Called Home, Over The Rhine (2013, Meet Me at the Edge of the World)

Click on image to listen to song for free.

Living in the dead of winter is my favorite time of year.  Sure, I love the Spring and Fall, too.  Summer is grand, make no mistake about that.  But the real gem of all seasons is that January through March when the holidays are over, the sky is bleak and gray, and life couldn’t possibly feel more depressing.

Am I serious or being sarcastic?  I am serious…dead of winter serious!  Let me explain.

We enjoy and prefer things in life based on their differences from other, lesser things.  We only like warmth because we have felt the sting of cold.  We only ache for love because we have learned how to hate and be lonely.  And our favorite moments in life are usually right when we rise out of darkness into light or when we are just coming up for air after being underwater for so long.  You might even say that anticipating that moment is more thrilling than the happy relief itself.  For when you finally realize that the bad is ending and the good is coming, your stomach catches into your throat and your eyes widen with mirth and delight!

In the dead of winter, there is provided an opportunity to anticipate and long for the relief of Spring.  The snow melts feverishly, the birds sing happily, and the sun breaks through with color and heat.  It is finally March, and I feel that anticipation deep inside.  I have braved the majority of this winter onslaught, and soon the rewards of change and life and perseverance will be reaped. It is this moment of the year that I cherish the most.

Therefore, the dead of winter is my favorite place to be.  The dead of winter, spiritually speaking, is a place I call home, as well.

I have had it on my list to write about this next band from the very beginning.  Well over 20 years ago, Over The Rhine began its musical journey and I have had the privilege of following them for almost the entire way.  I would be hard pressed to find a more satisfying and influential music group on my life than these fine folks.

Last year, Over The Rhine released a new double album that featured the themes of home and end of life.  Over The Rhine, comprised primarily of the happily married couple Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist, live in southern Ohio on an, old small farm.  The song we are featuring talks about two themes: the place that we call home today and the anticipation of being called home for eternity.

For OTR, their farm has become a refuge and a safe haven.  Music and life have arisen fruitfully from Nowhere Farm, as they like to call it.  They are not the landscaping type, as you might guess from many of their songs.  I listen to them speak and sing about the peace and rest they find at home and I find myself very jealous.  But this song also talks about a state-of-mind-place called home that directly ties itself to the Christian’s anticipation of eternity in Heaven with God.  Have a listen:

Just shy of Breakin’ Down
There’s a bend in the road that I have found
Called home

Take a left at loneliness
There’s a place to find forgiveness
Called home

With clouds adrift across the sky
Like heaven’s laundry hung to dry
You slowly feel it all will be revealed

Where evening shadows come to fall
On the awful and the beautiful
Every wound you feel that needs to heal

And silence yearns to hear herself
Some long lost memory rings a bell
Called home

Old pre-Civil War brick house
Standin’ tall and straight somehow
Called home

Mailbox full of weariness
And a word of hard won happiness
Called home

Leave behind your Sunday best
You know we couldn’t care a less
Out here we’ve learned to leave the edges wild

And stories they get passed around
And laughter – it gets handed down
Read it in the lines around a smile

Our bodies’ motion comes to rest
When we are at last
Called home

The song is comfortable sounding and lyrically inviting to all who are seeking rest and acceptance.  There is a quiet confidence concerning the things that matter most: where do I belong? and where will I end up?  These resolutions can only be found in Jesus.

Even though we Christians struggle, suffer and slip at times, the promise of Heaven through God’s grace always remains.  Standing under the shelter of these truths is the place that the Christian should call home.  Listen to Paul talk about it in 2 Corinthians 4:

“We are pressed on every side by troubles, but we are not crushed. We are perplexed, but not driven to despair. We are hunted down, but never abandoned by God. We get knocked down, but we are not destroyed. Through suffering, our bodies continue to share in the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be seen in our bodies…

…We know that God, who raised the Lord Jesus, will also raise us with Jesus and present us to Himself together with you. All of this is for your benefit. And as God’s grace reaches more and more people, there will be great thanksgiving, and God will receive more and more glory.

That is why we never give up. Though our bodies are dying, our spirits are being renewed every day. For our present troubles are small and won’t last very long. Yet they produce for us a glory that vastly outweighs them and will last forever!  So we don’t look at the troubles we can see now; rather, we fix our gaze on things that cannot be seen. For the things we see now will soon be gone, but the things we cannot see will last forever.”

All of this text reveals of the guts of true hope.  Just like in the dead of winter, we rest in the fact that Spring always comes and it is always good.  Where I live, we have broken snow and temperature records this year, but none of that deters my belief in the near arrival of Spring.  The more harsh our winter is, the more sweet the relief will be when Spring finally comes.

So it is with the believer’s inheritance in Christ Jesus!  He is coming soon and when He does all will be made right again.  Justice will be exacted; wounds will be healed; the dead will rise again; the pain will permanently subside and perfect joy will be rewarded to all of God’s children!

And for now, the believer who dwells and meditates and rests upon this reality has a true place to call home.  We strive and struggle through all of our winter moments in this life in order to maintain a spiritually healthy home in our hearts…until God finally calls us to our true Home – A New Heaven and a New Earth!

