The Weight of Glory Second Edition- Heath McNease (2013)

click on image to listen to the entire album for free!

There are a lot of firsts in today’s post: first total album post, first hip-hop music post, and our first C.S. Lewis – themed post.  All very good things to initiate into Truth in Tunes.

Heath McNease is southern boy who somehow grew up on both Bob Dylan and N.W.A.  As Christ got a hold of his heart, his music stayed true to both his varietal styles and his deep faith in God.  One of those deepening influences on McNease has been C.S. Lewis.  So much so, that he made an entire album dedicated to Lewis’ written works.

This album is entirely creative and impressively comprehensive.  Most all of C.S. Lewis’ major works are represented on this 12 song collection.  From theological treatises such as Mere Christianity and Weight of Glory, to spiritual introspections such as A Grief Observed and Surprised By Joy, to fictional masterpieces such as Narnia and Perelandra…and many, many more.  Each tune is like a personal rap of the cliff-notes version of each book (or book character).

The album doesn’t stop offering there.  You can tell that Heath treasured this project because he made two versions of the album: the first edition captures his singer/song writer side and this second edition remixes the same genius with his hip hop nature (with the help of Greg LaFollette).  In addition, each song is eloquently explained through a brief video featuring Heath McNease on his Youtube channel.

I appreciate his energy and versatility in all of his music.  I also admire his generosity of offering his work to fans without price.  So, if you dig this drop, be sure to give him props (there, that’s my feeble attempt at rhyme).

Finally, a word about the works of C.S. Lewis put to music.  He was truly blessed with a great gift (much like our favorite musical artists) to deliver God’s truth to us in a special way.  He helped all of us see better – both the beauty of simply truths as well as the brilliance of complex doctrines.  Yet, one of his greater gifts was always this ability to be humble in the midst of his legacy.  He knew he was just a vessel for God’s glory and that he wasn’t perfect.

His other great gift was to remind his readers that our ultimate satisfaction can only be found in God.  Specifically, he helped me to see that all of life, good and bad, points forward and outside to a place and a time that true believers in Jesus constantly look to and long for.  This high hope is what holds us together while we’re here.  Thank you Lewis, for your writings and thank you Heath for your tunes.

“The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them,and what came through them was longing.

These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols,breaking the hearts of their worshippers.

For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”  – C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory


The Valley – The Oh Hello’s (2012, Through the Deep, Dark Valley)

click on image to listen to song for free.

Last week, we entertained the idea of revival and spiritual awakening.  Today, we revisit the reason why we, human beings, have a dire need for such things in the first place.

May I introduce to you Maggie and Tyler Heath (siblings), otherwise known as The Oh Hello’s.  This group proudly hails from Texas (does any Texan not have pride in their state?) and are self-described “intentionally independent, self-produced music makers.”

Speaking of “self” our subject today is original sin and total depravity, or in layman’s terms, the smell of humanity.  As already mentioned, our spiritual odor is the reason why we need to be washed by the blood of Christ.  But more than that, we are so filthy and stinky that we need to daily enter that baptismal of spiritual renewal that is only found in God’s Son.  We have stunk so badly for so long, we tend to forget the stench is even there.

Any media outlet (no matter it’s level of quality or bias) you choose to monitor will remind you of that – somewhat hard to forget and hard to remember – aroma that is the fallen-ness of humankind.  It follows us everywhere like a skunk spray times infinity.  Within the core of our beings we each carry the potential to be as awful and ugly as a Hitler or a Marylin Manson.  We were all born this way and none of us can simply shake it off on our own.

Listen to a song that is the opener for The Oh Hello’s concept album put out last year designed to explore and express personal reflections about the fall of people and a single response from God:

We were born in the valley of the dead and the wicked
that our father’s father found and where we laid him down
We were born in the shadow of the crimes of our fathers
blood was our inheritance, no, we did not ask for this

Will You lead me?

We were young when we heard You call our names in the silence
like a fire in the dark, like a sword upon our hearts
We came down to the water and we begged for forgiveness
shadows lurking close behind, we were fleeing for our lives

Will You lead me?

Still You lead me, never leave me, never leave me

That last line actually comes from a reprise at the end of the album, along with a lingering refrain from the famous hymn “Come Thou Fount.”  The line from the hymn that our song highlights is a human confession of our ever present tendency to wander away from God, back towards the land of human filth and pathetic-ness.

It is as if we are standing in river current that constantly pulls towards the depravity that plagues every member of the human race.  Even when we relax and do nothing, we will simply drift back towards all things putrid and rebellious.  The Christian knows that it is his/her lot to strive against this undertow on a daily basis.  But the Christian should also know that Christ will be the One who leads us upstream and away from the valley.

Here’s how Paul explains the battle within himself (Romans 7:14-25):

14 So the trouble is not with the law, for it is spiritual and good. The trouble is with me, for I am all too human, a slave to sin. 15 I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate…

18 And I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. I want to do what is right, but I can’t. 19 I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway. 20 But if I do what I don’t want to do, I am not really the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it.

21 I have discovered this principle of life—that when I want to do what is right, I inevitably do what is wrong…

24 Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death? 25 Thank God! The answer is in Jesus Christ our Lord…

The entire album by The Oh Hello’s does a great job of exploring this topic and you can enjoy the whole thing at the link on the image above.  I appreciate their efforts to join Paul in humbly admitting that our depravity is still here – even for those who have been washed clean by the love of Christ.  Some might have trouble with that statement, wondering how could being born again in Christ still leave this odor of sin all over my heart and hands?

I think when we are all honest with ourselves, it isn’t that hard of a truth to accept.  The hymn writer felt his proneness to wander – while he was worshiping his Savior and leading others to do the same.  Paul taught his churches of his own struggle – in the midst of teaching them about the Gospel’s saving power, as well.  You and I know in our heart of hearts that our striving will only cease when this flesh is dead and gone.

But until then we must remember where we have come from, where we still live and where we are headed.  We came from the valley of death, sin and destruction.  The valley of spiritual wretchedness still exists in our nature (even for believers in Jesus), but it will end on the mountain top of that final victory awaiting all those who truly embrace the Christ.

He will lead us through the deep, dark valley!

Awake – The Ember Days (2013, More Than You Think)

click on image to listen to song for free.

This post is primarily about our constant need for spiritual renewal.  This song is a battle cry and a prayer for each of us to embrace on a daily basis, no matter how numb and complacent we may feel today.  If you are open to these things, then you should genuinely feel nervous and excited at the same time, because the Holy Spirit of God is not harnessed and He is not safe.

The Ember Days is a quintet from New Zealand seeking to push the limits of contemporary worship music.  Their sound is indie and moody and beautifully intimate (something like The Cardigans meets Explosions in the Sky…maybe?).  Their lyrics are consistent with their purpose: to bring the created close to our Creator.  “Awake” is a simple song that everyone can relate to and probably on a daily basis, if we’re honest.  Listen with humility and openness to your own need for revival.

Bring me back again, let me see again,                                                                                all that You lay down for us, we are Yours forever,                                                        clothed in righteousness, You gave nothing less,                                                            grace keeping me whole, love making me free,                                                              You’re the fire inside that makes me come alive,                                                             awake my heart, awake my soul, revive me Lord,                                                             come and make me whole, awake my soul

Bring me back again, hope that never ends,                                                                    given all for us, You have our devotion,                                                                             taste and see Your love, coming from above,                                                                      Holy One that redeems, I fall at Your feet…

I need You my God, I need You to breathe,                                                                      come now oh Jesus, awaken my soul to sing,                                                                      all that You gave, Your life for me, Lord I am yours,                                                     awaken my soul to sing,                                                                                                  awake my heart, awake my soul, revive me Lord,                                                          come and make me whole, awake my soul.

The beauty of this song is not its theological depth, but rather it’s emotional depth.  It places a simple request at the feet of Christ (a desire for spiritual awakening) and then expectantly awaits upon the One True sovereign God to fulfill His promises.

The energy and intimacy of the song is a force in and of itself that epitomizes what worship music should be – a truth brought to life.  Just like a painting puts color to an idea.  It is certainly something to get caught up in – as long as that something is grounded in Gospel truth.  The result is always a changed life and a real faith.  The awakened Christian feels deeply, ministers holistically and prays powerfully.  The awakened Church reaches out to the lost corners of their communities and brings Jesus to the broken.

The Ember Days is associated with a ministry called “Come&Live!” who simply gather worship bands and speakers together for the purpose of living out a genuine and vibrant faith among the broken and needy.  They can be uncomfortably charismatic at times (depending on your background), but their mission and method appear to be biblical and Christ-like.  The truth is they are reaching young people within the cracks of our society that very few other ministries are effectively reaching.  And that is a very good thing.

Jesus had a similar strategy in His days on earth and when He ascended to Heaven, He left us with instructions to do the same as Him unto the ends of the world (Matthew 28:18-20).  A commission like that starts with an awakening of our own hearts.

May you pray for personal revival each day and may you carry the banner of Christ’s love for yourself and those hurting around you, indiscriminately and without reservation for what God might choose to do through you.  May you be truly awake!

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!

All I Have Is Christ – Na Band (2008, Looked Upon)

Click on image to listen to song for free.

Just one post this week, but it is a very special one.  The song is quite simple and plain, instrumentally speaking.  In fact, at first listen, you might toss it right into the heaping pile of modern worship songs that look, sound and feel just about the same.  But, of course, I wouldn’t subject you to such torture without good cause.

First, some background on the artists.  Na Band is a branch of Sovereign Grace – a mega-factory of modern worship music in recent years. My one sentence assessment of SG is that they are talented, but sometimes lack originality in their music; however, lyrically they are unmatched and incredibly faithful to what worship ought to be.   In fact, their leader Bob Kauflin, is THE authority figure on what our churches should be doing with worship.  He pioneered modern Christian music back in the early 70’s with the band GLAD (anyone remember them?) and he literally wrote the book (find it here) on this subject and I recommend it above all other books on Christian music.  Period.

I mention Kauflin because two of his sons have followed in his footsteps, Devon – who sings our selected song, and Jordan – who wrote said tune.  The song is a first person reflection/prayer/psalm about being a sinner saved by grace through faith in Christ (by the way, a much better analysis of this song is also available at the link for listening to the song):

I once was lost in darkest night
Yet thought I knew the way.
The sin that promised joy and life
Had led me to the grave.
I had no hope that You would own
A rebel to Your will.
And if You had not loved me first
I would refuse You still.

But as I ran my hell-bound race
Indifferent to the cost
You looked upon my helpless state
And led me to the cross.
And I beheld God’s love displayed
You suffered in my place
You bore the wrath reserved for me
Now all I know is grace.

Hallelujah! All I have is Christ
Hallelujah! Jesus is my life

Now, Lord, I would be Yours alone
And live so all might see
The strength to follow Your commands
Could never come from me.
Oh Father, use my ransomed life
In any way You choose.
And let my song forever be
My only boast is You.                                                                                                       

The strength to follow Your commands could never come from me

Powerful words indeed.  Such humility and Christ-centeredness are consistent marks of a Sovereign Grace song.  But there is more to the story of this particular tune.  I mentioned Jordan Kauflin, songwriter of “All I Have Is Christ”.  Little did I know that as I researched him for this blog post I came across a family blog that his wife writes.  I learned that shortly after writing this song, Jordan’s two year old son was diagnosed with Leukemia.  His second child has been in treatment for his cancer for the past two and a half years and is almost finished, now in remission and returning to normal health.

As I read about their story, I thought of the last verse of this song: “Oh Father use my ransomed life in any way You choose…”  I wonder if he had any clue how God was going to take him up on that offer when he was writing these lyrics.  Very few things in life are harder seeing your child suffer.  Having Christ, clinging to a deeper connection with Christ in the midst of that kind of trial is where our lives are truly defined.  There are some events in my life that deeply resonate with this kind of story.

All believers are on a course set for the same destination – to know and love Jesus Christ.  To have Him in His fullness.  And to have Him fully means to literally have nothing else.  There might be some who would look at this and think that this is selfish of God to want all of us and not share, or that this notion is just an unattractive offer since it requires giving up everything else.  If you are thinking this way, then let Paul offer perspective from 1 Corinthians 2:

For I decided that while I was with you I would forget everything except Jesus Christ, the One who was crucified. I came to you in weakness—timid and trembling. And my message and my preaching were very plain. Rather than using clever and persuasive speeches, I relied only on the power of the Holy Spirit. I did this so you would trust not in human wisdom but in the power of God.

Yet when I am among mature believers, I do speak with words of wisdom, but not the kind of wisdom that belongs to this world or to the rulers of this world, who are soon forgotten. No, the wisdom we speak of is the mystery of God—His plan that was previously hidden, even though He made it for our ultimate glory before the world began. But the rulers of this world have not understood it; if they had, they would not have crucified our glorious Lord. That is what the Scriptures mean when they say,

“No eye has seen, no ear has heard,
    and no mind has imagined
what God has prepared
    for those who love Him.”

10 But it was to us that God revealed these things by His Spirit. For His Spirit searches out everything and shows us God’s deep secrets. 11 No one can know a person’s thoughts except that person’s own spirit, and no one can know God’s thoughts except God’s own Spirit. 12 And we have received God’s Spirit (not the world’s spirit), so we can know the wonderful things God has freely given us.

In short, when we cut out everything except Christ, we finally get full access to God’s deep secrets – i.e. “the wonderful things God has freely given us.”  I’ve heard it said many times that when Christ is all you have, you realize that Christ is all you need.  But this statement isn’t big enough.  Jesus isn’t like a some survival kit that only contains the bare essentials of our spiritual journey.  Jesus is the key to unlocking access to all of God!

Abraham had no clue what God was doing with his life when God asked him to sacrifice his son, but he obeyed and trusted God’s plan…and he became the father of God’s people.  Paul was a zealous idiot before Christ grabbed a hold of him on the road to Damascus…and he became the primary leader and writer in New Testament times.  Jordan Kauflin’s two year old son was dying of cancer, yet he didn’t through this song out the window.  My guess is he clung to it with every drop of fear, confusion, rage and hurt that he could muster.  As a father of two children, one of which has faced her battles with Leukemia as well, I fully relate to the struggle of singing a song like this and pressing on through life’s trials towards the goal of Christ alone – even when you feel like giving up.

It is not that everything or everyone else is meaningless.  Far from it!  It is simply that Jesus is the key to it all.  He is the key to redemption, to being a better person, to being a better parent, friend, spouse, etc., to a future and a hope that lasts and is vividly real, AND He is the key to all of God!  Therefore, it is better to say (or in this case sing), “All I have is Christ.”  Because then, my friend, you truly have everything.

White As Snow – The Modern Post (2012, Grace Alone)

Click on image to listen to song for free.

The phrase “pillars of the faith” comes to mind first as I begin to reflect upon this modern gem of a song.  There are several reasons for using this term, but first, allow me to introduce to you The Modern Post.

Actually, if you’ve been following this blog for at least a couple of months, you’ll recognize that I am drawing from the old well in at least three different ways: first, the song was written and first recorded by Jon Foreman (who I wrote about last fall) in 2006; second, the lead singer of The Modern Post is Dustin Kensrue (who I used last Christmas); and finally, this band is another product of the Mars Hill Worship network (who I covered via Future of Forestry last November).

There are several other good music products coming out of Mars Hill these days that I may get to over the course of time, but you can check them all out for yourself, if you like.  The Modern Post is exactly what the title states: modern.  They are self-described as “upbeat, synth-laden and bass-heavy sound that leads the congregation to praise the creator with freedom and joy.”  So if you’re ready to get your happy-grunge-worship on, then have a listen to “White As Snow.”  If the music is not to your liking, still consider the words, for they have quickly become as memorable, anchorable and central as some of the greatest hymns of all time.

Have mercy on me, oh God
According to Your unfailing love
According to Your great compassion
Blot out my transgressions

Would you create in me a clean heart, oh God
Restore in me the joy of Your salvation

Wash me white as snow
And I will be made whole

The sacrifices of our God are a broken and a contrite heart
Against You and You alone have I sinned

OK, back to the “pillars of the faith” part.  There are a few quintessential truths and patterns that the Christian faith stand upon.  If you removed even one of the them, the entire structure would collapse.  Deity of Christ, Trinity, the resurrection, and grace alone would be a few examples of these pillars (head coverings and dancing would not).  Another one that rises up out of this tune is the authentic repentance of the believer in Christ – both in the beginning of our faith journey and continually moving forward.

“White As Snow” is lyrically a direct quotation of Psalm 51, which captures the heart of David after he is finally convicted of his sin with Bathsheba.  Thus, it is a Scriptural example of what it looks like to be genuinely contrite and repentant towards God.  It’s as simple as this: the real grace of God always produces a desire for real purity before God.  Because He has incredibly gifted us with His righteousness; therefore, we are intended and designed to respond with humility and passion for His holiness.  “Wash me white as snow!” is our heart cry as a people consumed with the saturated grace of the cross.

If you have moved towards the Gospel by just mentally assenting its validity or accepting it as a license to live life however you want to, since you believe you have your fire insurance, then you’ve missed what Jesus really meant for you to gain and you have a shaky pillar underneath your feet.  You haven’t swam to the deep end of the pool yet, my friend.

Examine the Bible and see that each time grace is mentioned, that it is coupled with an intense, direct command to live your life in light of the light of God and the pattern that He has set for us through Christ.  The brilliance of God’s expectations of us is that He offers His Spirit to us in order to accomplish this perfect response to His mercy.  David doesn’t say to God, “I will wash my own heart white as snow for you, God.”  No.  He asks God to do it for him.

Our attempt to live out a Christian life must be paramountly focused on a daily, even hourly, dependence upon His strength.  We do this by living in constant meditation upon His grace for us through Christ and letting that beautiful gift naturally bleed into a heart that wants to and is capable of being more and more like Jesus.

A song like this is like a daily multi-vitamin for me that reminds me to keep this focus, to stand upon the pillar of responding correctly to proper grace.  Confess my sins – because I don’t love them anymore – for I love the God who has and is making me whiter than snow!  What does God expect of us?  What can we give to the almighty Being of the universe?  According to His love letter to us (the Bible) it is a repentant heart.  Let your daily playlist reflect songs such as this one that emulates what God is so excited to see from us – constant restoration of the Joy of our salvation!

Grace Hurts Harder – Gorilla Poets (2012, ?)

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We move from the #1 bestselling album (at least this week),  the Les Miserable movie soundtrack, to an obscure band with only a single song to their name that most of us have never even heard of.  We also swing the pendulum from the classical, theater-style sound of our fathers to a modern, laid-back tune from our youth.

Gorilla Poets are brand new (they don’t even have a website yet).  In fact, they haven’t even really arrived yet.  Nevertheless, a little background on these guys is definitely worth considering.  See if you can follow this: First, we have the slightly well-known author, N. D. Wilson, who is known best for his exiting, fantasy-based young adult novels.  He has also written a couple of nonfiction works, one of which plays into our song selection for today.  Next, you have Aaron Rench, who spearheads a not-so-well-known writing/filming enterprise entitled “Gorilla Poets.”  These two guys came together to write the music and lyrics for our song, which was then performed by the actual band members (names appear on the song link), who have no notoriety (at least, none that I could google).  Finally, the song is intended to be a single release in anticipation of a future album that will serve as a companion to the nonfiction book to be release by Wilson this coming May entitled, “Death By Living: Life is Meant to Be Spent“.  So, did you follow all of that?

Well, whatever the case may be, this song captivated me instantly – both in lyric and style.  The sound of Gorilla Poets is probably best described as a cross between The National and Guggenheim Grotto.  If you don’t know those names, then don’t bother figuring it out.  Just put into that general folk-guitar category and you’re good to go.

The lyrics, however, are unmistakably heart-piercing and truth-shouting (I’m a little obsessed with hyphens today, sorry).  Fair warning, you are gonna want to read/listen to this more than once in order to really get it:

Took a drive in the car to visit the house of sorrows
But the woman at the door said maybe come back tomorrow
Rustle some feathers, shake up the weather
Turn up the trouble, make it a double

In the middle of the flood a dove
In the fires there was a yell
Drink the shame but taste the love
Only grace hurts harder than hell

Took a ladder up a tree just to claim my grief
But the man with the nails, he called me a thief
The curtain was torn, you’re asleep till you’re born
Now there’s mud on your eyes, blood on your lies

In the middle of the flood a dove
In the fires there was a yell
Drink the shame but taste the love
Only grace hurts harder than hell

If you’re still lost and wonder what the intended meaning of these lines are, rest easy.  This is a biblical reflection on the power of God’s grace versus man’s depravity.  Theologically speaking, the Gospel is the propitiation (redirection) of God’s righteous wrath that we (mankind) deserve, but was instead put on God’s Son – Jesus Christ when He died on the cross.  In essence, we earned punishment and damnation, but God trumped our sentence with His own grace.  Grace is more powerful than any other force in existence.  So why does grace hurt harder?

This question can be answered a number of ways – all of which are beautiful and God-glorifying.  For one, grace hurt the power of sin and hell in a permanent and absolute way.  And that is saying something extraordinary!  Hell is an unstoppable, righteous force that God should and could rightly put on each and every one of us sinners.  Nothing can undo the necessity of a Holy God’s plan to appease His unchangeable holy nature – nothing except His unchangeable nature that includes the even mightier power of grace.  In Christ, it is not as though God said to the redeemed one, “Oh, you don’t have to pay that silly price for your sins.”  No.  It is that the redeemed one is (by definition) bought and paid for by Christ’s blood and sinless life, so that both holiness and grace are equally preserved, exalted and glorified.

And so grace hurts harder, additionally, because when the believer is saved by Christ’s substitutionary sacrifice we are awakened to the cosmic reality of how badly we have hurt God with our rebellion.  “Took a ladder up a tree just to claim my grief; but the man with the nails called me a thief.”  Think that through for a moment.  We strive and toil all our lives to win God’s favor, but all of our efforts only result in worsening our position against a perfect Being.  The “man with the nails” is Christ and He is hanging there in agony on your behalf, crying out, “You are the thief (sinner), but I’m dying for you anyway, because I love you!”

When we meditate on these truths and let them sink deeper and deeper into our black, corroded souls it becomes more and more shameful to see.  And yet that grace is still there – unending and unrelentingly pulling us back up to the face of a smiling, forgiving God who says, “Call me, Abba!”

Ephesians 2 says, “Once you were dead because of your disobedience and your many sins. You used to live in sin, just like the rest of the world, obeying the devil—the commander of the powers in the unseen world.  He is the spirit at work in the hearts of those who refuse to obey God. All of us used to live that way, following the passionate desires and inclinations of our sinful nature. By our very nature we were subject to God’s anger, just like everyone else.

But God is so rich in mercy, and He loved us so much, that even though we were dead because of our sins, He gave us life when he raised Christ from the dead. (It is only by God’s grace that you have been saved!) For He raised us from the dead along with Christ and seated us with Him in the heavenly realms because we are united with Christ Jesus. So God can point to us in all future ages as examples of the incredible wealth of His grace and kindness toward us, as shown in all He has done for us who are united with Christ Jesus.

God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. 10 For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago.”

Only grace can do these things.  Only grace can hurt the powers of sin and hell for the one who embraces Christ.  Only grace can make us feel our true shame and sorrow for what we really are apart from the blood of Jesus – and then turn right around and make us hurt (or ache) for the future that has been bought for us in Heaven with our perfectly gracious God!  Grace hurts harder, my friends.  Keep your eyes and ears honed in for these guys…I can’t wait for more.

Let All Mortal Flesh Keep SIlence – Red Mountain Music (2008, Silent Night)

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This is my second dip into the well that is Red Mountain Music, first time during this Christmas season.  If I end up doing this form of a blog for a long enough time, I will probably use every song that Red Mountain has ever made…they are that good.

However, this song is not just another Christmas song and I would guess that many of you have never heard of it before.  In my humble opinion, it is the complete package of what a Christmas song should be: rich content, intimate cadence, and majestic focus.  And this is the best version of the ancient hymn by far.

True to it’s stated purpose, Red Mountain has resurrected a forgotten classic with vibrant, new sounds.  “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence” is very old, originating from an offertory hymn/chant in the 4th century AD of the Divine Liturgy of St. James.  It was later translated from Greek and put to melody during medieval times.  The title is taken from Habakkuk 2:20, but here is the verse in context, starting from verse 18:

“What good is an idol carved by man, or a cast image that deceives you?
How foolish to trust in your own creation—a god that can’t even talk!
What sorrow awaits you who say to wooden idols, ‘Wake up and save us!’
To speechless stone images you say, ‘Rise up and teach us!’
Can an idol tell you what to do?
They may be overlaid with gold and silver, but they are lifeless inside.
But the Lord is in His holy Temple.  Let all the earth be silent before Him.”

The Bible is full of talk like this where the author mocks the ridiculousness of worshiping inanimate objects.  But in this text, the smack talk is backed by a reference to God’s answer to empty idol worship.  For the people of Israel, God met with them through His very presence within the holy temple.  A supernatural answer to “rival” idolatries.  But salvation history was utterly defined by what God did in Bethlehem some 2,000 years ago.

Let our song selection describe the historical union between deity and mortal flesh:

Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
And with fear and trembling stand;
Ponder nothing earthly minded,
For with blessing in His hand,
Christ our God to earth descendeth
Our full homage to demand.

King of kings, yet born of Mary,
As of old on earth He stood,
Lord of lords, in human vesture,
In the body and the blood;
He will give to all the faithful
His own self for heavenly food.

Rank on rank the host of heaven
Spreads its vanguard on the way,
As the Light of light descendeth
From the realms of endless day,
That the powers of hell may vanish
As the darkness clears away.

At His feet the six winged seraph,
Cherubim with sleepless eye,
Veil their faces to the presence,
As with ceaseless voice they cry:
Alleluia, Alleluia
Alleluia, Lord Most High!

I honestly cannot think of a better way to call attention to the incarnation of Christ than with these lyrics.  Note, specifically, how the last verse recalls the ark of the covenant and the sculpted cherubim that “guarded” the holy of holies – where God’s presence would reside, visited by the Jewish high priest once a year.  What is great about this picture is realizing how drastically different it is from seeing God lying in a manger, wrapped in swaddling clothes – accessible to human parents, animals, shepherds and other bystanders.  From extreme limitation to awesome incarnation!

When you consider how big of a deal it is that God…supreme Being in all the universe…God came down to earth as a babe, it is unfathomable to comprehend.  The only and best response is twofold: be silent and then say, “Alleluia!”

Perhaps, this Christmas season is getting a little hairy for you.  That is understandable.  My challenge to you and to myself is simply this: take ten minutes in silence, just one time over the next couple of weeks, find ten minutes to be still and meditate upon the unbelievable reality that God came to us as flesh and blood.  Then, when those ten minutes are over, simply whisper in adoration to Him, “Alleluia…Praise Yahweh!”

O Come O Come Emmanuel – Rosie Thomas (2008, A Very Rosie Christmas)

Click on image to listen to song for free.

Click on image to listen to song for free.

Today, we look at our first traditional Christmas song and my favorite version of the holiday carol.  Each time I do this, I hope to provide some insightful background to the origin and intention of these classics.

First, about our featured artist, Rosie Thomas.  Thomas is a singer/song writer originally from Michigan.  She has a peculiar mixture of talents including music, comedy and film.  My draw to this version of “O Come O Come Emmanuel” will be explained a little later.  I’m not incredibly familiar with her other work, but for me this rendition has out shined the test of so many other takes on one of the most well known Christmas songs.

“O Come O Come Emmanuel” has long ancestral roots, that it is unclear how far back it goes.  Guesses range the 8th to 15th century AD, and most assume a Latin origin.  It’s nearly impossible to put an author/composer to it’s ownership.  Historically, it has been often used during the last week of Advent, but we are taking a look at it during the first week of Advent.  My reason for this is to continue with the anticipatory approach to this season.  I hope to present Christmas songs in a certain order, so that we listen first to the expectation and need for Christ, then the path of arrival of the Christ, and finally the triumphant announcement of Christ’s coming.

“O Come O Come Emmanuel” deals mainly with the prophetic prologue concerning the nation of Israel and God’s plan to rescue them through His Son.  Isaiah 7:14 is used as the primary prophesy for this tune: “the Lord himself will give you the sign. Look! The virgin will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel (which means ‘God is with us’).”  The context of the lyrics in the Christmas carol reflect a call upon God to rescue Israel from oppression, wondering and sorrow.  Here are all seven verses, although our selection only sings 1, 3, & 6.

Oh, come, oh, come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to you, O Israel!

Oh, come, our Wisdom from on high,
Who ordered all things mightily;
To us the path of knowledge show,
and teach us in her ways to go.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to you, O Israel!

Oh, come, oh, come, our Lord of might,
Who to your tribes on Sinai’s height
In ancient times gave holy law,
In cloud and majesty and awe.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to you, O Israel!

Oh, come O Rod of Jesse’s stem,
From ev’ry foe deliver them
That trust your mighty pow’r to save;
Bring them in vict’ry through the grave.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to you, O Israel!

Oh, come, O Key of David, come,
And open wide our heav’nly home;
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to you, O Israel!

Oh, come, our Dayspring from on high,
And cheer us by your drawing nigh,
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to you, O Israel!

Oh, come, Desire of nations, bind
In one the hearts of all mankind;
Oh, bid our sad divisions cease,
And be yourself our King of Peace.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to you, O Israel!

The power of this hymn is found in how it is entirely written in future tense, perfectly capturing the anticipation of salvation history’s greatest event – as if it hasn’t happened yet.  What this accomplishes is showing the ache and longing of God’s people  who were desperate for revival and rebirth.  Generations of waiting, suffering, forgetting and then painfully remembering, once again, that God chose them as His very own nation – but they refused to honor God in return.  Centuries of trying to find answers to all of their problems, but never staying close enough to God and the path that He had set for them so long ago.

Nevertheless, God would not abandon His own – even they had earned such a fate.  Listen to Sally Lloyd-Jones’ paraphrase of Malachi 1, 3, & 4 (the last prophet book in the Old Testament before Jesus arrives):

God said to Israel, “I can’t stop loving you.  You are My heart’s treasure.  But I lost you.  Now I am coming back for you.  I am like the sun that gently shines on you, chasing away the darkness and fear and death.  You’ll be so happy – you’ll be like little calves running free in an open field.  I am going to send a Messenger – The Promised One.  The One you have been waiting for.  The Rescuer.  He is coming.  So, get ready!”

This Christmas song resembles someone being underwater for minutes and then coming up for air.  There is such a yearning in each verse, particularly from the vantage point of a lost people, God’s lost sheep.  But each stanza includes such a declaration of faith and joy in the promise of Emmanuel – God with us!

Rosie Thomas’ voice presents just the right balance between deep longing and quiet faith/joy.  I prefer the softer version of this song as well, which helps to facilitate a focus on anticipation and desire for God to come.

Before we get too excited that Jesus has arrived, let us remember how much we need Him, how long this world has waited for a Rescuer, and how faithful God was/is in delivering on His many and glorious promises!  O! Come, Emmanuel!  God, come be with us!