Monday, December 26, 2011

Tennessee Christmas - Amy Grant & Wexford Carol - Jeff Johnson


Tennessee Christmas – Amy Grant

What constitutes a Christmas classic? Whatever the criteria, “Tennessee Christmas” by Amy Grant makes the grade. I have no connection to the State, but I feel an instant bond with the song. The acoustic tones and the harmonizing make it warm and inviting. It exudes a goodness whose ultimate source is the Father of lights (James 1:17).


Wexford Carol – Jeff Johnson

“Wexford Carol” by Jeff Johnson is in a world all its own. I imagine the stark and rumbling sounds echoing between snow-covered hills. Trees like sentries stand silently as the notes soar above a landscape untouched by all but the Divine. It makes me think of eternity and one “whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days” (Micah 5:2 ESV).

It is the final track of Centerpoint: Poetry and Music for Christmas (1990). The short original intro serves as background for a poetry reading before transitioning into an instrumental folk song. On the Johnson produced Christmas sampler, Spirit of the Season (1994), you get the sounds without the poetry.

In this and other Christmas recordings Johnson manages to capture something of the beauty, wonder and mystery of the season. 

Sunday, December 25, 2011

A Way to See in the Dark - Jason Gray


“Jesus is speaking but it’s so hard to hear when disciples with swords are cutting off ears.”

A Way to See in the Dark
Artist: Jason Gray (www.jasongraymusic.com)
Label: Centricity
Length: 12 tracks/47:28 minutes

I listen to Jason Gray for the same reason that people might listen to Bob Dylan. He has a way with words. They take unexpected turns and are poetic. They are revealing and vulnerable.

It is what makes the music of Rich Mullins such a delight. It is a combination of spiritual insight, literary sensibility and a quirkiness that get yours attention. I relish it wherever I find it. I hear it in Christian artists like Randy Stonehill, Bob Bennett, Steve Bell, Carolyn Arends and Andrew Peterson to name a few.

I relate to it because it often springs from brokenness and humility. However one might define a victorious Christian life, it is not a state of perfection. One of my favorite phrases comes from the book of James, “We all stumble in many ways” (James 3:2). Artists like these convey grace and truth, something that I will always need.

It’s why I find a song like the opening “Remind Me Who I Am” so endearing. “When I lose my way, and I forget my name, remind me who I am,” Gray sings on the opening line. “In the mirror all I see is who I don’t want to be, remind me who I am.” The Official Music Video reminds us that we often fail to grasp a truth that is greater than our broken condition. Grace changes not only how God sees us but how we should see ourselves.

The longing that you hear is coupled with music that has somewhat of a rustic quality. It reminds me a little of The Band. A synthesizer that sounds like an accordion (or is it an accordion that sounds like a synthesizer?) comes in on the chorus. This is the Jason Gray that I like the best—acoustic, stripped-down production with yearning rumination.

On the track that follows, “The End of Me,” he sounds more like Coldplay, even down to the falsetto, not that this is bad. The chorus is an interesting derivative of the hymn, “It is Well with My Soul.” Skip to track three, and the power chords on “No Thief Life Fear,” may be fitting, but I find them less appealing than Gray just strumming his guitar.

“Without Running Away” is my favorite. The memorable lines like the following just keep coming, “Jesus is speaking but it’s so hard to hear when disciples with swords are cutting off ears / Broken and bleeding, waiting for healing to come.” The rural sound and sparse production are a perfect complement to Gray in his Dylan mode.

I favor his folksy, storytelling side. When he moves more toward rock, it’s less compelling. Generally, it’s the quieter mid-tempo songs where I lose myself in the words and sound. It makes me feel more alive and less alone. That’s part of what good art does to me.

One of the most poignant moments is “Nothing is Wasted.” This is the song to hear when you feel like your life is a wreck and past redemption. It mentions Jesus by name. It wasn’t too long ago that there was a controversy over how often Christian artists used (or did not use) the name of Jesus. A song might be judged by whether you heard (and how often) Jesus’ name. Hopefully, that kind of thinking is long gone, but because so many artists began to refer to God with personal pronouns and vague references, I notice when that name is used. Gray does it here on at least three songs, and it almost seems counter-cultural. I like it because I never want to lose sight of Christ.  

A Way to See in the Dark by Jason Gray contains some of the best songs that he has ever done. If you like singer/songwriters, especially those mentioned previously, check out Jason Gray. He has become one of the finest writers in Christian music. His childlike faith will help him and the rest of us find our way in the dark.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The IVP Introduction to the Bible


If you could only have one book to go with the Bible, this is an excellent choice.

The IVP Introduction to the Bible
Editor: Philip S. Johnston
Publishers: IVP Academic (www.ivpress.com/academic)
Pages: 292

If background and context are crucial to understanding the meaning of Scripture, The IVP Introduction to the Bible is an excellent quick reference for discovering it. Various contributors from the US and UK provide overviews of all the major sections and all the individual books. Among the scholars are Desmond Alexander, Tremper Longman, Howard Marshall, Brian Rosner and Mark Strauss. Each writes in their field of expertise.

Their work is equal to or greater than the notes found in the best study Bibles. There you have space constraints, which require smaller text and abbreviated subject matter. One thing you do not get is detail on individual verses, which is where study Bibles have an advantage in that they do provide some commentary. However, the best source for exposition of individual verses remains one-volume or multi-volume commentaries.

This book provides clear and concise presentations that contain a wealth of distilled scholarship for anyone wanting to grasp themes and subject matter. The insights are highly relevant. On the inspiration of Scripture, Mark Strauss writes, “Though the Holy Spirit who inspired Scripture may be perfect and precise, the vehicle of transmission (human language) is subject to ambiguity and imprecision. Our comprehension of divine revelation is therefore always partial and incomplete (1 Cor. 13:12)” (3).

The views are current and conservative, avoiding controversy, though readers may disagree with some conclusions. Traditionally, the author of Revelation has been identified as John the son of Zebedee, one of the twelve apostles. Carl Mosser writes, “John the son of Zebedee became an apostle, but little in Revelation supports identifying its author with one of the apostles. He never calls himself an apostle, and gives no indication that he is among the twelve apostles written on the New Jerusalem’s foundations (21:14), or is among the twenty-four enthroned elders, probably the twelve patriarchs and twelve apostles (4:4, 10; 5:8; 11:16; 19:4). So it seems unlikely that the author was John the son of Zebedee but we cannot determine his identity more than that” (265-266).

Returning to the beginning of the book, Mark Strauss’ definition of terms is valuable. He explains the difference between plenary and verbal inspiration, “Plenary means ‘full’ and refers to the fact that all Scripture is equally inspired. Verbal means that the words themselves, not just the ideas, are inspired by God. Here we must be cautious, however, since words are arbitrary signs which indicate conceptual content. It is the meaning of these words ― the message which they convey — which is ultimately inspired by God. In this way a translation of Scripture which accurately represents the meaning of that text remains God’s Word” (3). Some may disagree with that last thought, but this careful, reasoned analysis of every aspect of Scripture is found throughout, which makes this a great addition to any personal or institutional library. Ministers and teachers will find it helpful in sermon or lesson preparation.

Every section is interesting, but because it is less familiar to me, I especially enjoyed reading “Between the Testaments.” Carl Mosser takes readers through a fascinating account of the 400 year period between the end of the Old Testament and the beginning of the New Testament.

Two of the best features come at the end of each section. There is a short synopsis that discusses each book’s relevance for Christians. This is especially helpful in the Old Testament, where believers sometimes wonder what applies. This highlights the importance of context, which this book consistently provides. In “Introducing the Old Testament,” we find this apt summary statement, “The basic rule of thumb for Christian interpreters of the OT is that the moral law, governing ethical behavior, continues in effect for the Christian, not as a means of salvation, but as a code ― based in God’s character — by which to live. By contrast, while we can learn from the civil and ceremonial laws, we are not directed by them in the same way” (45).

The other helpful feature is a further reading section, which shows where to turn for more detail. The list provides the best scholarship on the subject with short comments from the author.

The layout is pleasant to the eyes and the text easy to read.