Consider taking this March – this dead of winter time – to allow Christ to call you home: both in growing your trust in His promises and actively anticipating that glorious moment when we are finally called home.

It’s Not Enough – Dustin Kensrue (2013, The Water & The Blood)

Click on image to listen to song for free.

Truth in Tunes returns after a long hiatus to bring you a breath of fresh air in the world of worship music.  This post doesn’t reflect my freedom to write again as much as it reflects the unstoppable drive of the music and truths that simply need to be proclaimed.

Enter Dustin Kensrue.  Do you ever feel that the vast sea of current worship music has become creatively stagnant and theologically watered down?  So does Kensrue.  Dustin, who I have blogged about before, is worship pastor at Mars Hill Church in Bellevue and frontman for the rock group Thrice.  Last year, Kensrue released a new album of songs called “The Water and The Blood” intending to give the body of Christ an injection of lyrically rich and musically fresh tunes.  When I saw that he was doing a worship album I was skeptical because of today’s climate of praise songs: a massive machine manufacturing lollipop versions of half truths that feel sweet and warm, but hardly ever enrich the soul or challenge the mind.  The exceptions to this standard are very hard to find, sometimes.

Along similar lines, Mars Hill Music’s website had this to say about Kensrue’s new album:

“Kensrue laments the fact that most worship music seems to have fallen into a creative rut and has no engagement with the surrounding culture. ‘Our God creates with excellence, and we should as well,’ he explains. Beyond taking issue with the musical monotony, he also has strong feelings about the lyrical content of many popular worship tunes. ‘Growing up and going to church, I felt despair while singing. No matter how flowery or nicely it was stated, the majority of worship songs were essentially just a big dose of Law, of what I needed to do for God. Without first soaking in the good news that Jesus has done it all, that ‘It is Finished’ in him, the Law is condemning because we simply can’t fulfill it.’ These worship songs, creatively stale and theologically lopsided, spurred in Kensrue the desire to write better songs for the church to sing.

Although it can be somewhat vexing to write faith-filled lyrics that are exciting, theologically sound, and easy to digest, Kensrue does it well. But creating that balance wasn’t easy. ‘You can have people that love Jesus and are doing great music as far as the actual music,’ he explains, ‘but if the lyrics aren’t constantly pointing to the sufficiency of Jesus, I think you can unwittingly be causing great harm.’ With all of this in mind, his album The Water and the Blood was created.”

The entire album accomplishes this focus on the sufficiency of Jesus in such a potent way and I recommend every single song on it.  I highly recommend that each reader at least listen to “Suffering Servant” as a prime example (I hope to blog about it at Easter)  But for now, let us focus on our selection for today: “It’s Not Enough”.

Listen to the song by clicking the image above, selecting the right track, and then following the lyrics listed here:

Though all the wealth of men was mine to squander
And towers of ivory rose beneath my feet
Were palaces of pleasure mine to wander
The sum of it would leave me incomplete

Though every soul would hold my name in honor
And truest love was always by my side
My praises sung by grateful sons and daughters
My soul would never still be satisfied

It’s not enough, it’s not enough
I could walk the world forever
Till my shoes were filled with blood
It’s not enough, it’s not enough

Though I could live for all to lift them higher
Or spend the centuries seeking light within
Though I indulged my every dark desire
Exhausting every avenue of sin

It’s not enough, it’s not enough
I could walk the world forever
Till my shoes were filled with blood
It’s not enough, it’s not enough
I could right all wrongs, or ravage
Everything beneath the sun
It’s not enough, it’s not enough

To make me whole
It’s not enough, it never was
Awake my soul
It’s not enough, it never was

It’s not enough, it’s not enough
I could walk the world forever
Till my shoes were filled with blood
It’s not enough, it’s not enough
I could right all wrongs, or ravage
Everything beneath the sun
It’s not enough, it’s not enough
Though all would bow to me
Till I could drink my fill of fear and love
It’s not enough, it’s not enough

I’m such a sucker for songs with dramatic crescendo movements and lyrics with tons of absolute statements.  Jesus can be sung about in so many different ways: a quiet, intimate lullaby about His companionship; a loud, triumphant anthem declaring His victory; or a rock ballad offering Him as our rescuer.  Well, how about a song that finds every way to say that Jesus is simply everything that we need!  This truth is the implication to Dustin’s pronouncement that all other pursuits, even when fully realized, are not enough to quench the thirst of our soul for meaning and significance.

The Gospel is not a call to love and justice.  The Gospel is not an inspiration to become a better spouse, parent or person.  The Gospel is not a contract with God to make it into Heaven.  The Gospel is not even a relationship with God that was restricted from us because of our sin.  The Gospel is first and foremost news.  Good news.

What I mean to say is that the Gospel is primarily the arrival of Jesus Christ.  And His arrival, both in flesh and in connecting with us on the cross, marks the key moment in human history when the human soul was no longer alone.  Of course, the Gospel leads to that list of things mentioned above, but before we race ahead to manifestations and effects, let us first consider what the human soul needs and what Jesus exquisitely did for us at Calgary.

Psalm 73: 25 – 26, 28 says,

“Whom have I in heaven but You?
I desire You more than anything on earth.
 My health may fail, and my spirit may grow weak,
but God remains the strength of my heart;
He is mine forever…
 But as for me, how good it is to be near God!
I have made the Sovereign Lord my shelter,
and I will tell everyone about the wonderful things You do.”

Ecclesiastes 12:1,8 says,

“Don’t let the excitement of youth cause you to forget your Creator. Honor him in your youth before you grow old and say, ‘Life is not pleasant anymore’…’Everything is meaningless,’ says the Teacher, ‘completely meaningless.’”

And then John 1:1-3, 14 says,

“In the beginning the Word already existed.
The Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
He existed in the beginning with God.
God created everything through Him,
and nothing was created except through Him…                                                                   So the Word became human and made His home among us.                                            He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness.”

These Scriptures emphasize that real satisfaction in life can only come from being near to God; AND that the nearness of God can only be accomplished by God in Christ coming near to us.  This is the Gospel.

Yes, of course, the Gospel leads us to other fruitful, righteous realities such as redemption, spiritual maturity, a calling to moral values and human justice, and so on.  However, the Gospel begins and ends with satisfying a holy God and satisfying a hungry, empty soul that can only be filled with Jesus – and it accomplishes this contentment all in one glorious act.

When Jesus was on the cross, He not only paid our penalty, He joined with our pain.  When Jesus was unjustly sentenced to death, He not only covered our sin, He took our shame.  When Jesus hung on that tree next to criminals, He not only sacrificed for you and me, He became fully connected with our souls, so that the writer of Hebrews (4:15-16) could then say,

“This [Jesus] of ours understands our weaknesses, for he faced all of the same testings we do, yet he did not sin. So let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most.”

The message of the Gospel is that you do not have to be alone and your soul does not have to stay empty, lost and unfulfilled.  Then, out of that connection and satisfaction in Christ comes the rest of the Christian life.

Dustin Kensrue’s song provides a poetic lament that every single human being feels, whether they admit it or not.  Sometimes it takes a while for life to show us our own dissatisfaction, but it always does – sooner or later.  We don’t always feel the blood in our shoes even though it is indeed flowing as we keep trying to walk the whole world in search of God knows what.

In all of your travels and seasons of life, as you search and search for meaning and significance, always remember this: it is not enough.  But the Gospel is simply Jesus stepping towards our very center of who we are and saying to us, “I am enough.”

Come, Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy – Anathallo (2004, Hymns)

click on image to listen to song for free.

Today’s selection has a two-part or two-tiered approach.  Meaning that I have two selections, both from the same band.  It is more two-tiered, perhaps, because some readers may prefer the first part only.

Anathallo is simply unclassifiable.  Therefore, I will let the music do the talking for me in that regard.  However, I can explain more about the band’s existence, the song lyrics and history.  Anathallo (taken from Greek word meaning, “to renew, bloom again”) is a band from the great state of Michigan with many members who covertly, but beautifully entail the tag of being a Christian entity.  Most of their music has a very small, eclectic niche in the big picture of musical things; but, they did strip it down for the masses once upon a time to produce a small collection of old hymns re-birthed.

The really cool thing about the hymn that we are featuring today is that it served as the inspiration for one of their more original songs, which is the second tier of our blog post, to be listened to and discussed in a moment.  First, “Come, Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy”:

Come, ye sinners, poor and needy,
Weak and wounded, sick and sore;
Jesus ready stands to save you,
Full of pity, love and power.

Come, ye thirsty, come, and welcome,
God’s free bounty glorify;
True belief and true repentance,
Every grace that brings you nigh.

Come, ye weary, heavy laden,
Lost and ruined by the fall;
If you tarry till you’re better,
You will never come at all.

Let not conscience make you linger,
Not of fitness fondly dream;
All the fitness He requireth
Is to feel your need of Him.

Joseph Hart first composed this hymn in the late 1750’s (along with a couple other verses not used here).  It is old language to be sure, but the concept seems clear enough.  The Christian Gospel message is simply that we, sinners, are incapable of the spiritual “fitness” that God requires of all people.  But, God sent His Son to be that fitness for us.  Therefore, Jesus has done all the work for our salvation.  The final piece of the puzzle is that we “feel our need of Him” or repent.

The invitation from Christ is a welcoming sound of rest and peace that only He could offer.  He says to us, “Come, you poor and needy children.”  And those of us humble enough to admit and accept this as our reality are deeply touched by seeing His hand stretched out to us.  It is an emotional, even physical relief to think of how God’s Son literally carries us through our mistakes, toils and trials and leads us to our everlasting home with Him in joy and bliss.

But for now, we are greatly helped to remember, relive and re-feel how we finally realized our need for Him…and how we always, in this broken flesh, think we need to work our miracles out with our own hands in order to please God.  Even though the christian life requires sacrifice, a zealous pursuit of holiness, and the burden of own crosses these things do not exist outside of an honest dependence on God’s effort to actually live for Him from the inside out.  This can all be summed up in the idea of rest.  In Matthew 11:28-30, Jesus declares,

Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.

The second song, a more robust version of what can only be called the Anathallo sound, is of the same theme.  It is called, “Don’t Kid Yourself, You Need a Physician” and it can be listened to here.  Here the lyrics:

For days and weeks I made the parting call.
I cupped my hands, my mouth an “O”
I shouted saying,
“Brothers, hold my fading arms in the air, I am weak!”
They just faded there.

Who will rescue me from this body, not the arms, the fingers still? yes,
they feel what they touch as well,
cut the cords.
Let the ancient Adam go.
I’ve been dancing with this corpse for nineteen years. (x3 etc.)

And when I said,
“Who will shave my head, and on the might, reveal me in my skin?”
All the secrets of fitness:
all the fitness He requires is to feel your need for Him.

In my room, in my room,
in this gospel I have made
Salvation is a broken cistern in a handmade frame.

I cut the sheets into a flag,
paint it red,
self-pity hangs over the doorway in.

From seven times seventy scraping knees,
blood lets, deficiencies,
these are the layers of bandages, protection from the sting.
In this great lacking,
I’ve found a way.

And when I said,
“Who will shave my head, and on that might, reveal me in my skin?”                                  All the secrets of fitness:
all the fitness He requires is to feel your need for Him.

Who will rescue me from this body, not the arms, the fingers still? yes,
they feel what they touch as well,
cut the cords.
Let the ancient Adam go.
I’ve been dancing with this corpse for nineteen years.

A very creative and talented group, no doubt.  I hope that many of you give both songs a good listen.  I also hope and pray that each of us daily remember, relive and re-feel the blessed calm that can only come from resting in Jesus Christ.  Let there be no doubt, we are all spiritually poor and needy without Him…we all need the great Physician.  Hallelujah, He is ours!

Lo He Comes With Clouds Descending – The Welcome Wagon (2012, Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices)

Click on the image to listen to song for free.

There are several themes in today’s selection that are worth picking up on, including superstorm Sandy, Halloween and the end times.

First, let me introduce you to the Welcome Wagon.  The Reverend Thomas Vito Aiuto and his wife Monique form a powerful duo that is currently rising up the folk and indie music ranks.  Vito currently pastors a Presbyterian church in Brooklyn, New York; but the couple’s roots extend all the way back to plain old, small town Midwest.  Their story is a refreshing example of two people who simply stayed true to their beliefs and themselves, found a place to that needed the love and care of the Gospel, and boldly but gently gave their lives to an unadulterated, strip-down tune of redemption.

In other words, if you pick up Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices off the shelf at the music store (if you can find it) you won’t find anything noisy or flashy.  You’ll miss out on the layers of synthesized sounds and fluorescent pop, only to be left with a simple, intimate collection of songs set to the traditional liturgy of an old-fashioned church service.  Even scanning the Christian music charts, you’ll be hard-pressed to find something so warm and quaint; and yet the Welcome Wagon is just that…and people are taking notice.

There is a lot more that could be said about this group, but I want to get to the song.  But before I do, chew on this: if you think the church in America is waning and you are wondering why so many of our programs and style aren’t drawing in the masses anymore; then consider following Welcome Wagon’s example – don’t dress it up.  Just be honest, caring and, well, uncool.  You might be surprised how much your neighbor needs to meet a Christian like that.

OK, enough preaching.  “Lo He Comes With Clouds Descending” is a song that trumpets the Lord’s return in a beautiful way.  The album follows a flow of songs that reflect first confession and lament, redemption, Christ’s return and then Lord’s Supper.  In today’s selection, we have another hymn wrapped in modern sound.  Charles Wesley originally penned “Lo He Comes With Clouds Descending.”  Listen to the verses:

Lo! he comes, with clouds descending,
Once for guilty sinners slain!
Thousand thousand saints attending
Swell the triumph of his train:
Alleluia! Amen.

Every eye shall now behold him,
Robed in dreadful majesty;
Those who set at naught and sold him,
Pierced, and nailed him to the tree,
Deeply wailing,
Shall the true Messiah see.

Every island, sea, and mountain,
Heaven and earth, shall flee away:
All who hate him must confounded,
Hear the trump proclaim the day;
Come to judgment!
Come to judgment! Come away!

Now redemption long expected,
See! in solemn pomp appear!
All his saints by man rejected,
Now shall meet him in the air!
See the day of God appear!

Answer thine own bride and spirit,
Hasten, Lord, the general doom!
The new heaven and earth to inherit,
Take thy pining exiles home:
All creation
Travails, groans, and bids thee come!

Yea! Amen! let all adore thee,
High on thine eternal throne!
Savior, take the power and glory:
Claim the kingdom for thine own!
O come quickly,
Hallelujah! Come, Lord, come!

As you listen to Welcome Wagon’s version of this old, sacred song, you’ll notice the homely, small-church-setting feel with the folk instrumentation and bland choir background.  It is a song about dread, destruction and finality and yet it sounds so nonthreatening.  Of course, it is about so many great and positive things as well for the Christian; but Wesley (and Welcome Wagon in turn) do not seek to sugar coat or even glide over the fact that this world will stand in final judgment someday soon.

