A Song For the Religious Strivers

I remember having New Testament scholar Tom Schreiner visit the small cohort of pastoral apprentices I was a part of. He had come to teach on Romans 7 as our cohort was working through the book of Romans for that first year. We all waited eagerly to hear his take on the debate about whether Paul is speaking of a believer an unbeliever in the famous Romans 7 “I do not do what I want” passage. I myself was torn. It seemed to me that if I focused on the slavery language in the passage, the person Paul spoke of must be an unbeliever – because only unbelievers are slaves to sin. But if I focused on the divided-man language, then it must be a believer – because only believers are internally divided over their own sin.

Schreiner landed somewhere unexpected. “I say wrong question! This passage is not focusing on whether someone is a believer or an unbeliever. This is anyone who is trying to justify themselves by keeping the Law.” I can’t say that I’m totally settled on this passage yet. But I think most days I agree with Schreiner.

Human religion can be defined as anyone trying to justify themselves through good works – be they a believer or an unbeliever. In this sense, religion is anti-gospel. In the gospel, we are justified by God’s free grace alone – without any expectations placed on us to earn that relationship. There is an older sense of the word religion that did not carry this meaning, but conveyed more the sense of true spirituality, and in this older rendering we could say that the gospel is true religion in a world of false religion. Regardless, the term religion seems to be taking on more of this sense of striving in order to appease God.

I find it helpful among my peers in the West and my peers in Central Asia to divide gospel from religion in this linguistic sense. It resonates with them and proves to be helpful to distinguish the Bible’s teaching from moralism. Many of my peers in the West have been raised to function as if they were saved by grace, but continue to stay in God’s favor by works of the Law. My Central Asian friends have straight up been told their whole lives that they can only be saved by keeping God’s shari’a, his Law. Their society has lots of literal pharisees walking around, like the Salafis, who grow their beards long, cut their pants short, and despise the normal folk as lesser-than.

All of this is the context for why I find this song so helpful. Some in the West want to use this “Jesus is not religious” language to water down the need for church or holiness in the Christian life. I’m not part of that camp at all. But like every other true believer out there, I am a recovering legalist, daily striving to remember that because of Jesus, God delights in me regardless of my performance today. And this song helps me do that.

I am particularly blessed by the bridge, which starts at 3:07. “Meet your maker, smiling bright.” Some days it’s really hard to believe that this is true – that God really smiles at the thought of me. And yet this is what the gospel means for all of us who are now adopted as sons and daughters of the king. He actually lights up at the thought of us. Remarkable.

A Song on the Beauty of God

We have the early rains and the late rains in this part of the world. Other than that we don’t get a lot of clouds. Currently we’re experiencing the late rains, and this has meant some stunning mixes of sun, rain, grey and dusty brown clouds – and even a huge rainbow. Desert dust storms in the air means we have our share of ugly drab days, but they also add a whole new range of color combinations when added to rain clouds and sun. Picture purple lighting jumping from one chocolately-pink cloud to another in the midst of a late afternoon sunshower – over a landscape that has suddenly bloomed in bright green.

I’m trying to learn more about what it means to meditate visually on the beauty of God in creation and art. I have made some good strides when it comes to tapping into the power of music (aural beauty), but when it comes to engaging my spiritual affections with my eyes? Well, I’m very much a beginner. Today I was prayer walking in a nearby park and as I enjoyed the young olive trees and the distant mountains, this song about the beauty of God came into my mind.

I’ve listened to this song for several years now. But that shift at 2:45 still hits me every time, “When we arrive at eternity’s shore…”

Check out “You’re Beautiful” by Shane and Shane in the YouTube clip above.

A Song of Longing and Home

This is by no means a new song. But I don’t remember hearing it until we watched the film, 1917, a number of months ago. This was a stunning film, made all the better because I had read this review beforehand and knew to pay attention to the significance of the trees in the film. I resonate with the sober hope held out by this song, with its haunting melody that fits with the grievous nature of death, contrasted with its words of simple hope, “I’m only going over Jordan. I’m only going over home.” Yes, that fits with the intermingled sorrow and hope that we know as believers who all must ultimately die. And yet death is not the end. In 1917, one scene has the characters come across a cherry tree orchard that has been cut down. But in this scene of destruction, there’s also this line: “They’ll grow again when the stones rot. You’ll end up with more trees than before.” Exactly. Resurrection.

A Song on God’s Conquering Grace

I remember hearing John Piper once say, “We always resist the Holy Spirit! But he is powerful to overcome our resistance any time he wants to.” That line there is just about as good a summary of my practical Calvinism as I can find. In light of my deep brokenness, sin, and shame, I often must turn to the comfort of knowing that nothing in me or outside of me can ultimately resist the gracious conquest of the Holy Spirit in my life. He will keep coming on, until all my resistance is finished.

The second part of this live medley, “Guns/Napoleon” is a new song for me. And one that I have loved getting acquainted with. It envisions God’s conquest of someone’s heart through the lens of a Napoleonic army taking over a fortress. The details in the lyrics are fascinating also. “Hanging pictures on the walls” refers to how the portraits on the walls always change when a new regime takes over. In Central Asia, those portraits are very important. Listen for when the trumpets come in at 1:37.

Hallelujah, Hallelujah, it’s a Line Dance and a Picnic

Hallelujah, hallelujah, it's a line dance and a picnic 
For the return of Jesus, honorable clapping

ّWe are in the midst of the day that Christ returns 
Each and any colorful flower we place under his feet

Hallelujah, hallelujah, Christ is on his way
His return is soon, our hope is with him

We are in the midst of the day that Christ returns
Each and every colorful garment we place under his feet 

Hallelujah, hallelujah, Christ has come 
For the knowledge of God, he is the only way

We are in the midst of a project to record some local worship songs and some partners introduced us to this one. “It’s one of our believing friends’ favorites because it feels so local!” they said. And it’s true, in contrast to some of translated 90’s worship choruses, the melody is very much the local style. And the lyrics? Well, you bring in line dancing, picnics, and colorful flowers and you are speaking the love language of our local people group.

This is why it’s so important that local believers come to write their own worship songs. What Westerner would ever start a worship song or hymn like this? Hallelujah, hallelujah, it’s a line dance and a picnic? And yet in this culture, this is wedding language, family celebration language, the language of overflowing joy. These people burst out into line dancing whenever they are overcome with happiness. Just this past weekend we traveled to the top of a mountain during a snowfall. And what did we find there? A bunch of giddy locals playing music and line dancing in the snow (and also throwing snowballs at each other).

Our local climate is not exactly gentle. We have harsh winters and even harsher summers. But that means that locals are extra responsive to the gifts of beauty and green that creation gives. Every spring, when the land is reborn, it’s time for serious picnicking (I’ve never lived anywhere else where you have to factor in the reality of “picnic traffic”). How appropriate then that this song should envision the return of Christ, and the making of all things new, as a spring picnic scene.

Photo by The New York Public Library on Unsplash

A Song On Who Deserves The Good Music

Why should the devil have all the good music? It’s still a valid question. I was probably nine years old when my big brother bought this album from a Christian book store. Years later I’ve brought this song back on the playlist and my kids love it. Music, as a powerful and beautiful element of this creation, does not belong to the enemy, though it has often been hijacked. Pleasure, as dear uncle Wormwood reminds us, is God’s territory. As one of the most powerful tools humans have to convey emotion and words, it’s no mistake that musical worship has been a part of the Church (and God’s people before that) from the very beginning. And one of Islam’s – and Christian fundamentalism’s – biggest blunders was when it declared most music sinful.

A Song on the Coming Feast

My heart is regularly encouraged by meditating on the coming marriage feast of the lamb. Seeing this future event by faith – and the innumerable feasts that will follow it in eternity – has been a source of repeated help and hope for my family. The words of this song by Sandra McCracken have helped in this regard for a number of years now. The feel of McCracken’s original fits well with this age of suffering saints who await the feast.

Lo and behold, the song also now has a Christian Soul Cover – a style which, at least for me, feels like music that previews the joys of the feast arrived. I find I am helped by both styles, resonating as they do with the already/not yet nature of these promises. I’ve posted them both here for your consideration.

We will feast in the house of Zion 
We will sing with our hearts restored 
He has done great things we will say together 
We will feast and weep no more 

We will not be burned by the fire 
He is the Lord our God 
We are not consumed by the flood 
Upheld protected gathered up 

In the dark of night before the dawn 
My soul be not afraid 
For the promised morning oh how long 
Oh God of Jacob be my strength 

Every vow we’ve broken and betrayed 
You are the faithful one 
And from the garden to the grave 
Bind us together bring shalom

“We Will Feast in the House of Zion” by Sandra McCracken

A Song for the Waiting

“So don’t you find it strange; That God He made four seasons; And only one spring”

-Chris Renzama, “Let the Ground Rest.”

A well-written line from a very good song. The musicians in the video wearing masks adds a poignancy to the lyrics also. What a year it’s been of difficult waiting for so many. In many ways this past year reminds me of one of the reasons for the Babylonian captivity – the failure of Israel to let the ground lie fallow and enjoy its sabbaths (2 Chron 36:21). So God intervened and gave the land seventy years of sabbaths. Perhaps in our mad rushing around, this year (or two) of global pandemic is God forcing a restless the world to actually rest and let some things lie fallow for a while.

Regardless, I know that I often need the reminder this song provides to rest and trust in God’s slower-than-I-expected timing.