Music is genuine nourishment for my soul. For Mary Beth’s too. Probably for yours as well. Much like my body pushes me to seek out citrus when I have a cold, or sugar when I’m light-headed, something inside me tends to push me towards music that will supply what my spirit may need at the moment. Having been in full-time ministry this past year, especially on the mission field, I’ve been interested to see what kind of music Mary Beth and I have been drawn towards, and what has been nourishing us spiritually. Here’s a brief rundown of the best of whom we’ve been listening to throughout 2017, in no particular order.
As we were gearing up to begin our new Evensong service last February, I was looking for a contemporary version of the Phos hilaron, and stumbled upon this little-heard musical collective. Their second album, Mystic Chapel is a folksy take on the traditional Orthodox all-night Easter vigil service. There are some fantastic singles on this album, but the whole thing holds together well as a unit. This was one of my first, and favorite, musical discoveries of the year.
My most recent musical discovery has blown me away. Last month Porter’s Gate Worship Project dropped their first album, Work Songs, Volume I. We started listening right around the same time that we were celebrating Harvest at our many schools and churches, and the convergence was just amazing. For people like us engaged in (sometimes exhausting) cross-cultural labors and ministry, this was exactly what we needed. Plus, the gospel choir just rocks most of the tracks out of the ball park.
When I was a kid, my mother and I used to sit down and watch The Muppet Show together, in large part because it was something that both children and adults could enjoy. Slugs & Bugs, the brainchild of folk artist Randall Goodgame, is exactly that kind of album that can be regularly consumed by adults and children alike. These songs are inane and hilarious, infectious and catchy, and so well done. Neither Mary Beth nor I can stop listening to them, shamelessly singing aloud about pajamas, ninjas, back-hoes, and Bible verses. It’s amazing.
Fernando Ortega is on so many people’s lists of favorite musicians, it is no surprise that his calming presence shows up on ours. But Ortega deserves a spot here in particular because his Spanish-language album Camino Largo has been on Mary Beth’s rotation as she has been practicing her Spanish. It helps too that many of his songs are both in English and in Spanish, and knowing one helps her understand the other.
Mary Beth and I have been on the look-out for a fantastic setting for the “service music” of our Sunday Eucharist service, songs like the Kyrie eleison, the Sanctus, or the Agnus Dei. We introduced one setting to the folks at St. Andrew’s and St. Hilda’s late last year, but when we discovered Judy Bailey a few months ago, we knew we had to head in that direction. A world-renowned singer-songwriter from Barbados, she has composed and recorded a whole setting for Holy Communion called Lift Up Your Hearts, and it embodies the ethos of the Caribbean. We love listening to her, and we can’t wait to get started on teaching these settings to the people of our churches!
The biblical psalms form the “bread and butter” of Christian worship, and I am always on the lookout for decent contemporary settings of the psalms for worship. Psalter Project’s first album Highway In Our Hearts is notable, not only in that it is a beautiful and varied gesture in this direction, but it also includes notoriously overlooked psalms, like Psalm 132 which is used for ordinations and such. If you are interested in the contemporary revival of psalm-singing, this collective is worth your attention.
Steven Delopoulos is a folk singer-songwriter whose music often hones in on overlooked religious aspects of the artistic process. It’s not just that his Christian faith is expressed in his music, but he poetically ruminates on how artistic composition and performance in-and-of-themselves exposit the Kingdom of the “Great Arranger” God himself. Good stuff.
In the little world that is Anglican contemporary worship, this worship collective made a big splash this year with two simultaneous album releases: Table Settings and Edenland. The former is a collection of “service music” for worship, much of which is catchy, and some of which we have been using for our new Evensong service. The later is a theologically deep and fantastically executed rumination on our exile from and restoration to the primordial Garden. There are genuinely good albums that I tire of listening to after a while: months later I am still enjoying them … especially Edenland.
I grew up listening to Michael Card all the time, and though the ’80s synthesizers may have aged poorly, the lyrics and melodies still have a way of injecting the Word of God into my heart and mind. Besides his classic albums The Life (focused on the life of Christ) and The Ancient Faith (a tour through the Old Testament), his albums The Silence of God (on suffering) and A Fragile Stone (the life of the Apostle Peter) have picked up special meaning in our journey as missionaries.
Every pastor or music director has a musician or artist that they turn to in planning worship, a composer or singer who seems to capture and embody how the congregation should be praising the Lord. I do not think it would be a stretch to say that for Mary Beth and me this artist is Wendell Kimbrough. Not only do we enjoy his music for ourselves, a good chunk of the new worship songs we have introduced to our church were written and/or sung by him. A contemporary musician with an incredible ear for what a typical church is able to sing, his praise songs are hymn-like and his hymns are praise-filled. We cannot recommend his music highly enough.
Obviously there is much more we could say, and much more we listen to. But these are all music, and mostly worship projects, that have touched our hearts and fed our souls over the past year. And perhaps they might be nourishing for you as well!