After quite literally years of prayer and conversation, my wife Roshare and I have made some big decisions over the last few months. The long and short of it is this: I am going to retire from music at the end of 2013. Truthfully, when we made the final call on this back in December, I wasn’t sure if I would be done right away, or what the exact timetable would be…but ultimately I decided that I really wanted to honor my label and publishing commitments through 2013 and tour this new record, that I love so dearly, for at least a year from release just to make sure I “finish well.” To most everyone who knows me on a personal level I don’t think this would be a bit surprising simply because this decision really was years in the making…the reality is that we just finally found what we thought was the right time. Both my record deal and my publishing deal were coterminous with the release of my new record back in Oct of 2012, so it was either time to re-up for another 5-6 years, or move on. The decision was strangely easy. Really easy, actually. Mostly I think just because on emotional, spiritual, personal, and relational levels, I have struggled for years now with all of the things that surround and are a part of what it means to be a professional musician…the touring, publicity, lack of consistency, anxiety, and time away from home have been a struggle for me in different ways for pretty much the entirety of my nearly 20 years playing music. Please don’t misunderstand me, playing music has genuinely been a dream come true…I never could have imagined this story for myself and it has far exceeded anything I could have planned on my own. But as I’ve stated so many times in the past, I really have always felt like an “accidental” musician in so many ways, and with that has always been this sense that I would never be a “lifer,” this sense that music would someday come to a definitive end for me. The truth is, my heart just hasn’t been in it for quite a while now, and what was left of it I feel like I squeezed out and emptied into writing and recording this latest project…which now turns out to be my last project, and perhaps my favorite project that I’ve made – one that I couldn’t be more proud to finish my career with. So the reality for me is that I honestly couldn’t be more excited about closing this door and opening a new one. And when I say closing the door, I mean really closing the door. On music. Closing the door on touring, performing live, and even songwriting. I don’t have any plans at all to pursue a career in writing or really anything music related. If I’m honest, I’m not really sure that I know how to NOT write songs…I’ve never really tried that since I learned to play the guitar at age 17; but I can say honestly that I don’t really have any plans to write again. At the very least, I won’t write another song until I HAVE to write another song – if that makes any sense at all. I don’t want to write again until something in me forces it’s way out, until there really is a true upwelling of my spirit and absolutely nothing less. So maybe one day somewhere down the road I’ll have a group of songs together that I might want to record in my living room, but I’m not really holding on to that as part of what I hope for moving forward. The reality for me is that I don’t have any one specific direction…I feel like there are a solid handful of things that I really get excited to do with my life in this new season. But as far as specifics are concerned, I don’t know that I really feel called to something else as much as I feel called away from music. In all honesty, I think that uncertainty about what comes next is what kept me hanging on to music for the last few years. It’s hard to walk away from something that has been so life-changing and so all-consuming for all these years, something that I’ve seen God move in so profoundly. And on a practical level, it’s hard to walk away from an occupation that’s been so fulfilling and so stable, the only job I’ve ever had, and one that still provides so well for my family. But I’ve always known and promised myself that I would not forsake a call in a certain direction based on the fear of what comes next. That’s not faith at all I don’t suppose. So here I am, on the edge of something altogether new…the same way I was 20 years ago when I turned away from the potential of medical school and towards a new season of music. My goodness, it’s daunting but, my Lord, it is indeed beautiful. I don’t know how to express just how thankful I am for all of the people who have supported me for all these years…I still don’t even know how I got here, how I landed on this particular course, but I do know that it wouldn’t have happened without a God who is bigger than the burdens of this world and without the relentless willingness of people all over this world to be a part of this with me. I will be forever grateful.
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So, yesterday morning as I was waiting for a flight from Ft. Worth back to Nashville, I made a quick post on Facebook that basically said this: “early morning flight home to go trick-or-treating with my kids, then back to Texas tomorrow.” I never would have imagined the firestorm it would set off on Facebook. Much controversy over Halloween, it’s origins, what role Christian’s should play in the “celebration” or “non-celebration” of the holiday. A (very) few individuals were extremely critical of me and my faith and a whole host of people came to my defense. But by today, most of the critical post were deleted from Facebook somehow. The truth is, I’m sort of frustrated that all the harsh posts were taken down, because even though so many of them were attacking and distasteful, it showed what a beautiful contrast there is between all that can be so negative and condemning about Christendom and the true fruits of the Spirit that were so eloquently represented in so many of the responding comments.
