This morning I was driven by a series of unexpected discoveries to write in a way that I haven’t written in almost a year, and what resulted was something that I feel compelled to share with whomever might wish to read. It’s been almost a year since I wrote anything for this blog; I can’t make any promises for the future, though I would like to write more. For now, I hope what follows will be enriching to those who take time with it.

The only way that I can begin is to say that I believe it is in some sense the calling of every human that we honestly tell our own story with all of its confusion and brokenness, and that in so doing we help others to fully experience their own confusion and brokenness. This general human calling is, in my mind, much of what dignifies the narrative arts. It’s in trying to come to terms with my own feelings of gratitude for artists like Bebo Norman who do this well that I’ve come to understand the important of giving voice to our own pain. But I think this calling is in no way limited to songwriters and painters and such. In directing each of us to “weep with those who weep,” (Romans 12:15), God is calling all of us to weep together. When we honestly cry out under the strain of the brokenness of this world, we help others to feel that their own sense of the brokenness within them and around them is real and valid. This is crucial because it’s only as we allow ourselves to fully experience these things that we can fully experience the redeeming and transforming presence of God in Christ. As C.S. Lewis once said, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, but shouts in our pains.” Jesus, Immanuel, God-With-Us, draws near to us in our suffering. If we suppress the reality of our own suffering, we are refusing to enter into the very place where God draws near to us in Christ and reveals the depth of His love for us. “The LORD is close to the brokenhearted, and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” (Psalm 34:18) Those who do not know how to mourn cannot know how to be comforted. Those who will not allow their own suffering to overtake them, who will not admit themselves to be crushed, cannot feel God draw near in Christ. There are holy places known only to Jesus and the mourners who meet Him there, kept secret from proud people who refuse to be taken into the full experience of their own weakness.

If you know me well, you know that I’ve long been a lover of Celtic traditional music. I think what’s always attracted me to Celtic music is the simple, raw emotional honesty of it. Covering the whole range of emotions, from the heights of shameless joy and exhilaration to the depths of undisguised grief and sorrow, from restless rowdiness and warlike anger to calm contentment and quiet longing, the music of Ireland and Scotland is honest. Experiencing that honesty has allowed me to become less afraid of my own emotions, and, in the end, has made a way for a fuller experience of the hope of the gospel.

In the quiet moments of my life there is often some melody or another semi-consciously flowing through my mind. On this particular cool, gray Aurora morning, as I rose to prepare for an early meeting with my pastor at a local coffee-shop, that melody was the tune of “Coaineadh na dTri Muire (Lament of the Three Marys)” as recorded by Cathie Ryan. I’d invite you to listen as you read on. It’s a traditional Irish Gaelic song that I’ve enjoyed many times for the profound longing expressed in the melody and brought out by the arrangement. Even though I had not looked into the meaning of its lyrics until this morning, there was something pulling at me every time I listened.

Perhaps it’s subjective, but I’ve always felt that the Gaelic languages possess a certain quality of musical beauty. I can listen to the sung or even spoken Gaelic word with enjoyment even when I possess little to no understanding of what’s actually being said. But on this morning, my curiosity was provoked, and I ran a quick internet search to learn more about the meaning and history of the song. What I did not expect is to find myself sitting in the parking lot of Java Plus twenty minutes later, wrecked and overwhelmed with emotion, scarcely able to pull myself together for the meeting with my pastor that had brought me out of bed at an earlier hour than usual, because I had been struck anew with the way that God draws near in our pain through the person of Christ and His suffering for us on the cross.

Lament of the Three Marys” is, at first blush, a religious song. It opens with a phrase which, translated, is a question in the voice of Mary the mother of Christ to Peter the Apostle, as to where her Son has gone. The foreboding reply is the voice of Peter saying, “I saw him a while ago in the midst of his enemies.” Each line of the ensuing dialogue is punctuated with the exclamation, “Ochóne is ochóne ó,” an expression of grief which has no perfect translation but is best rendered, “alas and alack,” or “sorrow upon great sorrow.” We are then presented with a vision of Mary the mother of Christ at the foot of the cross, turning to her companions Mary Magdalene and Mary of Cleophas and inviting them to mourn with her the suffering and loss of her Son.

But in spite of its religious theme, this is no church-song. Songs of this sort were not used in services in the Catholic churches of Ireland. That is not how they were sung and heard. They were sung by the people at occasions of mourning the loss of loved ones in order to give voice to their own grief. These songs came into use as substitutes for a more primitive way of communal mourning that the religious authorities didn’t approve of.

The ancient grieving tradition of the Irish people, known as “keening,” was apparently a sort of semi-ceremonial, lyrical, half-musical wailing, often assisted by hired mourners, akin to what we see in the Gospels at the house of Jairus after the death of his daughter. This traditional mourning was suppressed by the Catholic church in Ireland, and with it was also suppressed the release of raw emotion it provided. Catholic ceremony was solemn, regulated, and presided over by a priest; “keening” was the domain of the female relatives of the deceased, and of perhaps some generally female member of the community whose own personal losses and griefs had enabled her to give voice to the grief of others (which service was offered for a generally rather cursory remuneration).  The trouble with the church’s way of mourning was not that it was ceremonial and liturgical, but that the ceremonies of the church made no room for and gave no expression to true depth of feeling. There was no provision for any moment’s loss of emotional control. But human grief consumes us if not given an honest voice, and thus “keening” survived in one form or another throughout the centuries in spite of its suppression. It really only passed from the Irish culture completely in the mid-1950s as a result of modernity.

