Christmas Music I Actually Enjoy!

23 12 2008

I’m not a huge fan of Christmas music.  I know that makes me the odd man out, especially this time of year.  Our church secretary would probably start playing Christmas music in July if she could, and she (and Dave… and many others!) usually give me a hard time for being such a “Grinch” about Christmas music.

However, this year I’ve found a Christmas album I can’t stop playing.

One of my favorite musicians, Fernando Ortega, has just released Christmas Songs.  Like he does so wonderfully and so often, he has taken songs that most of us could sing our our sleep and breathed new life into them. Christmas favorites like “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and “Angels We Have Heard on High”  are arranged in such a way that numbing familiarity melts away and the beauty of the lyrical message comes shinning through.

Take a few moments to watch this little video, in which Fernando explains some of the stories behind the songs, his reason for doing new arrangements, and plays through a couple of the pieces.  Then go to iTunes or Amazon and buy this album.  I’m enjoying it so much, you might even find me listening to it in July!

Vodpod videos no longer available.


Memorizing the Hymns

21 12 2008

covenlifehymnsCovenant Life Church, where Josh Harris pastors, has devoted itself to spend the next 10 months memorizing some of the great hymns of the faith.  Each month, as a church, they will be memorizing a hymn in order to be obedient to Colossians 3:16 and also to make sure they don’t lose connection with the great songs of God’s people from generations past.

Here is the list of hymns they’ll be (and have been) memorizing:

NOVEMBER – Amazing Grace
DECEMBER – Before the Throne
JANUARY – Praise to the Lord, the Almighty
FEBRUARY – Be Thou My Vision
MARCH – And Can It Be
APRIL – Crown Him with Many Crowns
MAY – A Mighty Fortress
JUNE – Be Still My Soul
JULY – How Firm a Foundation
AUGUST – Great is Thy Faithfulness

They’ve also used their great musical resources to put together an album of these hymns.  You can listen to samples and purchase the music here.

What a wonderful idea.

Bob Kauflin: The Partnership in Corporate Worship

27 08 2008

I am reading through Kauflin’s wonderful book, Worship Matters, and I’m greatly encouraged by this brother’s understanding of an issue many people are confused about or fighting over.  His high view of God and of His Word really reflect a “worship leader” who is properly prepared to lead people in corporate worship.  Also, this right view helps him properly approach potentially divisive issues like, “Who gets more time Sunday morning, the musicians or the preacher?”  Check out how he understands the partnership between the two.

The glory due His name…

21 08 2008

I lead music from time to time in our church.  In preparation for one such evening, I endeavored to lead my church body in a string of worship songs directly related to scripture that spoke about worship.  I used 1 Chronicles 16:29 along with some appropriate hymns.  Below is basically what I went through with them; I hope it challenges your idea of worship.  And if you want to use this for your own ministry, have at it!

“Ascribe to the Lord the glory due His name;
Bring an offering, and come before Him;
Worship the Lord in holy array;”
1 Chronicles 16:29

After David was made King of Israel, one of his first actions was to retrieve the ark from Kiriath-jearim and place it in the new capital city of Jerusalem.  This set the tone that the new government under David would be centralized around God and not man.

After setting up the ark in it’s new tent, they offered burnt and peace offerings and David (as he was known to do) broke out in a song of praise to God.  It is in this song we find the verse in question, whose parts we will observe in reverse order:

“Worship the Lord in holy array”
An alternate translation of “holy array” is “the splendor of holiness”.  While it is easy to read over quickly, we need to notice that we are the ones in holy array.  This is talking about being clean when we come before God to worship Him (Micah 6:6-8).  To reflect this truth, we sang “Take Time to Be Holy”.

“Bring an offering, and come before Him”
Many people come to a worship service to get something.  To get encouragement, to get good fellowship, to get some good music, etc…  The point of worship is to honor God!  We should be bringing something for Him.  This should first and foremost be our hearts and our lives, but it is also shown in gifts and offerings.  With this in mind we sang “We Give Thee but Thine Own” (our hymnal actually only has the first two verses of what is shown on cyberhymnal).

“Ascribe to the Lord the glory due His name”
Think about that statement for a second.  How in the world can we ascribe to God the glory He is due?  We can’t even understand the glory that God is owed for crying out loud!  Nevertheless, we are charged to do our best to meditate on the immensity of our Lord, and the more we do that, the more naturally we will, like David, break out into song.  We then closed with “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name” (our hymnal only shows the 1st, 2nd, and 4th verse of what is on cyberhymnal)

The Forgotten Hymns of William Cowper

10 08 2008

I was listening to Wow Hymns, a compilation of hymns sung by contemporary artists, and came upon “There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood”.  I love that old song, so I thought I would see if there were any other hymns I knew of written by the same person.

The author was William Cowper (pronounced “Cooper”) who was born in 1731 in England.  When he died in 1800, John Newton (of “Amazing Grace” fame) conducted the funeral service as they were friends and hymn writing partners.  As I looked at Cowper’s hymns, however, I didn’t find any others I recognized ( although while I don’t recall ever singing it, I believe “God Moves In a Mysterious Way” is popular among some).

I decided to look through a couple of his hymns anyway and found some gems!  I doubt these will ever become Sunday morning regulars, but they do at least warrant a consideration.  Click on the hymn name to bring up it’s entry on the Cyber Hymnal.

By Whom Was David Taught?

Using the examples of David and Gideon, Cowper recalls that the source of all success in the kingdom of God is God Himself.  It reminds me of “The God of Abraham Praise”.  The last stanza reads:

But unbelief, self will,
Self righteousness, and pride,
How often do they steal
My weapon from my side!
Yet David’s Lord, and Gideon’s Friend,
Will help His servant to the end.

O How I Love Thy Holy Word

Cowper dotes on God’s written revelation for six stanzas, focusing greatly on it’s chastening abilities.  One of my personal heroes is Martin Luther because he was obsessed with the Bible.  Luther’s wonder and utter dependence on God’s Word is reflected in this hymn.  Ask yourself if you think along these lines when you do your daily devotions:

What are the mines of shining wealth,
The strength of youth, the bloom of health!
What are all joys compared with those
Thine everlasting Word bestows!

Jesus, Whose Blood so Freely Streamed

My favorite of what I found in Cowper’s repertoire so far.  This hymn combines wonder for the work of salvation, rejoicing in its sufficiency, and petitions for strength to fight the spiritual war.  I actually tried my hand at composing a new tune for the words on my guitar.  I can’t vouch for how good it sounds, but the words still resonate.  I used the first verse as the chorus:

Jesus, whose blood so freely streamed
To satisfy the law’s demand;
By Thee from guilt and wrath redeemed,
Before the Father’s face I stand.

It’s sad to read that Cowper’s life was mostly defined by bouts of depression and stays at the insane asylum.  Throughout his life, Cowper suffered rejection, loss, and heartache, yet managed to find enough glimmers of hope in his Savior to pen these magnificent poems.  At least we know that he is now utterly filled with joy.  Take some time to look at this great poetry, meditate on it’s truths, and use them to glorify God!

Ah, Holy Jesus

20 05 2008

I asked one of our pianists to pick some of the songs for our evening service this last Sunday. One of the songs she chose was “Ah, Holy Jesus.” I had never heard this song before, but was blown away by both the humbling message and the haunting melody. The lyrics brought us face to face with our sin (or better said “me face to face with my sin”) and the minor key that drives the accompaniment set the perfect musical tone.

Thank you, Becky, for expandning our musical library!

In case you’re not familiar with this song, below are the lyrics and a link to the music.

“Ah, Holy Jesus”
(click for midi file)

Ah, holy Jesus, how hast thou offended,
That man to judge thee hath in hate pretended?
By foes derided, by thine own rejected,
O most afflicted.

Who was the guilty? who brought this upon thee?
Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee.
‘Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee:
I crucified thee.

Lo, the good Shepherd for the sheep is offered:
The slave hath sinned, and the Son hath suffered:
For man’s atonement, while he nothing heedeth,
God intercedeth.

For me, kind Jesus, was thine incarnation,
Thy mortal sorrow, and thy life’s oblation:
Thy death of anguish and thy bitter passion,
For my salvation.

Therefore, kind Jesus, since I cannot pay thee,
I do adore thee, and will ever pray thee
Think on thy pity and thy love unswerving,
Not my deserving.

Master of the Song’s Voice

14 05 2008

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the resurgence of contemporary artists reviving old hymns and writing new ones.  However, whenever I start thinking about old hymns being well done by a contemporary artist, one name comes to the forefront of my mind: Fernando Ortega.

This brother has a powerful gift.  Not only is he an accomplished musician (is there an instrument he doesn’t play?) who possesses an amazing voice, most impressive is that he knows how to perfectly craft a song.  He knows how to find the song’s perfect “voice.” 

Some songs have beautiful and rich lyrics, but the music that accompanies them either contradicts the message of the song or distracts from it.  If this happens in secular music, it is disappointing but at the end of the day, it doesn’t make much difference.  However, when this happens with the music of the Church, it can be a real hindrance in allowing the song to engage your mind and fuel your affections.

I could give you negative examples of this, examples of songs in which the lyrics are sadly carried along by an accompaniment far beneath them or contradictory to them.  Instead, I’d rather just point you to someone who does it well- who seems to find the perfect musical vehicle for the message.  Again, Fernando is that artist.

Where this is most clearly on display is in his re-working of old hymns, especially ones with which most of us are familiar.  It is an amazing gift to take a song that many know and love, and remake that song in such a way that those who listen to it say, “That song should have always been played that way!”  Time and time again, this happens when Fernando re-works a hymn. 

As my library of Ortega music has grown (currently 79 songs), I’ve repeatedly had this experience.  He takes songs that I love and makes them even better.  He introduces me to new hymns and his version becomes the standard.  And, because he is doing this with the rich, deep hymns of our faith, when the marriage of music and message is made, the impact is glorious. 

Let me give you an example of what I’m referring to.  I’ve already written a post about Ortega’s version of “Stricken, Smitten, and Afflicted” but there I didn’t emphasize that those soul shaking lyrics are accompanied by just the right musical arrangement.  The tempo is perfect.  The song begins with a haunting harp-like effect produced by a classical guitar. A cello joins the arrangement in the second verses (why aren’t there more songs with the cello?) and a female vocalist accompanies him at just the right moments in the song.  Each turn of the music emphasizes the rich truth of the lyrics,  bringing the message to the hearer with such power and force that you find yourself weeping over your sin and yet rejoicing in firm foundation of the Cross.  Once you hear the song this way, I don’t imagine that too many other versions (even the original musical paring) will come close to being able to satisfy. And this is just one example.

The powerful “This is my Father’s World,” the meditative “What Wondrous Love is This,” the uptempo “Children of the Living God” are others I would point you to in which you could observe this wonderful harmony of music and message. 

When you see this being done so well, and experience the powerful proclamation that results, it makes you desire more.  If you haven’t experienced it, I’d encourage you to buy an album by Fernando Ortega immediately!  If you have tasted this rich blessing, would you join with me in praying that God would raise up other artists who would be just as careful to find the song’s voice? 

Also, would you pray for me?  Although I would not classify myself as a “musician,” as I lead the corporate worship of our Church I want to pursue this goal as well.  I want to strive for accompaniments that fit and assist the songs we sing.  My desire is that our church’s worship in song is aided by the music, not hindered by it.  Although some may downplay the importance of this goal, when you hear a song’s truth communicated in its true voice, you quickly understand.  You begin to see the blessing of God’s gift of music to the Church and why it has had such an important place in the history of His people’s worship.

Thank you, Fernando, for ministering this gift to us.