Tag Archives: Song

Music and the Blues

Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the Lord….
Exodus 15:1 (NRSVCE)

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I have a confession to make. I have always wished I had a gift in music. Sure, I did the requisite year or two of lessons as a kid, but nothing every really clicked for me. I sang in the church youth choir and continued to sing in church and school groups for years. I taught myself a bunch of chords on the guitar so I could sing a few Bob Dylan songs on my back porch on a summer evening, and serenade our daughters to sleep singing Forever Young. But, that’s not the gift of music.

I remember an episode of M*A*S*H I watched as a kid. One of the doctors, Major Winchester, was a patrician blue blood with a knowledge of all the fine things of life. He finds himself having to amputate the hand of a patient, only to recognize the young man as one of the world’s up-and-coming virtuoso pianists. The Major goes to great lengths to ensure that the man does not let the loss of his hand prevent him from playing. His response was that young man had a gift and he couldn’t let that go to waste. “I could always play the notes,” Winchester said, “but I could never make the music.”

Bingo! One of the best delineations between competence and giftedness I’ve ever heard.

So, I’ve never been a gifted musicians, and that’s okay. My gifts are in other areas. But it doesn’t stop me from appreciating music. I believe that God infused music with powerful properties. One of them is the way music ties us emotionally and spiritually to moments of our life journeys.

When I started to read the lyrics to the Hebrews’ victory song in today’s chapter I was immediately transported back to my high school youth group on a summer morning clapping and singing these same lyrics to an acoustic guitar.

As soon as I hear the Hollies’ classing Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress I am ten years old and in cabin 3 at Camp Idelwood on Rainy Lake, Minnesota. It’s a cold, rainy day and I’m stuck in the cabin with Mark Malone, Piper, Matt, and my sister Jody.

When I hear The Old Rugged Cross you might notice me smile softly and catch a tear welling-up in my eye. That was my grandma Golly’s song, and the music connects me forever to her.

You get it. I know you do. We all do. That’s the power of music.

Three Times a Lady: My first kiss.
Bridge of Troubled Waters: Road trip to Le Mars and 8-track tapes.
The Joshua Tree: Judson College
Psycho-Killer: Backstage. Pre-show. Kirk.

In today’s chapter, the Hebrews celebrate what God has done with a song. They lyrics are recorded and handed down generation-to-generation. What the tune originally sounded like is lost in the depths of time, but thousands of years later me and my friends at church were singing the same lyrics as we clapped and sang and worshipped God on a summer morning.

How cool is that?

I don’t know about you, but life has felt so heavy the past week or two. The weight of months of quarantine and social distancing, life out-of-whack, George Floyd, riots, violence. Ugh.

As I returned from my road trip on Wednesday I happened upon Bob Dylan and gospel great Mavis Staples singing Dylan’s song called Change My Way of Thinkin’. In one of the strangest things I’ve ever heard in modern music, they stop the music to act out a scripted vignette in which Dylan tells Mavis that he’s got the blues.

Dylan: I been up all night with insomnia reading Snoozeweek.

Staples: Snoozeweek? That ain’t no way to get rid of the blues. You’ve got to sing!

With that, they launch back into the raucous gospel-blues tune.

Here’s the song on Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/track/0ssPo81sHtsS1VfFn4DtjH?si=ftZZt5b0SMKc7BYQjgSBUw

Thanks, Mavis. What a good reminder. And this morning in the quiet it reminds me that in connecting us emotionally and spiritually to people, places, and events, music also has healing properties.

Mavis Staples is right. Staying awake all night watching the news is no cure for the blues. We need music. We need to surround ourselves in the beat, the melody, the lyrics that will lift our spirit and help us extricate the weight of the moment by expressing it.

Gonna Change My Way of Thinkin’ did that for me.

Think about it. Try it. Let me know what song or songs help you. I’m curious to know.

Rock on, my friend.

Want to Read More?

Simply click on the image above or click here to be taken to a page with a simple photo index to all posts from this series on Exodus.

About This Post

These chapter-a-day posts began in 2006. It’s a very simple concept. I endeavor each weekday to read one chapter from the Bible. I then blog about my thoughts, insights, and feelings about the content of that chapter. Everyone is welcome to share this post, like this post, or add your own thoughts in a comment. Thank you to those who have become faithful, regular or occasional readers along the journey along with your encouragement.

