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Friday, April 22, 2011

a fresh perspective on an old story

It has been almost a year since I was fortunate enough to travel to alpine Europe to see the world-famous Passion Play at Oberammergau, Germany. I've thought about that experience often in the months that followed, and I've written numerous blog posts about it, in my head. (I apologize that you haven't had the chance to read them. Rest assured, they've been really well-written.) But as the calendar reached Holy Week, the impact of the play has rushed back, having altered forever my understanding and appreciation of God's atoning work through his Son accomplished during Holy Week.

The play itself is a beautifully poignant display of Jesus' final days on Earth. From its opening scene of the triumphal entry into Jerusalem with more than 1,000 people on stage waving palm fronds and shouting "Hosanna!", the tone is set for the telling of this timeless story, by which eternity itself was shaped. I expected the play to be good. After all, people have been making pilgrimages to this quaint mountain hamlet to see it performed for over 400 years. But I also had what seemed to be logical apprehensions of a play lasting five hours and conducted entirely in German (have I mentioned that I don't know German?). Without a doubt, every apprehension I had was summarily dismissed. The play was epic, and not in the way that a college student describes a memorable night on the town. Its impact on me was nothing short of profound. When it ended, I remember walking across town to the Pension Enzianhoff wrapped in awestruck wonder.

Last night, I thought about the scene that impacted me most: Jesus' prayer and arrest in the garden of Gethsemane. To understand what made this moment so memorable, let me provide some context. The auditorium has seating for 5,000, all of which is covered to protect the audience from the elements. The stage, on the other hand, is open air. Throughout the day the sun was bright and the sky was brilliant blue, as one would imagine it should be in the Alps. During the first half of the play, however, clouds appeared and slowly the blue sky was hidden entirely.

No doubt the story is familiar to many of us. Jesus enters the garden with several of his disciples to pray. It is here that the Son of God agonizes over the knowledge of what He has been sent to do, to accomplish. His soul is troubled by the ultimate test of surrendering one's will to that of the Father. He fervently cries out to the Lord, praying that if another course is possible He would welcome it, and if not, He would embrace his cup. So passionate are his prayers that He is sweating blood. All of this while his disciples have fallen asleep. I imagine that this scene is powerful to all who see, but it was different for those that watched it that night in June.

As Jesus walked to center stage, knelt down, and began to pray, remarkably a ray of sunlight split the clouds and fell precisely where Jesus was praying. You must know that this was not special lighting, nor any theatrically produced occurrence. The sunlight pierced the auditorium from low on the horizon in a way that only God himself could have orchestrated. Even the actors seemed to be inspired by the Lord's special effects and timing with the appearance of the angel that God sent to comfort Jesus as he prayed. The short burst of sunlight faded and moments later the mob of soldiers, Judas leading the way, entered the stage to arrest the Savior. Again, God showed up. After Jesus restored the soldier's ear cut off by Peter, an ever-so-light rain began to fall. It continued as the soldiers bound Jesus and slowly led him off stage. It was a refreshing rain. Cleansing. Not angry or hard. And in some ways it was an assuring rain, as if the Lord were illustrating that He was in control then, and he is still in control today. That all of this took place for His glory alone, so that He might wash and restore each one of us.

At the conclusion of the scene, the 50-person choir entered the stage and powerfully sang these words:
The battle of agony has begun,
begun at Gethsemane.
You sinner, take this to heart,
never forget this scene!
For your salvation this took place,
what you saw on Mount Olive.
"Never forget this scene." How could I? Why would I ever let myself do such a thing? The Lord showed up. He stirred my heart. He game me a tangible image of his love and sovereignty.

As we continue Holy Week, I hope that you too will be stirred by His faithfulness. "Take this to heart, never forget this scene! For your salvation this took place, what you saw on Mount Olive."

Friday, April 8, 2011

dancing in the minefields

Absolutely beautiful. That was my reaction the first time I heard Andrew Peterson's "Dancing in the Minefields." In what seems like a near perfect blend of songwriting and lyricism, where every note is intricately placed and each word meticulously selected to communicate the weightiness of the message, the song's delivery is haunting in its brilliance. I felt as if finally, someone had been courageous enough to be honest with the subject of marriage.

You see, I believe that one of the biggest challenges to marriage today is that most people have an incorrect perception of what it is to be, what it should look like, and most importantly what is realistic. We have wholly bought into the unattainable media-inspired image of marriage portrayed in romantic comedies, fanciful literature, and popular song. And in doing so, we fail to recognize the mounting personal and statistical evidence that marriage is actually much harder than any of us realize, or at least are willing to admit.

Don't get me wrong, I like that image too. What's not to like? Ask those around me and you'll find that I am a huge romantic, probably more so than most. But I am also pragmatic enough to see that our expectations fail to match the gravity of reality. At issue is not that we want the "happily ever after," but instead that we merely assume it will come to pass when vows are exchanged. It can and does, but only when we resolutely commit to achieving it as a team. Unfortunately, most look for, and even expect, automatic wedded bliss, perfection. And as a result, we are vastly disappointed, offended even, when it doesn't just happen.

