Thursday, December 19, 2013

Christmas is Here - Brandon Heath



If Christmas songs seem stale, and you wonder if they can ever sound fresh, Brandon Heath and producer Ben Shive answer a resounding “yes!”

Christmas is Here
Artist: Brandon Heath (www.brandonheath.net)
Label: Provident Label Group
Length: 10 tracks/34 minutes

If I could purchase only one Christmas recording this year, it would be Christmas is Here by Brandon Heath. The cover of a smiling, scarf-draped Heath, Christmas album in hand, vinyl record spinning in the foreground, fireplace in the background, all hint of the rich nostalgia that you find here.

This has all that one might want in a seasonal recording: new compositions and classics, humor and inspiration, playfulness and wonder; and not least of all, a talented producer, Ben Shive (Andrew Peterson), who is a master of retro sounds. Shive was at the helm of last year’s standout, Snow Globe by Matt Wertz, on which Heath was a guest.

The opening “The Day after Thanksgiving,” could not be timelier. I need not inform anyone that Christmas started earlier than ever this year. This is a lighthearted plea to wait until after the day for giving thanks.

“The Christmas Song” brings out the crooner in Heath, while “Momma Wouldn’t Lie to Me” has him fronting a swinging fifties sound. One of the last lines is so funny that I won’t reveal it. What would Christmas be without some surprises?

The a cappella “Silent Night” with its background choir of female voices, sounds like a song from an old Hollywood classic, along the lines of White Christmas or The Bishop’s Wife.

The horns and choir on the closing medley “O Come All Ye Faithful/Angels We Have Heard on High” make it stately. I enjoyed the occasional, restrained use of these items and strings.

By far though, my favorite moments are the bluegrass-influenced tracks like, “Go Tell it on the Mountain,” which has never sounded better. The judicious use of Dobro highlights this aspect. The interplay of acoustic sounds in a rural style befits the more spiritually-minded tracks.

This includes “Just a Girl,” a beautiful, imaginative look at the circumstances surrounding Christ’s birth.


If Christmas songs seem stale, and you wonder if they can ever sound fresh, Heath and producer Ben Shive answer a resounding “yes!”

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Hope for All the World - Phillips, Craig & Dean



It all revolves around the miracle of a baby that would provide hope for the world.

Hope for All the World
Artist: Phillips, Craig & Dean (www.phillipscraiganddean.com)
Label: Fair Trade
Length: 10 tracks/37 minutes

Perhaps one overlooked highlight of Phillips, Craig & Dean’s career is “Shine on Us,” the closing track to a recording inspired by the devotional My Utmost for His Highest (also the name of the album) by Oswald Chambers. It epitomizes a central feature of the group: three strong male voices praising God in unison. The Utmost track is simple and unadorned, which serves to highlight the worshipful harmonizing. By the way, this older recording is worth having for the quality performances by some of CCM’s most prominent artists at that time.

“God Bless Us” on Hope for all the World, through poetic and poignant lyrics, and an inspirational arrangement comes closest to producing the same kind of stirring emotion as “Shine on Us.” Written by Scott Krippayne and Jeff Peabody, this alone makes the CD worth having. It’s especially meaningful for those who dreams have not been realized. This song brings solace and hope.

Most of the other non-traditional songs are like modern worship anthems that celebrate the birth of Christ. I mean this as a compliment. If you are looking for a mix of Christmas and contemporary forms of adoration, this is worth checking out.

One of the most pleasant surprises is the opening “Born is the King (It’s Christmas),” which has a distinctive Celtic sound. There is a forcefulness and stomp peculiar to new folk and Irish influences.

It shows the subtle variety. “Do You Hear What I Hear?” has an appropriate celestial quality, fitting for a song that makes reference to the night wind, sky and a star. The added hook to “O Come All Ye Faithful” has punch. It’s the same beloved song in new garb.

Producer Nathan Nockels (former member of the husband/wife duo Watermark) succeeds in making traditional songs sound fresh without significantly changing them. Among the supporting musicians is the versatile Gabe Scott, who collaborates with Andrew Peterson.

I suppose you could say that the acoustic/bluegrass medley of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman/We Three Kings,” is more rustic than present day, but then again, the old is continually reinvented in music circles, becoming something new. This includes a music box-sounding keyboard.

Though similar to previous worship releases in the group’s CCM heyday, this seems a little removed from it. The music is more sophisticated and varied, which makes Phillips, Craig & Dean sound better than ever.


All of the songs are spiritual with one exception, the closing “Jingle Bells (Duck Mix).” In our day I am not one to begrudge badly needed humor. I can only surmise that someone stumbled across a long lost recording of Donald Duck and company singing this childhood classic. The producer supplied instrumental backing with the utmost of a care. It all revolves around the miracle of a baby that would provide hope for the world.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Matthew: The Penultimate Question - Michael Card



In a world where the visual holds sway, Card remains word-oriented, concerned more with substance than style.

Matthew: The Penultimate Question
Artist: Michael Card (www.michaelcard.com)
Label: Covenant Artists
Length: 9 songs/34 minutes

Leave it to cerebral Michael Card to title his latest recording, Matthew: The Penultimate Question. For the group of Christ’s followers addressed in Matthew’s gospel, the penultimate (the next to the most significant question) as stated by Card, is “Who Am I?” The ultimate question is “Who is Jesus?”

“This is Who You Are” beautifully answers the former while being carried by a gorgeous piano melody. Listeners may see themselves in the opening lines: “Misunderstood and undefined, a stranger to myself / Incarnate contradiction, I am poverty and wealth / I can believe and disbelieve / I can bless and damn / I’m dying in the darkness / Of not knowing who I am.” This is classic Card in every sense.

The chorus puts attributes drawn from the Beatitudes into positive affirmation: “You possess the kingdom / You’re the sorrowful, the meek / The gentle starving ones / Who are the strongest when you’re weak.”

It’s these scholarly but devotional ruminations, which highlight themes in Matthew’s gospel that make me a lifetime admirer of Card’s work. In a world where the visual holds sway, Card remains word-oriented, concerned more with substance than style.

The production is a model of restraint. Those looking for something that rocks might be disappointed. Simple and uncluttered instrumentation leave room for words to breathe.

Once again Card demonstrates that we are better together. Our work can be more than just the sum of individuals. Like the loaves and fishes freely offered, God can multiply our combined talents.

It’s indicative of Card’s humility that he shares the spotlight with friends that include Phil Keaggy, Ashley Cleveland, Steve Green, Kirk Whalum and John Catchings. These contributions expand on Card’s talents and become highlights. A fine example is the blues/gospel hybrid, “Go Find Out What This Means,” where Card and Cleveland trade lines. I surrender. Let me learn what it means to show mercy.

From the man who gave the Church a modern classic, “Immanuel,” comes three successive takes on the incarnation. It shows his continuing fascination with the subject and the Christocentric focus of his theology.

Speaking of theology, this CD is a companion to Matthew: The Gospel of Identity, the third of a projected four commentaries, each on a different gospel. The series is worth having for its readability and quick summation of pertinent points. A companion CD is available for each commentary. Next year (2014) will see the release of the final volume covering the Gospel of John. It’s no small testament to the grace of God and his commitment to community that Card has produced at least one CD and commentary in each of the last three years.


Card’s music has somewhat mellowed from the days of his bigger production CCM releases. Recent offerings, including this one, reflect a more mature style. They are not lacking in any way. Rather, they may enjoy greater longevity than earlier titles, being less dependent on passing fashion.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Christmas - Julie Meyer


“Please Remember Me” is like a Christmas card written to family when Meyer was far from the home environment that she knew as a child.

Christmas
Artist: Julie Meyer
Label: Forerunner Music (www.forerunnermusic.com)
Length: 12 tracks/49 minutes

Christmas by Julie Meyer should appeal to a broad spectrum of people. It not only involves family and friends; it will appeal to the same. This is one for everyone.

Simplicity is part of the attraction. It does not try to be trendy. It’s mostly straightforward but does not lack creativity in arrangements or instrumentation.

It is mainly acoustic. Percussion is light, but the sound is full. “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” a duet with David Bryner, and “Go Tell it on the Mountain,” benefit from a bluegrass style. The former has a slightly quicker pace making it seem less mournful. It’s also punctuated by Dobro, giving it a slight otherworld quality.

An a capella version of “Little Drummer Boy” soars at the end through an improvised gospel finale. Jaye Thomas and The Cry are featured. 

This recording might not exist if Meyer had not written an original back in 1990. “Please Remember Me” is like a Christmas card written to family when Meyer was far from the home environment that she knew as a child. This bittersweet, piano-driven song sounds like a modern classic, along the lines of “Tennessee Christmas.” It’s my favorite, but I also enjoyed the two other original songs. Each succeeds in conveying warmth and depth.

That’s what you get throughout this release. All but the instrumental closing track have a spiritual core that fits Forerunner Music’s motto, “Music that magnifies Jesus.”

Even “Have Yourself a Merry Christmas,” the aforementioned instrumental is not out of place. All you hear is acoustic guitar, which is like a thread woven into all the tracks. Other organic sounds, including choirs and strings, create a rich tapestry.

This wonderfully exudes the spirit of the season. It’s another winner from Forerunner Music, the label for the International House of Prayer. I have enjoyed all of their recent releases, but none as much as this. This is worth having just for “Please Remember Me,” but each track is lovingly crafted. This soothes while creating an atmosphere of worship.

Monday, November 11, 2013

God of Every Story - Laura Story



God is faithful to every Story and each one that trusts in Him

God of Every Story
Artist: Laura Story (www.laurastory.com)
Label: FAIRTRADE
Length: 11 tracks/41 minutes

If it’s the life that prays, the same thought has relevance to worship. Though clichéd, “worship is a lifestyle” tells the truth that worship is expressed in how one lives. Part of it is valuing God above all else, as Laura Story puts it on God of Every Story, “Now I find that the comforts of this heart are not in things / or in the joys that this life brings / but just to be the very workmanship of God / to know He’s with me / to know He’s for me.” An attitude such as this is adoration.

Story first gained notoriety through the song, “Indescribable,” on her first solo release by the same name. Chris Tomlin made the song popular on his album Arriving. Her fourth release, Blessings (2012), won Dove awards for Pop/Contemporary Recorded Song of the Year, Pop/Contemporary Recorded Album of the Year, and Song of the Year for “Blessings.”

On this her fifth recording Story continues to build on the style of “Indescribable.” Some tracks, particularly the more rousing ones, might be used in congregational settings. More intriguing are the confessional singer/songwriter reflections, of which there are plenty. One of my favorite disclosures is found on “I Can Just Be Me,” “I’ve been feeling like a failure trying to be braver than I can ever be / it’s just not me.”

Similarly, on “Grace,” Story sings, “At times I may grow weak and feel a bit discouraged / knowing that someone somewhere can do a better job.” I applaud this transparency and vulnerability.  

The title track is structured like a country song, and could even pass for one, with introductory tales of woe that lead to a personal event in Story’s life. God is faithful to each Story, she and her husband, and now a baby girl. This track and the opening, “There is a Kingdom,” are accented by mandolin, which adds a wonderful touch. 

It’s easy to be numb to the desperation voiced by others. But when hardships come, you can suddenly feel like you are living a similar reality. It’s no longer just letters on a page or words in a song. At such times, the opening lines of “Keeper of the Stars” can be like a buttress against a wave of trial, “Against all hope in hope I believe / You, O Lord, are faithful / You are good and You are able / When it seems impossible to me / Your promises are all true / What You say I know You will do.”

Those who favor energetic modern worship may find this overly introspective with too many piano-driven ballads. The last four tracks are all pensive. While some may not like this, Story is at her best on the two songs with the least production. “Who but Jesus” is structured like an ancient hymn. Each line magnifies the glories of Christ. Piano and strings accompany Story’s elegant vocals.

The closing “He Will Not Let Go” is a lovely benediction. A stark musical landscape is the perfect setting for a brokenness that has a sublime trust in God. 

Sunday, November 3, 2013

One Way Love: Inexhaustible Grace for an Exhausted World - Tullian Tchividjian



Billy Graham’s grandson offers rest for the weary.

One Way Love: Inexhaustible Grace for an Exhausted World
Author: Tullian Tchividjian
Publisher: David C. Cook
Pages: 240

Until now I had never read Tullian Tchividjian, but I knew he wrote books about grace. I also knew that he was the grandson of Billy Graham. Plus, I learned that he succeeded the late D. James Kennedy as pastor of the Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church (PCA). These factors, and an endorsement from Max Lucado urging people to read One Way Love, led me to gladly download the book when given the opportunity.

Tchividjian knows his subject. Like Franklin Graham, he was a rebel growing-up. It was not until after marrying that he came to Christ, not that the former caused the latter. Throughout the book he uses his prodigal past, both good and bad experiences, to illustrate his points. He references the graciousness of friends and family like Billy and Ruth Graham when he was still estranged from Christ. He also illustrates the inadequacy of law and condemnation as agents of change.

With so many competent books on grace, do we need another? The author’s premise is that the world, and even the Church, suffers from exhaustion. “The good news of God’s inexhaustible grace for an exhausted world has never been more urgent,” he writes.

The underlying problem is a culture that equates worth with performance. “What I see more than anything else is an unquestioning embrace of performancism in all sectors of life. Performancism is the mindset that equates our identity and value directly to our performance and accomplishments. Performancism casts achievement not as something we do or don’t do but as something we are or aren’t,” Tchividjian writes. Examples are not hard to come by. Most jobs emphasize the quantative or the qualitative. In such an environment, subjective measures are easily overlooked or dismissed. It becomes a numbers game, and the only way to succeed is to get better results. Those who produce have value. Is it any wonder that so many feel exhausted?

The Church is not immune. The number of souls saved, people visited, and attendance in classes and services can become measures of success. The urgency of the times, the work to be done, a plethora of programs and activities, and exhortations to get involved are enough to tire anyone. Some take pride in their desire to wear out rather than rust out. Whatever happened to the rest associated with faith and grace?

The author’s definition of grace comes from Paul Zahl, “Grace is love that seeks you out when you have nothing to give in return. Grace is love coming at you that has nothing to do with you. Grace is being loved when you are unloveable…. The cliché definition of grace is ‘unconditonal love.’ It is a true cliché, for it is a good description of the thing….” Let me summarize with another cliché, “no two ways about it!” This is one way love.

Tchividjian sounds a similar note in acknowledging the influence of Brennan Manning, who said, “My message unchanged for more than fifty years is this: ‘God loves you unconditionally, as you are and not as you should be, because nobody is as they should be.’”

Like Manning, Tchividjian’s understanding of God’s one way love and all its implications is not just another teaching. It’s a life message, which is one reason why this could become the best book on grace you might ever read.

He more than answers the objections to grace. He argues that the problem is not too much grace. More often, it’s a low view of law that can lead us to believe that once we are saved, we can now measure up on our own. No, we never get beyond the need for grace, no matter how mature we become or how far we progress. If we must merit what Christ accomplished for us, we rob the gospel of its liberating element.

The following lines are like cold waters to a thirsty soul (good news), “The Gospel of Jesus Christ announces that because Jesus was strong for you, you are free to be weak. Because Jesus won for you, you’re free to lose. Because Jesus was Someone, you’re free to be no one. Because Jesus was extraordinary, you’re free to be ordinary. Because Jesus succeeded for you, you’re free to fail.” These thoughts bring an inner sigh of relief. The daily grind makes me feel my need for Christ.


Whether you beat yourself down for the slightest infraction, or are supremely confident, there is no substitute for the message of grace. We all fall short, and we always will. What God has done in Christ is all that we will ever need. It answers every failure and condemnation.  

Sunday, October 13, 2013

The Glorious Unfolding - Steven Curtis Chapman



Millions of records sold and numerous awards can’t compare with Chapman’s advocacy for orphans and this wistful, elegant recording.

The Glorious Unfolding
Artist: Steven Curtis Chapman (www.stevencurtischapman.com)
Label: Reunion Records
Length: 12 tracks/48 minutes

To hear Steven Curtis Chapman tell it, “We will never move on from our family’s story. We carry with us our sadness and loss of Maria.” Chapman refers to the accidental death on May 21, 2008, of their five-year-old adopted daughter from China. Though they still struggle, a thought shared by one of Chapman’s favorite authors, Oswald Chambers, comes to mind: “Out of the wreck I rise.” As Chambers writes, “God does not keep His child immune from trouble; He promises, ‘I will be with him in trouble . . .’ (Psalm 91:15). . . . Some extraordinary thing happens to someone who holds on to the love of God when the odds are totally against him. Logic is silenced in the face of each of these things which come against him.” Chapman has hung on to the grace of God, making “out of the wreck I rise” a reality in his own life.

This is his first studio album of all-original material in seven years. What stands-out is a hopeful outlook. This is buoyant right from the opening title track, which serves to highlight the theme of eagerly waiting the fulfillment of God’s promises. It’s believing “that for those who love God all things work together for good” (Romans 8:28 ESV) despite apparent contradiction.   

Musically, this follows the direction taken in the last few outings. The electric takes a back seat to acoustic instrumentation. Chapman retains his signature sound but continues to somewhat embody new folk made popular by artists like Mumford & Sons. It fits this Paducah, Kentucky native well and even includes Andy Leftwich from Ricky Skaggs’ band, playing fiddle on some tracks. This artfully blends the programmed with the organic in melodies that alternate between driving and tender.

One pleasant surprise is the closing, “Feet of Jesus,” with its hymn-like stanzas, ethereal background and Celtic vibe. It’s a fitting benediction, an encouragement to lay our heavy burdens down.

“Take Another Step” is a direct influence from Oswald Chambers, who counseled when facing uncertainty, “trust God and do the next thing.”

Chapman gets boisterous on “Love Take Me Over.” Rugged claps and stomps are the background for his plea, “God, please take all of me/And fill me up with Your Love … Love, fill up all of my space and/Love, stand right here in my place.” This exudes the joy in surrender.

This sometimes wistful look at the present and future is elegant. Chapman has sold millions of records and has more awards than anyone in Christian music, but none of it surpasses his recent output, which includes this fine recording.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Overcomer - Mandisa



An encouragement to Miley, Katy, Taylor, Britney and Lady Gaga. Mandisa has crafted a near masterpiece of pop that could serve as a soundtrack for all who seek recovery from our fallen state.

Overcomer
Artist: Mandisa
Label: Sparrow Records
Length: 11 tracks/41 minutes

Miley, you are getting lots of attention, albeit for reasons that you may regret some day. You have a monster following, Lady Gaga, but where are you leading? I wonder, Katy, without any condemnation from me, if you remember your first love. Of course, I’m not speaking of a guy, but the God you sang about before your rise in popularity. Taylor, you are a class act, even when you sing about relationships that don’t work out. I’m sorry, Britney, that the chaotic time you went through became a spectacle.

Even though you all standout in the world of pop music, for me, Overcomer, by Mandisa exceeds your work in a crucial way. In short, it’s because it is God-haunted. Mandisa’s faith in Christ permeates the lyrics, offering truth and hope, which our world needs more than ever.

Overcomer may never get the same attention as your releases. Your works will out-sell hers, but this surpasses in glory because she extols the God of glory. It adds a dimension missing from a lot of music, much like putting God at the center of marriage deepens it.

As I listen to the title track, I can sense God’s strength supplanting my weakness. It’s remarkable that no matter where we find ourselves, he pursues us to close “The Distance.”

“This shouldn’t be complicated/This isn’t that hard to see/It’s not about what I do for you/It’s what you’ve done for me,” Mandisa sings in “Back to You.”  The music conveys some of the joy found in that realization. Believing in what Christ has done gives us the hope that we will see him “Face to Face.”

I write to encourage, not condemn. Just as in “Joy Unspeakable,” Mandisa begins it this way, “This is not another song about all we’ve done wrong/We already know/I think it’s time for us to find the freedom and trust of letting go.” It’s ironic that it’s through surrender that we know true liberty. As hard as it might be for me to submit to others, it can provide rest and protect me from making mistakes. Jesus said come to me, and I will give you rest.   

Though it runs counter to our culture, it’s wise to keep oneself pure for a future spouse, as on “Praying for You.” Otherwise, say hello to needless heartbreak. Someone may say it’s too late, but we can begin again right where we find ourselves. Even when we fail, as we all do, “What Scars are For,” looks at past wounds as reminders of God’s faithfulness. It’s not that he inflicts them; he heals us. “They teach me that my brokenness is something that you can use/They show me where I have been/And that I am not there anymore/That’s what scars are for.”

“Where You Begin” is such a great reminder that God starts when we come to the end of ourselves. On “Dear John,” one friend tenderly affirms to another that there is freedom on the other side.

With all the fame and accolades that you enjoy, I hope you won’t dismiss the work of a former idol contestant. She has crafted a near masterpiece of pop that could serve as a soundtrack for all who seek recovery from our fallen state.

The production is impeccable. The music rivals anything on Top 40. It’s immediately accessible but it has depth. Best of all, it deals with the spiritual, which is the real root of our problems.

Maturity does not come easily. Overcomer is like a roadmap to follow. 

Reformation Commentary on Scripture: New Testament XI – Philippians, Colossians



Instead of just consulting something more recent, why not give these ancients a voice at the table?

Reformation Commentary on Scripture: New Testament XI – Philippians, Colossians
Editor: Graham Tomlin
Publisher: IVP Academic (www.ivpress.com)
Pages: 297

The rich devotional insights that grace every page may be the best reason to use any of the volumes in the Reformation Commentary on Scripture series. These ancient Christian commentators are concerned primarily with how Scripture relates to the Christian life. If they were merely engaging in academics it would seem a betrayal of the spirit of their time. Reformers like William Tyndale sought to make the Scriptures accessible to everyone. It reminds me of his famous retort to a bishop that had criticized this life ambition, “If God spare my life, ere many years, I will cause a boy that driveth the plow shall know more of the Scripture than thou doest.” In reading this volume, I get the sense that these commentators are drawing from the deep wells of their own piety as they seek to faithfully expound these texts for the benefit of all, from the ploughman to the highly educated.

Covering Philippians and Colossians, the writers eloquently address favorite topics like righteousness by faith and Christology. In addressing the former, Henry Airay suggests that faith leads God to even reckon desire to our credit, “For such is the fruit of our communion with Christ, that being engrafted into his body and made bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh, through him and for him, our faith in him is accounted to us for righteousness, and our very desire to live godly in this present world is accounted to us for holiness of life. If there were no other proof for this point but this which I speak, that the apostle here reckons the Philippians as having always obeyed, though they lacked much in their obedience, because they believed in Christ and desired to live godly, it would be enough. But the Scriptures everywhere reckon the same” (56). Astonishing! How often has this valuable insight been overlooked?

Is it possible to ever think too highly of Christ? How could finite minds ever fully grasp the glory in whom all the fullness of the Godhead dwells? As Huldrych Zwingli points out, in relation to Christ being the image of God, “By image it means the exact image. That is, he resembles the Father in everything, and not merely like an engraving or a picture” (153). John Owen adds, “He is glorious in this—that he is appointed as the only means of exerting and expressing all the treasures of the infinite wisdom of God toward his creatures” (169).

The perspective of these reformation saints is shaped by their proximity to the events of the reformation. In choosing selections for this series, the editors use passages as far back as the 1400s, and stretch all the way to the mid-seventeenth century. If one was to date it from the time of Luther posting his Ninety-five Theses at Wittenberg in 1517, and ending it with the death of Calvin in Geneva in 1564, this range gives voice to both pre- and post-reformation believers. If the thought in every age is corrected by those outside of it, Christians today can benefit from how their understanding can enrich our own. Just as the Word of God can be like cleansing for the soul, the devout exposition of these commentators can be a source of refreshment in our toxic environment.

Their writings are wordier, but they are also imbued with a loftiness, which is often missing today. Communicators in our time focus on clarity and being practical, which is beneficial. This approach, however, can leave out majesty and beauty because it is not as valued as it was in the past. Older writings like this make even simple truths seem grander. Thankfully, commentators like Michael Card are recognizing the value of nurturing the imagination.
As a Logos Bible Software user, I note that three volumes in the series our available as electronic books, which makes them searchable and adds to their value. Hopefully, the publisher will eventually put the complete set in this format. In any form this scholarship is a worthwhile addition to any library.


Instead of just consulting something more recent, why not give these ancients a voice at the table?

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Awaken Love - Matt Gilman



Gilman captures the imagination with the beauty, majesty and humility of God.

Awaken Love
Artist: Matt Gilman
Label: Forerunner Music (www.forerunnermusic.com)
Length: 11 tracks/55 minutes

On Awaken Love Matt Gilman’s instrument of choice is the piano. The disk label shows Gilman from behind, his hands gracing the ivories. I imagine that this is how many of these studio tracks came to be. Each of these modern worship songs were written or co-written by Gilman. Producer Ed Cash (Chris Tomlin, Kari Jobe, Steven Curtis Chapman, David Crowder) gives this a full sound.  

It’s evident from the lyrical content and delivery, which is saturated with Scripture, that Gilman is earnestly passionate about worship. He seeks to capture the imagination of listeners with the beauty, majesty and humility of God. On “This is My Beloved,” every line is a description of Christ’s loveliness. As C. H. Spurgeon wrote, “Every attribute of God should become a fresh ray in the sunlight of our gladness.”

Gilman’s piano playing lends elegance to the quieter tracks like “Though You Were Rich,” and the ending “Closer,” which are both stripped-down. The latter is just piano and a stringed instrument. The former was written as a four stanza hymn that covers the life of Christ. Both are favorites. I would like to hear more of this side of Gilman but recognize the need for the welcome diversity found on this release.

Those looking for anthems will not be disappointed. The piano playing frequently gives way to a crescendo of rock. The opening “As the Deer,” mines most of Psalm 84 before breaking into a driving chorus taken from Psalm 42. It’s also one example of Gilman drawing from multiple passages.

I like the combination of powerful sentiment and captivating music expressed in the bridge near the end of “New Jerusalem”: “I love the day of Your appearing / I want to hasten Your return / The Spirit and bride say come for Your beloved ones.” It reflects a healthy and holy attitude.

The opening lines of “Eyes of Mercy,” accented with a little hip-hop percussion, serve as a clear expression of God’s grace, “My heart is dark, but You say I am lovely / My shame is gone for I know that I am beautiful in Your eyes / Nothing can take me away from You / I’m Yours.”

This is the first solo album from this former International House of Prayer of Kansas City worship leader. Gilman, his wife Alexia, and their twin sons are becoming part of the Orlando House of Prayer.

His song, “Holy,” which is featured on this release, was recorded by Kari Jobe and Kim Walker of Jesus Culture.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

The World is Waking Limited Edition - Unspoken



“Good fruit demands a good tree” (J. H. Jowett)

The World is Waking Limited Edition
Artist: Unspoken (www.unspoken.com)
Label: Centricity Music
Length: 10 tracks/34 minutes

What surprised me about The World is Waking by Unspoken are the soulful vocals of lead singer Chad Mattson. His tone and style remind me of Jimmy Needham. The R&B influence adds distinction to the band’s pop/rock sound.

The opening “Lift My Life Up,” summarizes the sense of abandon that ties the release together. The album clearly points to God as being the source of every need and celebrates His provision.

It starts with a bang. On the opening, “Lift My Life Up,” there is a pause just before the thud of a drum launches a chorus of guys shouting, “I lift, I lift my life up / I give it all in surrender / I lift my heart, I lift my heart up / You can have it forever / All my dreams / All my plans / Lord, I leave it in your Hands. Have your way.” It’s a catchy chorus. Listeners that know hymns also hear a line that may sound familiar but with an updated ending, “Take my life and let it be … all for you.”

Some songs, like the title track, convey the sense of peace that comes from placing all in God’s hands (“In Your Hands”) and leaving old ways behind (“Walking Away”).  

The rhyming wordplay on “Walking Away” makes it memorable, “I’m walking away from the trouble / Walking away on the double.” It highlights the decisive nature of repentance.

If there was a time when the organ fell out of use in popular music, I am thankful for its return. It adds warmth to the chorus of “In Your Hands.”

The three aforementioned songs are part of the first five tracks, which are produced by Seth Moseley. Moseley and Jason Ingram, both well-known and respected in the industry, are co-writers on “Lift My Life Up” and “Walking Away.”

The production and writing on the second set of songs is no less engaging. “Just to Get to Me” is a bittersweet highlight, “Sometimes You shatter dreams / You tear down walls / You wake me up when I’m half asleep / Just to get to me / You shower me when I don’t deserve / You never hold back anything, no / Just to get to me.”

“Who You Are” affirms that it’s never too late to change, “You can never fall too hard, so fast, so far that you can’t get back when you’re lost / Where you are is never too late, so bad, so much that you can’t change who you are.” 


J. H. Jowett wrote, “When the soul is ‘true,’ all our words, and deeds, and gestures will be ‘of the truth,’ and will be true indeed.” Undone make the tree good; the songs are the good fruit. This encourages listeners to be right at the Source. When we are, the offspring will be faith, hope and love.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Radiate - Tricia


Radiate fills a void of encouragement, especially for girls and young women, to rise above cultural norms.

Radiate
Artist: Tricia
Label: Inpop Records
Length: 12 tracks/39:58 minutes

As I listened to the words of “Everything as Loss,” the opening track on Radiate by Tricia, my heart leaped for joy. More than all the mixed messages that we get on the radio, this is what I want to hear. This has the familiar big beats and electronics, but most compelling, a mature spiritual perspective.

The opening line expresses it well through seldom used sarcasm, “What I want / What I need / Has got me running after the temporary / Like the stuff that I get will make me complete.” I want to laugh out loud at hearing what I know to be true said in such a funny way. Oh, for a revolution in radio where we get such a winsome combination of truth and creativity.

The booming chorus provides an alternative to fleeting pursuits, “Let my life prove that compared to what you finished on the cross / I count everything as loss.” It’s amazing how such monumental truth can fit so well in a pop song. This song deserves a wide audience.

Some tracks deal specifically with identity, image and esteem issues for girls and young women. The chorus of “Mirror Mirror” is adapted from the old fairy tale, “Mirror mirror on the wall / Do you really think you know it all / You don’t know me / You don’t own me / Mirror mirror on the wall / It doesn’t matter what you think at all / We’re more than just a reflection / Because when I look at you / All I see is beautiful.” This reminds listeners that each person is an individual, an original, made in God’s image and loved by Him. Beauty is more than superficial features.

“Good to be a Girl” mixes attitude and humor in marching orders for an “army dressed-up all in pink.” Girls need not be ashamed of being different. In a call and response section, even the guys are asked if they get it.

A different side of Tricia is expressed on “Love Will Not Let Me Go” and “What I Know,” which are serious keyboard-driven ballads. Both provide comfort.

The biggest, most delightful surprise is “Without You,” a folk-infused praise song. Banjo and handclaps add to a gentle driving sound. I am glad that artists like Mumford & Sons have popularized this style. Otherwise, what may be my favorite might not have shown up on this release.

Tricia is the lead-singer for Superchick. Radiate is a collaboration with her producer-husband, Nick Baumhardt (Stellar Kart), who co-wrote many of the songs.

Role models fall short, just as we all do. Radiate fills a void of encouragement, especially for girls and young women, to rise above cultural norms.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Scarecrow - Decyfer Down



Hard-driving music is a perfect match for expressing righteous anger.

Scarecrow
Artist: Decyfer Down (www.decyferdown.com)
Label: FAIRTRADE SERVICES
Length: 10 tracks/34 minutes

Scarecrow by Decyfer Down is hard music with heart. Though it can be blistering in sound and sentiment, it subtly expresses a Christian worldview. “Say hello to agony,” listeners hear, of someone who crosses boundaries that God has established.

“Westboro” had me wondering about its significance. Where have I heard of it? It starts with a fast hard rock riff, quickly joined by pounding drums. Listeners hear the unsettling lines which provide a clue, “Hey man, that’s my brother’s grave you’re spitting on/Hey man, this is hallowed ground/You don’t belong/Just go back to Westboro, baby/Where they love to hate.” This refers to the church by the same name that has become infamous for protests. The hard-driving music is a perfect match for the expression of righteous anger.

This rage, which the band expresses so powerfully, continues on the title track. The target is a modern day Pharisee. This provides commentary on the cover, which depicts a scarecrow, New Testament in pocket, but a heart filled with greed, envy and hate. It’s a person who is more concerned about maintaining their self-made righteousness than helping their fellows escape the mire of sin. This confronts without coming across as judgmental. Hard music complements hard truths.

“The River” is a change-up. It starts with acoustic guitar and builds into something decidedly southern. As in Scripture, water is used to depict the burial of the old life and rising to the new.

The closing, “So in Love,” removes any doubt about the band’s allegiance. They openly reference God in this powerful fusion of modern rock and worship.

Absent in this recording is the doom and hopelessness that overshadows this genre. The band chronicles the struggle between light and dark without the heaviness of spirit that might leave someone in despair. The production is precise without being sterile. Others plow similar ground but this harvest is a delight.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Morning Rises - Aaron Shust



“Praising God is like pushing aside the clouds.”

Morning Rises
Artist: Aaron Shust (www.aaronshust.com)
Label: Centricity Music
Length: 12 songs/45 minutes

“Morning Rises,” the title track of Aaron Shust’s latest, dawns with a series of cascading and echoing sounds. This segues into “God of Brilliant Lights,” a powerful anthem that provides a beautiful word-picture of God’s love: “He’s shining over us/Like the morning rises” (2 Peter 1:19).

The cover depicts beams of light slicing through layers of clouds that obscure a lush, green landscape. “Praising God is like pushing aside the clouds, allowing the Light of the Sun to pierce its way into my darkness,” Shust writes in the closing line of the liner notes.

Morning Rises is filled with praise that extols God’s majesty. If you have ever seen something like the Grand Teton mountain-range in Wyoming, you get a sense of that attribute, but Scripture tells us that God is more majestic, “Glorious are you, more majestic than the mountains of prey” (Psalm 76:4 ESV). Repeated declarations of God’s character and truth serve to elevate our minds to the reality that “Our God reigns!” This is reinforced by a band that provides epic sounds worthy of God’s grandeur.

It’s what makes “Deliver Me,” like a quiet respite from the tracks that thunder. It starts with just Shultz and his guitar and remains subdued throughout. It’s an earnest and vulnerable prayer, “Deliver me/Even when I am afraid (Psalm 56:3)/When the world around me shakes/I know You will never change” (James 1:17). The mood is trusting and hopeful.

This also includes the popular, “Cornerstone,” which combines lyrics from an ancient hymn with new words and music. It’s an excellent, straightforward rendition.

“Satisfy” has a starkness to it that captures the sentiment drawn from Psalm 63:1, “In a dry and thirsty land/You are the water.” The barren landscape of sound and the note of desperation reinforce the thought that only God will satisfy.

Shust sings all things well including the closing, new folk influenced, “Firm Foundation.” 

Morning Rises is fresh evidence that there is more to Shust then “My Savior My God,” which earned him three Dove awards in 2007 for “Song of the Year,” “Songwriter of the Year,” and “New Artist of the Year.” I like everything here as much and more than that celebrated song.


Produced by Ed Cash (Chris Tomlin, Steven Curtis Chapman, Bebo Norman), this is Shust’s fifth album and the second consecutive one produced by Cash.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Matthew: The Gospel of Identity - Michael Card



Michael Card uses an economy of words to convey the essential in Matthew’s gospel of identity.

Matthew: The Gospel of Identity
Author: Michael Card
Publisher: IVP Books (www.ivpress.com)
Pages: 267

“Matthew’s Gospel is about identity, about discarding the old, incomplete identities that enslave us and receiving a radical new identity. It is not your Jewish or rabbinic self, or your tax-collecting self. You are not defined by the old orthodoxy, but by the new reality. All of the old, false, incomplete identities must go and be swallowed up in a new organizing principle. It is about surrendering whatever citizenship you define your identity by and becoming a citizen of the new kingdom, whose king is Jesus,” (22) writes Michael Card introducing his third of four commentaries on the gospels.

What Card has so meticulously done in his music, he brings to the printed page. He points out that Matthew contains five large blocks of Jesus’ sayings, which occasionally may seem unconnected. Through background information, careful analysis and a sanctified use of imagination Card helps readers not to lose sight of the story. It’s easy to miss the forest when you focus too much on individual trees. I’m grateful that Card vividly brings the text to life through engaging narrative.

In his concluding thoughts on Matthew chapter one, Card ties the pertinent elements of the beginning story to the theme, “As the first hearers of Matthew’s Gospel sat listening in the synagogue, once again the theme has been touched upon that the Gentiles have a stake in the ministry of Jesus from the very beginning. The magi, who had come so far risking their very lives, are the first to recognize the dignity of Jesus and to offer him worship. Though the priests and experts in the Law know the facts about where the Messiah would be born, they missed out on the reality of who he was. Matthew’s first hearers are being encouraged not to miss out on who Jesus is, even though they, as Jews, know all the facts as well” (36).

Card succeeds in this and his other commentaries in creating a series that is highly readable but also scholarly. His comments on John the Baptist, are but one example of his consistent clarity: “His (John’s) primary mission was to make the Israelites aware of their personal sin and to urge them to respond in repentance and baptism. That is how one prepares the way for the Lord.… He is clearly the fulfillment of Malachi’s closing promise that in the last days Elijah would come (Mal 4:5-6)” (39).  

Even in the foregoing one can see how he unpacks meaning with a minimum of application, which can be a plus. An overemphasis on application can come at the expense of meaning. The first priority is to understand what the text teaches. Application then follows. Card leaves room for readers to draw their own conclusions.

