Friday, May 21, 2010

One Voice, One Song, Hosanna

The Biker Blessing last Sunday meant over forty motorcycles were parked just outside our doors near the Activity Center where our 11:15 service is held. Although there were a variety of beautiful bikes out there, the dominant brand was the Harley-Davidson. Now I'll tell you up front that I have never owned a motorcycle, and the closest I ever came to wanting one was when we were traveling through the Black Hills of South Dakota a week before the die-hard motorcyclist's holy pilgrimage to Sturgis. Driving through the incredibile beauty there, I found myself wishing to permanantly park the van and throw my leg over a Harley and chase the freedom of the open road.

Besides, Harleys do bring back memories of growing up in Detroit, where my father was in the motor unit of the police force for most of his years on the job. He not only handed out a good share of tickets on Gratiot Avenue, but he was also a part of the motorcade that led the way for many VIPs who visited to the Motor City. The VIP's included a President and Vice President, but the ones I cared about the most was when the Tigers won the world series in 1968 and he was a part of the parade the city threw for championship team. At one point, slugger Willie Horton was on the back of his Harley during the celebration - a definite moment of pride for a young boy who loved baseball more than presidents and dignitaries. To this day, I remain disappointed that I wasn't actually there to see it and only know it second hand.

A few years after his retirement, I asked him about what it took to be a part of parades of this sort, and he could describe stacks and stacks of memos and directions, meeting upon meeting to cover details, and hours upon hours of preparation on the bikes themselves. It was clear that parades don't just happen. Everyone needed to know exactly what they were doing in that parade at every moment.

And yet on a Sunday a couple thousand years ago, the procession of Palms and pilgrims that filled the road into Jerusalem had a much more spontaneous feel. Yes, there was a prophecy from Zephaniah, and yes there were parades with the policians of the day. But as I approached my first Palm Sunday in Omaha, I spending time going over the details of that day Jesus rode on atop that donkey amid the cries of "Hosanna" and "Blessed be the Name of the Lord!"

What struck me that particular day was the thought: "Outside of Jesus, did any one else really understand the nature of this parade? Even though they cut the palm branches and lined the pathway with them, did they realize the real victory that they would point to? When they took off their outer cloaks and laid them before Jesus as he slowly made his way through the throngs of people, did they realize the true nature of the Kingdom of God and what it means to lay down one's life before this King?"

Such were my pondering as the image, the lyrics and the melody began to form in my mind. Even though there is no indication that anyone had a clue of the kind of king Jesus had come to be, at that moment they were untied - one voice, one song, one prayer, one cry - "Hosanna!" A simple, yet profound prayer: "Lord, Save Us!" What a President named Nixon (or any other president for that matter) couldn't do, Jesus did. What a championship team of players named, Horton, Freehan, Kaline, Lolich and McClain couldn't deliver, Jesus did. No wonder that after almost two thousand years, we still cry out: "Hosanna!"

Recording Notes: I believe this was the first new song I brought to the praise group in Omaha. At the time, I was still new and the players on the team were new to me. But as I brought this song in, it was Steve G who jumped in with his electric and began working on this new song we'd share as special music at the upcoming Palm Sunday service. Right away, I knew his guitar riffs were the perfect compliment to a rather fun acoustic groove I came up with on this song. In my years in Omaha, it became a standard for Palm Sunday and every year the congregation would jump in and sing it out. The one segment we added on the recording was the longer ending. It allowed us to have a little fun with Christopher Walken's famous SNL skit: "it could use more cowbell." In this case Tony G did a good job trying to live up the chops of Will Ferrell and Troy even added some maracas to the mix. With Michelle and Joel providing the background vocals, the live sound was captured for the CD.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Bread of Life

"Look at this, Pastor. Here's my sexy carrot." Now those are not the words you would expect to come out of a beautiful six year old. But instead of being shocked or confused, I immediately busted out laughing because I knew she had been listening to my Easter sermon. (BTW ... her Sunday School teachers were not there for that sermon, so they didn't know what to do with the student with the plastic veggtable which she called her sexy carrot.) Instead of trying to hop from the story of Peter Cottontail to the empty tomb, I chose to use follow down a different bunny tale that day. I used the story of "Don the Rabbit" from Donald Miller's book "Blue Like Jazz" to make a point as we talked about rebuilding life from the ground up through the resurrection of Christ.

Donald Miller had created this cartoon story of Don the Rabbit and his pursuit of "sexy carrot" as a parallel to all the things we chase in life. We believe they will give us life, but in reality, they can lead to our dimize. Now I'm not sure that this kindergartener really understood all the implications of this rabbit chasing this carrot, but it stuck in her young mind (and I know it was a great topic of discussion and lesson for her parents to build on with her).