Today is halloween, 2012.  A day that many people throughout the world use to openly worship and celebrate evil.  America has just been hit with superstorm Sandy, one the worst weather systems to ever crash against our shores, causing over $50 billion in damage.  I’m not even going to get into the political climate that we are facing.  Just thinking about all the wrong in this world makes it so easy to long for the Lord’s return.  So many of our songs cry out to God, “Come quickly!”, because we are constantly feeling the pull towards what our salvation will culminate into: the end of all sorrow and the beginning of eternity with Jesus in bliss!  Our Bible ends with this solemn reminder of what it will mean when the Son of God comes back.

And yet, our tune today presents this truth in such a calm and wonderful way.  It reminds me of waiting for Christ’s return with expectancy AND peace, with anticipation AND trust in my heart.  It reminds me of my need to build my awareness of my dying friends and neighbors around me who still need truth.  He is coming again.  His return will be terrible and wonderful all at once.  Let us welcome in the low and lost with the love of Christ and the show them His good Gospel News – for it is The “precious remedy against Satan’s devices.”

Living Faith – Sojourn (2010, Over the Grave)

Click on image to listen to song for free.

We return today to a modern rendition of a hymn that sparkles brightly among even some of the best songs that have ever been written.  It is a great privilege to talk about both this hymn writer and the people who have recomposed his work, for both are dear favorites of mine.

Also, thanks to Scott for the excellent recommendation.  Any of you are free to recommend songs to me at any time!

Sojourn is a group of songwriters and worship leaders from a thriving church in Louisville, Kentucky.  I know their ministry first-hand, having attended there during my seminary years, and I am quit glad to see some of my colleagues being used by God tremendously in that area.  Sojourn has produced several albums, including Over The Grave which was entirely dedicated to Isaac Watts hymns.

Isaac Watts, a prolific theologian and hymn writer from the early 18th century, was one of the greatest fruits of the Reformation and is often remembered as the “Father of English Hymnody.”  He wrote many famous songs, such as “Joy to the World”, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”, and “This is the Day the Lord has Made” (as well as over 750 others).  Today’s selection, “Living Faith” (hymn #140, as Watts called it), carries a vital theme that is often times ignored in Western churches today – the dangers of an empty faith:

Mistaken souls that dream of Heaven
And make their empty boast                                                                                                  Of inwards joys and sins forgiven
While slaves to greed and lust
Vain is the will of mortal men
If faith is cold and dead

Imagine belting out those lines in your seeker-sensitive, opening worship slot next Sunday morning.  The Reformation was certainly known for change and enlightenment.  But often times these vital truths were presented “in your face”, so as to cut through centuries of fluff and propaganda (i.e. the Dark Ages).  Who knows, maybe history has cycled back into a time of needing a similar approach.  However, Watts didn’t just provide another bold-faced wake up call without offering the balance of a practical “how-to”.  He carries the theme forward into what every believer needs to be reminded of, so that we can embrace the real Christian life that God calls us to:

None but a living power unites
To Christ the living head                                                                                                       Pray for a living faith
That leads us to trust this grace
We cannot come to God on our own.
A faith that truly sees
That drives us to bended knee
Looking for hope in the cross of Christ alone.                                                                    True faith will purify the soul
And Faith will work by love
It forces sinful thoughts to go
And lifts our minds above
This faith will conquer earth and hell
By God’s celestial power
This is the grace that will prevail
In the decisive hour…
It takes every breath to God alone, it takes every breath to God alone

That last line says it all.  The Christian life is a gift by grace alone – THAT – demands and takes our every breath, word, moment, thought and deed.  No, this is not a trumpet call to a life of perfection now.  That is what awaits in Heaven when our salvation is completed.  However, we cannot afford to think that what we do right now does not matter to God or to our eternal destiny.

James 2:14-26 reminds us of this living faith and how fundamental it is to remember that a holy God cannot accept just a hallow gesture of belief.  And the most beautiful part of it all, as Watts affirms, is that our faith is filled and realized only by the cross of Christ.  When we fully submit to Him, He makes us faithful.  We are to called to pray for this kind of faith, to trust in His grace, and to daily depend on Him.

Let the reformation of your heart begin today with this anthem of truth that calls all of us to have a living faith.  It takes every breath to God alone…but He is worthy, able and willing to breathe His life into us!

Equally Skilled – Jon Foreman (2007, Fall EP)

Click on image to listen to song for free.

OK, I have settled down a little bit after Monday’s dive into the loud and the abrasive.  Today I venture back into the world of the unplugged and introspective sounds that dominate my playlists.

Jon Foreman is the frontman for the popular Christian band, Switchfoot.  And he has also produced some solo music that I have thoroughly enjoyed.  In his Fall EP, there is a song called “Equally Skilled” that we will be examining today.

