“The King” and the Coming King of Kings

Thomas Dorsey wrote some of the greatest gospel songs of the 20th Century. One that gets special attention this time of year is There Will Be Peace in the Valley.  Here are the lyrics:

Oh well, I’m tired and so weary
But I must go alone
Till the lord comes and calls, calls me away, oh yes
Well the morning’s so bright
And the lamp is alight
And the night, night is as black as the sea, oh yes

There will be peace in the valley for me, someday
There will be peace in the valley for me, oh Lord I pray
There’ll be no sadness, no sorrow
No trouble, trouble I see
There will be peace in the valley for me, for me

Well the bear will be gentle
And the wolves will be tame
And the lion shall lay down by the lamb, oh yes
And the beasts from the wild
Shall be lit by a child
And I’ll be changed, changed from this creature that I am, oh yes
There will be peace in the valley for me, someday
There will be peace in the valley for me, oh Lord I pray
There’ll be no sadness, no sorrow
No trouble, trouble I see
There will be peace in the valley for me, for me

The version I remember best is Elvis Presley’s. As one of Elvis’s best-loved gospel hits, it is included on the B side of his Christmas album. So if you are like me, and you have a cache of Christmas CDs you haul out every year, you’ve heard it recently. Maybe as you read the words above, you heard them in Elvis’s voice and your upper lip curled up just a little.

I love this song. It inhabits this hopeful, future-oriented Advent space, a time when there will be no sadness and sorrow, and God himself will wipe every tear from our eyes (Rev. 21:4). Predators like bears, wolves, and lions will be tamed, a little child will light the world, we will all be changed (Isaiah 11:6-9, 1 Cor. 15:51). But if I could excise one word from Dorsey’s lyrics (and Elvis’s performance), I would get rid of the word “someday.” To me, that word is too passive, too pie-in-the-sky. We can’t just sit back and wait for a world we want. What difference does it make if we wax poetically about lions and lambs if we willfully participate in systems and structures that devour our neighbors?

The Advent season marks time before Christmas, it acknowledges that we have not yet arrived, that we should not be satisfied with what is, and it stokes hope for the coming of Christ when all the world will be set to rights.  But it is more than this. Advent calls us to respond. If not a come to Jesus moment, we are called to a Jesus is coming moment. We are called to be Shalom agents now and prepare the way for the Lord!

At Jesus first Advent, his cousin John preached a gospel of repentance. Luke 3:4-6 (cr. Isaiah 40) says:

“A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
    make straight paths for him.
Every valley shall be filled in,
    every mountain and hill made low.
The crooked roads shall become straight,
    the rough ways smooth.
And all people will see God’s salvation.’”

If we believe this stuff, then the call isn’t for us to sit, wistfully dreaming of someday. Jesus is coming and things got to change. Someday is cold comfort to the hurting.

What can we do today, to alleviate inequity, suffering, pain? How can we make our crooked roads straight? How will the wounded, the wicked, the victims and victimizers all see God’s salvation? It is when we finally start living and acting in ways that are cognizant with the reign of the coming King of Kings.

A friend recently tweeted, “How are you complicit in creating the conditions you don’t want?” I can’t think of a more Advent-y question.

Image taken from Wikimedia Commons


Pick My Turkey Trot Playlist!

Last month, I ran a 10k. I crowdsourced my playlist on Facebook and Twitter. I tried to incorporate every suggestion I could, which meant against my better judgment Chris Tomlin and Sisqó’s Thong Song made the playlist. Of course I got more musical suggestions than the amount of time it took me to run 6.2 miles (1 hr, 56 seconds), but I had fun seeing what people suggested.

Turkey TrotGuess what? I’m running another race this month, an 8 mile Turkey Trot. I’m going to earn my dinner this Thanksgiving (Nov. 23) and I’m looking for some new playlist suggestions. Though this time I am going to be a little more discerning about which songs make the final cut. So if you want to help me pick my playlist, here is the criteria for which songs make the final cut:


  1. 8 miles! I do run this distance or more regularly, but this will be my longest race to date, Songs that reflect on going the distance, or this distance specifically would be great. (e.g. Eminem’s 8 mile).
  2. This for Thanksgiving. I am going to eat too much later that day and the meal itself can provide inspiration for songs or artists in my playlist. For example, a rousing edition of Turkey in the StrawDreams by the Cranberries, or Let’s Get it Started by the Black Eyed Peas. Any other suggestions? You could make me do the Mash Potato.
  3. Giving Thanks! The theme for the day is being thankful! Do you know a good running song that reflects thanksgiving or gratitude? One of my favorite running songs that fits this theme is God is Good by Northern Ireland, Christian Artist, Brian Houston. I need more music like this!
  4. Music which honors First Nations/Indigenous people groups. November is Native American Heritage Month. In the American iteration of Thanksgiving celebration, we remember the Wampanoag tribe who helped the pilgrims survive the first winter at the Plymouth Plantation. We also remember the troubled racial history of Colonial America and beyond. Cheryl Bear’s Road to the Reservation and Frank Waln’s AbOriginal are already in my playlist. What other suggestions do you have?

