Saturday, March 26, 2011

From the Inside Out -- Joel Houston

Joel Houston’s pedigree could not be better for what he does. His parents, Brian and Bobbie, are the pastors of the Hillsong Church in Sydney, Australia – they are its founders. His grandfather Frank was the senior pastor of the Sydney Christian Life Centre. The third generation of faith…Joel could easily think ‘How can I miss?’ in Christian music ministry in Sydney, where mom and dad and grandpa have been pillars. But, each one’s faith must be his own. That’s what the title of the song “From the Inside Out” and its lyrics that Joel wrote in 2005 imply. Externals like family name and upbringing might make you seem familiar, but what Joel says in the song seems to come from a different direction. Joel Houston learned music from an early age with his parents’ encouragement. It started with piano, but he soon gravitated to the guitar. In 2002, he sang with the Hillsong United’s debut album, and over the next several years continued to contribute both vocally and instrumentally, culminating when he became the group’s creative director in 2008. What had he learned up to that point? Perhaps it’s best said in what’s in the song’s words that he wrote at the midpoint of that six-year journey, when he was 26 years old, five years into the 21st Century. He calls God by two names: Everlasting and Neverending. They’re names that call to remembrance the grace and mercy that He extends to believers, not just once or a few times in one’s lifetime, but continually. And, as the song’s title indicates, Joel must have sensed even at this age that this quality of God is crucial, perhaps something that he observed in the two generations of Houstons who’d come before himself. It wouldn’t be surprising if their life examples told him that Christianity starts germinating inside each believer. Joel came from good stock – an advantage, right? But good parents and grandparents are, after all, outside of me. I need something internal to make me cry out in my own voice. Call out to His Spirit (often metaphorically seen as a dove, like in the picture), Joel Houston says in “From the Inside Out”. It emanates from the album “United We Stand” that was recorded in October 2005 and released in 2006. The Spirit is for each individual, but isn’t it great that when believers grasp that notion, that’s when we can all unite through Him, as the album’s name tells us? That’s what the members of Hillsong United promote. God on the inside – that’s where He starts. And, it’s where I keep goin’ to really find Him, over and over again. Biographic information on the composer: The Hillsong church website: Composer’s comments in a press interview:

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Give to the Winds Your Fears -- Paul Gerhardt

What do you call a guy who’s 40-something, unemployed, and alone? A professional and relational failure? Maybe he sensed what others might be saying, because Paul Gerhardt’s words in “Give to the Winds Your Fears” suggest he had an acute familiarity with the therapy for anxiety in the face of a postponed life. He learned during his education to use hymns to teach and minister to believers…so what was he trying to teach and admonish believers in this song? Was Gerhardt suggesting that we merely cast off anxious thoughts as if they are but vapors, easily transported away by the wind? Would doing so make me stride more confidently, as the trees bend and a breeze captures my problems (like the fellow in the picture ‘Wind’, a 14th Century masterpiece by an unknown painter)? It does seem Gerhardt wanted me to think of my troubles as trivial, compared to the Almighty’s hand. ‘Hope springs eternal’ his hymn words suggest. He needed this hope, not just in his 40’s, but closer to the end of his life when his wife died, he had the comfort of only one of five surviving children, and he again struggled to secure consistent employment.
What fears had touched Gerhardt that caused him to minister to himself with this hymn at the time it was written? He had endured the Thirty Years War (in what is today Germany), a trial that initially derailed his vocational life’s beginning in the mid-17th Century. And, he did not marry until 47 years old, and only after obtaining his first position. He must’ve wondered if life would ever start, or if he’d just be in neutral interminably. After all, even by 21st Century standards, 40-something is kinda past halfway for most of us. A biography of Gerhardt’s life tells us that he composed the song during a time when he was most prolific as a hymnwriter, in the 1650s when he was a pastor at Mittenwalde (near Berlin). The year 1651 marked his first posting in ministry, so one might think he was still feeling challenged and anxious, wanting to impress his employer early on in ministry in 1653 when the hymn was written. That’s how I might have felt. He’d been waiting for an appointment for some time (nine years), since his graduation from the University of Wittenberg in 1642. Was his sense of angst amplified – ‘Lord, don’t let me mess this up after I’ve waited for so long!’? If it was, he had discovered how to respond, throwing his troubles in the Lord’s direction, at least according to the words he wrote.
What happened in Gerhardt’s ‘in between’ time, from 1642-1651, is enlightening. He didn’t mope or vegetate because his occupational wheels were spinning. His future and his legacy as one of the great German hymnists really began then. As a tutor in Berlin (while he waited for a real job, you might say), his poetry and hymn-writing captured the attention of someone important. Johann Crueger (someone with one of those real jobs) was a musician and professional worshipper at a church there. A lifelong musical collaboration had begun. And, while tutoring in a family, Gerhardt met his future wife Anna Maria. It seems Gerhardt was not just writing clich├ęs in his hymn about fears and winds. To others he might have appeared to be stuck, but he made valuable use of this episode. Casting off doubts must have freed him for creativity, even while in an unemployed state. Freedom unleashes the believer for His purposes. So, is that why I’m given down-time for a season, maybe even a decade? Before I wish for something more exciting or profitable to come along, I think I’ll take a longer look at what might be under the surface where I’m at. Maybe this is where He wants me, for now.
All nine original verses to the song are at this link:

Friday, March 11, 2011

Desert Song – Brooke Fraser

Lament is not an easy topic, not easily pigeonholed. And, everyone’s story of sadness has a different edge – it’s personal. Take the story told by Jill McCloghry, which is the background to the song she and the composer of “Desert Song”, Brooke Fraser, have sung. She tells it for us in her own words, so see the link below. If you don’t have it, some key thoughts she shares include the feelings she had – that she felt her deep hurt in the wake of the death of her infant son covered up, for a time, her appreciation for God’s presence as she sang. But, she continued to sing anyway.
Jill McCloghry and Brooke Fraser were in pretty exclusive company as they mourned musically – biblically, only David composed a lament to mourn the death of someone close (Saul and Jonathan, 2 Samuel 1:17-27). And, he taught it to others around him. As Brooke Fraser tells her side of Jill’s lament, you can hear her pride for her friend, in her endurance and courage. Jill’s story, like David’s, moved others nearby to join in. Brooke was edified watching Jill, and so she poured something out in response. And, finally, Jill re-experienced the sense that God was indeed there as she worshipped Him in song. Hmmm – almost like something on another level was involved in this pain/composition/praise refrain, huh?
No one can argue with someone’s story of distress. The psalmists struggled and agonized, even David, the ‘man after God’s own heart’ (Acts 13:22). So, don’t be afraid to be sad, maybe even to stagger for a time. Don’t be afraid to yell at Him too, and often. The enemies are unrelenting – David complains most frequently because of his physical enemies’ tirelessness. Blessedly, God is also tireless, even while listening to all my bellyaching, and yes to my deep sorrow too. That’s what I’ve learned from reading the Bible’s laments today. He’s still here, even as he was for David.
See the link below for the video re-telling of this story (Jill McCloghry recorded this song with Brooke Fraser, the composer, and provides the ‘lament’ story as its background).

Saturday, March 5, 2011

The Lord My Shepherd Is – Isaac Watts

Let’s play a little game, sorta like ‘Name That Tune’, except this is called ‘Name That Speaker’, OK? Try this one --- ‘Hmmm, named must your fear be, before banish it you can.’ Or how about this one ‘ not underestimate the powers of the Emperor, or suffer your father's fate you will.’ That’s right, it’s Yoda – the little green creature of Star Wars, the master Jedi instructor! If you ever noticed, Yoda’s wisdom is often imparted with the verb or a portion of the verb of his sentence in last place, a rather peculiar trait, at least in the English language. Now, Isaac Watts lived some three centuries before the Star Wars genre, but one might ask if he was visited by Yoda, since he recast a familiar hymn with the verb in the last place. “The Lord My Shepherd Is” might appear to be a basic rephrase of the hymn “The Lord Is My Shepherd” written about 70 years before Watts tried his own hand at King David’s 23rd Psalm words. What was Watts up to when he moved the verb?

“The Lord My Shepherd Is” is an example of the extra-Biblical poetry that the 35-year old Watts, the “father of English hymnody”, was helping promote in 1719. This practice was first introduced by John Calvin in the 16th Century, a method which generally put forth alternate words to Psalm verses so that congregations could use more familiar words. “The Lord My Shepherd Is” was obviously adapted from David’s 23rd Psalm, which was recapitulated in the Scottish Psalter hymn that Francis Rous composed for us in 1650. While we don’t know exactly why Watts moved the verb (maybe he was just trying to emphasize his composition’s divergence from the original?) if you look closely, Watts made some interesting additions to the original Davidic/Rous composition. The changes show us what his state of mind might have been, as follows: Verse 1: Watts adds that ‘I am His’ (on top of ‘He is mine’) -- so one senses that he was really in touch with a reciprocal relationship with God. Verse 2: Watts proposes that the water is more than merely gentle…it imputes full salvation to the believer. Verse 3: He writes ‘If e’er I go astray…’, is this a confession of some sin by Watts? Then, there are three additional verses (4,5, and 6) that we often don’t see that correspond to the same ones in the Psalm (see the link below, which also provides some detail on three different tunes associated with the song). Verse 4: Watts avoids ‘rod’ and ‘staff’, in order to be more direct in noting God’s aid. Verse 5: Watts exults in the joy that his overflowing cup provides. Verse 6: Watts injects a call to praise, a pledge he offers for the temporal and eternal blessings from the Lord.

Watts felt more, obviously, than he thought David had communicated for him. By 1719, the theologian-, preacher-, and logician-Watts was an accomplished communicator. His earthly father was a Nonconformist, twice jailed for his beliefs. In his own nonconformist way, Watts’ song divulges an effort to renew David’s psalm, giving his fellow believers fresh thoughts about the Shepherd and themselves, something that wasn’t rote scripture. Watts’ wisdom was thus widely respected…some might even say its repute was ‘Yoda-like’ (a la the fictional character), although Watts preceded Yoda historically. And, both Watts and Yoda encourage those who would listen to battle evil by drawing upon a higher power. A verb-last speaking style, and a call toward a higher authority – not a bad combination, as promoted by two different voices. Maybe they’re not all that different. May the Shepherd-force be with you.

See this link for song audio, including an alternate tune and additional words beyond what you may know: