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.  

Overflow - Hannah Kerr

Young women leading the way Overflow Artist: Hannah Kerr ( www.hannahkerrmusic.com ) Label: Black River Christian Length: ...