Worship at Christ Church Suwanee

Jenny and I had a great time leading the worship at my home church this weekend. Supported by Mike Carthon on bass, Mick Crylser on drums, and Ken Clark on acoustic guitar, it was an exciting opportunity to bring our style and some of our favorite worship songs to the worshipers at Christ Church Suwanee. We got to debut a new song I just wrote entitled “O My Soul”, along with doing some favorites we’ve done acoustically before, but never with a full band. We received some amazing positive feedback from the church, and I really appreciate the flexibility that worship pastor Jeff Wreyford gave us in choosing the songs and letting us run with the service, including allowing me to read Psalm 43 which (along with Psalm 42) was the basis for the new song we played.

I’ve always viewed Steady On as a performance band, playing songs that I’ve written that “tell the story” of my faith and encourage others who listen. My songwriting doesn’t tend to be very congregational in terms of melodies or lyrical content, and I’m OK with that (though “O My Soul” is perhaps a step in the direction of congregational writing). But from the moment Jenny and I started singing, I’ve always known her passion was to lead worship. Because of that, I’ve tried to include some worship songs in our sets and look out for gigs that might allow us to lead people in worship. I’m so glad that she has brought that to the band, because this morning was truly amazing. She is a wonderful worship leader and I love to sing with her. She has such an infectious spirit that draws people in, gets them energized, and directs them toward God.

The band really nailed it today, completely in sync. There were definitely a lot of moments for me where I just let go and let the music happen, focusing my attention on Jesus and the words we were singing to him. I remember afterward Mick telling me that he missed his cue on “In Christ Alone” because he was just in the zone, and all I could think was “sometimes, it’s better to miss a cue” (and I doubt anyone in the congregation even noticed). I’m so grateful for all the hard work that every musician (and the tech team at Christ Church Suwanee) put into this morning, and I have to say, every minute was worth it. God was lifted up, and I am reminded that this is just a dim taste of what awaits us beyond the grave.

Here’s hoping that we will have many more opportunities to lead worship in the future; it is, after all, part of what we were created to do, and Jenny and I are blessed to play with musicians who know how to bring a musical offering to God that is both skillful and spiritual.

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When Worship Is Great

This morning I led worship alongside Laura Sully at our home church, Christ Church Suwanee. Normally we tend to have very full worship teams with electric guitars, drums, and the works. We have an amazing amount of musical talent at our church and it’s always wonderful to have the opportunity to worship with all of our many gifts, but this morning was a little bit different. It was just the two of us with our piano and guitar . . . and the people of God. It was fantastic and I’m so thankful I was a part of it. The intimacy and ability to respond to the congregation was special. As a worship leader, my primary goal is to be a “lead worshiper” more than a “director of worship”, and this morning that was so easy to do.

Something like that, for me, is like the “mountain top”. Worship is always honoring to God, but sometimes we “feel” it more than other times. These are the weeks we stand around after the service and talk about how great it was, always making sure to point out it was a work of God, not of us. But there’s a temptation when that happens, and this is where we need to be careful. We can look at these special moments, moments that are gifts from God, and try to re-create them. We can seek the spiritual “high” and try to program it. It’s easy for people to say “Remember that week with just piano and guitar?- It was so amazing I don’t see why we need the other instruments” or “I loved it when we sang ‘Our God’ we should do that song every week”.  I suppose that is the result of the problem solving gene (at least in me), but we can easily run astray here and turn a gift into bondage, or something even more dangerous.

Because really, you don’t program “great moments”. If you do, you end up seeking these great moments more than God. We always have to remember, we enter for him, not us. Even if we feel nothing or something is a little off, if our hearts are sincere and we are there to give God honor and glory, worship is great no matter how it seems to us.

There is an oft discussed passage in Leviticus concerning worship, and it’s an important warning:

Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it and laid incense on it and offered unauthorized fire before the Lord, which he had not commanded them. And fire came out from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord.(Leviticus 10:1-2, ESV)

People debate what all of the implications of this scripture are, but I think one thing is very clear. When we come to worship, we are not there because it is fun, cool, and exciting; we come because God has told us we are to worship him. While worship can be fun/cool/exciting, our primary purpose is to respond to God for who he is in our lives and we can never forget that.

I believe the great sin of Nadab and Abihu lies in their purpose for offering “strange fire” (yes, we DO have a song about this, thanks for asking!). They did something different from what God had asked for because they were so impressed by what happened in the closing passages of Leviticus 9 that they wanted to capture and re-create it. But they wanted to do so on their terms for their joy and happiness.

Leviticus 9 ends this way:

And fire came out from before the Lord and consumed the burnt offering and the pieces of fat on the altar, and when all the people saw it, they shouted and fell on their faces. (Leviticus 9:24, ESV)

People were very impressed and affected when “fire came out from the Lord”, as well they should be. They fell on their faces with a holy reverent fear. And this, I think, is what our response ought to be when worship is “great”. When we feel God powerfully and he moves in a special way, we ought to remember who we are dealing with and who we are before him. We should, at least emotionally, be prostrate before him, reverent and humble. Saying “Thank you Lord for meeting with us this way”.

You can’t program fire from heaven. You can’t re-create it, and you don’t want to try. I’m not saying we don’t try to bring our best every week in terms of preparation. We certainly do. But at the end of the day, real worship is beyond instruments, format, and style. It is about God and how he chooses for us to experience him. And if we just blast on ahead without reflection, we can miss it. We can miss the reverent fear we ought to have in light of the work he’s done for us.

So my challenge to myself this week is to reflect on God with reverence and give him thanks; thanks for being worthy of worship, for accepting my worship, and for meeting with me in a special way I could never attain on my own.

Why I Love Being A Musician

I’ve always had music in my soul. Some of my earliest memories involve making up random melodies while I did whatever children do. In middle school I started with French Horn (at which I was terrible) and finally got around to guitar and bass in High School. At the time I thought I wanted to write more orchestral music, but I was always messing around on my acoustic guitar and making up songs. Ah, there were some truly bad songs that came out of my teenage angst and “deep” thoughts. In college I started of as a theory/composition major, but after two years (that I really enjoyed), I realized I could turn my other hobby, writing software, into a much more lucrative, and family friendly, career. So I switched majors and never looked back. But I never stopped playing music either.

The thing about writing software and writing music is that they have very similar skill sets. In both cases you accomplish the goal by assembling small pieces into something bigger, yet coherent. Abstract thinking, problem solving, and vision all play a part in writing both software and music, which is why I enjoy both so much. But there is one unique aspect to writing music that is not present in writing software: emotion. Music really is the synthesis between emotional and non-emotional creativity. A songwriter wants to convey a message, and a successful attempt not only conveys a meaning intellectually, but also emotionally by how it feels.

One of my not-so-secret personality traits is that I tend to be a pretty logical guy. Just sit down with me and talk theology or deconstruct Lord of the Rings and you’ll see what I mean. Whether this is exciting or frustrating depends on your own personality. I’ve certainly run into my fair share of folks who accuse me of “overthinking”. Whatever- I LOVE to dig deep and wrestle with ideas. That’s FUN for me. But this is where music comes in: it’s not just a way to convey ideas and logic; it’s a way of conveying the way an idea feels, which is something I don’t do enough in other areas of my life. So when you see me on stage leading worship or hear a CD I’ve recorded, there’s a part of me that only comes alive in those places. In a sense, music is an opportunity to be the whole person that God has created me to be.

I think this is part of the reason that music is wrapped up in the idea of worship in scripture. Certainly there are lots of examples of worship that don’t have any musical component, so we should resist the temptation to label music as the only form of worship, but music is certainly there. The psalms speak of the many instruments used in worship, and we are commanded to sing a “new song” to the Lord. I don’t know what that means in the lives of others, but for me when I sing it’s a chance to give God every part of me, even the emotional parts that sometimes have trouble surfacing at other times.

When I tell my stories, it’s amazing to be able to use more than just words. Whether it’s the aggressive guitars on Return to Eden completing the picture of the darkness of The Fall, or the light Hammond on “I Run” peaking through the music like a ray of light, every bit of it is designed to paint a more brilliant picture than words alone. The music is the vulnerable part of me you don’t see when I write blogs or speak, and I’m so glad that God has given me that.

No, I’m not a professional, and I’ve never once regretted the decision to focus my career in software development. I enjoy that job very much; but I enjoy even more the chance to share with people the emotional part of me, and I still get that opportunity even if I’m not touring around the world living out of a suitcase. Because for me, the fulfillment I get is not legions of fans adoring my music (though I won’t lie, if that happened I’d be pretty stoked!), but to know that I’ve connected to someone, even if it’s just a handful of folks, in a way through music I could never achieve otherwise.

love being a musician, even if I’m not a professional. I love it because nothing I can do comes close to what music can do in my life and the lives of those around me. It allows me to communicate the best way I can, this side of heaven, the ideas I have about life, love, and my Creator.

“Bravado”: I Finally Get It

Confession: I am a HUGE Rush fan. I think they are heads and shoulders above every other rock group in the world, both in terms of individual skill and what they do as a group. True, lyricist Peart sometimes has some scathing things to say about Christianity, but sadly he often has good reason to speak out against the church.

My introduction to the band was the album “Roll The Bones” (now every Rush fan reading this is cringing- but what can I say- I STILL like the album, even if it isn’t “Moving Pictures”). Pretty funny album for a young Christian boy to get into, since the lyrics for most of the songs are very critical of faith. But one song will always stick out on that album: Bravado. I’d later find out as I got to know the band, while a fantastic song, it’s about as un-Rush as anything they’ve ever done. Straight 4/4 beat, simple parts, and just an uncomplicated song in general. Yet it is masterful and moving in its simplicity, and Peart’s drumming swells and dips with the lyrics in a way that impresses me on every listen. If I ever had a criticism of Rush, it’s that sometimes their lyrics and music don’t match, but that is not true here. When the music drops down on the line “But if love remains” after recounting everything that is lost, I get chills. And as it builds with the strength and power of that love, it just moves my soul.

And I finally get it. For years I didn’t understand this song. I thought lyricist Peart had it wrong. Because as I understood it, the Bible doesn’t jive with the idea that if something is important, we don’t count the cost. In fact, I believed that when we count the cost, we reveal it’s value. And that’s true in some respects. Jesus was very clear that he wanted his disciples to understand what they were getting into when they chose to follow him:

Now great crowds accompanied him, and he turned and said to them, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’ Or what king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace. So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:25-33, ESV)

So for years, I’ve written off this song as a nice and beautiful sentiment, but one counter to the words of Jesus. I was not approaching the scriptural text with the nuance that there are different aspects to “counting the cost” and Jesus was making more of a point about commitment to the path than he was the value of discipleship. And actually, commitment to the path is what this song is about (though I’m sure “the path” would be defined very differently by Peart and myself). But consider these words of Jesus:

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it. (Matthew 13:45-46, ESV)

This is the ultimate example of valuing something so much that everything else is worth losing in order to get it, and that’s the point of the song “Bravado”. Peart doesn’t really define what it is that is worth so much, except to say “love” (but that can be a very broad term). But “love” is right, isn’t it? Love is the highest law and the summation of the law. God is love. Love is why God redeemed us. The Kingdom of God is worth losing everything for:

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul? (Matthew 16:24-26, ESV)

And for some reason, listening to this song tonight in the car, everything clicked. “Bravado” is how I try to live my life. Faith is not about being afraid of failure: earthly failures don’t matter in light of eternity, and eternity cannot fail us. I do some crazy things in faith (for example, investing my time and money into a band that will probably never make a dime!). And why do I do it? Because in the end, if we are following God, it is Worth it. Every. Time.

To go to another favorite of mine, consider this conversation between Gandalf and Frodo in Lord of the Rings:

Frodo: I wish the Ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.
Gandalf: So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.

What is significant about this (spoiler alert!) is that Frodo can only be described as demonstrating the ultimate in perseverance. He does his task, to carry the ring, with all his strength, and does so far better than anyone else might. Certainly better than the humans who would try to take it for themselves. But in the end, Frodo fails! He cannot destroy the ring. It is only the providential evil of Gollum that allows for the ring to be destroyed. And love remains, even though Frodo fails.

What does the word “Bravado” mean? According to Marriam-Webster: “Confident or brave talk or behavior that is intended to impress other people”. Ok, well maybe in general that’s not the proper attitude of a Christian, but the part this where we are to be brave and confident despite the overwhelming task before us- imminent failure on a human level- well that IS part of the Christian life. So I think I’m finally able to embrace this song and its message.

All we can do is abide in Christ, doing the things he’s set for us to do:

I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. (John 15:5, ESV)

We may or may not be successful as we seek do to the work of God. We may end up with failed music groups, failed churches, failed marriages, or any number of failures in this broken world. But in the end, we are called to be bold and do the work set out before us, because God will overcome all, and love WILL remain.

Is Christian Music “Safe”?

One of the local stations here in Atlanta once ran an ad campaign (no idea if they still do) claiming to be “safe” for the whole family. I have to say, such a term applied to Christianity really gives me pause. Now, I understand why the station does this- it’s a marketing move to attract families that don’t want to hear the worldly music and foul language/situations found in secular music. That actually is a fine goal, but I wish it weren’t tied to the notion of being a Christian.

I have two issues with deeming Christian music “safe”. The first is that it simply isn’t. Singing about spiritual matters does not automatically put a song into a category that requires no discernment, though that’s what calling it “safe” implies. Unless there are trustworthy gatekeepers guarding the music that gets put out in the name of Jesus, we are talking about the HIGHEST potential for danger there is if we do not approach the music with discernment. When it comes to the topics of the world: dating, sexuality, greed, idolatry, fun, politics, etc. there are a wide array of good and bad topics, but at the least we know we have to listen with a discerning ear. But music about God- that seems to be the MOST dangerous of all topics if bad theology or unloving attitudes get baked into the music. And is the record company primarily motivated by good discernment of what is spiritually good? Are the radio stations? I have no doubt that there are many good Christian individuals working in these places, but at the end of the day, spirituality is a dangerous subject that requires discernment, and the record companies are always going to print what sells- that’s what they do.

So I think it isn’t “safe” to just tune out when a Christian song comes on- in fact, this might be the place where we need to pay attention the most. In the music of the world it can be easy to spot the lies, but with music about God, how easy is it for something to slip in that we don’t even realize because of all the good stuff that’s also there (like, for example, say a modalistic view of the Trinity)? I’m not suggesting that Christian artists are nefarious and trying to lead us down the wrong paths, but by in large music is a young person’s game, so we aren’t hearing content developed by mature, weathered Christians (this is true of my own music as well) and there’s no one really guarding the spiritual core of what is CCM. So I think it would be very dangerous to turn off our sense of discernment just because some song plays on Christian radio.

The second issue I have with labeling Christian music as “safe” as that it creates a very dim view of what Christianity is. It paints a picture of a way of being that is much like the world, only with the edges softened. Christian music is the diet version of what the world has to offer- it might not taste as good, but at least it won’t kill you. This can be an easy perception for people to gain of Christianity in general, and largely because a lot of Christians live this way. We are the same as everyone else, but there are lists of things we don’t do that the “pagans” do. We are just the fat free version of the world. Does that sound like a great testimony?

But this is not the New Testament view of what being a Christian is. We are salt and light. We shine in the darkness, preserve the truth, and agitate when that is what it takes to do God’s work. I am not my unchristian neighbor with the edges filed off- I am a whole new creation, dangerous to those who serve evil and empowered by the Creator of the universe. There is nothing “light” or “safe” about me.

