart from Him.

“Hear Our Cry” is propelled by an Edge-like guitar riff. The words recognize God as the source of strength.

“Fearlessly,” another standout for its introspection, offers a lifeline of hope and comfort in the chorus: “Don’t be afraid, and don’t feel ashamed / You’re one breath away from the life you’re meant to lead.” This ends the EP on a hopeful note with a picture of a life without fear.

These last three songs, which are ballad-like in varying degrees, are the most compelling.

This CD serves as a solid introduction to a band that has been together for four years.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Giving Church Another Chance: Finding New Meaning in Spiritual Practices - Todd D. Hunter

Practicing anew the traditional observances associated with church life

Giving Church Another Chance: Finding New Meaning in Spiritual Practices
Author: Todd D. Hunter
Publisher: IVP Books (http://www.ivpress.com/)
Pages: 189

The title Giving Church Another Chance is what drew me to Todd Hunter’s latest book. I nearly walked away from church. I see the problems, and as much as I might want to resist, we are made to live in community. I want to love the church, and Todd Hunter has a perspective that is different than mine, so I want to learn what I can from him.

His journey is fascinating. Early mentors include Chuck Smith of Calvary Chapel and John Wimber of The Vineyard churches. He became the national coordinator and shortly thereafter the president of Vineyard Churches USA. After 12 years of ministry a crisis of confidence led to Todd’s departure.

He enrolled in a Virginia Beach seminary and sought counseling. A pivotal event came, when in an effort to reengage in some basic Christian practices, he read Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline. Through Richard he discovered Dallas Willard, Eugene Peterson and host of other ancient and contemporary writers “who educate and train others on the practices associated with Christian faith.”

Today Hunter is the director of West Coast church planting and a bishop for Anglican Mission in the Americas. He pastors Holy Trinity Church in Orange County, California where he and his congregation practice the principles outlined in this book.

Hunter emphasizes that being a Christian is more than believing a set of truths. It’s a way of life. He writes, “To recover their rightful place in Christian life, beliefs need to be actualized, that is, we turn them into practices that (1) change us for the better in a way that (2) those around us experience as for their good.“

In succeeding chapters Hunter walks the reader through some of the observances found more typically in liturgical or traditional churches. He starts with the “Quiet Prelude.” It is preparation intended to help individuals live a life of settled peace.

He references Archibald Hart’s Thrilled to Death: “Hart recommends Christian meditation and times of quiet contemplation and concentration focusing on the presence of God.” Why is experiencing centered peace a big deal? Hunter answers, “Centered peace implies a deep and abiding form of confidence in Jesus and his care for the whole world, including us.” Our actions and living in carrying-out the teachings of Jesus are to spring from this fertile soil.

Other chapters cover “Singing the Doxology,” “Scripture Reading,” “Hearing Sermons,” “Following Liturgy,” “Giving an Offering,” “Taking Communion,” and “Receiving the Benediction.” Hunter succeeds in making each of these subjects not only meaningful but practical.

The only place he loses me is when he writes about the Eucharist: “The Eucharist conveys to those who receive it in faith, the body and blood of Jesus, that is Christ’s life. It transmits by faith all the benefits of his broken body and shed blood, these being sacramental signs of the totality of his virgin birth, life, teachings, works, death, resurrection and ascension.” I recognize different views, but isn’t Christ’s life conveyed through faith in him? It is not faith in communion or its elements but faith in the person of Christ. I received Christ and the benefits of what he did for me the moment I believed in him.

Where Hunter succeeds admirably is in connecting faith with daily life. Spiritual practices regain their meaning.

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

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