Tuesday, November 14, 2017

The Legacy - Michael Phillips

Passing on a vision of life with God

The Legacy (Secrets of the Shetlands, Book 3)
Author: Michael Phillips (www.fatheroftheinklings.com)
Publisher: Bethany House Publishers (www.bethanyhouse.com)
Pages: 451

I normally would not think of starting with the last book in a three volume series. I hesitated, wondering if I should seek to acquire the first. I received a review copy, and instead of seeking to acquire the first two books, I decided to start with what was provided. Now that I have finished it, I don’t feel like I have lost out by not starting at the beginning. Like any volume in a series, it should be written well enough to stand alone. The Legacy by Michael Phillips does not disappoint in that regard, nor on other levels.

Phillips and his wife Judy spend time each year in Scotland. So Phillips writes with meticulous detail about life in the fictitious Whales Reef set in the Shetland Islands, right down to the foods, plants and customs. J. R. Tolkien has been rightly lauded for creating such a fully-realized alternate world in The Lord of the Rings. Although this series is not fantasy, I applaud Phillips for doing something similar in creating such a true-to-life story in modern and pre-modern settings.

This tale flips back and forth between the beginning of the twenty-first century and the early to mid twentieth century. The time periods are tied together by the stories of two families and their ancestors: one in America and the other in the Shetlands. At times the continual back and forth was hard for me to follow, but I think it’s more of a challenge for me than a problem on the part of the author. It’s all well done, and the chapter headings make the time and place clear. Plus, the chapters are short in length, which makes for easier reading. As I have said before, Phillips is an excellent writer. I enjoy reading his books just for the writing alone, but fortunately he offers much more than that.

You get two grand, sweeping love stories, which develop slowly, but are ultimately worthwhile, especially towards the end. If you like rich character development, you find it here. I was captivated by the villain that readers meet towards the end.

In a time when even the best of our race can seem sullied just by being in this world, we meet honorable characters facing real-life situations. Don’t believe that fiction is just escapist entertainment and has nothing to offer.

This book highlights what really matters: themes of family, love and most importantly, passing on a spiritual legacy. The inheritance of land, as important as that may be, is symbolic of something deeper, as Phillips writes of the father of one of the main characters:

For him the land was life. It was a legacy that had been passed down to him and that was his responsibility to love and protect and pass along to his descendants with the same devotion. It is what he called the Deuteronomy legacy. The land was a biblical symbol for something deepera permanent family legacy that can only be passed down from fathers to their sons and daughters (359).

That legacy is “the spiritual vision of life with God.”

This thought is bolstered by the interest the author shows in Quaker spirituality. The first reference highly esteems it:

Among America’s Christian denominations, Quakers had always been at the vanguard of progressive thinking. Had it not been his own ancestor, Quaker John Woolman, who had awakened the American conscience against slavery fully a century before the Civil War? Quakers, too, were socially ahead of their time in respect of women and their standing in the world (26).

A little further on we find two Quaker literary references. The first pertains to Hannah Whithall Smith’s autobiography. The second is her book A Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life, regarded as a Christian classic.

I delight in the literary references sprinkled throughout these pages. Of course, Phillips would be remiss, if he did not make some mention of the beloved Scotsman, George MacDonald. He and C. S. Lewis have been his mentors in writing and the spiritual life.

Being a book lover, I appreciate the thought that passing on one’s books can be part of sharing one’s faith with future generations. We can be enriched by the writings of those who have gone before.

Having authored more than seventy books, Phillips is at the top of his craft. His maturity makes me hope for even more books to come. His vision of life with God is helpful and instructive.

Check out the website (link provided after author’s name at beginning of review) to find fiction and nonfiction that you might enjoy reading. 

Thursday, November 2, 2017

The Porter's Gate Volume 1 - A Live Worship Record

“A light that beckons world-weary strangers to come in and find rest.”

The Porter’s Gate Volume 1: Work Songs
A “sacred arts collective” (www.Portersgateworship.com)
Label: The Porter's Gate
Length: 13 tracks/52 minutes

The Porter’s Gate Volume 1: Work Songs connects worship with vocation, “who we are to be in this world” as recording artist Audrey Assad sees it.

In Christian circles it’s been said that worship isn’t just what happens on Sunday morning. We worship not just with voices but our lives. The 13 “modern hymns” on this release imagine what that looks like.

The Porter’s Gate is a collective of artists from diverse backgrounds seeking to build a community that invites conversation and collaboration. The hope is to become a welcoming presence in an inhospitable world. Founder and producer, Isaac Wardell, believes hospitality can impact the culture more than any other belief and practice of the church.

“Little Things with Great Love” featuring Madison Cunningham is a surprising opener in its stark beauty. It sounds like the resurrection of an ancient hymn:
In the garden of our Savior, no flower grows unseen
His kindness rains like water on every humble seed
No simple act of mercy escapes his watchful eye
For there is One who loves me
His hand is over mine

I could not find a songwriting credit but see that it is included on Evergreen, the Audrey Assad release scheduled for early 2018. Assad is on three tracks but not on this one.

This track is evidence that music is more than notes played. It’s also the silence in between, which in this case gives this a haunting quality. Strings add a classical presence.

“Wood and Nails,” which pairs Assad with Josh Garrels is also available as a single on Noisetrade. Though this release is all about serving others, I take delight in the work done on our behalf, highlighted in the first two lines of the chorus:
The work was done with nothing but
Wood and nails in Your scar-borne hands.

The first sounds on this memorable song are solitary piano notes, gentle strumming and Assad’s voice. Garrels joins in on the second stanza.