I’m doing this for fun and don’t really care about how long I take running the race. So if you have a good song that meets the above criteria, I’ll probably take it, even if it isn’t a “running song.” Looking forward to seeing what you come up with.  Be creative!





From Russia with Love: a music review

Sacred-Songs-of-RussiaSergei Rachmaninoff’s All-night vigil was not Gloræ Dei Cantores first Russian voyage. In 1990 the release of Sacred Songs of Russia showcased the liturgical and sacred music inspired by the Russian Orthodox church

They perform nineteen choral pieces from composers: Alexander Kastalsky, Pavel Chesnokov, Vasily Titov, d. Bortnainsky, Mikhail Glinka, Peter Tchaikivsky, Stepan Smolensky, Alexander Arkhangel’sky, Nikolai Kedrov and Rachmaninoff.

This is a diverse collection, many of these pieces composed for a liturgical setting, though Sviridov’s three choruses were composed for a play, and several pieces were created for the Russian Imperial court. Stylistically there is some rage, there are liturgical call and responses with a baritone deacon and choral response, there are unison chants, contrapuntal and harmonic forms, as well as the incorporation of Russian folk melodies.

This is a hauntingly beautiful collection. The first time I listened I put it on as background music, a soundtrack for my working life and once, only once while my son was napping. However, the Russian melodies and liturgical call demanded attention. It is dynamic with climatic elements. This is the sort of recording which is best if you put everything aside and just take it in. —★★★★★

Gloriæ Dei Cantores  (Singers to the Glory of God), of the Church of the Transfiguration in Orleans, Massachusetts, has an impressive repertoire ranging from Americana to Gregorian Chant, both contemporary masterworks, and the classics. Their newest recording, Sergei Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil, Opus 37 is produced by Richard Pugsley (their director) and conducted by Peter Jermihov, a specialist in Russian and Orthodox liturgical music. For this recording, they are joined by members of three other choral ensembles: St. Romanos Cappella, The Patriarch Tikhon Choir and the Washington Master Chorale. The seventy-seven singer ensemble also includes soloists Dmitry Ivanchenk and Mariya Berezovska from the National Opera of Ukraine and Vadim Gan, protodeacon under the First Hierarch of the Russian Orthodox church.

The fifteen songs of Rachmaninoff’s Opus 37 are fifteen movements to prayer (these works are sometimes Identified as Vespers, but this only the first few songs. The whole collection is richer). In ten songs Rachmaninoff blends the Greek, Kievan and the Great Znamenny chant (from linear notes) He blends this with singable melodies, symphonic elements, and climactic flourishes. Rachmaninoff was not a regular church goer but this is profoundly Christian work, stamped by the spirituality of the Russian Christian East.

Gloriæ Dei Cantores, Jermihov, and the joint choir labored to be true to Rachmaninoff’s vision, inhabiting the sacred space he provides—devout and liturgical, neither theatrical or unresponsive.

I am no expert in Russian composers or choral music in general, I only know what I like. This is well executed and beautiful. I  already appreciate Gloriæ Dei Cantores fine recordings but this is amazing and definitely one of my favorites. —★★★★★

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this music from Paraclete Recordings in exchange for my honest review

Kaleidoscope: a music review

Have you ever had an earworm? Stuck Song Syndrome? It is the experience of having a catchy piece of music lodge itself inside your brain and put itself on repeat. Sometimes these are a mere nuisance, but in the case of old favorites or sacred song, it can sometimes be cathartic and formational:

Consider your favorite song—the one you find humming when you feel like dancing or when you need to weep.  Often those “humming tunes” are songs we have known and loved since childhood. They comfort us and give us a sense of strength, hope, acceptance, and love. (from the linear notes of Gloriæ Dei Cantores’ Kaleidoscope: America’s Faith in Song).

Kaleidoscope: America’s Faith in Song-Gloriæ Dei Cantores (Paraclete Recordings 2007).

