Andrew Peterson, The Reluctant Worship Leader

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I’ve heard Andrew Peterson say that he doesn’t view himself as a worship leader. I can understand his hesitation in accepting such a designation. It’s an important and worthy title, but often comes with some unfortunate baggage, particularly as it relates to songwriting. More than once, I’ve heard unknowing emcees introduce Andrew Peterson as the guy that will “lead us in worship.” No shame in that, of course, but it’s just not what AP does. Or is it?

Worship music at its worst can be trite and trivial. Done poorly, it minimizes and makes ordinary that which is majestic. And when that which is majestic is distorted or disordered, it’s closer to a lie than the truth. As we seek to glorify God as a gathering of believers, if our vision is clear, we find ourselves closer to the truth. Indeed, in the purest sense, that’s what Andrew Peterson’s work does for me, and I don’t think I’m alone in that. Andy’s art allows me to see that which may have previously been austere, distorted, or hidden. Or sometimes isn’t any of those things but is simply constructed so beautifully and so accurately, and with such specificity, that my spirit floods with joy. In that sense, Andrew Peterson is the best kind of worship leader.

Whether it’s Behold the Lamb of God or his latest musical vision, The Resurrection Letters, Andy allows his audience to piggyback on his own vision. He lends us his own glasses that offer rare vision and clarity. I see nuance and detail that is sometimes shrouded in fog. I see Jesus. And I see the whole story, not victory without sacrifice, not pleasure without pain, and not divinity without humanity. As it happened, both of these stories were fraught with moments of pain, terror, anger, and injustice, before we could get to the joy. Like Behold the Lamb of God, Resurrection Letters contains great conflict and drama. If it weren’t true, it wouldn’t make a great story. The True Tall Tale of the Coming of Christ segues into The True Tall Tale of the Resurrection of Christ, but as others have perceptively noted, it’s the same story. And ultimately, it’s not just The Greatest Story Ever Told, it’s the greatest Love story ever told.

Jesus is fully God, but also fully man. It seems we rarely have difficulty in focusing on Jesus’ divinity. On the contrary, it’s more difficult to apprehend the second half of that truth, Jesus as man. Both of these programs do not hesitate to trumpet Jesus’ divine nature. But further and equally important, we catch vivid depictions of Jesus humanity. There’s great joy, but also great tragedy before the joy can be made full. In fact, as I fathom Jesus’ humanness, I remember that he understands my life, not only because he is God, but because He lived His own life as a man. In seeking to glorify God, a holistic understanding of Jesus’ nature leads me there more expeditiously, as I begin to appreciate all aspects of His character.

Resurrection Letters share many components with Behold the Lamb of God, including a larger cast than we would find at a normal AP show, in-the-round presentations by each respective artist prior to the main event, instrumental wizardry from the players, and a show which is God focused and worshipful. Even the audience behaves similarly in both programs, intuitively understanding that clapping and cheering might divert the focus from a vertical to horizontal perspective.

The show I attended at Bethany Lutheran in Elkhorn, Nebraska–a group estimated at around 650 or better–listened with rapt attention and only erupted into wild applause after the musicians left the stage at the very end. The audience joined the musicians in the last hymn, “All Hail the Power,” as the artists exited. Then there was a period of silence that lasted at least five seconds followed by thunderous applause and cheering, reminiscent of a basketball crowd expressing surprised wonder at the sinking of a last second winning shot. He is Risen!

I’m not going to provide a play-by-play of each song played during the first annual Resurrection Tour. Others have already provided that information in fine detail, including some of my great friends at the Andrew Peterson Forum. What I’d like to do here is to provide some sense for the impact this program had on my heart and soul.

As an Andrew Peterson show veteran I should be immune from emotional surges that come from hearing the songs I’ve heard so many times before. Surprisingly, “The Chasing Song” reached up and grabbed me as if I were hearing it for the first time. One part nostalgia and one part new conviction brought that billowing, teetering, stirring sense of emotion that would have resulted in full blown tears had I been driving alone in my car. In public, I used my well developed technique of thinking about monkeys playing in trees to dam up the tears. Whew. That was close.

Hearing Jill Phillips sing more than a song or two was a treat. When Andy Gullahorn and Jill sing together, it’s so other-worldly beautiful that words almost become secondary. That, coming from a lyric man such as myself. Like a painter that has learned to apply the most appropriate pressure on his brushstroke, Mr. Gullahorn modulates his harmony volume just so. Any more would be too much. Any less, and we might strain to hear him.

Speaking of Andy Gullahorn, he’s written a new song which seemed by every indication except explicit words to confirm it, to be a gift to Andrew Peterson. After performing his first song, “Nobody Wants to Work” Andy G. announced that he had written a new song, “… two days ago.” Andy’s stage demeanor is so deadpan, that as I discussed this announcement with several other members of the audience, nobody seemed to know if it was truly brand new or if he was joking about that aspect of it. I took his words at face value, that he had written it recently.

It was the kind of song that makes one think, “instant classic.” Called “The Resurrection and the Life,” it fit the tone and theme of the evening perfectly. The line, “I believe, though it’s hard sometimes, You are the resurrection and the life,” stayed with me. There were also references to Lazarus and Jody (isn’t that the Queen of Iowa?). Andrew Peterson was clearly moved by the song which made the moment even more emotional than it was before. I honestly don’t think AP heard the song until that night. All this before the “Resurrection Letters” portion of the program officially began. Bring on the monkeys. Monkeys, monkeys, monkeys. Whew. Another close call.

The songs of “Resurrection Letters” are presented chonologically, so one can follow the narrative of events leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. There are many songs from AP’s forthcoming record, Resurrection Letters, Volume 2, a liberal dose of songs from Jill Phillip’s Kingdom Come collection (which AP says he often plays for his family on Sunday morning and is available in The Rabbit Room Store), a couple of hymns, and the “resurrection letters,” delivered by AP, which neatly tie the songs together with vivid narrative.

The Resurrection Letters emanate from a writing project that Andrew Peterson undertook in preparation for the Easter season last year. These journal entries chronicled the events leading to the central defining event of Christianity, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. The entries were posted at AP’s website and received the kind of feedback from his supporters that is routine. “Awesome stuff,” everybody said. One message board poster, Tim, also know as sevenmiles, made reference to looking forward to these resurrection letters. The ever artistic mind of AP remembered the reference when it came time to title his new record.

Resurrection Letters is a great story, as told by a master story-teller. As seasoned Peterson supporters might well imagine, Act III is “High Noon”:

Let the people rejoice,
Let the heavens resound,
Let the name of Jesus who sought us and freed us forever ring out.
All praise to the fighter of the night who rides on the light
Whose gun is the grace of the God of the sky.

As I listened to these words I flashed back to an Easter morning drive several years ago. We were headed to Mom’s house for Easter dinner. As I crossed the bridge, the sun danced off the rolling waters of the stately Platte River as these very same Andrew Peterson words came thundering through my car speakers. It was unplanned, one of those serendipitous moments that I will never forget. Sunlight on the water, reflecting the beauty of the land, Sunday morning, the Sunday morning, full of truth, life, love, and family and poetic words of truth from a gifted songwriter. It was a moment in which several roads of beauty intersected at the crossroads of my senses, leaving me giddy as sophomore at the junior/senior prom.

In a moment of impressive theolovision, Andrew Peterson saw some interesting parallels in the classic movie, High Noon.

High Noon is a tidy, tightly-scripted, minimalist film which tells the tale of a solitary, stoic, honor-bound marshal, who was left desolate and abandoned by the Hadleyville townspeople he had faithfully protected for many years. Due to the townspeople’s cowardice, physical inability, self-interest and indecisiveness, he is refused help at every turn against a revenge-seeking killer and his gang. Fearful but duty-bound, he eventually vanquishes the enemy, thereby sparing the civilized town the encroachment of barbaristic frontier justice brought by the deadly four-man group of outlaws.

High noon in the valley of the shadow
When the shadows were shot through with light
When the mouth of the tomb
Shouted, “Glory, the Groom is alive”
So long, you wages of sin
Go on, don’t you come back again
I’ve been raised and redeemed
All praise to the king
The victor of the battle
High noon in the valley
In the valley of the shadow

Happy Easter.


1 Comment

  1. Steve Narrow

    Curt, I couldn’t agree more. The truth, struggle and sometimes overlooked simplicity in the music of young Mr. Peterson often carries me along to worship and connection with the Father. Surely there is worship in the art of our friend and his reluctance is the parcel of his humility.

    Happy, blessed Easter, everyone. HE IS RISEN!

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