In a time when the world can feel like a dreary, overcast day, we could use more joyful songs. “Father, Let Your Kingdom Come” blows the clouds away. It’s a lively, gospel-flavored romp featuring Urban Doxology and friends. Urban Doxology is a group of artists dedicated to racial reconciliation and urban ministry in Richmond, Virginia’s Church Hall neighborhood, which is being renovated. Their soulful voices also enliven “Establish the Work of Our Hands,” another track with a delightful gospel influence.
How do I describe what I hear on “We Labor Unto Glory” sung by Liz Vice? It sounds like a Carrie Newcomer song. It’s a mixture of folk, pop and African American spiritual.

“Christ Has No Body Now But Yours” is Josh Garrels reverential adaptation of the famous Teresa of Avila quotation. The sound of a church organ stands out. The simple lines, which contain no additional thoughts, are repeated throughout with the sound swelling at the end with a congregation of voices.

Isaac Wardell co-founded Bifrost Arts and is the director of worship arts at Trinity Presbyterian in Charlottesville, VA. Readers familiar with the three unique Bifrost Arts recordings will find that the production and styles here are similar. It’s stripped-down, organic, and on the mellower side with thoughtful lyrics.

The promotional materials convey an image of the hoped-for welcome intended here: “The Porter’s Gate seeks to provide an environment in which artists can reimagine the vocation behind their gifts and create music that sets a light at the door of our churches, a light that beckons world-weary strangers to come in and find rest.” Thanks to projects like this and many others there has never been a better time for those who appreciate expressions of praise and worship.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

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

Genuine come-to-Jesus moments make this a classic

Come to the Waters (Collector’s Edition)
Artist: Children of the Day
Label: Born Twice Records (www.boonesoverstock.com)
Length: 9 tracks/38 minutes

Simple, diverse, sincere, earnest, and wise. It’s all here and more on Come to the Waters (originally released 1971) by Children of the Day.

It starts with the pleasant, straightforward “New Life,” a welcome-to-the-family song. A surprise follows.

The sound of a flute, followed by some woodwinds, and then harpsichord. The baroque-influenced melody and melancholy lyrics of “As a Child” extend for six minutes. It laments a former childhood openness that has disappeared.

“All Breathing Life” is a cappella, sung in the style of Handel’s Messiah, where parts of words are elongated, and the verses sung in rounds by the four members.

A Jewish rhythm animates the energetic “Children of the Day.” The combination of male and female harmonies, a folk style with no electric guitar, mainly acoustic instruments, electric bass and occasional drums (courtesy of John Mehler – Love Song, Richie Furay Band), with thoughtful, pointed lyrics, made Children of the Day a premier group.

It is unashamedly about a relationship with God through Jesus. We live in a different era. This kind of directness now might be considered preachy, but this does not sound forced. It’s a natural overflow from hearts that are full. It’s the desire to share treasure meant for everyone.

Records like this can remind Christians of their first devotion when God’s presence seems so near. It’s easy to let that slip because of cares and desires. Listening can actually rekindle lost aspirations.

Thanks to my mother, who played early Jesus music records on a stereo that went through our whole house, I had a soundtrack for my early experience just before and then after coming to Christ. Before I ever heard Larry Norman, Randy Stonehill, Phil Keaggy and 2nd Chapter of Acts, my mom was playing The Way, The Joy Album, Let it Shine by Suncast, Love Song, The Praise Album, Come Together by Jimmy and Carol Owens, and others. The soft rock and simple lyrics were memorable, calling me. I never forgot some of those songs.

No doubt my mom had heard, “For Those Tears I Died,” the closing track on this record. It became one of the most popular songs of the period. It’s a genuine, moving come-to-Jesus moment, composed by group member, Marsha Stevens, who was only 16 when she wrote it. Mark Allan Powell calls it “an absolute masterpiece … it expresses adolescent piety better than any other Christian song ever written.”

New listeners may not feel a sense of nostalgia, but they can appreciate the sincerity and the primitive excellence.

Another classic invitation, “Two Hands,” written by Chuck Girard (Love Song), is elegantly covered here.

The song that follows, “Jesus Lives,” features background vocals that echo the female lead, all leading to an exuberant chorus that becomes euphoric when they begin to sing, “because of his love.” At that point, just when you think their voices can’t soar any higher, they do. Paradoxically, it’s a joyous song about Christ’s suffering and dying. It celebrates what that makes possible.

We have Born Twice Records to thank for reproducing this classic. As they detail in the liner notes, the masters were long gone, so they purchased a sealed vinyl copy and converted it to digital. Most people won’t be able to tell but those who pay attention to such things will notice. It sounds fine, and if you are into vinyl, you can find this album where used records are sold.

Born Twice Records has produced other classic Christian albums from the 60s, 70s, and occasionally the 80s. You can get the recordings at their website (see the address on the “Label” line).

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Alisa Turner EP

Your daughters shall prophesy

Alisa Turner EP
Label: Integrity Music
Length: 6 songs/26 minutes

Lauren Daigle. Audrey Assad. Mandisa. Sandra McCracken. Hannah Kerr. Now Alisa Turner. I marvel at how God continues to raise up new voices to declare his praise. I wonder if it’s a partial fulfillment of the prophecy, “your sons and daughters shall prophesy” (Joel 2:28c ESV, italic added).

Declaring the truth is one aspect of prophecy, and that is what these young women are doing in psalm-like ways. Of course, many other women could be added to the list, and even seasoned artists, like Jaci Valesquez, Nichole Nordeman and Amy Grant are finding new voice in declaring the riches that are in Christ. God continues to pour out his Spirit.

