Lots of worship music is lame, but it doesn’t have to be.

Lots of modern worship music is bad. Bad lyrics, bad music, bad theology. But that’s not my point.

My point is it doesn’t have to be bad. There are excellent, deep, beautiful, honest, spiritually rich worship songs being written today. I wish to offer two examples and an observation.

Example 1: Aaron Keyes. Listen especially to his 2011 Dwell. Now I’m partial to hymns, and the ones of these I like the best are hymn-like (“Sinless Savior” and “Song of Moses” are my favorites). But not all of them. Look at “I Am Not The Same”:

You restore the wasted years
You build the broken walls
Your love replaces fear
Your mercy makes us whole

Adopted, healed, and lifted

I am not the same; I’m a new creation
I am not the same anymore
I am not ashamed; I will not be shaken
I am not the same anymore

This is simple without being shallow, light without being vapid, celebratory without making us sound like cheerleaders. “Adopted.” We get lots of “child of God” in modern worship, which is great, but not much about adoption, which is how we become children of God.

Example 2: Sandra McCracken. I cannot recommend In Feast Or Fallow enough, and I also recommend you follow that link to read her comments on the songs. The album has a beautiful little song anticipating the birth of her daughter, immediately followed by a treatment of Psalm 88, the only psalm of lament that doesn’t move toward praise at the end. She explains:

When we decided to include “Hidden Place” on the album, I was a little concerned about the one-sidedness of this story.  By including a song about having a baby, you touch a nerve of many women who are not able to have a baby, or couples who have lost a baby, and all manner of grief of this kind… And since honest joy and honest grief are both recorded in the prayers of God’s people throughout church history, I wanted to give a fresh voice to both on this album.

This is aesthetically beautiful, theologically rich, personally thoughtful. The whole album is excellent. From the title track:

In the harvest feast or the fallow ground,
My certain hope is in Jesus found
My lot, my cup, my portion sure
Whatever comes, we shall endure
Whatever comes, we shall endure

The harmonies on that song are also exquisite. I’m a pretty quick study when it comes to learning songs, and I had to walk around listening to it for about 3 days to get them right. Again: Truth, non-trite encouragement, musical excellence. This can be done.

Observation: I know from Sandra’s history with Indelible Grace that she has spent years absorbing great hymns. I don’t know what Aaron listens to, but I know he reads lots of Scripture– his songs are thick with it. Same for Sandra. In both cases, the quality of their influences shows through quite nicely. So here’s the point: Feed on good things, and your output will be good.

If you want to write songs that help us worship Jesus, thank you. Please soak yourself in Scripture, in the words of faithful saints throughout church history, in things that are beautiful and lovely and true and real. We can tell the difference when you do.


Honest love songs

We need songs that say “you’re the greatest thing ever and I love you.” But there are lots of those songs.

There aren’t very many songs that say “Man, is this hard sometimes, but we’re not gonna quit.” You get a decade or so into marriage, throw some kids in the mix, (live in a foreign-to-you country?) and songs that say that really start to mean something.

Here are two recent favorites.

My superpower, and two related stories

I have an interesting-but-not-all-that-useful superpower: The ability to remember with surprising specificity where I was the last time I heard a song. (This relates to my recent post Music = Home.)

It applies to some spoken-word recordings as well. For example, one day circa 2005, probably in the spring, I was out for a run and listening to a talk from the 2004 Desiring God National Conference, which was on “Sex and the Supremacy of Christ.” It was Piper’s Sunday morning sermon at the conclusion of the conference.

Not surprisingly, a great deal of the sermon was Piper talking about the supremacy and sovereignty of Christ. (You know, the Piper sermon where he talks about that.) But in this particular one, he actually spent 10 minutes or so listing all these aspects of Christ’s supremacy (his deity, his eternality, his knowledge, etc.), and then all these things he’s sovereign over (galaxies, atoms, governments, terrorists, etc.).

My short run in those days was a 2-mile loop in South Park. The first 3/4 mile was flat, but then there was this beast of a hill– not all that steep until the very end, but long– about a half mile. So as I approach the hill, Piper’s warming up with the supremacy section. Then I think, “He’s still going. This is pretty good.” I hit the hill and his volume and intensity are going up. Then he goes into the sovereignty section. He keeps going the whole time I’m climbing this hill, then right as I get to the top, hardest part of the run, he blows it up with the Kuyper quote that every self-respecting YRR guy has tattooed on his back:

There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, “Mine!”

I think I might have actually jumped and pumped my fists, Rocky-style. Man, that was a good run.

(Slightly cooler story: Another time I was listening to a bootleg from Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi. At the end of the run I was on the beginning of the encore, and the band’s just sort of messing around, when suddenly Susan leads into a Wilson Pickett-esque “Hey Jude,” with horns and everything. It was so good that I ran an extra mile and a half.)

My favorite song

You’ve got to be kidding.

I have a favorite song about God. I have a favorite song about Melissa. I have a favorite song about Sam, and one about Foard. I have a favorite song about Prague, and about moving to Prague. I have a favorite song about the church. I have favorite instrumental songs, and favorite vocal songs, and favorite piano songs, and favorite guitar songs, and songs that just make me laugh because of how ridiculously good they are, and songs that have been my friends for 10 years or more.