Now I don’t want to be overly critical here. I get what Christian stations are trying to do, and I understand they are trying to appeal to families with children who just don’t want to hear the garbage on the radio that leads to uncomfortable questions and conversations. As much as I understand that, though, I think it is super important we don’t get lulled into the idea that what we do with faith is in any way “safe”. When we get faith wrong, people get hurt- badly. When we accept lies and are not properly discerning, we can become dangerous and hindering to the faith of others. Spiritual abuse is a real thing and VERY damaging, and I believe it starts with people accepting and not questioning- a lack of discernment. My goals is not to be a “safe” Christian who participates in a “safe” bubbled subculture, but one who the darkness fears to see coming because it knows I come with the power and wisdom of the Holy Spirit- and that I’m not afraid to use these things. We may strive to be a lot of things as people of faith, but let’s not make “safe” be one of them.

Is “Steady On” A Christian Band?

I guess the answer to this question is pretty obvious- there’s no mystery that the music of Steady On is faith based. But the better question might be, WHY is Steady On a Christian band? Or maybe even what is it that makes it such?

In some respects, it is only because there are lyrics and lyrics have the potential to speak truth that this question even somewhat pertinent. Music is an art form, but certain kinds of art can be more didactic than others- some Christians insist that music be very specific and obvious or it isn’t worth much at all. These folks want clarity and to know that the songs are about Jesus. Can the same person enjoy other forms of art that are less clear- like say an abstract painting, or do they insist that every painting obviously be about Christ? And for some, the goal of listening to Christian music is because they want to enjoy art that is “safe”, a line of reasoning that I will write about later in a separate post.

In my opinion, art exists for its owns sake. It does not need to be about Jesus to have worth. Music is one form of communicating emotions, and when combined with lyrics it can be a powerful way of expressing concrete ideas fused with feeling. Such a wonderful gift it is that we can do this- and by “we”, I mean human beings, not just Christians. The ability to make music is truly a treasure whatever we may choose to write about.

A lot of Christians see the content of a faith based song as the primary reason for singing it, and the “artistic” value as secondary. But I’m a firm believer if an artist isn’t driven to make the art, then it will not be a compelling experience for the intended audience. Art is about touching people in a way that mere words cannot do– and while there may be concrete ideas in a song, there is always some part that is abstract, subjective, and emotional. If those less concrete aspects are manufactured to serve the transmission of the didactic, then the song really just becomes a vehicle for ideas, not something birthed from genuine passion.

Honestly, if people want to understand what I think is true, then they can come to my blog or just ask me questions. The naked written or spoken word is more than sufficient for that goal. I need not construct a clever argument with an emotional component to try and convince someone of what I think or believe. But when you listen to a Steady On song, you are getting more than just ideas- you are getting that abstract creative side of me too. That creative side is connected with the ideas in the lyrics, even if the point of contact isn’t completely defined– and that’s what makes it art.

I said up front that Steady On is a Christian band– so obviously we have an agenda here, right? Not really– it’s not a goal, it’s a description. Because I am moved to write music about faith and as performers we are compelled to sing about such things, it’s an outflow of who we are, not a goal we are trying to reach. In fact, I LOVE writing about my faith and I’m glad that what I do has more significance than just a tune I sing. When some truth about God is communicated to someone through song and they see it in a new light, then there is nothing more satisfying than being a part of the communication of that truth. But in the same breath I can say I’ve never committed to not writing about a beautiful meadow, a love song, or even a political statement: those types of songs are not off limits. Thus far, they are just not the passions I’ve had inside that needed to be expressed in song.

I write Christian songs because I am a Christian and my faith is important to me. I write Christian songs because I believe music can be encouraging to believers, and encouragement is a passion of mine. And I write Christian songs because I really don’t have a desire to write anything else. I have no problem wearing that label, but I hope as long as I do it will be a description of the art I’ve chosen to make, not a constraint I must obey– or even worse a marketing strategy.

When you listen to a Steady On song, it might not be the best art or about the most earth shattering truths. It might not have the best guitar solo, most impressive melody, or compelling phrases. But however it measures up, the one thing I can promise is that it will always be honest both as a form of art and as an expression of what I think and feel. Steady On may be labeled as Christian music, but it gets its identity honestly, and you can trust me for that.