That, more than anything, is what I love about this song. Peterson doesn't mince words while refuting the popular notion that marriage is easy. With an authentic realism, much needed in this world, he frames marriage correctly, expressing the need to doggedly hold firm to "the promise" by continually laying ourselves down for one another, lifting her/his needs above our own, and supporting her/him when they lose their way. It is journey fraught with danger, but together we can dance through it all, bad or good.

Watch the video. Listen to the words, letting them penetrate your heart. I think it will be clear why this is one of my favorite songs. And it's quite possible that it will become one of yours as well. 

Here's something that Peterson wrote about this song. Again, I think he nails it.
"In December of 2009 my wife and I celebrated fifteen years of marriage. A few days later, we got in a silly argument and I wrote this song after she went to bed. Marriage, see, was God’s idea. It’s one of the most potent metaphors in all of Scripture for the way God loves us and the way we’re to let ourselves be loved by him. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. To the contrary, it’s fraught with peril. Any good marriage involves a thousand deaths to self—the good news is, in Christ that marriage involves at least as many resurrections. We lay our lives down and enter this perilous dance with another human being who has done the same. Why should we expect to emerge unscathed?"
Why indeed?

I'm anxious to hear your thoughts and reactions to the song and video. Please share your comments below. If you are married, I especially want to hear from you. Does this song resonate with your own experience? What would you add? 

As for me, I long to start dancing. I'm just waiting for my dance partner. 

Don't give up. Don't give up on me. Don't give up. Don't give up on me. Don't give up. Don't give up on me.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

your love

I met Brandon Heath Knell shortly after he arrived at Young Life's Malibu Club (in Canada) for the first time. He was a teenager, and I had just finished my first year of college. We served on the Outdoor Crew together for three weeks, I as the Summer Staff Garbage Man, and Brandon as the Work Crew kid that sat in the rubber dingy at the bottom of the zip line.

From time to time, Brandon would pick up a guitar and play. I don't remember if it was his, hauled all the way from his hometown of Nashville. But it doesn't really matter to the story, so I'll move on. He had a great voice and was a pretty good songwriter. On two occasions we were able to convince him to sing his original song "The Light" at the talent night that concluded each week at camp. He was a hit with campers and the staff. During his three-week stint on Work Crew, many of us encouraged him to pursue a singing career. But he would always dismiss it. His passion and direction were clear: writing Christian music...for other Christian artists.

Brandon became a pretty good friend at Malibu. We even stayed in contact by letter in the months that followed. E-mail had yet to overtake the U.S. Postal Service and Brandon had yet to start college, which in those years was when most people got their first email address.

Of course, this was all before Brandon Heath Knell became Brandon Heath, Christian music superstar. That's right, this same kid that sat in a dingy, permanently water-logged, for 12 hours each day is now a five-time Dove Award winner, two times winning Male Vocalist of the Year honors. He's a two-time Grammy nominee who recently headlined a nationwide tour. And he is the singer/songwriter of the next song in my series, "Your Love."

It's actually been hard deciding what to write about this song. It is just one of those songs that resonates in my heart. The melody. The lyrics. The honest assessment of his journey to the realization revealed in the chorus "Your love. Your love. The only thing that matters is Your love." Of course, I also think it is awesome that the producers autotune Brandon in the studio version!

Still, what I love most about this song are the verses, mainly because I see myself in each of them. They describe where my life's journey has taken me and where I find myself today.

I felt it first when I was younger,
A strange connection to the light.
I tried to satisfy the hunger.
I never got it right.

So I climbed a mountain and built an altar.
Looked out as far as I could see.
And everyday I’m getting older.
I’m running outta dreams.

You know the effort I have given.
And you know exactly what it cost.
And though my innocence was taken.
Not everything is lost.

I'm posting a video so that you can hear today's song. In addition to a live acoustic version (starting about one minute in), it also reveals the heart behind the song, namely that striving for and attaining success is meaningless if we don't have love and know peace.

And to think, somewhere I still have a cassette tape that Brandon recorded for me in his bedroom after we both returned home from Malibu. A few years ago we talked about that tape. His preference was for it's destruction; instead, I keep it as a reminder of my friend from all those years ago working at the bottom of the zip line.

So, what do you think of this song? I want to hear from you. Be honest. Do you like it? Do you think it's drivel? Don't worry, I won't tell Brandon. Are you rethinking Christian music yet? And speaking of which, how bout we take a quick poll. At least answer me this: In general, do you like Christian music?

Tuesday, April 5, 2011


I'm starting this series about Christian music, and a few songs that just might force you to reconsider your typical knee-jerk reaction to the genre, by focusing on a powerful song that I only recently began to pay attention to: "Hallelujah" by Heather Williams.

Starting with a few notes played on a piano, the song calmly takes form. It is soft, sweet. There is something simple, maybe even joyful in the notes. The lyrics begin, revealing, or at least implying, a deep hurt longing to be comforted. They are the words of a heart calling out for the Lord to be present, to enter into the pain.  

Jesus, please come.
Please come, today.
Heal me.
Hear me.
Be near me, I pray.

Slowly, the music begins to grow. And along with it, an increasing sense of urgency and sincerity takes shape.