There’s an episode of the BBC Radio 4 program Seriously? called “Songs for the Dead” which explores the history and the loss of the Irish keening tradition. I listened to it this morning through the podcasts app on my iPhone in the course of my research. It’s a good listen, not just for historical curiosity, but for the presenter Marie-Louise Muir’s insights into what the loss of authentic grieving has done not just for the emotional health of her Irish people but also for the modern world at large. Whether we discard it for the blank despair of modernity or allow it to be smothered by solemn religious ceremony, when we give up the full expression of our grief, we lose touch with our own humanity. For to be broken-hearted is not to give up hope. Only those who love can know loss, and in the same way it is only those who have hope that can be broken in heart. The Christian view of suffering is that all of the pain we ever feel is at root the pain of paradise lost. When we feel pain, we feel the fall. Where the awareness of a paradise past and a paradise future fades, there is no longer any reason or justification for pain and sorrow. Why should we hold out hope against what always has been, and always will be? If we lack the capacity to be fully alive with grief in this broken world, it is because we have forgotten that the world was once not broken, and will one day be healed. Hope amplifies our heartache as much as it soothes it. It is only a heart that is dead to hope, like a dead body, that feels no pain for itself or for others.

Wherever the keening tradition was effectively suppressed in the Irish past, the people found their own voice for heartache and loss in the fostering of a tradition of religious folk-song within their broader musical traditions. Hence, the “Lament of the Three Marys,” and others like it. These religious songs are distinguished from other religious folk-song traditions around the world in that they focus almost exclusively on the crucifixion, and are typically written in the voice of Mary, the mother of Christ. The Irish people subtly resisted the Church’s suppression of their native traditions of grieving by finding voice for their own inconsolable sense of loss at the death of loved ones in the voice of Mary, pierced with sorrow as she stood by the cross of her Son. Says Angela de Burca, a scholar on Irish religious song, on the songs that make up this tradition, “They depict the grieving Mary not as the stoical, silent woman of the Latin Stabat Mater Dolorosa, but as a furiously angry and eloquent Irish bean chaointe, or keening-woman, her hair streaming behind her as she runs barefoot through the desert to reach her son… Although invariably sung in a spirit of great devotion, the songs of Mary’s lament also contain a note of defiance, for their last lines often promise a blessing to anyone who will lament Christ’s death on the cross.” In this Mary there is no saintly transcendence, no dull and unfeeling resignation to the divine will. She is wide-eyed, torn, stricken, blindsided and bewildered by loss. Fully alive, and human enough to speak for us in our own bitter pain. 

What was it that gave to the Irish people this different vision of the mother of Jesus than what the Church taught them? What, but the Comforter Himself? This Mary is no quasi-divine who stands apart from our grief on a holy plateau of pious resignation. This is a Mary who, though she may be the holiest of all God’s people, reels with wild agony and disbelief just like us as she is pierced with a pain that passes understanding. Those who sang her story sang not of the Mary that was given them by the church, but of the Mary they needed, and the Christ they needed. No one could refuse them the right to hear their own pain in the holiest things. If they could not be allowed to open wide their throats to tell out their own grief, then they would tell out the grief of another whose voice no priest could claim the authority to silence, and feel their own grief fully told in hers.

I’m convinced that none but a Man of Sorrows, and acquainted with grief, could lead the human heart to find such things in His story. For it is in Christ that we find ourselves known in the midst of our suffering. It is in Christ that we see God with us—not God present in some mystical sense, as though He sort of hangs about in the air around us when we are sad and hurting, but God indwelling our story, the Word spelled out in the midst of our pain, God on a cross sinking through our suffering and beyond into the emptiness of absolute death. Only the Spirit of God can reveal the presence of God to the human heart in this way. The natural mind does not know how to conceive of such a God. This divine kindness is the sort of thing we couldn’t dreamed up on our own.

Mary, in the words of this lament, this “coaineadh,” this keening, pleads in the wondering language of grief as she beholds her Beloved broken on the cross, “Is that my child who I weaned in my arms and nourished? Sorrow upon sorrow! My love, big is your burden, let your mother help you carry it.” And her Beloved replies, “Little mother, we each must carry our own cross.” One can hear in these words the consolation that Mary must have desperately needed as she was led away from the cross of Christ by her own son John, the brother of Jesus, at the Lord’s direction (John 19:26-27); torn from her Son, unwilling to leave Him while all others fled and even God began to turn His face. For if He was to be utterly forsaken on account of our sin, how could any who loved Him remain with Him in that dark hour? “Little mother,” He says, with the sins of whole world weighing on His titanic shoulders. “Here I must go on alone. On this cross we cannot suffer together. Of the weight that I carry you cannot lift a single gram. Do not try to carry my burden. I have come to carry Yours.” Only He can bear His cross, for only a heart so great and so broad and so perfect as His own could sustain wounds deep and wide enough to heal this whole broken, sin-sick world. But as He insists on bearing His cross alone, He gives Mary a word for her own grief that identifies her with Him, and Him with her. “Your suffering, too,” He says, “is a cross. I call it a cross, because your suffering has meaning in mine.” He who bore His cross alone as He did so took all the loneliness out of every cross that comes after, if we are willing to surrender our suffering to the power of His own. He invites us to present ourselves fully for our pain as He did, to show up completely for our own suffering, for there was no part of the mind and heart and soul and body of Christ that was not offered up on the cross. So it is that as we allow ourselves to be pierced, we know that there is no grief that He does not fully know, and in which we are not fully known. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

