Christmas Sounds for the Spirit

Snow gently falling, the flickering lights of a Christmas tree, and the soaring strains of ancient carols— what wonderful ways to attune our spirits to this season of Advent!

I wish I could snap my fingers and whip up a winter wonderland outside your window right now, or at least help you put up your Christmas tree, but, alas, I can do neither. But I can add some music for your ears… here is a link to an iTunes list of some of my favorite Christmas music:

Here are melodies old and new, yet all seem to tap into the hope & awe & joy that I think God wants us to dwell in during this sacred time of the year. In no particular order, the songs are:

Angels We Have Heard on High– an ancient French carol on the adoration of Christ, it makes me think what it would have been like to hear those angel choruses and then kneel before the newborn babe:

Come, adore on bended knee,
Christ the Lord, the newborn King.

The Bells of Christmas– from one of my favorite Christmas movies, The Santa Clause, which really is a beautiful story of faith and supernatural personal transformation. I love this soaring score & lyrics:

In the silence of the night
When the snow lies soft & still
You can see a magic light
And hear the ring of Christmas bells

Breath of Heaven– I can imagine that young Mary could have prayed these very words so very long ago:

Breath of Heaven
Hold me together
Be forever near me
Breath of Heaven

Breath of Heaven
Lighten my darkness
Pour over me Your holiness
For You are holy Breath of Heaven

The Coventry Carol– this was originally a Mediaeval passion play song, dating back at least to the 1400s. Its somber tone reflects the horror of the slaughter of the infants by Herod, and reminds us of the evil in the world that Christ came into:

Herod, the king, in his raging,
Charged he hath this day
His men of might, in his own sight,
All children young to slay.

Ding Dong! Merrily on High– the melody was originally a dance tune in the 1500s, which reflects the joyous lyrics:

Ding dong! merrily on high
In heav’n the bells are ringing:
Ding dong! verily the sky
Is riv’n with angel singing.

Emmanuel, God With Us– a contemporary song that tells us that the hope of Christ is still with us:

And still He calls
Through the night,
Beyond the days of old.
A voice of peace
To the weary ones,
Who struggle with the human soul.

All of us,
Through a given time.
Who can know
What tomorrow holds?
But over the horizon,
Surely you and I will find.

Emmanuel, God with us,
Emmanuel, God with us,
The son of Israel.

Good Christian Men, Rejoice– the original Latin words are thought to have come from a dream that the German mystic Henry Suso had in 1328:

Good Christian men, rejoice
With heart and soul and voice
Now ye need not fear the grave:
Peace! Peace!
Jesus Christ was born to save
Calls you one and calls you all
To gain His everlasting hall
Christ was born to save
Christ was born to save

O Come O Come Emmanuel– parts of this carol may date back to 8th century Gregorian chants. Richly saturated with Old Testament prophecy verses, it reminds us that Christ truly does put death’s dark shadows to flight:

O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

One Small Child– a contemporary carol that paints a beautiful picture of the babe in the manger:

See Him lying, a cradle beneath Him.
See Him smiling in the stall.
See His mother praising the Father.
See His tiny eyelids fall.
See the shepherds kneeling before Him.
See the kings on bended knee.
See the mother praising the Father.
See the blessed infant sleep.

One small child in a land of a thousand.
One small dream of a savior tonight.
One small hand reaching out to the starlight.
One small savior of life.

We Three Kings of Orient Are– was written by the Reverend John Henry Hopkins for a Christmas play in 1857. Written for a seminary, it speaks of Christ’s “three-fold office”— in that as the Messiah He is both prophet, priest, and king:

Glorious now behold Him arise,
King and God and Sacrifice.
Alleluia, Alleluia
Sounds through the earth and skies.

What Child is This– was written in 1865 by William Chatterton Dix, a business manager who wrote these words while bed-confined with a life-threatening illness:

What child is this, who, laid to rest,
On Mary’s lap is sleeping?
Whom angels greet with anthems sweet
While shepherds watch are keeping?
This, this is Christ the king,
Whom shepherds guard and angels sing;
Haste, haste to bring Him laud,
The babe, the son of Mary!

What are your favorite Christmas carols? Enjoy them this Advent season!

Book Review: Make Love Make War

Unique.  Thought-Provoking.  Personal.  Christ-centered.

All these words come to mind when reading the new book Make Love, Make War by songwriter Brian Doerksen.  Although you may not have heard his name, if you listen to contemporary worship you certainly have heard his songs such as “Come, Now Is The Time to Worship” and “Hallelujah, Your Love Makes Me Sing.”  Brian has given the church a wealth of wonderful songs and ministry over the past twenty years, and Make Love Make War is another creative gift.

