Songs of My Life: The Great Adventure

TGAJust married.

Flying across the sea to have our first great adventure together.

Riding in our Buick station wagon across the good ol’ U S of A for six months.

Summer of ’92.

Air conditioner broken.

The radio blared loud to whatever local Christian radio station we could find.

And what did we hear?

Steven. Curtis. Chapman.

All day.

All night.

Preceded by a ‘Prologue’ that sounded much like the soundtrack to the then-currently-running television series The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles with its symphonic action-adventure tones, the acapella first line hit us full on:

Saddle up your horses!

Who wouldn’t want to join in?

Started out this morning in the usual way
Chasing thoughts inside my head
I thought I had to do today
Another time around the circle
Try to make it better than the last
I opened up the Bible
And I read about me
Said I’d been a prisoner
And God’s Grace had set me free
And somewhere between the pages
It hit me like a lightning bolt
I saw a big frontier in front of me
And I heard somebody say let’s go
Saddle up your horses
We’ve got a trail to blaze
Oh oh oh
Through the wild blue yonder of God’s Amazing grace
Let’s follow our leader into the Glorious unknown
This is the life like no other whoa whoa
This is the great adventure

Co-written by Geoff Moore (80’s CCM fans would know him from Geoff Moore and the Distance), The Great Adventure is an inspiring anthem that speaks of all that is good, right and positive about being one of the chosen few. For me, it was a masculine-sounding, heady motivational song that made me think, ‘This is why I’m here.’

We bought the tape at one of the million or so Christian bookstores that dotted the cityscape of America, then proceeded to wear that out so we bought the CD.

So come on, get ready for the ride of your life
Gonna leave long faced religion
In a cloud of dust behind
And discover all the new horizons
Just waiting to be explored
This is what we were created for

It wasn’t until years later I saw the music video. I’m glad. It was really bad. I much preferred the vision I had in my mind of a Young Steven Curtis Chapman riding with his posse through the canyons of the wild west, in a literal cloud of dust.

I wasn’t the only one as it turns out who saw this song as a call to living the grand life of following Jesus. It apparantly was one of Bart Millard’s (MercyMe) formative songs as shown in the movie I Can Only Imagine. No wonder. It was soul-stirring. I can’t say how many times this song picked me up from moments of doubting, times of despair, and sadness and got me back on track. To me, this was the Christian equivalent of Tina Turner’s Simply the Best. Rousing me to action. Made me proud to be a follower of Jesus with a definite–and holy–calling.

It certainly helped shape a part of my life when I was unfocused, immature and definitely scared to death of what married life–in fact, what life generally–had to bring. While it wasn’t until some years later I was finally semi-comfortable with who I was and where I was meant to be, this song helped me navigate the unsettledness and uncertainty of the present moment.

Songs of My Life: Arms of Love

Music is a language that can often  express what a heart feels better than any words.

Even better when well-crafted poetry is added in the form of lyrics to a moving, compelling melody and appropriate harmony.

There are songs that have not only meant so much to me, but clearly defined moments in my life or seasons. They have shaped my response to struggles and events. They have lifted me up, comforted me, motivated me, brought new meaning and clarity or grounded my life in uncertain times.

That’s why I thought it would be a good idea to share with you a few songs that have spoken into my life and made a profound impact along the way.

Arms of Love  (Amy Grant on Age to Age, 1982)

Lord I’m really glad You’re here
I hope you feel the same when You see all my fear
And how I fail
I fall sometimes
It’s hard to walk on shifting sand
I miss the rock, and find there’s nowhere left to stand;
I start to cry
Lord, please help me raise my hands so You can pick me up
Hold me close
Hold me tighter

I have found a place where I can hide
It’s safe inside
Your arms of love
Like a child who’s helped throughout a storm
You keep me warm
In Your arms of love

Storms will come and storms will go
Wonder just how many storms it takes until
I finally know
You’re here always
Even when my skies are far from gray
I can stay;
Teach me to stay there

Written by: GARY W CHAPMAN, AMY GRANT, MICHAEL W SMITH / Lyrics © Warner/Chappell Music, Inc., CAPITOL CHRISTIAN MUSIC GROUP

How clearly I remember having this song on repeat on my CD player and lying on the living room floor bawling my eyes out and praying like never before. How clearly Amy’s words matched with my struggles at the time.