But let us beware lest we are too easily comforted. Let us beware lest our love and our mourning are so shallow that they need no forsaken Man on a cross and grief-stricken mother Mary standing by to make sense of them. It was these Irish that refused to surrender their inconsolable grief for the shallow piety of proud ceremony that saw Christ with them as He was and is. How easily we settle for so much less than this clear sight of Christ in our grief! “Time heals all wounds,” we say. We speak of grieving as learning to “let go” of what we have lost. But only those who refuse to be satisfied with anything less than the renewing of all things in Christ can learn how to live in the light of the hope that the Gospel offers us. True and godly grieving is not about letting go. It is learning to be like the trees that lay down their leaves in faith until the winter is gone and the spring returns. And so we rise like Mary from the foot of the cross, our own burden as glory-bound men and women in a broken world resting squarely on our shoulders. If we suffer with Him, we shall be glorified with Him; for inasmuch as we do not withhold ourselves from suffering in Him, He will not withhold the glory of His new creation from us.


Welcome back for another episode of New Music Monday (but, plot twist, it’s so late that you’re probably not going to read this until Tuesday)! Today we’re reviewing the music that released last Friday morning (Nov. 10). Before I dig in, I want to note that I did choose to neglect last week’s Six for Saturday update. I was at the wedding of some dear friends all day, and just didn’t have time. I hope to resume that series next Saturday. There are a couple of other posts in the works right now, but for now, let’s talk about the new tunes. Note: There’s no links here because I don’t have time tonight, but please, please listen to this song.

The big event of the week is Reputation, Taylor Swift’s much-anticipated sixth studio album. As previously discussed on this blog, I am, generally speaking, a huge Taylor Swift fan. It’s not that I don’t think she occasionally drops a song that isn’t that inspired; but there is a genuine personality, good humor, and lack of pretense about her that, along with her outstanding lyrical and melodic talent, makes her a real standout in the pop world. So naturally I was looking very much forward to the release of Reputation. As I’ve discussed, the first couple of pre-release singles served to dampen those hopes a bit, but the last two (especially “Call It What You Want”) refreshed my expectations, so I went into Friday night really looking forward to the release, and…

It’s not bad. Actually pretty good. The record as a whole is moodier in terms of sound than 1989, less energetic and more pensive, although it’s not without energy. I can’t say that the record exceeded my expectations in terms of lyrical and melodic content, but there are plenty of moments of brilliance that remind you that you are listening to a Taylor Swift album. The immediate, iconic swagger of “Don’t Blame Me” and the chilly warmth of “Delicate” were two such moments. Taylor has a knack for discovering little melodic treasures that seem so familiar you wonder why no one has thought of them before: so, baby can we dance, oh, through an avalanche. At the same time, I’m not sure that all of these songs are going to go over huge on tour. Some of them will for sure. “New Year’s Day” is among her all-time best, and a beautiful album and concert closer. The aforementioned “Delicate” needs to be made a radio single very badly, very soon. One reviewer described it as the “cool older sister” of “Style.” It’s the kind of sound you can just dive into and lose yourself in, like “This Love” from the last record (which also needed to be made a radio single, and to my everlasting sadness, was not). “Getaway Car” has the sonic shine of a 1989 cut. But there isn’t that couple of songs that make you want to just cut loose and dance the skin off the soles of your feet. Which is okay. Not every record needs to have that. But a lot of fans were probably hoping that this one would.

Aside from Reputation, there were a few other things that happened in the music world that are worth making note of.

First off, Eminem did a collab with Beyonce called “Walk on Water,” which is essentially a confession of humanness. I’m not a rap critic so I won’t pretend anything in that department. I will say that I like the chorus hook, and the theme.

There’s also a new Mat Kearney song (!!!) called “Better Than I Used To Be.” The song itself is only fairly good as far as Kearney goes, but the fact that there’s a new Mat Kearney album cycle actually happening right now is terribly exciting to me.

Also, Echosmith released a three-track Christmas EP called An Echosmith Christmas. “Baby Don’t Leave Me (All Alone on Christmas Night)” is a beautiful song (but you already knew that, didn’t you, because of that link up there), and definitely the most played new tune of the week on my iPod. “This is life, and it feels amazing.” Gaaahhhh. So good.

I don’t know much about Cedric Gervais, but his new song “Higher feat. Conrad Sewell” is groovy. Also, Seeb did a collab with Skip Marley on a song called “Cruel World” which isn’t bad.

British folk-pop band Sheppard did a new song, “Coming Home”. Kinda fun.

Finally, Walk the Moon did an album. It’s alright. There isn’t a song on it that’s going to burn down the world like “Shut Up and Dance,” but “Surrender” is growing on me.

Thanks for reading! Have a great week!


It’s like New Music Friday, except on Monday, because this way I have more time to really discover, listen to, and assess the new music. I’m going to be more sparse in my descriptions so as to make more time for writing other things.


Taylor Swift gave us the final pre-release single from the Reputation album cycle, “Call It What You Want To” and I am loving it. This new song has everything in it that is likeable and awesome about Taylor Swift. (As readers may remember, I didn’t like the first two Reputation songs to come out and had only a moderate liking for the third, “Gorgeous.”) Just when you think she has mostly given up on the whole concept of innocence, she comes back with a song that makes completely believable allusions to building blanket forts and wearing a man’s initials in a chain around her neck for the right reasons. Rock on, Taylor. I am definitely looking forward to November 17th more than I was last week. “My baby’s fly like a jetstream.” Who even writes like that! So much happiness.

I didn’t find out that there was a new Before You Exit song until yesterday, but there is, and it’s called “Strangers. For those who don’t know, BYE has been pretty much my favorite current pure pop act out there for a year now, solely on the basis of their outstanding and magical 2016 EP All The Lights. Their vocals, songwriting (yes, they write their own songs), and production quality is just so far above most of what’s happening in the pop world today. “Strangers” is another example of that greatness, and now I have to wonder whether there’s an album announcement coming out.

U2 released two singles from their upcoming album Songs of Experience: Get Out of Your Own Way“, and The Blackout(no youtube links, these are for Spotify). “The Blackout” is my favorite of the two (that punchy little riff at the end of each verse line is so great), but both are quite good.

Then there’s “Telluride” by Tim McGraw & Faith Hill. This is a fun little country-rocker from Tim & Faith’s duets project. It is also not that other song called “Telluride” that Tim sang sixteen years ago for his Set The Circus Down record. Are artists really allowed to do that? I don’t know. Anyways, I really like this tune, although it’s been overshadowed a little in my listening by another country-rock tune which I will talk about in the albums section.

Finally, Andy Grammer gave us a new single called “Smoke Clears“. This is better than some other recent Andy Grammer singles, but it’s not a standout like “Honey I’m Good” or “Fine By Me.”


First off we have Texoma Shore by Blake Shelton. This is a pretty good all-around country record that walks the line between trad-country and pop-country. “Got The T-Shirt” is an outstanding tune. The lyrics are only ok (not bad, just ok), but that chorus hook is mighty.

Unapologetically by Kelsea Ballerini disappointed me. I was hoping for at least one great standout track like “Peter Pan.” There wasn’t one. There’s a tune from this record making the rounds right now called “I Hate Love Songs.” It’s alright. But not great.

Red Pill Blues by Maroon 5 disappointed me even more. It’s not the guitar-free pop production, it’s the lack of inspired melodies. Aside from the pre-release singles “What Lovers Do” and “Whiskey,” there’s just nothing here that I wanted to listen to twice (or even once in many cases).

On the other hand, Sam Smith’s The Thrill of It All did not disappoint at all. It’s a great pop-soul record. Midnight Train is my favorite track so far, but there’s a few really good songs here. One Last Song and Baby, You Make Me Crazy (once again, Spotify links) were standouts. If you like the sound, this one is worth listening to from start to finish. Some critics have knocked the vocals on this record as understated, but that under-statedness is, in my mind, what makes Sam unique and great. It’s part of his personality. He’s never gonna flat-out slay, not because he couldn’t but because that’s just who he is. It’s the controlled and confessional approach that makes his music so emotionally hard-hitting.

Next up we have Lee Brice’s self-titled album (unusual that it’s eponymous, as it’s also his fourth studio LP), which is really solid, and might be my favorite country album of the year so far. There’s lots of good cuts, but “Dixie Highway (spotify) is more than just good. It’s an absolute boss of a country rock tune, musically, lyrically, and vocally. It is also (with apologies to Alan Jackson and Journey) by the far the best song ever called “Dixie Highway.”

Lastly, Kygo showed up with an eight-song album called Kids in Love. Is it an EP? is it an LP? Will we ever know? What’s most important is that the thing (whatever its true identity in terms of album length may be) is pretty good. In addition to the title track (for which I have elsewhere professed my love and admiration), there’s a collab with OneRepublic called Stranger Things which is everything you want from a OneRepublic song (as far as I know it has no relation to the TV show), and another tune, Permanent feat. J.Hart,” which is of a similar mettle. There are also some other cuts which, though they aren’t great, are still decent pop songs.

Thanks for reading. Hope you enjoy the new tunes! Let me know if I missed anything.


It’s time once again for six things I read/watched/listened to this week that I enjoyed and/or found thought-provoking. Before I get into those, I want make this note: I’m aware that I didn’t post an episode of New Music Friday yesterday. I’m going to begin waiting until Monday for those posts so as to give myself more time to really digest new music. But there are some new songs in the world that I’m really excited to tell you about. At any rate. Six for Saturday.

Stephen Altrogge published an article on The Blazing Center called Waiting Patiently When The Story Goes Dark. He concludes, “In the end, there is one great, bright light that shines in the blackness. Christ was abandoned by God and swallowed by the dark so I would never be separated from God. Jesus experienced the worst part of the story so I can be part of the glorious ending. You may be in the dark, but you’re not alone.” That, my friends, is the answer to the problem of pain and evil in a world made by a good God. When you really take it in, it changes your life. There also are some good thoughts earlier on in the article about what we should expect in our lives as we look at the lives of those who have gone before us in the faith.

On a very different note, one thing I’ve been enjoying in the past few days is a show called Arrested Development. It’s a sitcom from the early 2000s that follows the misadventures of the very wealthy and very dysfunctional Bluth family as they adjust to the family patriarch’s imprisonment for fraud. The main character, Michael Bluth (played by Jason Bateman who, fun fact, also voiced Nick Wilde in Zootopia), is a generally normal, stable, responsible guy who struggles to bring stability and responsibility to his family in spite of their relentless codependency and general awfulness. He is honestly (to me, at least) the most genuinely endearing main character from a sitcom I’ve watched. It’s the genuine sweetness of Michael Bluth as a character that makes the dark comedy of Arrested Development something you can swallow. And it is good comedy. I think Arrested Development is funnier (and on a deeper level, more mentally healthy) than The Office and Parks and Recreation, and I also find it easier to follow because there’s fewer main characters and more of an overarching story. Should probably close with the note that yes, like those other two shows, there is a fair amount of inappropriate humor along with some lifestyle content issues, so be aware of that if you choose to test the waters.

Circling back to more weighty and serious matters, lately I’ve really been enjoying the work of the Institute for Faith, Work, and Economics. They describe themselves as “a Christian organization advancing a free and flourishing society by revolutionizing the way people view their work.” There’s a very Kuyperian, world-transforming thrust to their mission, but they’re very rooted in and aware of the finished work of Jesus Christ in a way that many Kuyperian movements and organizations simply aren’t. I want to highlight two articles from this past week that exemplify their terrific work: “Why Dishwashing Matters in God’s Kingdom” and “Why Relationships Are Key to Helping the Poor.”

Another great article for this week comes from Boundless: “Why You Need Friends Who Aren’t Your Age,” which is a plea for age-integrated community in the church, and an exhortation to young people to pursue connection with people in different seasons of life than their own. I’m a big believer in family-integrated worship (which is something that my Presbyterian denomination practices), and I’ve been blessed to develop strong relationships with older folks in my church. We need friendships that cross over the artificial social boundaries that our individualistic and youth-obsessed culture has created.

The Gospel Coalition featured in the past couple of days an article from earlier this year by a man named Scott Connell about what worship leaders can do or not do to encourage congregational participation. There are some good points here. A worship leader myself, I especially like his comments about keeping the volume down, the instrumental solos to a minimum, and the repertoire focused, simple, and familiar. I will make one additional comment, which is that in choosing songs to introduce as new to a congregation, I think it is important to make selections based on lyrical content, melodic quality, and singability, and to not put too much emphasis on popularity. Among our favorites right now at Crossroads Christian Youth Center (where I lead worship) are a deep cut from a 2004 Bebo Norman record that no one else has heard, a little-known song by John Mark McMillan called “Heart Runs,” and “Sovereign Over Us,” which is perhaps well-known in the neo-reformed world but hardly known at all outside. These are our songs, the songs that help us feel a sense of togetherness as a community. We sing them because of what they mean to us, and I think there’s something to that.

Last item for the week: I heard about this little Jerry Seinfeld interview on writing jokes on the Only the Good Stuff podcast that is hosted by the aforementioned Stephen Altrogge. The main reason I like it is that it reveals the serious craft involved in comedy, and how smart good comedy really is.

That’s all for now! Thanks for reading!


Earlier today, as part of my weekly Six for Saturday post, I highlighted a new article on Relevant magazine website called “C.S. Lewis, Sadness, and What Eternal Hope Looks Like.” The author, Jonathan Trotter, is arguing that honestly grieving the brokenness of the world we live in can be–in fact, must be–a very important step in the process of fully coming to terms with the hope of the Gospel. I’d like to try to say the same kind of thing, in my own words, using my own metaphors and examples. And because what I’m going to say ties in so much with the story of God’s grace in my life told through the music that He has used to reveal Himself and His love to me, I’m going to make this part of the series I started a couple of weeks ago called Songs of His Pursuit.

Six years ago, when I was sixteen years old, I went through a season of great personal crisis. It was a season when a hundred deeply rooted insecurities, fears, and doubts about God and who I was to Him came violently to the surface. Whatever structure and direction there was in my life at that point came suddenly and rather violently to a halt. There were spiritual realities that demanded my attention breaking out from under the surface of my life, and I fought for the right to listen to them. There was a darkness jealously contending for my soul that I had to find a way to face. Of all the various instruments of God’s grace that kept me from being overwhelmed to the point of suicide or worse, I can point to two above all. One was a youth pastor who simply listened. The other was a contemporary Christian musician named Bebo Norman. Specifically, an album that he wrote and recorded in 2006, called Between the Dreaming and the Coming True (supplemented with a few songs from 2008’s eponymous album, and a smattering of tunes from other records). Without Pastor Joe and Bebo listening to me, affirming my desperation, and helping me be a man fully assured of the poverty of my own soul apart from God, I doubt that I ever would have been able to take my own sense of suffering and spiritual need seriously enough long enough for the work of God’s saving and healing grace to take root in my heart. As much as I wanted to, there’s only so much that a broken heart can do on its own in a world that doesn’t seem to give or care.

Between the Dreaming and the Coming True (link is a youtube music playlist) is about the tension between hope and suffering, between the way things are and the way they are meant to be, and about a God who draws near to us and delivers us even as we’re torn by that tension. It opens with these words:

You could turn a hundred years and never empty all your fears
They’re pouring out like broken words and broken bones
They could fill a thousand pages, be the cry for all the ages
And the song for every soul who stands alone
The ache of life is more than you are able
Hold on love, don’t give up, don’t close your eyes

This is a way of saying, “I see you, I hear you, I feel what you feel” that goes beyond what simple sympathy can say. These are the words of a fellow sufferer who has somehow been lifted above his suffering by the kindness of a savior.

