Having grown up in the Church, I’ve seen both the best of what a life of faith can bring (love and forgiveness, hope and healing, purpose) and the worst of what Bad Religion can produce (guilt, suspicion, pride, paranoia, divisiveness, hate).
It’s taken me a lifetime to sort out what is true faith in Christ, and what is the nonsense and man-made garbage that get’s added to the mix. Sorting through the two, with the help of scripture and the Holy Spirit, is sort of like picking the lint out of the dryer vent. The nonsense clogs the witness of God’s people, and thankfully the Lord and His plan is bigger than all the sand we humans can throw into the engine. Even at our brightest, we are a dim bulb in shining the light of God’s grace to a hurting world. And yet, mysteriously, He keeps on using us to further the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth. Jesus chose twelve disciples who were tremendously flawed individuals. Peter was impulsive and impetuous, quick to speak and act without thinking (“I’ll never betray you Lord!”). Thomas was prone to doubt, even if the evidence was right in front of him. James and John argued and fought for position in the ranks of Jesus’ followers (he called them the “sons of thunder” for all their brotherly arguing). And Judas? His financial swindling and conniving went farther than he ever thought it would (a good thing to remember when you are tempted to think of any sins as “little”), and he ended up selling out the Son of God for thirty pieces of silver (which many scholars attribute to about $4,000 dollars in today’s economy).
How is it that these disciples (minus Judas, who’s guilt led him to take his own life) and other followers of that day spread the gospel in such a way that the powerful Roman empire and the very world of that day was turned upside down in just a few hundred years (with echoes reaching our shores today, nearly 2,000 years after that event)?
Well, the answer lies in the Apostle Paul’s statement in 2 Corinthians 4:7, where the great writer of the early church says “But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.”
A jar of clay (or “earthen vessel” in the good King James) was a disposable thing in the ancient world, the equivalent of a plastic water bottle or a Styrofoam take-out box from the burger joint down the street. It was something to use a few times, and when it broke, you just fashioned another one. It was a weak, toss-off kind of thing, and Paul’s using of it as a metaphor would have hit home in the ancient world. You don’t put a treasure in a Dixie Cup, you put it in a locked safe or vault. Yet the Lord, mysteriously, chooses to use fallible people (like your’s truly) to show the world the Kingdom of God; what a life lived in communion with the living creator can look like.
But the great “why” applies here. What is God thinking? Why choose to use frail, fragile things to house his Holy Spirit? What net benefit does this bring? What sort of master plan is this?
Paul gives us the answer when he says “to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.”
Because we can so easily make this about us. “Look at all that I’ve done!”, “Look at what great and noble things that I’ve done in the name of the Lord!”
And really, that’s the core of Bad Religion. When our frail selves try and trumpet how good and righteous we are, the cracks start to show, and the harder we attempt to cover them up. This goes south real fast, and metastasizes into something vile and rotten. Ever wonder how so-called Christians went from being burned at the stake in the days of the early church to burning so-called heathens at the stake themselves hundreds of years later? Well, here’s your formula. Take a little self-righteousness (“I really know what’s best”, ‘I‘m better than that guy“) and let it ferment for a bit, and over time, you get a recipe for a dangerous, grotesque shadow of faith that does a lot of damage in the name of the Lord.
But if we rightly see ourselves as He does, as frail forms that He chooses to use, fragile things full of cracks, but filled with His power, then the real work of love can begin. Any good thing that we do gets rightly attributed to the power of God working inside us. The light shows brightly through the cracks. You can easily crush a Styrofoam cup full of water, but you cannot crush one with a frozen block of water inside. It’s not the cup that has become suddenly powerful, but what is inside it that gives it its newfound durability.
The band Jars Of Clay helped bring this critical, spiritual metaphor to light for me. And at a time I was battling and questioning the forms of Bad Religion all around me, they helped me see the forest for the trees.
I was in the right place at the right time to hear their debut album (a good couple of months before the rest of the world) when I happened upon the guys at a music festival in my youth group days. They were not playing the fest, but they were there as fans of other bands. I’m not sure if they were supposed to be doing this, but they handed out their album freely, and, truth be told, I almost didn’t take it, because it seemed like they were just another small-time artist trying to get their name out. (Another youth group member proclaimed the guys “lame” for trying to promote themselves this way.) But I was never one to turn down anything free, and the album cover looked cool, so I grabbed one.
I played it on my pickup truck’s stereo on the way back to the campground where we were staying, and the first track (“Liquid”, with it’s Gregorian chanting sample and piercing lyrics) floored me. I made the rest of the youth group kids listen to it, and they all went back to the fest the next day and snapped up every available album that they could. And that debut album was all that anyone talked about for months afterwards. (It would be released in October of that year, four months after we first heard it, and catch on mightily with the world-at-large the next spring.)
Combining an earthy tone of acoustic instruments, deep and introspective lyrics and a whole lot of great melodies and cross-over appeal, Jars Of Clay’s self-titled first album is one of the best albums in the history of Christian rock and roll (or “CCM” or whatever you want to call it). It hits on every cylinder, and has a dark, introspective mood (the heavy, propulsive MTV hit “Flood”, the child abuse centered “He”) balanced with joyous songs of praise (“Love Song For A Savior”, “Like A Child”), yet never loses the core message that God, in his grace shown by sending his son to die for us, dwells inside us, and chooses to keep using us for His mission in the world. In our fragile state, the Lord sees something we don’t. He sees a bigger picture of how He has originally made up to be. As the song “Art In Me” says:
And in your picture book
I'm trying hard to see
Turning endless pages
Of this tragedy
Sculpting every move
You compose a symphony
And you plead to everyone
See the art in me
See the art in me
See the art in me
This was a message the seventeen-year-old me needed to hear. I was surrounded with all sorts of Bad Religion (mixed with true portraits of faith as well, though those were hard to see at the time) and in need of someone articulating what true faith in Christ was all about. I the lyrics to that first, haunting track “Liquid”, I heard both the same confusion about faith that I had, and an honest articulation of what it all comes down to:
Arms nailed down
Are you telling me something?
Eyes turned out
Are you looking for someone?
This is the one thing
The one thing
The one thing that I know
Blood stained brow
Are you dying for nothing?
Flesh and blood
Is it so elemental?
This is the one thing
The one thing
The one thing that I know
Blood stained brow
He wasn't broken for nothing.
Arm nailed down
He didn't die for nothing
He didn't die for nothing
This is the one thing
The one thing
The one thing that I know
I still struggle with Bad Religion (election years tend to bring out the worst qualities here), and the damage it has done to many in this world (including members of my own family that want nothing to do with the faith), but it comforts me to know that Jesus struggled with Bad Religion too (it was self-righteous religious leaders who killed him in the “name of God“), but he still showed how God loves the world and wants to bring every one who would come, back into fellowship with Him. Jesus pushed through all of this to show love in the most vivid way he could, by giving his life up for mine (and yours).
This is “the one thing that I know”. And it keeps me going.
This Sunday is Easter, and my church will be full to the rafters with both regular attendees and all of the other folks who wander in once or twice a year. I’m playing in the band this week (that’s me jumping around with the bass guitar), and from my perch on stage, just left of the drum kit, I’ll get to see folks who’ve battled Bad Religion, who’ve been scarred by it, and by life in general. And together with my fellow worship team members and pastoral staff, get a chance to articulate what it is truly all about. Christ’s resurrection, that same power that rose him from the grave, lives in me (another wise, Holy-spirit inspired nugget from St. Paul), and gives me hope. This power to love, to speak boldly, to hope, is housed in this fragile body, this “jar of clay”, giving me purpose and energy for tomorrow.
This is “the one thing that I know”.
Happy Easter to you, and may we all shine His light through the cracks in our earthen vessels.
Breathing Deep The Breath Of God With The Lost Dogs
When I was an adolescent, I was taught that God loved me, and loved the whole world equally with the love of a perfect father. But when I was a teenager (who was attending a new church and school), I was taught that God despised anyone outside the narrow denominational box that was part of my teenage years. God approved of you only if you worked hard on your own righteousness, and took careful steps to seal yourself off from the influence (and company) of “the world” outside the walls of our church. People to be wary of included (in no particular order) gays, democrats, loose women, profane men, those who drank alcohol in any quantity, those who smoked, secularists, people of color (any other color really), long-haired men, short-haired women, those with tattoos, those who played any instrument that was associated with rock and roll, those who read any other version than the 1611 King James Version, and any other division that could be imagined.
I never whole-heartedly bought into any of this rhetoric, and thankfully this denominations emphasis on reading the Bible every day caused me to see that the life of Jesus was diametrically opposed to this “separation” logic. Jesus constantly got flack from the religious leaders of his day for hanging out with the wrong types of people (labeled in the good King James as “prostitutes and sinners”) and surrounding himself with disciples who didn’t fit the mold of someone the Lord would use to minister. (Most of the disciples were from the wrong side of the tracks.) This disconnect between what the Bible (which I was taught, and still believe, is the infallible word of God) presented as the blueprint for how to minister and interact with the world, and how my well-meaning teachers and elders instructed me to conduct myself, troubled me greatly. My mind and heart (influenced by the Holy Spirit) spoke loudly to me on one shoulder, while the people I loved and looked up to, and who I thought spoke for God, sat on that other shoulder. And my young faith sat in between.
During this time, I was dabbling in denominationally unapproved Christian music, smuggled into my life from a summer camp I was blessed to work at during these years. Every Friday night of the summer, the camp ran a “coffee house” concert series where campers and counselors could play music or act out a skit (you remember youth group skits don’t you?), and one night, an older college student counselor came on stage with a mandolin and sang these lyrics (presented here in their entirety):
I’ve always been a lover of words, and how they can be stacked up next to each other to form grandiose buildings of poems, books and songs. And these particular words, in the context of my Christian camp life, and young faith in general, floored me. Upon request, that counselor typed up the lyrics to the song (this was pre-internet), and distributed them to a few of us who asked about them. I took that paper and studied every syllable. (I believe I still have that paper in an old Bible of mine.) I had to look up a few of them ( xenophobes, chauvinists, misogynists, monogamists, neophytes, peace-nicks, sadists, etc.), and when I saw the breadth of the kind of people mentioned in this song (there’s lots of "good" folks here too), I saw the whole scope of humanity. But why did the songwriters (a band called The Lost Dogs I was told) end with the refrain “breathe deep the breath of God”? What connection did the two ideas have.
And as I gave it consideration, and asked around, an older counselor kindly sat down with me and explained that the Lord breathed into Adam his living breath, and all of us are still in need of it every day. I may think I’m righteous because of everything I’m avoiding, but It’s really God’s righteousness through Christ that gives me a right standing with the Divine, and I’m closer to all of those people on the list than I care to admit. In the light of grace, all of humanity is in this mess together. We may create artificial categories to make ourselves feel righteous, but there is no degree of separation between me and a pornographer absent the gift of God’s grace on the cross. We all need to breathe deep the breath of God, because we are all equally in need of grace. All men are closer to each other than an infinitely holy God.
It was the beginning of my understanding of God’s grace, and my flawed humanity, and it’s an understanding that has, by his grace, seen me through a lot of bad religion. Many of those fellow teenagers in my denominational circles have left the faith, thinking that the rigidity they experienced was what God is like. Many have come back, but all of us have scars.