I have fallen so far,
flat on my face.
I'm in need of your grace today.
I stumble and fall,
but in spite of it all 
your love always stays the same.

Jesus, please come.
Please come, today.
Break me.
Mold me.
Use me, I pray.

But don't give up on me now.
I'm so close to you now.
I'm in need of your grace today.
Wipe the dirt off my face.
Hold me in your embrace.
Your love always saves the day.

And suddenly, what began as a melodious prayer erupts into an intense anthem. The words no longer sung, but rather belted from someplace deep within, unknown to the listener just moments before. The dramatic crescendo still follows the cry of the heart, rooted in hurt. But it is now hopeful. Powerful. Victorious. 


On my knees here I fall,
in spite of it all.
And though it seems hard,
I'm still trusting you Lord.

The music fades, and the piano softly returns. But the calm is brief as the "hallelujahs" are once again sung in a powerful refrain proclaiming the Lord's faithfulness in the most difficult situations. 

I have fallen so far,
flat on my face.
I'm in need of your grace, today.

Jesus, please come.
Please come, today.

Now, it's your turn. Listen to the song and let me know what you think.

And in case you're wondering, Heather Williams wrote this song one year after her baby son died. In a moment of brokenness, she grabbed her husband's guitar and began to write, sing, and pray. This song was the result. It was an attempt to praise the Lord despite the tears, the hurt, and the lasting pain of losing her child. It was successful. In the midst of it all, she chose to trust and to sing "Hallelujah."

Monday, April 4, 2011

this is my confession

"Music brings people together!"

My friend and former colleague Christina made this declaration several years ago as she explained her incredible love of music. We were sitting in her office in the Student Union Building, probably talking about the most recent concert she had attended, or the next one she had tickets for. She is, after all, quite the concert enthusiast. As she shared, her excitement grew, and by the time she made this statement, she had achieved a state of frenzied bliss. Despite her enthusiasm, however, I felt the need to challenge her assertion.

To a certain extent, music does bring people together. Picture Dead Heads converging on Autzen Stadium, Parrot Heads wasting away in Margaritaville, or the millions scooping up Taylor Swift tickets like they were precious gems, and you can see that it's true. At the same time, music also has the ability to divide people. Ask one of the Greatest Generation what they think of rap. Ask a teenager about jazz. For that matter, ask anyone about Michael Bolton. The fact is the same characteristics of music that bring people together, can also serve to segregate the masses.

From classic rock to classical, hip-hop to country, I enjoy songs from across the broad musical spectrum. Certainly, I care for some genres more than others, and I have several "go-to's" programmed into my car stereo. But in general, I am fairly content with just about anything emanating from the ear buds of my blue iPod Nano.

My guess is that many of you may still agree with me at this point. But now I come to my confession, which I am making, in part, to fulfill the title of this blog. I recognize that this may cause you to judge me, and may result in the loss of what little readership I have left after eight months away. But my conscience requires nothing less than complete honesty. Here goes. I like Christian music.

There I said it.

Let me be clear, I'm not just talking about worship music here. I'm talking about what you hear on radio stations like The Fish, K-Love, Air1, or whatever Scripturally-sound and uplifting name your local station goes by. I make this confession because I often find myself surprised that Christian music is so divisive, especially in the Church. Some people (dare I say) swear by it. And some can hardly stomach it. I have good friends firmly residing in each camp. Other people are closet fans, listening to it regularly but hiding it as if it were a vice. One good friend sheepishly admits to loving the songs of Steven Curtis Chapman, stopping just short of apologizing or trying to justify her fondness for them. And she shouldn't have to. He writes some really good music. But still, that divisiveness is present. Stop for a moment and ponder the feelings that welled in you a few moments ago when you read the words "Christian music."

Like all musical genres, Christian music does have its share of kitschy songs. You know the ones. The songs that make you cringe while quickly changing the station; or the ones that despite a catchy tune, are overly simple or trite. Unfortunately, I think that many people judge the entire genre on the basis of these songs.

Over the next few days, I will post my first-ever blog series, highlighting several Christian songs that in my opinion are outstanding. They are ones that you may or may not have heard before, but that doesn't really matter. Check them out and give me your thoughts. I hope you enjoy, and if you tend to fall into the anti-Christian music faction, perhaps you'll reconsider your position and let the music bring us together.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

your love never fails

It's been awhile, but I'm feeling a bit contemplative. So here I am. There is more to come, more to say. But for now, I'm just going to share a song from worship this morning. It speaks to the Lord's enduring love and faithfulness, even when we fall down or the odds are at their longest.  "Your Love Never Fails" by Chris McClarney & Anthony SkinnerNothing can separate
Even if I ran away
Your love never fails

I know I still make mistakes
But You have new mercies for me everyday
Your love never fails

You stay the same through the ages
Your love never changes
There maybe pain in the night but joy comes in the morning
And when the oceans rage
I don't have to be afraid
Because I know that You love me
Your love never fails

The wind is strong and the water's deep
But I'm not alone in these open seas
Cause Your love never fails

The chasm was far too wide
I never thought I'd reach the other side
But Your love never fails

Bridge:You make all things work together for my good