Do you need help in understanding and applying the Bible? Maybe you just want a reliable reference to keep you on track. Look no further. If you could only have one book to go with the Bible, this is an excellent choice.

Collage - The Katinas


The Katinas’ favorite recording is a blend of many influences.

Collage
Artist: The Katinas (www.thekatinas.com)
Label: Destiny
Length: 11 tracks/49:30 minutes

Listening to “L.O.V.E.” and “Collage,” the opening tracks on Collage by The Katinas, you might feel like you had wandered into a club setting. The electronic beats and programming may catch you by surprise. The intent is to keep the music fresh, and this willingness to experiment carries over into the rest of the recording, which must have made this fun for these five brothers from American Samoa. If dance and synthesized sounds are not what you like, don’t give up on this CD. The other tracks have a more familiar sound.

In their 21 years together, the brothers realize that no matter how much they vary the music to stay relevant, the message is most important. That is especially the case on “Home,” which they have performed during altar calls at the “Harvest Crusades” conducted by evangelist Greg Laurie. The chorus is an invitation to every prodigal, “Whoever you are, wherever you’ve been / It don’t matter to Him / This is love / Turn around / Come on home.” Watch them sing it on the Official Music Video.

This strong vertical focus is maintained throughout. “I’ll Wait” is about yielding to God’s timing no matter how long it takes, learning to find peace in being still.

“Jehovah,” a lovely worship-oriented song, includes strong guest vocals from CeCe Winans. TobyMac, Jeremy Camp and B. Reith add their talents and vocals to other songs.

The band puts their own subtle stamp on enjoyable versions of David Crowder’s “How He Loves” and Delirious’ “Majesty.” Given the strength of the compositions and the reverent treatment here, it is easy to enter into a spirit of worship as you listen.

Among the pleasant surprises are two back-to-back feel-good tracks. “Every Single Bit of You,” written with B. Reith, is a sprightly love song. It’s followed by “La’u Pele Ea,” which has a tropical sound and sung, I presume, in the brothers’ native language.

Since loving God and our neighbors summarizes the whole Law, a song like “Love People” that repeats this refrain is a welcome reminder. TobyMac and B. Reith share the songwriting credit with The Katinas.

John Katina, one of the brothers, calls Collage the bands’ favorite recording. It’s easy to understand why with its smooth blend of diverse music influences and strong spiritual focus. 

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Love Enough - Laura Kaczor


Personal renewal is a theme on Kaczor’s national debut.

Love Enough
Artist: Laura Kaczor (www.laurakaczor.com)
Label: Universal-Fontana/EMI CMG
Length: 10 songs/40:48 minutes

On Love Enough by Laura Kaczor (kuh-ZURE) it is quickly apparent that her music is easy to like, which is no small thing. I am all for artistry, but unbridled creativity can make for a difficult listen. That is not a problem here. Whether it’s an up-tempo anthem or an introspective ballad, these are well-crafted songs that are pleasing to the ears.

Kaczor co-wrote nine out of the ten tracks, which are animated by an obvious heart of worship. This is not, however, what might be commonly thought of as a praise and worship recording, though it does include that element. It tends more toward the singer-songwriter style. Rather than containing songs for congregational singing, this is an individual extolling God in the face of brokenness.

“Renew My Life (To Worship)” is a good example. It is plea for God to restore, a theme that in various forms weaves its way through much of this recording. A simple but mesmerizing chorus is accented by a male harmony vocal. The soothing sound draws in the listener making it easy to identify with the petition.

This contrasts nicely with the two opening songs, which are full of energy and have monster hooks. Kaczor has a sure voice regardless of style. It may be the most powerful on slower tunes like the title track, where she adds weight to the opening lines: “How do I end up where I don’t want to be? / On the right path but just off a degree / A few bends in the road and before I know it / I’m miles away from you.” I appreciate the emphasis that even when we go astray God seeks us. He remains faithful even when we are not. 

You find a similar idea on “When Grace Calls You Out,” with the mellotron-like (think “Strawberry Fields Forever”) sounds that set the mood. “When grace calls you out into the open / Takes everything that’s broken / And makes it beautiful / Step into the light and see if you don’t find / Healing as the walls come down,” she sings, contrasting emptiness with God’s sufficiency and suggesting that there is no need to hide or pretend with grace.  

“Sacred Bride,” with mid-tempo music and breezy vocals, bears eloquent testimony to the wonder of this relationship: “You call me beloved / Your sacred bride / Though I’ve been unfaithful / And I’ve tried to hide / Your forgiveness is deep / And your mercy is wide / You call me beloved / Your sacred bride.” It is a fitting summary near the end of the CD.

Occasionally, the arrangements and production sound a little dated. This is more evident on the inspirational tracks. It’s less noticeable on the material that moves toward pop/rock. These faster songs have youth-oriented appeal but overall this is more adult-contemporary and inspirational. It’s reminiscent in style and content to Shannon Wexelberg, Sheila Walsh and Annie Herring.
This is a national debut for Kaczor even though it’s her third recording. The first two, one being an EP, were independent releases.

Born and raised in Pennsylvania, Kaczor served for seven years as a worship leader at Jesus Fest. No surprise then that a desire to worship and encourage others is evident. Combined with her emphasis on renewal, she might be a good addition to a Women of Faith conference.

Friday, November 18, 2011

re:creation - Steven Curtis Chapman


God again brings good out of tragedy, and listeners glimpse it here.

re:creation
Artist: Steven Curtis Chapman (www.stevencurtischapman.com)
Label:  Sparrow Records/Chordant Music Group
Length: 14 tracks/55:14 minutes

If Beauty Will Rise (2009) was the dark night of the soul, re:creation (2011) is like the dawn that grows brighter till the full light of day. This is the sound of hope rising: the winter is past; the time for the singing of birds has come.

The tragic loss more than three years ago of the Chapman’s adopted daughter, Maria, put me in touch again with Steven Curtis Chapman and his music. After Heaven in the Real World (1994), I drifted away, but the Chapman’s season of grief caught my attention.

What the enemy may have wanted to use for evil purposes, God has used for good as re:creation is a reinvention of Chapman’s music. It has a welcome roots feel, a solid acoustic base with crisp production that enhances sometimes lighter but creative percussion.

This is not to say that Chapman sounds radically different. The changes are incremental, so that he is not departing from the style that makes “Do Everything” his 46th number one single. The cartoonish Official Music Video adds to the quirky vibe, but this is vintage Chapman, whose skill as one of Christian music’s most accomplished writers is plainly evident.

We are tempted to wonder if what we do matters at all. Chapman answers that it all matters, as long as we do everything to God’s glory. It gives us God’s perspective on significance.

“Long Way Home” is the first song Chapman wrote with a ukulele. This instrument, which is becoming more popular, adds to the comfort of the song.

Along with the ukulele, a parade of acoustic sounds, including hammer dulcimer, banjo, harp, piano, cello, strings and vibes, make subtle but delightful appearances. It makes me wish that he would go further along these lines.

Chapman does an excellent job of reimagining eight of his greatest songs in an acoustic vein, but as impressive as they are, the five new songs plus the cover of the hymn “Morning Has Broken” may be the best of all. It is partly because they are new, but also because Chapman sounds even more energized on this fresh material. Some, like the aforementioned “Do Everything,” pack more of a punch, which will appeal more to those who are less inclined toward the acoustic.   

Along these lines is “All That’s Left,” which by virtue of its catchy sound and its affirmation of the preeminence of love, could become another number one song. “Meant to Be” reminds me of God’s sovereignty but also the movie classic It’s a Wonderful Life. What would the world be like if we were not here doing the things that God designed for us to do? God put us here to be a unique expression of Him. We can enrich others through our contribution.

The last two songs, which are joined together, are a fitting conclusion. Chapman and son Caleb sing alternate stanzas of the classic “Morning Has Broken.” It’s a new day in the Chapman household. Their night of weeping is receding; the new morning brings joy. The hymn segues into “Sing Hallelujah,” a short benediction that ends the recording on a note of triumph.

What a privilege to reconnect with an invigorated Chapman. God again brings good out of tragedy, and listeners glimpse it here.  

Sunday, November 6, 2011

First Leaf EP - Eden's Bridge




Eden’s Bridge opens the book of nature and draws spiritual parallels.

First Leaf EP
Artist: Eden’s Bridge (www.edensbridge.net)
Label: Independent
Length: 5 tracks/30 minutes

Scripture provides the order: first the natural, then the spiritual (1 Cor. 15:46). The apostle Paul makes this point in his discussion of the resurrection of the dead. The natural body, which comes first, is raised a spiritual body.

Similarly, Psalm 19 depicts God’s two books: the book of nature (vv.1-6) and the book of Scripture (vv.7-11). God reveals himself in both, though more specifically in the latter. The psalmist moves from the natural to the spiritual.

On The Winter Sings and First Leaf, Eden’s Bridge looks into the book of nature, focusing on the winter and spring seasons respectively, highlighting spiritual parallels. They provide a welcome sense of discovery as they move from the natural to the spiritual.

Their remarkable insights drawn from God’s two books are expressed in subtle ways both lyrically and musically, putting these releases among the most artistic statements the band has ever made. It builds anticipation for the two forthcoming EPs, covering summer and fall, and a full-length release in 2012.

The music covers a broad spectrum and is often layered, which combined with the thoughtful lyrics provide a depth not as evident on earlier recordings. Don’t expect popular covers or a praise and worship chorus. This is more sophisticated with a variety of sonic and literary textures just waiting to be explored.

Despite the complexity, a song like “Unfreeze” is built around simple chord changes that the band adds and subtracts from, creating ebb and flow. The title track starts with bleak sounds from an electric guitar, which depicts the dying gasps of winter. A magical swirl of sounds then ushers in that first leaf of spring. The music conveys the change from the barrenness of winter to the new life of spring.

These songs contain more contrast than the first EP. “Tipping Point” is built around intricate percussion reminiscent of a time piece. This is broken-up and elongated by sweeping rock riffs that fill the chorus.

There is a buoyancy in the opening “Arise to Life” that sees in spring a metaphor for Christ’s resurrection.

These new releases may not be as accessible for those who like the simplicity of some of the band’s earliest work. Patient listeners, however, may find this more satisfying. These first two EPs hold up well to repeated listens, rewarding on the surface but also containing treasures for those who want something more. It was worth the wait to get the original Eden’s Bridge back, making the best music of their career.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Winter Sings EP - Eden's Bridge


Eden’s Bridge is back, showing what it means to be white as snow.

The Winter Sings EP
Artist: Eden’s Bridge
Label: Independent
Length: 5 tracks/22:40 minutes

For the first time in seven years Eden’s Bridge is back with their original lineup. After recording New Celtic Worship (2005), a one-off project for Maranatha! Music, the band took a break. To my dismay, it looked like they might not record again.

What joy to learn that The Winter Sings is the first of four EPs, each representing a different season of the year, to be released in 2011. Plus, the band is at work on a brand new studio recording to be released in 2012. To hear Eden’s Bridge tell it, this is the best writing that they have ever done. That’s how it all started, a trio of songwriters in 1993 deciding to take the next step.

They are on sure footing with The Winter Sings. They capture the feel of winter while retaining their familiar sound, a mix of Celtic, pop, rock, worship, and improvisation along with Sarah Lacy Bird’s lovely voice. Some music, like the title track, builds like a steady snowfall before it quietly subsides. On “Northern Dawn” you can almost the feel chill of winter with the lonely opening sounds. 

Some past releases were praise and worship oriented. Here the band continues to grow as artists both lyrically and musically. The spiritual element is here but it’s subtle. On “White” the covering of snow becomes a metaphor for the forgiveness of sins: “My eyes are searching an expanse of floor / But there is no trace of what has gone before.” This is the most buoyant track and my personal favorite.

Those who appreciate poetry will find this rewarding. The writing is consistently beautiful: 
“It is the way of all things / That the sap that lifts / The leaves into the light will see them fly.”

Even when the tone is somber, there is a ray of hope. Three tracks refer to a child: “And the Winter sings a diff’rent song / Of a small child and beginnings.” It’s something that you can miss if not listening carefully. The lyrics are not included in the packaging but can be found at www.edensbridge.net.

“The Herald Angels” is much more obvious. This is the familiar Charles Wesley hymn with a new arrangement. Some people might not like a new melody, but this works for me. It takes something that is overly familiar and makes it new.

This closes with “The Difference.” With just piano and vocals, and stately lyrics and melody, it has the feel of a hymn.

The CD is hand-numbered and packaged in DVD-sized cardboard with original artwork. Three cards show the days for January through March. It’s a collector’s item, but the best reason to have this is the strong return for Eden’s Bridge. 

Friending: Real Relationships in a Virtual World - Lynne M. Baab


Baab gives careful thought to friendship and technology.

Friending: Real Relationships in a Virtual World
Author: Lynne M. Baab (www.lynnebaab.com)
Publisher: IVP Books
Pages: 185

Something like disapproval crept into my heart when an out-of-town family member announced on Facebook that they were done using it as a means of communication. It was not the decision to abandon it that bothered me; someone might do that for legitimate reasons. It was the implication that Facebook is a superficial form of interaction that has little value.

Not being comfortable with phone calls to this person, the Facebook posts provided a means for me to have some contact. I am often more comfortable communicating by email than by phone. One thing that makes Friending by Lynne Baab so praiseworthy is that she encourages readers to recognize and respond appropriately to different communication preferences.

She rises above seeing communication changes in terms of good and bad: “Making blanket critical statements about the technology used to communicate today is pretty easy to do, while discussing ways to reflect love and compassion with various new forms of communication requires more creativity. The latter is urgently needed today” (49).

Throughout her wonderful meditation on the larger theme of friendship, Baab avoids the extremes of outright rejection of new technology and uncritical acceptance. She sees the potential benefits, “These means of communication can do much more than put relationships in a holding pattern until a visit happens. Like letters in years past, they can actually build relationships and nurture intimacy” (48).

As someone who cares deeply about relationships, and is intentional about cultivating them, Baab continually shows through the use of Scripture, personal experience, and interviews with a broad spectrum of people, just how good it can be. In particular, 1 Corinthians 13 and Colossians 3 are like frameworks that she uses to make numerous applications.

This is an excellent resource on relationships, and not just on the human level. It includes our relationship with God and how the faith that comes through him is worked out in our daily interactions. This book is a keeper for any who desire more meaningful connections.

Aside from offering a wealth of wisdom gained through experience and knowledge, Baab often inspires and writes beautifully. In writing about initiative, she observes, “Love carries its own reward. When we act in love, when we take initiative to show kindness and compassion, we are mirroring the character of God as shown to us in Christ Jesus. Every time we do that, we are participating in God’s work of transformation in us. Even if our act of kindness isn’t received very enthusiastically, we will be blessed if we trust that God’s love is shaping us into the people we were created to be” (100).

The book is by the author’s own admission not an exhaustive treatment on the subject. However, she does cover numerous subjects, some that seem quite novel to me. I don’t think I have ever read about rhythm and pacing in relationships. This looks at the frequency of our contacts. It includes knowing when to pull back or end a relationship. In such cases, “Keeping compassion and kindness on the front burner, even when making a decision to step away from a friend, limits engagement in destructive practices like gossip” (149). This is important because friendships sometimes blossom again.

In the latter part of the book, Baab makes liberal use of a study contained in the 1992 book by William K. Rawlins titled Friendship Matters. The study explores contrasting components of a relationship, such as instrumentality and affection, or independence and dependence. For example, “William Rawlins believed that a friendship with a strong component of affection will be stronger than a friendship focused primarily on function (instrumentality)” (139). On the other hand, Baab reminds us of a point made by C. S. Lewis “that shared interests can function as a foundation for friendship” (139). These and other dialectic comparisons make for fascinating exploration.    

Each chapter concludes with helpful questions for reflection, journaling, discussion and action. The appendix includes more of the same, grouped by category, on topics not covered in the book.

It shows what a vast subject this can be and an important one. Relationships, as mirrored in the Trinity, are at the heart of the Christian faith.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

On the Altar of Love - Downhere


As wise master builders, Downhere return to the foundation and fill the breaches.

On the Altar of Love
Artist: Downhere (www.downhere.com)
Label: Centricity
Length: 12 tracks/47:13 minutes

“‘If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?’” (Psalm 11:3 ESV). On the Altar of Love, Downhere goes back to the foundations of the Christian faith.

It starts appropriately with “Only the Beginning,” a song that encourages listeners to “press ahead, forget what’s behind” for God fulfills his promises. The chorus of “Rest” comes from Matthew 11:28: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (ESV). As Oswald Chambers, author of My Utmost for His Highest, said, “The questions that matter in life are remarkably few, and they are all answered by the words— ‘Come unto me.’ Not ‘do this, or don’t do that’; but—‘Come unto me.’” This truth makes the song special, for the Christian life is a continual “coming to Jesus.” The comfort and hope in these first two songs are found throughout the recording.

Like Nehemiah in the Old Testament, Downhere not only restores the foundation, they build the walls with the wisdom that comes from working out their faith. “Living the Dream” recognizes that often expectations don’t fit reality: “Well this is not what I imagined, but this is real, life in the trenches.” The lyrics are wrapped in a whimsical tune that even includes horns, reminiscent of the Downhere song, “Christmas in our Hearts.”

“Let Me Rediscover You” is a cry to know God, which God desires: “But let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD who practices steadfast love, justice and righteousness in the earth” (Jeremiah 9:24 ESV). 

I appreciate the mature, at-odds-with-the-world perspective of “For the Heartbreak”: “Thank you for the heartbreak / Thank you for the pain / Thank you for sadness on the gloomy days of rain / Thank you that the hard times have a reason and rhyme / Thank you that the healer makes the beauty shine.”

This release also highlights Downhere’s diversity. “Seek,” with its punk rock, early U2 sound, is one of the surprises. It might seem a little out of character, but I like it because it is unique. The title track features a violin, which gives it a country/bluegrass flair. This conveys the rustic and rural feel of the album cover. I wish they had done more along these lines.

The variation continues with “Glory by the Way of Shame,” a gorgeous ballad and one of the best songs. “Holy,” is a worship anthem that references the entire Trinity. Poetic images abound on “For Life,” where the band opens the book of nature to give thanks.

Downhere is working on a building whose architect is God. His people, like living stones, are being built together into a holy dwelling for His presence. As wise master builders, they return to the foundation and fill the breaches.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Sanctuary of the Soul: Journey into Meditative Prayer - Richard Foster

This introduction to meditative prayer is more helpful than harmful.





Sanctuary of the Soul: Journey into Meditative Prayer

Author: Richard J. Foster

Publisher: IVP Books

Pages: 166

The need for discernment has never been greater. With so many winds of doctrine, one can easily be tossed about like the waves of the sea.

Having heard frequent warnings from some Christian circles about contemplative prayer, I decided to review Sanctuary of the Soul by Richard J. Foster. In an old song, Amy Grant sang, “She's got her Father's eyes, / Her Father's eyes; / Eyes that find the good in things, / When good is not around.” Pointing out error is valid, especially if it is flagrant, but my hope was to find some good. Bible teacher Derek Prince likened it to eating fish; eat the flesh, spit out the bones. It seems that some prefer to completely reject any teaching or person that they deem wrong. There may be a time when that is warranted, but I prefer like Ruth in the Old Testament to glean, collecting what I can use. I’m not against pointing out error, but in this case, I will leave that to others if they feel it necessary.

As I began to read, I immediately enjoyed Foster’s excellent writing. He is concise and adorns his prose with thoughtful quotations and stories. With all the foreboding storm clouds that I had imagined, this was like a refreshing summer rain. Devotional writing is my favorite, and though this is instructional, there is plenty of inspiration.

The subject made me a little anxious. I wondered if Foster would add to my burdens. My fears were relieved by Foster’s humility and gentle encouragement. His kindness was like that of Boaz towards Ruth.

I welcome Foster’s highlighting of biblical meditation, which may be a lost art or at least neglected today. It’s the contemplative prayer aspect that some find troubling. Near the back of the book in “A Potpourri of Questions,” Foster offers the following definitions: “Prayer in general is the interactive communication that transpires between God and ourselves. Meditative prayer in particular is the listening side of this communication.” One problem with this view is that you must learn to discern when it is God speaking. Since this is an introductory book, the author writes broadly about a number of issues and does not go in depth on this aspect but points the reader elsewhere. Good News for Anxious Christians (see my review) by Phillip Cary is a recent resource for those who want an opposing view of this type of hearing from God.

I like the book’s emphasis on quieting ourselves before God. Foster sees distraction as the primary spiritual problem of our day. In writing about modern worship services, it’s easy to agree with Foster despite his cynicism, “Today, for the most part they have become one huge production in distraction. Worship meant to draw us into the presence of God has become little more than an organized way of keeping us from the presence of God.” In another place, he tells of a different kind of experience at “Quaker Meadow,” the name of a camp where he participated in a retreat for 150 college students. This is one of three detailed personal experiences that end each of the books’ three sections. They are used to illustrate and expand on the subject matter.

The Quaker Meadow meeting reads like a genuine account of a move of God, one where the participants are being led by the Spirit and are caught-up with a sense of the presence of God. Initially, it was marked by silence followed by spontaneous hymn-singing with different ones leading out. A time of confession ensued. After this, “Songs of praise and thanksgiving began to erupt spontaneously.” Foster wisely does not hold this out as the ultimate experience, one that should be copied. “It is not wise for us to hanker after such heights,” he writes. “Worship can be fully valid when there are no thrills or flights of ecstasy. The group, just like the individual, must learn to endure spiritual weather of all kinds with serenity of soul.”

Having become more interested in poetry, I was delighted to find Foster encouraging a selective use of it in a section titled “Words Dancing with Beauty.” He points out three ways it can useful in settling our minds. “First, poetry startles us with its economy of words and beauty of language.” Second, understanding a poem often requires multiple readings, which helps to calm minds down. “Third, the mind is often captured by the metaphor of a poem.” The book was worth the read just for this small section.

I’m not against a creative use of imagination, but my most uncomfortable moment was Foster’s sample meditation experience for dealing with a wandering mind, which included picturing Jesus in the room, etc. This is intended as a helpful example, but the images are a little odd.

I never want to be undiscerning in relation to mysticism and contemplative prayer. There have been obvious excesses and abuses, and they should be avoided. In the past, even evangelicals like A. W. Tozer and Alexander Whyte, who are both referenced among others in the book, were more willing to learn from the mystics, adapting the good they found for their own purposes. That attitude no longer seems to be in vogue. That is unfortunate, since Foster’s insights are useful in cultivating a closer relationship with God.

Foster is practical, and his candor is surprising. The book does not leave you feeling condemned. Foster keeps it simple, which makes it easy to follow. I found the book to be more helpful than harmful. Even so, the need to be discerning remains: “test everything; hold fast what is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21 ESV).

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Ancient Christian Texts: Greek Commentaries on Revelation - Oecumenius and Andrew of Caesarea

“There is such a thing as glory and there are hints of it everywhere” (Rich Mullins).

Ancient Christian Texts: Greek Commentaries on Revelation
Authors: Oecumenius and Andrew of Caesarea
Publisher: IVP Academic
Pages: 212

Lately, a new thought has occupied my mind when reading the book of Revelation. Instead of focusing on its meaning, I want to see glory. Where else can you find such a monumental array of angels, supernatural beings, signs, wonders, dramatic events and views of God in such a condensed narrative?

A Christian friend once remarked that God seemed conceited by requiring praise and worship. Might God be too self-absorbed? That was the implication, but how could that possibly be true? Even though I knew it to be misguided, the thought troubled me. How could I justify the adoration due God? I suspect that the inability to reconcile this has a lot to do with God’s thoughts and ways being so far beyond our own. Witness Job when he realizes of what little account he is in comparison to God: “I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6 ESV).

It brings me back to this idea of glory, which by definition is something weighty. I want to feel the weight of just how great, glorious and worthy of honor is God. In the book of Revelation, I have the opportunity to see it through the lens of God’s terrifying judgments and the way all of creation reacts to his pronouncements and works. I suspect that if I just catch a glimpse of God’s glory, I will better understand why those who surround Him continually fall before his throne in worship.

