Category Archives: Music

“Room for you to enter into it, stand up and walk around.” A conversation with Sandra McCracken

Sandra Psalms

I’ve long been a fan of Sandra McCracken. Over the years she has developed a really specific voice, through writing songs, playing concerts, house shows and hymn sings, and being part of a grassroots movement to reintroduce and revive old hymn texts to a younger listeners and churches. I have heard her talk about growing up in a home with a dad that loved rock and a mom that loved church music, you can hear that marriage come through loud and clear. In my mind she is also one of the most respectful Christian musicians I know. By that I mean, respectful and aware, careful and caring, of the texts she approaches and the audiences she plays for. On April 14th, she releases her latest album, Psalms, a collection of original songs mostly inspired by the biblical Psalms, many geared towards and able to be sung by a congregation. (Like this one, which our small church plant recently sang on both Palm Sunday and Easter!)

I got the chance to meet Sandra almost two years ago in Philly for Bifrost Arts’ The Cry of the Poor conference where she first met most of band featured on this intimate and at times both triumphant and fragile bunch of songs that was recorded over a few days in a Brooklyn loft (band and loft featured in non-album track video below). Since the conference, she’s become the worship pastor for a new Anglican church plant in Nashville, TN, St. Mary of Bethany Parish. I go the chance to talk with her last month about this new album

Hopeful Realism: Tell me about how this new record came about.

Sandra McCracken: Vocationally I’m making a shift towards church music. I’ll still do the singer-songwriter stuff but I think my job is church music right now. I think that without the artist thing that I’ve been doing for the past 18 years, I wouldn’t be doing the same kind of church music if I didn’t have that. My church music is fueled and shaped by all of that, but right now there is a little bit of electricity around investing my resources into the church catalogue and pulling old hymns and theology from old hymns, the richness of all of that into something that is artistically accessible to people. There is a lot I don’t know about it, but that’s kind of thrilling to me too.

HR: What have you learned from doing retuned hymns stuff and playing with folks like Indelible Grace? What parts of that have informed your new calling as a congregational worship leader?

SM: The richness of the theology in those hymns has helped me be a human being. It helps you through life changes and gives a lot of structure and context for faith. They are singable and they’re still around for a reason: [songs like] It is Well with My Soul & Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing. Some of these songs and tunes really anchor us to what we believe in a profound way.

There are some new contemporary worship songs that are being written that may have the emotionally quality, which is really important, but they’re “concept-concept concept-concept.” All biblical concepts, that just aren’t linked in a narrative form. which is what the hymns do so well. It’s been interesting to observe that.

I’ve been touring with All Sons and Daughters this last month and really learning a lot from them about sing-ability. Initially I was really trying to find my way in. But I’ve been profoundly affected by singing their songs each night and by being drawn in to a very inviting worship style that is less wordy, but also still theologically rich. I’d like to learn from that, and do more of that. I’ve been trying to figure out, in a local context, “What are the songs that our people need to sing?” Sometimes that may translate to the larger Church as well, often it probably will. But it has to start locally, incarnationally.

HR: What has writing and performing kids music (Rain for Roots) taught you about being worship leader and writing songs for corporate worship?

SM: Kids are really honest critics and there is not any pretense about how they respond to something. Learning and understanding sing-ability by writing for children’s voices is one of the best schools I’ve been to for songwriting. You get to ask: “Can they sing it? Do they want to sing it? Is it fun to sing? Do they want to sing it again? Is it too high?” Kids tend to have higher voices but their ranges are similar to what would be in an old hymnal: C to E. It is very interesting how all those pieces fit together and inform other contexts. That work has been incredibly relevant to how my writing has changed in the last 3-5 years.

HR: I’ve noticed on All Your Works Are Good (Psalm 104), the beginning sounds like one of the Rain for Roots songs, kind of didactic and sing-song-y, profoundly simple, in a good way. That one really stands out to me because it’s surprising how simple it starts and then how it blooms into something really emotive and big. And I think the guitar and instrumentation does that as much as the vocals or lyrics.

SM: I wrote that one at a songwriter retreat with Julie Lee and Jill Phillips. We’ve done some regular writers’ retreats, and that came out of our first one.

HR: Tell me about a song from Psalms that particularly sticks out to you or that you’re most proud of.

SM: Each has a story and an approach. I’ve been pretty regularly been playing My Help, My God at these shows and talking about how the Psalms have been teaching me how to pray. I went through a season where I didn’t feel like singing, that was a valley of sorts, and when I came out of that the only things I wanted to sing were Anne Steele hymns, some of my favorites that felt safe and honest. And then I would sit with the Psalms open at the piano or kitchen table and start making up melodies and singing segments pretty spontaneously and not for an audience or for the sake of being recorded. But realizing that this practice was teaching me how to pray and have an honest conversation with God that has a width of the human experience and even the confusion of the both/and as the Psalms present life: “Why have you forsaken me?” and “How long is this going to be?” and “I put my trust in You.” So Psalm 42, which My Help, My God was written from, is a good example of that range.

Another example of how kids music has informed this music, is that the chorus is kind of high, my daughter would sit next to me at the piano and she would play those high notes and sing that with me. The song wound up be really shaped around her voice and the experience of sitting there singing together. Even the subtle little “T” sound in “trust”…there are so many ways to express your heart with the aid of music and the complexity of all those things coming together.

That was one of the first songs that we recorded in those two days in Brooklyn. In the performance, you can hear that my voice breaks up at the end. We just played it through and that’s how it landed. And then I left the room for a while. It’s intense to enter into these texts and to do that with a band I’ve never played with and to feel the energy of the band and vulnerability of saying those words out loud, even though they’re not my words, and maybe especially so. Because they feel like they’re resounding and enduring words, they give you a profound sense of intimacy with God and the feeling that you’re being seen and honored in whatever your experience is. Whatever you’re going through, there is a place for it within the story of Scripture and the Psalms. And that access point is an enormous gift to us.

HR: That resonates a lot with me, right now. Im writing a Lenten sermon on Jesus reusing the psalmists words My God, my God. Why have you forsaken me? from the cross for this Sunday. I came back to this one passage from Ellie Wiesel’s Night, where hes headed for what he thinks will be his death and the Jewish burial prayer his dad prays May His name be celebrated and sanctified is on his lips even as he cant conceive of God being there to hear. You wonder, where is that coming from? But the psalms somehow build us in with this language we dont even know we have. They did that for Jesus and they do that for us.

SM: [The language of the Psalms] is spacious. There’s room for you to enter into it, stand up and walk around, it will hold us in those moments. I’m grateful for that.

HR: How has being the worship leader at an Anglican church interacted with these psalms and the liturgical song that closes the album?

SM: Working in that context and planning a liturgy every week since August has really helped my creativity, because you have a lot of structure around the liturgy. The passages are already chosen. It’s not like I’m planning a show, I’m trying weave the music into the liturgy and the worship experience in a way that it enhances, and is not a distraction, isn’t abrupt…I’ve learned quite a bit. I don’t have a liturgical background, it’s all really new to me, even the church calendar, there are layers of creativity that you can explore within that structure.

To purchase Psalms go to sandramccracken.bandcamp.com, iTunes, Amazon.

“When the world is sick, can’t no one be well. But I dreamt we was all beautiful and strong.” A conversation with Richard Kentopp of the Gentle Wolves

Thousands of music fans, media connoisseurs, and cultural experts flock to Austin, TX this week to participate in South By Southwest (SXSW) a music and film festival featuring more than 2000 bands, hundreds of film premiers, and interactive sessions including a “virtual conversation with Edward Snowden.”  Perhaps most notable, a several years ago Twitter was introduced here.

Cultural centers like these always interest me in terms of the church’s engagement –missiologically, artistically, culturally, and doxologically. As a part of a series of conversations I’ve had with musicians making music in and for the church, I spoke to Richard Kentopp of Austin. He plays and leads music at both Servant Church and Mosaic and has been rolling out new Gentle Wolves songs each week since February. Richard is a UT Longhorn and went to Fuller Theological Seminary, before being ordained by Mosaic and serving at Servant Church in East Austin.

Our church has been influenced by Richard’s recording ministry with Gentle Wolves (the house band for Servant Church).  His particular skill for excavating and refreshing old (in some cases very old) hymn texts, writing new songs from and for the church, and also appropriating songs from outside that speak the language of and make sense, perhaps most sense for, the church. And he does all of this with a deft ear and keen sensibility for the people in his community. By trade he is a musician, but he is also a pastor with a heart for those on the margins of faith. His creativity and bravery in a place deemed the “live music capital of the world” is truly inspiring.

On the new set of songs (dubbed Vol. IV), perhaps the quintessential display of these sensibilities is “When the World is Sick.” This tune is originally a lamenting tag at the end of an obscure (and certainly non-Christian) song by Montreal indie collective Thee Silver Zion Memorial Orchestra. After a litany of the world’s ills including “our dead marines,” the singer repeats the hopeful realistic mantra, “When the world is sick/can’t no one be well/but I dreamt we was all beautiful and  strong.” Kentopp and co take the haunting line and repurpose it as a Taize-styled Confession. Some parables of the Kingdom are just too powerful not to be used liturgically for the Kingdom.

I was able to talk to Richard a bit about some of his thoughts on worship music, what it means to play music that makes sense to an increasingly post-Christian culture in a cultural center like Austin, and his outlook on pastoring and including musicians.

Hopeful Realism: I was checking out the blog you keep and was curious to have you elaborate on your four reasons why you don’t sing praise and worship songs?  It seems like your four reasons really boil down to two reasons: “they’re not good” & “they’re unintelligible to someone outside of that culture.”

Richard Kentopp: That post is getting commented on in a lot of ways. That was what I was thinking that day. Not every day am I thinking all of those things in those ways. I think that post came out a bit negative; I’m generally trying to be more constructive. I will say that I do think those songs work well for some people. I know people who deeply connect with God through Matt Redman’s music and through his ministry and through their church singing those songs. But what I think has been lost, and one reason why the church in general is hemorrhaging young people, is our ability to make music that makes sense both musically and lyrically to young people.

I think you’re right, that music makes sense to people who grew up listening to “Lord, I Lift Your Name on High” & “Heart of Worship.” But from a very young age, a lot of Christians, myself included, don’t connect with “youth group music.” There are plenty of people that need to be given the vocabulary with which to worship God, and have a hard time singing those songs. The church has done a pretty poor job –giving outsiders a chance to connect. I always try to plan for our worship gatherings from the perspective of someone having their very first worship gathering experience. What I’ve found is that success lies in getting the people who have been coming forever to come around that.

I often say to them, “You’re a giving member, you’re a leader at this church, I don’t really care what you think of our music. But I want you to tell me if you think its not going to connect with your friends or your coworkers, then you can give me critique and I’ll listen to it.” We’re on a mission. I’m not there to provide an emotional experience on Sundays, I’m there to help connect them to God and connect them to each other.  Emotions will inevitably happen.

HR: I’m reminded of a line in Marva Dawn’s Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down, “If we want to care for the ‘lost souls’ of our society, the best way we can reach out to them is to offer them the richest resources of the Church.” I think that includes the really vibrant language of the church. With regards to language, what makes you look at a text and say, ‘we could really do that well, and it might connect in a new and surprising way’?

RK: The follow-up post to the one you mentioned, listed what sort of songs we do. As far as hymns go, I don’t have any problem changing hymns. I’m not a purist. I think that it makes sense to update theologically or otherwise.

For instance, one of the ones that we’re working on, “We Are Waiting Blessed Savior.” The music is really simple but the lyrics are great. So I took these several hundred year old lyrics and plopped them into new music. One of the lines was, “We are waiting blessed Savior/for a reunion heart to heart/with our dear ones over the river.” Every time we sing things like that or “Sweet By and By,” theologically, I have a hard time finding backup that we’ll see our loved ones in such a state in our resurrection bodies. It became problematic when we were doing a funeral for one of our folks. As a pastoral move, if possible I try to chance some of the lines into more Christ-focused eschatological references.

Linguistically, I try to change thous to yous and thee to you. Basic stuff to make us not feel so alienated over time and space from some of these songs.

HR: Tell me about the difference, for you, between making congregational music and other kinds of recording projects.

