Friday, June 24, 2011

Arise, My Love – Eddie Carswell

 The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it. (1 Thessalonians 5:24)

Eddie Carswell is a guy from Georgia, who formed a music group with three friends at a church in Valdosta in 1981. NewSong is its name, and though it has had a lot of turnover in members during the last 30 years, Carswell is still there, seemingly as energized as ever with the group’s objective – spreading the Good News. One of NewSong’s most well-known efforts, “Arise, My Love”, is likewise still going strong. What makes it so popular? What was its composer thinking or feeling that made his creativity so inspired in 1987? Let’s see what may be there below the surface that isn’t well-advertised.

Carswell and one of the other founding members of NewSong, Billy Goodwin (the other two friends that were part of the original four group members were Eddie Middleton and Bobby Apon) say that their group’s formation was a calling. It was a faith that they exercised and handed to God to do with as He saw fit. They felt, and still feel, that this faithful God is doing great things every day. Perhaps that was the attitude (straight from 1 Thessalonians 5:24) that spurred Eddie to write the song in 1987 that remains such a favorite today. Imagine a guy, probably a 20-something?, in 1987 who was exercising his sense that God is potent and dependable. What would he write? Looking at the words that emerged from Carswell’s consciousness, “Arise, My Love” has many words to draw upon from the Bible for its storyline, but he tells us something more.  We know there were soldiers guarding Jesus’ grave, that it had been three days, that a great tremor and an angel accompanied His resurrection, striking these hardened soldiers with terror. What a scene, one that Carswell recalls in his music with a passion to match the Matthewian account of this historic, time-splitting moment. What - or Who - could cause such a moment, except the call of the Father? Every believer knows He must have been responsible for the resurrection, but Carswell puts it into words for us – the Father said “Arise”.  It’s special, and even surreal, that I’m in a position, when I sing this song, of voicing for God the words He called out to His son that day. What a calling it must have been to raise Jesus! 

 Not much more explanation seems necessary to rationalize why “Arise, My Love” remains among NewSong’s most well-known hits. We don’t know what particularly spoke to Eddie as he wrote, but we can surmise that he longs for the resurrection as any Christian does. Carswell, like me or you, can no doubt think of loved ones or himself being called home. The album that NewSong produced in 1987 -- it’s entitled ‘Say Yes!’ -- may say something about what Carswell and his bandmates were feeling then too. The resurrection is a fist-pumping, ‘yes!’ moment. It’s one in which we’ll all recall what the writer meant, really, when he wrote to the Thessalonians. It’s what the Nike commercials tell us. God will ‘just do it’.   

Biographic information on the composer and the group New Song at these sites:

Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Sweetest Name of All – Tommy Coomes

 He was trying to rinse the bitter taste of failure out of his mouth, and he cried out in his prayer the relief he felt in savoring Him. That’s the short version how Tommy Coomes first sensed, and then frantically composed “The Sweetest Name of All”. He’d had success that he could recall when he felt low, but most of the time he spent regretting his shortcomings and the missed opportunities. But in his melancholy, Coomes surprised himself, for in his prayer, the words he uttered were without a thought toward music-writing. Something like a resonant chord, like milk chocolate on one’s tongue after days of fasting, revived him. Fortunately, for us believers, God doesn’t keep his sweets to himself (unlike in the picture – see a Mayan chief protecting his can of chocolate).

Tommy Coomes  spent a decade writing and producing great praise worship music in the 1970s, following his departure from the army. A stint with a group of musical friends, called Love Song – appropriately named, for the Jesus movement of the time – accompanied Coomes’ conversion to Christ. His enthusiasm spilled over into music-making, and he wrote and later produced hit after hit. One might imagine that this energetic, on-fire music man composed “The Sweetest Name of All” while on a high from all his success. But, Coomes confesses that the opposite is true. By 1980, he descended from the mountain, of a sort, that he’d been standing on. In the valley, he was unable to find solace in the things he’d done well, probably because the hectic pace had left him fatigued. ‘What have you done lately’ might have been the refrain that buzzed in his head, and Coomes says he saw gaps in other unspecified areas of his life, too. In his anguish, he didn’t realize that he was about to create more music. Who would, in that state of mind? He thought about God’s goodness, and about his own insignificance.        

His low-point discovery must have been a revelation to Coomes. Maybe he’d assumed he was not useful at that point. In fact, he was still putty, moldable material in His hands. When he realized a melodic moment was at hand, Coomes fought through his gloom. An hour later, it was done, another hit. He admits that he marvels about that hour still, about how He can turn an utter collapse on its head. There he was, on a high again. But, Coomes didn’t forget what it took for him to compose – it was the pit. You can see it in all three verses of the song’s words. He tells me he falls, frequently; that he still feels shame; that he needs God’s unique care. It’s a prayer of emptiness, filled with Him. The song is at once a microcosm of the believer’s life, and a self-portrait of a Tommy Coomes moment, one day in 1980. Take a look in the mirror…what does your portrait look like? Maybe your portrait is one God wants you to share, too.

The source for Tommy Coomes’ song story is the book “Celebrate Jesus: The Stories behind Your Favorite Praise and Worship Songs”, by Phil Christensen and Shari MacDonald, Kregel Publications, 2003.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Come Let Us Worship and Bow Down -- Dave Doherty

What’s it like to be in exile? That question and its answer may be the impetus and the foundation for the worship song “Come, Let Us Worship and Bow Down” that Dave Doherty wrote in 1980. The 20th Century version of this 2,500-year old tune may have also had at least three ministers’ (or priests’) fingerprints on it, a span that shows its therapy has remained potent for perhaps millions or even billions of people searching for purpose and reconnection with Him. That’s enough to make me interested in seeing what this treatment, first discovered over two millennia ago advises – how about you? It might be helpful to imagine yourself in the Temple (perhaps like the one in the picture), in a moment when a Levite first discovered and communicated this truth. What was that Levite priest thinking?

Dave Doherty was feeling low and distant from Him one day in 1980 on the New Jersey turnpike. His spiritual high of working during the previous decade in a growing ministry in a church, and with three musical compatriots, had departed, and he was stuck making ends meet. Driving a delivery truck, he clung to his tenuous faith by listening to a radio minister named Clinton White that day. Something White said must have struck a nerve in Doherty, and the next thing he knew he was weeping on the side of the road, a cathartic experience he admits. Doherty says that day he learned to be in the moment with God, to trust Him as protector and guide. A few days later, he composed – or, more accurately, rediscovered -- the song “Come, Let Us Worship and Bow Down”, a reiteration of two verses of the 95th Psalm (verses 6-7). What was it Clinton White had said over the radio that touched Doherty? Perhaps it was something that Psalm 95:6-7 summed up for him, something that gave him the key to unlocking the door to the spiritual prison he’d been in.  

Had it been like prison, or was it in fact more like exile for Doherty? The anonymous individual, most likely a Levitical priest who composed Psalm 95, knew what exile was like. He and others like him had returned to the Promised Land sometime in the 5th Century before Christ (400-500 B.C.), after several generations of banishment in Persia. It would be an understatement to say that the Jews felt something pretty special as they adored freely the true God after such a long hiatus, reconnecting their deep beliefs with open worship. These Jews must have gone through lots of negative emotions before the homecoming high, perhaps similar to what was impacting the guy on a New Jersey freeway some 2,500 years later. Disappointment, disillusionment, and distance…what believer hasn’t felt those emotions at times? Maybe Clinton White had too, and had returned. There’s reassurance, knowing that I’m not permanently losing my faith, when I walk in the wrong direction temporarily. Kneel and acknowledge that He’s the solution for my anxieties – that’s what Dave Doherty discovered. His Psalm 95 song tells me he had a remarkable moment with Him, in a most holy, special place, even if it was a freeway. Maybe it’s time to revisit the Temple.

The source for Dave Doherty’s song story is the book “Celebrate Jesus: The Stories behind Your Favorite Praise and Worship Songs”, by Phil Christensen and Shari MacDonald, Kregel Publications, 2003.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Majestic -- Lincoln Brewster

Meet Lincoln Brewster, a 40-year old in 2011 who could have been a rock star, but who chose instead to make the Rock a star. That kinda sums up what Brewster might say about himself. And, it would also be recapped in the song “Majestic” that he wrote in 2005, a paraphrase of some of the messages (Psalms 8 and 19) that King David composed three millennia before Brewster took up his own pen and added a few words to that king’s thoughts that resonated with him in the early 21st Century. What had brought him to that point in 2005?

Lincoln Brewster had seen plenty of scenery during his youth, we might guess, from what he writes in his biography. Scenery, like oceans and mountains (like the picture here) that maybe he recalled as he wrote “Majestic”. Brewster had perhaps seen both during his growth into a young adult in Alaska and California, and as he and his mother and siblings played music for cruise ship vacationers. His childhood also had darker scenery, in which his stepfather’s alcoholism and volatile behavior created a void in Brewster’s life, one without a positive father-figure. The “silver-lining in the dark cloud” was his mother’s encouragement of his musical development, which enlarged his world and gave him a stepping stone to a career. Perhaps the void also pushed him toward a father who wouldn’t fail him – God. He had an opportunity to tour with rock star Steve Perry (from the band Journey), but chose instead a Christian music career, and linked himself to a local church. By the time he was 34 in 2005, Brewster himself was father of two young sons. Was he pondering his own upbringing as he assumed the father-figure role in the lives of two young children? Probably, if he was like any other parent who searches for answers from one’s own experience or from others who offer it. What better place to look than above for Fatherly advice? His majestic nature, including the mountains and oceans He created, might go unnoticed for some people, but they didn’t escape Lincoln Brewster’s attention in 2005. Armed with his childhood memories of Alaska and California, and yes with the male-parent void from that period too, Brewster drew upon the Psalms and how King David related to Him.  
Can you picture mountains bowing before God, or oceans crying out to Him? Evidently, that’s what Lincoln Brewster saw in 2005 as he composed, adding to what David had seen. Perhaps he also drew upon his time with fellow Christian Michael W. Smith, with whom he toured for a while and who also wrote a 1981 tune “How Majestic Is Your Name”, strikingly similar to Brewster’s 2005 effort. If it worked for Smith, who can blame Brewster for trying to glean something from the same Davidic words? Fathers and children – and worshippers – need only turn themselves toward what worked for the original poet. It still works, and He’s still there listening.  
Biographic information on the composer at these sites: