O Sacred Head, Page CXVI (2012, B-Sides)

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Passion/Resurrection theme continues this week with a powerful old/new number addressing the awful reason why Christ had to die in the first place: us.

Page CXVI is a trio endeavoring to revive old hymns with new musical life.  Their style is one of simplicity and a little shoe-gazing, but beautiful for sure.  Their name?  Well, in their own words, “We got our name from C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia in The Magician’s Nephew. Page 116 in the book (CXVI in roman numerals) is where Aslan begins to sing Narnia into creation. Melody being the driving force behind creation really resonated with us, and we stuck with it!”  Perfect!

“O Sacred Head” was originally a passion hymn from the Dark (or Middle) Ages.  I guess a few things good did come out of such a bleak time period.  The old text has many more verses and “Thees” and “Thous”, but the gist of the lyrics is captured by Page CXVI here:

O sacred Head, now wounded, with grief and shame weighed down,
Now scornfully surrounded with thorns, Thine only crown;
How pale art Thou with anguish, with sore abuse and scorn!
Oh how Your face bends solemn, which once was bright as morn!

Men mock and taunt and jeer Thee, Thou noble countenance,
Though mighty worlds shall fear Thee and flee before Thy glance.
Grim death, with cruel rigor, hath robbed Thee of Thy life;                                                Thus Thou hast lost Thy vigor, Thy strength in this sad strife.

You bled by our hands, You bled!

My burdens You have carried, my sins you have borne,
For it was my transgression which brought this worldly scorn.
I cast me down before Thee, wrath – my rightful lot;
But You have sweet mercy, Redeemer by the cross.

You bled by our hands, You bled for me, for you, for us!

A strikingly personal and hard-edged psalm contemplating the all too well known fact that we (humanity) literally put Jesus on the cross.  Sometimes, we get desensitized by this reality because we’ve heard about it over and over again.  Our numbness grows with each Easter season, and yet reality has never changed…not for the last 2,000 some years.

It is good and fitting and horribly difficult to really meditate on this truth: God bled for us and by our hands.  Isaiah 53 is exactly what our hearts need in order to properly dwell on exactly what Jesus did for us and what we did to Him:

Who has believed our message?
    To whom has the Lord revealed his powerful arm?
My servant grew up in the Lord’s presence like a tender green shoot,
    like a root in dry ground.
There was nothing beautiful or majestic about his appearance,
    nothing to attract us to him.
He was despised and rejected—
    a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief.
We turned our backs on him and looked the other way.
    He was despised, and we did not care.

Yet it was our weaknesses he carried;
    it was our sorrows[a] that weighed him down.
And we thought his troubles were a punishment from God,
    a punishment for his own sins!
But he was pierced for our rebellion,
    crushed for our sins.
He was beaten so we could be whole.
    He was whipped so we could be healed.
All of us, like sheep, have strayed away.
    We have left God’s paths to follow our own.
Yet the Lord laid on him
    the sins of us all.

He was oppressed and treated harshly,
    yet he never said a word.
He was led like a lamb to the slaughter.
    And as a sheep is silent before the shearers,
    he did not open his mouth.
Unjustly condemned,
    he was led away.[b]
No one cared that he died without descendants,
    that his life was cut short in midstream.[c]
But he was struck down
    for the rebellion of my people.
He had done no wrong
    and had never deceived anyone.
But he was buried like a criminal;
    he was put in a rich man’s grave.

10 But it was the Lord’s good plan to crush him
    and cause him grief.
Yet when his life is made an offering for sin,
    he will have many descendants.
He will enjoy a long life,
    and the Lord’s good plan will prosper in his hands.
11 When he sees all that is accomplished by his anguish,
    he will be satisfied.
And because of his experience,
    my righteous servant will make it possible
for many to be counted righteous,
    for he will bear all their sins.
12 I will give him the honors of a victorious soldier,
    because he exposed himself to death.
He was counted among the rebels.
    He bore the sins of many and interceded for rebels.

Yes, Easter is several weeks away.  However, we are not able anymore to just think upon these things and be impacted by them as we should be.  Remember, we are numb.  Therefore, let Lent season serve it’s purpose.  Begin thinking now about the cross by meditating on Christ’s suffering and focus on why He had to endure all that He did.

Imagining the Sacred Head of God’s Son with a crown of thorns and a countenance of ultimate anguish is where we need to start this process of getting all the way through to the empty tomb.  Don’t pass over what is the absolute center of the cross, Easter and the Gospel itself: God died for sinners.  God died.  He bled by our hands…

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Iscariot – The Last Bison (2011, Quill)

Click on image to listen to song for free.

Today, we kick off an extended season of celebrating and examining songs about the passion and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Much like December was dedicated to Christmas songs, I will attempt to do same thing in anticipation of Easter Sunday.

I begin this endeavor with a double feature about an unlikely song subject, Judas Iscariot.  We are used to hearing songs portray heroes and greatness, but perhaps we are not so comfortable with tunes about the despised betrayer of Christ’s saga.  As evil as Judas’ actions were, his role was important, ordained and useful to us today.  And we have two songs that declare these truths for us in splendid sound and instruction.

First up, The Last Bison.  This seven-member band of Virginians hone a very mountaintop-esque version of folk.  They are a young group on the rise with new stuff ready to be released in early March, I believe.

Their take on Judas Iscariot is one of embalming his final acts, their consequences for him, and how Jesus implemented good out of what was intended to accomplish evil.  Listen:

Woe unto you
Double crossing the Son of Man
For in the dish you have dipped your hand

Lo you come here
To deliver the deliverer
From simple kiss into tainted hands

Iscariot, Iscariot
The devil has you now
You’re set up for betrayal
Iscariot, Iscariot
The devil has you now
Your kiss tastes like a crown of thorns

I have used, I have used
Your unbelief, to set them free
So die now, die now my Judas

A sobering, naked portrait of the reality of a “Benedict” to God’s Son.  Yet, the closing phrase, “I have used your unbelief to set them free…” shows the redemptive quality of what took place between the Teacher and His once-close disicple.  Jesus and His Father’s plan for salvation was so much bigger than Judas’ betrayal or any other schemes unhatched by the devil in that day.  If He can master and sovereignly will His love to the cross for our sake, then surely anything we imagine as doubts or fears or inhibitions are less than what Christ can handle.

Furthermore, we can examine Judas’ heart in his horrible actions and ask honest questions about ourselves today, such as, “Am I reflecting a Christ-like image or a Judas-like image in my life?”

That is what Poor Old Lu seeks to do in this throwback grunge/rock tune from their glory days.  “Rail” (click on image below to listen) is admittedly not just a song about Judas, but rather a personal admission to God about the struggles of living out a Christian life.  These lyrics demonstrate that sometimes even close followers of Jesus have low moments:

Jesus tie these hands
I used to think
that every thing I touched
turned gold
but it don’t
it turns cold

and reason guides this man
like spring, and fall
and wind to sand
I sway, I sway,
I cannot stand

what do I do,
when it seems I relate to Judas
more than You
and I can’t ever
I can’t ever
see the end…

Jesus help me see
it’s not about consequence
it’s peace
and I won’t seek
on my own knees

and grace is over me
It’s true I feel, I know it’s real
but will I live
what I believe

Again, such a transparent take on living with the reality of our sin, except this time coming from the other side of the cross.  What a difference between Judas – who was condemned for lack of trust – and believers, who betray Jesus almost as much as anyone else, yet know grace through trusting in Christ!

This is the power of Easter.  Let these songs and the story of Judas Iscariot remind us all that our greatest treasure and hope lies within the passion and resurrection of God’s Son for all sinners.  But it is only realized in the ones who place full faith in Jesus’ work.  Even though we, Christians, rail and falter at times, our fate is entirely opposite of Iscariot – only because of the cross!

click on image to listen to song for free.

Approach My Soul, The Mercy Seat – Jamie Barnes (2011, The Split EP)

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Ash Wednesday and Lent season is almost upon us.  Catholic and non-Catholic believers have much to glean from this tradition, if applied in the right way.  Sojourn Church and worship leaders are embracing the value of these events and so I offer this song for the purpose of heart preparation.

Jamie Barnes is on staff with Sojourn and also writes his own music.  This song was inspired by an old hymn by the great hymn writer, John Newton.  Ash Wednesday is not a means of salvation, but rather an opportunity to remember how incredibly damned and dead we are without our Savior – Jesus.  Ashes to ashes.  The Bible exemplifies and calls us to lament and be sorrowful over our sin.

And Lent is a brief season for us to practice sacrifice (electronics, comfort foods, luxuries, etc.) in order to invigorate our prayer lives and reflect upon Christ’s ultimate sacrifice for us on the cross.  It is good and fitting to find music that compliments these pursuits, so that our hearts and minds are prepared for maximizing these exercises.  Listen:

Approach my soul, the mercy seat
Where Holy One and helpless meet
There fall before my Judges’ feet
Thy promise is my only plea, O God

Send wings to lift the clutch of sin
You who dwell between the cherubim
From war without and fear within
Relieve the grief from the shoulders of crumbling men

O God—Pour out your mercy to me
My God, Oh what striking love to bleed.

Fashion my heart in your alchemy
With the brass to front the devil’s perjury
And surefire grace my Jesus speaks
I must. I will. I do believe. O Lord.

I cannot stress enough how important it is for Christians to marinate within the core Gospel truths over and over again.  Ash Wednesday is all about focusing on how close we came to spiritual death and destruction and how incredible it is to be saved by God.  Lent is a time to sharpen our ability to be living within the grace of Gospel truth as we exercise restraint from worldly things (good things or not so good things) in order to make more room for meditating on Christ.  Lent is a great idea any time of year, but especially helpful as it leads us towards the passion of Christ and Easter Sunday.

John Newton understood this and I believe Jamie Barnes does as well with this song.  In addition, we could learn a lot about being a harmonious group of brothers and sisters in Christ – doing honorable traditions together for the sake of purifying Christ’s bride.  God wants us to practice His life within us together.

Paul reminded the church in Rome about these things as it pertained to a controversial issue related to eating food sacrificed to idols:

So why do you condemn another believer? Why do you look down on another believer? Remember, we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. For the Scriptures say, ‘As surely as I live,’ says the Lord, ‘every knee will bend to me, and every tongue will confess and give praise to God.’  Yes, each of us will give a personal account to God.  So let’s stop condemning each other. Decide instead to live in such a way that you will not cause another believer to stumble and fall.

I know and am convinced on the authority of the Lord Jesus that no food, in and of itself, is wrong to eat. But if someone believes it is wrong, then for that person it is wrong.  And if another believer is distressed by what you eat, you are not acting in love if you eat it. Don’t let your eating ruin someone for whom Christ died.  Then you will not be criticized for doing something you believe is good. For the Kingdom of God is not a matter of what we eat or drink, but of living a life of goodness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. If you serve Christ with this attitude, you will please God, and others will approve of you, too. So then, let us aim for harmony in the church and try to build each other up.”

Le me encourage all of us to see these days as an opportunity for better Gospel-centeredness, better self-control, and better Christian community living.  And let us allow songs like this one to lead the way for our souls to better embrace the Mercy Seat.

Farther Along – Josh Garrels (2011, Love & War & and the Sea In Between)

Click on image to listen to song for free.

I’m a real sucker for good driving songs.  You know, like the ones you maybe put on a playlist (or cassette, if you’re a little older like me) for road trips?  I’m also a sucker for songs that overwhelm with overarching, big-picture truths rolled into one glorious tune.  This selection is all of the above and more.

Josh Garrels hails from Portland, Oregon where he crafts a very special brew of music, as well as running his own independent record label, Small Voice Records.  He has been writing songs and blazing his own trail in the quiet, aesthetic world of (Dave Matthews-esque?) folk/pop music for several years.  Most everyone agrees that “Love & War & the Sea In Between” is his best album and this song is certainly a flagship tune within his entire collection.  We will definitely be returning to Josh’s storehouse on this blog.

There is so much here lyrically, that I hate to serve it up with any predispositions.  Each line of each verse is a meditation in and of itself (hence, the overarching effect).  However, the one thing I’ll say before you listen is that if you hold to the truths of Scripture within your heart, then you will definitely be encouraged by the end of this song:

Farther along we’ll know all about it
Farther along we’ll understand why
Cheer up my brothers, live in the sunshine
We’ll understand this, all by and by

Tempted and tried, I wondered why
The good man died, the bad man thrives
And Jesus cries because He loves em’ both
We’re all cast-aways in need of ropes
Hangin’ on by the last threads of our hope
In a house of mirrors full of smoke
Confusing illusions I’ve seen

Where did I go wrong, I sang along
To every chorus of the song
That the devil wrote like a piper at the gates
Leading mice and men down to their fates
But some will courageously escape
The seductive voice with a heart of faith
While walkin’ that line back home

So much more to life than we’ve been told
It’s full of beauty that will unfold
And shine like you struck gold my wayward son
That deadweight burden weighs a ton
Go down into the river and let it run
And wash away all the things you’ve done
Forgiveness alright

Still I get hard pressed on every side
Between the rock and a compromise
Like the truth and pack of lies fightin’ for my soul
And I’ve got no place left go
Cause I got changed by what I’ve been shown
More glory than the world has known
Keeps me ramblin’ on

Skipping like a calf loosed from its stall
I’m free to love once and for all
And even when I fall I’ll get back up
For the joy that overflows my cup
Heaven filled me with more than enough
Broke down my levee and my bluff
Let the flood wash me

And one day when the sky rolls back on us
Some rejoice and the others fuss
Cause every knee must bow and tongue confess
That the son of god is forever blessed
His is the kingdom, we’re the guests
So put your voice up to the test
Sing Lord, come soon

The Gospel can have a giddy effect on people, sometimes.  Believe me, I’ve seen it.  Sometimes, these happy moments are spontaneous and so contagious that it could only register as proof of the activity of God in our lives.  Sure, we have to be careful of how our feelings lead the train.  Yes, faith (especially faith in the factual things of life) must come first.  But that sure doesn’t mean the caboose of this Gospel train means nothing.

Music is a place to connect it all.  Link together our fundamental cars of truth that God has revealed of Himself and His love for us through His Son.  Then, we step back…way back, until we see as much as we can bare to fathom.  This is when we are allowed to feel the rush of reality and the overwhelming joy of our salvation.  This is when music binds and vivifies the spiritual world in ways that can be bigger and better than anything else.

Paul wasn’t afraid to write about Gospel truths and his goofy feelings that he had for them.  In Romans, Paul constructed his most complete and elegant composition of what the Gospel truly is.  It took him eleven chapters and when he got to the end he cried out,

Oh, how great are God’s riches and wisdom and knowledge! How impossible it is for us to understand His decisions and His ways!  For who can know the Lord’s thoughts?  Who knows enough to give Him advice?  And who has given Him so much  that He needs to pay it back?  For everything comes from Him and exists by His power and is intended for His glory. All glory to Him forever! Amen.”

I know that it is just words, but you need to hear the emotion and the projection that Paul puts into this concluding statement.  Even the word, “Oh!” carries so much guttural weight in the original language.  Paul is actually saying, “WOW!!!” in a loud, joyous way as he is literally unable to wrap his mind around who God is and what He has done for us.

Only the Christian has this at his or her disposal at all times.  Only the true believer in Jesus has the hope that is anchored in unwavering, unshakable truth.  Only the sinner saved by true grace has these things consistently rising and growing within them until the Kingdom comes to manifest itself completely and permanently.  Only God’s children are moving farther along in this dying world.  Amen!

“So put your voice up to the test!”

Lover – Derek Webb (2003, She Must and Shall Go Free)

click on image to listen to song for free. (it’s #5 on the album)

February is here.  Love is in the air, perhaps.  But today’s love song is old, yet unique…romantic, yet tragic.  It is the age old story of boy meets girl, girl plays hard to get, cheats often, and cruelly disregards the treasure of the boy’s love for her.  Boy dies in order to prove love to girl.  Girl appreciates the gesture, but still wanders into other relationships and lesser pleasures, despite the boy’s epic commitment to her and her alone.  And in the end…the boy sets the girl free.  Free from a life of shame and swine, so that boy and girl can be together forever.

Wait, that doesn’t sound like a normal, healthy love relationship to you either?  Nevertheless, it is a rough summary of God’s relationship with the Church.  God always intended to have a sacred place on Earth that we could come and meet with Him.  He never had to give this kind of access to us, but He graciously offers Himself to us in so many ways.  Unfortunately, we have continually and cyclically complained about, ignored, scorned and desecrated these meeting places.

Derek Webb is a pioneer among Christian artists today.  He continues his involvement in the popular band, Caedmon’s Call.  His work with Noisetrade is also worth mentioning, as it serves as one of the best ways for artists and listeners to connect directly and appropriately.  He has been writing music for a long time, including solo projects for the last decade.  Ten years ago, he took on a project that brought a lot of attention and criticism.  A concept album about the state of the Church in America would definitely be a difficult and highly scrutinized ordeal today.  However, it was a prophetic piece and we are in greater need of its message than even last decade.  “She Must and Shall Go Free” includes a song called, “Lover” which is composed from the perspective of Christ speaking to His bride, the Church.

As you listen to the lyrics, consider how reflecting on Jesus’ attitude towards the Temple in the Gospels compares to how He might speak to us, the Church, today:

Like a man comes to an altar, I came into this town
With the world upon my shoulders
And promises passed down
And I went into the water
My father, he was pleased
I built it and I’ll tear it down so you will be set free

I found thieves and salesmen living in my father’s house
I know how they got in here and I know how to get ‘em out
I’m turning this place over from floor to balcony
And then just like these doves and sheep oh you will be set free

I’ve always been a lover from before I drew a breath
Some things I loved easy and some I’ll loved to death
Because love’s no politician, it listens carefully
So of those who come I can’t lose one, so you will be set free

But go on and take my picture, go on and make me up
I’ll still be your defender and you’ll be my missing son
And I’ll send out an army just to bring you back to me
‘Cause regardless of your brother’s lies oh you will be set free
I am my beloved’s and my beloved’s mine
So you bring all your history and I’ll bring the bread and wine
And we’ll have us a party where all drinks are on me
Then as surely as the rising sun oh you will be set free

Ever since the turn of the twenty-first century, America has come down hard on evangelical Christianity.  The younger generations are leaving the church in droves and society isn’t really respecting the Church as a meaningful and positive element of our world.  We only have ourselves to blame for these trends.  We’ve lost our way, once again, and the world is tired of us.

Now, there is no need to push the panic button yet.  There are bright spots here and there and God is certainly active and involved in His bride today.  But, in general, we are failing…we need to return to our First Love and remember the joy of our salvation that still stands strong as the cornerstone of the Church.  We exist to be a lighthouse to a dying world.  Jesus didn’t just die for you and me.  He died and rose again so that we would believe and become His ambassadors.  There is an “us” that we need to submit to and sacrifice for more than we have been willing to embrace as of late.

God knows that we need this reminder often.  Even before He sent His Son, He sent prophets to help us with remembering our place and calling.  One such prophet was Hosea.  Listen: Hosea 2:14-23:

“But then I will win her back once again.
    I will lead her into the desert
    and speak tenderly to her there.
I will return her vineyards to her
    and transform the Valley of Trouble into a gateway of hope…
 When that day comes,” says the Lord,
    “you will call me ‘my husband’
    instead of ‘my master…’
I will make you my wife forever,
    showing you righteousness and justice,
    unfailing love and compassion.                                                                                               I will be faithful to you and make you mine,
    and you will finally know me as the Lord…
I will show love
    to those I called ‘Not loved.’
And to those I called ‘Not my people,’
    I will say, ‘Now you are my people.’
And they will reply, ‘You are our God!’”

God loves His people!  When we actively look to His love together as one, the world will take notice once again (but, in a good way).  When we let God’s love lead us from the inside out, society will favor us once again.  When we humble ourselves, put the Gospel first in our Churches, the unchurched will want what we have.  Jesus is the greatest lover of all and we are His bride.  May He make us worthy of this title and privilege, so that others can be set free, as well!