I’m not downplaying the importance of understanding Revelation with all of its symbols and imagery. The entrance of knowledge is light, which is another aspect of glory. Commentaries like this provide instruction that help me see more of the nature of God. Glory! I imagine that if we could know God now as we will one day know Him, thoughts like the one expressed by my friend will not even come to mind. We would more likely react like Job.

Scripture tells us that we cannot even imagine all that God has prepared for us. That same imagination cannot begin to grasp the awesome wonder of His being, but we can still aspire like Moses to see God’s glory however fleeting the glimpse this side of eternity.

This commentary is part of the Ancient Christian Texts series, not to be confused with the Ancient Christian Commentary series, which brings portions of commentary from multiple sources into one volume. This book publishes the complete text of two of the earliest known commentaries on Revelation, and this alone makes it valuable.

Oecumenius, “a layperson of high imperial rank” and “respected as a person of intellectual capacity,” probably wrote his commentary sometime between 508 and 518. This and the commentary by Andrew of Caesarea, dated to the first years of the seventh century, provide readers with a glimpse into what the earliest Christians believed about the book of Revelation. This is even more true of Andrew, who the translator notes is “governed by traditional and accepted opinions, and very little of his commentary could be called original.”

One of the distinctives of Oecumenius, which is endearing, is that he “takes every opportunity to emphasize the beneficence and kindness of God.” His conviction “that God is essentially good, merciful and beneficent tempers throughout his interpretation of the judgment scenes in Revelation.”

One place where Oecumenius is hard to follow is his unique interpretation of the opening of the seven seals. Rather than depicting something in the future, to him they represent different aspects of historical events in the life of Christ. This is where Andrew becomes helpful. In a gentle and subtle way, he often offers an alternative to Oecumenius. We could benefit by following his example of how to disagree with someone in an inoffensive way. This is one of the benefits of reading these two authors. Their thought is rich in grace.

How they write is a reflection of their time. It is not as simplified and clear as writing today, but it nevertheless conveys a godliness that is praiseworthy. They don’t go into great depth, instead choosing to give the general sense of each passage.

This is best as a supplement to one’s own study alongside modern commentaries. Reading it as a book, which I have done for review purposes, is rewarding, but it is not an easy read. Much more can be gained from interacting with the biblical text first and then gleaning from this commentary and others.

I would not recommend this as a sole source on Revelation. There are better commentaries available, but this stands out because of its early outlook and influences. Though today we may see areas where we disagree with one or both texts, they offer insights not found in modern commentaries. The manner of expression and thought is refreshingly original, which gives this a hint of glory.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

I Will Praise You - Rebecca St. James

A mature Rebecca St. James returns with a solid collection of mostly original worship songs.

I Will Praise You
Artist: Rebecca St. James
Label: Beach Street Records/Reunion Records/Essential Records
Length: 10 tracks/42:46 minutes

I Will Praise You is a mature Rebecca St. James, which is reflected in the dignified photos on the CD artwork. It carries over into the words and music of each song.

Newly married after a long and public wait to meet the one to become her spouse, St. James returns with a worship recording, after focusing for several years on writing and acting. She has authored eleven titles and acted in nine films. There has not been a studio release of new material since If I Had One Chance to Tell You Something (2005). St. James is no stranger to this format. Worship God (2002) is one of her highest charting recordings.

St. James co-wrote many of the songs. There is only one well-known cover, Matt Redman’s “You Never Let Go,” and to use baseball terminology since it’s the middle of summer, she knocks it out of the park.

It’s been said that it is the life that prays. In other words, a life that is pleasing to God, not only makes prayer credible, but is like a prayer. St. James exhibits a life dedicated to God, which is an expression of worship and makes a recording like this a natural and reasonable choice. It would not disappoint me to see her continue to aspire to fresh, creative expressions of devotion.

On this release she surrounds herself with a stellar band of studio musicians that include Stu G of Delirious? and when she uses strings, John Catchings. They execute a near perfect blend of artistry and accessibility. Even the programming sounds good, which gives it that Euro flair that I associate with St. James.

In a recent interview with ChristianityToday, Matt Redman said that his aim as a songwriter is “simple but not shallow.” This recording is successful in that regard. The simplicity makes it easy to underrate, but it’s what makes it possible to sing these songs in a congregational setting. On the other hand, there is enough depth to provide substance, both lyrically and musically.

“The Kindness of Our God” sounds like a Celtic Keith and Kristy Getty hymn. A personal favorite is the closing ballad, “You Make Everything Beautiful” that adapts the first few lines of the serenity prayer.

I wonder sometimes if artists try too hard to be inventive and relevant. If so, they might benefit by following the example here, which by being well-crafted and winsome makes for pleasant and rewarding listening.

I tend to have low expectations of worship recordings because, at least in the past, they tended to be so monotonous. This was a delightful surprise. Rebecca St. James has ever reason to be satisfied.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Jesus, Paul and the People of God: A Theological Dialogue with N. T. Wright - Nicholas Perrin & Richard B. Hays (Editors)

This discussion of N. T. Wright’s theology is essential reading for those following his work.

Jesus, Paul and the People of God: A Theological Dialogue with N. T. Wright
Editors: Nicholas Perrin and Richard B. Hays
Publisher: IVP Academic
Pages: 294

Jesus, Paul and the People of God: A Theological Dialogue with N. T. Wright serves as a valuable reminder that we all have our limitations. In appraising Wright on justification, Kevin Vanhoozer offers this concluding thought, “No single voice can speak the whole truth. If no one Evangelist could say everything that needed to be said about Jesus Christ, then it should come as no surprise that no one New Testament scholar can do so either. Yes, Scripture is the supreme authority for the church’s life and thought. But Wright is not the first to attend to its meaning. No one person, even one with Wright’s energy and prodigious intellectual gifts, can work a paradigm revolution single-handedly. He needs to win not more battles, but more allies.”

As much as I applaud N. T. Wright, I must remember that not even he can be right on every detail. When I become enamored by some teaching, I might be tempted to think that it is all I need. May I ever be mindful that the whole counsel of God often comes through a multitude of counselors. What I receive needs to be informed and supplemented by those who might see different facets of the same truth or offer needed correctives.

This book brings together nine biblical scholars who not only admire N. T. Wright, but as faithful stewards of their own gifts, assess his theology for the benefit of Wright and the whole church. Wright was one of the participants at the 2010 Wheaton Theology Conference, which was the setting for the dialogue that serves as the basis for this book.

Wright gives brief responses to each essay and also contributes two substantial essays on the state of historical Jesus and Pauline studies. The book is worth having just for these two individual essays.

The discussion about Wright’s work highlighted for me distinctives that I sometimes missed or glossed-over. One slight drawback is analysis that can get tedious. I was tempted to lament that theology, which I enjoy, gets complicated at times. This book is published under the academic arm of IVP for good reason. It’s not a volume that I will be giving to my mother, though I might wish that all Christians would wrestle more with the finer points of doctrine.

If you have any doubt about the importance of theology, read Wright as he ponders how to sustain the united community he sees as being at the center of Paul’s worldview: “How can such a fellowship keep going, when living in a world from which the normal symbols that define the various constituent communities have been taken away? The only way this community can be sustained, I believe, is through what we call theology. I believe when we are reading Paul we are seeing the birth of a discipline, which we now call Christian theology.” He believes that theology must grow to take on a new role: “The prayerful, wise contemplation of who God really is, and the reflection on and invocation of this God, has to be undertaken in quite a new way, in order that the united community, through its own worship and prayer and witness, can be rooted in this God and so sustained in its common life.”

Wright’s emphasis on knowing who God really is reminds me of what F. W. Boreham wrote at the age of eighty-six, after authoring more than fifty-five books, 3,000 editorials and preaching countless sermons over a span of almost seventy years: “If I could have my ministry over again, I would talk more about God. Not about God’s works or God’s ways, God’s power or God’s bounty. But about God’s very self—God’s omnipresence, God’s omniscience, God’s omnipotence; God’s unutterable goodness, God’s ineffable holiness, God’s splendor, God’s glory, God’s love. For if I could make people very sure of God, they would soon hurry to that divine Savior who is able to save to the uttermost those who come to God by Him.”

The community of God’s people which Wright points us toward is nurtured and sustained by an expansive view of God himself. It’s these big, bold vistas, which come from Wright, that keep me reading.

The irenic tone makes this a pleasant read, despite any tediousness and disagreements. The conversation is respectful with an absence of hostility. This kind of humility is welcome and needed today, and the book is an example and encouragement toward that end.

It is not as enjoyable as the books where N. T. Wright is the sole author, but it’s a valuable tool in understanding and evaluating his theology. Critiques combined with responses provide clarification and suggest areas for further study. This is an essential addition to any N. T. Wright collection of books.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

1 Peter: The IVP New Testament Commentary Series - I. Howard Marshall

If I could only have one commentary on 1 Peter, I would be well-served by this one.

1 Peter: The IVP New Testament Commentary Series
Author: I. Howard Marshall
Publisher: IVP Academic
Pages: 184

The biblical book of 1 Peter is a letter for our time. I. Howard Marshall conveys that with astute observation in 1 Peter, his commentary.

He believes the readers were “people who were discriminated against rather than being actually persecuted. The discrimination arose out of the unwillingness of Christians to take part in societal life associated with idolatry. The theme of the letter is not persecution as such but rather the situation of Christians in society and their consequent responsibilities. This accents the good behavior that they should practice and maintain despite malicious attacks.”

Written in 1991 when the book came out in hardback, but now published for the first time in this paperback edition, these words have striking relevance for our own time, as Christians face increasing discrimination and pressure to conform to today’s societal norms.

This book received the Christianity Today 1992 Critics’ Choice Award, and it’s not hard to understand why. Marshall’s succinct writing and levelheaded exposition remind me of reading John Stott’s classic, Basic Christianity. Precise, with no wasted words and a minimum of personal illustrations, he continually uncovers the original meaning with the intent of discerning what it means for Christians today.

What helps him and the reader in this pursuit, is Marshall’s wide reading of past scholarship, which he frequently references, pointing out where others may be right or wrong. Several pages of bibliography are included in the back.

Practical applications abound: “Christian conduct is an important ingredient in evangelism … alongside the actual preaching of the gospel to non-Christians, which Peter assumes to be taking place as a matter of course.”

The author wonders if Christians today have become short-sighted: “Have we lost the future dimension from the life of the individual Christian and of the church? Have we grown used to a situation in which the coming of Christ and the revelation of salvation do not fall within our expectations? True, we believe in the future hope in principle, but has it lost its importance as a factor in our daily living? And as a result, do we lay too much stress on salvation now, both in our lives and in the life of the world, and too little on what Christ has yet to bring?”

A cause for concern is Marshall’s references to the Church replacing Israel. In the “Notes” section on page 35 he writes, “Peter’s use of inheritance further exemplifies the typology that occurs so often in this letter, which draws a parallel between the experiences of the people of God in the Old Testament and the new people of God. This implies that the church replaces Israel as the recipient of God’s promises—that the promises of a ‘spiritual land’ are the real promises.” He does not explain this position as that is not the focus of his analysis. But it can leave the impression that God is finished with Israel, an idea that cannot be justified from Scripture. It would be unwise to spiritualize all the promises made to Israel.

Aside from the few references to this subject, 1 Peter by I. Howard Marshall reads like a classic. If I could only have one commentary on 1 Peter, I would be well-served by this one. Its brevity is more of an asset than a problem for those who want to quickly get at the heart of a message that is as needed today as when it was first written.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Good News for Anxious Christians: 10 Practical Things You Don’t Have to Do - Phillip Cary

Lighten your burdens here

Good News for Anxious Christians: 10 Practical Things You Don’t Have to Do
Author: Phillip Cary
Publisher: Brazos Press
Pages: 197

Good News for Anxious Christians by Phillip Cary reminds me of Decision Making and the Will of God by Garry Friesen and J. Robin Maxson. The latter challenged what the authors called the traditional view that God has an “individual will,” a specific plan for each life that a person must discover through prayer, reading the Bible, getting counsel, considering circumstances, etc. I read it early in my Christian life, and though it was Scripturally-based, I found it troubling because I believed the more common view. Back then I thought the will of God was like a steep precipice, difficult to reach and with little room to stand, but these two books picture it more broadly like a plain bounded by the truths of Scripture.

Good News references Decision Making and builds on it. The subject matter is more diverse, but like its predecessor it challenges widely-held views. Both books help Christians to become responsible for their decisions by acting wisely.

Cary believes that a “new evangelical theology” has infiltrated the church. It’s his name “for a set of supposedly practical ideas about transforming your life that get in the way of believing the gospel. They are the result of a long history of trying to be ‘practical’ in evangelical theology, which has now thoroughly adapted itself to consumer society.” This critique is his opportunity to preach the gospel to Christians. He writes that the “understanding of the gospel that has shaped my reading of the Scripture was articulated most famously in Martin Luther’s little treatise The Freedom of a Christian ...” Cary is Anglican, but someone who believes that Luther was right most of the time. This influence, with its emphasis on faith in Christ rather than what we do, is refreshing.

A prime example is when he writes about how God changes us, “The inward transformation of our hearts … happens not through anything we try to do but through faith in the gospel, because that’s how we receive Christ. He is the one who really change us.” This emphasis “frees us from anxiety” and “makes us cheerful and glad.” He continually exalts Christ, “What the gospel of Christ does is give us Christ, and that is enough. We can let everything else be what it is—hard work, worthwhile work, works of love, and the heartaches that come with all of that. And we can let our feelings be what they are, whatever that may be. What matters is Jesus Christ, and the gospel tells us that all is well on that score: that we are our Beloved’s and he is ours.”

To his credit, Cary encourages readers to judge what he has written, “To everyone who reads this book, I say: don’t believe any of this just because I’m saying it. Please do think critically—and that includes thinking critically about what I say in this book. Above all, search the Scriptures to see if these things are so, like the Jews and Gentiles who first heard the gospel in Berea (Acts 17:11).” He makes it easier by providing careful analysis based on the Scriptures and his own experience.

Where he may miss the mark is in the motives that he ascribes to those teaching or practicing the new theology. On the part of leaders, he sees it as a means of control and a way to build bigger churches. From my experience, I think people genuinely believe in the validity of the practices. Sometimes it takes someone like Cary who stands on the outside to get people to examine if something is true. It’s unwise to assume wrong motives when ignorance and/or deception can be involved.
Another reviewer of the book found himself agreeing and disagreeing with Cary’s critique, which may be a common reaction. The book makes you evaluate what you believe, and can lead to a helpful desire to know the truth.

Cary starts by challenging the whole notion of hearing God in your heart, advocated by Dallas Willard in the book, Hearing God: Developing a Conversational Relationship with God. How can you be sure that the voice you are hearing in your heart is God’s? According to Cary, you can’t be sure because the voices that you hear are your own. “The revelation of God comes in another way,” Cary writes, “through the word of God in the Bible, and this is something you can find outside your heart.” He shows here and in other practices, that Christians are left looking within, whereas in the Bible revelation comes from without: the Scriptures, counsel, corporate gatherings, etc. He’s not saying to disregard the voices from within. When shaped by wisdom and experience these voices, which are our own, can be helpful.

One might ask about the impressions experienced by Christians that seem inexplicable apart from God. Cary writes about this in Chapter 2, “Why You Don’t Have to Believe Your Intuitions are the Holy Spirit.” But what are we to make of a verse like Acts 16:6? “And they went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. And when they had come up to Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them” (ESV). Through some means the Holy Spirit gave these believers specific direction. Cary might argue that it was something outside of themselves, a prophecy or some other sign, but isn’t it possible that they were redirected through an inward monitor?

In the book In Pastures Green, F. W. Boreham recognizes the danger of impressions, especially when they harmonize with our desires. Nevertheless, he shares a personal experience that is hard to explain apart from God’s guidance, “I set off one afternoon on a round of visits. I knew exactly in which direction I was going, and had made a list of the homes at which I intended to call. On my way to the tram I suddenly thought of a home in an entirely different direction. No visit to that home was due, and there was, so far as I knew, no reason why my mind should turn that way. But as I drew nearer to the tramline the impression deepened, and, absurd as it seemed, I decided to abandon my program and make my way to that home. To my astonishment, the door was answered by Dr. Player, a medical practitioner whom I knew well. ‘Oh, thank God you’ve come!’ he exclaimed; ‘Mr. B------ has just died very unexpectedly on my hands; Mrs. B------, whom I came to see, is ill in bed; there’s nobody else in the house, and there’s no telephone!’”

How do you reconcile an example like this with what Cary has written? Regardless, more often than naught I found myself agreeing with Cary, and I appreciate his wisdom and experience. This is a worthwhile read even if you have to wrestle with the ideas that you find here.

The book title is a winner as is the cover drawing showing an umbrella shielding from the rain. Wise teachers can protect Christians from teachings that can be like an oppressive rain. The right focus (Christ) provides its own uplift, and this book has it.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Just As I Am: The Hymns of Ira Sankey - The Hymn Makers

Sankey’s light shines through these hymns

Just As I Am: The Hymns of Ira Sankey
Artist: The Sheffield Celebration Choir, conducted by Jackie Williams
Label: Kingsway
Length: 14 tracks/49:17 minutes

In the firmament of song leaders, Ira Sankey is one of the brightest stars. What Cliff Barrows and George Beverly Shea were to Billy Graham, Ira Sankey was to the great evangelist Dwight L. Moody. This selection comes from the 1,200 published in Sankey’s Sacred Songs and Solos, which is still in use today. If these are indicative of his relationship to God, Sankey is to be admired for his affinity with so many classics that include “Trust and Obey,” “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” and “It Is Well.”

With so many beloved lyrics, the focus is rightly on the words and singing. The music is understated throughout, most often carried by piano and embellished with strings, and occasional marching drums and trumpet calls. The acoustic orchestration gives this a timeless feel. The arrangements are traditional but imbued with subtle creativity.

I enjoy modern interpretations of hymns, but I like these simple and straightforward renderings, which are one of four CDs released by the label at the same time.

It’s rare to find songs that cover such a wide variety of theology in just a few stanzas. You don’t often hear the triumphant note sounded in “Marching to Zion,” “O Happy Day” and “Stand Up for Jesus.”

“Just as I Am” sounds just like the moving version that ended so many Billy Graham meetings. One of the most fun songs, partly for its childlikeness, and for the way men and women alternate on ascending and descending scales is “Count Your Blessings.”

“Have You Been to Jesus” searches the heart and is evangelistic. You may know it by the common refrain, “Are you washed in the blood of the lamb?”

“Shall we Gather at the River,” strongly affirms the future hope for every Christian. Most of the verses are sung by a soloist, which makes the chorus all the more powerful as the choir sings it forcefully.

There is also the dignity and majesty of “Rock of Ages,” here sung acappella, and the comfort of “It is Well.”

Concentrate on the words to these songs, though occasionally they are hard to make out, if you are not familiar with this style of singing. Give yourself a chance to acclimate to what might be a foreign environment to your ears. It can take time to appreciate something different, but the potential rewards are here. If nothing else, you get inspiration and thought that is unique to our contemporary context.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Worship and Bow Down - John Michael Talbot

The Mass brings out the best in John Michael Talbot.

Worship and Bow Down
Artist: John Michael Talbot
Label: Troubadour for the Lord (http://www.johnmichaeltalbot.com/)
Length: 17 tracks/54:46 minutes

John Michael Talbot’s Worship and Bow Down recalls 1979’s The Lord’s Supper. After converting to Catholicism, Talbot released the latter’s unique musical adaptation of the Mass, intending for it to be his goodbye to the music world. Instead, its well-received reception launched his new career, following in the spirit of St. Francis as a modern day troubadour for the Lord. His discography is now more than 50 recordings plus a number of books.

Worship and Bow Down, which has a CD release date of 6/21/11, but was released as a digital download on Easter day of this year, finds Talbot once again adapting the Mass using the new translation of the Roman Missal into what he calls the “Mass of Rebirth.” There are new settings for every element of the Mass (Kyrie, Gloria, Angus Dei, etc.) and for the Hail Mary, the Jesus Prayer and a portion of the Lectio Divina. Many of these songs will be included in the new hymnal published by Oregon Catholic Press (OCP) this fall. Talbot teamed with OCP for this release.

“Hail Mary” is already one of the new concert favorites and it’s not hard to understand why. Talbot sets it in a minor key that adds a beauty and solemnity that is characteristic of a number of compositions found on his recordings. It’s moving even if you are not Catholic. Some non-Catholics might object to some of the lyrics, but Talbot is just taking the existing prayer and setting it to music. I have no problem here and on his other recordings overlooking the occasional reference that I might disagree with from a theological standpoint. Such instances are few and far between, which is why Talbot has an appeal beyond Catholic believers. It’s worth being able to hear such sacred music.

Talbot is truly an artist. He forged his own way, which led him away from the contemporary trend that characterized (and still does) so much of Christian music. He’s unlike anyone else and continues to make relevant and meaningful music.

One prime example on this release is “Hind’s Feet on High Places,” a title that many protestants might recognize from the classic book by Hannah Hurnard. This approaches his best work. It starts with a reference to Psalm 91:7 “A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you” (ESV). From there Talbot leads us to Habakkuk 3:17-18, (though) “the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD” (ESV). This takes us to the triumphant chorus: “The LORD God is my strength, and he will make my feet like hinds’ feet, and he will make me to walk upon mine high places” (Habakkuk 3:19 KJV). Multi-tracking John Michael’s voice on the chorus (here and elsewhere), along with soaring music, that both end on a high note make this an exhilarating track. Any future collection of Talbot’s best songs should include this.

Talbot’s trademark acoustic guitar style is mixed throughout with superb orchestration. The only exception are the non-musical tracks 10-16 (the “Mass of Rebirth” section), which consists of a series of short acapella chants, and calls and responses.

Artistry and beauty are evident on every track, though the encouragement toward contemplative practices in tracks 7-9 may not be quite as aesthetic lyrically but is still well done.

Among his output in recent years this has to rank as one of his best efforts. He unplugged for this one; the electric guitars and drums were shelved in favor of the acoustic and organic sound, but it’s not sleepy. This is something to wake up to on Easter day or any other, for every day is like a resurrection day for the believer in Christ.

Something about the Mass brings out the best in John Michael Talbot.

Monday, May 23, 2011

As for Me and My House - John Waller

Tearing down idols

As for Me and My House
Artist: John Waller (http://www.johnwallermusic.com/)
Label: City of Peace Media
Length: 11 tracks/47:16 minutes

The first two songs on As for Me and My House by John Waller are bold battle cries. “Spirit of death you have no place here, I command you to leave in Yeshua’s name,” Waller sings over Middle Eastern sounds on “Our God Reigns.” It’s the opening salvo in a war against the ills that plague humanity. “Our God reigns here,” Waller declares in the chorus. “We claim this ground in Yeshua’s name … the battle’s won, have no fear, because God reigns here.” This and the closing “Bless Us and Keep Us” reference Israel, which is a nod toward the parallels Waller sees between the Christian life and the children of Israel, particularly in the areas of bondage and freedom, and spiritual warfare and dominion.

The next song, “As for Me and My House,” finds Waller in a declarative mode – something he is known for –, but making it personal. “I’m done building my own kingdom,” he sings. A key part of the triumphant chorus is the mention of “idols raised, tear them down.” Prior to this recording, Waller was struck by the realization that he was motivated by a strong desire for recognition in the Christian music industry. He tore that and other idols down after an intense time of seeking God. Words from the William Cowper hymn convey the idea: “The dearest idol I have known / Whate’er that idol be / Help me to tear it from thy throne / And worship only thee.”

Toward the end there is a bridge where Waller is joined by a chorus of children singing, “We will cross over Jordan / We will claim what you promised.” Waller gets the motif right. Jordan has often been likened to heaven, but the Promised Land is the life that we enjoy through laying hold of the promises. Waller knows that it’s a fight, which is why the song is like a trumpet call to Christians, encouraging them to make Joshua’s pledge their own: “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15 ESV). This is the recording’s foundation.

The aggressive stance translates into music that often carries a punch. The chorus of “Yes” is similar in sound to a fist-pumping Bon Jovi anthem. Waller continues to rock on “Because God is Good,” co-written by Mac Powell of Third Day and producer Jason Hoard.

It does not slow down until track five, “Somebody Else’s Story,” a winsome song that blends a pure desire to help others with mandolin-accented acoustic music. You find a similar sound on “The Marriage Partner,” which is a tender duet between Waller and his wife Josee.

“Man of the Valley” is a mid-tempo song that opens by describing the mountaintop experiences in the Christian life. “It’s so beautiful way up here / Where the air’s so crisp, and I just wish I could stay / On this mountain where all is well,” Waller sings. Then comes the funny realization: “But I’ve looked around and nobody else / Seems to live here.” As much as one might enjoy euphoric experiences, most of our lives are lived in the valley, which is where God refines us and most of our learning takes place. The delicate female harmony on the chorus is a beautiful touch to a memorable song.

Waller is a skilled singer/songwriter, who occasionally slips into the modern worship mode as on the song “Fallen.” He continually weaves in Scripture from a variety of places – often in the same song – without it sounding wooden, giving the songs added power.

This is John Waller’s third recording. A song from a previous release, “While I'm Waiting," has the distinction of being the only track played in its entirety in the movie Fireproof, the No. 1 independent film of 2008.

You can check out the title track video here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jjRiNL1HKns.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Luke: The Gospel of Amazement - Michael Card

Amazing commentary is a delight to read.

Luke: The Gospel of Amazement
Author: Michael Card
Publisher: IVP Books (www.books.ivpress.com)
Pages: 284

In Luke: The Gospel of Amazement Michael Card is a scholar. I have known him for years as a singer/songwriter, and more recently as an author, but more than ever this book shows how learned he is in the Scriptures.

Luke continually writes that people were amazed and in awe of Jesus. Card amazes by making the text come alive. Thanks in part goes to his late mentor, William Lane, who told him, “I am going to teach you how I read Scripture.” Lane’s approach is to read with “informed imagination.” It’s engaging the Bible with both heart and mind. It’s asking the right questions to find out what the text means.

Card starts with an astute introduction to Luke the person, which I immediately recognized as Card’s most insightful analysis and best writing. He moves on to major themes before making each chapter of Luke a chapter in the book.

Card describes one of Luke’s themes as “when those who should don’t, and those who shouldn’t do.” The least expected get the message while those who should understand reject it.

Reversal is a key concept in Luke. The blind see. The lame walk. The poor become rich through the gospel. The first are last, and the last first.

Card’s love affair with words, namely untranslatable ones like hesed, becomes apparent. It’s a word that God uses to describe himself. The best translation Card has found takes an entire line: “When the person from whom I have a right to expect nothing gives me everything.” The New Testament equivalent is normally translated “grace” or “mercy.” Card continually draws the reader’s attention to examples of its use.

Luke’s interest and eye for detail enables us to see more of the prayer life of Jesus. I also love how Luke shows Jesus’ concern and care for the marginalized, particularly his tender treatment and elevation of women, some of whom were his closest followers.

That is something this commentary is geared toward producing: faithful followers. Card is excellent at providing a clear, concise sense of the meaning of a passage, which is essential for personal application. He gives us a highly readable, imaginative and informed account of the life and ministry of Jesus. Even though the commentary is brief, the depth of it becomes even more apparent when he gives his reasons for occasionally departing from conventional wisdom. Plus, he does an excellent job in showing how the other gospel accounts differ and harmonize with Luke.

Aesthetically, the book is pleasing to the eye from the cover to the layout on each page. It clearly surpasses the ordinary fonts and styles found in most commentaries. The entire text of Luke is included and italicized to distinguish it from the commentary. Imaginative but simple outlines precede each chapter.

Aside from exceptions, the Scripture text is from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.

The chapters are short enough to be read in 15-20 minutes. Reading a chapter a day from Luke while following along in the commentary makes for a great devotional exercise.

This is the first of four books (one a year beginning this year) from Card that will cover each of the four gospels. A collection of songs based on each gospel will be released with the publication of each book and available separately (see Luke CD review).

If you are a fan of Michael Card’s music, Luke: A World Turned Upside Down is what you would expect: thoughtful reflections from Luke with acoustic guitar and piano led music. His special guests include Matthew Ward (2nd Chapter of Acts).

I enjoyed this book even more than some of his others that I have read. The scholarship is impressive, the meaning is clear, and it is well-written. It does not go into as much depth as more traditional commentaries, but it makes a great supplement to that kind of volume.

Many people rightly think of a commentary as a reference book to be used as a resource. This is meant to be read from cover to cover. It’s not written for the academic, which makes the content accessible to anyone who wants to know more about the life of Christ as seen through the gospel of Luke.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Luke: A World Turned Upside Down - Michael Card

Commentary on Luke inspires Card’s latest

Luke: A World Turned Upside Down
Artist: Michael Card
Label: Covenant Artists, Distributed by InterVarsity Press
Length: 11 tracks/42:11 minutes

Few can turn Scripture into song as well as Michael Card. His lyrics cover every book in the Bible, but his new CD focuses on the gospel of Luke.

This collection is associated with Luke: The Gospel of Amazement (see separate review), which is the first of four commentaries on the gospels in Card’s Biblical Imagination Series. A commentary and CD on the remaining gospels will be released in each of the next three years.

Card is currently hosting Biblical Imagination seminars across the country teaching how to “engage with Scripture at the level of the informed imagination.” Judging from the quality of the commentary, and the response that he is receiving from the seminars, these events are worth attending.

Those who know Card’s music recognize that it has always been informed by the Scriptures, but with the release of his new commentary, it’s apparent that he is a scholar, having been mentored by the late William Lane.

His exposition of Luke provides the basis for these songs, which cover the life of Christ from beginning to end. For those who appreciate nativity songs, there are three that cover: the Magnificant (“What Sort of Song?”), Christ’s birth (“A King in a Cattle Trough”), and His dedication in the temple (“Simeon’s Song”). Jeff Taylor’s gentle accordion beautifully ties all three together.

Acoustic guitar and piano predominate making this a mellower, more folk-oriented offering than some earlier releases that had more pop and rock influences. It’s relaxed, mature and inspiring.

He employs banjo and uilleann pipes on an instrumental (“A Little Boy Lost”) and on the last song (“Seven Endless Miles”). His banjo playing is not fast, but steady and strong, and the interplay with the pipes is a delight. It gives these songs a Celtic feel.

“The Pain and Persistence of Doubt,” set between the crucifixion and the resurrection, is just piano and strings at their most mournful. It captures a mood of melancholy, since Christ’s followers were not expecting him to rise. The somber tone has a beauty of its own.

Community is important to Michael Card. He sees the creative muse springing from collaboration rather than solitude. Three of his four children contribute, along with Matthew Ward (2nd Chapter of Acts), Kirk Whalum, Scott Roley and others. Matthew Ward and Kirk Whalum (saxophone) are featured on the opening standout track (“A World Turned Upside Down”), and Ward also sings on “A Breath of a Prayer,” which is a combination of the Jesus Prayer and the Lord’s Prayer. Matthew Ward’s contribution drew me to this release, and though he and Card have been singing for many years, their voices remain strong.

On “Freedom,” Card starts off singing, “I am lost and I am bound / And I am captive to the shame that keeps holding me down.” With just piano, strings and vocals he succeeds in capturing the heart’s cry to be free from the burden of sin. I also appreciate that he continually points to Christ as the answer. He is our freedom. He is the bread and wine. Card doesn’t get any better than this for me. Each of his recordings has a gem like this that resonates deeply.

Ironically, this is the only song that is not directly tied to a passage in Luke. Perhaps it says something about the challenge of adapting scripture to song, which can make it sound wooden. More likely, “Freedom” is a favorite because the lyrics are personal and vulnerable, making them highly relatable to all of us who feel the burden of being human in a broken world.

I welcome scripture songs like the ones found here for the truth and life they contain. It’s not hard to appreciate how artful Michael Card is with these texts. Best of all, he fashions them in such a way that they point to Christ. He is the way, the truth and the life.

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

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