But favorite song? Couldn’t tell you.

Music = home.

Prague offers lots of personal time. I appreciate this. Specifically it offers a lot of time in transit– walking, on the tram, on the metro, on the bus. Which means there’s lots of time for the iPod, if you’re into that sort of thing. And I am.

I have been amazed how life-giving it is to listen to music going from point A to point B. More than having it on in the background– I mean having the earphones in, not doing anything else but walking, listening hard, hearing things you never heard before. I get so lost in it I’m sure I look like an idiot.

I wondered why this was such a big deal, why it lifts my mood so much. Then it occurred to me: Music is home.

Home’s a complicated word for us right now. A heavy word, even. But when His Band And The Street Choir comes on, I’m home: on the back porch at Cross Creek in Athens. When I hear Live at the Georgia Theatre, I’m driving back home to Charlotte after seeing that show with Taylor. When Ray LaMontagne sings “Let It Be Me,” I’m holding Foard, at 2 weeks old, in the middle of the night at our house in Plaza Midwood. And of course there’s the Black Crowes and the Wood Brothers.  Friends old and new.

Is this an escape? Sure. It’s not our real home– but then neither is Prague, or Charlotte, or Athens. And this pilgrim is thankful for whatever I can get.

Fair Warning

Are you praying to become more like Jesus in 2011? Good. Me too. But don’t be surprised if it happens like this.

“I Asked The Lord”
John Newton (I like Emily DeLoach’s version)

I asked the Lord that I might grow
In faith and love and every grace
Might more of His salvation know
And seek more earnestly His face

‘Twas He who taught me thus to pray
And He I trust has answered prayer
But it has been in such a way
As almost drove me to despair

I hoped that in some favored hour
At once He’d answer my request
And by His love’s constraining power
Subdue my sins and give me rest

Instead of this He made me feel
The hidden evils of my heart
And let the angry powers of Hell
Assault my soul in every part

Yea more with His own hand He seemed
Intent to aggravate my woe
Crossed all the fair designs I schemed,
Cast out my feelings, laid me low

“Lord, why is this?” I trembling cried
“Wilt Thou pursue thy worm to death?”
“Tis in this way,” the Lord replied
“I answer prayer for grace and faith.”

“These inward trials I employ
From self and pride to set thee free
And break thy schemes of earthly joy
That thou mayest seek thy all in me.”

May God set us free from self and pride this year, even if he must break our schemes of earthly joy in the process.

The Wood Brothers, 05/13/09, Visulite Theatre

IMG_0155The Wood Brothers, who you may never have heard of, have been my favorite band for over a year now. Chris Wood, who plays bass for the jazz trio Medeski Martin & Wood, joins up with his brother Oliver, guitar player for the Atlanta blues band King Johnson. With Chris on standup bass and Oliver on guitar, they bring a unique vibe that I’ve described as what Van Morrison might have sounded like if he grew up in Mississippi.

These guys are two of the tastiest players I’ve heard– every note is exactly what belongs in its place. The simplicity of the instrumentation, the perfect blend of the brothers’ voices, the weighty ease of the lyrics– everything combines to make you just close your eyes and smile.

Melissa and I saw them for the first time in Atlanta last fall and it was pretty magical. Last week Tyler and I caught them at the Visulite to celebrate my birthday, and they didn’t disappoint. (Some college kids who sat next to us for a while did, but whatever.)

If you like this taste, both of their studio albums are well worth the purchase: the 2006 debut Ways Not to Lose and last year’s Loaded. They also have a new covers EP, Up Above My Head, coming out in June that’s currently available at their shows (and at the link). I picked it up at the show last week and have loved it– the best surprise is a fresh rendition of the Allman Brothers Band’s “Midnight Rider.”

If you’re looking for something new, and especially if you’re in a music rut, pour a glass of wine and check these guys out. They’ll bring some color to your world.

No More I Bear the Crushing Load

This is a very rough demo of the offertory I wrote for our worship service last week. It’s based on the sermon text, Romans 5:1-11. (And by “very rough” I mean wrong notes, head cold, I can’t really play slide, the whole nine yards. This is what we call me being “vulnerable.”)

Vodpod videos no longer available.

more about “No More I Bear the Crushing Load“, posted with vodpod

No More I Bear The Crushing Load

No more I bear the crushing load
Of guilt upon my brow
No more I fear the killing blow
Of justice’ word come down
Instead my Father’s voice rings loud
And sweet upon my ear
The close of strife, the words of peace
My soul has longed to hear

Justified now by Jesus’ blood
And one with him by faith
No trial can come across my road
But points me to his face
My hope cannot be put to shame
My God with me is pleased
His Spirit tells his love to me
And for me intercedes

When I was weak and helpless yet
And under curse of God
Jesus came down from heav’n and shed
For me his precious blood
If by his death I’m reconciled
Set free from sin and strife
Much more I now rejoice in him
Who saves me by his life