As the hungering dark gives way to the dawn, my love
Hold on, hold on
It won’t be long

I needed language like this. I needed someone to tell me that “hungering dark” was not just an overwrought construction of my imagination, that it was something that actually was, and that there was a dawn that could break through it. The open wound of my need is where the grace of God gets in.

What is hope? For suffering people, hope is the belief in a not-broken reality which we will someday come into out of our brokenness. It’s health to a sick man, full sunlight to those who cannot escape the night, spring to those for whom it is always winter and never Christmas. Our greatest danger is to forget in the midst of the sickness that health is actually a thing. “Don’t let the night become the day,” Bear Rinehart croons in the bridge of one of NEEDTOBREATHE’s best songs. The worst thing that can happen when you’re walking through the valley of the shadow of death is to forget that there’s another place which is not the valley of the shadow of death, because at that point, anything is possible. This is what Jonathan Trotter so aptly describes in the article I referenced at the beginning with these words: “hopeless people are dangerous people, willing to hurt themselves and others without measure or limit.” When Puddleglum defies the witch, it’s because he realizes that giving in to her version of reality is a worse death than death itself.

On the second song of Between the Dreaming, “Be My Covering,” Bebo sings,

War-torn are the rags of every nation
Fear lives in the heart of every home
Louder than the groans of creation
Oh, my God, be the voice of hope

One of the beautiful things about what we believe who believe in Jesus is that like no one else, we know ourselves to be fallen, and understand that we have a right to think of ourselves that way. This is a deeply comforting thing if you think about it, and I think that sometimes we as Christians take it for granted. Things are not what they were meant to be, and the word of Christ actually affirms and encourages our grief at that fact. One of the things that sets Christianity apart is that it is the only groaning ‘religion’ that has ever been. We groan, and we hear a groaning in the world around us, and instead of being told to put a faux-holy face on things, we are told to listen to the groaning and trust that the groans of Jesus on the cross has made (in a now-but-not-yet sort of way) an end of all of this groaning.

When I cry out under the weight of fatherlessness or loneliness or betrayal or cancer or poverty or whatever I might suffer, the Christian way of thinking and believing tells me that my suffering is part of a bigger story of a world that fell and a God of grace who is making all things new, and that though these waters rise, they will not pull me under, because I’ve been united to the one who has conquered death and all his friends, and I have been seated with Him above the fall. But having this certainty of victory doesn’t have to make me flippant about the fall at all. In fact, quite the opposite. The depth of our fallenness only magnifies the power and the glory of God’s grace that is lifting us out of it.

It’s the honesty of Between the Dreaming and the Coming True that drew me in. It was an honesty I could bathe in and be lost in for a while. How is it possible for an album which gave birth to such an intimate and triumphantly hopeful anthem of worship such as “I Will Lift My Eyes” (probably Bebo’s most successful radio song to this day) to close with a gut-punch of inconsolable regret like “Now That You’re Gone”? It’s possible because even though there really is a God who meets us in our emptiness and forsaken-ness, redeems us from sin and carries our burdens (“I Know Now”), sometimes our shadows still surround us (“The Way We Mend”). There are moments when the beauty of everlasting love breaks through into our little lives with such radiance that we wonder whether our dreaming can lift us right out of this life (“Sunday”), and there are moments when words of gold grow cold and it seems that time is wearing down the best of our intentions to the bone (“Time Takes Its Toll On Us”). There’s something about listening to another man be honest with himself and the world that cuts a path for you to be honest in the same way. This is one of the holiest opportunities of the artistic calling. (You might, think, for all of this talk about the lyrics of the record, that my interest in it is more lyrical than anything else. I swear, I have never heard anyone succeed in marrying lyrics with music ten to twelve times more gloriously than Bebo Norman does on this record. I’m a perfectionist about such things, and listening to the record for the second hundredth time, it still seems that almost every note is perfection.)

Bebo’s exploration of other themes only adds texture and depth to his main theme. Yes, the well of eternal things is all that I thirst for (“Bring Me To Life”), but human love is more than something I merely want (“To Find My Way to You”), and somehow those two realities don’t need to stand in opposition to each other. Maybe holiness is not about a forsaking of the creature for the Creator, but seeing and seeking the Creator through the creature. Maybe loving others and being loved by them is something that can help me understand the way God loves me. I would give up on a thousand dreams just to find my way to you, and the reason I would ever feel that way is because I’m made and being re-made in the image of a God who abandoned paradise to seek and save that which was lost, bring me to life, and reveal His kingdom in me. My feeble earthly loving is a picture, however humble, of His uncreated, everlasting love.

And as I’m drawn in by all of this, right around track nine, any sorrowful reflection on my own suffering, any quiet cherishing of my best hopes and wrestling with the day-today reality their disruption, dissolves into weeping awe and wonder at the mercy of a God of majesty who stoops to show grace to sinners.

I come in rags, tattered by the fall and all the earth
A witness to my crime

Weep over me and let your tears
Wash me clean
Be merciful with me,
For my eyes have seen holy

This is what I need to hear most of all as a broken man in a broken world, because the Jesus who doesn’t belittle my suffering is the same Jesus who doesn’t belittle my sin. The kindness of God towards suffering man could not be greater. His only Son went to the cross to experience the infinite depths of every kind of suffering in order that He might one day make an end of our suffering forever. But we have to understand that He did this, not to make some sort of apology for creating a world that got broken or for writing the story of our lives with brokenness in it, but to redeem us from the sin that is the first cause of our suffering. Rightly understood, this reality of our need for redemption doesn’t act as a counterbalance to our sense of our need for healing in a broken world. Instead, it only reveals in more brilliant colors the generous heart of a God who chose to be with us in spite of ourselves and how absolutely wrong we were, and still would be without Him. This is a God who came to earth to be crushed for our sins so that we could be made holy. The morning can find us alive because there was once a morning that found Him dead. If this God is for me, who can be against me? If He did not spare Himself, how will He not also with Himself freely give me all things?

What need, then, is there for me to be anything less than honest with this God of great compassion about the suffering in my human condition? I will not close my eyes to the helplessness and turmoil and pain inside me and around me. I will lift my eyes to the maker of the mountains I can’t climb. I will lift my eyes to the calmer of the oceans, raging wild. I will lift my eyes to the healer of the hurt I hold inside. And when it seems like all that I ever wanted is broken, I don’t have to pretend to be something I’m not. I can settle into the sorrow without fear of sinking, because it is in those moments of letting go that I discover myself upheld by everlasting arms. He is, and He was, and He will be forever, the love that I need to save me.

When I listen to Between the Dreaming and the Coming True, the one voice I hear running through it all says this: Listen to the reality of your humanness. Listen to your longing. Listen to your brokenness. Don’t run from it. Don’t cover it over. Settle in, and listen, and let the sadness and the yearning that you feel in the midst of a broken world be all that it is. Jesus is here, and He will meet you here.




It’s time again for Six for Saturday! Here’s six things I enjoyed reading/watching/listening to this week. There is some great stuff here, which will likely spawn quite a lot of further writing on this blog today and tomorrow.

First off, I just listened to John Piper give a simple, succinct, biblical six-minute deconstruction of the prosperity gospel. Check it out, fam.

Relevant magazine has been publishing some really wise and scripturally grounded articles of late on a variety of topics. There’s a new article on the home page about how we make way for the coming of God’s hope when we allow ourselves to grieve all that is broken in this world. “When we’re unwilling to hold space for sadness, when we can’t handle the unwieldy truths of mystery and paradox, we block the very pathway that leads to hope. And hopeless people are dangerous people, willing to hurt themselves and others without measure or limit.

In today’s A La Carte, Tim Challies (one of my favorite bloggers) linked to a post from last year which is one of the best things I’ve ever read about the subject of sexual intimacy in marriage. As a single young man who takes Biblical teachings on chastity seriously, I do my best to not spend my single years obsessed with sex and looking forward to it because that kind of attitude, as I’ve discovered, is not good for contentment at all. That said, I do believe that it’s important in whatever stage of life you’re in to have a healthy, biblically-informed, relationship-centered view of sex, especially if you (like me) expect marriage to be a part of your future. This article by Challies is really good to that end.

Yesterday I found a Variety interview with Bruce Springsteen from earlier this month wherein he lists some of his current favorite music artists. I am already familiar with some of these to various degrees (yay for Hamilton and Lana Del Rey!), but some of them were brand new to me. I’ve been enjoying British folk rock singer-songwriter Thea Gilmore all morning on the Boss’s recommendation. I’ll no doubt be spending a fair bit of time in the near future exploring these picks.

Switchfoot is currently offering a free download of a new recording of their song “I Won’t Let You Go” featuring Lauren Daigle! Hear the original here, and get your free download of the new version here. This is one of the best songs from their most recent record, last year’s Where The Light Shines Through (which is, by the way, a very good record from start to finish; I own the 15-track deluxe version on iTunes).

Last item for today’s lineup: an old Obama-era Scott Sauls article on honoring political authorities even when we disagree with them was re-published on the Relevant website. “As long we aren’t being coerced to sin against God, following Jesus includes submitting to and praying for all of our public authorities. When this happens, the citizens of God’s kingdom will be known as the most refreshing citizens of earthly kingdoms, no matter who is in charge. This was true in biblical times, and it can be true now.” There are some great comments under the fourth point about what it really means that Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world.

Here’s a fun bonus item: Sesame Street’s parody of the Walking Dead had me in stitches.

Have a great Saturday!


Welcome back for another episode of New Music Friday! I’ve got quite an armful of new music to walk you through, so I’ll get right to it without further introduction. As always, I’m just highlighting stuff that I like, stuff that’s important to me. I’m not gonna take too strong of an objective tone on anything for that reason. But here goes.

Let’s start with singles. Alan Walker released a collab with Miley Cyrus’ younger sister Noah Cyrus and Digital Farm Animals, a song called “All Falls Down.” (note: some language) Like his last single (“Tired [feat. Gavin James]”), this one has a lighter major key sound than his earliest singles. It’s a good tune, even if it’s not in the same strata for me as “Faded,” “Alone,” and “Sing Me to Sleep,” the three songs that Alan did with Tove Styrke as vocalist.

British electronic trio Clean Bandit has been behind some of the most fresh and innovative pop singles to get significant radio airplay in the past couple of years, and they’ve got a solid new single out featuring Julia Michaels: “I Miss You.” It’s not “Symphony” or “Rather Be,” but it’s worth a listen or five.

