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Eileen and I have been fans of Enter The Worship Circle since we were in college in Boulder, CO.  Their ability to create non-commercialized, creative, artistic, and passionate worship music has always moved me. And their newest cd continues in that tradition, while adding some new twists.  The best part about Fourth Circle is that it includes so many of the different artists associated with EWC.  Ben and Robin Pasley are back, but now have Aaron Strumpel and Laurie and Tim Thornton alongside them, plus Karla Adolphe and Caleb Friesen.  I’ve enjoyed the solo work of Aaron Strumpel and the Blackthorn Project (even back to Tim and Laurie’s time in Newcomer’s Home), and their contributions to Songs for A Revolution of Hope are some of the most creative on the cd.  To have them all together on Fourth Circle brings a new depth to the lyrics and variety to the music.  The instrumentation is different than past Circle cds, but it manages to keep the same organic and raw sound.  Tim’s mandolin adds a fresh touch, as does the addition of strings in several songs.  They also use a full drum set occassionally , in addition to the hand drums which have in the past led their music to be described as “tribal.”  

Fewer of the songs are going to be useful for corporate worship than in First Circle or Second Circle, but the songs are still powerful.  “Never Again” cries for justice, while “Give Me Your Hand” sings of the width of God’s grace.  “Your House” and “Bright and Beautiful” both give a picture of what it means to be adopted as beloved sons and daughters of God, with God’s kingdom as our home.  (I’ve never before heard a praise song use the words “adopting love”!)  Altogether, it’s a great cd.  Especially for people who were introduced to these artists through McLaren’s “Songs for a Revolution of Hope”, this is a great gateway into the worshipful music these musicians have been making for years. 

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Last night at Jubilee, Eileen and I were standing near the bookstore talking to a friend when I saw Derek Webb and Sandra McCracken casually stroll right by us, heading toward the room where they later played.   Like an awkward, twitterpated fan, I walked over to the doorway where they were standing and waited for them to finish conversing with another fan.  Eileen came over, and eventually we both caught Derek’s eye.  He turned to us.  I stepped forward, shook his hand, and stammered something like, “I just want to thank you – God has used your music to change my life.”  He didn’t quite know what to do – I don’t think he was expecting to meet a starstruck seminarian at this event.  After the awkward beginning, though, the rest of the conversation was great – we talked about his music, their new baby, our joys and struggles with living in community.  As we left I thanked him for blessing us with this music that evening.  Throughout the whole concert and for the rest of the night, I was elated – I had just met one of my heroes. 

Thankfully this didn’t work out like the time that I almost met Brian McLaren.  He was on campus at the seminary last year for a speaking engagement which, thanks to my work schedule, I had been unable to attend.  But that day at lunch, as I was going through the line in the dining hall, I turned and behold, to my right was Brian McLaren.  My mind started racing.  Do I introduce myself?  What do I say?  Do I tell him that his book A New Kind of Christian is what kept me from completely giving up hope on the church?  Erring on the side of caution, I said nothing.  Instead I smiled.  He smiled back.  I recognized him, and he knew I recognized him, and that was sufficient for that day.  But I still wish I would have said something.

Here’s the problem – what do you say to one of the few public figures whom God has used to transform your life?  Should I have told Derek that I Repent challenged me to move into the inner-city, convicts me of my sins of distrust and consumerism, and has given me encouragement in marriage?  Should I have told him about the time I cried while driving to Northmont and listening to This Too Shall Be Made Right, or that there are days when A Love Stronger Than Our Fear can lift me out of depression and inspire me in ministry?  Or should I have told him that one of the most powerful moments of grace I’ve ever experienced was while sitting outside on the CU campus, listening to Wedding Dress

I probably didn’t need to tell him those things, but they are true, as are the messages in Derek’s music and in Brian’s books and in the lives and work of others whom God uses to speak to us.  But ultimately, the truth in these songs and books comes not from the writers themselves, but from Jesus.  The heroes in my life are those in whom I’ve seen the image of Jesus and who have challenged me to be more conformed to the way of Jesus.  That’s why they don’t need to hear all this adulation; instead they need to hear that we are grateful for their faithfulness and pray it will continue.  And for that I praise God and pray that he will continue the good work he has begun and will continue to do through the witness of such bold followers of Christ.

There are few musicians whom God has used to seriously transform my life.  Derek Webb is one of them.  I was already counting down the hours until I may get to hear him perform with his amazingly talented wife Sandra at Jubilee tomorrow, but now I’m even more excited.  This morning I discovered an email in my inbox announcing that Derek and Sandra have produced a new EP called Ampersand.  The samples on the website sound great, and I have to say it’s inspiring and encouraging to hear such honest songs reflecting on both the joys and the challenges of love and marriage.  Hopefully they’ll play some of the new songs tomorrow.  Check out their websites (Derek and Sandra) and support good music!

This morning in chapel at the seminary, I was struck by one of the hymns we sang.  It’s “Rejoice! Rejoice, Believers”, an Advent hymn which makes reference to the Parable of the Ten Virgins in Matthew 25.  The second verse of the song begins “See that your lamps are burning, replenish them with oil.”  As we sang, I realized that replenishing, restocking, is an essential part of waiting in expectation for the coming of Christ’s reign.  While we are called to be busy going about the work and mission of Christ, we are also called to take time to replenish the oil of our lamps, that we may burn brightly, and not burn out. 

