Rocks and Caves and the Arc of Everything

It was good to be back in the saddle again — this past Sunday I was afforded the opportunity to guest worship lead at a church Alyssa and I visited a few weeks back. When we visited we were both impressed by how enthusiastically the congregation sang. So I was quite excited to be invited to offer some songs for us to sing together.

By the time my tenure at New Song ended the Inland Hills band had grown to a huge number, larger than any other team I’ve led before, but this past Sunday it was just my keyboard and I and the congregation singing some of my favorite songs. I’m a bit allergic to putting on a show, it makes me break out in a particularly itchy rash of pride, so it was nice being so low-key.

We sang some hymns I’ve not sung in a long time and we sang “We Will Feast in the House of Zion”. It was particularly nice to sing “We Will Feast…” as it was a song that I sang to the NSIH band as a gift at our last rehearsal and then again sang it at my last communion service at New Song. Singing it with a new congregation reminded me of the beautiful promise that one day we in Christ will all feast together at the table prepared for us in the house of God. Time and space and distance cannot break the bind of Christ’s body and blood as we gather to eat the bread and drink the wine.

This weekend at Doxa Fellowship in Woodstock, Illinois we sang the following songs:

Praise to the Lord, the Almighty – German Hymn
We Will Feast in the House of Zion – Sandra McCracken
Rock of Ages – Hymn, Augustus Toplady
How Great is Our God – Chris Tomlin
The Doxology – Hymn

Attached is a Spotify playlist with several different versions of these songs. Chance the Rapper included a version of “How Great” on his new mix-tape which I’ve added to this playlist and my arrangement of “Rock of Ages” favors the Brooks Ritter version included on the playlist.

If you enjoy any of these songs please support the artists and purchase the songs.


Both “Praise to the Lord,…” and “Rock of Ages” are favorite hymns and so I thought I’d share a few thoughts on both:

Rock of Ages

In Numbers 20 the Israelites, having no water because — you know — they’re taking a casual forty-year hike in the desert, bring their complaints to Moses and his brother, Aaron, “If only we had died! Why did you bring us out of Egypt where we were slaves?!?! It was so much better then!!!” And God in His lovingkindness heard their complaint and told Moses to take his staff from the presence of God and to “ask this rock to give water and it will.” But Moses in his frustration with the people and in his sin took the staff and instead of speaking to the rock, strikes it twice.

Water gushed.

The Apostle Paul in 1st Corinthians 10 says that rock struck was Christ:

For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ.  Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them; their bodies were scattered in the wilderness.

1st Corinthians 10.1-5 NIV

And David, as we read his story in the books of Samuel, was twice pursued by his enemies. First King Saul, fearing for his own power and wanting to maintain political prominence, chased David into the hills where he hid in the caves. And after his affair with Bathsheba, King David was again chased into the hills by his son Absalom who was attempting to usurp his father because of the damage wrought by David’s sin. David writes regularly in the psalms of God as a rock and his hiding place:

When I kept silent,
my bones wasted away
through my groaning all day long.
For day and night
your hand was heavy on me;

my strength was sapped
as in the heat of summer.

Then I acknowledged my sin to you
and did not cover up my iniquity.

I said, “I will confess
my transgressions to the Lord.”

And you forgave
the guilt of my sin.

Therefore let all the faithful pray to you
while you may be found;
surely the rising of the mighty waters
will not reach them.
You are my hiding place;
you will protect me from trouble
and surround me with songs of deliverance.

Psalm 32.3-7 NIV

“Rock of Ages” is a harrowing tune, my arrangement has some well placed minor chords to accentuate the lyrics. In it we sing of our inability to rescue ourselves, our helplessness, our nakedness and frailty. In singing this classic hymn by Augusts Toplady we join our cries for help to David’s in the caves as we’re each pursued by our shared enemy of sin and we join our complaints to those of the impatient Israelites wandering in the desert.

Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
let me hide myself in thee;
let the water and the blood,
from thy wounded side which flowed
be of sin, the double cure,
save from wrath and make me pure.

Praise to the Lord, the Almighty

The church has been singing this hymn for good portion of the last millennium, it was written about four hundred years ago in Germany and was translated into English about two hundred years after that. With the opening verse singing, “All who hear now to his temple draw near, gladly forever adore Him” this song serves as a classic call to worship though ironically is largely based on the final psalm, Psalm 150 (and 103 — but we’re gonna ignore that for the sake of the argument I’m about to make because I’m a real serious scholar).

I’ve spent that past few years majoring in the psalms, at one point reading the whole psalter every month, and as I’ve mentioned before there’s no experience or emotion left out of the Psalms. The Psalms give voice to every cry and bandages every wound.

Beyond that though the Psalms reveal to us the arc of human experience with all of its achy joints and sleepy afternoons. If you take the thousand foot view of the book you’ll see that it is divided in to five difference books (significantly not unlike the Torah’s five books) and each of those books ends with exhortation to “Praise!” And the final book in the larger book of Psalms ends with, not insignificantly, five psalms of praise. Psalm 150 existing as the praise exclamation point.

By opening with “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty” we begin with a call to praise and remember Psalm 150. The Psalms include of all our cave complaints, desert grumblings, our brokenness, our frailty, our nakedness, our helplessness and yet they end in praise. The Psalms teach us that the arc of humanity is not pain to pain but praise to praise.

Praise the Lord.

Praise God in his sanctuary;
praise him in his mighty heavens.
Praise him for his acts of power;
praise him for his surpassing greatness.
Praise him with the sounding of the trumpet,
praise him with the harp and lyre,
praise him with timbrel and dancing,
praise him with the strings and pipe,
praise him with the clash of cymbals,
praise him with resounding cymbals.
Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.

Praise the Lord.

Psalm 150 NIV

Zion National Park 017 Rock of Ages 2pan. June 8, 2007. Peter. Some Rights Reserved.
Rocks and Caves and the Arc of Everything

My Favorite Music of 2015

Back in June or so I wrote up a reflection of what I thought was the best music I had been listening to in the first half of the year, My Favorite Music of 2015 So Farand since the year is coming to its end I thought I’d roundup the music I enjoyed the most for the whole year.

Honorable Mention

  • A Head Full Of Dreams, Coldplay. My sense is that lyrically, like most of Coldplay’s catalogue, it will be mostly trite with a few winsome moments. But I’m predetermined to love disco and Coldplay so I’m digging what I hear thus far.
  • Floodplains, Sara Groves. I like Sara Groves a lot and was greatly looking forward to this album. When it initially released I listened to it once or twice, it’s good. It feels grown up in some ways but her music has always seemed more mature then some of her contemporaries. But I’ve not been tempted to go back for many listens. Though I’m sure I will in time.
  • Live at Coral Ridge, Chelsea Chen. One of my heroes in the worship leading world is Zac Hicks, his blog has been hugely influential to my worship ethos. His church released this contemporary organ concert earlier this fall. It’s super cool – it doesn’t at all sound stuffy like you’d imagine a church organ concert. I really appreciate his church’s sincere effort to bridge tradition and contextualization. This album of organ music did not feel out of place with anything else I enjoyed this year.
  • Coming Home, Leon Bridges. Earlier this year my little brother showed me a track from this album and I thought it was nice, if not a little bit derivative. After Bridges’ performance on SNL this past weekend I decided to give the album another try and I’m enjoying it immensely. I’ve had it on repeat for the past three days or so. It’s good enough to be on anybody’s year end, Best Of list…
  • All We Need, Raury. Sonically, I adore this album. The folk, hip-hop, jazz fusion is really something else and alone worth the price of admission. That being said, I find it to be lyrically irritating. Thank you, Earnest-19-Year-Old, I didn’t realize that love will fix the world. I’m glad you figured that out for us with your totally original philosophy.
  • So There, Ben Folds. This is classic Ben Folds, which I really enjoy – though less than when I was in high school/college. I chuckled like a nerdy 8th grade band geek at some of the prophane Music Theory double entendres. The three-movement concerto at the end is frustrating because it’s the best thing on the album but it’s so disjointed from everything else. I wish Folds had released it seperately but I get that he’s trying to bring symphonic music into the pop realm in a serious way so I’m torn.
  • 1989, Ryan Adams. Seriously, he made T-Swift even more sad. I wouldn’t say he improved what she wrote but Adams definitley highlighted her strengths in a unique way.
  • Carry The Fire, Dustin Kensrue. Maybe I had been expecting a worship album from his second solo outing so wasn’t prepared for what he released. But, and I mean this kindly, Kensrue released an incredible Bruce Springsteen album.

My Favorite Albums in the Second Half* of 2015

The Best “Pop Worship” Album of 2015 – Bright StarAaron Strumpel.a3693472148_10

I’ve been sort of listening to Aaron Strumpel for a few years now. His lyrics are great and his voice is unique but up until Bright Star I’ve had a hard time latching on to what he’s doing. I say “Pop Worship” lightly because it’s too broad of a definition. There’s been strong outings this year from Bethel, Hillsong, Tomlin, and other great big name bands with songs I’ve actually used in worship but there’s something musically and lyrically special about this one. It’s not as clean and accessable as those other albums but it’s much richer. This sounds how the Psalms feel. In fact, much of it is inspired by the Psalms.

The Best “Grown Ups Have Feelings Too” Album of 2015 – The Burning Edge of DawnAndrew Peterson7ab5224593af4756df517434_610x610

To understate it, towards the end of the summer and start of autumn I was particularly blue. I rode that wave through October when Andrew Peterson released this album. I wouldn’t say it healed me but the Holy Spirit used it in a major way (along with Psalm 42) to minister to me. Peterson’s musical, artistic, religious, and work ethos are aligned with my own as far as I can tell. This collection of songs, in a very grown up way, addresses life’s creaks and aches in a way that doesn’t reduce them to sensationalistic and ultimately shallow dramas. The language is rooted and earthy.

The Best “Seriously, Can You Guess How My Theology Informs My Politics?” Album of the Year – BrotherThe Brilliancebrother.jpg

The Brilliance are easily some of the best musicians in Christian music. These tunes are liturgical, radical, will challenge how you approach prayer, and just all around incredible. There’s some repeats from their earlier album which is why it took me so long to listen to it fully. But when I did I found some lyrics (I was already sold that the music was exceptional) that were in the spirit of the Sermon on the Mount and rooted in the liturgical language of the church. If we sang the title track in church I wonder what would happen. Anybody want to listen and weigh in?

The Best “My Hometown Library Wrote and Recorded an Album” Album of 2015 – Sermon On The RocksJosh Rittersermon.jpg

Josh Ritter is one of the best songwriters I’ve ever heard. Full stop. He’s exceptionally literate and that’s reflected in the lyrics. This album from beginning to end is laced with Biblical allusions, wit, good storytelling and more. Seriously though, it sounds like growing up in a well-read small town. Which, you know, that’s kind of my thing. These are the kind of songs I wish I was writing.

The Best “Music With a Message” Album of 2015 – Socially Just, NomiSa0527011412_16.jpg

Where I think Raury failed above in being too preachy, I think NomiS succeeds. This is album is not just a call to action but it’s an actual call to something. The world is a broken place, marred by the curse of sin. The last thing anybody needs is cheap, overwrought hippy platitudes and on the other end of the spectrum we don’t need a 10 Step Plan to Being Better either. The music is as good as the message. The tune Love God, Love People is dope as hell. Go support my friend NomiS now!

And now, what you’ve all been waiting for…

My Absolute Favorite Albums of 2015 (Ranked)
10. Bright Star, Aaron Strumpel
9. Brother, The Brilliance
8. Home, Josh Garrels
7. The Burning Edge of Dawn, Andrew Peterson
6. Carrie & Lowell, Sufjan Stevens
5. I Love You, Honeybear, Father John Misty
4. Sermon On The Rocks, Josh Ritter
3. Socially Just, NomiS
2. Psalms, Sandra McCraken
1. The Phosphorescent Blues, Punch Brothers

Aside from Sandra McCraken (there’s an All Sons & Daughter’s cover) all the artists I mentioned in this list and my mid-year list are included in this playlist:

*Not necessarily released in the second half, but all the same…

My Favorite Music of 2015

It’s The Great Pumpkin, Tommy Welty!

I’m trying out a different format, the song titles and playlist are at the end. All the fun stuff first. It’s like dessert before dinner.

Next year Cubs fans! Amiright or amiright?!
Next year Cubs fans! Amiright or amiright?!

Dear Great Pumpkin,

I’m looking forward to your arrival on Halloween night. I hope you will bring me lots of presents. You must get discouraged because more people believe in Santa Claus than you. Well, let’s face it. Santa Claus has had more publicity. But being number two, perhaps you try harder. Everyone tells me you’re a fake, but I believe in you.

P.S. If you really are a fake, don’t tell me. I don’t want to know.

There I was Saturday night sitting in the most sincere pumpkin patch, not a single hypocritical pumpkin to be found, hoping that the Great Pumpkin would choose my patch – the sincerest pumpkin patch – to visit and give me lots of presents. But, to the shock of no one, I awoke Sunday morning without having seen the Great Pumpkin. Despite the ridicule of my friends and family I’m pretty hopeful that next year will be the year.

My favorite of the psalms is Psalm 126:

When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
We were like those who dream
Our mouths were filled with laughter,
our tongues with songs of joy.
Then it was said among the nations,
“The Lord has done great things for them.”
The Lord has done great things for us,
and we are filled with joy.

Restore our fortunes, Lord,
like streams in the Negev.
Those who sow with tears
will reap with songs of joy.
Those who go out weeping,
carrying seed to sow,
will return with songs of joy,
carrying sheaves with them.

Psalm 126, a psalm of ascent

A psalm of ascent is a song that worshippers would sing as they approached the temple. It’s a road song. A song on the way. This particular psalm was written to commemorate the Jew’s exile to Babylon, when they hung their harps on the willow branches. This song remembers when they had no song.

For an exile hope can seem of no use. What’s the use in trying? Things are as bad as they’ve ever been. For 70 years, a whole generation, the Jews were exiled from their promised land to Babylon. God, through his prophet Jeremiah, told the hopeless exiles to take up shop, that they were going to be there awhile and that they should “build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” (Jeremiah 29.5-8 NIV)

The exiles were comissioned to make the best of a bad situation. But, what about their promised land? What about home? Like Linus in the pumpkin patch waiting on that elusive Great Pumpkin, home was a dim dream for the exiles in Babylon. Maybe next year? For 70 years they waited, and planted gardens. They sowed their sorrowful seeds, their fading hope a harvest of joy.

But the promise of Psalm 126 is that what was planted would indeed become a bountiful feast. Because this is what God does. He brought the exiles home, and what a sweet homecoming: Those who wept, now laughed. Those who were filled with sorrow, now sang joy. Those who planted in sadness, reap with glad hearts in Isarel.

This is the way of God: the poor of spirit inherit the kingdom of Heaven, those who mourn are comforted, the meek inherit the earth, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are satisfied, those who are merciful are shown mercy, the pure in heart see God, peacemakers are called His children, those persecuted for His namesake will never be destroyed. The last are first, the humble are exalted, the exiles come home.

As we lead up to Thanksgiving later this month, and – at a distance – celebrate this year’s harvest we remember that “those who go out weeping, carrying seeds to sow, will return with songs of joy, carring sheaves with them.” Psalm 126 reminds us of our former exiled state and points us forward to a future kingdom of dreaming and joy and laughter.

Photo Credit: Terri Van Grol.
Photo Credit: Terri Van Grol.