The Lost Dogs album that song (“Breathe Deep”) is on is titled Scenic Routes, and it’s one of the seminal albums in Christian music history, and is influential far beyond its sales figures and popularity.
Once upon a time, there was a thriving alternative Christian music scene on the West Coast, one that grew out of the Jesus Freak California music scene of the late 60’s. The music was adventurous and dangerous, and trafficked in taboo subjects and contra-points of views to the prevailing religious thoughts of the time. Bands such as The Choir, Daniel Amos, The 77’s and Adam Again made dark and textured music that was both ahead of its time (bands such as The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Pearl Jam and The Counting Crows would take the West Coast alternative music sound to the masses in the early 90’s) and contemporary (as in “fits in with what is going on right now"). There was no subject or musical style that was out of bounds in a world where everything is under the eye of God, and it was an exciting time to be listening to music and absorbing the possibilities of what constituted “Christian” thought.
Those four bands (The Choir, Daniel Amos, The 77’s and Adam Again) were asked to collaborate on a one-off album by influential record label Brainstorm Records, and the Lost Dogs were born. With songwriting contributions from each of the band’s songwriters, that first album, Scenic Routes, became a milestone album, and the first of a project that is on-going today.
With a “cowboy rock and roll” template, Scenic Routes sounds nothing like any of the participating band’s music (be it the U2 qualities of The Choir, The R.E.M. jangle and darkness of Adam Again, The quirky, Talking Heads and B52’s vibe of Daniel Amos, or the Led Zepplin, Rolling Stones crunch of the 77’s), and was a refreshing sound in the Grunge music era it was released in.
Kicking off with the thesis statement title track (where the band swears to take the road less expected of them), the album is a tour de force of creativity and spiritual insight. With taboo subjects galore (“Bullet Train” talks candidly about gun violence, and advocates for gun control, a very dangerous idea to present in a conservative CCM market, while “The Fortunate Sons” talks candidly about the cost of war on those who fought it), Scenic Routes broke down many walls in my mind, and even if I disagreed with some of the sentiments expressed, I admired the candid and witty ways they were presented.
But it’s not all heaviness of subject here. “Why Is The Devil Red” is a bluegrass song to be reckoned with:
Why is the devil red? Why ain't the devil blue? Why is the devil red? Why is the devil hue?
Well, you give the devil sulphur, You give the devil horns, You give the devil a pitchfork and you give the devil corns, Does he look like Robert DiNiro with them big, long fingernails? Does he make you dance like Charo or sing like Jerry Vale?
Well, who's that looking like an angel of light? Who's that dressed in a gown of white? Who's that saying, "Everything's alright"? Who's that grinning in the dead of night?
Why is the devil red? Why ain't the devil blue? Why is the devil red? Why ain't the devil hue?
Well, you give the devil hot breath, You put him on a tower, You give the devil about fifteen toes, You give him his devil power.
Well, who's that looking like an angel of light? Who's that dressed in a gown of white? Who's that saying, "Everything's alright"? Who's that grinning in the dead of night?
With comical (yet still incisive) lyrics like this one, the Lost Dogs won me over with thier insight and wit, and showed me a view of my faith that I had never seen before. Their dusty cowboy songs might have been an act of sorts (one that has grown into a full time gig, like a good TV character that has a life in a show far beyond what was intended), but the Lost Dogs were anything but fake. Scenic Routes would be the first of many great albums by this "super group" (at least in their own circles), and they are still going strong today. The album is a generous 18 songs long, and there is nary a dud amongst them.
To catch some of the wittiest, most inventive and piercing songs of faith you'll hear, head over to Spotify and hear everything this band has put their name to. But make sure to start at the beginning, and take the scenic route with the Lost Dogs. Their hasn't been a group of alternative music cowboys like this in some time.
May your fire burn brightly, and may we all breathe deep the breath of God.
This song is about my experience with the music industry and realizing we are all human at the end of the day. Sometimes all of the glamorous stuff can make people blind to what reality is.
2. God Speed feat. Andy Mineo & KB
This is a fun song that gives a new meaning to the word God Speed, meaning to ‘level up’ and ‘God be with you.’ I had my label mates KB and Andy Mineo kill it with the feature to level up the song some more!
3. Like We Belong
I have a huge passion for always wanting to make people feel welcomed. Everyone has a unique story and different background, and I strongly believe we all fit into God’s big picture. We all belong.
4. Show Me
I'm so desperate for God, I just want to know him more. This is a song about wanting God to show me what breaks his heart so that I can understand him more.
5. Never Fails
As I'm getting older I realize my actions will never gain God’s love because he already does love me. Being a father now, I understand that unconditional love and know that His love never fails.
I wrote this song thinking about my daughter and wanting her to know how much she means to me. It's always hard leaving her for shows. I want her to know that I always think about her.
7. The Sickness feat. Jordan Powers
I feel we can get lost in social media sometimes and start to think our value or self-worth is found in that. I wanted to make a song that brings that emotion to life and helps you question it a little.
8. Closer feat. Robbie Lee & Julissa Leilani
I wrote this song thinking about how a shadow is always by your side even when you don't notice it. I wanted to make an anthem that people can sing about their desire to be closer to God the way He desires to be closer with us.
9. Steady feat. Zach Norman
Steady is a song about God's great love for us and how consistent it is.
10. En La Calle
This is a latin party record showing how we are unashamed of the Gospel. It is based on the 116 movement and singing Romans 1:16 proudly.
11. Feel It feat. Jocelyn Bowman
This is a fun song about how great life can feel with God's love in our life. I wanted to draw people into that joyful experience.
12. Cumbia feat. Wordsplayed
I grew up listening to Selena’s albums with my family. I wanted to make something special with Cumbia since that is her style of music, and especially since my wife is also Mexican. In the song I shout out areas that my wife grew up. This is Cumbia with a twist of Hip Hop, I think Selena would've loved this!
13. Something Bout U feat. Jawan
This song is for my wife. I wanted to make a fun song for her that shows how much she brightens up my days and how she has changed my life forever.
14. Hold On feat. Sydney Wilson
Hold On is my worship moment and the closure of this album. I want people to Hold On to God's great love, even when this album is done.
I teach rhetoric to high school students. Whenever there’s confusion about evidence or arguments (and there’s a lot these days), I always take it back to the text. Analyzing, paraphrasing, and interpreting are all great skills, but nothing cuts through the mire quite like quoting verbatim from the source. I think the same can be said of the Bible. There are nearly infinite interpretations and analyses that have accumulated over centuries, but it all comes back to the source.
Labyrinth takes it back to the text, utilizing verbatim scripture to craft musical meditations that cut through the mire. Labyrinth is not an interpretation; it’s a conversation.
It’s a conversation between the past and the present, the ancient and the modern.
It’s a trans-generational conversation between father and son, a new musical translation of scripture.
It’s an inter-personal conversation between who I was and who I am, when I was stuck in the depths of the labyrinth and when I found the Ariadnean thread that led me to the light.
It’s a multi-lingual musical conversation. Many of the songs are inspired by classical composers like Satie, Ravel, and Debussy, but incorporate modern orchestration –– kind of like if Beethoven and Lauren Daigle had twins and gave them synthesizers and miscellaneous brass instruments as play toys.
It’s an inter-scriptural conversation between translations written across millennia. For example, in “Come To Me,” Proverbs 3:24 dialogues with Matthew 11:28 in over six different translations. In “My Help Comes From The Lord,” Isaiah 41:10 communes with Psalm 121:1-2. In “The Peace of God,” Philippians 4:7 converses with Proverbs 3:6.
It’s a dialogue about rituals and symbols, exhuming ancient practices and reexamining their relevance and power. Labyrinths were placed outside medieval cathedrals to provide passage from the outer world to the inner sanctum, from the profane to the sacred. They were also placed on the flyleaves of ancient manuscripts to symbolize entry into scripture, to be the gateway into the biblical text. Historically, the Labyrinth was intended as a reminder, the symbolic manifestation of God’s command to Moses, “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”
This project seeks to do the same, to remind listeners of the terrifying and fascinating power of God, to journey through a sonic labyrinth to the depths of one’s soul, to bring comfort during times of chaos, to prepare our hearts and minds, as if to say, “pay attention – we’re headed for a deeper dimension.”
"And now, God, do it again— bring rains to our drought-stricken lives so those who planted their crops in despair will shout hurrahs at the harvest, so those who went off with heavy hearts will come home laughing, with armloads of ble ssing.” (Psalm 127:4-6 MSG)
One of the most difficult places to live is between what God has done in the past and what you’re hoping God will do in the future. It’s the place that’s often referred to as the desert — the place of the dry spell and the drought. Maybe you’re there now.
When we find our self in this place, our eyes instinctively go to what we don’t have and what seems to be missing. Our focus goes to our frustration, instead of His faithfulness.
It doesn’t have to be this way, though. You have a choice in every season, even seasons of drought. You get to choose your perspective.
You get to decide if you will complain about what’s missing or thank God for what’s available.
You can decide to turn the dry ground into a training ground – a place you can learn to rely on God more than ever before.
You get to decide if you will stare at the parched, dry ground or fix your eyes towards the skies heavy with blessing. There’s always supply in sight, if we train our spirits to recognize it.
A season of drought can actually drive you to greater devotion. It can bring you to a place of as king God to “ do it again.” To plead with God to come through in the ways that only he can. But, it doesn’t happen naturally. It’s a choice — and the choice is yours.
You can download the title-track from Elevation Worship's There Is A Cloud on our Free Music Page!
"A sad face is good for the heart / Go on cry, does it seem a cruel world?
A sad face is good for the heart of a girl / A sad face"
- From "Sad Face"
If you were to listen exclusively to Christian radio and view only Christian television, and have no other connection to the world, then you would likely think that the world was a shiny, happy place with only vague “struggles” every once in a awhile. And these marginal, infrequent struggles would be over at the end of a three minute pop song, and be overcome by simply having more faith and pushing through the doubt with the power of a killer keyboard line and soulful backup vocals. Anything can be overcome with the power of music (and the Lord, of course), and seeing the world through this particularly rosy lens keeps the bad thoughts at bay, and the curse of sin under wraps. There are exceptions of course (Hillary Scott’s great “Thy Will”, about her sorrow over a miscarriage comes to mind). But there are 90% shiny, happy songs to every one song with real grit.
All this sunshine is, of course, a complete fabrication, though it is very well meaning. When you keep things “safe for the whole family”, you need to keep the edges well sanded down, least little Johnny or Susie ask “what’s addiction?” or “what’s depression?”, and “why do people who believe in Jesus struggle with it? Aren’t we called to overcome?”
And little Johnny and Susie’s questions would be valid, because in this fallen world, real struggles don’t fit into a pop formula, and are far messier and longer than we care to admit. Real life throws curve balls at everyone (those of faith included), and loved ones get sick with cancer and die. Couples experience infertility and miscarriages. Children rebel, marriages crumble, democracies shake. Good, church-going folk also struggle with prescription medication abuse and infidelity. The real world must be reckoned with in the art that Christians produce. That’s not to say a song of victory and overcoming is not a good subject matter, it’s just the balance of the dark and the light that need adjusting. The word of God speaks to all moments in a lifetime. Many books, like Lamentations and Ecclesiastes mine the dark moments of the soul, and sit next to Psalms of praise and prophetic books of doom. It’s all there, and the music that believers in Christ make should reflect this complexity.
That’s where The Choir’s 1988 masterpiece Chase The Kangaroo hits all the right tones for me. Despite its whimsical title, it’s a beautiful and haunting album about sadness, the kind that you can’t shake in an afternoon, the kind that clings to you for a season and won’t let go. “Kangaroo” is an album that lays bare the melancholy times that we all go through, and shines a real light of grace on those time, yet does so without preaching or talking down to the listener. Lyricist Steve Hindalong’s musings on the darkness are set against some of the most epic musical backdrops in rock and roll history (that's not hyperbole, this is one of the most artful, beautiful and rocking records I've ever heard). With U2 and The Cure as alternative music touchstones, the album weaves swirling dark tones of confusion and loss into every corner, and asks the big questions to God, but in a respectful and artful way. Yet the band still manages to shine a light too.
Opening song “Consider” roars to life on a circular, pounding drum cycle and driving, ghostly guitar figure, and finds lead singer Derri Daugherty giving one of his most impassioned vocal performances. In “Consider” Steve Hindalong (the band's drummer and main lyricist) extols the listener to think about all of it, the dark and the light, grace and sin, glory and depravity:
Consider one small child
Consider your cross
Consider the hope that withers like a flower
Consider my loss
Consider the fire
Consider the night
Consider the truth
Consider the light, my love
Consider your heart
Consider the ghost of the living savior…
Big questions of doubt appear in the next song “Children Of Time”, with Hindalong pointing out that the "astronauts (or "cosmonauts" as Hindlalong cheekily refers to them) were first in space, to look for God and find no trace.” That’s a dangerous sentence for someone firmly in the CCM fold (as The Choir was at the time) to write, but Hindalong has always been one to push the envelope for what is “acceptable” subject matter for Christians to talk about. I have a dear friend in the faith who struggles mightily with doubt, and he says that the Church does not talk about this idea enough. He says it’s as if “were afraid to admit that nothingness is a distinct possibility.” Hindalong admits it, and is not afraid to talk about it in the light of faith.
But the real gem of sadness and faith is the masterful “Sad Face”, where Hindalong writes about his wife and the couple’s recent miscarriage against the backdrop of the verse in the biblical book of Ecclesiastes chapter seven that says “Frustration is better than laughter, because a sad face is good for the heart.” That’s a heavy verse, from an equally heavy part of the Bible, yet it fits perfectly into the sorrow and heaviness of the soul that accompanies this sad event that befalls many couples. Hindalong masterfully writes about the weight of this event:
There's a woman in my kitchen
With a rainbow on her cheek
Well isn't that a promise?
Still I never felt so weak
There's a tiny spirit in a world above
Cradled so sweetly in our Father's love
So you don't have to cry
No there's something in my eye
That “tiny spirit in a world above, cradled so sweetly in our Father’s love” line gets me every time, and though my sweet wife Julie and I have never experienced this small, yet devastating tragedy, I feel along with Hindalong and his wife, and say a prayer for anyone I know who’s gone through this all-to common life event.
Hindalong bravely states later in the song that “maybe just now I don’t understand”, and that encapsulates the struggle of faith as succinctly as any statement that I’ve heard in a song.
The rest of Chase The Kangaroo dives into equally deep and troubling waters, but never with a hopelessness that’s common to modern man. It’s always with one hand gripping the cross, and one outstretched to the confused and lonely, looking to see if this faith thing can change their lives. “Cain” deals with crime, and the evil in the hearts of “those who wait with knives for fools” while “Rifleman” takes a hard look at revenge and the celebration of “settling the score” in American culture. “Look Out For Your Own” bemoans the exploitation of the weakest among us and “So Far Away” is an honest look at the difficulties of life on the road, separated from the ones you love.
The epic title track is the pinnacle moment, where Hindalong bemoans having to work a construction job on the side to make ends meet. The epic “Kangaroo” (which is the band’s most epic, U2-like moment of all if you ask me) builds with a throbbing bass line and finds Hindalong musing if he digs his ditch too deep that he might hit Australia and “chase the kangaroo”. But then he muses on Jesus and his digging for lost souls:
See what sparkles in our world
Never mind the stars
Mercy is the silver pearl
Vengeance is not ours
Gold glistens bright enough
To render greedy nations blind
But Jesus buried diamonds in
A land where love is rare to find
Shovel go deep
Heart be true
Chase the kangaroo
Shovel go deep
Heart be true
Chase the kangaroo
Chase the kangaroo
The Choir is still making fantastic records, and Chase The Kangaroo was the beginning of their self producing and writing all their own material stage, one that’s still going some thirty years later. Nobody writes more epic, beautifully sad songs than The Choir. But, ironically, their most hopeful record, Wide-Eyed Wonder, (celebrating the birth of children and the wonder in life) would come next, showing that they understood the dual nature of this life down here. “Kangaroo” rocks and swirls and soars, and is a gem of an album. It is an album that deserves your full attention, and a quite space to turn it up and consider all the many facets of this life under the sun. The world is not yet fully redeemed, and until that glorious day, the dark and the light are both equally valid subjects to talk about in light of the grace of God. Go over to Spotify and listen now, and then head over to the band’s website (www.thechoir.net) and help fund the next Choir album. You will be glad you did.
May we all “consider the truth”.
Dig up those hidden treasures of albums, and revel in all they have to offer.
If there is one idea that keeps drawing me towards the gospel, as presented in the Bible, it’s that the Lord can make good out of the crazy messes that we as humans (and me, specifically) find ourselves in time and again. Grace says that you will never get it all together, and that salvation needs to come from without, from another source. And that grace needs to keep coming, even after saving faith in Jesus. I need God’s grace as much today as I did the day I gave my life to Jesus and decided to follow him. The characters of the Bible all had back stories that should have precluded them from being used by the Lord (Moses, David and Paul, three writers who wrote 1/3 of the whole Bible, all murdered someone). But the Lord, in his power and in his grace, can take the mess of our lives and turn it into something beautiful. It takes time though. Moses needed forty years in the wilderness before the Lord visited him in the burning bush. Paul might have had a miraculous conversion on the road to Damascus, but some scholars say that it was about fifteen years till the early church trusted him enough to send him out on his early missionary journeys. Grace in action takes time. The beautiful mess of our lives is sorted out by the Father, day by day, and made into something that can be used to change the world.
I first got a hold of this “beautiful mess” idea from Sixpence None The Richer’s best album, and magnum opus on grace, the dark, heavy and beautiful This Beautiful Mess from 1995, an album that has taken up a place in my soul.
It’s a shame that Sixpence is almost exclusively known for their 1999 novelty hit “Kiss Me”, because the band has such a depth of writing and musicianship that is overlooked. It’s like knowing U2 by their 1998, throw away pop hit “The Sweetest Thing”. There is so much more. Even the album that “Kiss Me” hails from (the band’s self-titled third album) is fantastic, and in no way mirrors that frothy, light-weight hit.
But it was hearing This Beautiful Mess that changed my view on what spiritual music could be. Here was an album that dove into darker themes of depression, loneliness and guilt (the moody alt-rock is the perfect background for this treatise on the darker themes of faith), yet shined a light of the gospel on all those dark place and talked about the redemption of all things.
And man, did it rock. The lighter Sixpence of their later years pales in comparison to the moody, alt-rock band represented on ‘Mess”. The guitars alternately swirl like the classic Christian alternative band The Choir, and crunch like Pearl Jam, yet the pop center is never lost. Add to this the other-worldly vocals of Leigh Nash, and you have an album that sounds both powerful and groovy in every decade.
I first heard the band, a few months after the album was released in 1995. I was at a festival in upstate New York, and the guitar crunch and angelic vocals of first track “Angeltread” summoned me to the main stage to mosh and dance with abandon. In those days of disposable income, I immediately raced to buy a CD and a t-shirt, and I absorbed the dark and beautiful tunes of This Beautiful Mess for months afterwards.
The second song, "Love, Salvation And Fear Of Death" rocks one of the best bass lines in all of rock and roll, and the great songs don’t let up till the stunning “I Can’t Explain” ends the album with a cacophony of sounds, showing the mess of our lives colliding with the grace of God. “Melting Alone”, with it’s moody instrumentation and spooky nature spoke to the self-conscious, unsure teen that I was, with it’s no-holds barred take on late night angst:
Tonight the lamplight swirls and glistens
Melting itself upon my face
I'm hanging my silhouette near the shoreline
I'm swimming underneath in the noontime
Will I ever know what's wrong with me
Will I ever see your hand again in mine
Tonight the rain is pelting rooftops
There is no fire to melt the cold
I'm straining to hear a human whisper
And I'm painting images on the soft stone
Now I'm drinking alone
Amidst these figures of stone
I'll raise the glass once again
Then lay my head on the pillow
The fact that “Melting Alone” did not offer an immediate resolution to this late night ennui resonated with the teenage me, who liked to stay up late and brood about the world and my place in it. The following “Circle Of Error” could be a theme song to my life:
And I'll admit that I do not try
When it's easier to sit down and cry
I'm so full of doubt, want to let it out
Let it out all over you
On my circle of error, I go round and round
On my circle of error, I go round and round again
I thank the good Lord for a grace that is “outside” my fickle actions and moods. On my own, the “circle of error” would just endlessly go round and round. In “Love, Salvation And The Fear Of Death”, I found a prayer for life as a young man, and one that still resonates now:
Well I'm staring straight into the face of hell
You're so close and you can't even tell
I'm so wrapped up inside
Because I don't have much to love
Horrified I feel from pits unseen
Falling off my pedestal of plentiful deeds
As it crumbles down on top of me
I contemplate my lack of love
Come and save my soul
Before it's not too late
I'm not afraid to admit
How much I hate myself
I need grace to step into my life every day, to “save me from myself”, and this will never cease to be a relevant prayer for me.
This Beautiful Mess is a masterpiece of an album, a moody-yet-tuneful slice of alternative rock that sounds like a cross between Nirvana and Enya, and deserves a listening audience as big as a stadium. With timeless themes of grace amidst painful times, this classic album is a top ten, all-time album for me (even the art work is epic and haunting), and one of the best evidences that faith, artfully rendered, can be a tool of the Spirit that changes hearts and minds. It rocks, sooths and haunts in equal measure, like a fine piece of literature.
That festival is also where I first encountered Jars Of Clay, The Prayer Chain and The Lost Dogs, three other groups that would radically challenge my faith, and show me that that gospel is a tune for all times, the good and the bad, the clean and the messy. Grace truly is the most powerful force in this world, making holy things out of this beautiful mess.
“Being confident of this very thing, that he which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ”
Philippians 1:6 KJV
This text breathes life into me. Particularly during such a crucial time in my life, career and ministry. I'll admit there is subtle, underlying desire for acceptance and approval of men (people). We ALL want to be liked. We all want to be celebrated. Especially after we've accomplished something we've painstakingly aspired for. Something like The Runway Project.
I've come to accept that everyone will not love it. Everyone will not 'get it' or truly appreciate it. But I'm so glad that I can take courage in the text! I can be confident in knowing that the greatest artist is still busy creating a masterpiece of my life; my story. And it's a GOOD WORK that He is perfecting.
I don't have to be consumed with the acceptance or approval of men. GOD is working and HIS stamp of approval is all that matters! Only what we do for Christ will last!
Today, remember to do everything for HIS glory. You've been stamped by the King! ACCEPTED, APPROVED, LOVED.
After taking some time to focus on her family, former Gotee recording artist Asiesha Woods returned to music-making with her 2014 album It's Time, released through her independent label Original Peace Music Group. The Runway Project EP, also released through Original Peace, finds the artist continuing to create anthems of love and peace, delivered through her own style of pop and soul. Watch the lyric video for "Hope Again" from The Runway Project below, and grab a download on our Free Music Page!
“Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again; Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all, the Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God, and the peace of God which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” -Phil 4:4-7
I was on a jet bridge waiting to board a Southwest flight to when I got the text. Scrolling through Instagram, drinking a coffee, and this long message popped up on my screen. It was from my dad to our whole family and my heart sank as I read the words. The tests had come back, and it was cancer. The tears welled up, I tried to hold them back and breathe, as I found my way to my seat on the plane. I couldn’t talk. Mercifully, my husband was with me on that flight, and I was able to lay my head on his shoulder and let the tears just stream down my face. I was praying, asking God to keep fear at bay, but it was banging at the door of my heart. Those words, that diagnosis, are never what you want to hear. Is anyone ever ready for that kind of news? I was shocked and scared.
I’ll never forget talking to my parents after that sad flight. They explained that they felt like their job was to praise God through this journey. I remember my dad saying, “No matter what happens, we know the end of the story. Because of what Jesus did, there is healing ahead whether it’s on this side of glory or the next, and we are going to thank God for that hope as we walk through this together.”
A few weeks later they hosted a praise and worship night in their home. The room was full of friends and family, young and old, and I had the powerful privilege of watching my mom and dad run into the unknown and potentially very scary darkness ahead of them with their hands raised in the air, praising God. Following them felt irresistible, even though it struck me as unnatural in light of the circumstances, and that night, as we lifted our voices together, I encountered the peace and the presence of God in a way that will mark me for the rest of my life.
It didn’t make any sense. I walked into the room that night full of fear, worrying about my dad and my mom, and the journey we were all about to take together, and I encountered the peace of God in a way that I didn’t know was possible. “The peace of God which surpasses ALL understanding.”(Phil 4:7). He was drawing near to our breaking hearts, bringing comfort into our chaos and covering our deepest fears with His faithfulness. I distinctly remember my dad leaning his head back, a genuine smile spread across his face, and taking this deep, peace-filled breath, like a contented sigh you’d release after drinking a cold cup of water on a sweltering day. And I lifted my head to the sky and let out this surprised and delighted laugh that God was meeting us like this in the middle of such a scary and unstable place.
Here in the middle of the lonely night
Here in the middle of the losing fight
You’re here in the middle of the desert place
Here in the middle when I cannot see Your face
Here in the middle of the deep regret
Here when the healing has not happened yet
Here in the middle with Your outstretched arms
You can see my pain and it breaks Your heart
That command from scripture, to “Rejoice always” seems harsh at times, in the face of a cancer diagnosis, or depression, or a lost life, or a lost job, or a broken and trampled on heart. In the face of sickness or sadness or loneliness, it seems so unnatural, and almost cruel to ask people to “rejoice”, but the second half of the verse comes crashing into every terrible and unforeseen circumstance we might face,
“The Lord is near.”
God’s heart broke when He saw all that we would encounter as broken people in a broken world, so He sent His son to be broken for us, so that when we’re breaking, we’d know that we are not alone. We can rejoice because we have a rescuer who has already been to hell and back for us. We can rejoice because whatever we are facing, we can be certain that “the Lord is near”.
I wrote “Find You Here” a few days after this profound experience of God’s peace. We actually recorded the vocal for the song the day my dad went in for a major and very important surgery. He came out of the operating room, and I was there with a little MP3 on my iPhone, and he and mom and I wept at God’s kindness, to continue to draw near to us in a hospital room when we didn’t know how things would turn out. My prayer is that whoever you are and whatever you are facing, that you would be encouraged to lift your hands and “Rejoice!” And that as you rejoice, you’d be reminded of His faithfulness. Because, no matter what mess you are in the middle of, “the Lord is near”. His heart is breaking with yours, and His healing is coming for you as you lift your heart and your hands to rejoice in who He is and what He’s already done for you.
For those of you who are curious, my dad is currently cancer-free. We are so grateful, and yet, we know full well that this isn’t the end of every cancer story. Our hope is that as you listen to this song, you’d be reminded that God draws near to the broken-hearted and that you’d experience the gift of His nearness and kindness and compassion in the midst of every battle you’re facing. Many blessings on the journey as we rejoice in what our rescuer has already accomplished for us.
Find You Here - Philippians 4:4-7
Ellie Holcomb, Rusty Varenkamp, Benji Cowart
It’s not the news that any of us hoped that we would hear
It’s not the road we would have chosen, no
The only thing that we can see is darkness up ahead
But you’re asking us to lay our worry down and sing a song instead
And I didn’t know I’d find You here,
In the middle of my deepest fear
But You are drawing near
You are overwhelming me with peace
So I’ll lift my voice and sing
You’re gonna carry us through everything
And You are drawing near
You’re overwhelming all my fears with peace
You say that I should come to you with everything I need
You’re asking me to thank You even when the pain is deep
You promise that You’ll come and meet us on the road ahead
And no matter what the fear says, You give me a reason to be glad
So begins a story that has enraptured millions and millions of fans around the world, to the point that the mythical universe created in that story has transcended mere movie-making and for many, has become the passion of their very life.
Count me among the fans who love the Star Wars movies. I was twelve years old when the first Star Wars movie came out in 1977. At that age, robots, spaceships and laser pistols were right in my wheelhouse. They could not have created a more meaningful movie for a soon-to-be-teenage boy and so I saw it eight weeks in a row, one Saturday matinee after another. It was easy for me to see myself in the character of Luke Skywalker, searching the distant horizon of Tataouine for some meaning and higher purpose. I remember longing to go with the young moisture farmer on his incredible transformational journey to see if I could find where I belonged.
Alas, we don’t stay twelve years old do we? As wonderful as the movies are, we soon realize that there is no “force” to help us move the world around us, or to pick us out of the crowd and to fulfill our ultimate destiny.
Or is there?
I grew up in church but honestly, at the age of twelve, I wasn’t very interested in what the preacher had to say. I was all about comic books, bicycles, sports (it was the era of the Big Red Machine- Cincinnati Reds baby!) and sci-fi monster movies. I was a bit of a nerd, loooong before that was cool. I didn’t mind church, but it wasn’t until I was about sixteen that I started listening to what the preacher was actually saying. Maybe it’s because in your high school years you really become aware of the larger world around you. Suddenly, hurting people and their very real problems reveal themselves to you, or at least, you gain the cognizance to become aware of them. You begin to find yourself wondering what this world is all about. The planet earth grows very large very quickly and you realize that it would be easy to be swallowed by the insanity and the noise unless you develop a plan, and even sometimes if you do.
So now the preacher’s words come back to you. You remember something about all this being created eons ago and that back then, everything was perfect until one of God’s greatest generals got jealous and challenged the Creator of the universe. That a cosmic divide was created and armies of angels chose sides and to this very day, there is a hidden war taking place above and below us. That God created us humans in His own image, meaning not just in our outward appearance but in the way that we process thought and are aware of our world. And then, God sent His own Son to save all of the real Luke Skywalkers and Princess Leias of the world. And amazingly, He did it victoriously in a way that no one expected, without a powerful army or by lifting a sword. He did it by sacrificing Himself to His enemies. He won with love. I have to tell you, as a young man in a turbulent world, I wanted to know more.
The comic books and movies are fine for entertainment and to perpetuate a child’s wish fulfillment. But there comes a time, when the real world comes crashing in on top of us, that we need more than imaginary lasers, starships and wookies. We need more than an imaginary “force”, we need a real one.
It’s true that there are many in todays culture who would have you believe that you are nothing special in the grand cosmic picture; that you are just an arrangement of ingredients that could just have easily been a rock, a tree or a bumble-bee without that one slight variable in the genetic code. That you are in effect, an accident. But in your heart, you feel, nay… you know that there is something more. Maybe that’s because there is. And so, you stand in the twilight, looking out across that horizon, aching to be reconciled with your higher purpose, confident from somewhere deep within that there is a voice whispering to your heart. Maybe it’s the “real force” that calls to you, just as it has for every generation.
I guess that I am still a bit of a geek after all these years. I like a good story. Maybe that’s why the songs I write tell stories. I’ve raised my daughters to enjoy nerdy thing too, like Star Wars and hobbits and old Disney movies and such. But above all that, they also know about the greater truth and the most fantastic love story ever known. That in the end, stories are just stories, but real love from the universe’s Creator can bring real peace to troubled minds and real hope to hopeless situations. It is a “force” that causes us to love our enemies and encourages us to find strength when circumstances are rooting against us.
There are no star destroyers looming overhead. There is no Death Star. But what there is is a world filled with hurting people who are searching for the way, lost in a very noisy, mixed-up, cultural turbulence that sucks them up and spits them back out, used up and hollow. And they are standing on their own horizon, longing, aching for answers.
You my friend are Luke Skywalker; you are Princess Leia. The world needs someone to show them some love; someone to set a good example. The time has come to separate yourself from the background players. The hero’s journey is never easy, but it is essential. There is a cosmic battle that has raged for generations where the stakes are very real. Is it an accident that God has placed you here, in this place and in this time? Or as you silently stand looking out across your own future, do you see the inevitability of the job before you?
Many are called but few answer that call. God give you strength.
Mark Bishop is a singer/songwriter who has enjoyed a three-decade career in Christian music. He traveled for seventeen years in the Dove-Award winning band The Bishops. He continues to record albums and travel as a soloist and last year recorded an album with his daughters in a band called Mark Bishop and Forget The Sea, a unique pop-appalachian-folk ensemble that still performs from time-to-time. His music tells down-to-earth, intimate and accessible stories. He reside with his wife Carolyn in central Kentucky. They have a cat named Spock. And oddly, his birthday really is May the 4th. May the fourth be with you…
Check out this behind-the-song look at Trip Lee's new mixtape, The Waiting Room, written by Trip himself!
This song is about the roller coaster process that comes with big dreams. You might wake up in the morning feeling like a million dollars, only to have your dreams dashed as the day goes on. Chasing dreams is always a tough road, but it’s worth it— because when you’re headed in the right direction it feels like you’re “way up in the clouds.”
2. Too Cold
This song is an anthem for those who stand firm and can’t be moved. Those around us may push us to conform and be like everyone else, but “we ain’t gon let the world mold us.” Even when they turn up the heat on us, we’re frozen in place & moving forward.
3. Lord Have Mercy
This one calls attention to all the brokenness in our world, and calls out for God’s mercy. I start out talking about me in the first verse, the second verse hits on our hatred for one another, including racism in America. And the final verse points towards our hope for Heaven. All throughout the repeating cry is “Lord have mercy!”