RK: I see a real distinction between the music I make “for art’s sake” and what I do with the Gentle Wolves. Honestly, I’m not a big country-rock fan, but because we are where we are, and because that makes sense artistically and linguistically to people in Austin, we choose to do that. When I made my record, my goal was to make something in the language I enjoy, something that expresses me…but that’s not necessarily the goal for the Gentle Wolves and what we do Sunday mornings. My goals are simply different. I want people to easily catch on to melodies and to be able to sing to God. I pray that somehow God’s Spirit will connect them to himself and to everyone around them singing.

HR: I love to ask worship leaders about how they navigate the role of non-Christians in worship. You find folks on every part of the spectrum, in terms of who is able to participate in making music on Sundays.

RK: I’ve actually come about 180 degrees on this.  When I was in college at University of Texas, I was a part of a church in Austin that required you to be a part of a small group for over a year in order to be on stage in any capacity for music. They had a very high buy-in, and I thought that that was good, since you’re leading the people, even if you’re just playing bass or drums or guitar. I’ve found since I’ve been doing this as a worship leader that incorporating people who don’t call themselves Christians into your community can happen really effectively through having them play music.  Musicians love to play.  Honestly, I’ve seen enough fruit; enough people who weren’t Christians become so involved with a Christian community that they start following Jesus before they even realize what they’re doing. And they start to realize that maybe faith is something they’ve been doing, something they’ve been given.

How I counter the previous mindset that I had, is by realizing that I’m up there –not some paragon of moral fiber- I’m a pastor. The musicians that are beside me and with me are a microcosm of the church at large. So I want there to be people investigating faith, but still sharing their gifts with the community.

Download the Gentle Wolves catalog at their bandcamp page and stay tuned as the final few tracks of Vol. IV release in the next couple weeks.

Ashes, and yet Crawfish

This Lenten Reflection originally appears at allgather.org.

I had the strangest Saturday.  To be clear, it was strange, but not bad.  You see, it was strange because of a couple of disparate things that came together to make my day.  Artists, whether in visual arts, film or even music, often use juxtaposition to make a point, to make something that you’d normally take for granted – well -strange, to jar your attention and uncork your imagination.  I think that’s what was happening to me. So I felt strange.

I spent my midday downtown with a buddy at a “Mardi Gras Primer.”  While this festival was filled with life and jubilation, it was decidedly less debaucherous than its Crescent City cousin (this was after all, only a primer, no appearance from Bacchus himself). We sat and listened to music teeming with joy and tradition, rich tones and raucous improvisations.  The saints came marching in along with literally dozens of brass playing “strutters” and of course, “Hey Pocky Way” had its hearing. The dance floor filled with an ever-evolving mix of goofballs, Deadheads, toddlers, NPR Sustainers, girls from Raleigh, and guys in bands….

I remember marveling at the common joy, the shared humanity, the unbridled enthusiasm and overflowing affection for our dear Bull City. We scooped up our crawfish trying to avoid bits of soggy spiced newspaper or the wrong stalk of celery and then held a clinic with the entry-level agrarian girls that stole our seats on exactly where to pinch the tail and pull for maximum crawdad consumption efficiency. I left happy, filled, unable to touch my eyes even after several hand washes, bearing the proper olfaction of a proper Fat Tuesday.

I returned home to the kids and our rigorously orthodox dinner, bath, and pre-bed liturgy. After they were down and out for the night in their white-noise washes, I set about my priestly task.  You see, I’ve been reading Leviticus, and its copious requirements and descriptions of what clergy does, for the sake of their people and on behalf of God. I don’t envy their job, or the guiding divine mandate that required it, but as I’ve waded through the tedium of the text, I’ve been acutely aware of how little my job as a pastor requires me to shower. Cutting up animals and burning grain offerings is not even implied in my job description. On a typical Sunday, I feel particularly handy (in a holy way) if I use a power drill to raise and lower the basketball goals out of our line of sight or when prepare the already prepared bread and juice for Communion.  That said, I set about my priestly, and carbon-neutral, task of converting last year’s Palm Sunday palms into this year’s Ash Wednesday ashes.

You see that’s precisely where the juxtaposition lay. Last year’s party, this year’s fasting. My hands, the same hands that still reeked of feasting, that were beginning to betray the sour of prebed, spit-up, now overwhelmingly stunk like singed hand hair and carbon. Where I had witnessed so much joy, a motley krewe of a congregation, I now flashed back to our Hosanna-singing, palm-toting congregation and the small pile of embers their messianic accoutrement had come to. There was a stark realization, a both/and affirmation, that both experiences are real, and valid, and faithful even and especially in their seeming contradiction.  That human beings, imaging their creative Creator God, were neither made for all party nor all funeral procession. But somehow, in Christ and by his Spirit, both at the same time.

Ashes, and yet Crawfish.

Ash Wednesday, and yet Mardi Gras.

Saint Paul got at this in his second letter to the Corinthians, when he wrote about his ministry and his hardships. After a grocery list of difficulties, he gets into the paradoxes. “…through glory and dishonor, bad report and good; genuine, yet regarded as imposters; known, yet regarded as unknown; dying, and yet we live on…” (2 Corinthians 6:8-9a).

As I enter into Lent, I pray that I remember that juxtaposing stench on my hands from Saturday. That it might somehow reinforce that dying-living life that Christ lived and made possible for me, for us, for this world. That I might not fear that seeming contradiction, but submit to its foolish-wisdom (1 Corinthians 1:18-31). And that I might “know Christ, the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in death, and so somehow, attaining the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:10).

“I learned Scripture better by playing in a band.” A conversation with Evan Way from Deeper Well

I first came across their music on a lark, one of those “fortunate falls” of internet browsing and music streaming that yielded a font of good tastes and great content that hasn’t let up since.  You see Deeper Well, a recording arm of Door of Hope Church, fashions themselves as a “Gospel Collective.”  They manage to heard some or most of the creative cats in their care to produce startlingly original, well perhaps not original at all, but at least refreshing, music from, by, and for the Church (and anyone else who’s listening).  Led by pastor/musician Josh White (formerly of the Christian Anglo-invasion-philic pop outfit, Telecast, and Evan Way (currently fronting the sunny vintage pop act The Parson Red Heads) this motley crew has been busy, diverse, prolific, and generous in its mere two or so years of existence.  The result is a wild panoply of scripturally rich, aesthetically integral tunes.  Songs about mystical experience with the living God that beget Spiritual experience.