He gets at the heart of Matthew’s gospel, even if at times one might like him to go further. In Matthew 24, for example, he divides the text by two questions, “When will these things happen?” and “What is the sign of Your coming and of the end of the age?” In answer to the first question, “From verse 15 to 25, Jesus prophesied the coming destruction of Jerusalem, an event he will characterize primarily as something from which a person can flee” (211).  He broadly summarizes the passage noting, “With verse 29, everything changes. The image is no longer earthly—in fact, it becomes apocalyptic. Jesus opens his second answer with two quotes from Isaiah (Is 13:10; 34:4). The signs are cosmic; they involve the sun, moon and stars” (212). These summaries are apt, but if you want to know something about the reference to “one will be taken and one left,” you will need to turn to a reference that goes into more detail.
 
That goes beyond the scope of this book, which is to make Matthew’s themes and teachings accessible to a broad audience. This, in part, is written for those who never imagined reading a commentary. In their minds, such an undertaking might be like reading through a dictionary. Fear not! This volume is not a cure for insomnia. It won’t strike terror or generate loathing in those who see reading as little more than weariness.

This is excellent at providing context and contrasting the differences between the other gospels. It is a suitable companion for a more exhaustive commentary that one can use to more fully explore individual verses.

If you have been a fan of his music, this is your chance to become more of an admirer of Card’s way with words. For me, that’s what makes his music so special. The same gift is in operation here, and it blossoms as it does not have the same constraints as a three to four minute song. Card’s music has always led to the text. Now listeners have a ready source to learn more about it by availing themselves of this or one of his other fine written works. If you have not noticed, Card has become a prolific author.

Rich Mullins may be right about songs being remembered more than sermons, but writings can often more fully develop and expound on the riches that are found in Christ. Card’s books are a natural extension of his music, and hopefully, he will continue to encourage the body of Christ with both expressions.

As with the other commentaries, Card has recorded a CD that encompasses the content of this gospel. If I receive Matthew: The Penultimate Question from the publisher, I will review it separately. However, on the basis of the previous CD releases in this series, I can safely say that it will be worth having.


Look for John: The Gospel of Wisdom in 2014.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Larnelle Live in Nashville - Larnelle Harris



This recreates memorable moments in gospel music history.

Larnelle Live in Nashville (www.larnelle.com)
Limited Edition DVD & CD
Featuring: Larnelle Harris, Steve Amerson, Steve Green and Sandi Patty
Approximate Running Times: DVD – 90 minutes, CD – 12 tracks, 60 minutes

When I think of Larnelle Harris, what comes to mind is his 1984 duet with Sandi Patty, “More than Wonderful,” which earned them a Grammy Award. Through the years that memorable performance has stayed with me. How fitting that they should be reunited on this CD/DVD for a new duet, “Then Came the Morning,” and “I’ve Just Seen Jesus,” which gave the duo another Grammy in 1986. Any recollection of great moments in gospel history should include the contribution that these two have made together as well as individually.

The CD and DVD are mostly the same, differing in only minor ways. The DVD captures Harris and Patty performing “Then Came the Morning,” in the studio, which is one of the highlights. The concert version is found on the CD.

All clad in tuxedos, Harris sings with Steve Green and Steve Amerson on “It is Well with My Soul,” and “Kings of the Earth.” On the latter they powerfully highlight the transitory rule of the kingdoms of this world. It makes me think of decaying monuments lying in forgotten wastelands.

Despite some minor problems in the DVD sound mix, consisting of occasional poorly-sounding applause and the bass being too prominent at times, the DVD is preferable to the CD. Listeners of the CD don’t get to see how demonstrative Harris can be, which enhances the listening experience.

The DVD also includes “Teach Me to Love,” a concept video recorded with Steve Green during their younger days. It’s another satisfying duet. This break in the performance is not included on the CD.

It is a wonder that each singer retains so much strength and dynamic range in their vocals. I can’t help but think that part of it is due to a godly lifestyle and their obvious desire to glorify God with their talent. I am not as familiar with Steve Amerson, but his voice may be the most powerful.

The songs include Harris doing one medley of his most popular tracks and another of some praise-oriented hymn classics. New and old songs serve as strong declarations of faith. There are no watered-down sentiments here. The selection is excellent.

“The Greatest of These,” written by Scott Krippanye, Tony Wood and Steve Siler, is an inspired adaptation of 1 Corinthians 13. It covers the entire chapter. Harris’ eloquent rendition reminds listeners of what matters most.

The concert was recorded in the Trinity Broadcasting Network’s studios and must have aired on the network. The DVD occasionally shows a website address for Harris, which would have been better to omit. The slight imperfections in editing and mixing make this seem less professional, but these are insignificant problems that many might not notice.

I respect each of the artists, who perform here at extraordinary levels, but the inspirational style, which can sometimes border on the grandiose, is not my favorite. It may be indicative of a bias for less production. Fans of these artists, however, should not be disappointed. Several times the audience is moved to stand and applaud.


This event documents some highlights in several notable careers. It serves as a tribute to their legacies and shows that they still have their song. 

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Evil and the Justice of God (paperback edition) - N. T. Wright



This is a useful resource for living in anticipation of “all shall be well.”

Evil and the Justice of God (paperback edition)
Author: N. T. Wright
Publisher: IVP Books (www.ivpress.com)
Pages: 176

The now available paperback version of Evil and the Justice of God by N. T. Wright is just as relevant and engrossing as it was in 2006 when the hardcover made its debut. Written in the aftermath of tragedies like 9/11 and natural disasters like the Indian Ocean tsunami and the Gulf Coast hurricane, there has been no cessation of horrific events, particularly ones that involve gun violence or bombs. Despite the continuing onslaught and the passage of time, society hardly seems closer to coming to grips with and restraining evil.

This book can serve as a call and challenge to the Church to take the lead in finding a way forward. It is only in the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ that God has dealt a decisive blow to the problem of evil, making the way for everything to eventually be put right. Between now and the time when all shall be made well is what can be so troublesome.

Wright acknowledges the futility of two extremes that capture the imagination: the utopian dream of progress and the temptation for evangelicals to think that it will only get worse; there is nothing to do but make the best of it until Jesus returns.

This book presents us with a much grander view, worthy of the God, who not only desires to save souls but has begun the process of righting wrong through his people, whom he desires to live in the unfolding reality of his rule.

Wright gets practical as he briefly outlines ways that Christians can engage the world and make a difference. This goes beyond personal holiness and evangelizing. It also includes encouraging and helping the powers that be, in the words of the Old Testament prophet, to do justice and to love mercy.   

I appreciate how Wright even brings art into the equation. The Christian imagination needs to be educated to understand how what we create can play a role in God’s grand scheme of redemption. “Art at its best not only draws attention to the way things are but to the way things are meant to be, and by God’s grace to the way things one day will be, when the earth is filled with the knowledge of God as the water covers the sea. And when Christian artists go to that task they will be contributing to the integration of heart, mind and soul which we seek, to which we are called. They will be pointing forward to the new world God intends to make, to the world already seen in advance in the resurrection of Jesus, to the world whose charter of freedom was won when he died on the cross. It is by such means as this that we may learn to imagine a world without evil and to work for that world to become, in whatever measure we can, a reality even in the midst of the present evil age” (128).

The book concludes with an overview of the central role forgiveness plays on a practical level in dealing with evil. There is nothing cheap, weak or unjust about it. Wright uses and commends three books that go deeper on the subject: Exclusion and Embrace by Miroslav Volf, which he extols as “one of the finest works of Christian Theology written in the last decade,” Embodying Forgiveness by L. Gregory Janes, and lastly, Desmond Tutu’s No Future Without Forgiveness.

For those whose interest includes details of the afterlife and the fate of the wicked, these subjects lie outside the scope of this book. The thrust is the cross of Christ and all its implications for the here and now and the future new heavens and earth.

I am glad that I read this book for a second time. It’s breadth and depth in so few pages on what is vital is amazing. I understand better one aspect of Wright’s handling of what he calls “the satan.” He prefers not to give the Christian’s adversary the dignity of personhood. It’s this supernatural element of evil and spiritual realities that will make it hard for the world to ever deal with evil in the most appropriate ways. Again, this is where the Church can take the lead and make a difference. We cannot convince the world of unseen realities, but we can serve as a living demonstration of God’s victory over evil through the reality of the cross of Christ.


Even if one might not agree with Wright on some of the doctrinal positions that he holds, his writing, as always, is wonderfully stimulating. He remains a thoughtful, scholarly observer of Scripture and the world. This is a useful resource for living in anticipation of “all shall be well.”

Saturday, June 29, 2013

All the People Said Amen - Matt Maher



Maher’s Boss-like worship further solidifies him as one of the finest in the field.

All the People Said Amen
Artist: Matt Maher (www.mattmahermusic.com)
Label: Essential Records
Length: 13 tracks/66:32 minutes

If Bruce Springsteen decided to make a “worship” album, I can imagine it sounding a little like All the People Said Amen by Matt Maher. Maher is known for songs like “Your Grace is Enough,” and here, in mostly live settings, his delivery of signature songs and new material is raw and even aggressive. Though there are intimate moments with appropriate reverence, much of this has an air of boldness and confidence. Muscular backing from a band that rocks and an exuberant audience make it a boisterous affair. The Boss might approve, but this is directed to please the One to whom all glory, honor and praise rightfully belong. It’s apparent that Maher and the crowd are enjoying themselves, and it shows that worship can be a joyful experience.

Even though I favor quieter moments, I appreciate that this compares favorably both musically and lyrically with anything in the marketplace. Maher has become a favorite for his songwriting depth and artistic sensibilities. There may be many ways to worship, but this is one way to do it right. It combines a little of the singer/songwriter muse with the best in rock.

Even so, Maher is not afraid to reach back into the past for inspiration. On the worshipful, “Mighty Fortress,” one of the few studio songs, Maher adds words and music to verses by Thomas Aquinas.

The opening title track, a studio gem, has a catchy rhythm and a theme that captures the universal need for grace. This is one of Maher’s finest songs. If I could only download one song, this is it.

“Lord, I Need You” is intriguing for a couple of reasons. It borrows a little from the chorus of a beloved hymn, “I Need Thee Hour.” That alone makes it worth hearing. It also includes, fellow Catholic, Audrey Assad on backing vocals. What John Michael Talbot has been to inspirational music, bridging the Catholic/Protestant divide, Maher and Assad are becoming to the modern worship movement. They have broad appeal; their music is appreciated as much or more by non-Catholics.


Those not familiar with Maher may be surprised at the number of familiar anthems found here. Maher writes with some of the best in the genre. He is an artist to follow, especially for those who engage in modern worship.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Only a Shadow: Misty Edwards Live CD & DVD



A wideness in God’s mercy; a wildness in His Love

Only a Shadow: Misty Edwards Live CD & DVD
Artist: Misty Edwards
Label: Forerunner Music (www.ihopkc.org/music)
Length: 14 tracks/73:18 minutes

A spirit of sacrifice animates Only a Shadow: Misty Edwards Live CD & DVD. It’s as if all is on the altar, which is when the song of the Lord begins, giving this an indefinable quality that some may liken to anointing. It sounds truly inspired at times.

This could be considered alternative worship. It features cutting-edge music, exudes radical devotion and has a touch of spontaneity. The latter includes a couple of improvised songs. This in part reflects the charismatic influence of the International House of Prayer, which is the setting. There is no reason for concern if you are not of the same persuasion. There is no glossolalia or speaking in tongues, though some of the spontaneous utterances may seem a bit rambling.

Edwards has a dynamic vocal range. Her voice is tender and beautiful on ballads. It’s strong and powerful when the band rocks.

The supporting cast of musicians is excellent. The instrumental “Selah (When You Think of Me), which borders on progressive rock, as on other segments, showcases their talents.

The title song contains impressive variation. When Edwards breaks into the chorus, the resolve in the music is powerful. It’s followed by a melodious guitar interlude that reminds me of some of the fluid lines played by Phil Keaggy.

My favorite is “I Love Your Ways.” It combines a winsome melody with the chorus, “I love your ways/your beautiful ways/I love your yoke of meekness and lowliness/I love your ways.” It captures in song some of the tension between flesh and spirit; the struggle that becomes rest when submitting to God’s will. It’s like the crowning achievement, even though the album closes with the driving rock of “Between the Cherubim.”

Even though I have a charismatic background, I was somewhat wary about what I might find here. I need to remember that there is no fear in love. There is a wideness in God’s mercy that encompasses many temperaments and persuasions. Modern worship does not have to be tame. It can be a reflection of the wildness in God’s love.


The DVD mirrors the CD content. 

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission - Amy Simpson



The mentally ill wear stigma like a scarlet letter, but Christ can make it a badge of honor.

Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission
Author: Amy Simpson
Publisher: IVP Books (www.ivpress.com)
Pages: 221

Troubled Minds by Amy Simpson was a must read. My on and off relationship with Dave, who suffers from mental illness, left me looking for help. Relating to troubled minds is rewarding, but it can also be frustrating and draining. This book did not disappoint as a reference and guide on a subject that has often been neglected and misunderstood by the church. This goes a long way towards bringing clarity and wisdom.

The author is more than a researcher presenting her findings. She shares openly about her mother’s battle with mental illness and how it affected her family. It is troubling to read how her mom, a pastor’s wife, turned from her faith and wound up on the streets before being incarcerated. When you read accounts like this, or when I think of Christians who have Alzheimer’s, perplexing questions begin to multiply. How does this relate to God’s promise to keep and care for his children? Why must this be? What will be the outcome?

Fortunately, I kept reading. Simpson’s family story does not end badly. The author succeeds in providing a comprehensive overview of this subject from a Christian perspective. The wisdom found in these pages will be a source of comfort for those who struggle and for those who serve a population that is underserved.

I came away with greater compassion, which is no small accomplishment. I like how Matthew 9:36 in the King James Version speaks of Jesus, “But when he saw the multitudes, he was moved with compassion on them, because they fainted, and were scattered abroad, as sheep having no shepherd.” Christ was moved with compassion. When you catch in these pages a glimpse of the harassed and helpless, who may be like sheep without a shepherd, don’t be surprised if the Spirit of Christ moves you with compassion.

One of the rewards of this book is seeing what the church should be in relation to the mentally ill. Simpson often shows where we fall short, but she does not browbeat. She instructs out of the compassion born of experience and learning.

It would be helpful if at least one member of every ministerial staff could read this book and be familiar with the contents. I recommend it for every church and theological library. It points the way forward for the church to do better. It also provides resource information for those wanting to start a ministry to the mentally ill.

They wear stigma like a scarlet letter, but Christ can make it a badge of honor. I saw this with my friend, Dave, who asked me to write his testimony (see the article at the end of this review). Even though he liked what I wrote, he was fearful of being associated with it. He wants others to know what Christ has done, but disclosures like this often lead to the mentally ill being judged and ostracized, even in the church.   

When asked what this book is about, I mentioned in the presence of a non-Christian that it is an encouragement for the church to reach out to the mentally ill including the depressed. In reply, she remarked, “That’s good because a depressed person is not going to come to you.” Although that may be true, change is possible. This book contains stories and testimonies of churches that have successful ministries that are like magnets attracting the mentally ill. People are drawn to the supportive atmosphere.