On this six song EP Alisa Turner expresses the confidence that comes through experiencing God’s faithfulness in the face of challenges. At age 20 Turner suffered the loss of her father and shortly thereafter debilitation caused by Lyme Disease, which left her bedridden for six years.

So she sings not of self-reliance or self-confidence but faith in God’s ability to sustain her. Ongoing health challenges make life difficult, and some days all she can do is just worship. It gives her the kind of perspective heard on the chorus of “Not Even Now,” one of her boldest declarations:
Not even if the sky is falling
Not even when the enemy roars
Yours is eternal glory
You are forever strong

These songs were birthed at the piano where God continually draws her back to himself. The music reflects this, being a soothing blend of keyboards, guitars and percussion. The other instruments continually add pleasant accents. Delicate guitar chimes grace the chorus of “Lift My Eyes.” A well-placed percussion echo adds punch to “Not Even Now.” Just before the bridge on this same track a delightful guitar interlude adds a rock edge.

Songs like “Not Even Now” and “As it is in Heaven” carry further impact when Turner’s voice merges into a chorus of voices.

“As it is in Heaven” adds violin. I like the phrasing in the chorus that summarizes the longing of the children of God, and even all creation:
On the earth as it is in heaven
Oh, let it be with us here right now
Where your word is fulfilled and your glory revealed
Oh, let it be with us here right now

Surely, this is cry that God delights to answer. Lofty sentiments and elegant music make this a majestic track.

The string-laden, piano ballad “My Prayer for You” conveys blessing on the “bruised reed” and the “smoldering wick.” Christ’s passion ensures that it will not be broken. It will not be put out (see Matthew 12:20). Though the melody conveys a touch of sadness that initially may be off-putting, it becomes memorable with repeated listens. This is empathy in music and verse.

Perhaps the most sublime moment comes on the closing “Psalm 13.” It starts out in lament, but then, as is often the case in the Psalms, it ends in praise. It’s just Turner and the piano. It’s the same way that Lauren Daigle ended her debut, and once again I find it to be one of the most moving moments.

This stands in the line of recent worship-oriented releases that are more articulate than the early efforts in this genre. That’s not to diminish the value and importance of simple choruses or songs conducive to a congregational setting. I just appreciate the growth and maturity. Sons and daughters are proclaiming God’s truth in new settings.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Overflow - Hannah Kerr

Young women leading the way

Artist: Hannah Kerr (www.hannahkerrmusic.com)
Label: Black River Christian
Length: 11 tracks/43 minutes

Hannah Kerr and Lauren Daigle have something in common. They each give voice to a maturity and wisdom beyond their years.

They sing to God in a musical language of todaypop/rock with underlying hip/hop rhythms. I also hear some Euro rock influences on Kerr’s Overflow. In between driving guitars subtle accents from over the pond shape the tapestry of sound. These small sonic details are among my favorite moments.

Kerr has a hand in the songwriting, which teams her with some of the best: Scott Krippayne, Matt Maher, Joel Houston and Meredith Andrews, to name a few.

Similarly, many of the musicians are seasoned pros; Stu G one of the prominent ones. Is that shades of Delirious I’m hearing?

Mark A. Miller does an admirable job of blending organic and programmed styles. I wonder though why the peak levels seem high, saturating the sound. Was this intentional to give it more of a raw and rugged feel? Or is it just my imagination and/or a limitation of my sound system?

Warrior” is a metaphor for life as a battle, and serves as a terrific opening song.
Staring down the face of fear Gotta keep breathingWhen the negative is all you hear Gotta keep believing

I easily identify with the thought that we live in a time of fear and negativity that seems to be getting worse. It’s a challenge but essential to stay in an attitude of faith, as suggested in the song.

Kerr did not have a hand in the songwriting, but she sings the chorus with forceful conviction:
You’ll never stop me, I’m a warrior When I fall down, I get stronger Faith is my shield, Your love is the armor

Pummeling guitars and strong vocals make this powerful song her own.

Never Leave Your Side” is a plea set in the context of a ballad. The chorus is sung from God’s perspective. In addition to the comforting sentiments, what makes this standout is the beautiful wash of keyboards and gentle guitars.

Kerr co-wrote “Your Love Defends Me” with Matt Maher. His imprint is recognizable in the structure and lyrics. It builds to a crescendo at the end with a gospel chorus.

The closing, “Be Still and Know,” features Mark Hall of Casting Crowns. It’s more subdued than the other tracks, being primarily piano and string-driven, but it’s a highlight. The opening lines set the stage for the encouragement contained in the title:
When your heart is anything but quiet And peace feels a million miles away When the world is heavy on your shoulders And you don’t know the path that you should take

Debuts like this and How Can it Be by Lauren Daigle add depth to the modern worship genre. This kind of praise and adoration appeals to me more than some of the simplistic forms that emerged at the beginning of this movement. I don’t mean to discount their value at the time or even now. I just appreciate the growth and maturity in music made by Christian artists, in all categories including modern worship.

We can be grateful to live in such a time as this when artists have a vision for continued innovation and service to others. Young women like Kerr and Daigle are among those leading the way.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Words from the Hill - Stu Garrard

Not a law to observe but a grace to receive

Words from the Hill: An Invitation to the Unexpected
Author: Stu Garrard
Publisher: NavPress (www.NavPress.com)
Pages: 219

Has the gospel become too Pauline? Those who think so see the Christian life being shaped to its detriment more by the teachings of Paul than those of Jesus. Others see it as essential revelation: “You can judge any man’s preaching or teaching by this ruleIs he Pauline? Does his doctrine start and finish according to those statements of Christian doctrine uttered by the Apostle Paul? No matter how wonderful a man may seem in his gifts and apparent consecrationif his gospel is not Pauline, it is not the Gospel and we might as well get our minds settled at once as to that.”

Michael Card, perhaps best known as a recording artist, but also an author who has extensively studied the life and teachings of Christ, might take issue with the preceding statement. A gospel that is strictly Pauline, might be deficient in both content and application in relation to Christ. “Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing.” How can the message be complete if in form and outworking it does not make visible that Word of the Father?

I’ve read enough to think that a Paul versus Jesus dichotomy is false. Despite apparent contradictions there is harmony. We need not put the teachings of one against the other, just like some do when they pit Paul and James against each other in relation to saving faith.

What something meant to the original hearers may differ in how it applies today, which brings me to the Sermon on the Mount. Some today teach that only Paul’s teachings are formative for Christians. They say the Sermon on the Mount is part of the gospel of the kingdom, a message to the Jews, not to those who have been justified by faith in the gospel that Paul preached. How then are Christians to apply the Sermon on the Mount?

This was my impetus for turning to Words from the Hill by Stu Garrard, best known as the guitarist for the British band Delirious? A number of music artists have shared their stories in recent years, and I have enjoyed some of them, but I can’t help thinking that few of the many available can rival this in importance. It’s due in large part to the subject matterthe teachings of Jesusbut also because Stu G, as he is known, approaches the text with an honesty and humility that is vital to rightly discerning and applying the truth. I’m not saying that it makes him right about everything; just that his approach as a learner is not only necessary but refreshing. All of this makes this book one of the best by a rock star. I call him that lightheartedly because I’m sure that he sees himself more as a follower of Jesus. His gospel is assuredly not too Pauline.

What he shows through his own life, and the lives of the many friends that we meet through him, is what the outworking of the Beatitudes might look like today. His theme is a noble one: Jesus “tells us, when we find ourselves at the end of our rope, at rock bottom, God is there, God is on our side” (xiii). You could say that this is a refrain that he sings over and over again.

Those who look to Paul are sensitive to the division between law and grace. I think one of the unique aspects of this book is Garrard’s seeing the sermon on the mount on the grace side of the ledger: “When I look at the story of Jesus and the message of the Beatitudes, I’m struck by how confronting it is to my comfort level. I really have to fight the feelings of trying to attain something or of not ‘doing’ enough. The temptation to keep measuring myself against others who ‘do’ awesome things is always with me, but it’s such a distraction. It’s so easy to fall into ways of attaining, which completely misses the point. This is about who we are and not what we do; it’s about being and not doing” (43-44). This emphasis alone makes the book worth reading.

Garrard makes the Beatitudes not a law to observe but a grace to receive. It’s more or a description of who we are than something that we should strive to attain. Even so, there is a balance between comfort and challenge. It’s from that place of rest from our strife that God can use us to multiply his family.

Has the gospel become too Pauline? The problem may be in creating division where it doesn’t belong. These words from the hill are incorporated into Paul’s words. There may be a progression of revelation but there is no reason why they need to be at odds with each other. Paul said, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1 ESV). The line that begins in the Old Testament, which culminates in Christ, runs through Paul to us today.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Where the Good Way Lies - Steve Bell

Bell’s most mature effort makes the Good Way inviting

Where the Good Way Lies
Artist: Steve Bell
Label: Signpost Music (www.signpostmusic.com)
Length: 13 songs/42 minutes

The attitude in “Bring it On” by Steve Bell on Where the Good Way Lies makes it one of my favorites among all his songs. He could not have picked a better way to open his latest recording. It’s the mindset of “come what may” I can handle it. It is a wisdom born of walking with God for many years:
Less to conquer, less to do
Less inclined to suffer fools
Just happy to grow old with you
Bring it on, bring it on

Written with Murray Pulver, who once again in working with Bell is outstanding as a producer and musician, this epitomizes the wit, beauty and excellent craftsmanship that you find throughout this release.

This is probably the finest all-around recording that Bell has done in a career that stretches over 25 years and keeps getting better. I can’t help thinking that this Canadian who cites a legendary fellow citizen, Bruce Cockburn, as an influence, is following in his steps by combining faith and art in winsome and striking ways.

How fitting that once again Bell honors his mentor by recording Cockburn’s “Love Song.” As Bell writes in the liner notes, it is an example of “his beautiful melodies and more gentle sentiments.” That phrase goes a long way towards describing this release, which contains some of Bell’s best writing and music.

Native American chanting and instrumentation open the title track. This leads into some lone keyboard notes and a voice speaking the word, “seven.” It kicks into high gear with a jazz melody and psychedelic noodling on a synthesizer. Before it’s all done, in addition to Bell’s smooth singing, there is more spoken word, rap and then more chanting as it fades. It’s a wild amalgamation that reminds me of an earlier Bell song, “Waiting for Aidan,” but more advanced. I credit Bell and the producer for creatively making it all work together. With its indigenous wisdom, a reference to the seven days of creation, and allusions to what we all share together, you could consider it a song for all peoples and nations.

This adventurous ride is followed by the sparse, finger-picked, “And We Dance” which has a gorgeous hook. I find it arresting. If I’m doing something else while hearing it, I want to stop and listen. It must be one of the most delicate and tender songs that Bell has ever composed.

For those who struggle with feelings of inadequacy and failure, there is “A Better Resurrection,” a poem written by Christina Rossetti (1830-1894). The barest of instrumentation, which includes a dobro, gives this a bluegrass-feel. This is the background for lyrics that should resonate with any who are feeling a bit battered and bruised by life.
I have not wit, no words, no tears
My heart within me like a stone
Is numbed too much for hopes or fears
Look right, look left, I dwell alone
I lift mine eyes, but dimmed with grief
No everlasting hills I see
My life is in the falling leaf

One could view these lines as depressing, but I find my heart strangely warmed. It’s a reminder that we are not alone when we feel blighted by the harsh realities of life.

Variations on the next two lines become the chorus after each stanza:
O Jesus, quicken me
O Jesus, quicken me

Direct appeal, spoken or sung, is powerful.

Another simple chorus taken from a quote from Augustine“Love is our way to God, for God is love”fits well with the upbeat, shuffling rhythm on “Love is our Way.” The invitation and welcome spring from a sermon preached by David Widdicombe.
All who carry disappointment come
Those who fear the fire of judgment come
And you who teach the royal way is not for some
Shame on you
Now lovers come

The line “you who teach the royal way is not for some” reminds me that the good news about Christ is for everyone, even those with whom we disagree and/or oppose followers of Jesus. As vigorously as we might need to defend the truth, we should always seek to avoid creating stumbling blocks or obstacles for others. It is more important to win people than arguments.

What freedom and joy are expressed in the final stanza:
The only thing left for us to do is love
If this alone be done it is enough

The cheerful melody is the perfect match for this all-encompassing virtue.

Melody, instrumentation and production wizardry come together beautifully on “Ash Wednesday,” which includes harmonica and banjo. The name comes from a service on that day, which provided the inspiration. Far from solemn, this has a full-bodied sound that strikes harmonious notes as the lyrics reflect on our misbegotten attempts to respond to God’s love.

If you have a record player and can afford to spend a little more, get this on vinyl. Analog equipment, that had long been out of use, was purposely restored for this project. Before the digital age, this was the means of recording, and many believe it provides a greater dynamic range. Even on the digital version, the sound is clear and rich. How much better on black vinyl? If I didn’t already have it, I would buy the record. Some releases are worth the extra investment; this is one of them.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

The End of Protestantism - Peter J. Leithart

A bold summons to unity

The End of Protestantism: Pursuing Unity in a Fragmented Church
Author: Peter J. Leithart
Publisher: Brazos Press (www.bakerpublishinggroup.com/brazospress)
Pages: 225

God’s Purpose & Vision was the title of a series of sermons preached at the non-denominational evangelical church I attended as a young Christian. It became a popular cassette tape package and book.

God’s purpose is for his people to glorify him through the accomplishment of a three-fold vision: being conformed into the image of Christ, evangelizing the world, and attaining to the unity of the faith. Much of the teaching that I have received over the years fits within this framework. Probably the most under-served categoryperhaps because of the challenge of implementationis teaching on the unity of the faith.

Since I first heard these concepts in the late 70s, the church is more divided than ever. Even then without necessarily saying it, many of us seemed to regard our church as superior to the ones around us. I wonder if at least subconsciously that is how many of us feel about the groups that we attend. That type of thinking does not foster unity.

Somewhere along the way I was taught that there is an invisible unity in the body of Christ, consisting of all true believers, regardless of their church affiliation. Leithart attacks that idea along with a host of related thoughts in The End of Protestantism. Right from the start, he boldly challenges the status quo: “Jesus wants his church to be one. But we are not” (3). Christ’s prayer for unity in John 17 is the foundation to all that he writes, and he never tries to make it mean anything less than a visible unity to a watching world.

This is an exhortation to move towards what the author terms a “Reformational Catholicism” (6). Catholic, of course, is used in the broadest sense: “the beliefs and practices of Christian churches that understand and describe themselves as being Catholic within the universal and apostolic church” (Wikipedia). This is Bonhoeffer’s “come and die” call to discipleship expressed in relation to the church. “We are called by our crucified Lord to die to what we are now so that we may become what will be” (7).

In sharing his vision the author orchestrates four movements. The first describes what the church of the future will look like. It dares to describe an entity that “expresses a biblical and Reformational” outlook. What Leithart sees is a “product of speculation and imagination, rooted … in Scripture and, to a lesser degree, in the church’s tradition” (26). He admits that he cannot know in detail what will be, nor how we will get there. “One thing we can know is that it will not be a mere continuation of any of today's churches” (26). It will be biblical but also sacramental and liturgical, and plenty more. Those in non-liturgical churches may find it hard to accept some of these elements. Just as others will be uncomfortable with what isn’t familiar to them, but this is where death to self is needed.

The second movement is a sweeping overview of denominational Christianity in the US. The case is made for and against its development. The verdict is obvious: “Whatever its accomplishments, denominationalism is an obstacle to the fulfillment of Jesus’s prayer for unity” (89).

After viewing the fundamental flaws in denominationalism whose end must come, Leithart takes readers on a historical survey showing how God continually tears down what becomes deficient and replaces it with something better. Applying this to the topics at hand: “Division cannot be the final state of Christ’s church. The names we now bear cannot be our final names” (114).

Even though I may be unsure about some of Leithart’s conclusions, I appreciate his thorough mastery of history and where we are today. This is an excellent resource on all things pertaining to unity. I don’t know of anything like it.