I was going through a rough time. I had just finished College and had a part-time job but I was struggling financially. I was having a difficult time meeting my rent obligations and was living from eviction notice to eviction notice. I lived on two-minute noodles and corn flakes. I didn’t know where my life was headed. I had problems dealing with simple, everyday things. Today I would most likely be diagnosed with depression but, being from a strict Christian home, depression (at that time) was not something to treat with drugs or therapy but with prayer and Scripture.

And this song became my prayer.

Through it, I admitted my failures, my fears, my uncertainty. In its simplicity I found peace knowing that, even though I couldn’t see what the next day would bring, I could still rest in the truth that I would not go it alone.

It didn’t fix everything. But, as music often does, it comforted me with the knowledge that somebody bigger than me cared about me.

I still get a melancholy feeling when I hear this song. It brings me back to a less fortunate, less-awakened time. In retrospect I would say this song marked, for me, a milestone in my journey to becoming a responsible adult. Yet, it also nurtured my faith and helped me to understand that there is always a safe place in the shelter of God’s love.

Chasing Francis: Why I Love Music & Art

The oldest known icon of St Francis ca 1230
The oldest known icon of St Francis of Assisi, ca. 1230 (Church of San Fransesco, Pescia)

I’ve just finished reading Ian Cron’s book, Chasing Francis (2010: Navpress). Wow! What a history/ theology/ philosophy/ creativity/ post-modernity lesson it was. I can’t believe how much of my being resonated with the words in this book about an ancient Saint!

I love music and art. I always have, to some degree, and this love has grown and changed over the years. I always knew there was something in the human spirit that seemed to understand the language of the arts, but this was so much more driven home to me in chapter seven of Chasing Francis. Following is a portion of it where we meet up with the main character, Chase Falson, and a new friend, Carla Mellini (an accomplished cellist he meets in Rome), at a concert.

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That evening, as I read the program, I saw why Carla was so excited about attending this performance— the orchestra was playing Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E Minor. From the first note to the last, the concert was electrifying. Every so often I would glance at Carla, who, I could tell, was enraptured. Her fingers couldn’t stay still. They mimicked every note the cellist played. I was pleasantly surprised to see that one of my favorite pieces, Finzi’s Ecologue for Piano and String Orchestra, op. 10, was part of the evening’s program as well. The Ecologue is lyrical and haunting; it surfaces all the unfulfilled desires of your life. My father always told me that my disdain for most atonal works was an indication of my lack of musical sophistication. One more thing I didn’t get right.

When the final note was played, Carla was the first person to leap to her feet and cry, “Bravo!” When the applause finally subsided, she grabbed both my hands and said, “Wasn’t it magnificent?”

*  *  *

The post-concert lecture was held in a. small rehearsal space near the main hail.

The speaker was Liam Cudder, a British musicologist from Cambridge. I was prepared to see a C. S. Lewis type—a portly man wearing an old houndstooth jacket with leather patches on the elbows, trousers wrinkled from top to bottom. Cudder couldn’t have been more different. He was elegantly dressed in a double-breasted blue blazer with gold buttons, perfectly tailored gray flannels, and expensive-looking tassel loafers. His accent betrayed an upper-class pedigree, but there was nothing condescending about him; in fact, he was boyish and animated. He spoke for nearly an hour-deconstructing and analyzing the pieces we’d heard, helping us discover the brilliance of Finzi and Elgar.