The author is careful to point out that the church should not expect a quick fix for those who suffer in this way. This involves a long term commitment. Too often someone who does not get better in a few weeks, months or years may experience subtle rejection. Someone with this disease may struggle for a lifetime. It may be more realistic to think in terms of management rather than cure. It’s not enough to just refer people to specialists. The mentally ill need the support that only the church can provide.

This book shows that mental illness is more widespread than most people realize. It’s an overlooked ministry that is challenging but rewarding for all concerned. For those interested in the possibilities, this book is a fine starting place.  

Michael Dalton


Crazy for God! (David’s testimony)

Crazy for God! You may laugh or think me foolish, but since 1977 I have been mentally ill.  It’s a stigma I often bear, but Christ has turned it into a badge of honor. I don’t have to be ashamed. Mental illness is not a moral failure.

It was a trait that I inherited, and my home life was far from ideal. I witnessed promiscuity; my dad took me to an x-rated movie when I was only 16. But it was being rejected by a woman that triggered manic-depression and schizophrenia.

Since then many people have come and gone. I have seen the inside of hospitals and psychiatric wards. I am misunderstood and rejected even by other Christians. Although I should be able to find a place in a church, I still find myself searching to connect with people.

But this is what makes Jesus so precious to me. Since I trusted Him in 1975, he has never left me. Even more, he has given me a heart to share the good news that all may come to him for forgiveness and freedom. Who would guess that Christ would give me a ministry of evangelism?

I have lived in many places over the years. Everywhere I go I tell people about Jesus. I have given away hundreds of tracts, and I ever long for fellowship with God’s people. How many are fortunate to have that kind of love?

God put it there. His Son was no stranger to rejection. He knew scorn and abuse. When dying, after being nailed to a cross, he prayed “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34 ESV). Though I express it imperfectly, this is the love that God has given me. Though others may mistreat or forsake me, I keep reaching out.

Though I have wanted to marry, at least for now, Christ has given me the gift of celibacy. The 40-year-old virgin has nothing on me. I have been one for over 55 years. It’s been a struggle at times, but even when I feel lonely or discouraged, Christ stands beside me.

He’s the friend that walks in when everyone else walks out. He picks me up when I fall. He’s given me a love for the Scriptures. His Word is a continual comfort and makes me feel like I have a treasure that many people know nothing about.

I am not crazy, just crazy for God. It’s why you are reading this article. I want you to know the God who will love you no matter what. Just turn from going your own way and entrust your life to Christ. As Christian recording artist Evie sang in an old song, “Live for Jesus, that’s what matters/that you see the light in me and come along.”


David

Friday, May 24, 2013

Amy Grant - How Mercy Looks from Here


If we could only see, how it might change our perspective.

How Mercy Looks from Here
Artist: Amy Grant
Label: Capitol Christian Music Group
Length: 11 tracks/42 minutes

Scottish minister Robert Murray McCheyne said, “If I could hear Christ praying for me in the next room, I would not fear a million enemies. Yet distance makes no difference. He is praying for me: ‘He ever liveth to make intercession.’” On How Mercy Looks from Here, Amy Grant applies a similar thought on “If I Could See (What the Angels See)”: “If I could see what the angels see/behind the walls to you and me/and let the truth set me free/I’d live this life differently.” This is the first of several songs that provoke listeners to look behind what is seen to the unseen. The eyes of faith see their inheritance in Christ, and it’s not just future. Time and distance make no difference. If we can only see, how it might change our perspective. How we might live differently.

The bruised reed and the smoldering wick will find compassion and solace. This is especially the case on “Don’t Try So Hard,” which includes harmony vocals from James Taylor. The song exudes the rest that Jesus promised the weary. If I could only have one song, this is it!

Guest appearances also include Carole King supplying harmony vocals on the snappy, whimsical “Our Time is Now.” Time rushes on; “let us sing before our time runs out.”

Sheryl Crow and Eric Paslay trade lines with Grant on the gospel-tinged “Deep as it is Wide.” This takes a stirring look at what awaits the faithful.

I was eager to hear Grant collaborate with some of the artists that she has admired. A slight disappointment is having Taylor and King only harmonizing. I would have enjoyed hearing them sing a few words on their own, but I am glad for their contribution. I would like to see more Christian artists collaborating with mainstream artists. It can be beneficial to everyone, and surely God’s heart is to draw people together.

The music leans toward acoustic pop with a hint of country. Whether acoustic or electric, the guitar work is excellent. At least in part, credit goes to husband Vince Gill, whose presence is felt here in a way similar to previous releases.

Grant’s songwriting is always a strength, and it’s lovely on this CD. The somewhat rustic, laid-back music fits well with the homespun sentiments. The honesty, affirmation and love mirror the kind of support often found in recovery groups. At the same time, it is also sobering and wistful. This does not have the fanfare of earlier work, but I find it more rewarding. If the former had flashes of excitement, this is more like settled peace. This could easily become my favorite of all Grant’s recordings.

Jesus, Firm Foundation: Hymns of Worship



Remakes hymns for a new generation just as 2nd Chapter of Acts did many years ago

Jesus, Firm Foundation: Hymns of Worship
Various Artists
Label: Provident
Length: 12 tracks/51:09 minutes

When the 2nd Chapter of Acts released Hymns (1986), it became their best-selling release and received a Dove Award for “Best Praise and Worship Album of the Year” in 1987. It set the bar high for the many similar recordings that followed. What makes it somewhat unique is that it appealed to fans of both pop and inspirational music.

Now come with me to 2013 and the release of Jesus, Firm Foundation: Hymns of Worship. A number of popular artists take turns creatively remaking a classic hymn. The appeal is clearly for those who like pop/rock. Guitars are in the forefront, and those looking for more traditional interpretations are better served elsewhere. Even so, each artist is respectful of the material; in particular, when words are added to create a bridge or chorus where none existed. Purists might not like this idea, but it modernizes and adds a new element. This succeeds from start to finish in making a classic sound fresh. 

It opens strongly with Mike Donehey (Tenth Avenue North), Steven Curtis Chapman, Mark Hall (Casting Crowns) and Mandisa trading vocals on “Jesus, Firm Foundation.” It works so well that I wonder if the release could have been benefited from other collaborations. As it is, each of the other hymns is handled by a separate artist.

As much as I might enjoy the resurrection of obscure but lyrically rich texts, this is a collection of widely-known standards. These artists are building on a firm foundation.

Aside from enjoying hymn releases, I wanted to review this for the opportunity of hearing Nichole Nordeman, who has not had a studio release of new material since Brave (2005). Most likely, she has been busy with parenting. She, Matt Maher (who continues to rise in my estimation) and Chris Stevens wrote a full set of stanzas to Turn Your Eyes upon Jesus. This will especially appeal to those who feel somewhat shattered by the world (who doesn’t at times?). The lyrics repeatedly encourage listeners to turn in their brokenness to Christ. Song writing has always been one of Nordeman’s strengths, and she does not disappoint, even if the music is not as compelling. I hope she continues to enrich us with her gifts.

Michael W. Smith packs several songs worth of creativity into “All Hail the Power of Jesus Name.” This is an effective blend of styles, which showcases his skill as a composer and arranger without taking away from the song. Kari Jobe’s singing is just right on “Be Still My Soul (In You I Trust),” which makes me want to discover more of her music. The power in the original lines remains undiminished.

One of the most interesting arrangements is “Nothing but the Blood,” by Andy Cherry. It is clearly informed by the new folk sound (Mumford & Sons immediately comes to mind). It closes with a brief instrumental segment, which is my favorite part.


It would be easy to comment further on the rest of the recording. Suffice it to say that this is worth getting if you want to experience the richness of hymns in a modern setting. Like 2nd Chapter’s Hymns, it shows the value of remaking classic songs.

The Legacy - Michael Phillips

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