Each of the twelve chapters is structured around one of his songs.  After introducing the song, he talks about the circumstances of his life that led up to the song, whether it was a wise-cracking comment to a fellow songwriter or the dark valleys of raising two special needs sons.  He then digs deeper, going into the theological underpinnings of each song and how he views both the church’s needs and responses to the song.  He ends each chapter with a series of practical tips for songwriting based on the song as well.

This book worked for me on multiple levels.  First, I appreciated getting to know Brian as a person, his joys and struggles, his transparency and his love for Christ.  Second, although I am not a songwriter, his descriptions of his creative process and tips resonated with my own as a devotional prose writer.

But the greatest value of this book are his insights on the nature of worship in the church today.  He is frank in his discussion of both what is right and what is wrong in much contemporary worship with comments such as:

When we worship, we do what Satan abandoned long ago— and the enemy does everything he can to stop us from worshipping, because when we worship, he remembers.


The modern worship culture of the megachurch makes it much easier to sing the big, shiny, happy anthems.  But that culture of happy appearances and upbeat performances is keeping some brokenhearted people away from churches of all sizes.

Make Love Make War is must reading if you’re involved in worship ministry, and it is a great read for anyone.  I enjoyed this book, but more importantly I was challenged by this book.  Highly recommended.

A Life of Worship

Did you realize that the Bible mentions to  sing (104 times)  praise (239 times) and worship (192 times) more than it mentions to pray (320 times)? That’s the priority that the Scriptures put on worship.  As a matter of fact, John MacArthur once wrote a book stating that worship was “the ultimate priority.”

Most of us would say, yes, we should pray every day, and of course, we should read our Bibles every day, but do we think that we should worship every day?

Of course, we can think of God anytime and worship Him with a silent thought, but is that what the Bible is talking about?  Do we think a prayer for a few seconds or think about a Bible verse and call that our prayer time or Bible study time?

Why not set aside specific time during the day to worship?  I wonder what effect five minutes a day of focused praise toward God would have on our spirits?

I’ve put together some of my favorite praise and worship songs and have them on my iPhone and on the iPod stuck in the clock radio beside my bed.  This way, songs that I know well and dig deep into my heart for God are available to me wherever I am.

Here is my current list:

  • “Sweet Sweet Sound” by Sarah Reeves
  • “I Need You” by Kristian Stanfill
  • “Grace Like Rain” by Todd Agnew
  • “He Reigns” by Newsboys
  • “Word of God Speak” by MercyMe
  • “Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone)” by Chris Tomlin
  • “Adonai” by Avalon
  • “I Will Glory In My Redeemer” by Sovereign Grace Music
  • “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us” by Phillips, Craig & Dean
  • “Oh, I Want to Know You More” by Steve Green
  • “Shine On Us” by Phillips, Craig & Dean

If you use iTunes, here is a link to my list:

Worship From the Heart

Get creative!  Find a way to worship God every day that is meaningful & doable for you, and see how God uses it in your life.

Music Review: Sarah Reeves Sweet Sweet Sound

The debut album from this nineteen year old worship leader is aptly named, for she does have a sweet, sweet sound.  This CD has only six song tracks, but each one is a gem.  The first track “Fresh Anointing” is a fitting intro, for it expresses her heart of what she wants for the album and for he church. The next track “Awaken” has a spirit akin to Keith Green’s old classic “Asleep in the Light” in that they both are trying to awaken the church. Her lyrics are gentle yet still pack a punch:

We who walk the broke ground
Who stand and who fall down again
Who just want to live
And we who wander in a dream
Who look but can’t see through the night
Sleeping in the light
We wait for You who spoke the morning

The title track “Sweet Sweet Sound” is a powerful worship anthem which is easy to sing, pray, and cry out to God with– truly stellar. Next comes “Come, Save” which Sarah says is a cry from her heart based on 2 Chronicles 7:14, but I think about Romans 8:19-23 when I hear the deep, soulful lyrics. ”Let Us Rise” is an up-tempo call to live a life of action, while the last track “My Savior” connects Peter’s experience with Jesus on the seas with our relationship with Him.

All in all, this is a tremendous debut album with deep lyrics and a sweet voice coming from someone who seems to be the real deal. I love this album and am looking forward to her future releases.

Music Review: Danyew

When I received this review CD copy, I had never heard of Danyew and wasn’t sure what to expect.

I was very pleasantly suprised by a stylish polished debut album with six tracks in a variety of styles, but all with deep & haunting lyrics.

The first track “The Closer We Are” speaks of longing for intimacy with God with impressive driving rock.

Both “Streetlight” and “Close Your Eyes” explore how knowing God changes our perspective on life but with very different musical styles.

“Beautiful King” is a slow, thoughtful worship ballad, while “Nothing Without You” is more upbeat with folk influences.

Rounding out the album is the heartfelt prayer of “Turnstile”–

Nobody, no not a single soul
Could ever take away
My love for you
Yeah, every single day
I promise to be true
My love I give to you.

Overall, a great debut album.  Highly recommended.

You & You Alone

 I’ve come up with my own criteria for judging media: “Does it create a space that allows me to know God better?”  Duke Ellington reportedly had has own criteria: “If it sounds good, it is good.”

Fortunately, You and You Alone meets the grade on either criteria.  This latest CD from Sovereign Grace Music’s Overflow project is the work of Pat & Joel Szebel.  On the CD there are ten songs of both slow and medium tempo worship.  There are also guitar and lead sheets on the CD.

Each song is simple, heartfelt, and Biblically true.  The melodies and lyrics are well-suited for both personal, small-group, and corporate worship.  I also appreciate that I know this CD is simply “the overflow” of a local church’s walk with God, and not just one more project for a corporate machine to peddle and try to make a profit on.

You and You Alone is a welcome addition to my worship CD collection, and I think it would be welcome in your home and church as well.  You can click on the CD cover to take you to Sovereign Grace’s site, with sound samples and more information.  I received my copy of this CD from Pat & Joel Szebel to review.

Home to You

I’ve never bought a bluegrass album before in my life.

Until now.

How did that happen?

Peasall SistersSunday I was getting sick on hot sauce at Dollywood’s BBQ & Bluegrass Festival. I had heard something about the Peasall Sisters, and was curious to hear them sing. They had gotten their start eight years ago while auditioning for an acting role in the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou?. After hearing them sing, the producers landed them a spot on the movie’s soundtrack, which went on to earn the girls a Grammy on their first professional recording. From there came contact with stars like Patty Loveless and John Carter Cash, who was entranced enough with them to volunteer to produce their latest album, Home to You.

And so I sat down, clutching my burning belly, to see what three teenagers on mandolin, guitar, and fiddle would offer up on a sunny Sunday afternoon. I suddenly forgot my acute gastritis as I was entranced by some of the sweetest melodies I’ve ever heard.

The title cut of their album, written by them, put me into tears:

I’ve been traveling this road for miles
Trying to get to where You are
I know You’re telling me the way to go
But I just can’t hear You over my heart

Give me grace to make it through the night
Give me faith so I can see the light
Give me strength so I can make it home
To You, home to You

My feet are tired of carrying this load
It seems I’m walking round and round
I need somebody to help me out
Because I want to be standing on Your holy ground

Give me grace to make it through the night
Give me faith so I can see the light
Give me strength so I can make it home
To You, home to You

The sisters wrote this song for a friend who had recently embraced Christianity, but it spoke deeply to me as a prayer for any pilgrim in this life who is looking forward to heaven and praying for the grace to carry on.

The album is a mixture of original compositions, bluegrass standards, and gospel hymns. I loved it. Click on the album cover to find out more at Amazon, or do what I did and spend ten bucks on iTunes. Go get it.

Reflections on “Anyway”

Martina McBride Anyway American IdolYou can spend your whole life building something from nothing
One storm can come and blow it all away
Build it anyway
You can chase a dream that seems so out of reach and you know it might not ever come your way
Dream it anyway

God is great, but sometimes life ain’t good
And when I pray it doesn’t always turn out like I think it should
But I do it anyway, I do it anyway

This world’s gone crazy and it’s hard to believe that tomorrow will be better than today
Believe it anyway
You can love someone with all your heart, for all the right reasons, and in a moment they can choose to walk away
Love ‘em anyway

You can pour your soul out singing a song you believe in that tomorrow they’ll forget you ever sang
Sing it anyway, sing it anyway

I sing, I dream, I love, anyway

I’ve been listening to this song over and over the past few days since I first heard it.  Wow.  I think all good art is something that passes from one soul to another, and says something both true and important about the nature of being human and/or the nature of God.  This song is good.

We all tend to lose heart, become discouraged, and wonder “Why bother?” sometimes.  Why?  Because we live in a fallen world, because “this world’s gone crazy” and “life ain’t always good.”  She speaks of reaching for personal goals, looking ahead to the future, commiting your love to another, and trying to touch people’s hearts.  In all of these quests of the heart, there’s no guarantee of success as we define it, even if we petition God (“when I pray it doesn’t always turn out like I think it should”).

But the hingepoint of the song is that “God is great.”  This is the same conclusion that Job came to in the midst of his confusion and distress, and the conclusion that David repeatedly came to in the Psalms.  The greatness and justice of God is also the foundation Jesus gives in Luke 18:1-8 as He encourages us to pray and not lose heart.

Listen to this song, and remember that because of God’s greatness, we have a firm foundation, an unwavering reason to continue to sing, to dream, to love, anyway.

Passing by Beauty

There have been literally thousands of bloggers writing about this article entitled “Pearls before Breakfast” from the Washington Post this week, many of them probably far more eloquently than I.  But I’ve thought about it so much that I had to comment on it.

joshua bell violinThe story, for those who might try unsuccessfully reading it after the Post takes down the link, goes like this: violinist Joshua Bell, considered one of the greatest virtuosos of our time, plays a $3.5 million dollar Stradivarius violin at a DC metro station anonymously as a street musician during rush hour.  What happens?  Nothing.  A thousand people pass by, and only a few even stop and listen.  Only one person who recognized him realized that they were in the presence of spectacular beauty and grace.  This man charges $1000 a minute for a concert, and yet a thousand people just passed by.

Two things strike me: One, how many commentators have specifically mentioned how it would have been different in Europe, how people would have stopped, would have recognized the beauty and appreciated it.  That doesn’t say much for the culture that I find myself immersed in, where millions of people take their time to vote for someone with a truly mediocre voice as their “American Idol” and yet can’t recognize a violin piece that has enthralled ears for hundreds of years.  A culture where tens of millions make a banal parody of ice skating the most watched movie in America, and yet where the majority of Americans have not read a single classic novel in years.  We truly are content with playing with mud pies, and do not even recognize it.

The second observation is much more personal: what would I have done? Would I have taken the time?  Would I have listened?  I’m not sure.  And though it is a shame and a waste to miss the beauty of a violin, what I really worry about is missing the beauty of human souls and of God Himself.  If we do not take the time, if we do not train ourselves, to see what needs to be seen and celebrated in the people we encounter, and if we do not intentionally live in the presence of God as we go about our day, where does that leave us?  The answer isn’t a pretty one, but it’s one we all need to devote some serious thought to. 

S l o w   d o w n.   

B r e a t h e.

L i v e.   

L o v e.

L a u g h.

C a r e.

S e r v e.

W o r s h i p.

Thoughts on WinterJam 2007

WinterJam Winter Jam 2007I ventured out tonight for the first time in over a decade into the world of contemporary Christian concerts by taking my son to the opening night of the WinterJam 2007 Tour.  It was a surreal mixture of Christ and culture and capitalism.  A gifted evangelist passionately describing his abusive childhood while standing under a mirror ball, as people chatted or ate or bought various glow in the dark blinking headgear or gawked at someone dressed as a giant sweet potato (No, I didn’t make that last part up!).  Teens milling about buying overpriced t-shirts and other merchandise including $2.00 plastic kazoos (No, not making that up either.)  A President Bush impersonator singing a blues song about making the world safe for democracy and riding around on an electric scooter (too wierd for even me to make up).  Not to mention six thousand people somehow thinking that jumping up and down simultaneously while exposing their ears to sounds loud enough to possibly cause permanent hearing damage is a good way to worship God.

And then there were things that just made you go Hmmmmmm…like those funky psychadelic light pillars in back of the stage…pretty colorrrssss…I wonder how many wells in Africa could have been dug for what those pillars cost…and why did they get turned on for only Steven Curtis Chapman and Jeremy Camp?  More dramatic to use them for only the last two sets?  Did the rest of the acts not want them?  Or just not “rate” turning on the extra electricity to power them?  Note to Steven Curtis:  you didn’t have light pillars when I saw you in concert 20 years ago and you did just fine…I spent time focusing on the pretty colors and how they were controlled which I should have spent focusing on the music and the God behind the music… think about losing the pillars.

But in spite of all that, good stuff was there too.  Hundreds responded to an invitation, and doubtless at least a few of those genuinely came into the Kingdom tonight.  Dozens (including me) signing up to sponsor a child through Holt International. I genuinely worshipped (and rocked) (and cried) during Steven Curtis Chapman’s set, and God spoke to me through Jeremy Camp’s testimony.

So, what do I make of it all? That the concert was like me, a chaotic mess of spirit and flesh, of holiness and worldliness, that in spite of it all God condescended to use it to advance His Kingdom.  I praise God for the good, and I wonder about the not so good, both in the concert and in me.  Par for the course for living in a fallen world.