This song is a soundtrack for those times when everything seems to be going wrong, and God doesn’t seem to be listening to our prayers. I’m basically playing an exaggerated version of myself, emphasizing the pain and abandonment we often feel. The intro and outro quote Psalm 13, where David asks a similar question, “How long, O Lord, will you forget me? Forever?”
This song is two letters in one— a grieving letter addressed to my dad, and a defiant letter addressed to death. In the verses I reflect on my dad’s life and death, and how tragic it is that he died early. But in the hooks, I speak directly to death, saying that I’m ready whenever it comes. Verse 3 is the culmination of the song, where we’re reminded that death has died, and no longer has real power over us.
6. Still Unashamed
This song is an anthem for the unashamed. Some have questioned whether or not Romans 1:16 still characterizes what we do. This song is a reminder that our anthem hasn’t changed, and we’re still as unashamed as we’ve ever been.
7. Money Up
In this song, I do a bit of role playing. I speak from the perspective of a typical rapper who hopes to make it big and get rich so all his problems will go away. Throughout the song the character makes more money, but doesn’t get rid of all of his problem. It’s meant to challenge the false narrative that more money is the solution all of life’s woes.
8. Out My Way
This is a song aimed directly at any weights, weaknesses, and sins that stand in our way. In the first verse I focus mainly on problems in the world, and in the second verse I focus mainly on internal problems. All of them are only obstacles to living the life I was made to live. So I tell them to “get out my way.”
This is another song full of lament. It’s meant to express the grief that comes with prolonged suffering, and I cry out to the Lord, “How long will it be till you take it away?” The hooks are the response to my cries. The listener can take them as words from a friend, or from God himself. It’s a reminder that the problems we face, don’t have to last for eternity. Healing is on the way.
10. Billion Years
This song is the climax of the whole mixtape. The songs have been filled with lament and grief, with hope sprinkled throughout. This final song points to the ultimate hope that answers all the questions I raised. Though our life’s journey is hard, our future is bright. We can endure the pain in this world because we have hope for a brand new one. Why dwell on the past, when we have forever in our future?
Looking For America - On A Spiritual Journey Through 2016 With The Best Albums Of The Year
A look back at the past year is what we journalist and writers do. Trying to “get a handle” on what just happened is an age-old task that is always just beyond the reach of even the most senior reporter or cultural critic.
And then there was this year, one that, in many ways defied the odds as being a “weird” year. The U.S. presidential election took new twists and turns almost every week, and the other stories of the year (the Black Lives Matter movement, the continued fragmenting of our once monolithic pop culture into little bits and pieces of entertainment, etc.) form a chaotic whole that defies any attempt to categorize them.
And then there is the personal level. Every year that passes brings personal triumphs and failures, new family members and lost ones too. Jobs are gained, degrees earned, while in other spheres marriages splinter or a child passes away suddenly. One bad car accident can define a year, or conversely, one serendipitous, chance meeting can lead to a new love and the course of a life altered.
And so, as a music journalist, it’s ever so much easier to define the year by the great music I heard and absorbed into my soul. 2016 might have been an up or down year for me (I’d characterize it as an “up” year for the Caldwell clan), but it was also the year I heard “Live It Well”, “Balconies Of Grace” and “Local Construction”, three fantastic songs that have already embedded themselves in my soul’s DNA and inspired me to “live a better story” for the Lord, because, truly, “life is short“, I’m constantly “under construction” and always, desperately in need of “grace.” Traveling back through the year in music is always a joy, because the music that you truly loved marks the days and months (as in, “I remember where I was when I first heard this song!”).
The following are my favorite albums and songs of the year. This is not a “best of” list, as much as it is a “favorite” one. I make no claims to the greatness of these albums and songs (though many of them are), but to how much they moved me and settled in a place in my heart.
1. Switchfoot - Where The Light Shines Through
Every four years the U.S. goes through a presidential election cycle, and it’s almost always greeted with the question of “what kind of country do we want to be? Likewise, turning 40 years old (something I experienced this year) elicits the same kind of questions; am I who I want to be? Do I need to make a change?
For nearly half my life, Switchfoot has provided me the music to go along with those questions and searches, the bigger questing for the divine in the real world:
“This is your life. Are you who you want to be?” - “This Is Your Life” from Beautiful Letdown
“I want more than my lonely nation” - “Lonely Nation” from Nothing Is Sound
“I’m living for more than just the afterlife” - “Afterlife” from Vice Verses
And now, I’ll add:
“Life is short, I want to live it well”
“America, who are you?”
“The wound is where the light shines through”
Jon Foreman and company speak to my soul like no other band, and when they ask hard questions about themselves and their country, it makes me want to do so as well. But in asking tough question and making tough observations, they never skimp on the creative rock and roll. The blistering and epic guitars of “Holy Water” (a clever way to weave a song about baptism in with surfing, but it’s so much more than that) bleed into the fantastic bouncy baseline of “Float”, and then into the sun drenched and poignant title track. This might be Switchfoot’s most California album ever, with Beach Boy harmonies set against an alt-rock backdrop. “Live It Well” may be the closest the band gets to U2, and it’s deservedly turning out to be their biggest hit in ten years, because it inspires without cloying, it uplifts without preaching. Not many artists can do this well.
And in the searching for hope amidst the tough questions (“Looking For America”), Foreman comes down on a God who wants to gather the “poor, tired and huddled masses” (a play on the Statue Of Liberty’s famous motto) into himself. A country, as great as it is, is no substitute for a relationship with the Creator of all things.
And so, the answer to all that searching, is hope in a loving God.
“Hope's a seed you have to sow
When you let it go it comes to life
So you stretch your arrows on the bow
And you pull them back and watch them fly”
Any institution, person or thing I put my hope in down here is ultimately going to fail me. I put my hope in the Lord, and do my best to love my neighbor as myself. I place my life in the hands of the “healer of souls”, and with his divine help, hope to take my life and “live it well”.
2. Paper Route - Real Emotion
If I had experienced any sort of breakup this year, Real Emotion would have been my favorite album of the year. A song cycle about a relationship that’s ended (this I’ve gathered from clues both in the bands comments and in the song lyrics and placements in the album), Real Emotion is a bird's eye view of the cycle of disappointment and renewal that comes when any relationship is fractured. It ends with my second favorite song of the year, “Balconies Of Grace”, where the narrator gives his struggles to the Lord in a terrific, anthemic melody, and prays for the person on the other side of the relationship split:
“Raise your arms and hold balconies of grace
Raise your arms and hold what you can't replace
It's the simple things that I can't get right
It's the hunting heart trying to survive
And for every wound there's a hill to climb
Can we reach that high, reach that high
Raise your arms and hold balconies of grace
Raise your arms and hold
There is loneliness in the things we need
But inside your eyes I am reflecting
There is grace to hold over you and me
There are balconies, balconies”
May we all celebrate the grace that “holds you and me”.
3. Crowder - American Prodigal
I guess I’ll make it official: I like the band “Crowder” more than I did the “David Crowder Band”. That might be blasphemy to many longtime fans, but David Crowder is a much more focused songwriter on his new band’s first two outings than he was over the course of his other band’s seven albums.
American Prodigal is a case in point. It has a strong theme, both musically (southern swamp-rock and bluegrass-like folk music) and lyrically (the redemption of a wanderer).
David Crowder mines Southern folklore and gothic themes for traces of God, and uses the musical form in his songs of praise. “Shouting Grounds” (a reference that Southerners of charismatic background will get) takes an old religious tradition and imbues it with new life. The fact that I had to look up what the shouting grounds were is a testament to an interesting album. “Run Devil Run”, with its acoustic blues guitars (and fine music video) is a hoot of a song, and “Praise The Lord” redeems its lackluster title with terrific lyrics about a spiritual awakening, realizing that the Lord is so much more than the box our minds put Him in. These are among my favorite lyrics of the year:
“And I don’t buy that any more.
You’re not who I thought you were.
Praise the Lord…”
4. Needtobreathe - Hard Love
Many see Hard Love as a letdown after four great albums of gritty and heartfelt Southern rock, but the album, with its 80’s era synthesizers and left-field songwriting (just check out the auto-tuned opening vignette “Mountain”) was a needed change of direction for the band. The great title track addresses what is needed to make a relationship (be it a marriage, family or band one) work, and that’s “hard love”. The divisive history of this band over the past few years (something that they are more than candid about) makes this statement of purpose one of the most interesting songs of the year. It’s become a theme song of sorts in my house (I have two tween daughters in the midst of growing into young women, who require a “hard love”, not to mention their frequently grumpy dad) and I hum it often in the midst of any family drama. “Testify” is a wonderful worship song that uses a hammer dulcimer to great effect (something the Rich Mullins fan in me appreciates), and “Great Night” is the best dance song of the year (and made for a great concert opener on their latest tour).
Not everything on Hard Love holds together (the ending song “Clear” is nice, but strangely meanders on and on for almost seven minutes of nothing, and is a vague “is-he-talking-about-the-Lord-or-his-wife” tune), but the highs and good moments are right there with the best of what these fellows from South Carolina have done.
5. Relient K - Air For Free
I ranked these Ohio boys behind Needtobreathe, but if I had it to do all over again, I would switch their places. Are For Free is a great, cohesive comeback for these beloved, former pop-punkers. But while they were away they added a few new tricks, and the album is full of off-kilter songs that retain the puckish (a Shakespeare reference, and where the word “punk” comes from) spirit of the band. “Local Construction” is a bouncy tune that Wes Anderson would be proud to have in one of his movies. It also contains some of the finest lyrics Matt Theisen has put to paper:
“Days rolling by like local construction
I'm watching the tenements increase by increments
Work on it, work at it, work, but it's never done, no no
Fix the car, fix the house
Fix the flaws in myself
It's never done, no no
It's never done, no no
Like local construction
It's never done”
Wherever you may call home, there is undoubtedly a construction project around your town that is never quite done. So too are our lives. Praise God he’s still working away on us, though the days may seem long at times.
6. John Tibbs - Dead Man Walking
There isn’t nearly enough “heartland” rock and roll in Christian music. The honest, blue collar kind of music that refuses to gloss over the tough reality of life, the kind that speaks to you in its authenticity and honesty.
Indiana’s John Tibbs made that kind of album this year. A little Bruce Springsteen, a little John Mellencamp, a pinch of Creedence Clearwater Revival and a whole lot of heart, Dead Man Walking burns with energy and integrity, and never glosses over anything with fancy production or vague lyrics about “struggles”. Instead “Silver and Stone” bursts out of the gate with grit and verve, celebrating the God who makes beauty out of our messes. In “Abraham” Tibbs has one of my favorite lyrics of the year, sung with vocal cord-shredding intensity:
“It's not where you've been
It's not what your eyes have seen
It's not who you are
It's not what you're becoming
It's not what you say
It's not what your hands have held
It's the grace of God who makes this fallen place whole.”
7. Unspoken - Follow Through
Unspoken played perhaps the best one hour festival set I’ve ever seen this past summer. Maybe it was because they were playing a rare hometown gig (on a Mountain in Maine), or maybe they were just excited to be playing through their new album. But whatever the cause, they rocked and rolled through most of their new album with a humble swagger (I know that’s a contradiction in terms) I’ve not seen in a long time. This lead me to listen to their new album Follow Through with more curiosity that I normally would give something this “pop”.