We sang a new song this Sunday based on Psalm 126, “We Will Feast In The House Of Zion” before and during communion and Terri Van Grol reminded us that: “The bounty on your [Thanksgiving] table will never compare to the bounty that was on the table during the last supper.”

We approached the communion table as exiles in our sin, wanderers on this earth. And at the table we remembered that Christ sojourns with us, that he has sown in sorrow on the cross and has harvested joy in resurrection. We remembered him as we ate the bread and drank the wine, waiting until he returns when we’ll “feast in the house of Zion, singing with our hearts restored.”

At the table, as exiles, we declared that the Lord has done great things for us and that we are glad.

The songs we sang this week were:

  • The Mighty Hand of God by Citizens & Saints
  • Open Up Our Eyes by Elevation Worship
  • We Will Feast In The House of Zion by Sandra McCraken
  • Thank You God For Saving Me by Chris Tomlin & Phil Wickham

Attached is a playlist of most of those tunes, except for the new one. Sandra McCracken has opted not to put this album on Spotify – maybe in the future, but not yet. For a limited time “We Will Feast In the House of Zion” and the album it came off, with bonus material, is available at Noisetrade where you can name your price – or download it for free. Seriously, this is one of the best albums of 2015 – easily the best worship album. It’ll make your heart happy. You’ll be angry if you don’t follow this link: Psalms, Sandra McCraken GO DOWNLOAD! FAST!

It’s The Great Pumpkin, Tommy Welty!

My Favorite Music of 2015 So Far

We’re on a downward slope towards Christmas 2015 now, half the year is behind us and there’s been a lot of great new music so far. I thought I’d take a couple of minutes and jot down my thoughts.

Top 5 Tunes So Far in 2015:

The Best “I Shouldn’t Love This, But I Do. Tommy, You’re Better Than This” Song of (maybe) 2015 (?) – “Shake it off” by Taylor Swift (Look I’m a hipster and I don’t follow T-Swift’s career so maybe this song came out in 2014, I don’t know, but I like it in 2015.) Also, the below is a solid cover.

The Best “Even Though You’re Almost 30 it’s Okay that Death Cab For Cutie Still Makes You Feel Things” Song of 2015 – “Black Sun” by Death Cab for Cutie

Check out my review of the whole album: Kintsugi Review

The Best “I Didn’t Write this for My Wife but Wish I Had, and if I Had it’d be a Waltz Too” Song of 2015 – “Heaven’s Knife” by Josh Garrels

I love a good waltz. There’s that. I’ve written at least two for Alyssa. The first time we listened to this we were driving to work. Alyssa was in the back seat dealing with our son and when Garrels sang “Oh my love she’s beautiful… She’s all that I could need, she’s beautiful, she’s a part of me, she’s my wife…” I’m not going to say I cried, but I cried. Don’t tell Alyssa. Check out some more thoughts I have on Garrels’ music: “Heaven’s Knife (Reflections on the Music of Josh Garrels)


(Photo Credit: Samantha Jeet)

The Best “Radiohead Cover” of 2015 – “Reckoner” by Robert Glasper Trio

There’s been a trend to turn alternative rock tunes into standards in jazz that I really love as a casual listener of jazz. The best example would be The Bad Plus, although they’re moving away from it. Robert Glasper, when he does it, kills it. His cover of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is the best version – period – of that tune. He brings it again with this Radiohead cover.

The Best “I Only Really Like This Song and Haven’t Spent Much Time With the Rest of the Album Because It’s not 2004 Anymore” Song of 2015 – “The Best Room” by Modest Mouse

I was That Guy in college sitting at a coffeeshop with an empty Moleskin journal telling casual acquaintaces I was writing a novel and hoping they’d set me up with their friends. Isn’t it great that I’ve grown up? There’s a moment when Isacc Brock sings “And I was like what?!” That was cathartic and let me laugh at 19 year-old-me. The rest of the album is classic Modest Mouse, so I’d rather just listen to their old stuff.