Toward the end of the lecture, his remarks took a peculiar turn. CCJ have spoken for what must seem like an eternity to some of you.” The audience laughed. “Now I am interested in knowing what you felt during the concert,” he said.

There was an awkward silence. Finally one brave soul said, “Joy.” “Grateful” someone else called out.

Cudder listened to a handful of responses, nodding his head after every reply.

I am always brought to tears when I hear a marvelous performance followed, by a standing ovation,” he said. “I feel that at the climax of our cheering, we cross a boundary and unwittingly begin applauding some other reality, a performer we know is there but who cannot be seen. We want to thank Beauty itself.”

He held his finger up to his lips and paused. “Let me be bold for a moment. Is it possible that during this evening’s performance, we unconsciously sensed Someone standing behind the beautiful, Someone who is its source, and we were moved to praise him as well?”

A hush fell over the room. The good doctor had moved from musicology to theology.

“I am a musicologist, but I am also an ordained priest in the Church of. England. For years I have tried to separate the different hats I wear, but I have been quite unsuccessful, so if you will indulge me, I would like to conclude my remarks this evening by suggesting that there is a distinct relationship between beauty and the heart’s search for God.”

Cudder leafed through his notes. He found the page he was looking for.

“In Doctor Zhivago, Boris Pasternak describes one of his main characters like this: ‘Lara was not religious. She did not believe in ritual. But sometimes, to be able to bear life, she needed the accompaniment of an inner music. She could not always compose such a music for herself. That music was God’s word of life, and it was to weep over it that she went to church.’ ‘What was it about music that awakened the spiritual in Pasternak’s Lana? It was this: The object of all great art is beauty; and it makes us nostalgic for God. “Whether we consider ourselves people of faith or not, art arouses in us what Pope John Paul called a ‘universal desire for redemption.’”

Cudder sat on a three-legged stool. “All of us are meaning-seekers. We approach every painting, novel, film, symphony, or ballet unconsciously hoping that it will move us one step further on the journey, toward answering the question, ‘Why am I here?’ People living in the postmodern world, however, are faced with an excruciating dilemma. Their hearts long to find ultimate meaning, while at the same time their critical minds do not believe it exists. We are homesick, but have no home. So we turn to the arts and aesthetics to satisfy our thirst for the Absolute. But if we want to find our true meaning in life, our search cannot end there. Art or beauty is not the destination; it is a signpost pointing towards our desired destination.”

Cudder, picked up a page from his notes. “C. S. Lewis puts it so elegantly in The Weight of Glory: “The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through was a longing. . . . For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”

Cudder wisely paused to allow Lewis’s words to rest on us. “My hope is that through our future encounters with music and the arts, we will discover this ‘heavenly country’ we have not yet visited but long to find. Thank you for your very kind attention this evening.”

People remained glued to their seats. Cudder’s remarks had been spoken with such humility and respect that everyone was charmed. After a few moments, the spell’s effect .passed, and people gathered their belongings, and began leaving.

Carla stood up. “Let’s say hello,” she said.

Cudder was surrounded by a group of admirers peppering him with questions. Carla and I stood behind them, patiently waiting our turn. Every so often, Cudder would peer over at us curiously, then continue fielding questions. A heavyset woman in red evening wear, dripping pearls and diamonds, asked in a loud, affected voice, “Professor Cudder, what is the true vocation .of the artist?” Her question would have been a good one if she hadn’t sounded so enamored with herself.

“Perhaps you should ask our friend here,” Cudder said, nodding at Carla.

The group turned to look at us.

“If I’m not mistaken, this is Carla Mellini,” Cudder said, “one of Europe’s most important up-and-coming cellists.”

Carla smiled and said, “Thank you, I’m honored.”

I looked at Carla out of the corner of my eye. I felt like we needed to be reintroduced.

“Any thoughts, Miss Mellini?” Cudder asked.

Carla took a lengthy pause before answering. “My teacher once told me that artists help people to see or hear beyond the immediate to the eternal. Most people look only at surfaces. A great poem, story, song, or sculpture reveals the hidden meaning of things.”