I guess the first thing that I would say in response to the criticism is this: if my decision to take my kids trick-or-treating is reason enough for someone to “un-friend” me, dislike me, or worse, condemn me as a heretic or a member of the occult, I can, without hesitation, give you a thousand FAR better reasons to do so. Whether it’s flaws in my character or my judgment, the bottom line is that I am indeed a terribly flawed and imperfect man who loves, believes deeply in, and relies daily on the completely sufficient grace and goodness of a completely perfect God. If you’ve ever listened to my music or had the chance to know my heart at all, I have staked my life and all eternity on the fact that I am an inconsistent creature who has been saved by the COMPLETED, and completely consistent, work of Christ. Nothing less. Nothing more.
And please let me say right up front that I may be ENTIRELY wrong about my decisions with regard to Halloween, but I can say that, at the very least, they are thought out and intentional decisions, not off-the-cuff or blind cultural appeasement. So, for what it’s worth, here’s my take on things.
What man intends for evil, God intends for good. I absolutely LOVE that with the freedom of Christ we can take a holiday that was once intended by man for so much evil, and we can turn it on its ear. Imagine the idea that we get to take what was once (and perhaps, for some, still is) a pagan, ritualistic attempt to appease evil spirits, and turn it into a chance for children to dream and imagine and dress up in costumes (my boys were both their own versions of “Super Heroes” by the way), to spend precious time with their families and friends, to go out and actually see their neighbors face-to-face, and, at least in our neighborhood, watch entire communities literally come together and talk and laugh and eat way too much candy. I seriously LOVE that idea. And again, I may be absolutely wrong, but I am entirely convinced that that’s exactly what happened yesterday…at least at our house and on our street and in our neighborhood. I certainly don’t want to hyper-spiritualize it, but it’s almost as if we’re making a declaration, in a way, that old traditions that were once intended for evil, or that EVIL ITSELF, has no power over us anymore – declaring that that power was and is broken by the Gospel. We almost get to make a mockery of evil (one of the few “mockeries” we’re entitled to as Believers) when we take evil’s shining “moment in the sun” and turn it into a CHILDREN’S holiday. We take what was once intended for evil and we turn it into a celebration of youth and imagination and the lightness of childhood. And yes, we may tell a few spooky stories along the way and put scary spider webs on our front porches. The truth is, there is great merit to the more popularly accepted “Christian versions” of the holiday, so some may call it “All Saints Day” and go ”TRUNK-or-treating” in a church parking lot but some may take a less overtly spiritual approach, call it Halloween and go trick-or-treating in their neighborhoods. The bottom line is, best I can figure, is that I think it can be as simple as a fun day for neighbors to actually be neighbors – to actually engage with each other and build community and childhood memories at the same time…to be relational and build bridges. Halloween, for me, is not a celebration of an old, antiquated evil tradition; it’s a celebration of my children. It’s a celebration of my family, my neighborhood, and my community. And maybe a chance to look evil in the face and not be afraid. Not to mention, a good excuse to eat a whole lot of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. Nothing more. Nothing less.
Today pre-orders start for my new record, Lights of Distant Cities. Hard for me to believe the Oct 22nd release is just 3 weeks from today. It’s always so interesting to me to watch how the writing and recording process unfolds, how the songs end up finding a common thread between them that weaves some sort of theme. In ways, I think Lights of Distant Cities turned out to be an answer to my last record, Ocean. If Ocean was a record that sort of embodied an idea of longing for something, I think Lights of Distant Cities embodies the idea of finding it…or perhaps, rather, being found. One of my favorite things about the writing and recording process is that you just sort of put your head down and pour out until it’s done, and then sit back and try to reconcile what it all means…how it all represents and speaks to what life has been the past few years. The title itself is a nod to all that draws us forward in life, all that stirs our hearts and peaks our imaginations in a way that reminds us that there is still so much to be hopeful for, even in a dark and confusing world. I think maybe that’s the thing I keep coming back to in almost all of these songs…the goodness of God in the middle of everything, as the foundation for everything. I often find myself asking God why things are the way they are, why this world can seem so terrible some days and so beautiful on others; but there is a basic and simple truth that the German mystic Meister Eckhart wrote in the 1300s that I keep coming back to… “if the soul could have known God without the world, God would never have created the world.” Simple. Never more true. Like the mystery that lays out before us in lights of distant cities that we’ve dreamed of and never seen. It pulls us forward into that mystery and reminds us that there is indeed so much to hope for.