WHMy entry point into their ever-expanding catalogue came by means of the outrageous cover art for Wounded Healer, a sort of coming out party for this self-styled collective.  Many of the songs formed congregationally and became fixtures in their corporate worship gatherings.  One listen and you get the sense that you’re hearing imminent throwback music, what hippies hoped for before they were tamed by age or hormones or the eighties.  They pulse and throb with immediacy and playfulness.

EaderJust when your ears begin to adjust to the textures, intricacies, and excesses of Wounded Healer, they put out Wesley Randolph Eader’s record, another favorite, but for completely different reasons.  If Wounded Healer takes us back to a Jesus People commune, Eader’s record rewinds the tape all the way back to the Dustbowl.  With the precision of Charles Wesley and grit and ease of Woody Guthrie, Of Old It Was Recorded takes some pretty familiar forms and incarnates them, indeed overflows them, with nothing short of the story of the Good News.

Josh WhiteAll this brings us to their two newest releases, all of which are offered as free downloads, a grace-gift to the public.  In December 2013, they posted an album of reworked, stripped down in most cases, Josh White-Telecast tunes.  Listening to these next to their predecessors really shows the original strength of their writing and how they were built.  In some cases, the songs reveal a superior beauty not unlike a lady without her makeup.  Fresh, innocent, and perfect not despite but often because of their blemishes.

Liz ViceWhat’s even more impressive is when one of these gems gets recorded a third way, given to someone else’s facilities, surrendered to their minor variances, and phrasing decisions.  Take Liz Vice’s shot at “Enclosed by You” on There’s a Light (released TODAY 1/14/14!).  Originally a Telecast tune, then stripped to its bones on Josh’s record, it might actually sound best out of Liz’s soulful mouth.  The rest of the record effortlessly shape-shifts, like trying on clothes at a thrift shop or spinning warped LPs (mostly Shirley Ann Lee, Roberta Flack, the Staples Singers, and Nina Simone).  You want to go back there, wherever then and there was.

I had the chance to chat with Evan Way, Pastor of Worship and Arts at Door of Hope about their approach and some of their hopes.  When I spoke to him in November, I caught him in the middle of an odd stretch where he’d just returned from a trip to Manhattan to perform children’s music in a band at a church, and was about to go on the Portland NPR affiliate to promote his band, The Parson Red Head’s album release.  Music.  Faith.  Bicoastal.  Bipolar.  This mash-up seems to characterize the church’s approach to music, and an offhand comment revealed something of the power of art’s ability and relation to the life of faith, “I learned Scripture better by playing in a band.”  I asked him about some of those bands and some of that intersection.

Hopeful Realism: What are some of your greatest hopes in making this kind of art?

Evan Way: We just want to see music that is good, quality music that is theologically sound, Christ-centered, and scripture-formed.  I don’t think we’re necessarily trying to just react to Christian culture, because even the lousiest Christian music can do good things.  My desire is to see really quality music that can actually transcend boundaries of “Christian music” that someone normally might not give the time of day.

We’re created in God’s image, part of what that means is that we’re creative people who are naturally bent to need to create things and hopefully they’re things that reflect Jesus.  As much as I’d love this music to be great for us to sing together in the church or for the people of the congregation, my heart is for those outside the congregation to hopefully hear it and have it speak to them in a surprising way.

HR: Making something that is musically excellent, that sounds good and has integrity, is pretty tricky.  It seems to me that a lot of Christian producers and musicians don’t know what to do with the imperfections in music that, despite their technical error, actually give a song, or album or moment “soul.”  Frustratingly, it seems like excellence, in Christian music circles, is usually equated with “perfect,” impossible, or fake sounds.

EW: Yeah, you really start getting down to defining what one person means by “perfect sounds.”  Do I think those sounds are perfect sounds?  No, I’d much rather hear a gritty guitar played through a crappy tube amp.  To me that is a more real, more perfect sound.  It’s really been important to us to not try to make these records into something that they’re not.

I know that there has to be more quality Christian music out there.  I haven’t quite solved the mystery of why you can’t find it.  Rather than solve the mystery, we just thought we’d try to make the kind of records we’re interested in and make them available.

HR: Why has giving away your music for free been so important?

EW: I never wanted to do it if we were going to be selling the albums.  The idea is to be generous with the things and the talents we’ve been given…to say “this music is our gift to you.” Our business model has been to create music focused on Jesus and to give it away because it’s never been about us.  It’s very dangerous, the moment you start making money.  You start to think about a bottom line, and not what you’re making.  Giving our music away puts your goals in the right place.

In this we’ve learned a lot from Josh Garrels and his music.  He always gives his newest album away for a year.  After a year, he “retires” it.  This came about because he was making a record and having a hard time, going through a dark season with his career, and he said one day God told him, “if you love me and you’re doing this for me, then give it away for free.”  He did it.  And when he did he had more success than he ever did before.

HR: As a touring musician and as a worship leader, what do you find in common with those two roles?  What’s different?  What do you find you have to unlearn?

EW: When I first started leading, I had to keep reminding myself that leading worship was not like playing a concert.  It’s tempting to forget that you shouldn’t be getting the same sort of attention or glory from putting on a show.  There are a lot of similarities between the two roles, but in many ways they’re totally different.

It’s been interesting how leading worship has affected my playing with the Parsons.  I’ve been focusing more and more about making that band about giving God control and allowing Him to do whatever he wants with it, even though its not a worship band.  Everything we have we have because God’s blessed us.  I view both as  ministry.

HR: Is the music you’re putting out in these albums only possible in Portland?

EW: Maybe more than just being in the city, it’s the part of the city.  Here in the Southeast part there are so many creative artists.  There seems to be a real revival of faith and people really trying to live their faith out.  I don’t think we’d be doing what we are without these people, not only musicians and songwriters, but visual artists, photographers, and filmmakers trying to use their gifts for Christ regardless of how the money works out.  I can’t say that this could only happen in Portland, but I also can’t say that I’ve ever been around something like this before, anywhere else.  A lot of things have come together and God has really brought people together.