Gloriæ Dei Cantores is, of late, providing the soundtrack to my life. I listen to them as I work at my computer desk, I play their music in the evenings to help settle kids to sleep, I play their music as I sit down to read. Sometimes I just listen.  Gloriæ Dei Cantores are the choir of the Church of the Transfiguration in Orleans, Massachusetts (at the Community of Jesus)Their 2007 release, Kaleidoscope: America’s Faith in Song explores folk hymns, psalms, and sacred song from the American tradition (19 songs in all).

There are some standout performance. The first track is their rendition and interpretation of John Newton’s Amazing Grace (yes, Newton was a Brit). “This setting is arranged by a group of composers on Cape Cod, Massachusetts who have shared their own  needs, suffering and joys together” (linear notes). The vocal phrasing and the legato to staccato string accompaniment  (especially under “many dangers, toils and snares . . .) provides a  sense of movement through this arrangement capturing both the beauty, and tension of grace.

Bookending this collection is Paul Manz’s E’en So, Lord Jesus, Quickly Come, an anthem written while the composer was critically ill. Between these two songs are folk melodies, psalms, spirituals, and favorite hymns from various Christian traditions. The Gabriel V Brass Quintet does a rousing jazzy rendition of Let us Break Bread Together on Our Knees and organist James E. Jordan performs William Bolcom’s setting of the hymn (which Bolcom wrote having been ‘taken-in’ by the singing at a local African-American church, see linear notes). Other standout performances include those of the Baptist Hymn, At the River, and the Shaker Hymn, Simple Gifts.

On a whole a very solid collection and interpretation of American sacred song. I give it four stars.

Note: I was provided with a copy of the CD by Paraclete Recordings in exchange for my honest review.

Here is a full Track Listing

  1. Amazing Grace arr. Michael Hale, James Jordan, Timothy McKendree
  2. I Will Arise arr. Alice Parker
  3. Foundation arr. Alice Parker
  4. The Eyes of All Waite Upon Thee – Jean Berger
  5. The Morning Star – Virgil Thompson
  6. The Twenty-Third Psalm – Arthur Foote
  7. Holy Manna arr. John Carter
  8. Let Us Break Bread Together – Traditional, performed by Gabriel V Brass Quintet
  9. Ching-A-Ring Chaw arr. Irving Fine
  10. The Boatmen’s Dance arr. Irving Fine
  11. Zion’s Walls arr. Glenn Kopenen
  12. What a Friend We have in Jesus! – William Bolcolm; James E. Jordan, Jr, Organist
  13. Psalm 136 – Virgil Thomson
  14. Hark, I Hear the Harps Eternal arr. Alice Parker
  15. Come, Holy Ghost – Leo Sowerby
  16. At the River arr. R. Wilding White
  17. The Best of Rooms – Randall Thompson
  18. Simple Gifts arr. Irving Fine
  19. E’en So, Lord Jesus, Quickly Come – Paul Manz

For the Beauty of the Earth: a music review

Gabriel V is a brass ensemble made up of women and men, ” unified in their commitments to the monastic life” (linear notes, 4). Often accompanying Gloriæ Dei Cantores, the choir of the Church of the Transfiguration (the Community of Jesus) in Orleans, MA, their newest recording For the Beauty of the Earth exhibits the beauty of God’s creation and redemption as only the combination of brass, organ and percussion can. Organist Sharonrose Pfieffer, Church of the Transfiguration organist, is the organist for these recordings.

for-the-beauty-of-the-earthHere is a look at the tracks:

  • Luminosity -an aural meditation on the vastness and splendor of space (composed by Anthony DiLorenzo)
  • Earthscape -Canadian Composer David Marlatt’s work inspired by the view of earth from space.
  • Windscape – Another Marlatt piece depicting the energy, rhythm and unpredictability of the Wind (this one is one of my favorites)
  • Fantasy on “O Sons and Daughters” – Composer Walter Pelz’s score for organ, brass and tympani exclaming the redemption of creation, “O Sons and daughters of the King, whom heavenly hosts in glory sing, today the grave has lost its sting” (linear notes,7-8).
  • Salvum fac populum tuum (trans. Save Your People) – Charles-Marie Widor’s  1917 composition balances the gravity and horror of war with the certainty that good conquers evil (8)
  • Holy, Holy, Holy – John Cunrow’s arrangement of a well loved hymn
  • Prelude on a Festive Hymn– Written by Donald Coakley, and arranged by David Marlatt, this piece is based on a 1995 hymn tune originally commissioned by St William’s Roman Catholic Church in Philidelphia
  • Meditation: The Light of the World – New Zealand Composer Sir Dean Goffin’s hymn based work combining two hymns reflecting on Christ standing at the door of a believer’s heart (Rev. 3:20).
  • Benediction—God Be With You – William Gordon’s arrangement of Ralph Vaugh William’s hymn tune Randolph proclaiming God’s blessing until we meet again.
  • Toccata from “Fifth Sympathy” – Windor’s organist showpiece (as the son of an organist I grew up with this piece). This arrangement, by Egene Ellsworth double voices the organ score with trumpets, trombones and tuba.
  • Tone Poem—A Psalm of Praise (Psalm 100) – Based on the hymn Praise My Soul King of Heaven, phrases and snippets of the tune are ‘playfully traded’ before a triumphal finally which culminates the hymn tune stated in its entirety.
  • Prelude on a Hymn of Praise – The recording is closed with a prelude. Curnow’s arrangement of  Conrad Kocher’s hymn For the Beauty of the Earth (the title piece).