I speak on behalf of Compassion International almost every show that I play about what it means for the body of Christ to actually BE like Christ…about what it means to truly serve the “least of these.” I speak about our tendency here in the developed West to feel like the issues of poverty, injustice, and “serving orphans and widows” are too big for us to really tackle, too daunting for us to even really get our hearts around, much less do anything about. In light of that we tend to rely on the “powers that be” to push into those issues on our behalf. We tend to think that tackling governmental corruption in third world countries or governmental bureaucracy in developed nations would be really getting to the heart of the matter because that’s where the real power to change things really lies. And although those are indeed noble intentions, the sad truth is that we’ve bought into the idea that the real power on this earth lies in the hands of the governments of this world. Please don’t misunderstand me, there is an absolute need to dive into the issues of corruption and bureaucracy and do whatever we can to change our world through those political and ideological avenues; but we cannot, as followers of Christ, cling to the idea that real change, real power in this world lies in the hands of politicians and police forces. Is our God not the Author of this world? After all, it is not the job – it is not the CALLING – of the governments of this world to serve the least of these. It is the job and it is the calling of the Body of Christ. If you are a Believer reading this right now, it is not a question of IF we are serving the least of these, according to Jesus, that is an absolute…the question instead is HOW are we serving the least of these? There are so many beautiful ways to do this, from the local food bank around the corner to organizations like Compassion International. I have been so deeply inspired and moved by the friends in my life who have taken this calling personally, and PERSONALLY decided to dive in. Whether it’s my friends from the band Jars of Clay who just celebrated digging 1000 wells in Africa through their Blood:Water Mission, or friends like Stephan and Caitland Sharp who are in Rwanda as we speak processing through the adoption of their new son, who they’ve named Crew, so they can bring him home to meet his new big sister, Sadie. These are the people who’s hearts have been inclined to serve the least of these in very specific ways. The truth is, not all of us have the means or platform to dig 1000 wells in Africa. Not all of us are called to adoption. But we, every single one of us, can be a part of these specific callings in the ways that we chose to give. I’m asking you today, if this inspires you the way it inspires me, to help my friends Stephan and Caitland with the adoption of their new son, Crew. As it turns out, they don’t necessarily have the “means” either, but they do have hearts that were called and compelled to have one less orphan in this world…and one more child in their home. Please go to the link that I’ve posted below to a short video that the Sharps made just before they left for Rwanda 9 days ago. You will hear just a bit of their story and you will see how easy it is to give to their specific calling to bring Crew home.
One of the things I am most thankful for in playing music for a living is that it was never my intention. I am an accidental musician, at best, who sort of stumbled uncomfortably onto this journey half-protesting and with great trepidation. Admittedly, much of my fear was based in the mystery of the unknown and the lack of control of things, much like any graduating college student heading out into the real world, but quite a bit more was based in the fact that I never quite felt “cut out” for this sort of work. I always felt like a bit of an imposter…like I would some day, inevitably, be “found out” and everyone would realize that all this time I was just pretending to be a songwriter, just posing as an artist. So many of my counterparts in music seem to live and die by the art they’re creating and, to be honest, I have many times envied the passion with which so many of these artists carry out their calling. They cling so desperately to the art and creation and delivery of music that I think it quite literally becomes their lifeblood. It’s as if the act of creating is as vital and involuntary as the act of breathing. As if without it they would cease to exist, and with it, they have something to really live for. Truthfully, though there have been times that I have tended in that direction, I fear that that sort of singular passion toward what we do, or even who we think we are, can pull us away from our one, truly singular identity in Christ…and Christ alone.
All I know for certain is that music was meant to be part of the story God was choosing to tell for me, whether I planned it or not. I was just a college kid with a Biology Degree and firm sites set on absolutely nothing apart from medical school. But I also wrote songs. My own little “personal therapy sessions,” as I like to call them, were never really intended for use outside of my living room walls. But thanks to a few close friends who quite literally forced me to face the possibility of “seeing what would happen” with music, here I am today. A 1-year “experiment” before planning to apply for medical school has turned into a 15-year career of writing and playing songs. I can say with all honesty that I have no idea how it happened. People ask me all the time how to “get started” in music and I have to tell them that I quite literally don’t know. I can say this. It was not comfortable for me. It was not my dream. It was not my life’s ambition. I was afraid. I was insecure. I was not up for the task. But I believe that God was. I believe that God saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself. I believe there was a Spirit flowing in a certain direction and I knew only enough to not try to swim against it. I’m actually excited to see where God takes me when music is done. I am not nearly naïve enough to think that it will last forever. And to be honest, I don’t want it to. Because I know that music is not my life source. It is not my identity. Music is not who I am. I have tried to run from it, even prayed that it would end at times. What I know to be true is that, for whatever reason, God is for us and He chooses to use us. And He wants to use us right where we are. And this is where I am right now: I am a husband and a father, a friend, a brother, a son, and yes, sometimes a musician. It has been a beautiful story to watch unfold.
People have asked me often lately for the meaning behind my Christmas song “Born to Die.” It actually begins with an old hymn that I discovered a few years ago called “Angels from the Realms of Glory.” If you’ve heard it, it paints a stunning picture of the very first Christmas morning. It’s an image of the angels of God – the very same heavenly hosts who once “winged their flight o’er the earth” singing the marvelous story of the first creation at the beginning of time – this time filling the shepards’ sky singing a very different creation story – the birth of the Christ. I’m not sure why, but reading the lyrics to this hymn was the first glimpse I ever caught into the heavenly vision of angels actually singing the stories and the history of God. It was a stunning thought to me – the idea that perhaps the angels of heaven have been and continue singing – not just telling, but singing – the stories of God. And it’s as if the angels have no choice but to sing. It’s as if the awe and wonder at the glory of their God spontaneously pours from their souls as a chorus like no other. I can only liken it to the barely audible sigh at the first glimpse of a sunrise, or some other wonderous thing, that rises from our hearts and over our lips before we can stop it. That’s how I picture the birth of the songs of the angels…but instead of a quiet amazement, the angelic response pours out into a perfect chorus of ten thousand tongues in spontaneous response to the glorious work of their God. For all of eternity. What a beautiful picture.
And then I imagine those very same angels contemplating the idea that that very same God would somehow choose to clothe Himself in humanity, in flesh, that first Christmas morning. And not only flesh, but the flesh of an infant, helpless and vulnerable, willing and planning to ultimately become the sacrifice for all sin on the cross. Why? Of all the ways to save mankind, why this? Who knows if the angels contemplated such things, but if they did, the weight and conflict of emotion, I can only imagine, would be overwhelming. Hard as it is from our own earthly perspective to understand the reality of what God did in becoming flesh, I imagine it infinitely more difficult from the perspective of heaven. And so that is what “Born to Die” is…a Christmas song from the perspective of heaven, best as I can imagine it. God, in all his glory, ruling the heavens for all eternity, choosing to insert Himself into time, into flesh, to become a living sacrifice for humanity…heartbreaking and heroic…baffling but so beautiful.
Here Goes is a song that I wrote with my longtime friend Brandon Heath. It’s really just a simple pop song in a lot of ways, sort of the only one of its type on the new record. And although I don’t think we realized it at the time, it’s really the culmination of dozens of conversations that Brandon and I have had over coffee or lunch or on some random tour bus throughout the years that we’ve known one another. You see, I think that in a way, people like Brandon and I are sort of “accidental” musicians – not the types that would have imagined ourselves living our lives on stage, standing in any sort of “spot light.” Truthfully, that sounds more noble than it really is…the reality of our not envisioning that scenario had more to do with our own personal fears and insecurities than humility. My conversations with Brandon very often leaned in the direction of that conflict between what we felt we were being called toward and the overwhelming insecurities that made us so uncomfortable with that calling. And the truth is, I think more often than Brandon or I would ever care to admit we tended to err on the side of fear rather than faith in the face of those difficult moments. But the thing that I love most about this song is that it is a celebration of the fact that God’s goodness and faithfulness won out over our deep-seeded apprehensions and insecurities. This song is about the moments we all face every single day that require us to either trust in a God who is bigger than we are or turn and run.
Eugene Peterson writes in the preface of his book Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places that “writing about the Christian life is like trying to paint a bird in flight. The very nature of a subject in which everything is always in motion and the context is constantly changing – rhythm of wings, sun-tinted feathers, drift of clouds (and much more) – precludes precision. Which is why definitions and explanations for the most part miss the very thing that we are interested in.” Our perspective on life, (more…)
For the entirety of my adult life, almost like clockwork, every two years or so I have been given the gift of being “forced” into taking stock. I’ve often told people that I don’t know how to write songs if I’m not writing them out of my life, out of my own personal experience, and so for me I think it’s inevitable that any new group of songs will tell some sort of story about where they have come from. And so for the last 15 years, 8 times to be precise, thanks to the deadlines that the powers that be “impose” I have been given the gift of taking stock, of evaluating where I have come from, what God has been unfolding – to unpack, assess, organize, (more…)