The Top 5 Albums So Far in 2015 

The Best “Stop Crying in Public, Your Mom is Alive and Healthy” Album of 2015 – “Carrie & Lowell” by Sufjan Stevens

Like a psalm Sufjan digs into his grief and despair but by the end we’re lifted out of the pit. I need a thousand words or more to write the first thought of many about this album. It is not easy listening but it is worthwhile. Bring some wine and make sure it’s raining though.

The Best “Is this About iPhones? I Think this is About iPhones. Yeah, this is Totally About iPhones” Album of 2015 – “The Phosphorescent Blues” by The Punch Brothers

If you like “The Beach Boys” or “JS Bach” or “Bill Monroe” than this album is for you.

Here’s Chris Thile’s thoughts on some of the album’s themes:

I believe personally that we are trying. That we try so hard to do well. I think that that’s beautiful and that will result in us living meaningful lives, that we’ve given everything we have. We become dangerous when we give up. We just have to keep trying. If we give it everything we have, we’ll become the master of these little gadgets. Right now I think they are the master of us.

This won’t be the thing that brings us down. We’ll figure this out. Before this, it was the personal computer, before that the television, before that the radio, the light bulb on back to the wheel. We will find a way to incorporate this into meaningful lives.

Chris Thile’s Phosphorescent Blues – The Bluegrass Staion


The Best “I Already Mentioned this Album Earlier and Wrote a Blog” Album of 2015 – “Home” by Josh Garrels

Check out some more thoughts I have on Garrels’ music: “Heaven’s Knife (Reflections on the Music of Josh Garrels)

The Best “Am I Supposed to Laugh, Cry, or  Blush” Album of 2015 (NSFW!) – “I Love You, Honeybear” by Father John Misty (Really, NSFW!)

I listened to the lead track of this album “Bored in the U.S.A.” when it was released in 2014 before the album. It was so bleak, cynical, dark, beautiful, and honest but too much for me. So when the album came out it wasn’t on my radar, but a friend played a few other tracks for me and I was hooked. Father John Misty is rude and hillarious, but also sincere and honest.

The Best “This is What We Should Be Singing in Church” Album of 2015 – “Psalms” by Sandra McCracken

I’ll let Sandra McCracken tell us about the album:

Having an artistic personality type, I tend to have big feelings. Because I work within a creative vocation, I get to explore them fairly regularly in my writing and performing. But even with that vocational permission, I live most of my days on the surface of things. Most of us don’t have much time in the margins to reflect on what we are feeling or how we are acting out of those feelings and values. Often it takes painful life-disruption before we stop and reflect on what’s beneath the surface of the life we have built. We live with patterns of behavior and relate to others without being awake to our real fears or woundedness. In the past two years or so, I have practiced reading the Daily Office (a Christian tradition of reading through the Bible in three-year intervals), which includes a morning and evening psalm each day. I have been amazed at how the readings have faithfully brought perfectly timed perspective and sparked confession, awareness, wisdom, and healing.

I would often sit during these times of meditation with a journal, with my guitar, or at the piano and find that the Psalms gave particular voice to my emotion, my story, and my struggle. The Psalms gave me words when I didn’t have my own words. They prompted me to sing a new song when I couldn’t find my voice. They directed my heart toward God’s faithful, saving love. They have drawn me deeper into a life of gratitude, often by being willing to go deeper into honest sorrow. Through the Scriptures, the Holy Spirit has guided my steps with truth and clarity. The Psalms teach me that I can be safe in his good providence even when everything around and within me feels like chaos. When we hear these ancient words, we are reminded that we are not alone. We are not the first to feel what we feel. There is perspective and humility and honor in joining together with those who have gone before us. And we are also reminded that we will not be defined by our present circumstances, but by the mercy of God who has committed himself to the full restoration of all things.

 Sandra McCracken on Life, Loss, and Longing in the Psalms – The Gospel Coalition

My Favorite Music of 2015 So Far