I love that cartoon because it hits home for others, and of course, in my own driveway. I find myself using the words "I need" when I should really be saying: "I want." I don't "need" another guitar, a new Camaro, a nicer home, or even to find the best Mexican restaurant in every city I visit, but I want all of them and more. In reality, any of these things can easily become my personal sexy carrots to pursue even if they mean I throw myself in their direction with more passion than I do when it comes to God.

And it's that very truth that led me to write "Bread of Life" back in 2003. I honestly don't remember the exact date I began writing this song. I know this title of Jesus was coming up in a sermon series and I was spending time in John 6 far in advance to let my thoughts and impressions form in my heart long before I would begin writing the sermon. I reflected on the connection of this phrase used by Jesus with the story of God feeding His people "manna" from the sky in the wilderness in the book of Exodus. Instead of daily receiving God's gift of bread and life, the people began to try to hord it and store it away "just in case" the free food supply stopped as inexplicably as it began (despite Moses' warning not to do so). I laughed - recalling how it spoiled on the second day.

Jesus then speaks of himself being the "Bread of Life" come down from heaven. And yet, once again the self-centered nature of people bubbled to the surface. They wanted their bread king - their personal shopper from the sky would could miraculously provide them with what they needed, or should I say, what they wanted.

And right there in that moment, I knew I had that same spirit of entitlement dwelling deep in my own soul. The world of the Kingdom of God came crashing into the world of my selfishness, and the chokehold of sin needed to be ripped away from my heart. The invitation of Christ to come and eat this bread of life - surely a foreshadowing of the holy meal we share as Christians - is what this famished man needed and still needs today. Throw away your plastic sexy carrots. Our heavenly Father is drawing you in for a real feast of wine and bread.

Production Notes: When I first presented this song to the musicians at Divine Shepherd, Aaron Bressman was on drums that weekend. As usual, Aaron had a great feel for what I was looking for as we flesh out the song musically. So when we recorded this song, I knew I wanted him behind the drum kit. But it wasn't until the recording sessions that Steve came up with the electric guitar riffs that makes the song soar even higher musically. Add in the high harmonies of Aaron and it captures the passionate cry to the One who is the Bread of Life who is truly "manna for my soul."

Monday, May 3, 2010

Wholly Yours (Even in a Flood)

Even as I write this installment of my blog, parts of our past sit underwater and the damage assessments continue to rise faster than LeBron's stock in the free agent market. A friend sent me pictures of the Opryland Hotel on the east side of Nashville. The giant hotel (known for his delta area - complete with lazy river running through the ground floor) now looks like something from the Titanic.

This is a place where we have so many fond memories. It was one of our go to places whenever friends or family came to visit us during our nine year stay in Nashville. There were many strolls through the botanical gardens it housed insside. There was a wonderful night of romance as we celebrated a wedding anniversary there in southern style. There was even one incredible stay at the hotel (thanks to a church member with connections) when we lived like rock stars in one of the presidential rooms - complete with two floors and a beautiful view of that very same delta area of the hotel.

In such a time as this, we quickly discover how quickly the "stuff" we work so hard to accumulate can vanish. It's not the grand ballrooms that will withstand the swollen waters that rise from the rivers around us. Plain and simple, it is the relationships of our lives that ultimately matter. All those memories I have of the Opryland Hotel wouldn't mean all that much, if they weren't connected to someone I love more than words can really say.

That's what I was trying to get at with a simple chorus I wrote a number of years ago - Wholly Yours. I freely admit that I didn't spend months crafting every last word. Early one morning, I was playing guitar and singing thorugh a number of choruses in prayer as I often do, and then the thought of "wholly" belonging to Christ kept running through my mind. I was thinking about the verse that says "we love Him because He first loved us," (I John 4:19) and that led me to the book of Romans where Paul makes the same point as he states: "But God demonstrates His own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us." (Romans 5:8)

Compared to such a demonstration of love in the cross, my own "on again" and "off again" kind of love for God can be seen in its true perspective. The line at the end of the chorus that says: thoroughly, perfectly, entirely, wholly yours" isn't suggesting that I have that kind of love, but that God has totally initiated this relatationship and brought me into it by His grace.

Recording Notes: The song is kept simple on the CD. We have often done this during communion and when we do, we sing it a bit slower. But in this recording, Steve suggested that we pick up the tempo a bit and that made for the addition of the mandolin (which he played) and some nice fills by Ken on the electric. Joel's harmony really complimented my lead vocal and helped keep it a clean and simple prayer of thanksgiving.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010


Most parents ready themselves for the day when their oldest child leaves home and heads off to college. That’s the way we pictured it. It’s even the way we partially experienced it – but with a twist. That’s when God stepped in and Anette and I found ourselves doing something we would have never dreamed of doing. Most parents stay put while the kids go and find an inexpensive apartment and live with whatever possessions they can haul there in an overstuffed car, or perhaps the back of a van or pick up.

But we found ourselves loading up the back seat and trunk of our Elantra and moving 800 miles due east to the Cleveland area. The boys had occupancy of the house until it sold. We had an apartment with borrowed furniture and the things we hauled across the flat states of Iowa, Illinois, Indiana and finally into Ohio.

I know this seems like a long story and I haven’t even talked about the song: “A House of Prayer.” But this is the backdrop of the song. It was in those days of living with minimal “stuff” that I found myself disoriented. The two of us kept joking with each other about the new adventure we had embarked upon, but the reality was that nothing seemed the same. I, more than Anette, seemed to be suffering from separation anxiety – not from the boys which we both felt, but from my earthly possessions. I missed my bed, my stereo, and I hate to admit this – I even missed my recliner.

It was at this time that I was reading in the Gospel of Matthew about Jesus’ clearing of the temple (21:12-13). As I reflected on the cord he took in his hand, the tables he overturned, and his cry against the money-changers, it hit me in a whole new way.

Suddenly it wasn’t just the courts of Herod’s temple that echoed with the words: “You’ve turned my Father’s house into a den of thieves.” It was my heart that reverberated. My mind ran toward Paul’s description of every Christian being a temple of the Holy Spirit, and our need to see that reality in how we live out these lives we’ve been given.

A picture in my mind was forming of all the “stuff” that was cluttering up my soul. I had a vision of Jesus coming and casting aside my bed and my couch and then moving in closer and peering into the inward “stuff” that I had carried with me into this apartment in Parma. There were fears, doubts, hurts, bitterness, selfish thoughts all stacked up like moving boxes, and I knew that Jesus would need to turn them over if this heart of mine was to be returned to its original purpose – to be a House of Prayer.

As I wrote the words of this song, they were a confession, a cry of repentance before the Lord of the temple, and a pleading to Him to do what He needed to do in my life. And the words kept coming back into mind: “Turn the tables, the tables, the tables, and rescue me. Turn the tables, the tables, the tables and set me free.” In other words, this chorus didn’t go through a lot of rewrites. It was, and is, rather simple I know. Maybe it’s not profound, but is the heart cry of one child of God – maybe even your heart as well.

Production Notes: When I brought the song to Steve, he and I agreed that we needed to keep the music simple and let the words be that heart cry and drive the song. But as we sketched out possible instrumentation, Steve was trying to figure out what to do with a bass line. I will honestly tell you that I don’t know how to play bass, but as we listened to the acoustic guitar and scratch vocal, a bass line came to me (for the first time in my life I might add). I simply recorded it vocally and then Steve took out his bass guitar and further developed it. With Michael Chapman playing the congas, Ken Bressman adding some fine guitar work to it, and Joel Wichman’s harmonies, the song evolved into one of my favorites on the CD, as well as to use in worship.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Let the Nails Tell the Story of Love

A couple of years ago we designed a Lenten sermon series based on the nails of the cross. I wanted to write a theme song to go along with the series at the time, but like so many times, things get too hectic - too quick and it didn't happen. Then after moving from Omaha to the Cleveland area, I was sitting in our apartment and found some notes I had scribbled in a notebook and the words and tune started flowing. There were a number of rewrites, and the bridge was written a little later, but the basic thought was simple: "each of those nails tell a story of Christ's love."

One of my all time favorite Lenten songs is a song by Michael Card entitled: "Why?" In the last verse of the song, he asks the question: "Why did they nail his hands and feet - His love would have held him there." I love these lines and believe them to be powerful. Michael may be right in saying Christ's love for us is that strong, and yet it was real nails that were driven into the flesh of our Lord - all because of "the joy set before him" (Hebrews 12:2) so that He could rescue us and restore our lives in Him.

When I was in Hermitage (Nashville), we had a practice of ending every Good Friday service in silence and near darkness and then hammering nails into a cross with pieces of paper with our personal prayer of confession on them. It was always an erry sound to hear those hammers pounding those nails into the wood. Every year I found myself with tears running down my face in that holy time. I found myself offering prayers of thanksgiving to the Lord who demonstrated such a wondrous love.

That is the background of the final verse of the song. I like the fourth verse standing in contrast to the first three. Those first verses declare all that Christ has done by allowing nails to be driven through those loving hands and feet. Verse four, however, focuses more on our response to "bowing down and worshipping at the foot of the cross." We are invited to a different kind of life - one where:

We will lay down our hearts and then pick up our cross
And we will live understanding how much our lives cost
And we’ll seize ev’ry moment as the Risen Lord’s own
And let the nails tell this story of love

Production Note: On the recording I really like Steve's drumming. It reminds me of some of the old John Mellencamp stuff from his "Little Pink Houses" days. In fact Steve was really a one man band on this particular song - playing every instrument I believe. (At least he did let me sing :) ) I chose to make this the lead song on the CD because it really gives a nice introduction to the themes of Lent - letting the nails tell the story of love.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Who are the Children of Asaph

A few years ago I was reading through the Bible and came upon the name of Asaph in First Chronicles, chapters sixteen and twenty-five. Asaph was one of the Levites (or tribe of priests) who received special musical training and comissioning to lead worship before the Ark of the Covenant. In chapter sixteen, David gave them a psalm of thanksgiving he had composed to be played and sung before the Lord, and in chapter twenty-five, the sons of Asaph were set aside as singers to lead the people in praise.

It was from here that the realization hit me that in a very New Testament way, I have been priveleged to serve alongside a number of the children of Asaph - those who are used by God to lead His people in worship today. So as this CD project was being formed, planned and recorded, adding the name: "the Children of Asaph" really seemed like a way to state what we are all about as musicians and vocalists. We are not a band in the traditional sense of 4-6 people set up to hit the road and promote a record and our careers, but a varied grouping of musicians and vocalists who passionately love to see people come together in worship. Our common prayer is that worshippers everywhere experience the power of the Holy Spirit as He works through God's Word and God's gifts to impact the hearts of His people. In short I see these friends as modern day sons and daughters of Asaph, who are given the joy of using their talents and gifts in the area of the worship arts in ways that lift up the name of Christ.

In the days ahead, I will mention the singers and musicians who contributed to each song selflessly, but in today's entry, I'd like to mention a couple right away. One is Steve G., who served as producer, recording technician, engineer, studio player, bringer of the water (I think you get the picture) for the nine songs that were recorded in Omaha. But the biggest role that I didn't list in the credits has been encourager and friend. Our dreams of doing a project like this seemed to merge at just the right time. I have no idea how much time Steve put into those nine songs, but I know without that synergy we experienced in his basement studio, these songs would have not have come together in the way they did.

The other "son" of Asaph I'll mention is not a musician or a vocalist - at least not on this project. His name is Bill Wolfram, and he has been a professor of art and a main contributor to the Center for Liturgical Arts, based on the campus of Concordia University, Seward, Nebraska. Bill is a visionary of a different kind. He sees crosses ... everywhere. His digitally enhanced photographs take every day items and turns them into works of art that depict the power of the cross in a variety of ways. The cover art of the CD booklet is one of his creations and depicts the power of the cross and the empty tomb to bring about the New Jerusalem of Revelation, chapter 21. Having worked with Bill and witnessed how his love for Christ merges with his love for the various forms of art, I feel blessed to count him as yet another "son" of Asaph who added so much to In His Service, Volume 3.

Tomorrow, I'll start writing about each song with lyrics, background, contributors and how I pray it will impact the hearts of others.

In HIS Service,


Welcome to the In HIS Service Blog

Thanks for checking this blog out, and welcome as I celebrate the release of the first CD in the In HIS Service series. The goal is simple. For the next number of postings, I'd like to give you the background of this CD project (including why we're releasing Volume 3 first.)
The first thoughts about this project came back in my days in Nashville. I was taking part in a CD project with Jimmie Young (a Nashville songwritter, producer and elder in my congregation) and others from Emmanuel - a project that would be called: "Songs for the Masses." Jimmie had a sound in mind that he wanted to capture and anyone who knows him, knows that he moves with a singleness of focus.
During that time, I developed a vision for a different kind of project in mind to pursue. It wasn't a sound I was after, but a concept for filling a gap in the kind of contemporary praise and worship music I was coming across. I wanted a broader base of subjects and themes to choose from as I developed worship services. What came to mind was a series of songs that would use the life and ministry of Christ as a basis and covered the whole church year - all the way from Advent and Christmas through the Pentecost season and finally the end themes of the church year and the final appearing of Christ. I also began to be drawn towards the title: In HIS Service because of the dual theme of music written to be played and sung in the worship services focused on Christ, and because of a desire that every song be written with one purpose in mind - to praise and serve Christ and Christ alone.
It was at this point that I started to focus my writing on songs that would go along with that vision. So from those days until today's release of Volume 3, it's only been a short 8 or 9 years, and since the first tracks were recorded for this CD, a brief 2 years. By the way, the reason for Volume 3 being released before Volumes 1 or 2, is that I wanted to begin with the Lent, Holy Week and Easter themes and in terms of the church year, Volume 3 would be more appropriate. (The plan right now is to release Volume One next - with the seasons of Advent and Christmas.
So there you have it. In tomorrow's blog, I'll give you the background behind calling it Jeff Shanks and the Children of Asaph. After that, I'll move on to giving lyrics and the background behind each of the songs on Volume 3.