Similarly, in this morning’s lectionary readings, Titus 1:7 jumped out at me because it says that church leaders are not to be “self-willed” (NASB95).  The Greek is authades, and other translations render it “arrogant” or “overbearing”.  Self-willed is an accurate translation, though, because the word refers to the action of seeking what pleases oneself, by implication at the expense of others.  How often do pastors and other church leaders burn out because we are too authades? To be a “self-starter” may be a good characteristic in other jobs, but it always becomes dangerous when we are motivated by our own desires.  What more appropriate remedy to both self-motivation and burn-out than sabbath rest – the deliberate cessation of all self-willed activity?  I want to take this Advent season (and Christmas break) to dwell on this because I’m constantly growing more aware of the places where I operate out of my own desires and where I ignore my need for rest.  Thank God that there’s freedom to rest in trusting that Christ is coming.

“Our hope and expectation, O Jesus, now appear!
Arise, Thou Sun so longed for, over this benighted sphere!
With hearts and hands uplifted, we plead, O Lord, to see
The day of earth’s redemption that brings us unto Thee.”

-Laurentinus Laurenti 1700, trans. Sarah Findlater –

Today is the International Day of Peace, which is supposed to be an day when soldiers observe cease-fires, people of faith pray for peace, and the ideal of peace is held up for the world to see. As a seminarian, this holiday has me thinking a lot about themes of peace in relation to worship, and the difficulty we have integrating the two.

I help lead music for a student-led worship gathering at PTS every Monday morning. Next Monday, the president of the seminary’s Peace and Justice Fellowship is going to be speaking, and she asked specifically to have songs about peace incorporated in the worship service. At our practice yesterday, though, we had quite a difficult time finding songs until we settled on Charlie Hall‘s “Micah 6:8”. I’ve been a Charlie Hall for a long time, partially because his songs include themes of justice. I also love Derek Webb , whose songs such as “My Enemies Are Men Like Me” and “Love Stronger Than Our Fear” are beautiful expressions of Christ’s call to peace.

The problem is that most of these songs are not written for corporate worship singing. It’s easy to write praise songs about emotional connection to God; it’s much harder to write worship songs about authentic discipleship. Where else can we find genuine worship songs that lift up justice and peace as part of God’s will for the Kingdom? Perhaps we just need to start writing more praise songs that express Jesus’ call for us to be peacemakers and love our enemies. I know there are a few attempts at expressing themes of hope and justice coming up in new music, such as this . Is anyone out there aware of others?

The past three weeks have been a whirlwind of traveling all across the country as I’m trying to enjoy one month of freedom between the end of CPE and the beginning of my last year of seminary. First I went back to Colorado, where I preached twice – once in the Eckert Presbyterian Church, which was founded by my great grandfather nearly a century ago, and once in Delta Presbyterian Church, the church I grew up attending. I also spent a lot of time visiting family. Every time I go back to Colorado, I come back with something new that I’ve learned about members of my family. This time I found out that one of my great-aunts grew up in Pittsburgh, and that one of my dad’s cousins had been the first female moderator of her Presbytery. While I knew she was very active in the Presbyterian church, I had no idea how much work she had done at the presbytery level until this most recent visit. Anoher highlight from Colorado was visiting some of the wineries in my home county with my dad and uncle John. Western Colorado has been gaining a reputation as a wine-growing region for the past few years, and I have to say that the wines we tried there were definitely higher quality than some of the ones that Eileen and I tried in Erie on our anniversary trip. My personal favorites were from Alfred Eames Cellars (which is owned and operated almost single-handedly by an amazing guitarist who used to play in a band with the woman who taught me to play guitar), and Jack Rabbit Hill, which produces some incredible organic red wine.

After that trip, Eileen and I came back to Pittsburgh for three days, then drove to Bethlehem, PA, to visit my mom and her side of the family. Our time there was packed as well, as we took trips to the beach in New Jersey, watched my newest baby cousin be baptized, and toured the Martin Guitar factory in Nazareth. At Martin, I was amazed to see how much expert work goes into building a guitar. It struck me as an incredible metaphor for how fragile yet beautiful life is in general (perhaps a topic for a later blog post . . .). At the end of the tour Eileen and my mom and I went into a special room where they let you try out some of Martin’s finest guitars. Out of the five or six I tried, there was one in particular which I just fell in love with. The D-45 Koa has officially become my dream guitar . . . at the startling price of $9599!! I will never be able to afford that, nor could I in good conscience justify spending that much on a guitar for myself, but it just sounded so good.

Last of all – I have to put in a quick ad for two new cds that are coming out. First is the new Caedmons Call cd, which will feature again their former band-member and one of my all-time favorite musicians Derek Webb. The second cd that I’m excited about is Songs for a Revolution of Hope vol. 1: Everything Must Change. As the Brian McLaren’s preface on the website explains, the cd is designed to present worship songs that reflect themes of justice and hope, rather than individualistic me-centered Christianity. I’ve often wondered why there wasn’t a more explicit connection between the emerging church movement and musicians such as Enter the Worship Circle who so obviously share common values. Part of the reason this cd excites me so much is that connection is being made. Plus, it features some of our favorite artists from Boulder – Aaron Strumpel and The Blackthorn Project. I started listening to Aaron Strumpel last year when he did a cd in the Enter the Worship Circle “Chair and Microphone” series – it’s filled with raw, beautiful, simple, emotional, and intense songs of lament. As for the Blackthorn Project, Tim and Laurie used to be members of our favorite local band in college: “Newcomers Home”. We were sad when Newcomers disbanded, but Blackthorn’s music is amazing as well, and much more bluegrass than Newcomers were. I hope someday to use their hymn arrangements in church . . . . Anyway – thank you for reading so far in this long post, buy these cds and support these amazing musicians. Amen!