But darned if they didn’t hand in the sharpest pop album of the year; a jubilant mixture of uplift and grit, of heartache and praise. With great melodies and the fantastic vocals of Chad Matteson (who channels Maroon 5’s Adam Lavine), Follow Through jumps out of the speakers. The extended version (which really should be the only one) has “Roots”, a great Paul Simon-like number that uses an African choir and a great agricultural metaphor that, if their record company had the temerity to do so, would be the best thing Air1 or K-Love played put on their play lists this year.
8. Tyson Motsenbocker - Letters To Lost Loves
A folkie based in the Northwest and debuting on Tooth And Nail Records, Motsenbocker had the best opening song of an album I heard this year. In the gut-wrenching “In Your Name” (a song inspired by the news of his saintly mother’s cancer diagnosis) he sings about praying for healing:
“Well maybe he is occupied with other people's wars
Or he's organized militia to fight the war on Christmas
or maybe he's protecting our children from the gays
Who have promised to destroy this utopia we've made
In His name
In His name
In His name
Well I hear that you've been speaking through the man on the TV
And you've helped the Dallas Mavericks with their field goal percentage
So when my mother's doctor calls again with more bad news
It's an honest heart's reaction - who, my God, have you been listening to?
In His name…”
Letters To Lost Loves is a travel log of faith, and takes you through the dark times (and the light) of trying to hold onto your faith. Christian music needs many more Motsenbockers to speak to the full spectrum of what it means to believe. Even the album cover, with a picture of his parents embracing, is devastating.
9. Sho Baraka - The Narrative
Humble Beast Records continues to put out some of the best and most challenging music from people of faith. Baraka’s The Narrative is a great title, and the album makes a great use of a historical motif, with songs that correspond to historically relevant events (like “Maybe Both, 1865” which is about the Emancipation Proclamation and the modern day Black Lives Movement), and with songs that demand repeated listens to get the depth and rapid fire maturity of the lyrics. The Narrative shines with fantastic, live instrumentation and an intensity of purpose that stuns.
In the afore mentioned “Maybe Both, 1865” Baraka spits out a rapid fire assessment of the troubles of the narrative of American history:
“Why stop now?
I haven't caught the holy ghost yet
Sing a little louder, we can drown out the protests
We build an antebellum, they too busy to listen
I hear disturbing things come from so-called "Christians"
Quick to justify your man's death
Because of a criminal record or how a man dressed
Thugs I guess, only perfect people get grace
If that was the Lord's way, there'll be no one in the faith
True flaw, America kills and hides behind the law
They purchase this land with violence, but never count the cost
Put a dollar to your ear, you can hear the moaning of a slave
America the great was built off the labor that they gave
Jefferson and Washington were great peace pursuers
But, John Brown was a terrorist and an evil doer
Oh yes, God bless the American Revolution
But, God ain't for all the riots and the looting?”
There are surely angles to debate here, but white Evangelicals would do well to consider Baraka’s words, and try, just for a moment, to see things from a different perspective and listen for another “narrative” that is out there.
10. Judah & The Lion - Folk Hop ‘N Roll
Folk Hop ‘N Roll is just about as experimental as a bluegrass album can get. With dance rhythms and zany turns of instrumentation (mostly done on acoustic instruments like mandolins and banjos), Folk Hop ‘N Roll is a down-home party record that grew on me as the year rolled along. There’s no better album I heard this year to dance on the front porch of your cabin along with. I’m happy these guys are getting such good exposure this year (they are opening for 21 Pilots on a world tour this coming spring).
Music is soul food, and one of the Lord’s neatest inventions. May you hear many good songs this year, that make you want to “live life well”, celebrate God’s “balconies of grace”, endure the endless “local construction” of you life (it’s never done), and be a blessing to the world “in His name”.
10 years ago, I was an independent artist, working a full-time job while working part-time as the worship pastor at my church. I was playing 2-3 shows a weekend, hustling with my band to get our name "out there", sometimes getting no sleep on a Saturday night because we were driving back to Greenville, SC so I could lead worship at my church on Sunday morning. And then we'd play shows a lot of Sunday nights, too.
Those were the days. There was hope and there was an innocence to what I was doing. I wasn't making music to try to have a radio hit or to try to work through the politics of the music industry -- I was just trying to learn as much as I could while making the coolest music I could. It was seriously that simple then -- just make music I thought was cool and - on the back end - hope people liked it.
Then this weird thing happened. I was a finalist on American Idol - despite never ever watching Idol and being about as anti-American Idol as any contestant had ever been - and suddenly I was famous and I was making music that other people told me was cool and then there were managers and labels and distribution and marketing people and... the list goes on. And I seriously got to work with so many incredible people. But the innocence was lost. We were suddenly talking about the mysterious Christian music listener, Becky, and we were talking about how to make her cry in 30-second clips and we were planning out my albums not by what song naturally flowed into the next but by which songs in succession on iTunes would make people want to buy the album 1st and we were putting the 5-6 singles at the front of the album and we were doing photo shoots to make me look cool (they failed) and we were paying massive amounts of money for me to be on tour with this artist and that artist and...
The innocence was lost.
It wasn't anyone's fault. My manager - who had managed Michael W. Smith and Amy Grant - told me many times he'd never met an artist who understood the music industry more than I did. I knew what I was stepping into. I was prepared for it.
But what I didn't know is what the journey into the center of the music world would do to me. It wasn't anyone's fault - these people were doing their jobs (and they did it incredibly well I might add). But what I hadn't accounted for was the cost of this innocence lost. I steeled myself to the pain with arrogance and with over-confidence that my knowledge of this business could make me successful. I studied pop songs and learned how to write the best hooks from the best writers and I wrote with all the best writers in Nashville and L.A. and New York and I was proud of my skill. And yet it felt so empty.
I knew so much to know so little. I had made my career and being great an idol that could never match the beauty and innocence of what I'd felt 10 years before, practicing with my band in my attic, just making music that spoke to us. I could never match the feeling of leading my campus of 4-500 people in worship, no matter how many big shows I played, no matter how "awesome" I made my show, no matter how many hits I wrote.
Because the thing I felt then was so innocent... and maybe you can never regain the innocence. Maybe you can never have true humility after true arrogance. Maybe you can never turn the ship around.
But now I'm in the phase of life where I realize how little I know. How little all that knowledge of the music industry did for me. How fleeting the "success" I had was. And I find myself desiring to be the learner again. And I find myself making music that means something to me again. I find myself writing what is true about God, to me, and for the first time in years I stand on stage not arrogantly like I have something to offer, but humbly asking my audience to join me in discovering something new about God and maybe about myself. Oh, and maybe you'll like these songs that I really like, too.
And when someone comes to me and says, "Have you heard of Celebrate Recovery? I'm in Celebrate Recovery and your songs, man, they speak to me. It sounds like your recovering from something, just like me." And I look at him and I say, "I am recovering from me, man." And we both laugh and pat each other on the shoulder and he gives me a hug.
And this thing I do feels innocent again.
Chris Sligh is an artist, speaker and church Creative consultant. He lives in Nashville with his wife and two kids and writes about God, the Church, music and creativity at chrissligh.org and thechurchcollective.com. You can get his new album "Mighty Roar / Healing Flood" on his website or iTunes.
Magnified Plaid signed to Tooth and Nail Records as high school students in the Bremerton area of Washington State. While the original trio with Andy Husted didn’t make it past the first album, Mike, Tom, and Yuri have had a pretty successful career. And while the band has now been together for 24 years, they released their hallmark third record 20 years ago. Life in General put Tooth and Nail Records on the map in a big way and gave MxPx some serious notoriety, complete with MTV airplay -- especially with the hysterical video for “Chick Magnet.” Personally, dcTalk’s Jesus Freak opened me up to a whole new world of music. This new world paved the way for MxPx and similar bands to become the favorites for my formative years right on through to today. MxPx singlehandedly sparked an undying love for punk rock in me that still burns bright.
These days, MxPx is known as a pop-punk band, and they certainly added a lot of pop elements into their music, but back in 1996, MxPx was way more influenced by skate punk. The guitar, bass, and drums were set to a blazing pace for most songs and it was in an era just before pop-punk started to dominate the airwaves. Tooth and Nail had struck gold. Life in General has so many standards that are beloved by fans and still played at MxPx shows regularly. “Middlename,” “Do Your Feet Hurt,” “The Wonder Years,” Your Problem My Emergency,” “Doing Time,” and Southbound” really highlight the best of what the album has to offer. The album’s title is also quite fitting as the lyrics to these songs, as well as the others, are just about life -- generally speaking. Themes range from love, having fun, minor problems we all face (especially when at that age) in life, to some slightly deeper issues.
One of the best things about the album is that is still holds up after 20 years. Those who loved that type of punk rock sound in the 90s will still dig it today, but it also plays nicely to new punk listeners wanting to discover some “older” punk music. While not every person likes the direction MxPx headed after Life in General and Slowly Going the Way of the Buffalo, most still look back with fondness, or at the very least with appreciation, to the earlier days of MxPx.
The band’s last full-length album, Plans Within Plans, was released 4 years ago. While the album had some classic sounding tunes and plenty of enjoyable moments, it couldn’t really compare with Life in General. Even though there hasn’t been a new album in a while, MxPx did surprise fans on September 18th with a completely re-recorded version of Life in General. There aren’t a lot differences in the song’s recordings overall, but there are some subtle nuances here and there that are different. As a whole, the biggest difference in the 1996 version and the 2016 version is the tone of the instruments. The distortion on Tom’s guitar is meatier, Yuri’s drums are bigger sounding, and Mike’s bass seems to stand out in the mix a little more (but not in bad way). The re-recording is an interesting listen. It’s the same Life in General, but any fan of the band would pick the songs out as sounding different immediately. The purest in me is quite happy that the songs stayed exactly the same, but the album is set to modern recording techniques and the band is using their current effects (such as distortions). It’s different enough to be noticed and appreciated, but it’s the same album.
It’s hard to believe it’s already been 20 years since Life in General was released, but Mike and the guys came up with a pretty cool way to celebrate. As of now, this download was only available for one day -- September 18th. If you missed out, see if one of your friends was able to snag the download. Hopefully the band will release a 20th Anniversary vinyl (with a digital download), or something similar, with this recording. It would be a shame to put all that work into this project with only some of the fans getting a chance to listen. The fact that it was a free grab for one day only may just be leading to that type of scenario. Fingers crossed! As a long-time fan, though, celebrating 20 years of Life in General with this re-recording has been fun. Something tells me that I’ll be rocking this record for another 20 years to come.
We certainly take music’s relationship with the internet for granted now. Previously, we had to wait until we could take a trip to a local Christian bookstore or music seller to pick up an album on release day. Now, we can buy the album digitally on our computer or phone at midnight of release day from literally anywhere -- as long as our phone has a signal or we have internet access.
And back in the late 90’s, record labels were still trying to figure out what to do with online media. At one point, someone at a label (and unfortunately, I can’t really recall which one) told me they couldn’t send us music as often as we needed it because they didn’t believe the internet was an legitimate form of media.
Ha, times have changed, haven’t they?
