Songs That Take You High and Low

Album cover for Ties to the Light - Songs That Take You High and Low.

Hey everybody! This little space on the Internet I’ve had going for over a decade now has really been about sharing resources, ideas, thoughts, and experiences as they relate to worship ministry. And I think most of you who read this blog serve in that arena in one way or another. Crossing into this space occasionally are also thoughts about creativity, and the arts in general, and today’s post is along those lines. If you read on, please indulge me in hearing a bit of my artistic and creative journey the last few years.

I appeared on a friends podcast recently and spoke quite a bit about the connections between how I view myself as a creative person, an image-bearer, and how my relationship with God connects to all that. Whereas before becoming a disciple of Jesus creativity was much about self-expression, when I submitted to the Lordship of Christ my art became more about worship, and offering the best of myself to his purposes and for his kingdom. This even caused me to shift majors in college. I had started out as a fine arts major (I make paintings and illustrations), but my visual art at the time was so inward-focused I chose to move to music (eventually getting a music degree with an emphasis in audio engineering) which for me was more outward in expression. I made music in those days that was alternative rock, played some shows around town and on college campuses (we even one the “battle of the bands” back at CU Boulder, due not in small part to the frenzied CU campus ministry in the audience). And my friends and I would regularly play rock sets of popular tunes and my own songs for campus retreats.

Later I started writing some songs for the church to sing (mostly because I was tired of some of the songs we were repeating so frequently) and made it my goal to write simple, catchy, easy to sing songs that could be sung at a campus gathering or baptism, or also could be scaled up and done at a conference or big worship service. By God’s grace he gave me some great songs, some of which caught on and spread around our fellowship of churches.

I still always had my alternative rock musical foundations though, and a while back I started writing songs again in that vein, partially with hopes of playing out around town in non-church environments, just to meet wholly different categories of members of my community, to reach out and meet new people. Artistically, it was also fun to branch away from worship music, even as the message of many of the songs came from a worshipful perspective or a place of commentary on the spiritual journey. They were songs about people falling away, getting spiritually numb, finding God in campus ministry, needing community, striving towards Christ, feeling distant in secular culture. But the lyrics are all couched in metaphorical terms with universal themes that hopefully everyone can relate to. In order to distinguish the material from the worship music most people knew me from, I released the songs under the band name “Ties to the Light.” (Here’s the new Facebook page for that music.)

Worship music has to be simple, easy to sing, musically uncomplicated, not dependent on a certain groove or instrumentation (at least if it’s going to be easily sung by average church members and shared amongst diverse congregations). In particular my goal has been to share really easy songs, as much of modern worship music feel radio/performance driven, in my opinion, more than being about congregational engagement (of course there are some great exceptions of easy-to-sing songs). Conversely, my Ties to the Light songs could be more about artistic expression and my own musical and production technique exploration, even whilst still being vehicles of spiritual messaging. My recordings of worship songs were made primarily for the purposes of sharing the songs themselves, so I used whatever audio technology I had available at the time, without getting overly concerned with production value. So while I still love the songs, some of the recordings are not so great. With my Ties to the Light stuff though, in order for it to stand beside commercial releases it had to be higher production quality, so I invested in paying to have some of the songs mixed and trying to learn newer recording techniques and equipment.

Just this past week I am now releasing the second album of Ties to the Light music (three of the songs on this new release are cowritten with Geoff Fawcett, which is cool). Because it’s under a new artist name and not my own name, almost no one knows about it. So for example while I have a decent number of listeners who listen to “J. Brian Craig” on Spotify, for Ties to the Light there are 9. Actually now it’s up to 11. So if you’ve read this far, you probably are a supporter of my music and ministry so I’d like to ask you–can you help me get the word out about Ties to the Light? Listen on streaming devices. Download and/or rate and review on iTunes. Like and follow the Facebook page I just set up (and share the videos that are on there). And, if you like the music, tell your friends about it! Because I get feedback that some of these songs would be great for sync purposes (like behind a commercial or TV show or some other media vehicle) I’ve included acoustic and instrumental versions of the songs on this one.

By the way, with the time I spent the last few years finally getting that Ties to the Light music up and running and out into the world, I’ve been building up a backlog of new worship songs that God has been giving me. So I have at least two albums worth of newer worship songs I need to get decent recordings of and release. Some of these I have posted in this space or shared in one way or another — more introspective songs like Let Me Rest, I Belong, Only In the Cross and more upbeat songs like Heavens Declare, Emptied All, and Worship You My King. There’s even a worship song that acknowledges climate change called Every Rock and Tree. Please pray for me that I can make time to get all these songs recorded and share them; there are some songs my local church really loves singing or the kids at camp totally love belting out, and I feel a calling to share them with a wider audience. One cool thing is I’ve been getting faster and better with mixing and production, learning Logic along the way doing Ties to the Light stuff, and especially all the virtual choir worship videos I made during the lock down. So hopefully I’ll be able to work a little faster getting the material released.

Thank you so much for cheering me along on this musical journey, and thank you for all the support that so many of you have given me through the years!


Emptied All

Some think that Philippians 2:6-11 was an early hymn sung by the church, so I though it would be really cool to write a modern worship song using that section of scripture as the chorus. My exegesis of the surrounding passages led me to an idea that the hymn represented the center of a chiastic structure in Paul’s thought:

.  a Paul’s struggle (Phil 1:20-24)
.      b Paul’s relationship with the Philippians (Phil 1:25-30)
.          c Philippians’ relationships with each other (Phil 2:1-4)
.                d Example of Jesus (Phil 2:5-11)
.           c’ Philippians’ relationships with each other (Phil 2:12-15)
.      b’ Paul’s relationship with the Philippians (Phil 2:16)
.  a’ Paul’s struggle (Phil 2:17-18)

Here is a basic recording of the song.  Below that are the lyrics and a paper that provides more study of the biblical passage.

Emptied All – band demo

Philippians 2, 1-11 – Having the Mindset of Christ – paper

EMPTIED ALL

Verse 1
(from Philippians 2:1-5)
All that we’ve been given
Every blessing in Christ
we share
We should be like-minded;
We should be one
No selfish ambition
Putting others above ourselves
We’ll look to Jesus
in our minds

Chorus
(from Philippians 2:6-11)
Emptied all,
though He was fully divine
To the cross
humbled Himself,
there to die
So exalted be His name,
lifted high
He is Lord
Jesus is Lord
Jesus is Lord

Verse 2
(from Philippians 2:14-18)
So easy to argue
So easy to grumble, but
If we think like Jesus,
we’re gonna shine
Like stars in the heavens,
Holding on to the word of life
Though we be poured out
in sacrifice

Verse 3
(from Philippians 3:13-21)
Forget what’s behind us
Straining forward
to what’s ahead
We’re focused on a
heavenward prize
Not like those around us
Their minds set on
earthly things
We’re waiting for our
heavenly King

Verse 4
(from Philippians 4:4-9)
Be always rejoicing
Believing the Lord is near
And with thanksgiving
we will pray
Peace past understanding
Will be guarding our
hearts and minds
Whatever you think,
think like Christ


My Hope is Built

Good morning everyone! We’ve just had our third in-person worship service in a row, which has been great, and I got to attend an outdoor dinner party with no masks (everyone was vaccinated) last week. But we are still a looooong way off from being back to normal (and who knows what “normal” will even look like going forward). Even as we get back a few of the things we lost I know a lot of us are still pretty shell-shocked from the last year, maybe grieving, maybe our world has been pretty rocked in one way or another. I am so very thankful for my grounding faith, my hope in the enduring word of God and the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Here’s a great old hymn with this sentiment, and a recording I made with my version of it back in 2012.