In 2019 I began creating posts for each book, with an indexed list of all the chapters for that book. You can find the indexed list by clicking on this link.

Prior to that, I kept a cataloged index of all posts on one page. You can access that page by clicking on this link.

You can also access my audio and video messages, as well.

tomvanderwell@gmail.com @tomvanderwell

Top Five Favorite Christmas Carols

Christmas is almost here! And while we are all inundated with Christmas music to the point of going postal on the shopping mall Santa, there are a few Christmas tunes never seem to get old for me. For Top Five Tuesday (one day late), here are my Top Five favorite Christmas carols….

  1. O Come, O Come Emmanuel. It’s not exactly a chart topper on your local mall’s holiday playlist, but I love the moody minor key, and the ancient mystery of the prophetic. It’s the storyteller in me.

2.   The Christmas Song. No one does it like Nat. Classic.

3.   O Holy Night. It gives me chills.

4.   Sleigh Ride. Okay. It just makes me happy. Clip-clop.

5.   Hallelujah Chorus. Tears. Joy. Truth.

Sing on! Merry Christmas!

featured photo by chatterstone via Flickr

Victory Song

Then Deborah and Barak son of Abinoam sang on that day, saying….
Judges 5:1 (NRSV)

For centuries, nations celebrated key military victories with song. Back in the Exodus, Moses’ song was sung after the victory over the Egyptians. Psalms 18, 20, and 118 are examples of songs of victory in David’s day. Today, the practice is more apt to be associated with athletic victories. When our beloved Cubbies win (over 100 times this past season!) I can’t help but break out in the refrains of “Go, Cubs, Go! Hey Chicago whattaya say? The Cubs are gonna win today!”

The practice had several practical elements.

First, it united the people in celebration. There’s nothing quite like everyone joining together in song. We do it in almost all communal events. In church we have hymns. In pubs we have drinking songs. At sporting events we have fight songs. Songs bring people together as one in the moment, and a victory is a key moment for such an event.

Second, it helps assure historic memory. I’m sure most ancient victory songs are forgotten in time, but the victory songs of Moses, Deborah and David have lasted millennia and I myself remember singing the song of Moses in Sunday School. A good victory song was a way that a victory might be memorialized forever.

Third, it would encourage future generations. As victory songs were sung through time, they inspired and encouraged soldiers that victory was possible for them, too. “If them, then why not us?” soldiers would think as they sang the familiar victory songs and shored up their anxious souls.

Also, the victory song could be instructive. Armies feeling good about themselves, basking in the glow of their achievement, could be reminded to be grateful and humble. Battles can go either direction and there’s no sense in gettin’ the big head. Thank God for the victory. There’s a great scene at the end of Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V after the historic battle of Agincourt. Outnumbered 5 to 1, the British pulled out an improbable victory over the French.

Shakespeare penned this dialogue between Henry and his Captain (and cousin) Fluellen:

KING HENRY V

Come, go we in procession to the village.
And be it death proclaimed through our host
To boast of this or take the praise from God
Which is his only.

FLUELLEN

Is it not lawful, an please your majesty, to tell
how many is killed?

KING HENRY V

Yes, captain; but with this acknowledgement,
That God fought for us.

FLUELLEN

Yes, my conscience, he did us great good.

KING HENRY V

Do we all holy rites;
Let there be sung ‘Non nobis’ and ‘Te Deum;’
The dead with charity enclosed in clay:
And then to Calais; and to England then:
Where ne’er from France arrived more happy men.

“Non nobis” and “Te Deum” is the latin version of “Not to us, but to Thy name be glory.”

Today, I’m thinking about victory and encouragement and community and humility. I enter today with a handful of songs on my lips.

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Praise Him with Show Tunes

2012 12 USP Joseph Backstage Girls Grunge LRLet them praise his name with dancing
    and make music to him with timbrel and harp.

Let his faithful people rejoice in this honor
    and sing for joy on their beds.
Psalm 149:3, 5 (NIV)

The lyricist of Psalm 149, writing some 25 centuries ago, describes corporate worship of God with the combination of dancing and music. Anyone who knows me or has followed this blog for any length of time knows that I’m a theatre guy. I majored in it in college and have been actively involved on the stage for many years. So, when I read dancing and music, forgive if me I immediately think: show tunes.