The next big electronic single for the week comes from Marshmello and Selena Gomez. It’s “Wolves,” and like the two other new electro-pop songs we just discussed, it struck me as solid without being exceptional, like a good album cut. Others may be more enthusiastic, but that’s how I felt.

Also in the electronic world, DJ Snake (whose “Lean On” is one of the most popular electronic songs of all time) released a new single called “Broken Summer (feat. Max Frost),” and Kygo followed up last week’s single with “Never Let You Go (feat. John Newman)“. DJ Snake’s is almost standout, while I found Kygo’s rather forgettable compared to “Kids in Love.”

Moving into other genres, Sam Smith is back with “Burning.” All I can say is, man, this new album cycle is really blowing me away. The Thrill of It All is out next week and I couldn’t be more stoked about it. It’s hard for me to decide which of the three pre-release singles is my favorite. This latest just sizzles.

WALK THE MOON‘s new LP is two weeks out, and we’re all wondering if it’s gonna have a song that will break the four-man Cincinnati rock band out of one-hit-wonder status. Their new single “Surrender” isn’t that song, but it is promising, more than the first two pre-release singles if you ask me.

Diane is the first we’ve heard from country songstress Cam since her debut album Untamed which burned down the country world with its one hit single “Burning House.” The new song is an acoustic foot-stomper. It really cuts against the grain of what’s getting a lot of radio airplay right now, but maybe that will give it some traction. I like it fairly well.

Elsewhere in singles, Gavin James released “Hearts on Fire.” Good highway kind of song. If you like Phillip Phillips you’ll like this. Also, alt-country duo First Aid Kit released “Postcard.” “Emmylou” is still their best. Finally, while I have to be honest and confess that I don’t know the pop-rock band MisterWives very well, I can also say that their new single “Never Give Up on Me” impressed me. Kind of has a similar sound to a few of the songs from this year’s Paramore record.

Albums, albums, and albums galore. I knew I was going to have my work cut out for me this Friday in the new records department, and I will try to make my way through it all quickly.

Rachel Platten released her second full-length album since the breakout single “Fight Song.” I don’t know if the world has moved on, but if it has, I do not really care. Waves doesn’t seem to be making as many as Wildfire did, but it’s a better record on the whole. I don’t know how to explain why I love Rachel Platten so much except to say that when she’s at her best she can bring so much honest human warmth to even the most un-positive subject material that it hurts. We’ve already talked about the goodness of the pre-release singles. “Whole Heart,” “Keep Up,” and “Grace” are my favorites of the new tracks. The groovy (and candidly sensual in a way that I don’t get into) “Shivers” will probably be the radio hit. All in all, Waves is just a pretty solid pop album.

The Christian hard rock band RED released their sixth studio album, Gone, but to be honest, I didn’t hear too much on it that I wanted to highlight. It feels a little muddy and maybe a little overproduced, and runs too much in lyrical and melodic tracks that the band has already established. Gone is not without its bright spots, however. The sweeping melodies of “Coming Apart” and the gentle yearning of “The Mask Slips Away” rise above the rest of the record. It’s just hard to be too excited when RED has done all the same things they tried to do on this album in the past, only better.

The Deep Dark Woods have given us Yarrow, and it’s got everything that makes them a great alt-country band. My favorites are “Up On The Mountaintop” for its cool Dorian sound, “Deep Flooding Waters” (which I highlighted two weeks ago), “San Juan Hill” (is that Emmylou Harris singing backups?), and the closing track, “The Winter Has Passed.”

I knew I was going to love the Wailin’ Jennys’ new covers album Fifteen, so titled to celebrate their fifteen years as a group. The whole thing is perfectly gorgeous, but never more so than the hypnotic and moving opener “The Old Churchyard.” If you can listen to a record like this and not hear something profoundly sublime, I’m not sure I can fully understand what you mean when you speak of “music.”

Unlike the previous selection, I didn’t know what I would think of Kelly Clarkson’s new album Meaning of Life, because the pre-release singles didn’t strike me as anything special. As it turned out, I was very pleasantly surprised. Kelly takes things in a more soul direction than she’s gone before. If “Medicine” doesn’t burn down the world on its release as a radio single, then I’m sorry to say the world has forgotten what makes a great pop song great. “Heat” is great too, and “I Don’t Think About You” (how does she even do that falsetto?).

Julie Fowlis made a name for herself with the soundtrack for Disney-Pixar’s Brave a few years ago, but she’s been quietly making excellent folk music since long before then. Her latest, alterum, is another enchanting Scottish folk record. Per usual, she sings primarily in the musical Scottish Gaelic tongue. Here’s one of the many magical tracks from the new album.

There are other significant releases–Kenny Chesney’s new Live in No Shoes Nation album, Granger Smith’s When the Good Guys Winbut the last album that I really want to highlight this week is Julien Baker’s second studio release, Turn Out The Lights. I’ve talked about Julien and what makes her great in previous instalments of New Music Friday. Along with the pre-release singles, “Everything That Helps You Sleep,” (no link yet) “Hurt Less,” and the magnificently haunting closer “Claws In Your Back” (no link yet) represent everything that is fabulous about Julien’s music.

That’s a wrap for this week! Hope you enjoyed exploring the new music with me.