But the first record label to really take note of JFH was Forefront Records (home to DC Talk, Audio Adrenaline, Rebecca St. James, DeGarmo & Key, Bleach, etc), and we started up a friendship with the label that would last a few years. In the summer of 1998, while I was helping out the label’s street team (called “The Buzz”) at Creation East Festival, the head of the team offered to help us migrate the site to an official dotcom with server space on NetCentral in exchange for JFH helping to do grassroots promotion for DC Talk’s brand new “Supernatural” album. They'd cover the costs to help us get going and give us any server space we needed. It was a dream come true for a broke 18-year-old Christian music enthusiast fresh out of high school… and since we’re all Christians here, it just couldn’t get any better… right?
JFH front page in August, 2004
Aside from stating the obvious that promises that had been made were not kept, I’ll just say that the experience was a life lesson and an unfortunate one. However, the silver lining to the whole mishegas was that it did help us get the site onto Jesusfreakhideout.com officially (and… by 2001 -- almost three years later -- I was able to fianlly get the ownership rights back to it…).
Life for me has changed drastically since being a 16-year-old kid with a minimal social life who started a very time-intensive website in JFH. I started college in the fall of 1998 and majored in Advertising/Design. And after 5 semesters there, all I knew is that I’d wanted to just work on JFH full-time. I took a part-time job doing web support type work at a local company in 2000, got engaged to my girlfriend in 2001, married in 2003, bought our condominium in 2006, quit that job later that year, and finally took JFH full-time. In 2010, our son Will was born (after a miscarriage the year before), and life changed dramatically yet again. All the while, the music industry was going through its own growth spurts… and then deep dives. Twenty years in, JFH is a part-time project once again and the time I’ve had to spend on it has been cut down drastically from a decade ago. But thanks to the incredible staff of volunteers who help out on a regular basis, JFH prevails. And hopefully it will continue to do so for as long as God allows or wants it to.
So, with that said… here’s to whatever the future holds in store next for Jesus Freak Hideout! Thanks to everyone who has supported us over the years!
In early 1996, my family got the internet at home for the very first time (dial-up! Ugh…), and I used to love scouring the new sites on the web dedicated to the individual bands or record labels and the few existing Christian music media sites at the time, like CCM Magazine or a pretty cool little independent one called The electronic Lighthouse Magazine (or “TeLM”). But I remember visiting artist sites and wondering what was newly added to the site, as they didn’t always list what was changed, so I had to spend time browsing multiple pages in an effort to find something new.
On August 13th, 1996, a couple hours before my family was going to take us to a Jars of Clay / Duncan Sheik concert at Tink’s Entertainment Complex in Scranton, PA, I read a tutorial on basic HTML on Angelfire.com and started my own website. I still remember sitting in the car, on the way to the concert, and turning to my dad who was at the wheel and telling him “I started a website today!”
My goal for the site was a one-stop place for all things Christian music. If you wanted the latest news, it’d be there. Tour dates? Sure, I’ll copy them from every artist site I could find and paste them onto one page. (THAT time-consuming idea was short-lived. Ha!) The Yankees won the World Series? (My dad’s favorite baseball team) Sure, I’d slap that on the front page. Why not? It was just a little webpage, but there were no rules as to what had to or didn’t have to be on there.
But that name, “The Jesus FREAK Hideout.” What’s the deal?
Before I started the site, I would frequent the Christian chat rooms at NetCentral.net, and at one point, they offered free private chat rooms. I used to use the handle “Jesus FREAK” in chat rooms, and then got sick of the “Are you a male or female?” questions every time I met someone, so I changed it to “mR. Jesus FREAK” (which didn’t stop some people from asking, of course). When I created a free chat room, I called it “The Jesus FREAK Hideout.” It seemed fitting. I ended up never using it, but when it came time to naming my new little free web page on Angelfire.com, “The Jesus FREAK Hideout” just kinda seemed to work for me.
The following year, in 1997, the site had started grabbing the attention of publicists. I remember the very first press kit we ever received -- it was for the band Eager, which featured one of the original members of one of my favorite bands, PFR. But in addition to PR, the JFH started also getting the attention of record labels. And the very first label to contact us would change the course of the site’s history forever…
Twenty years. It’s kind of amazing to even think about doing ANYthing for two decades. I’m hesitant to say “any job,” because Jesus Freak Hideout was born out of a passion for something and was never meant to be a job – even if that’s what it did become for some time.
I had always grown up with a knowledge of Jesus and what He meant to us, but I didn’t really invite him into my life as my Lord and Savior until the early 1990s. And then, my mom’s love for the classic rock act Foreigner and a list of “If you like this artist, then try this Christian artist” in a magazine called “YOU” lead us to a Christian bookstore where we could listen to demos of Christian music and pick out music we were interested in.
It all started with a band called Idle Cure. They were popular in the early 90s for being a Foreigner sound-a-like with an overtly Christian message (and it’s a slightly guilty pleasure to revisit those albums from time to time ;) ). After we exhausted the Idle Cure discography, return trips to the bookstore cultivated a love and appreciation for Christian music we’d discover – not on the radio, mind you – but via demos and magazine articles and advertisements (and endcap displays at the store). I also loved a Christian music video show called “Signal Exchange” (which was hosted by the super talented Cory Edwards, who went on to direct an animated film called Hoodwinked years later). It was through that show that I’d see music videos by artists like Audio Adrenaline, Dakoda Motor Co and Switchfoot and would soon fall in love with each of those – and many more.
I’ll save you ever minute detail in my personal history of being introduced to Christian music, but the fact is, these artists – and a burgeoning love for Jesus – sparked a passion that still remains today (although it’s certainly changed).
Which was the first CCM artist you ever heard (that introduced you to Christian music)?
In September, I released Part 1 of a look at the lyrics of Jon Foreman and Switchfoot. With Switchfoot just about to release their 10th album, Where The Light Shines Through, and Foreman having released a steady stream of great EP’s over the last few years--and to honor such a prolific and heartfelt songwriter--I’d like to examine the Jon Foreman songs and lyrics that mean the most to me. This is part two of a multi-essay (okay “blog”) effort to wrestle with the life of the mind, with what happens when other’s art and your own heart collide. You can read part one of this series here.
This Is Your Life (From The Beautiful Letdown)
“This is your life / Are you who you want to be?”
Socrates is reputed to have said "the unexamined life is not worth living." Yet so much of the time I'm not really giving much thought to why I do what I do. It's all too easy to fall into familiar patterns or let my desires control what I do. Some call it "the chasing of the belly and the bowl." And all that unexamined life can lead you to being the shell of a person, broken and wondering how you got here, shipwrecked. "Where did it all go wrong?" you think.
That may be overly dramatic, but so is breaking down on the roadside after you've been ignoring the "check engine" light for a month. You knew there was trouble, all the signs were there, but there were just other things to do. (And sometime, in my younger years, I would just turn up the music if my car was making a funny sound.)
But asking yourself hard questions is important. There are only so many days in your life left, and if I want to “live them well.” I have to ask the questions and pray the hard prayers. “Lord, search me, is there more you have for me?”
I’m about to hit the big “four-oh”, and asking myself this question everyday is critical.
“Live It Well” (From Where The Light Shines Through)
“Life is short / I want to live it well”
“Teach us to number our days” the Psalmist says. The clock is ticking down, and all those years you thought you had are drifting away, minute by minute. My life is short (especially measured against that rock my daughter found on our hike the other day, or that massive oak tree we passed).
Foreman hits this theme time and time again over the course of his band’s albums, but he never ceases to find new ways to say it. If you combine that important sentiment against the swelling, U2-like structure of the song, and you get an anthem that not only uplifts, but challenges. Theme songs don’t come much better than this. It’s the soundtrack to my days this summer; getting in shape, loving my family well, working hard at the gifts God has blessed me with.
May we all “live it well”.
“Company Car” (From New Way To Be Human)
“I've got the company car / I'm the one swinging at two below par
Yeah, I've become one with the ones / that I've never believed in
But I've got the company car”
In college, I had the nicest car I will probably ever own. It was a sporty black Saab that was completely ridiculous and bought with trust fund money that should have been spent on something more practical, and modest, to drive. I stood out like a sore thumb at my Bible college, where most ministry majors were driving beat up cars and focusing on more important issues.
But I thought I needed to have it. In my insecurity about who I was, a flashy car seemed like some kind of answer, and since I could buy it outright, why not?
What you drive is a measure of success here in the U.S., and Foreman’s lyrics about a person who thinks they’ve made it because they are driving the company car (most likely a car that is nicer than one they could afford) speaks to the vanity and confusion of our times. A nice car is nothing to live for. It rusts eventually. The motor goes south and all you have left is the payments.
Foreman has long made status symbols a theme of his writing, with terms like “Lexus cages” sprinkled throughout. On each album, you can count on at least a song or two where Foreman is urging his audience to live for more, and it’s a theme that cannot be overstated. Life is about so much more…
“Adding To The Noise” (From The Beautiful Letdown)
“If we're adding to the noise / turn off this song
If we're adding to the noise / turn off your stereo, radio, video…”
The 21st century is sure noisy. And it’s become even more so in the 12-plus years since this song came out in 2003. There was no social media then (not in the way there is today) and there was still music on MTV. But Foreman got this right. If the stuff we consume just adds to the chaos of our lives, it’s time to turn it off.
Silence is going to be the great currency in the future, the thing that people crave and will seek out. And the reality is that the Lord’s still small voice comes through best in silence. Elijah in the cave sat through a tornado, an earthquake and a forest fire, but the Lord was not in those things. I listen to music a great deal, and much of it is music that relates to my faith directly. But turning it off to listen is imperative now and again.
Learning To Breathe (from Learning To Breathe)
"Hello, good morning, how you do? / What makes your rising sun so new?
I could use a fresh beginning too / All of my regrets are nothing new
So this is the way that I say I need You / This is the way that I'm learning to breathe"
A fresh beginning is another constant theme with Foreman. “Dare You To Move” (“I dare you to move like today never happened“) and “Always” (“every breath is a second chance”) hint at this theme too, and show Foreman to be a man who is in touch with his sinful nature.
And there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t need a new beginning too. Grace says that there is always a fresh start, always a cleared path ahead of you if you will only ask for it. Sometimes it's easy to get in a funk when personal failure and you are intimate friends. But as the book of Proverbs says “a righteous man gets up seven times”. It’s about the getting up and not the falling down. Because falling down is pretty much guaranteed. It’s those who finish the course that change things.
Grace says “get up”, I’ve got this, you just keep going.” And as I grow as a believer, I realized that grace is the constant wind in my sail that I forget is even there. Growth is realizing how free I am because of Christ‘s death on the cross, free to fail, free to get back up again. It’s not up to me, so why pretend that it is.
It’s like breathing, sometimes you have to remember to do it. Learning to live in grace is learning to breathe, learning to do something naturally. If I lived in grace, and showed it in everything I do, if I reflected the grace I’ve been shown, how would that change things, my relationships, my work?
It would change everything…
Thank you, Jon Foreman for constantly making me think, reflect and sing along at the same time. I’m looking forward to seeing you in concert this summer.
-- Alex Caldwell, Jesusfreakhideout.com staff writer
Great Comfort Records is an indie label that has been releasing organic indie projects since 2009. Founder and singer/songwriter Lenny Smith spoke with us recently (interview below) and shared seven releases with us from Great Comfort Records catalog (starting with two compilations from 2009), as well as a solo release from Smith from 2000.
Looking over the collection of records, we'll start with Lenny Smith’s Deep Calls To Deep; the album is an independent release (pre-Great Comfort days) that has a southern, folk sound. Lenny captures a bit of the essence of Johnny Cash in his work, while resembling a hint of Burl Ives, vocally.
The first Great Comfort releases--the two compilations from 2009, Come O Spirit! Anthology of Hymns and Spiritual Songs: Volume 1and Salvation Is Created: A Christmas Record from Bifrost Arts--are a nice mix of indie artists and even some well-known names. There’s a quirkiness to most of the music that Great Comfort Records offers (which isn’t surprising, considering their affiliation with the eccentric Danielson Family) and there’s a little here that’s carried over into both of these collections. My favorite of the two is the hymns collection, Come O Spirit!, which even opens with a track that features Leigh Nash of Sixpence None The Richer fame. Other notable performances include songs from Kate York, Denison Witmer and The Welcome Wagon. Salvation is Created is a Christmas compilation that is more melodic than most of the Great Comfort projects, but still has a very unique presentation that’s outside of the norm or what’s expected for Christmas music. Derek Webb even makes an appearance on this collection.
Next we have Glen Galaxy’s 2011 album, Thankyou. This may be one of the more out-of-the-ordinary worship albums you’ll lend an ear to. All of the songs came together in worship at the Abiding Place Church in San Diego (as the liner notes detail), and the album offers a folky acoustic styling with layered vocals by Glen and unusual sound effects and instruments adding texture throughout the album. The multiple layers of gritty vocals aren’t intended to harmonize, so it sounds a little dissonant at times (and there’s a surprising amount of lyrical water references that may rival Dan Haseltine and Jon Foreman), but overall the album remains refreshingly unique.
In 2012, Lenny Smith released a new worship album, Who Was and Is and Is to Come, which incorporates female accompaniment into the mix on much of the album. It’s a higher quality recording overall than his 2000 release, and offers a nice mix of folk, rock, a little rockabilly, and even a softer approach, like in “Arise My Love,” which is one of the album’s best.
Possibly the oddest of the albums is Frog In The Reeds’ 2013 album, Walking Tour of Spiders in the Woods. Quirky may be the best way to describe this one, which features female fronted vocals from Mary Brewer in an often dissonant manner. However, songs like “Driving and Smiling” are more tame and melodic. The lyrics are also rather dreamy and strange, as evidenced in the song “Fish Tank Dream,” where Brewer sings, “You are keeping my cat alive / In a cellar closet / Must have gone through 40 lives.” But most of the lyrics are quite worshipful, like this line in “Melt Like Wax,” “He is a light to expose all, see and tremble / Praise Him who keeps the soul of those / Who bow before Him… The mountains melt like wax before the Lord of all the earth.”
Finally, we have 2015’s Sing To Your Mountain by Rachel. Rachel Galloway is a mult-instrumentalist who performs guitar, ukulele, keyboard, flute and bells on her album. Stylistically and vocally, Rachel reminds me of Bon Voyage meets Dakoda Motor Co. There’s some surfer rock (“Oil of Joy”), but most of it is acoustic based and rather dreamy. Lyrically, the album is very reverent and worshipful.
If you’re looking for music out of the norm for Christian music, you need look no further than Great Comfort Records and their eclectic array of music makers. For more details on all of these artists and for the latest on what the label is up to, visit www.greatcomfortrecords.com
I also spoke to Lenny Smith about the label and his own music career...
John DiBiase (JFH): Why did you start Great Comfort Records (and how long ago)? Lenny Smith (GCR): Years ago, Daniel (Smith) and I used to have monthly meetings at a local barn-like structure. We called the meetings, Great Comfort Evenings. When we decided to start a worship label, Great Comfort Records seemed like the right name. We started the label in 2009, initially to be able to offer the Bifrost Arts albums to the wider church. We later added titles and continue to add titles.
John (JFH): How long have you personally been making music? Lenny (GCR): I started writing worship songs and leading worship with my guitar in 1965 while in Mt. St. Mary's Seminary, Emmitsburg, Md. My son, Daniel, started his music career in high school and college bands, eventually starting the Danielson Famile band with his siblings. He now owns Sounds Familyre Records and Familyre Studios.
John (JFH): What inspires you the most when making music? Lenny (GCR): Most of the time, I am first moved by lyrics, which I later try to put to melody. Occasionally, a rhythm will grab me first, but usually inspired words move me to write a song.
John (JFH): Do you have a process for working with artists for Great Comfort Records? Also, What have you learned about music-making from your experiences with the label and other artists on it? Lenny (GCR): We are not actively looking for artists, but we are open to signing artists. We find that few nowadays know how to write real melodies that actually go somewhere and even fewer can add to that inspired, poetic lyrics. However, when we find them, we want them. I personally think songwriters need to read poetry on almost a daily basis. Worship songwriters need to also read theology and spend lots of time in the Bible. I am really done with shallow praise and worship songs. My heart now is all about songs TO God, ABOUT God. I don't want to sing about me very much anymore.
John (JFH): Are there any new releases on the horizon for Great Comfort Records? Or any other exciting happenings? Lenny (GCR): My own new album of original songs will be released around June, followed by a new album from Rachel in September of this year. We will also be releasing a compilation album of 16 songs by 16 different writers/artists.
John (JFH): What are your thoughts on the current state of Christian music - or music in general? Lenny (GCR): Christian worship music has become entertainment because the leaders are choosing a bad paradigm. God is not sitting on a throne, watching and enjoying us as we sing to Him and dance about and raise our hands in adoration. That would put us on the stage and God in the audience....as an Audience Of One. Reality is just the opposite. We Are The Audience, watching God performing his cosmic show of provision, guidance, healing, restoration, creation, evolution, adaptation, recovery, inspiration, and on and on, wonder after wonder. WHEN we see His deeds and His nature, we rise spontaneously to our feet and applaud and cry-out "Wow!" We could call our response "worship." True worship is not an action, it is a reaction.
John (JFH): Any other comments? Lenny (GCR): We here on earth are just imitating what has been and is going on in the heavenlies, singing and praising and worshiping our Maker. Even here the birds and the whales and the elephants, puppies and babies are worshiping their Maker. The church is actually late coming to the party. In fact, most of the church doesn't even know the party has already begun. They are waiting for the rapture or death before they join the banquet. I blame the teachers, not the people. Our teachers are mostly self-taught and have embraced a pop-Christianity, or are stuck in traditional structures that will not allow the Holy Spirit to improve and refine their thinking. Yet, we progress steadily :)
Switchfoot And Needtobreathe - The Warriors and Spurs of Christian Music
There are a few distinct things I’ve been a fan of since childhood (good books, good movies, good Chinese food etc.), and chief among them are basketball and music.
There were no real outdoor courts in my small Maine town growing up, so my crafty father built me the most beautiful and rugged outdoor court you have ever seen. I spent hours a day firing away at that hoop, imagining hitting buzzer beaters and playing one-on-one against whoever was around that day. To this day, a hoop in the driveway is a mandatory item for me, and my daughters and I spend a lot of time out there when the weather is cooperative.
Likewise, music was a huge part of my childhood. My parents owned a Christian bookstore during a pivotal period of my life, and brought home new music pre-releases almost weekly (early Michael W. Smith, Petra, Whiteheart etc.). I’d put my huge boom box (remember those?) out by the hoop, and that made for a killer afternoon in my world.
To this day, music and basketball make up a huge percentage of whatever “free time” I have, and I try to work them into the daily lives of my family, to try to pass on the love. (No pressure here girls.) I coach my girl’s basketball team in the winter months, and one of my favorite things to do is making practice play lists to blast during warm ups and drills. It makes the cold gym that much warmer, and that much more positive a place. This year Blanca, Britt Nicole, Tobymac, Owl City and Capital Kings made up a good chunk of the tunes cranked out, and it was also a neat, non-threatening way for my family to spread the gospel and to talk about our faith.
I also love to watch basketball, and this year in the NBA, there were two teams that were heading towards breaking the all-time wins record for a season, held by the Michael Jordan-led 1995-1996 Chicago Bulls, who went an amazing 72-10.
Both the current champions, The Golden State Warriors, and former champs before that, the San Antonio Spurs, had a chance to beat that record, (the Spurs are now out of the running, but the Warriors still have a chance to do it), and watching two teams play the game to perfection, with all the right kinds of passing, defense and selflessness on display, is a fan’s dream come true. Two teams doing it is a one-in-a-hundred years kind of thing, like Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig going after the home runs record in baseball while being one the same team nearly 80 years ago.
Which brings us to the music.
Though it’s not a “competition” in terms of the art, Christian Music (loosely defined as music that is created by Christians and gets play in that genre’s outposts, though both bands mentioned here exist in a few different genres) has a version of these two teams; artists who seem to be at the peak of their game, releasing a string of great albums and songs that show spiritual rock and roll at its best and most uplifting.
Since both bands have topped JFH’s “Best Of” album list in the past few years, and both are releasing new albums this July (also, they just toured together at length), the two bands seem inexorably linked, and discussing them together just makes sense.
For Needtobreathe, I think their current hit streak goes from their third album (The Outsiders) to their last one (Rivers In The Wasteland) and quite possibly their upcoming one as well (July’s Hard Love). Switchfoot has been in full stride since Hello Hurricane.
The depth and creativity of the songs these two groups have released in their “prime” stand alongside the best in any period of Christian music. Switchfoot’s “Your Love Is A Song”, “Love Alone Is Worth The Fight”. “Vice Verses” and “When We Come Alive” are just four examples of the kinds of theologically rich, soul-searching songs that represent true artistic and spiritual depth. (Likewise with Needtobreathe’s “Something Beautiful”, “Lay ‘Em Down”, “Keep Your Eyes Open”, “Difference Maker” and “Brother”.)
Add to this some great cultural commentary (one of rock and roll’s great tasks) in Needtobreathe’s “White Fences”, “Where The Money Is” and “Money And Fame” and Switchfoot’s great take on the fear mongering of the modern news cycle (“Selling The News”) and the Church’s bad habit of emphasizing Heaven to the detriment of spiritual engagement down here (“Afterlife”), and you get two fully-formed artists plumbing some great depths of the human condition.
And what I think is the greatest achievement of both these bands, is that they have managed to exist simultaneously in the secular marketplace (I hear both on the overhead speakers at my local grocery store) and Christian music marketplace alike. A song like Needtobreathe‘s “Brother” hits on a universal truth that we all need each other, (like the theologian R.C. Sproul said, “all truth is God’s truth”) and is the kind of unique song that crosses over barriers. (Likewise with Switchfoot’s anthemic “Love Alone Is Worth The Fight.”) I wish more “Christian” bands could write these kinds of universal songs that show the depth of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. (Like Switchfoot’s Jon Foreman said to The Rolling Stone, “We’re Christians by faith, not by genre.”)
But it is also refreshing to turn on Air 1 radio and hear Needtobreathe and Switchfoot, (and to see them at my local Christian music fest.) They represent some of the best music on that station, and they are comfortable in that world too, doing interviews and “behind the music” background spots. I’m glad they make an effort to be in this neck of the radio dial too.
Both bands represent the best of what good art in the hands of a believer can do, and that they are both firing on all cylinders at the same time is a unique moment to be savored.