Telling the story of sin and judgment in a song is always a precarious undertaking.  You either water down the truth too much or risk offending too many people (or both, if you’re really talented).  But Foreman does an excellent job of juggling his presentation and the whole truth in a powerful way.  He does this by beginning with the finger contritely pointed at himself:

How miserable I am, I feel like a fruit-picker who arrived here after the harvest
There’s nothing here at all…That could placate my hunger                                             We’re all murderers and thieves, setting traps here for even our brothers

And both of our hands are equally skilled at doing evil,                                                  Equally skilled at bribing the judges
Equally skilled at perverting justice
Both of our hands

This first verse reminds me of Romans 3:10-20, where Paul argues that all of us are guilty of sin and no one has any righteousness of their own to offer.  Foreman develops this   theology by poetically reminding us that we all possess two hands that are equally skilled at committing any level of evil, if we let ourselves follow our own sinful nature.  Any one of us is capable of becoming a Hitler or a Charles Manson.  The next verse turns down an even darker path:

The day of justice comes and is even now swiftly arriving,
Don’t trust anyone at all, not your best friend  or even your wife;
For the son hates the father, the daughter despises even her mother.
Look, your enemies arrive right in the room of your very household.

Not only are things bad, but they will be getting worse as approach Armageddon.  Jesus warned his disciples about the coming persecution and trials that await His followers and culminate in the End Times.  In Matthew 10:16:-25, Jesus reminds His men that they are sent as sheep among wolves and that this world will betray Christians in the Last Days in the worst ways: from the inside out.  Our own families, trusted friends and fellow church members will turn against us.  Therefore, their hands are equally skilled, as well.

But just as soon as you think the doom and gloom tune is about to end, Jon Foreman changes keys and lifts us up to a higher vantage point – so that we can finally see more than just what lies in this valley of sin and death:

No, don’t gloat over me…though I fall, I will rise again
Though I sit here in darkness – the Lord, the Lord alone, He will be my light
I will be patient as the Lord punishes me for the wrongs I’ve done against Him
After that He’ll take my case, bringing me to light and the justice
For all I have suffered

So, this interesting final verse captures both a solemn view of current judgment and future grace.  He seems to be communicating both humility and hope.  We deserve the consequences of our actions in this life; AND we, as Christians, are called to suffer for the sake of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  But our stories end with a God whose Hands are equally skilled as well:

And both of His hands are equally skilled at ruining evil,
Equally skilled at judging the judges
Equally skilled administering justice
Both of His hands, Both of His hands
Are equally skilled at showing me mercy
Equally skilled at loving the loveless
Equally skilled administering justice
Both of His hands, Both of His hands

It is a beautiful tale of how God will both satisfy justice bringing judgment to its final, rightful conclusion AND He will deliver mercy and redemption to those who have not earned it.  His hands, or His attributes, are perfectly balanced and capable for all of these things!  I am so often reminded of how evil this world is, how evil my heart can be at times, and how truly amazing our God is in the midst of it all.  I am so grateful that He is “Equally Skilled” at both Love and Justice.

Struggle – Six Feet Deep (1994, Struggle)

click image to read lyrics and listen to song for free.

Today’s entry is in a unique class of music and I hope you read my comments before listening.  As a blogger, it is hard for me to know my audience, since I can’t see you or predict who will come here.  Nevertheless, it is my conviction that God can be worshiped through any style of music.  The sound never dictates the worthiness.

Having said all of that, some of you will probably not enjoy this song.  My challenge to all my readers today is to embrace the message,whether you choose to “hear” it or not.

Six Feet Deep was a Christian hardcore band from the mid to late 90’s that hailed from Cleveland, Ohio.  In fact, most Christian hardcore bands (Unashamed, Strong Arm, Focused, etc.) were in existence right around that time and the scene was one of the most intensely authentic and raw atmospheres that I have ever witnessed.  It paired very well with my life’s journey as I was a young college guy seeking God’s calling on my life during those years.  And just like many other college experiences, I was greatly influenced and greatly propelled forward in my walk with Christ during that brief, but intense time.

Six Feet Deep had a lot to do with that and I still hold many of their songs as daily anthems to the battle of living for Jesus in every way.  Their sound is loud, guttural, hard-edged, and in your face.  Their lyrics are pure gold.  I want the entire song to hit you like a bulldozer (metaphorically speaking, of course), so breathe deep and brace yourself:

This world is grinding me down. The faith I’ve got seems so thin.
I know exactly how I want to live, but I crumble so fast.  There’s no discipline!
My weakness is my downfall, but I only got myself to blame.
So two-faced and hypocritical, am I worthy to bear Your name.
This Struggle I embrace. Strength to run the human race.
Christ is worth twice the pain of life against the grain.
Forgetting what is behind, we press on toward the goal.
Striving for what’s ahead, we take hold of this Struggle.
I think about how He suffered. And how His sweat was like drops of blood.
Then I see how quickly I’m broken, and how fast I lose my faith in the flood
of dissipation, temptation, frustration, I fall on my knees.
This pitiful celebration of self, its got to cease!
how many times have I walked this ground with repentance on my lips.
God how long will You strive with my selfishness?
how many times have I turned my back to fill my heart with nothing
Father, You never forsake me, You gave Your life, I’ll do the same.
We Struggle on!
FORGET – what is behind.
PRESS ON – toward the goal.
STRIVE – for what’s ahead.
We take hold – OF THIS Struggle!
The pride and the greed, the selfish sense of need,
the anger unjustified, and self-righteous conceit.
The pitiful self-indulgence, the lack of self-control,
the self centered motives, and the trip of the ego.
It’s time to rise, confront, and crucify.
It’s time I start to live, it’s time “I” finally died.                                                                     See, self is the thing, you’ve got to kill for the King,
there ain’t room for the two within you. That’s the truth.
Day in, day out, the sun rises and sets.
Pages turn in this life of ours, and we can’t count the regrets.
Given free will to chose the path of Life, or to wallow in our failure.
From this point we’ll Struggle on,
and never take our eyes from the Father.

Besides some of the ancient hymns, I have been hard-pressed to find Christian lyrics that even come close to matching these.  AND, the intensity of the music (especially the yelling) provide a one of a kind worship experience that penetrates our stone hearts.

So many times we sit in church like zombies and don’t even know what is coming out of our mouths while we sing.  We are numb!  Maybe you are not like this, but I know that I need a wake up call everyone now and then.  This is it for me!  It’s Monday morning, life is hard, and my spiritual espresso is Six Feet Deep.  Christ calls us above and beyond the mundane and monotonous.  If you need your heart stirred and your cage rattled in order get your focus back on Christ, then perhaps this song is for you.  Regardless of the sound, I believe we all need this message which reminds us of what Paul said to the church in Philippi:

“But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead,I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”

There are so many great truths in this song that we could dwell on: the importance of death to self, the balance of contrition and resting in grace, the centrality of humility, and on and on.  But let the main point always be as the chorus declares: WE TAKE HOLD OF THIS STRUGGLE.  That is what the sentiment of Christian hardcore was always about – taking hold.  Let every fiber in your being embrace the struggle of the Christian life that awaits you today.  No matter what your music style is, be a hardcore Christian everyday!

And, if you feel like it, spike your hair, listen to Six Feet Deep and put your wallet on a chain. 🙂

The Cave – Mumford & Sons (2009, Sigh No More)

Click on image to listen to song for free

As mentioned before, it is partly the design of this blog to examine popular music of today and see if there is anything spiritually worthy to mine from what the masses are listening to.  Admittedly, it is a difficult task to sift through the vast, shallow sea of songs that bear no fruit – or even bad fruit.  However, perhaps my efforts will save yours and together we can enjoy the gifts of common grace and seeing all people occasionally gravitate towards the splendor of absolute truth.

One of the hottest new releases today is the second album from a British group called Mumford & Sons.  Their new album, Babel, came out a couple of weeks ago and is already #1 on the charts and has the biggest sales debut of 2012, so far.  Obviously, people are listening to these guys.  Mumford is certainly not a Christian rock group, formally speaking; but, they have a very strong spiritual tone to most of their songs.  For a good critical review of their second album from a Christian perspective, check out this other blog (but then come right back to mine :)).  I agree with some critics who say that Mumford kind of “mailed it in” this time for the sake of cashing in on their moment in the spotlight.  It isn’t a bad album at all, but I think the real treasure (musically and lyrically) is still found in their first release, Sigh No More.

The song we are listening to today is called “The Cave”.  Mumford’s sound is very distinguished and best described perhaps as a cross between Irish folk and Dave Matthews Band.  In “The Cave”, Marcus Mumford (lead member) references the spiritual journey of St. Francis of Assisi as told by G. K. Chesterton’s biography of him.   In this writing, Chesterton highlights the paradox of Francis’ journey through poverty and simplicity towards the goal of finding rich happiness in God.  St. Francis was said to have been converted after spending time in a cell, or cavern, and then emerging from it with a whole new perspective on the world – as if he had walked out of the cave standing on his hands.  Hence, the lyrics in Mumford’s song:

So come out of your cave walking on your hands                                                               And see the world hanging upside down                                                                             You can understand dependence                                                                                     When you know the maker’s land

The broad lesson from the song and from St. Francis of Assisi is that we are weighed down, poisoned and brain-washed by the fleeting pleasures of this world.  Things distract us from reality.  Busyness and media crowd our minds and our hearts.  Faith is found when we break free from worldliness and are left with the roar of the certainty of God that rings behind and beyond the sounds of the city.  Taking a step back (and maybe even standing on our hands) and taking a deep breathe is necessary for us to gain perspective.

Mumford goes on to expound his resolution on the matter:

And I’ll find strength in pain
And I will change my ways
I’ll know my name as it’s called again…
Now let me at the truth
Which will refresh my broken mind
So tie me to a post and block my ears
I can see widows and orphans through my tears
I know my call despite my faults
And despite my growing fears
But I will hold on hope
And I won’t let you choke
On the noose around your neck

Psalm 141 stands out to me as I meditate on this theme of wanting nothing but God and blocking out the world and evil around me in order to stay rooted to Him.  Seeking this involves accepting pain and rebuke in life, not coddling ourselves with every available comfort and distraction that surrounds us.  Live a simple life.  Help others around you do the same.  Stand on your head, outside of the cave, and see that the world is hanging by a thread and that God is holding everything in place by His power and grace.  Let the profound words of Chesterton himself be our benediction (if you’re like me, you had this two or three times to get it):

The mystic who passes through the moment when there is nothing but God does in some sense behold the beginningless beginnings in which there was really nothing else. He not only appreciates everything but the nothing of which everything was made. In a fashion he endures and answers even the earthquake irony of the Book of Job; in some sense he is there when the foundations of the world are laid, with the morning stars singing together and the sons of God shouting for joy. That is but a distant adumbration of the reason why the Franciscan, ragged, penniless, homeless and apparently hopeless, did indeed come forth singing such songs as might come from the stars of morning; and shouting, a son of God.

52:10 – Rich Mullins (1993, A Liturgy, A Legacy & A Ragamuffin Band)

Click on image to listen to song for free

In this post, we make our first tribute to the late, great Rich Mullins.  He is, far and away, my favorite songwriter of the modern era.  Therefore this will hopefully be the first of many posts about his music.

Perhaps the best way to summarize Rich is to say that he had a barefoot spirituality and a laser sharp focus on the person of Jesus Christ.  There was no pretense or show with him and he lived out his life the same way he told others to.  I highly suggest this book about his life in order to capture more of the spirit of his message and music.

Today’s song comes from his best album (in my opinion), A Liturgy, A Legacy, & A Ragamuffin Band.  It is a song that features one of his best talents: the hammered dulcimer.  But the real prize of “52:10” is that it is Scripture brought to life (musical life, that is, since the Word is already Living).  The lyrics of the tune are simply the words of God through Isaiah the prophet (hence the song title giving us the Bible reference):

The Lord has bared His Holy arm
In the sight of all the nations
And all the ends of the earth shall see
The Lord’s salvation
The Lord has bared His Holy arm
His Holy arm

The picture of God baring his arm is symbolic in ancient culture for someone who is extending friendship and good will towards another person.  Isaiah 52 is an entire chapter celebrating the fact that God chose, in His vast mercy and love, to extend Himself to Israel as a rescuer and a Savior.  The spirit of the prophecy is one of excitement and contagious joy.  Just a couple verses before is the familiar refrain: “how beautiful are the feet of the one who brings this good news!”  It is a Messianic text that announces the great cornerstone of our Christian faith – that the God of the Universe is coming to save us through His Son!

Rich Mullins brings this message across in a stunning way that has always reminded of me of the sun rising with brilliance or the trumpets of Heaven resounding throughout the sky.  It is good to take this song and simply meditate on the fact that God is our Rescuer.  The cross and salvation that we have because of Christ is always meant to be most central and most celebrated; therefore we should never tire of all the ways that we can remember this pivotal reality.

Rich excellently reminds us through this vivid picture of God opening and extending His arms of grace to us with a bold, bright tune and a confident shout that “the Lord’s salvation has come!”  Let all the nations hear and be glad!

Heaven Breaks – Sleeping At Last (2006, Keep No Score)

Click on image to listen to song for free

Sleeping At Last is one of those “covert” Christian groups.  Meaning, they come from a good spiritual background and set of beliefs, but they don’t play on a Christian label and they don’t have alter calls at their shows.  In fact, this group has a decent secular following after having songs featured on hit TV shows such as “Grey’s Anatomy”, “Bones”, and “Private Practice”, as well as a soundtrack in the movie “Twilight.”

However you may choose to judge that kind of faith in music, there is no denying the gift that has been given in the song, “Heaven Breaks.”  It is another song about the second coming of Christ and the kingdom of Heaven waiting for us in eternity.

The approach lyrically is about coming from the familiar feeling of trying to fix the problems of life and hurting because we don’t seem to measure up to or fit in this world.  The song musically crescendo’s quickly to a picture of Heaven being an event where all stereotypes and expectations shatter as “Heaven’s floor breaks” through the pretense of earthly life in order to meet the earth and rescue us.  Take a look at a few lines:

We’ll pray for Heaven’s floor to break,
Pour the brightest white on blackest space,
Come bleeding gloriously through
The clouds and the blue.
Forcing one place from two,
Killing formulaic views,
Only love proves to be the truth.
When heaven meets the earth,
We will have no use for numbers
To measure who are and what we’re worth.

That line, “forcing one place from two” reminds me so vividly of how Heaven is going to reclaim and recreate what God originally meant to be perfect and perfectly happy.  So often, we think of Heaven as being an escape from a dying world and going away to a “cloud 9” paradise that looks nothing like Earth.  Instead, he ought to envision the floor of Heaven breaking down the from skies and releasing all of that love, salvation, and rebirth that Christ claimed for us on the cross!  For it is not that God made a mistake the first time around; rather it is that God allowed us see this place and what it would be like apart from Him in it when humanity first rebelled and sinned again Him.

Because of that freedom, we are now also freely able to choose the resurrection and recreation of what God has always ordained to exist: a harmonious, holy place where we are not measured my earthly, prideful standards – but by the overflowing, equally-dispersed grace of God in Christ.  Read Revelation 21:1-8 and let God remind you, once again, that He plans to reclaim all of the beauty of His original creation AND add to it His abundant mercy and love that the Gospel of Jesus affords for those who believe.

When we think about the sorrow and pain of this life and how heavy it feels sometimes, may we join the closing refrain of the song and pray that “our bodies will be light…and our heavy hearts untie…for You.”  And may Heaven “break” soon!