By the way I love new takes on old hymns, and I have about an album’s worth of them I plan to release this year. If you have a favorite new version of an old hymn, or even just a hymn you’d like to plug in general, please add a comment below.

MY HOPE IS BUILT

My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness
I dare not trust the sweetest frame,
But wholly lean on Jesus’ name

On Christ the solid rock I stand,
All other ground is sinking sand
All other ground is sinking sand

When darkness veils his lovely face,
I rest on his unchanging grace
In every high and stormy gale
My anchor holds within the veil

His oath, his covenant, his blood,
Support me in the ‘whelming flood
When all around my soul gives way
He then is all my hope and stay

When he shall come with trumpet sound
O may I then in him be found
Dressed in his righteousness alone
Faultless to stand before the throne

E   /   Bsus   /   A(add2)   /  A   E

E   /   Bsus   /   A(add2)   /  A   E

E   /   A(add9)   /  c#min   /  Bsus

A(add2)    (break)


I Belong

Hey everyone… happy Monday! We met for church in person yesterday (outdoors) for just the second time since the lockdown over a year ago. It was so great to see everyone, to hear the voice of everybody. There is nothing like being in the Temple of the Lord (which is now the Church). God has taught us new lessons of what it means to be the church over this last year. Our connections to one another have been tested, along with our faith. We have had to work through divisions caused by the pandemic, racial tensions, and political upheaval… and, prayerfully, we have come through it all together in Christ. Thank God for his amazing church, his Holy Temple. There is no where I want to be except with God and with the people of God.

In keeping with this idea I wanted to share a song today called “I Belong,” inspired by Psalm 84. I share in the video a bit about the story behind the song. This video was the opening of a virtual workshop called “Belong 2021” happening today and tomorrow with ministers from our family of churches across the Pacific Islands and Southwest US.

I Belong
(inspired by Psalm 84)

You know all that I’m
Longing for, and my
Being cries out for you
I can’t wait to be
Where you are and see
Everything that you do

Singing praises, onward we go
Through the desert, make water flow
Like a sparrow has found a home
Next to you…
I belong, I belong with you
I’m at home, I’m at home with you

Single day with you
Can’t compare it to
A thousand out in the world
May your son give light
May your spirit guide
Every step, every turn

Hear my prayer
Let me stay here
Close to you, my God
Grant me favor
May I be where

Verse
C / G/B / Am / Am
F / C / Gsus / Gsus
C / G/B / Am / Am
F / C / Gsus / Gsus

Prechorus
F / F2 / C / Gsus
F / F2 / C / Gsus
F / F2 / C / Gsus
F2 / F2 / F2 / (break)

Chorus
C / C / G/B / G/B
Am / Am / F2 / F2

Bridge
Am / Am / F2 / F2
C / C / G / G
Am / Am / F2 / F2
C / C / G / G
G / (break)


Turning Sorrow into Song: Interview with Michael Aggabao

Michael Aggabao is a great friend of mine who is also a “man of sorrows,” losing his beloved daughter at a young age to a rare genetic disorder, a loss he carries with him every day of his life.  He’s also the most prolific songwriter I know, turning to God with both his joys and his sorrows, much like the authors of the biblical psalms.  He draws often from the language of these ancient songs to communicate and connect with our loving Father and to express his heartache and longing to see his daughter again in paradise someday.  And he writes really catchy songs!  

In this free-ranging interview we talk about songwriting, recording techniques, challenges of a global pandemic (Michael is also a health professional), and turning sorrow into song.

Subscribe to Michael’s youtube channel to hear new songs he is writing all the time:

Hear his albums on Spotify, Apple Music, or Youtube Music:


How Spiritual Identity Fuels Creativity: Podcast with Michael P. Lovett

Michael P. Lovett invites me onto his podcast to interview me about creativity and my walk with God. Our conversation includes:

  • Being an mage-bearer, identity 
  • What makes you feel like “I was born to do this?”
  • Leaning in to your strengths rather than always focusing on your weaknesses
  • What way are you uniquely gifted?
  • What way are you a “gardener”?
  • Everyone has a unique way they have been designed to build the kingdom

What does the idea of being “image bearers” have to do with creativity? What parallels are there between “gardening” in Eden and being artists in our time? In this podcast interview with Michael P. Lovett, we discuss such questions and how they relate to our spiritual self (particularly as men, but I’d expect women will enjoy our conversation as well). When leaning to use our gifts is part of active worship (Rom 12:1-2), such creativity becomes part of the rule and reign of the ever-expanding Kingdom of God. It’s about Him, it’s for Him.

This allows us to be vulnerable. This allows us to fail. Because it’s not about us, it’s for God’s glory. We can let go. Create, express, build, invent, design, dream. As men in particular, we don’t have to be afraid.

I share in the podcast how this ties in to my walk with God. I briefly pass along a few of the things I gleaned from the book With by Skye Jethani. Unfortunately, we often accept these lesser postures (which the book describes) in our relationship with God because we’re afraid of the world and we want control. (I speak much more about these concepts in these Sunday lessons: “With,” Part 1; “With,” Part 2.) On the podcast, Michael and I end up talking further about suffering: God’s presence within suffering, and dealing with the unanswered questions that happen in hard times.

Bottom line: the more you know God, the more you understand your proper identity. The closer you are to Him, the more this guides and directs your life, and the many roles present in your life (including being a creative person).


John McLellan: Recording and Songwriting in Lockdown

My friends and fellow musicians John McLellan and Pete Wade are making music under the name “Soulfish” and they put a great album together during lockdown. In this video interview, John and I talk about the album as well as the songwriting process, what he’s been learning about recording, and leading worship during the time of Covid. We talk about :

  • How we’ve been doing our Sunday worship services
  • How we’ve been building worship videos with virtual performances
  • What we’ve been learning about song writing, arranging, and recording
  • And more details about what into the making of the record

Please buy or stream the album “Dust” by Soulfish now available on all streaming or download platforms. John’s expertise as a guitarist and Pete’s amazing vocals feature so prominently on the record. It has elements of blues, rock, soul, gospel, all with deep spirituality woven throughout.

Visit: https://www.soulfishmusic.com/
Like/follow: https://www.facebook.com/mysoulfishmusic


Holy Temple – Michael Aggabao

Hey everybody, happy Monday!  Today I’m sharing a song from my friend Michael Aggabao – singer/songwriter, worship leader. Had the privilege of studying the Bible with him many years ago and he always encourages me.  I’d been spending some time thinking about the concept of the Temple, which represents God’s presence.  Solomon’s prayer of dedication in I Kings 8 is really so amazing if you think about all the Temple represents (and how now in the New Covenant we–the family of Christare the temple).  Also been battling some anxiety with all we’ve been going through.  And then I got this song and message from Michael and it ministered to me, and tied in to what I had been thinking about in terms of God’s presence.  Hope it encourages you too.  If you’re not familiar with Michael’s work please check out his channel on YouTube and his music on streaming platforms.

From Michael:

“I was filled with grief and anxiety yesterday, just glued to the bed, thinking of my daughter Katrina and my son Jared. One of Jared’s FA friend is now on hospice care which added more to my anxieties. But our ‘Papa/Daddy’ was quick to save and pointed me to Jonah 2:7 then I was awaken with this tune…so grateful to our Father, that He has a song for each one of us….

“The Lord your God is with you, the Mighty Warrior who saves. He will take great delight in you; in his love he will no longer rebuke you, but will rejoice over you with singing.”
                        – Zephaniah 3:17 NIV

“When I had lost all hope, I turned my thoughts once more to the Lord. And my earnest prayer went to you in your holy Temple.”
                        – Jonah 2:7 Living Bible

 

Holy Temple (original 2/9/21)

verse 1
My mind is racing, O Lord.
I can’t control my thoughts.
I’m sinking in fear, O Lord.
Help me clear my thoughts.

chorus
When I had lost all hope.
I turned my thoughts to you, Lord.
My earnest prayers went out to you.
In your Holy Temple

verse 2
I know you hear my prayers, Lord
So I lay it all before you.
All my fears and failures.
O Lord lift me up.

Bridge
Where are you sending me?
I’m lost in the vastness of the sea.
Where should I go from here?
When my fears and doubts overwhelms.

Tag
I remember you Lord.
I remember you Lord.
You are faithful.
I remember you Lord
I remember you Lord.
Your my Savior.
Your my salvation, my deliverer.
Your my healer, my protector…….


Breakthrough featuring Betty Collins

Happy New Year!

Today I’m sharing another song from our Better Haiti Concert.  Years ago I wrote this song for a conference (I share the story here) but it has taken on new meaning through the year 2020!  We used the song for a virtual choir video over the summer as we were experiencing the dual challenges of wrestling with racial injustice as well as the global pandemic.  We added the new ending and prayer section as a time of calling on God as a congregation.

Here is the rendition from our concert, featuring my good friend and fellow worship leader Betty Collins on lead vocal.  Love singing with Betty.  And today’s her birthday — happy birthday, Betty!

 

BREAKTHROUGH

You hung the sun and moon
a universe in tune
Caused the dry earth to bloom
brought it to life
Gave men your spirit’s spark
turned them to light from dark
By your blood set apart
made us to shine

Give us a breakthrough
There’s so much more to do
Your kingdom come through us
Your will be done in us
Give us your heart
Give us a breakthrough
It’s gotta come from you
You are unstoppable
Everything’s possible
Almighty God
Give us a breakthrough

You set the captives free
You split apart the sea
Told us to watch and see
all you would do
Brought water from a stone
gave those exiled a home
Your Holy One enthroned
King of all kings

Fill every heart with love
Teach us to overcome
Lead us with power from
your Spirit’s fire
We sing your praises loud
sing to the stumbling crowd
Till all the whole world ’round
knows who you are

BREAKTHROUGH (in E)

Verse:
E / E / Bsus / Bsus
A2 / A2 / E / E
E / E / Bsus / Bsus
A2 / A2 / Bsus / B

Chorus
E / B/E / C#m / B/C#m
F#m7 / A / Bsus / B
E / B/E / C#m / B/C#m
F#m7 / A / Bsus / B
E / E

Outro
F#m / Asus / E / Bsus (repeating)


Praises Heard Around the World (live recording 2020)

Happy Monday!  Merry Christmas!  Happy New Year!  What a crazy year it’s been.  Things are really bad right now in my area (Los Angeles County) so we are still in lock down mode, even tighter now.  Glad we have vaccines and better times on the way.  One cool thing from 2020 was doing a fundraiser concert for Better Haiti, with some of my popular church tunes they asked me to sing.  The audio turned out pretty well, so I decided to release it as a live album (now available on streaming platforms or for download).  Over the next several weeks I’ll post one video at a time from the concert.

This first song has become a favorite among International Churches of Christ, as it celebrates our family of churches “all around the world.”  The melody and lyrics for the chorus of this song were written by my friend Tony Martin for a small worship leader conference we both helped to put on around 15 years ago.  It was kind of a catchy “jingle” he came up with to celebrate the praises we were singing at this international gathering.  He asked me to help turn the tune into a congregational song that our churches could sing.  I worked on orchestrating a groove, harmony parts, and verses for the song.  The acoustic part was influenced by a Jack Johnson style of playing, who I was probably listening to at the time, and kind of an island type groove.  It really caught on right away — it’s fun and celebratory, inspiring, and motiving to think about the ways God is moving through all the nations of the earth.   It reminds us we are heading towards a future together with God along with a family of brothers and sisters of every nation, tongue, tribe, and language (Revelation 7).  (By the way, check out this video of disciples from around the world singing the song in their own native languages.)