Favorites of 2013

As 2013 winds to a close and Auld Land Syne and college football fill our ears and eyes, I (Chris) have always found it a profoundly beneficial and thanks-generating exercise to think back on the year and compile some lists.  Don’t construe our lists as necessarily “best ofs,” there are plenty of those to be had around the internet, rather as favorites- moments or events or artifacts- where each of us has savored something of the goodness of the Lord.  Without further ado…

Andy’s Favorite Hikes of 2013

Catbells, Lake District (England)
CatbellsFor our 15-yr anniversary, Miranda and I spent a few days in the Lake District. it may well be our favorite place on earth. We had a number of good hikes while there, but one that stands out is the hike up Catbells. Though not very high (500 metres or so), the summit affords a dramatic 360 degree view, with Derwent Water to the East, Skiddaw and Keswick to the North, and the Derwent Fells stretching up to Buttermere to the West. At the end of the hike we sat in our Vauxhall Zafire and listened to The Lumineers, a new find at that point. Later that day we ended up in a pub in Ambleside where we played Scrabble over a pint.
It does not get more romantic than that, folks (of course, at 15 years of marriage with 4 kids, just having an uninterrupted conversation is quite a romantic venture).

 

Loch Morar, West Highlands (Scotland)
Loch MorarSomeone graciously gave us the use of their holiday home on the West Coast of Scotland over the summer. One of our favorite moments of our lives was hiking around the northern shore of Loch Morar. The vistas were of dark green, rugged mountains crowning the water… which is one of Europe’s deepest lakes. And legend tells that it is haunted by the aquatic monster “Morag” (though we escaped his clutches that day).

 

Camasunary Beach, Cuillin Hills, Isle of Skye (Scotland)
Camasunary BeachPossibly my favorite family hike of all time with my wife and kids was on the Isle of Skye during the same holiday trip. We took a ferry to this rugged, massive Isle and parked the car on the side of a narrow strip of road from Broadford to Elgol just after a downpour. We took a path over some gentle slopes and ended up on a ridge granting us views of what ma be the most jagged, rock-splintered skyline I have ever scene, that of the Cuillin Hills. These are not very high by the standards of the North American Rockies or the European Alps, but they are dramatic to behold and apparently quite difficult even for professional climbers. We took a sharp descent down into a valley where we found the abandoned Camasunary Beach. Yes, in blasting wind and 55 degrees F, my kids wanted to wade in the sea. And yes, I had to go with them. But it was glorious, ya know?
We ended the day at a hostel adjacent to The Old Inn in Carbost. Miranda and I were surrounded by our 4 healthy kids who had just skirted the Cuillins on a 5-mile hike. We were sitting at a darkwood table drinking pints of stuff brewed with water straight from the same hills, having just placed an order for fish and chips. It was one of those unforgettable Moments.

Chris’ Favorite Music of 2013

This Side of Jordan- Mandolin Orange

imageI first listened to this record in the car on the way to Black Mountain, NC for a very special trip before Titus was born.  I’m not sure I could pick a better soundtrack for Piedmont road tripping than these delicate Southern sounds. Knowing Andrew and Emily, who make up the band’s core, and Jeff Crawford, who produced it (as well as plenty other of the album’s  fine players), I couldn’t be more proud of them or pleased with such a gorgeous label (Yep Roc records) debut.  I especially appreciate the third track, “There Was a Time,” (maybe a bit of a Neil echo?) with its lovely piano solo and crushing lyrics (“there’s no gold on either side of the Mississippi/no silver in this world left to find/precious metals and precious memories/slip away, slip away from your fingers and your mind”).  In the midst of loss and sorrow, whiskey waltzes, and clovers, TSoJ is a redemption-haunted album, looking for and occasionally even finding hope on Jordan’s banks.

Haw- Hiss Golden Messenger

imageTrue story: a few months ago I sold Mike Taylor (HGM frontman) a bike.  I’m thankful he paid me, but I’m also a bit gratified just to get to imagine him weaving apocalyptic tales as he navigates our fair Bull City on that single-speed.  Haw expands on Taylor’s previous offerings of Southern transplanted Laurel Canyon psychedelic folk.  With a voice like Van and kaleidoscopic writing like John of Patmos, HGM has become an office listening staple.  Maybe, just maybe, Taylor’s bike commuting signals something the record also communicates, a love and a tie to a certain place (the album title shares a name with a river that snakes just south of town). I found and enjoyed in this album the unique merging of some pretty lofty ideas and concepts with mostly grounded, gritty, specific people and places.

Debris- Roman Candle

imageRoman Candle was one of the first “local bands” I got into when I moved to NC. Little did I know then, when I saw them en-trance the packed Cat’s Cradle crowd in support of Wee Hours Revue, that they’d grow into an outfit (now in Nashville, considerably less local) that would follow so closely alongside my own interests and forays into the intersection of theology and the arts. Skip and Timshel breathe the kind of subtle explorations into beauty’s fleeting power and revelation’s mystery that folks like Rilke, Eliot, and Ms. O’Conner articulate most artfully. Logan’s musicianship and production on songs like “Small Time” and “Not Strangers Anymore” doesn’t just prop up those lovely lyrics, but at times actually takes over the storytelling altogether. I can’t recommend this album more. Get lost in the title-track dream and perhaps you’ll find out you knew where you were all along.

Joel’s Favorite Books of 2013

Due to parenting a toddler, remodeling a new home, supporting an entrepreneur wife and some other personal craziness, my reading suffered quantitatively, but I don’t believe it suffered qualitatively. Here are some of my favorite reads.

Gilead, Marilynne Robinson

GileadI picked up this brilliant novel at the turn of 2012 to 2013, with a subsequent re-reading in the summer of 2013. Man oh man. I loved it for at least 3 reasons.

First, it is beautifully written. I found myself reading, and re-reading aloud just to hear the words roll off my tongue. I know that sounds weird, but trust me. I could easily fill an entire post of Robinson’s beautiful one-sentence masterpieces of language.

Second, Gilead is one of the most profound resources of pastoral theology I’ve come across. Robinson’s main character’s reflections on the work of the pastor were profound, moving, sobering and inspiring simultaneously.

Third, Gilead alludes to John Calvin often. I think this book presents a way of being theologically Reformed that I find to be beautiful, under-appreciated, subversive and right. Much more needs to be said about this. Stay tuned.

Unapologetic, Francis Spufford

unapologeticI’ll join the bandwagon and add my accolades for this fascinating book. Spufford gives an “a defense of Christian emotions.” In and of itself, I find this approach refreshing and interesting.

Though I certainly don’t agree with every nuance, Unapologetic is funny, challenging, unsettling, moving, passionate, and witty. His re-telling of the Jesus story in the “Yeshua” chapter alone would be worth the price of the book. The refrain “more can be mended than you know” will reverberate in my mind’s ears for a long, long time.

 TheoMedia: The Media of God and the Digital Age, Andrew Byers

TheoMedia Pic 3Humor me for a second while I play for the home team. Andy Byers is a co-blogger at Hopeful Realism, a very close personal friend, and a mentor in ministry.  In Andy Byers, I think the church has been given an absolute gift of a thinker/scholar and shepherd/pastor. I’m completely biased here.

 

Chris’ Favorite Moments of 2013

TITUS ELIOT BRESLIN

imageThis year has undoubtably been (confirmed by Instagram!) the “Year of the Titus” for us. Since we found out we were pregnant in early 2013, through a hot summer pregnancy, to an early September arrival, and the last few challenging and precious months, we’ve truly known and experienced God’s love, generosity and grace in new ways.  For this reason, the ‘Titus Event’ seemed too big to even belong on a list.

Mako & the Four Quartets (January)

imageThrough some happy circumstances, the Gathering Church was blessed to host internationally renowned artist Makoto Fujimura in January.  Mako was in Durham for the Four Qu4rtets exhibit at Duke and did us the pleasure of speaking to our congregation and sharing lunch with some of our artists. I cannot stress how inspirational his work with IAM, his humility and gentleness, and his imagination for creativity and generativity has been for me and our congregation.

Chickens Lay Eggs (April)

imageLast November Rach surprised me with a very special gift for my thirtieth birthday: three day-old chicken hatchlings. I thus began my illustrious career as a (sub)urban chicken farmer, by naming those three little ladies, born on All Saints Day, after saints (Ambrose, Augustine, & Basil…Brosey, Augie, & Baz respectively). After a tragic hawk incident (RIP Baz & Augie), and the addition of two new pullets (Jackie Joyner Kersey & FloJo!), we moved into spring expectant to hardboil our own Easter eggs. The amount of care, expectation, delight, and learning that took place over that time was really special to our family. It oddly put me and my one year -old girl Noa on similar footing as we went out to the coop day after day looking for the first egg, only finally (in April, pretty late for layers) to discover a lovely brown orb in the laying box that had been so empty for so long. Since, I’ve learned how to cook eggs about 10 different ways and we’ve enjoyed being able to gift eggs to neighbors. These hens have truly blessed our family and taught about everything from grieving to waiting to eating.

2 Funerals and a Wedding (Summer, November)

NoaFlowerGirl

This year was a bittersweet year of firsts in my ministerial career. In the summertime, I was honored to officiate the wedding of my sister-in-law and now brother-in-law Ruth and Luke Taylor. What a joy to do their distance premarital counseling through Google hangout, and what an honor for them to entrust me with such a task as a newbie! I look forward to seeing God’s Love through their love continue to blossom and flourish in the years to come.  Later in the year I was also honored to lead my first two funerals, the first for someone I never knew when she was alive, the second in November for my dear uncle Danny. Danny’s service truly encapsulated a remarkable and eclectic life of faith, hope and love.  Following a packed church  service with more eulogies than we had time for, we walked across A1A to the beach for a flyover (fitting for a career air traffic controller) and a paddle out (even more fitting for a salty lifelong surfer). The process of and preparation for these funerals has certainly been a source of God’s mercy and a reminder and vision of the sort of Hopeful Realism possible only by means of Christ’s Spirit and Resurrection.

Joel’s Favorite Parenting Moments of 2013

2013 was my first full-year as a parent. Here are some favorite snapshots.These aren’t so much flash-in-the-pan moments, but recurring moments. Sweet and beautiful in their own right.

Vaccinations

photo-2My little boy looks at me, shocked, that I would allow such a thing. How often is it necessary to bring discomfort into your child’s life in order to do an ultimate good for them?

 

Playing chase

photo-3I chase Henry all around our house. There usually comes a point in which he realizes that he cannot run from me, that he will be caught. At that point, Henry stops and starts running toward me instead. There is a metaphor here.

Being loved by him

photoHenry is at the age where he desires to show love to us. Giving not just receiving. It’s been a difficult month (long story) and my wife Mandy was recently overcome with emotion. Henry stopped his playing, walked from another room, approached her, said, “hey” and gave her a hug and a kiss.

I’m learning a lot and enjoying a lot in this parenting journey.

Andy’s Favorite Fiction Moments of 2013

3) Thinking about the critique of media culture in Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games Trilogy.

 

HP2) Realizing the Triwizard Cup was a portkey while readying Harry Potter for the first time.
1) Revisiting Middle Earth after my wife bought me a hardback version of The Hobbit.
 

Music Review: He Will Not Cry Out by Bifrost Arts

Back in February, I got the chance to talk to Bifrost co-founder and director Isaac Wardell for Hopeful Realism (1 & 2) to preview their, then upcoming, worship and arts conference in Philadelphia (The Cry of the Poor) and preview a couple tracks off of their upcoming record: their second anthology of hymns and spiritual songs: He Will Not Cry Out.

Today He Will Not Cry Out was released to the public after a fairly extensive underground listening period in which it was leaked to Kickstarter backers and available to attendees in Philly.  I’m writing to greatly commend this album to you and to add a few notes of engagement and critique.

To start, Isaac and team has done an impressive job, in many ways shifting their entire music production ethos from the wonderful cover-laden debut to this collection of original compositions and songs inspired by existing texts (mostly scripture, especially psalms, and a prayer).  The Bifrost production team has managed to move beyond or through what they accomplished on their Advent/Christmas album, Salvation is Created (2009) to create a compelling and original set of songs and dynamic recordings that range in theme and mood from intensely introspective and thoughtfully meditative to joyfully assertive and imaginatively extroverted.

Amidst this growth and development has been the growth and development of a fresh stable of guest artists and collaborators alongside some friendly mainstays.  The contributions of both Chelsey Scott and Molly Parden struck me as particularly brilliant.  Each lady’s voice held its own unique texture of grace and intensity that I, personally, find the typical Christian female voice (if such a thing exists) lacks.  Parden’s, in particular, shares with Sandra McCracken, an innate ability to hold together the sweetness and petite-ness of her high pitch, while hinting at real fire and punch.

(An aside: I was surprised in Philly, to walk into the spacious sanctuary to hear Psalm 126 being played over what I assumed was a PA.  I had heard this track several days before and it became an instant favorite, so I had recognized it.  What was so surprising, glancing up to the front of the sanctuary from the check-in desk, was that it was actually Sandra McCracken’s voice that was filling my ears, and the playing that sounded as good as this great recording was actually being rehearsed by live human beings.  An honest mistake and a complement to both Molly & Sandra.)

If this Volume 2, solidifies a sound, a cast, and an ethos for Bifrost Arts’ music, it also pushes into new territory for them and for contemporary (small “c”) Christian music in general.  For all intents and purposes, the team has moved beyond (or perhaps backtracked from) their hymnals, to Israel’s hymnal: the Psalms.  This isn’t a novel approach.  Listen to K-LOVE for any length of time and you’ll find a certain brand of exemplars (I’ll date myself here): Tomlin’s Forever miming Psalm 136 or Redman’s 10,000 Reasons remixing Psalm 103.  What is particularly interesting, and perhaps the conference serves as my cipher in this respect, is that a song like Psalm 90 might find its best footing in an ecumenical Taize setting or as a congregationally responsive chorus, firmly embedded in liturgy rather than on a screen-laden stage.

The similar liturgical tag, Bonhoeffer’s Prayer, is short and sweet.  A doxological bookend, a wonderful call to worship.

Perhaps inadvertently, but likely with much intention, Bifrost Arts has really tapped into an under-sourced terrain that seems to be ground-swelling thanks to comrades like Bruce Benedict (whose ministry, Cardiphonia, commissions liturgical projects themed both calendrically and topically, and who coincidentally penned the title track to He Will Not Cry Out) or on a much grander scale, David Crowder’s Give Us Rest.

It then is both surprising and not surprising that this collection of songs holds some of Bifrost Arts’ most “singable” compositions and arrangements to date.  Surprising, in that these songs are heady, with enormous attention and weight placed on their theological integrity, scriptural foundation, liturgical use, and aesthetic coherence.  Unsurprising, due to the fact that most of them are in fact, well, psalms.  The work that Isaac and other songwriters have done then is more one of listening well, attending to textual contours, and not gilding the lily too much.  More often than not, I think that deft attentive work is what they’ve achieved.

Our congregation (I’d give us a solid “B” in our grace and ability to pick up new tunes in worship, neither spectacular nor inept) has really grabbed onto both We Are Not Overcome and Psalm 126 rather quickly.  Both songs (as well as a handful of others) combine easy-to-sing lyrics, catchy and appropriate melodies, and the right mixture of head and heart.  In short, hymn book readers and hand raisers both seemed to be able to express and experience worship through these, which is no easy feat.

My criticisms of this album come with a bit of hesitation.  I hesitate because I acknowledge that most or all of my hang-ups are necessarily linked with some of the things that are most endearing.  Like all of us sinner-saints, some of our greatest strengths also potentially represent our most-notable shortcomings.  Virtues and vices are often differing sides of the same coin.

While this album, doesn’t claim to be anything other than an anthology, a loose collection of a variety of songs, it does actually at times feel disjointed.  On one hand, I love the diversity of styles and presentation and the fact that most of these choices were made with respect to personnel.  On the other, I get a little whiplash between the haunt of By His Wounds, the simplicity of Bonhoeffer’s Prayer, the pomp of Take Us O, Lord, and the operatics of Agnus Dei.  Again, I’m not sure how much this sticks, considering the intent of the project.

Similarly, some of the production and presentation pushes the envelope.  The chimes on We Are Not Overcome are so forward in the mix that they’re alternately affecting and offensive.  Anything DM Stith performs on introduces electronic elements that are alien to many of the other tracks.  More often than not they are effective and jarring, sometimes they just trespass.

Finally, even as an anthology, the album suffers a little bit of an identity crisis.  As much as I love almost all of the songs, I never really know how to listen to it.  It is a media-confusion for me to have such artful and subtle music gracing my eardrums that is actually best listened to in the form of digital playlists.  Every bit of the music snob in me wants a consistent aesthetic narrative in album form: let me drop the needle, so to speak, and listen from front to back, “side a” to “side b.”

Again, it’s okay that this is absent.  It’s just that these songs stand somewhere in the odd interstices of an invaluable resource to be used and appropriated according to your need, mood, or preference, and an epic proper record.  Either way, Wardell and Co. have realized a major artistic accomplishment, for and by the Church.  I’ll treasure this “anthology of hymns and spiritual songs” as a real gift, a tool, and a piece of art to behold and be reckoned with.

An Interview with Isaac Wardell of Bifrost Arts (Part 2, ft “By His Wounds”)

Isaac Wardell is the director of Bifrost Arts and the Director of Worship Arts at Trinity Charlottesville (PCA).  He’s been involved in church music and church plants in Georgia, Tennessee, and New York.  He studied at Covenant College.  While serving in New York City he played and performed with the Welcome Wagon, and has produced two Sacred Music anthologies with various musicians under the Bifrost Arts banner (Come O Spirit! Salvation is Created), with a third due out in April.

I got the chance to chat with Isaac about hymnody, worship, the psalms, what it means to be a contemporary musician serving the church, and the relationship between worship and obedience.  Part One of the interview introduces the history of Bifrost Arts, hymnody and praise music.  Scroll to the bottom to stream an exclusive preview of “Psalm 46” from the upcoming album.  Part Two previews the April 22-24, 2013 conference taking place in Philadelphia titled “The Cry of the Poor.”  Scroll to the bottom to stream an exclusive preview of “By His Wounds” from the upcoming album.

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Hopeful Realism:  What inspired the topic of the conference in April “The Cry of the Poor?”  And how does it grow out of last year’s theme and content?

Bifrost Arts Liturgy, Music, & Space (Photo: Adam Clark)
Bifrost Arts Liturgy, Music, & Space (Photo: Adam Clark)

Isaac Wardell:  This is really a “Part 2” from our last conference.  I hope that the Liturgy, Music and Space (LMS) curriculum and conference will act as a framework for some of the future content that we’re generating.  Some people came and used that curriculum and experienced it as being really revolutionary. It’s a pretty basic framework for trying to understand what the bible has to say about a way of approaching worship.  But it’s not incredibly pragmatic, it’s the groundwork for churches to work out in their own congregations.  We worked pretty hard when we edited to make it accessible and beneficial for a wide variety of churches.  Out of that, there is a lot of work to be done and a lot of conversations to be had about the particular challenges of our time in worship.  I hope over the next five to ten years that we will produce materials that are about all kinds of more specific worship questions.  I’d love for us to have an entire conference and curriculum about children in worship, bilingual worship, church music programs fostering innovation in a Christian-cultural context where that’s been gone for so long…

The reason we decided on this particular one is because it was one of the most common and pronounced questions that emerged from our last conference.  LMS just pricked the surface of this major worship question: obedience in worship.  We opened the scriptures and talked about the relationship of our obedience and how God responds.  Throughout the Old Testament: the Law, the Psalms, where God laments or is angry with his people… “because of the fact that you have not cared for the poor my wrath is on the people” [Ezekiel 22:29-31].  God says that he’s on the side of the poor.  God says that he will deliver the poor from all kinds of oppression.

In the New Testament, you see the same convictions continuing.  You hear Jesus saying, “I have come to preach good news to the poor, to break the bonds of oppression…” [Luke 4:18].  You see Jesus’s brother James when asked the question about what true religion is, he answers, “True religion is caring for widows and orphans and the distressed” [1:27].  You hear Jesus say “Blessed are the poor” [Luke 6:20].  You hear Jesus answer consistently, “How can I be faithful?  How can I follow you?”  He says, “Sell all you have and give to the poor’ [Matthew 19:21].

Bifrost Arts- Liturgy, Music & Space from josh franer on Vimeo.

We look for all kinds of ways to make it into a metaphor, but these are the words coming out of Jesus’s mouth.  People under forty have a category for that, but often dispel it: “Sure, God wants us to care for the poor, but I’m not sure what that has to do with worship.”

I have a lot of friends that are excited about justice and mercy and community action, and they think that people just don’t get it…what the bible’s really about.  Because I’m a musician I also have this whole other set of friends that are excited about liturgy, hymnody, and aesthetics.  There’s a whole different sort of self-righteousness going on there; “the purpose of missions is worship.”  This topic is a place where we’ve put an incredibly unrighteous rift through what the bible actually has to say about things.  We put these emphases in tension with one each other, but when you open up scripture you see that God talks about them together.

HR:  How did you personally come to some of these conclusions?

IW:  I took a personal challenge about a year ago to open up the Proverbs.  I was seeking wisdom from this Wisdom literature.  You open up the Proverbs and it’s just all of this stuff about economic injustice, the way you use your money, taking care of the poor.  There are passages like Proverbs 21 where God says, “If you close your ear to the cry of the poor, you will call out to God and will not be answered.”  You open Isaiah 58 and God is being sarcastic, ‘You’re all excited about your worship and your prayers and your fasts, but I’m not interested in all that.  The fast that I’m interested in is your obedience.  The worship that I want is your being obedient to break bonds of oppression and care for those in need.’  You actually see God receiving people’s worship based on their actions.  It’s a really scary thing for evangelicals.  We get really excited about this merciful God.  And it’s true.  But we don’t have a category for this God that says, ‘I’m not interested in your liturgy or worship practices because you’ve failed to be obedient to me.’

This is the can of worms that we opened at the previous conference.  We began to ask: “What does that mean for the way we think about grace?”  Within about 24 hours of the last conference we knew this would be the subject of this event.  People were asking questions and I realized that I didn’t have a good answer.

HR:  Tell us about the format of this year conference in Philly?

IW:  This event will be two parts.  This first is deeply theological, wrestling in our plenary sessions with Isaiah 58-61 (which takes us into the New Testament because Jesus began his public ministry by quoting and fulfilling Isaiah).  We’ll ask this theological question: “what is the relationship between the way God receives our worship and our obedience to him?”

The second is very practical.  Right now we have nine workshops about how to meet the needs of particular areas of poverty in our worship.  The bible defines the poor as not just economically poor, but aliens, prisoners, widows and orphans, people with diseases and disabilities…  We’ll have a workshop on serving families with disabilities and special needs in worship.  One about not just the theological necessity but also actually the aesthetic possibilities of bilingual worship.  There’s a workshop on prisoners and worship.  One by a group in New Jersey that’s been facilitating an afterschool program for at-risk and abused children and teaching them to memorize the Psalms to voice their emotional experiences.  And a workshop on appropriating these musical concepts into multicultural settings.

HR:  You’ve put together a wonderful list of presenters.  Who are you most excited about?

IW:  We’re always so excited to have Greg Thompson with us.  Greg’s here in Charlottesville.  He’s a fellow with James Hunter at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture and he’s also a minister.  He delivered the summary plenary at the last conference: “The Order of Worship and the Order of Love.”

We’re really excited about John Witvliet.  He’s the director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship.  John’s an amazing scholar on liturgics in general, having studied at Notre Dame, but his particular field of interest is the use of the Psalms in worship.  He’ll be talking to us about the core convictions of the Psalms and what they shape us into being.

(Photo courtesy of makotofujimura.com)
(Photo courtesy of makotofujimura.com)

Makoto Fujimura, who’s a Nihonga painter and founder of the International Arts Movement, will present on creativity as a way of building communities.

Personally, I’m excited about Frère Emmanuel from Taizé community.  I have a romantic association with the community of Taizé having spent time there studying and praying.  One of the core convictions of Taizé is the idea that God calls us to bring worship into the most broken political and social places of the world.  Part of how Taizé was founded is that they had political refugees, prisoners, Jews, orphans, French people, and German soldiers who were being beaten and mocked as they made their way back home through the French countryside.  They wanted to make a place of refuge where they could all worship together and develop a multilingual way of do it.

At times they’ve been controversial.  They’re the only non-Catholic worship site to be worshiped at by a Catholic pope, and not only one but two different popes.  They have an emphasis on quietness and meditative prayer.  I’m excited about some of the amazing things they have to teach us about worship.  Brother Emmanuel is coming over to do a workshop on what it means to bring prayer, silence and song into places of real social and political brokenness.

You can go online to see some of the other workshops.