The third movement highlights how God is remaking the global church while the American denominational system is collapsing. He argues that this is an opening for implementing the vision that he lays out in the book.

Lastly, he offers guidelines to theologians, pastors, and lay Christians who want to move toward what will ultimately be a reunion. This is practical enough for anyone to benefit, if they are willing to take the steps. Even so, as we do what we can now, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger offers a helpful perspective:

It is important [to realize] that we cannot bring about unity in the church by diplomatic maneuvers. The result would only be a diplomatic structure base on human principles. Instead, we must open ourselves more and more to [Christ]. The unity he brings about is the only true unity. Anything else is a political construction, which is as transitory as all political constructions are. This is the more difficult way, for in political maneuvers people themselves are active and believe they can achieve something. We must wait on the Lord, that he will give us unityand of course we must go to meet him by cleansing our hearts (Plough Quarterly, Spring 2017, 77).

This reminds me of another obstacle to unity that Leithart touches on, namely, equating the church with politics. He writes, “Reformational Catholicism implies that the most basic political base for the Christian is the church. The church, not America or its interests, is the international context for evaluating and responding to global political events” (190). He is against mingling patriotism with the church.

A friend has written of a bold Christianity that challenges traditional thought. That comes to mind when I think of how this book addresses unity. The standard has been too low. Here is a man taking God at His word. He happily demolishes strongholds in the hope of something better. He imparts the vision and gives ways to run with it.

His lodestar is unchanging: Christ prayed for unity. How can it be otherwise?

Friday, March 31, 2017

Trust - Jaci Velasquez

Like Michael W. Smith, Velasquez combines pop and worship with similar results.

Artist: Jaci Velasquez (www.jacivelasquez.com)
Label: Integrity Music
Length: 10 tracks/42 minutes

Easter approaches as I write. A couple of songs on Trust by Jack Velasquez are easily associated with the season. “At the cross we find healing/At the cross we find peace” Velasquez sings on “Lay it at the Cross.” But what does this symbolism represent? “At the cross we find Jesus/At the cross we find all that we ever need,” we hear in elaboration.

Velasquez sings this chorus like the beacon of light that it is. Apart from Christ’s sacrificial death, we could never be made whole and have peace with God.

The words are punctuated by a synthesizer. It also generates a swirling sound on the chorus of the opening “Trust You.” After its initial heyday in the 70s the instrument became less prominent. Is it making a comeback?

I like the feel-good vibe of “Cross”; no brooding heaviness here.

Have you heard? Trust takes a turn toward praise and worship. For those who have enjoyed Velazquez’s previous releases, there is no need to fear. She does something similar to Michael W. Smith in fusing pop with lyrics of adoration.

That may seem a little sacrilegious to some, but my concern was that this type of music can be bland and generic. Worship for the masses can lose artistic integrity.

For those who might think that popular music styles do not belong in the sanctuary, consider this. If earlier generations could enjoy Fanny Crosby’s “At the Cross,” in the reverential music of their time, why can’t a similar awe and joy be expressed in the musical language of today. That’s not to say that this is for everyone, but I enjoy how this release incorporates the style and production of Velasquez’s past releases. It’s God-ward focus makes it all the more powerful. It’s not such a radical change that fans won’t want to come along for the ride. Some tracks lean more toward pop, others more toward modern worship.

There is only one song that might be called a standard, and that a modern one, “Great Are You Lord.” It’s a beautiful duet with husband, Nic Gonzalez, lead singer of Salvador. The clean annunciation highlights the lyrics. “Great is Your Faithfulness” is an original song, not the traditional hymn.

A favorite here is “I Will Call,” which is more subdued than the opener, but this is why I like it. It has a smooth feel reminiscent of her past work. Breathy vocals and spare, ethereal sounds break into an anthem-like chorus. Part of the appeal of Velasquez is her strong voice, which firmly declares God’s truth. Words of affirmation become dynamic.

Just the thought in the title “It’s Never as Dark as it Seems” is healing. The music is not quite as compelling but suitable.

My favorite might be “Rest.” The guitar is raw and rugged. The style has a subtle 50s influence. One could argue that it doesn’t fit, but I’m so glad to hear this stripped-down, lament-like psalm: “Slow me down enough to hear your voice/Speak your words of mercy over all the noise/Quiet the lies that blind me from the truth/I am Yours, I am yours.” What sounds like a Hammond organ adds texture. The simple lines in the chorus express a common desire: “Lord, I will rest in you/Lord, I will rest in you/Trusting in all you do.”

Back to Easter. If “Lay it at the Cross” is the death side, the triumphant “Praise the King” is the life side. It celebrates the resurrection.

I like this move by Velasquez. It builds on past releases, which include expressions of praise and worship. Those are like the seed, the sprout, the bud, and now we hear the flowering.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Adventures in Evangelical Civility - Richard Mouw

In search of kindred spirits

Adventures in Evangelical Civility: A Life Long Quest for Common Ground
Author: Richard J. Mouw
Publisher: BrazosPress
Pages: 241

Watching Anne of Green Gables for the first time as an adult I was immediately captivated by the idea of the “kindred spirit.” “A kindred spirit in the Anne of Green Gables series is someone who understands Anne Shirley very well, well enough to know what she is thinking” (Anne Green Gables wiki). Surely, Richard Mouw, the author of Adventures in Evangelical Civility, delights in finding kindred spirits in his lifelong quest for common ground.

Even though my background is Charismatic and the author’s Reformed theology, in more ways than one I have found a kindred spirit. In fact, I am more in agreement with Reformation teaching than with the excesses of the Charismatic movement.

