Joy to the World: Why we should be grateful for the music of the season [Encore Post]

Although Christmas repertoire can get repetitive, there's a deeper meaning behind the classic songs

“I did think I saw heaven open, and saw the very face of God”. – George Fredric Handel, spoken in tears as he finished composing the “Hallelujah” chorus of Messiah.

It’s not official until you hear it.

You may have been watching TV and the “Nutcracker” theme came on during a commercial. Or Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You” popped up in your playlist.

When holiday music begins saturating the airwaves, we know the Christmas season is upon us.

Of course, for those of us in the creative arts, especially musicians, you have probably been hearing these songs in rehearsals for months.

Yes, it can get a little wearisome performing the same songs year after year. After all, how many arrangements can there be of “Holly Jolly Christmas”? (Answer: too many.)  However, we can never forget the reason why music is so relevant to the celebration of Christ’s birth.

While most of the world was unaware of the King of Kings being born in a stable, the heavens were rejoicing. The famous appearance of the angels to the shepherds was accompanied by a heavenly concert. That precedent has continued to this day. Any time Jesus is mentioned, there is a good chance someone is singing.

Of course, many famous Christmas songs are not about the birth of Jesus. Santa Claus, Rudolph, and Frosty get just as much attention as the Christ Child in December. We hear the constant debate over whether the Christmas season has been over-commercialized, and some question the holiday’s legitimacy as a religious celebration. That doesn’t negate the fact that without music, our celebrations would not be complete. Christmas is one of the only celebrations in which people from varied cultures embrace a shared repertoire of music. That’s not by accident. In a small way, our collective love of holiday music reinforces the greater purpose that this season represents – our common need as human beings to connect with God and with each other. This is the ideal that we as artists are privileged to present each time we perform the classic songs.

Let’s be honest. No matter what your feelings are about Christmas, we can agree that there is no other time that the Christian message is presented so clearly, with little to no pushback from the broader culture. You won’t hear the words “Christ the Savior” in your local Target at any other time of the year. You won’t be invited to sing about a holy infant at a public, non-church related concert in the middle of July.

It’s an opportunity every year to share a timeless message in a short period of time.

As we perform, we remind people, over and over again, that there’s a good reason to sing. And that it’s hard to hate someone that is singing the same song.

So let’s enjoy and embrace the opportunity to help people rejoice, reflect, and find peace through music in each holiday season, even if that means enduring a bit of repetition.   Most importantly, we should remember that every time we perform in honor of the Christmas season, we echo the sentiments of the angels on that first evening of His earthly existence:

“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”

 

Question: What is your favorite Christmas song? What special meaning does it hold for you? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

 

[This encore post was originally published in Dec. 2015. It was updated and edited for re-publication.]

Flaws and All: A perspective on musicians and grace

Worship musician and producer Greg Johnson offers hope to artists burdened by mistakes and failures

 

Greg Johnson (Naomi Paul Photography)

Greg Johnson is a keyboardist, musical director, producer and songwriter who is passionate about communicating God’s grace through word and music. He currently serves as musical director at Northview Christian Church in Dothan, Alabama under Dr. Hart Ramsey. He agreed to share his thoughts on musicians who are dealing with internal struggles.

“Broken can be beautiful when Grace sings the melody” – Gwen Smith

I remember when I found myself sitting in church wondering, “What am I doing?”

I felt as if the whole world knew areas of my life that could only be labeled as failure. I’m sure as a musician or an artist, there are some skeletons that you would not want anyone to excavate because they could lead to guilt and public shame. Let’s be honest; 95% of the time the title musician is associated with negative terms. However, musicians are not born with flaws, people are.

Here is the truth:
All have sinned.
All! (Rom 3:23)

Anyone who has been born of a woman has sin within them. Without sin, there would not be a need for Christ to come as God’s rescue plan for humanity. For years, the church has made us fearful of being honest about the flaws and failures that we have experienced; that is not Christianity.

The truth is your flaw does not negate God’s grace on your life. Your flaw does not change God’s mind about you. In fact, it is in our weakness that we are made strong and His strength becomes the source that we draw from every time that we serve (2 Cor 12:9). Your flaw is what qualifies you for His grace upon your life. God isn’t looking for anyone self-made as my pastor would say. That burden will exhaust you, because the image that you create, you must hide behind. And the image you hide behind will be the image that you will have to perpetuate.

It is Jesus who fully sees and fully knows a Samaritan (enemy of the Jews) woman at the well who, after encountering Jesus, goes into Samaria and testifies causing many to believe in Him.

It is Jesus who gives grace to the Prostitute caught in the act and, possibly as she stood naked in front of her accusers who classified her as the most immoral human being to walk the earth, He (the only one without sin) stoops and writes something that causes stones that were meant for execution under the law to fall one by one as her accusers to walked away.

It is Jesus who goes out of His way to break the Sabbath by healing a man who was paralyzed, not letting him wait another day for his healing.

It is Jesus who further violated the Sabbath when He told this same man to take up his bed which was considered work, a violation that caused one man to die for doing something as simple as gathering sticks.

It is Jesus who meets a man on his way to persecute the church, knocks him off his horse, and forms a lifelong love affair that changes his identity and life mission which was to testify about the grace of God. (Acts 20:24)

This same Jesus died for you. His death is greater than your flaw, and it is through our broken vessels that His light shines through. Wherever you are called to, whether it is in your local community or out of the country, know that you are not a failure but a redeemed and adopted child of God. Before being a musician, you are His. You may be wretched, but let your response be “thanks be to God through Jesus Christ”; in Him there is no condemnation. (Romans 7:24-25; 8:1)

Your identity is in Christ; not in your best days and certainly not in your worst.

Wherever you go, before you take the stage, reflect on Christ and His boundless one way love for you as you are – not some future, better, and cleaned up version of you. Rest in His accomplishment for you and make your boast in Him every chance you get. Jesus takes even the worst of sinners to demonstrate grace. Broken can be beautiful when Grace sings the melody. Playing and singing takes on a new meaning once this truth is understood. It will all be to the glory of God who gave you the gift and the redemption despite every failure that you or anyone else can name about yourself.

The Content Question: When critics attack

Here are a few tips on how faith-focused creatives can deal with controversy over their artistic choices

If you’ve created anything outside of the four walls of a church, you’ve probably heard this question.

“How can you (play, create, write) that kind of (music, art, story) if you say you believe in God?”

Or, even more pointedly, “How can you work or collaborate with artists who  _______(fill in the offending act or belief system here)?”

This question always brings out the most critical and confrontational conversations between artists and audiences, creators and congregations, performers and pastors.  There are invisible battle lines drawn as soon as the topic arises.

On one side, you have the standard-bearers, those who want faith-focused artists to have no contact or connection with anything they deem secular or ungodly.

On the other side, you have the artists, musicians and creatives who become marginalized into making art that keeps the first category happy. They champion their creative freedoms and point out the idea that their creativity cannot be contained inside temples and in front of church pews.

To each musician, creative, and artist who has dealt with this question, I want to offer three different questions to ask yourself when critics question the content of your creativity, or the quality of the people with whom you collaborate.

 

  1. Who am I working for?
  2. What is my audience looking for?
  3. Who am I trying to impact?

Should you want to be famous?

Being publically recognized has benefits, but faith-centered artists must weigh the costs

Fame.

Andy Warhol, an artist who gained lots of attention due to his unique sensibilities, once said we would all get 15 minutes of it.

A few minutes on YouTube makes it apparent that he was essentially right. Fame is now measured in views, likes and how many followers you can amass on Instagram. And, if everyone can now be famous, then no one is exempt from the pressure to try to do so.

That’s certainly for many creative artists. We seek it in the form of online approval, fans, name recognition, artistic glory, and critical acclaim. While we may say we aren’t interested in fame, there’s no question that there are benefits to being the person everyone has heard of.

But is it a good thing? Should a faith-focused creative want to be famous?

This presents a contradiction. Every major religion reminds its followers to strive for humility – to let God be the only one who receives glory. Yet, even the faithful often look to the famous.  Some Christians flock to mega-church pastors based on name recognition alone. Chart-topping music acts fill stadiums.   Books by the most famous inspirational authors are snapped up while less-well known authors languish on the shelf. If one wants to have widespread influence, apparently fame is the way to go.

Can we artists reconcile our desire for recognition and influence with the principle of humility? 

Is being ‘gifted’ enough?

Creative artists sometimes must remind themselves of their true worth

There’s something about a gift that makes everyone happy.

Whether it’s a for birthday, a holiday, or just because, there’s nothing quite like the moment that someone is presented with a gift. Even the people who know what’s inside the present watch with eager anticipation, waiting to see the gift revealed and the reaction of the recipient.  Something about the process of opening a present makes us want to be a part of it.

As a creative, you’re probably accustomed to people referring to you as ‘gifted.’   Your gift was given to you by your Creator, and you’ve likely spent your life unwrapping it and sharing it with others.  What happens when people are more interested in the gift than the person that is doing the giving?