Cudder looked impressed. “But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear,” he added, quoting Jesus.

Everyone in the circle nodded appreciatively. Carla’s answer rang true.

“I am sorry to say that it is time for us to leave,” Cudder announced; “It has been a wonderful evening, but it is getting late and the custodial staff needs to close up. Thank you so much for coming.”

As the small band of devotees began filing out, Cudder came to us. “I hope I did not put you on the spot,” he said.

“Not at all. And please call me Carla. This is my friend, Chase Falson.”

Cudder shook my hand. “Very glad to meet you,” he said to us. “My name’s Liam. The title Professor is reserved for my students’ use.” He turned to Carla. “I heard you perform Schumann’s Cello Concerto in London last year. It was very stirring.”

“It’s an amazing piece. I’m glad you enjoyed it,” Carla replied.

“Did you enjoy the performance this evening?” Liam asked. Carla paused. “The orchestra’s first cellist is a friend, and he’s a wonderful soloist. I wish the slow movement had been more romantic, but otherwise he played it flawlessly.”

Cudder began stuffing his notes into a well-worn leather portfolio. “Do you suppose the two of you would join me for a late dinner? I am absolutely famished.”

Carla looked at me. “I’m  game, I said.

“The Caffe Greco?” Liam suggested.

Carla hesitated. “It’s a little pricey,” she said. I think she was worried more about the minister’s budget than anything else.

“It’s my treat,” Liam replied.

*  *  *

Expensive restaurants in Rome are generally not as opulent as those in Manhattan. Italians care more about great food and creating an intimate atmosphere. The Greco is an exception. Renowned for having been the haunt of famous nineteenth-century writers and artists, it gives you the best of everything— elegant decor, magnificent cuisine, and small tables for easy conversation.

It was yet another feast of food, wine, and passionately expressed ideas. Liam was a true Renaissance man. He was charming, funny, and oblivious to his own brilliance; His rakish good looks and refined demeanor reminded me of a young Roger Moore. We could have listened to him all night.

“The church has a mottled history with artists. In some eras, they have been appreciated, and in others, vilified. There have been seasons when a stifling artistic Puritanism reigned, and others when the arts were celebrated. Some Christians are still ambivalent about art.” Liam leaned across the table and spoke as if he were telling us a ghost story around a campfire. “They might arouse the lower passions.”

Carla covered her mouth and laughed. Liam flagged down one of the waiters and pointed to our empty champagne bottle. The waiter nodded and ran to the cellar to get us another.

“I came to faith in a Baptist tradition that was suspicious of anything having to do with the imagination,” he continued. “They thought it was the source of all kinds of evil ideas and impulses. And, to some degree, that is true. The depraved imagination has the capacity to dream up all sorts of dreadful things, but we threw the baby out with the bathwater. We did not recognize that  the redeemed imagination was capable of producing works of beauty that revealed the Glory”

Carla winced. “My parents think the arts are trivial. They say you should go to church to get good teaching, not a sonata,” Carla said.

Cudder politely wiped his mouth. “That is ironic, really. First, the Bible is a great literary work of art filled with poetry, songs, stories, parables, history, apocalyptic drama, and wisdom literature. Second, the very people who pride themselves on being focused on the Word often come perilously close to practicing a form of Gnosticism that overvalues the spiritual and eschews the material. But the Word became flesh! The Incarnation proves that the divine can be communicated through the material—color, sound, texture, words printed on paper, the movement of the body.”

“Could you write this all down? I’d like to send it to my parents,” Carla said.

Liam patted her hand. “Give it time. Hopefully your parents will come around. In the meantime, never forget that your vocation is a sacred one.”

Carla’s face opened up; she looked more relaxed than I’d seen her.

She’d met two people in the same day who empathized with her plight.

I could tell that something important was happening for her.

Her expression became pensive. “So maybe I should go back to church?” she asked.

“Now would be the time,” he replied.

“Why now?” I asked.

“The church is realizing that there is an awareness of God sleeping in the basement of the postmodern imagination and they have to awaken it. The arts can do this. All beauty is subversive; it flies under the radar of people’s critical filters and points them to God. As a friend of mine says, ‘When the front door of the intellect is shut, the back door of the imagination is open.’ Our neglect of the power of beauty and the arts helps explain why so many people have lost interest in church. Our coming back to the arts will help renew that interest.”

Carla was spellbound. I tried to imagine what she was thinking. Liam was confirming something she’d probably known all along: Her parents were wrong; It was a moment of exoneration.

A lightbulb seemed to go off in Carla’s head. “It’s like speaking in tongues,” she said.

Liam’s fork froze halfway between his plate and his mouth. “I’m sorry?” he asked.

Carla sat up straight. “Art, music, dance, theatre, literature, film. They’re all a way of speaking in tongues!”

“Of course!” I said. “They’re spiritual languages that communicate truths about God that human language doesn’t have words to express. That’s why the church needs to rediscover them.”

“What a brilliant way to put it,” Cudder said.

“Wait till I tell my Pentecostal parents that I’ve taken to speaking in tongues. They’ve been waiting for years for that to happen.”

“Wait till they find out you’re doing it through your cello.” Liam said.

I lifted my glass. “To Beauty!” I said.

Liam and Carla replied. “To Beauty!”

*   *   *   *   *   *   *

One last quote from this chapter, in conclusion. In the story, Chase is writing his end-of-day journal and mentions an experience he had at a U2 concert:

A few years ago I went to a U2 concert at Madison Square Garden in New York City; just three months after 9/11 Most of us in the arena that night probably knew someone who’d died in the Twin Towers, we’d lost three people in our church alone I’ll never forget the end of the concert As the band played the song “Walk On,” the names of all those who had died were projected onto the arena walls and slowly scrolled up over us, and then up toward the ceiling At that moment the presence of God descended on that room in a way I will never forget. There we were, twenty-five thousand people standing, weeping, and singing with the band. It suddenly became a worship service; we were pushing against the darkness together. I walked out dazed, asking myself, “What on earth just happened? Of course, it was the music. For a brief moment, the veil between this world and the world to come had been made thin by melody and lyric. If only for a brief few minutes, we were all believers.

So, I am rediscovering the “why” of my love of music and art. It truly does speak to me of something–Someone–beyond myself, and opens my heart and mind in ways that genuinely cannot be accessed any other way. My response? Awe, worship and love.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *

Buy Chasing Francis with free shipping worldwide at The Book Depository

Music That Helps Me Believe . . .

I stumbled across a link to Adam Ellis’ blog, Adventures in Following Jesus, today (on Jesus Needs New PR–great title!) and found this little gem: Music that helps me believe, and music that doesn’t. Music is such an integral part of our lives and can be a great influencer of our theology and well-being. I found his post a good starter for me to think about what I’m putting into my ears.

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Speaking of Jesus Needs New PR, here’s an interesting collection of pictures I found, some of which are just pure corn, especially this church sign that links free thinkers with Satan.

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Looking at funny Christian cartoons and pictures amuses me, probably because it makes me feel better–like ‘I’m not like them,’ or ‘I can’t believe they would do that.’ When it hits closer to home is when it becomes challenging. Do I appreciate it as much when it strikes a chord in my own life experience and (ahem!) convicts me?

I’ve found the Naked Pastor’s cartoons fall into this category a lot of the time, and then again some are just purely hilarious!

This one isn’t funny even though it, at first glance, appears to poke fun at the WWJD crowd. Unfortunately, a lot of damage has been done to those toting all sorts of WWJD merchandise, claiming to desire Jesus-like thinking. Its message is a challenge to the 21st Century church to truly be like Jesus and love unconditionally.