Wednesday, November 24, 2010

GOING DEEPER

     Stephanie Israelson's DEEPER STILL is somewhat of a departure from her pop/rock album LEAD ME THERE released two years earlier in 2007.  DEEPER STILL is decidedly a modern worship project, produced, mixed, and mastered by Andrew Horrocks in Kitchener, Ontario.
     Stephanie is the reigning Covenant Award Female Vocalist of the Year and one listen of this album reveals why.  The album kicks off with 'Reign in me', an upbeat song of surrender featuring good guitar work.  This is followed by a great, contemporary worship number 'Call on You' that evidences a fundamental confidence in God: "I will call and You will answer/You will be the light that shines upon my face/Your hand will guide me through the day." 'Mighty is Your Name' sounds celebratory and finds her in love with her God: "Mighty is Your Name above all others/I will celebrate You Lord/Mighty is Your Name/And I will praise and love You evermore."  'Alleluia', a radio single, is a ballad shining more light on why Stephanie is in love with God: "You are just and holy God and You see me through the blood/You have cleansed me from all sin and You overflow my cup."
     At least three songs look forward to the second coming of Christ, a theme too oft neglected in today's CCM.  'The Waiting' is a beautiful ballad acknowledging that we have to endure suffering before our Lord appears.  'Ageless One' pledges: "We will watch and pray awaiting Your return/Let us not grow faint/It's for You that we yearn." 'We Cry Out' has a more traditional feel to it to begin with, but then builds.  I could hear Crystal Lewis singing it.  It declares: "We're only here to tell the world about Your grace/Until the day You take us all away."
     The title track, 'Deeper Still' is a rocker that would have fit nicely on Stephanie's previous project.  Co-written with Andrew Horrocks and Naomi Knoll, it is about taking one's relationship with God to the next level: "Launch me out into the deep/Spirit take me/I will go deeper still in You/In You."  The only weak spot on the album is track seven 'I Will Tell'.  It is quite simplistic lyrically and seems better suited to a kid's praise project.
     All in all, this is a modern sounding record that I would recommend especially for 18-40 year olds.  It is clear that not only does Stephanie Israelson have a great voice, but she has a vibrant, loving relationship with her Heavenly Father as well.  I look forward to the next chapter in her recording career.  Thanks to David C. Cook Distribution Canada for carrying this release.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

WHERE IS GOD WHEN IT HURTS

     With Christmas less than six weeks away the subject of this book, namely pain and suffering, is quite relevant today. Philip Yancey's WHERE IS GOD WHEN IT HURTS was first published in 1977 by Zondervan Publishing House. The copy I read was a revised and expanded edition put out in 1990.
     Yancey writes: "Many suffering people want to love God, but cannot see past their tears.  They feel hurt and betrayed. Sadly, the church often responds with more confusion than comfort." Some have rejected Christianity because pain and evil exist.  Some see pain as 'God's one mistake.'  I like the following quote: "I have never read a poem extolling the virtues of pain, nor seen a statue erected in its honor, nor heard a hymn dedicated to it."  Suffering calls into question our most basic beliefs about God. Nietzche said: "It is not so much the suffering as the senselessness of it that is unendurable."
     The author believes that pain is valuable in that it tells us something is wrong and thus, is a doorway to recovery.  Much suffering he believes, is a result of the fall of humankind. In the Bible, both God and Satan cause suffering.  In addition people in Scriptures have to endure painful consequences for their sinful actions.  There are times in Scripture though when people suffer and it is not because of something they have done.
     Yancey proposes that we need to focus less on why we suffer and more on our response to suffering.  James 1:2-4 makes it clear that we are to count it all joy when we face trials. You don't have to be joyful about what you are going through, but rather, be joyful about what it can bring about in your life-things such as perserverance, strength, and character.  Yancey writes: "Where is God when it hurts? He is in us-not in the things that hurt-helping to transform bad into good." We can have hope in the midst of our trials: "Hope means simply the belief that something good lies ahead.  It is not the same as optimism or wishful thinking, for these imply a denial of reality." Hope is more like courage than cheerfulness.
     Yancey says there is no avoiding pain and suffering in this world: "The cross of Christ may have assured the final outcome, but battles remain for us to fight."  Christ took on all our pain at the cross and we should take comfort in that: "The surgery of life hurts.  It helps me, though, to know that the surgeon Himself, the Wounded Surgeon, has felt every stab of pain and every sorrow." When Christ ascended into heaven after rising from the dead, He left us the Holy Spirit to comfort us. 
     On a practical note, Yancey makes a strong case that we are to bear each other's burdens. This is something the modern church needs to make a priority.  John Donne said: "No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main."  Yancey writes: "Today, if I had to answer the question 'Where is God when it Hurts?' in a single sentence, I would make that sentence another question: 'Where is the church when it Hurts?'  We form the front line of God's response to the suffering world."
     Christians can be encouraged by the fact that pain and suffering are temporary.  Yancey reminds us: "This is a groaning planet, and Christians expectantly await a world where every tear will be wiped away." We shouldn't be embarrassed to believe this.  Our bodies will be transformed to 'be like His glorious body.'  A secret to handling suffering is to nourish your spirit.  St. Teresa of Avila said "from heaven the most miserable earthly life will look like one bad night in an inconvenient hotel."
     In this book you will find an examination of the suffering people endured during the Holocaust, as well as the story of Joni Eareckson Tada, who was paralyzed in a diving accident when she was a teenager.  You will also learn how to redeem your pain.
     At Christmas, pain and suffering and loneliness come knocking ever the louder at one's door. Christians need to learn how to minister to those with physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual needs, rather than ignoring them or distancing themselves from them.  When Jesus walked upon this earth, He did not embrace pain with great joy. Rather, he healed many, and sought to relieve suffering.  This is the example we should follow.
    

Sunday, November 07, 2010

TAYLOR SPEAKS OUT

It is not often that I give an album a 5 star rating, but Taylor Swift's SPEAK NOW (2010, Big Machine Records) merits this honour.  The album clocks in at 67 minutes and 27 seconds and features fourteen tracks penned by Swift, and co-produced with Nathan Chapman.  The following is my song by song breakdown:

1. Mine-This radio single speaks of a playful innocence: "Do you remember we were sitting there by the water?/You put your arm around me for the first time/You made a rebel of a careless man's careful daughter/You are the best thing that's ever been mine."  The words flow freely off of Swift's tongue.
2. Sparks Fly-This song is joyful and about falling helplessly in love: "The way you move is like a full-on rainstorm/And I'm a house of cards/You're the kind of reckless that should/Send me running but/I kinda know that I won't get far."
3. Back to December-This is a ballad about regret: "So this is me swallowing my pride/Standing in front of you saying I'm sorry for that night." A good vocal.

4. Speak Now-This song takes place in a dream, and is similar in theme to 'You Belong with me' from her last album.  Vocally, Swift sounds like Leigh Nash on this one: "I lose myself in a daydream where I stand and say/Don't say yes, run away now/I'll meet you when you're out of the church at the back door." A playful song.
5. Dear John-This sounds like Avril Lavigne gone country.  It's about an unpredictable, unstable love interest.  You can hear the ache in her voice.
6. Mean-This has a more traditional country feel to it.  It looks to the day when she will make something of herself in the city despite naysayers.

7. The Story of Us-This is new country, and Swift uses her speaking voice on it a bit, to good effect.  It's about the breakdown of a relationship: "Now I'm standing alone in a crowded room/And we're not speaking/And I'm dying to know is it killing you like it's killing me?/I don't know what to say since the twist of fate when it all broke down."
8. Never Grow Up-This one's done in a folk vein.  It encourages young girls and teens to cherish their youth and their parents.  It would fit nicely on Christian radio.
9. Enchanted-This song starts stripped down and then builds.  It's about being infatuated and hoping that person isn't already taken.

10. Better than Revenge-I can see the crowds jumping up and down to this one.  It begins with Swift humorously saying: "Now go stand in the corner and think about what you did."  It's about a girl who steals other girls' guys: "She's not a saint, and she's not what you think/She's an actress, whoa/But she's better known for the things that she does on the mattress/Whoa/Soon she's gonna find stealing other people's toys on the playground won't make you many friends."
11. Innocent-This one is pretty and is encouraging to those who feel they've really messed up: "32 and still growing up now/Who you are is not what you did/You're still an innocent/Time turns flames to embers/You'll have new Septembers."
12. Haunted-This song has Swift throwing her voice a la Alanis Morissette somewhat.
13. Last Kiss-Is a ballad about when a relationship ends and one of the partners can't come to grips with it: "So I'll go sit on the floor wearing your clothes/All that I know is I don't know how to be something you miss/I never thought we'd have a last kiss."
14. Long live-Sees love set on a royal landscape and uses language like 'kings', 'queens', and 'kingdoms'. Sounds like a song of victory and puts me in mind of the Narnia movies and First Knight.

SPEAK NOW is a stellar work of art.  A must have for your collection!