But what drew me to this book and makes me feel like a kindred spirit is the idea of an evangelical civility. It should be obvious that incivility has become rampant in our society. I don’t like how we talk to each other. Those of us who are Christians have an obligation to defend the gospel “with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15 ESV). This manner should inform all our discourse. A related idea provides an important reminder: “Remember, if you are not very kind, you are not very spiritual” (An old Scotch preacher).

It’s ironic and tragic that we can speak the truth in the wrong spirit. I know how it feels to be on both the giving and receiving ends. It not only generates more heat the light, it can be devastating in terms of relationships. In John 13 readers see that Christ’s disciples were to be known for their love of each other. Unfortunately, Christians today in the US are often known for what they stand against it.

My hope in reading this volume was to learn more about engaging others whose views differ from my own. I may have been slightly disappointed by my expectations. This is not a “how to” book. It’s more of a memoir from Mouw, now 75, of his search for human commonness.

At times, it became a little too technical for me, as when he discusses all that is meant by the image of God. It reminds me of just how complex theology can be. It’s not that the academic discussion is not important. Ideas have consequences. I may have been hoping for something more application-oriented, but I did find more of it towards the end. Plus, Mouw is showing not telling. He uses many personal illustrations and references the books and people that have been an influence. If you are a reader, you might appreciate knowing the titles that can be sources for further study.

In particular, I like the point that Mouw makes in relation to a critique from John MacArthur Jr. Mouw was one of the signers of two documents issued by the group, Evangelicals and Catholics Together. The 1997 statement, “The Gift of Salvation,” dealt with the doctrine of justification by faith. “MacArthur took the evangelical participants to be saying ‘that wile they believe that the doctrine of justification as articulated by the Reformers is true, they are not willing to say that people must believe it in order to be saved. In other words, they believe that people are saved who do not believe the Biblical doctrine of justification’” (197).

Mouw’s response: “That is precisely what I believe.” He goes on to clarify, “I would be surprised if MacArthur would dissent, if by ‘believing’ the doctrine we mean being able to give a clear articulation of it, then certainly the vast majority of the saved fall short.” This makes the point that people can have a genuine experience of salvation without being able to precisely explain it. To take it further, I don’t think incorrect views on the finer points of doctrine is going to negate someone’s destiny. If someone puts their trust in Christ, who can condemn them if their view on a non-essential is faulty in some way. Doesn’t it come down to this? “Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life” (1 John 5:12 ESV).

This is not to say that wrong beliefs don’t matter. Of course, we all want to be right, and adhering to sound teaching is essential, but can anyone claim 100% doctrinal purity, not just in theory but also in practice. If all my beliefs and practice have to line up perfectly with Scripture, I will never make it. That’s why I need God’s grace and Christ within by His Spirit.

Recently, I have personally wrestled with a theological perspective that goes to extremes. The way it's presented by some, a person must accept a particular set of verses and their interpretation of it. It’s almost like you have to sign off or voice a declaration indicating your belief in it. Ironically, a person could give mental assent, but in reality not be transformed by it. In other words, you could agree with the rightness of a teaching but not be regenerated by the Spirit of God. And yet, some other simple soul could in childlike faith receive Christ and experience new life. They may never be able to explain justification by faith, but they can tell you what Jesus has done for them.

Though I respect John MacArthur, I appreciate Mouw making the point that one can experience salvation without being able to precisely explain it.

I also applaud Mouw’s humility and honesty. He expresses his concern that his journey could have unintended consequences. Recognizing that we live in a time of biblical illiteracy, he wonders if he strikes the right balance between conviction and civility. I agree with his conclusion “that civility is not something that stands over against biblically based convictions in a kind of ‘tension’ relationship” (211).

Mouw holds firmly to biblical convictions. I admire the ways in which he is able to engage without compromise. I don’t feel like he downplays the need for strong beliefs. Honestly, I hope that more people will follow his example, believing that not only can we find common ground but we can also learn from those who have different views. Respectful dialogue is not something that should be shunned by Christians.

Monday, February 27, 2017

God's Highway - Sandra McCracken

For those willing to slow down, God’s Highway offers substantial substance and is deeply reflective.

God’s Highway
Artist: Sandra McCracken (www.sandramccraken.com)
Label: Towhee Records
Length: 11 tracks/45 minutes

If you have a record player and can afford to pay a little more, consider getting God’s Highway by Sandra McCracken on vinyl. If you accept the idea that records sound better, you might feel justified once the needle drops. Why even my digital download sounds vibrant! How much more the grooves on a 12 inch? Plus, you will be helping to support an artist that has a heart for psalms, hymns and spiritual songs.

The supposed warmth of vinyl is a complement to the organic tones found here. No synthesizers and programming. This sounds like a group of musicians playing live in the studio on guitars, bass, piano and drums. Electric guitar adds texture. Drums are on the soft side.

The roots oriented style is a vehicle for themes like waiting and hope, in conjunction with the attributes of God. These are modern day gospel songs for pilgrims on God’s highway.

Allusions to and adaptations of Scripture abound; there is no wooden literalness. McCracken knows how to translate Bible truths into song. Each one remains saturated in a biblical worldview. Four of them even have a Scripture reference in the title.

This is a songwriter’s praise and worship. It is rich in poetic imagery and deep thought. With the music being either slow or mid-tempo, and with plenty of space to hear each instrument, this can become a meditative experience. It reminded me of Fernando Ortega’s The Breaking of the Dawn.

In its simplest form as on “Trinity Song,” featuring All Sons and Daughters, I’m captivated by the delicate beauty. This has singing in rounds. There is wonderful restraint in this release in every phase, as heard in the number of instruments, background vocals, the choice of words, etc.

I like how “Come Light our Hearts” and “Be Still my Soul” (an original song) touch on being quiet before God. This whole record can be aid toward that end.

The closing “Song for Rachel” is just McCracken with piano backing. I appreciate the thought in the chorus:
Until the trumpet sounds,
Until our home comes down,
Children of Zion raise up the sound
Until our home comes down

People imagine going up to heaven. How often do we think of the New Jerusalem coming down? It’s a biblical picture (Revelation 21:10).

McCracken breaks into beautiful falsetto on the closing refrain:
Your deliverance is coming
For us while we wait,
In the wilderness You walk before us,
Give us grace

What a fitting benediction! This is someone to follow as we travel this way.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Winter EP - Audrey Assad

Who can find a warmer winter song?

Winter EP
Artist: Audrey Assad (www.audreyassad.com)
Label: Fortunate Fall Records
Length: 3 tracks/12 minutes

Who can find a warmer winter song? “Song for a Winter’s Night,” the Gordon Lightfoot composition, falls on the ears like light footsteps on freshly fallen snow. The organic blend of drums, guitars and keyboards are inviting. A strong hook takes listeners in. Cares recede in the enchanting glow.

The temperature drops in “Midwinter”: “In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan, earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone.” This is an adaptation of the well-known carol. The second stanza and subsequent bridge are new along with a slight change to the last line, but all in keeping with the original lyrics.

Even the music is chillier than the first song. The added hooks are dreamy and elongated. The bridge, make it a snow-covered one, includes a biting guitar solo.

The resolve, like the dawn of a new day, comes on the last stanza, which has never sounded more beautiful with its sparse musical backing. It makes the lines of the final stanza stand out:

What can I give him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
Yes, and if I was a Wise Man, I would do my part;
But all I have to give HimI will give my heart.

This ends with the breezy, keyboard-driven “Winter Snow.” It likens God’s coming to gently falling snow. It calls to mind the following verses:

And he said, “Go out and stand on the mount before the LORD.” And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of a low whisper (1 Kings 19:11-12 ESV).

The spectacular gets more attention, but the falling snow can be like a low whisper.

The last song was first recorded as a duet with Chris Tomlin on Glory in the Highest (2009). The album cover, like the recording, is a work of art.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Potter & Clay - Jaylene Johnson

Johnson’s vulnerability is refreshing.

Potter & Clay
Artist: Jaylene Johnson (www.jaylenejohnson.com)
Label: Independent
Length: 12 tracks/44 minutes

The simplicity and forthrightness in Potter & Clay by Jaylene Johnson is appealing. Witness the starkly confessional opening track, “Fallin’”:
There are things I’ve done I never should’ve done
Things I’ve said I never should’ve said
I can’t forget, it’s messing with my head
The things I’ve done, the things I’ve said

Earthy acoustic rhythm and guitars that stretch the notes provide a haunting backdrop. The resolve comes in the chorus. The singer is falling, not into a place of hopelessness, but “into the arms of mercy.”

The first line in the next track, “How Long,” seems so fitting, “Who led me to this desert?” In Scripture the desert is a place of testing, which can prompt questions and wrestling, “Am I being punished/For what I did or didn’t do.” Listeners will find an authentic grappling with faith and doubt throughout this release.

The sparse instrumentation on the piano-driven “One Tiny Prayer” complements the beautiful transparency:
Trees so tall go beyond my sight
Feel so small ’neath this patch of sky
I’m out of place and I’m wond’ring why I came

Here is solace for the disenfranchised and forgotten. It’s like their voice is mirrored in these lines, reminding them, you are not alone. Even if all seems lost, you too can whisper His name and be heard.

Johnson continually makes herself vulnerable through revealing lyrics. If you are going through any kind of struggle, this could be your soundtrack. This brings comfort and hope.

The songs are wonderfully organic. There are few synthesized sounds. The arrangements are straightforward and immediately likeable, and the tones are pure.

Having become familiar with producer Murray Pulver’s work with Steve Bell, I hear the roots oriented influence. The former sings and performs on almost every song. He is a top-notch producer and musician, which is plainly evident here.

Steve Bell adds guitars and vocals to “Lord of All,” which stylistically and lyrically is like a modern hymn.

Occasionally, I hear a country and/or bluegrass influence. “Pray, Pray Again,” which features Joey Landreth on dobro would be right at home on an Alison Krauss recording. It’s an encouragement to pray in every situation.

A favorite is “Rest in Me (In the Meantime).” Fittingly, it is warm and relaxed, almost country rock.

Another upbeat, more pop-oriented track is “Find Us,” which includes a trumpet solo. It expresses a desire for God to meet us in all the places where we either find ourselves and/or choose to hide.

“This Little Light” could be a whimsical play on the thought in the old Sunday School chorus. In dramatic voice Johnson chronicles a journey. Being tired and feeling foolish, she hides from everyone, not letting her light shine. But contemplating the flame that is now just a spark, she cries out in prayer. She wants to let her light shine. Lastly, she casts herself on God’s mercy, which becomes her ground for telling others “Far and wide/This little light of mine/I am gonna let it shine.”

Special thanks to Steve Bell and Signpost Music for getting behind this project and bringing it to my attention. If you like Bell’s recent releases, you will most likely enjoy this as the style and sound are somewhat similar.

This is the Winnipeg native’s third full-length release.  

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