I know that the music and dancing described by the ancient psalmist is far from a Rogers and Hammerstein production number, but I’m also pretty sure that it’s far from being descriptive of my corporate worship experience in Protestant midwest America.

I love that the image the psalmist gave was that the corporate singing and dancing in the day time gives way to singing for joy on your bed at night. Again, I can’t help but think of my experience of being in musicals over the years: Mame, South Pacific, Annie, and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. When you are part of a large group of people singing amazing, soul stirring songs while dancing to cardio pumping choreography you can’t help but feel a rush of adrenaline that gives way to a generous release of endorphins. Envision the result: you’re so ecstatic that you go home and jump on your bed at night and keep singing and dancing your heart out because you don’t want it to end.

[Cut to image of the same person sitting in church bored out of their skull, nearly asleep, and looking at their watch while wondering when in the world the service is going to end.]

I will confess that the churches where I have attended over the years have come a long way, at least in the music department. My soul is regularly stirred by the music in corporate worship. I think, however, that it will be a while before I see a conga line or jazz square on Sunday morning.

Nevertheless, as the church enters our most important season of the year, which leads to the most exciting, heart stirring, fist pumping reason for celebration, I personally wish there was a big Broadway style production number on the church’s event schedule for Easter morning.

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A New Song

Musician in Funchal
Musician in Funchal (Photo credit: lode.rummens)

I will sing a new song to you, my God;
Psalm 144:9a (NIV)

Can people really change, or are we stuck in patterns of behavior over which we are powerless?

That is a pretty important question for anyone who gives serious consideration to their life and path. Over the years I’ve run into a lot of people who truly and honestly raise the white flag of surrender on their habits and destructive behaviors:

  • I was born this way.”
  • It’s genetic.”
  • It’s just who I am. I can’t change.”
  • There’s nothing I can do about it.”

I have come to recognize that there are some things that we can’t change, although I’ve discovered that most of the things that I can’t change are circumstances and people I don’t and shouldn’t control. My own thoughts, words, and behaviors however are things I’ve found that can and do change.

I was struck this morning by David’s commitment to sing a new song to God. He’s not just singing a song, but a new song. It’s an important recurring theme in David’s lyrics. Across the anthology of psalms you’ll find the phrase “new song” in psalms 33, 40, 96, 98, 144 and 149. I love the word picture because God is a God of transformation. Through victories, defeats, major successes and abysmal failures David continued to recognize God’s continuous and transformative act of creation in his life.

My personal experience of following Jesus is that it leads to a never ending call to examine, confess, and change. My life is a churning process of personal re-creation. The theme of my life’s song changes from season to season. Old things pass away, and new things come. And, it never ends in this lifetime unless I choose out. And, choosing out is always an option. Many people do.

This morning I am more committed than ever to the music God is composing through my life. There are dissonant notes coming out of my thoughts, words, and actions which I know I need to change. There are parts of the orchestration that I don’t control and I must be content to make changes and improvisations that weave my notes into harmony with them. The one thing I don’t want to do is stop playing.

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The Misplaced Love of Tradition

Sheet music for the hymn "Now the Day is ...
Sheet music for the hymn “Now the Day is Over” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good.
His love endures forever.
Give thanks to the God of gods.
His love endures forever.
Give thanks to the Lord of lords:
His love endures forever.
Psalm 136:1-3 (NIV)

A few years back a colleague of mine began grilling me over a period of time about worship. His church had recently eschewed the traditional old hymns of the church and switched to a more contemporary form of music. Being one for whom change is a difficult thing, my friend was distraught by this change and was anxious to make a case for why it was wrong for his church to have done so.

I can remember the conversation as we rode in the car together, my friend sarcastically referring to what he called “7-11” songs: “You sing the same seven words eleven times.”

He didn’t get a sympathetic audience from me, I’m afraid. I understood his emotions. I was raised on the great hymns of the faith, too. I miss hearing them and singing those beautiful four part harmonies. But, things change. Music changes. Styles change. As for my friends disregard for singing the same line repetitively, that is a musical device that has existed for centuries. You can use today’s psalm as evidence. The phrase “His love endures forever” is repeated 26 times in 26 verses (I guess this would have to be labeled a “4-26” song). Some of the psalms of ascent we’ve read recently are far shorter than most of the popular worship songs of today, and as traveling music I have to believe they were sung over and over again.

We human beings are funny people. Sometimes change is difficult for us, and I find that our love of traditions can at times be stronger than our love of the Creator or of others. Rather than experience the grief of change, we go through the mental and spiritual gymnastics required to cloak change in half-baked theological or biblical arguments which make it look “wrong,” “improper,” or even “sinful.” What a silly waste of time and energy.

I’m glad that despite our foolishness “His love endures forever.”

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God from a Distance; God who is Near

from a distanceO Lord, you are so good, so ready to forgive,
    so full of unfailing love for all who ask for your help.
Psalm 86:5 (NLT)

For the past week or so we’ve been reading lyrics of psalms penned by Asaph during a period of time when Jerusalem was under siege by Babylon and eventually captured and destroyed. In those lyrics I felt a sense of God being distant, almost like a stranger. They feel to me like a corporate national cry from afar to God of whom they’ve heard about but do not necessarily know intimately.

This morning’s psalm written by David felt like a sudden and sharp contrast. The lyrics are a very personal plea to God who is near, intimate, and personally known:

  • I am devoted to you.
  • You are my God.
  • I give myself to you.
  • I call…you will answer
  • With all my heart I praise you
  • I will give glory to you
  • Your love for me is great

I am reminded this morning that our view of God is often dependent on our experience and perspective. I know many for whom God is a distant, angry, and judgmental entity because that’s the view they were presented when they were young. Others I know view God as a unknowable father who has abandoned them. For some, God is simply a stranger they’ve heard about from many different people but have never personally met.

I feel much more like David. My experience is of a thirty plus year relationship with an intimate, personal Father God of love, compassion, grace, mercy, provision, forgiveness, and patience. The songs of my heart sound much more like David and little like those of Asaph.

God is not that far off. God is longing to know and be known. As Jesus said, “Ask, and it will be given. Seek, and you will find. Knock, and the door will be opened.” I have found along the journey that there is a difference between observing God from a distance and actually asking, seeking, and knocking.

Chapter-a-Day Psalm 44

English: Compact Disc player carousel for thre...

Wake up, O Lord! Why do you sleep?
    Get up! Do not reject us forever.
Psalm 44:23 (NLT)

Go through almost any CD and you’ll generally find a wide mixture music. A fast paced, energetic song will be followed by an introspective ballad. The next song will have driving intensity and a powerful social message, but the following track will be a sweet song of love. Record producers know that you can’t put together a CD with ten tracks that all sound the same. Variety is the spice of life. As life’s journey contains both peaks and valleys, we need music to express the breadth of the human experience.

When reading through the book of Psalms, we can never forget that it is a catalog of musical lyrics. It was carefully compiled by ancient record producers. Like the CD that slides into the dashboard of our car stereo, the psalms contain a diverse selection of songs which speak to an immense variety of life circumstances.

Everyone experiences crushing defeat from time to time. The greatest sports teams of all time still lose some of the time. Watch the Biography Channel and you’ll see that every person who has reached the heights of success has had to experience tremendous loss on their way up. There is a time for everything under the sun. There is a time for victory, and there is a time for defeat.

The lyric of today’s psalm come out of the confusion and questions which rise up in our hearts and minds after a crushing loss. In those acute moments of despair we remember past victories and when things were good. We feel the injustice of the defeat in light of our self-righteousness. We feel alone and abandoned as if God decided to sleep in and forget about us.

Music reminds us that we’re not alone. Turn up the blues and we find encouragement that others have been there before us. We sing along and our negative emotions find a healthy outlet of expression. Keep listening. Keep singing. The next track on the CD reminds us that these feelings of abandonment and despair are momentary. Better times are just a song away.

Chapter-a-Day Psalm 34

The Lord is close to the brokenhearted;
    he rescues those whose spirits are crushed.
Psalm 34:18 (NLT)

I don’t care who you are, where you live, or how blessed you are in life – sometimes the blues descend upon you out of nowhere. God’s Message says that the rain will fall on the righteous and the unrighteous. The blues are part of the human experience and many of the lyrics we read in the Psalms come straight out of the blues.

The thing I love about the psalms is that they don’t hide from life. They don’t fake their way through the blues. Instead, they express emotion head on and lay it on the line knowing that God is close to the broken hearted, He rescues crushed souls. God never intended the valley of Death’s Shadow to be circumnavigated or avoided but walked through.

It’s only wading through the blues that we find an honest voice for the song of our hearts.