This is an exceptional recording. Each piece selected has a majestic quality and carries the listener toward doxology. Gerard Manley Hopkins happy phrase, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God” reflects this collection well. The arrangements are powerful but ultimately joyful. I give this recording four stars.

Note: I was provided with a copy of the CD by Paraclete Recordings in exchange for my honest review. I was not obligated to give a positive review

10 Artists to Stop Boycotting Christian Contemporary Music For (Just in Case You Were)

A week ago I offered my criticism of Christian Contemporary Music (CCM) and as many have observed, basically critiqued the sorts of songs that get airplay on Christian radio. This week, it is my pleasure to shine a light on some of the good, the true and the beautiful  in the CCM industry. Despite what some people have thought from my post, I am not a hater. I have listened to CCM all my life and I still go back in my catalogue to revisit songs and artists that are important to me and I am not ashamed of  (and a few guilty pleasures). But before I give you my list, I need to say something about my criteria for chosing Christian artists:

  • Christian Contemporary Music is not a genre but a marketing category. There are Christians making beautiful music in every genre, but CCM involves Christians making music for Christians. Some of the Christian artists below eschew the name ‘Christian artist’ but they write Christian lyrics and appeal to a generally Christian audience.
  • Once upon a time, the Christian music scene was centered in Nashville with several record labels that were there. Nashville is still very important, but with the ubiquity of  iTunes and online music, independent musicians from all over are making great music. Independent artists have revolutionized the industry. Much of the ‘Christian music’  which hits high rotation on my playlist are friends and acquaintances: Andrea Tisher, Ordinary Time, Tom Wuest, Peter Lagrand, Brian Moss, Koa Siu and  Ahna Phillips. I have not included them in this list but if you want music which is honest, raw, beautiful, good, deep follow these links.
  • An important question you need to ask when you survey the CCM industry and my pasty list below is, “Where the black people at?” Remember CCM is a marketing category.  Christian Artists who are African Americans are generally marketed as Gospel artists which is another genre with a storied tradition. The lines are not always distinct (artists like Mandisa, Israel Houghton, Mary Mary, Kirk Franklin, etc. have wide appeal)but generally CCM is a white industry marketed to white people (i.e. white people generally grace the cover of CCM magazine). This doesn’t make it all  bad, but it does mean that in  profile of  artists below I’m only looking at a  small slice of Christian artists. If there are not some Gospel artists in your playlist you are missing out on some of the best music anywhere.
  • I have chosen to not profile any Christian Hip Hop artists for one simple reason: I don’t like what I see and hear. I think there is some great hip hop being made by Christians which is conscience raising and socially engaged, but generally this isn’t the type of stuff I see in the Christian hip hop scene.  I am willing to be educated on this point, but please don’t just tell me how much you like Lecrae or liked Gospel Gangstaz back in the day. Give me something current, beautiful and life altering.
  • I focused on artists currently working whom I appreciate. There are legends that I have not named here but without a doubt embody what is good in CCM. This is by no means exhaustive.

So without further ad0, let me give you my 10:

  1. Derek Webb– Founding member of Caedmon’s Call, singer, songwriter and self-described-agitator Derek Webb is one of the artists I think offering a prophetic challenge to both Christians and the wider culture. Consider his strong words about the judgmentalism which often characterizes Christian public discourse in What Matters More:  
  2. Gungor– Michael Gungor makes beautiful music. He and his group Gungor wed creativity, artistry and lyrical depth. Check out Ghosts Upon the Earth if you want a well constructed worship  experience (Michael shares vocals with his wife Lisa).  This song however, is a favorite in our house (the kids love it and love this video): 
  3. Sara Groves-Sara writes  thoughtful and vulnerable music.  I read an interview with her where she was talking about technology, Albert Borgman’s ‘focal practices,’ Eugene Peterson. The thoughtfulness she brings to her songwriting means that you get a lot of substance. She also is not afraid to be honest about her own struggles. I love that there is an artist at the center of the CCM  creating songs with insight and honesty.  Here is Sara performing Obsolete
  4. John Mark McMillan– My favorite John Mark McMillan songs touch heartache, pain and anger  but also compel you to trust God more. Think of his How He Loves (also covered by the David Crowder Band). This is a song written after a painful experience (the loss of a friend) and his own personal grief and angst but it  compels you to trust the love of God.  Here is John with his poignant song, Murdered Son
  5. Christa Wells– In my earlier post I bemoaned the lack of lament in Christian music. Christa  is the exception in that she’s written some of the most gutwrenchingly honest lyrics in Christian music (including Natalie Grant’s hit Held).  I love  How Emptiness Sings
  6. Phil Keaggy– For what is now decades anytime somebody criticizes the CCM industry for its lack of artistry and musicianship somebody brings up Phil Keaggy. Keaggy is recognized across the  music industry as one of the world’s greatest guitarists. Releasing bothvocal and insturmental albums, Keaggy has also lent his amazing guitar work and songwriting to many artists in the industry.  Here he is playing Salvation Army Band (worth watching just to see him play):
  7. Sandra McCracken– Derek Webb’s wife is fabulous folk infested artist  and songwriter writing hymns and songs which are both beautiful and sensitive. Can’t say enough good things about her, Can’t Help Myself.  
  8. Stuart Townend– Together With Keith and Kristyn Getty, Stuart Townend stands at the forefront of the New Hymns movement. You know him as  for modern hymns (with Getty)  like In Christ Alone, How Deep the Father’s Love for Us, and Beautiful Savior .  For decades the criticism sometimes leveled at contemporary worship music is that it is too subjective and not meaty enough. Townend’s response was not to join the throng of critics but  to write new hymns which have deepened the worship of churches across the globe (despite a few problematic lyrics). Here is Townend singing Come People of the Risen King
  9. Switchfoot likely hates that I put them on my list of Christian artists (I hate myself for including them) with their crossover success. But they got their start at Sparrow records and write from a overt Christian perspective. I remember being impressed with them early on when I  went through a stage bemoaning the vacuity of many Christian lyricists (I’ve never fully recovered). I  ran head long into Sooner or Later (Soren’s Song), a song which  references Soren Kierkegaard and wrestles with faith and doubt. They get my undying love for introducing their audience to the prophetic voice of John Perkins in Sound (John M. Perkins Blues)
  10. Brian Houston– I discovered this artist 10 years ago because he was the opening act at a Delirious concert I went to. Hailing from Belfast and always hovering on the cusp of greatness, Brian writes music that can be classified variously as folk, folk rock, blues, rock, roots. His most recent album is the Gospel-ly infused Shelter (available on iTunes) and is worth purchasing. Check him out online (you  won’t find him in your Christian book store). Note if you do a web search for him, you will invariably get a lot of hits for Sydney pastor Brian Houston. That Brian Houston does not get so high a recommendation from me. Here is a video of Brian (the musician not the pastor) performing Jesus Again: 
There are several artists I would add to the list, but I only promised 10. Feel free to share with me your favorites or offer your rebuttal!

A Disclaimer on my Last Post

When I sat down to write a post about ‘boycotting’ CCM (Christian Contemporary Music) I didn’t think it would quickly become my number one post of all time (only a few friends, neighbors and co-conspirators usually read this). I wrote this at the bequest of a friend, to do a two-part series, the first giving 10 reasons to boycott CCM, the second highlighting artists worth breaking your boycott for. So please read the first post as a broad stroke criticism which is overly general. If you tell me that I am not being fair, I will answer you with one word: yep.

So things you do need to know: I listen Christian artists (though not exclusively), I appreciate the creativity, musicianship and quality of many and I am not really calling for boycott. What I am hoping, is that the previous post makes you think about what Christian music is, what it says and where it can be improved (in general).

So as originally planned, I will wait until next Tuesday for my follow up post. In the meantime, feel free to continue to point me to quality Christian musicians because the heart of my criticisms are this: I long to hear songs that cause my heart to sing of all that Christ has done and is doing in the world. In the meantime, I will resume my regular posting about faith and life, ministry, books, and my theological musings. I love that you found my blog and have engaged me in conversation on some of these things. I’m an extrovert, so love it when people talk back at me, so sit back and relax and lets talk a minute.