Saturday, February 28, 2009

Step by Step - Beaker (David Strasser)

"His eyes are on the ways of men; he sees their every step.” (Job 34:21) A zookeeper probably can tell you that newborns in the animal kingdom are quick learners. And having grown up on a farm where we had a few animals, I feel somewhat qualified to add that they are indeed quick beginners. All the animals I’ve ever seen enter the world (a few calves and kittens) are able to take steps within hours, or at least after several days or weeks. In fact, the calves I’ve seen, if not captured within a few hours or days, seem more like deer than bovine. I’ve chased my share of ‘em through the tall grass of a large field! What about human babies? Most pediatricians and veteran parents can tell you that infants don’t walk for several months, most likely not even until they’re a year old. And why is that? Are we less intelligent than the animals? Perhaps taking those first few steps are instinctual for the animal, whereas I, the human being, must learn this skill. Without delving into this deeper, we could also say that babies are pretty dependent on adults – for food, shelter, language development, well-being, and all sorts of things. If you really think about it, none of us actually becomes truly independent however…we all depend on others for something. A guy we know as Beaker may have been onto something similar when in 1991 he wrote a well-known Christian chorus “Step by Step”, which was popularized by his friend Rich Mullins. Beaker (as a kid, his friends said he looked like the muppet named Beaker) is the nickname for David Strasser, a Christian songwriter and collaborator on many tunes written by his good friend Rich Mullins. Beaker and Mullins co-wrote over 30 songs together, including "Step by Step",after meeting as teenagers years earlier. Mullins also incorporated the chorus that Beaker wrote into “Sometimes by Step”, another musical hit the two friends produced. Before the untimely death of Mullins in 1997 (a car accident took his life), Beaker and Mullins were also co-writers of a musical, based on the life of St. Francis of Assisi, called the “Canticle of the Plains”. They were so captivated by the life of St. Francis that they also formed something called “The Kid Brothers of St. Frank”. It’s a ministry to Native Americans, in which Mullins and Beaker sought to mentor young men -- to help them in their life steps. Mullins took concrete steps to put this ministry into action by moving to Tse Bonito, New Mexico in 1995. Even after his death, Mullins’ family and friends have continued the ‘Kid Brothers’ dream, by creating the Legacy of a Kid Brother of St. Frank, a mission work that provides art, drama, and music camps for youth and a traveling music school to Native American reservations. Two friends, a common purpose, and talent…that’s what one might say about the combination of Beaker (aka David Strasser) and Rich Mullins. But, they no doubt learned their skills with the help of others, through someone willing to help them with a few steps. Certainly their songs demonstrate that God has been guiding their steps too. And, their musical walk with God didn’t end at the stage or the recording studio, but has continued, even beyond the grave (in Mullins’ case). There’s a preschool at the church where I worship called Stepping Stones. It’s a visible example of the first part of step-taking – we all begin by learning from someone else. Later, hopefully, I put my learning into action, maybe even in an exceptional way like Beaker and Mullins, so that others learn from and perhaps are inspired by me. As I get older, I think maybe the teaching part takes over more and more, but I confess I don’t know that I’m a very good teacher, or that I’m such a good example of skill in action. Trial and error, that’s me. But, with my Father leading, at least I can be sure this awkward stride is taking me in the right direction. The following is the Wikipedia website from which the information about Beaker was obtained: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beaker_(musician)
The following is the Wikipedia site from which the information about Rich Mullins was obtained: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rich_Mullins
Information on the mission work of Kid Bothers of St. Frank obtained at http://www.richmullins.com/kidbrothers.html

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Sing Hallelujah to the Lord - Linda Stassen

If you heard someone mention hippies, Jesus freaks, and communes, or phrases like "free love", "One Way",or "Just Drop Jesus"(instead of ‘dropping acid’), you might think you’d stepped into a time machine and been transported to the 1970s. And, you’d be right. These words were coined during the Jesus (or Jesus People) movement in that decade. Instead of saying ‘I’m walking with the Lord’, a believer might have said he was ‘Truckin’ with Jesus’ 35 years ago. It was an era when college campuses vented frustration over the Vietnam War, the government, and American culture at large.

The counterculture reaction extended to Christianity too, so that most Jesus People rejected orthodox, organized churches in favor of simpler (at least to them) methods used in exercising faith. Such well-known evangelistic organizations as Jews for Jesus came from that era. And, many of today’s contemporary Christian music artists’ roots were in the Jesus People movement, in groups with names like the All Saved Freak Band, Petra, Love Song, Resurrection Band, Second Chapter of Acts, and Joyful Noise. Maranatha music was also spawned from a church of that time, Calvary Chapel, in Costa Mesa, California. One of its ‘freaks’, Linda Stassen, is the composer of the song “Sing Hallelujah to the Lord”, a tune still familiar in mainline churches in the U.S today. Linda Stassen’s “Sing Hallelujah to the Lord” is a very simple song, known not only by Americans, but also by people across the globe, including Europeans, Chinese, Persians, and Eskimos, testifying to its broad acceptance. One wonders whether Stassen knew what would eventually happen to one of her Calvary Chapel experiments.

“Sing Hallelujah to the Lord”, although beautiful in its simplicity, is a somewhat unusual praise song. Can you picture its composer, perhaps wearing a tie-dyed shirt, raggedy shorts and sandals, and maybe a flower in her hair? Not exactly what most of us today would recommend for your Sunday morning garb, huh? And, in keeping with the unconventional flow, her musical invention was different. Consider a proper hallelujah…most song-writers probably would begin with a bright and upbeat major key to aptly, and musically express praise to God, correct? Not Stassen. She wrote this song in a minor key (C minor). Why? Was she trying to fail?! The combination of Stassen’s musical chords and the words she chose tell us that perhaps she began to compose by drawing on how she felt viscerally about God, and what mood she wanted to convey. As we sing, we can sense that she was moved by the awesome, haunting sense of what God had accomplished for her, and wanted to express that feeling through the music structure, in a minor key. Did you notice that the minor key matches what we sing about Jesus rising from the dead in verse two (an awesome, overwhelming event), and that other things we sing about our king in the song -- his reign in the church and over earth, and his sure return to claim us -- should make us sense the majesty, and the greatness of our Lord, with deep reverence. It makes me re-evaluate the significance of this song’s message to my spirit. I used to think it’s just a simple tune that I could hum in a carefree way, but now I think it’s something I need to contemplate and dwell upon, and so carry myself to respect and honor Him in all that I do. …kind of an unexpected lesson from a freak.

 Information on Linda Stassen in the story was gathered from the “The Complete Book of Hymns: Inspiring Stories about 600 Hymns and Praise Songs”, by William J. and Ardythe Petersen, Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. Information on the “Jesus People Movement” was gathered from the following Wikipedia site: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jesus_movement.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

I Stand in Awe of You - Mark Altrogge


What’s the most awesome sight you’ve captured on film or perhaps glimpsed briefly? A snow-capped mountain against an unpolluted, sapphire-like sky…or maybe a roaring tornado, cutting a half-mile swath of destruction…how about an encounter with a charging polar bear, or a grizzly who stands to show his ten-foot fury? When I think of awesome things, I tend to think of nature, something that I can witness with the naked eye, a phenomenon or creature that is completely out of my control, in whose presence I feel small. What would you say if I told you the most awesome spectacle was not even visible to the human eye? That’s so illogical, you’d probably at first scoff and dismiss such a thought. Yet, that’s Mark Altrogge’s message in “I Stand in Awe of You”, a song about our God, and how I should feel about Him.

Mark Altrogge wrote “I Stand in Awe of You” in 1987 as he contemplated the holiness of the Lord. He’d read R.C. Sproul’s “The Holiness of God” and A.W. Tozer’s “The Knowledge of the Holy” to gain some insight, a necessity when one is trying to capture the essence of the invisible. Altrogge’s conclusion is summed up with words like this: ‘beyond’, ‘like nothing ever…’, ‘too…’, ‘infinite’. No, we cannot see Him, and in many ways, if not for Jesus, He’s unknowable. To the rational, scientific, experiential observer, an exercise to describe -- and worship -- someone we admit is beyond comprehension is cuckoo. But that’s what we proclaim when we sing Altrogge’s composition. From his home in Indiana, Pennsylvania, where he’s a worship leader, Altrogge says his goal is to write doctrinally rich, passionate songs. He also relates that he thought at first that worship songs would be simple to compose, a belief that he now admits was shallow.

You might think his song, because of its single verse (at least, in most hymnals; a comment below links us to another verse!), lacks depth, but think again. Story after story in the Bible tell us that God is beyond our grasp, so we simply, pointedly reaffirm that principle when we sing Altrogge’s tune. I don’t need to sing lots of different verses to communicate this straightforward, overriding truth to the Creator. I’m not trying to impress God with my words, with my puny understanding of His nature. I just confess that I cannot, and I prostrate myself at his feet. The same God who inspires the sublime when I gasp at the mountains, windstorms, and fearsome creatures is the same One who gave Himself up, for me. That’s the most awesome, baffling, mind-blowing part of Him.

Source for Mark Altrogge’s story is the book “Celebrate Jesus: The Stories behind Your Favorite Praise and Worship Songs”, by Phil Christensen and Shari MacDonald, Kregel Publications, 2003. A shorter version of Altrogge’s song story is in “The Complete Book of Hymns: Inspiring Stories About 600 Hymns and Praise Songs”, by William J. and Ardythe Petersen, Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 2006.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

I Will Call Upon the Lord - Michael O'Shields

I call to the LORD, who is worthy of praise, and I am saved from my enemies. The LORD lives! Praise be to my Rock! Exalted be God my Savior! (Psalm 18:3,46) I call out to God for all kinds of things. How about you? What tops your list…health, relationships, job difficulties, financial woes? There’s also, no doubt, the deeper spiritual dilemmas that I cannot answer myself, but as I ponder my own question, I have to admit it’s most often the physical needs that create the worry lines on my face. Question two: how do you pray about it to God…with privately clasped hands, or a public plea before the church? How about a prayer song? A song?! Aren’t those supposed to be reserved for happy, joyful, praiseworthy feelings? Read most of the Psalms, and you’ll hear a resounding ‘NO’. It’s encouraging that God still listens and inspires contemporary Psalmists in the same way He did King David and the others. Meet Michael O’Shields*.
Michael O’Shields was a young minister travelling in Oklahoma and Texas in the 1970s. He was struggling to make ends meet, and it was especially tough when the contribution was pretty meager, so he was calling upon the Lord for very tangible, felt needs when he wrote “I Will Call Upon the Lord”. The song’s pace might make you think he was in a joyful, upbeat mood, but he was likely feeling the opposite deep down. Yet, O’Shields knew what to do – he used the words David wrote in Psalm 18 centuries earlier as praise to God when he had been saved from enemies. It’s illuminating that Michael O’Shields adapted this psalm as his own petition to God, especially since David was already experiencing God’s saving hand. O’Shields must have trusted that God would save him too, even though he had not yet seen God’s rescue when he composed this tune.
O’Shields also shares a couple of other interesting details about the song’s development. He wrote this song, even though he didn’t think of himself as musically inclined….”I have only two problems, musically: I can’t sing on key and I can’t keep time. Otherwise, I do okay. “ Fortunately, O’Shields had friends to help make his words into music, but his experience tells us something about music and God, and us. You see, even someone without lots of gifts can be used by the Lord, in beautifully unexpected ways. O’Shields also shares that the song’s arrangement had a practical application for his time and place: it was intended to make men lead the worship in the farming communities he observed, where the composer recalls that usually the women would draw close to God first, followed by men. This song’s structure, a leader/follower echo, was novel in the 1970s and was intended to inspire the male spiritual leadership in those families who sang it.
O’Shields song, when I sing it now, makes me think twice about my prayer life. If I worry about things, maybe I should be writing poetry and giving my friends something to put to music. And, watch out! If I’m brave enough to create something, to make myself vulnerable, it just might resonate with others. God may make it something uniquely qualified to serve those nearby, or far away. And, who knows, it just might endure 30-40 years after its inception. Michael O’Shields’ example tells me that God’s providence lives on, and that He’s able to turn my struggle into inspiration. “I Will Call Upon the Lord” is a fresh reminder that God is most obvious when I’m in trouble …and that I need not fret, for He is near.
*Source for Michael O’Shields story is the book “Celebrate Jesus: The Stories behind Your Favorite Praise and Worship Songs”, by Phil Christensen and Shari MacDonald, Kregel Publications, 2003.