Top 2017 Albums

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.

The Project

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.

Porter’s Gate Worship Project

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.

Slugs & Bugs

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

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.

Judy Bailey

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!

Psalter Project

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

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.

Liturgical Folk

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.

Michael Card

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.

Wendell Kimbrough

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!

Dum pendebat Filius

Last night I was taken off guard. As I went through the upstairs hallway of the rectory closing doors and turning off lights, I rounded a corner and was suddenly confronted by something new for us. Reflecting the dim glow of the one remaining light in a way that only cast pewter can, the body of Jesus hung there in front of me. And he looked exhausted.

We have a lot of crosses at our house, a fact I suppose that’s true of many clergy families. It’s not just that people give them to me when they’re not sure what else to get a priest for a gift, but in fact I’ve even bought myself a ton of crosses in the past few years, and we now have enough to hang one or two in every room. Our guest bedrooms house crosses made by humble artisans in Egypt, and our master bedroom and office showcase crosses we bought from the first Spanish mission in California: San Diego de Alcalá. We have little ceramic crosses from Seaport Village and big ceramic crosses from Flores de Petén and wooden crosses from Belize carved from ziricote and granadillo. I even keep stashed away among my little treasures a crooked cross that a friend of my parents, a blacksmith who is now deceased, had pounded out from an old railway spike. I would probably consider this a curious, even unique collection if I weren't also aware that most of my clergy acquaintances collect crosses to a similar, if not greater degree. It comes with the collar, so to say.

What is curious is how few crucifixes are included in my collection of crosses. Geometric patterns, flowers, and tight hardwood grains abound, but until recently only one of the crosses in our home featured the figure of Jesus of Nazareth. A traditional Central American depiction of La Nueva Creación, in it Jesus stands erect, victor over evil and president over a renewed earth, complete with farms, birds and butterflies. The cross itself is el mapamundi of this renewed world, and Jesus (freakishly white, I admit) stands superimposed, suspended over all as he pours out his Holy Spirit on a priest and deacon below, manus orantes. It is a beautiful icon, full of theological significance and meaning, but it’s not quite the crucifix we all know and recognize: a bare cross upon which hangs the helpless corpus of a Victim.

This absence (at least until recently) of a crucifix in our home was probably due more to aesthetic taste than theological aversion. These days, at least when it comes to visualizations of the Son of Man, I lean more towards John of Damascus than John of Geneva. That is, if in my home I can put up images of humans like my family, or Socrates, or the Simpsons, I ought also to be able to hang up an image of the truest human that has ever lived (and lives even still), identifiable by those wounds made by and for his human brothers and sisters. But rather than representing the fulness of Christ’s humanity, many of the crucifixes that I’ve come across are garishly inhumane, uncanny parodies of his humanity and ours. Its virtue may lie in its minimalism, but the empty cross of Holy Saturday does not offend my sensibilities with the overly white, overly effete, overly ripped (I mean, have you seen those abs?), overly Other Jesus found on so many others. All that’s to say, given our collection of crosses we had just never owned a crucifix.

But a few days ago we visited a dear little friend of ours, an eight-year-old boy sick with acute leukemia. He was back home for a few days, after dozens of rounds of chemotherapy in Mexico, and for a gift he brought us back a simple crucifix in the Benedictine style. The wood is darkly stained, and a small image of Jesus has been cast in pewter and affixed to the cross. Simple and beautiful, we thanked him for the gift and hugged and prayed for our little buddy, and we hung his cross in our upstairs hallway when we got home a little later. But it wasn’t until last night that I felt the impact of the cruciform figure that he had given us.

The impact came as I recognized, as if for the first time, the posture of the Christ. It was in the slump of the shoulders. In the disjointed curve of his taut arms. In the limp bow of his head. I had seen this posture when that same little boy who had given us our new crucifix collapsed limply onto his father's shoulders and just hung there as his body gave out. I had seen it in the figures of friends and loved ones who had been raked over the coals of life and who were somewhere between giving up and hanging on to hope. I had seen it in the tears of faithful servants who had given their lives for others but who, wounded and depleted, had nothing left to give but their exhaustion. And I had to be honest with myself, I was seeing it in myself that night.

I recognized the posture: he was simply hanging there. Suspended. Tired. Limp. 

Now, I knew that medically speaking, his death was from suffocation and exhaustion, products of a slow hanging, and not by punctures from nails or spear. But last night as I considered the physical gesture of his succumbing to gravity and letting himself go, his being suspended from the tree, well, it arrested my attention. It is a commonplace these days to say that it was his love, and not the nails, that held Jesus to his cross. But with his exhaustion in full view, I asked myself in a similar way: as Jesus hung there, what did he hang on to?

On that fateful Thursday night it may have been Judas Iscariot who gave up his friend, betraying him to his enemies, but on Friday it was Jesus alone who gave himself up to suffering and death. Exposed before the heavens and despised by the earth, he released his spirit to God and his body to the ground, a voluntary act of giving himself up to his Father’s will and to his Father’s care. The cross may have been an instrument of human torture and divine retribution, but by his last cry it is clear that Jesus was hanging on his Father’s promise. He may have been in deepest sorrow in Gethsemane and obvious agony on the cross, but he clung to his Father’s love. And though Jesus hung there bloody and bruised, exhausted and limp, through it all his Father held him up and brought meaning and power and life out of his suffering. Beyond all the suffering that Christ endured for us upon the cross, the bond of peace and love and purpose between Jesus and his Father, that pactum salutis formed before the foundation creation itself, could never be broken.

I really needed this reminder last night. I needed the reminder that the Son of God himself became exhausted, helpless, and hung limp in the hands of his Father, trusting and entrusting himself to almighty Love. I needed the reminder that Christ ascended to his Father and my Father, to his God and my God (John 20:17). I needed the reminder that when I feel exhausted and washed up, at that point when human capacity is depleted and I feel incapable of going any further, my duty is to surrender myself to the path and posture of Love and suspend myself in the loving arms of my God and Father.

So, I am happy that today this reminder is hanging in our home. Christ has indeed passed for all time beyond his humiliation, suffering, and death, and he has entered into his resurrection, victory, and exaltation. But on this side of my resurrection, I need to be reminded again and again of what he became for me, so that I can become like him, in heart and mind and will, and even posture.