Goliath and Honesty

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Lyric graphic by the one and only Natasha Vanderburg

Songs are always born differently, but they always start with an idea.  Sometimes said idea just sort of comes out of thin air, and I try to catch it as quickly as I can.  That’s what happened on an overcast Spring day in Caronport, Saskatchewan, while I was collecting dead branches into the back of a trailer, and the line “I’ve got no need to follow the footsteps of kings//I just want to tend pastures and kill giants with pebbles and slings” wandered unassumingly across my mind, which I quickly proceeded to tackle violently to the ground and bottle before it evaporated.  I had just graduated from Briercrest, and instead of heading home, had stayed behind a month to mentor boys in the high school.  While they were in class during the day,  I worked for the college doing campus maintenance.  Quite often I’ll be in the midst of something quote unquote menial and an idea will come, seemingly out of nowhere.  I try to always be listening for them.  And when they do, it’s an attempt to hold that frame, like that moment when a photographer sees their loved one step perfectly into light and they tell them “don’t move,” praying they have time to get their camera ready.  In practicality this often looks like me singing clumsily into my phone’s voice memo app, and then trying to quiet my always-turbulent mind and just listen for God in all that forest and chaos.

In the coming six months Goliath became like the chunk of oak in a woodshed out back, that I would come back to to slowly chip away at bit by bit.  There’s moments when you really feel yourself crafting and weaving lyrics and music together intentionally and consciously, and while that could have been the case here, I honestly couldn’t tell you; the details are a bit fuzzy.  When it came to this one, time was a bit of a tricky thing.  I can’t remember how long I sat down to work on it for any given day.  Could’ve been hours, minutes, I don’t know.  I just remember when it was done.  I was proud of it (side note–I sometimes feel like songwriters in the Church aren’t supposed to admit when they’re proud of their work.  This is likely a self-imposed feeling; I’ve never heard it articulated by anyone, nor even implied for that matter.  But admitting one’s own joy in their “baby” does feel a bit sheepish, as does acknowledging it).  However, I didn’t really have anywhere to show it.  Gone were the Bible College days of coffee houses where I could do all my introspective existential crisis songs.  And in those days I was NOT about to put anything I’d written on the internet.  So it sort of lay dormant for a couple years.  I knew the music I was going to pursue releasing was explicitly for the church corporately, and I didn’t know where Goliath fit in that.  I kind of still don’t.

This is where I have to give credit to my good friend Michelle (she’s the one with the actual angel voice on L I O N | L A M B that makes you want to cry when you hear her, but like in a good way).  We were sharing songs with each other, and I decided to show her a couple I’d written but hadn’t really shown anyone.  When I finished singing, she told me the world needed to hear that song.  I told her I didn’t know where it belonged in the world of music I was about to release.  When the time came for my EP release show, I knew I was going to throw in some more songs than were on the EP to lengthen the show experience, and Michelle told me I had to include Goliath among them.  So we sang it, along with a couple others, which I bundled together and called “songs with no home;” the ones I feel have some sort of voice in the church, albeit not congregational. Though it’s not a worship song, it is a prayer.  Out of all the songs I sang that night, Goliath received the most overwhelming response.  This continued to be the case show after show as I included it in the sets.  I realized I would need to let the song into the world, but again left it dormant.

Months later, I was asked to speak on a panel at a songwriting workshop led by a man who at the time I knew only by reputation–Roy Salmond (who I’ve since developed a bit of a man crush on…the guy’s got some seriously Hemingway-esque qualities about him).  Roy asked me to present a song I was “proud of” as a writer, and I immediately knew Goliath would be the one.  After singing it on the day, Roy graciously offered for me to come record it at his studio down at the coast, at no cost.  A few months following that the song was recorded in Roy’s gorgeous recording space, released, and that same feeling that happened the very first time I released music came again; of surreality, trepidation, joy; all kind of mixed into a maelstrom not quite discernible.

So that’s all essentially the backdrop.  The primary wrestle for me was how the song would be received.  I was pretty sure my generation would be okay with it; “authenticity” is probably the most common millennial buzzword these days.  What I wasn’t sure was how the soccer mom driving her kids to school while listening to Brit Nicole was going to feel about it (nothing against Brit btw–she seems really lovely–but I think you get what I mean).  How the parents who have Pureflix subscriptions because it provides “wholesome family entertainment” would sit with these lyrics.  But you know what?  They responded in like manner with those in my own age/life bracket…overwhelmingly positively.  With nuance and kindness and resonance.  My presumptions were just that–presumptions.  And this is when I realized that I think most people, regardless of tastes and demographic, are really just looking for permission to bleed.

So much of my indictment of current “Christian” pop “art” is related to the fact that it shies away from anything even remotely resembling real darkness or human experience.  And that is not me saying that all art that feels “real” needs to be dark and brooding–I by no means want to be a defeatist; after all, our faith is most substantively rooted in wild, visceral and beautiful Hope.  But the thing is, that Hope bears the weight that it does because it stands and laughs in the face of darkness and death–if all we write and film and sing is devoid of said death, then the Hope holds little water; what were we saved from?  From pithy “naughtiness?”  Were we “by very nature children of wrath”  (Eph. 2:3)  for trite and inconsequential reasons?  Because that is the impression of much that comes into the conversation around Christian art.  Obviously what I’m about to say is subjective, though I’ve found it to ring true with many:  often little in the mainstream Christian art offerings resembles actual human experience, and this is precisely what I find dangerous.  The Kingdom that Christ enacted is in fact alien and foreign to the self-worshipping bent of human nature–absolutely.  However, His full divinity was met with full Humanity–He is the perfect embodiment of what it means to be truly human.  Necessarily, I think, should we reflect true humanity in what we create.  People who don’t know Him should see Him in us in such a way that, whether they recognize Him at first or not, they say “you’re the most person-y person I’ve ever met.”  If you’re to tell someone who does not know Christ (or one who does, for that matter) that this (the Gospel) actually works–that it kills death and transforms hearts and lives the way nothing else can, that nothing can be a substitute for the power and freedom it brings–and then you present them with characters or lyrics or stories that don’t remotely reflect the realities of broken lives, how shall it ring true?

This is where I think the Psalms (and Jesus Himself) give us far more permission than I think we realize or seize.  In the presence of his God the Psalmist confesses (51), screams in anger and utter desolation (22), he longs (42).  Christ Himself, in that garden, literally bled His stress and fear and begged for a way out, even if ultimately conceding to the will of His Father.  His submission in that moment is so beautiful because of what it costs Him, and not some optimistic naivety.
And David, a “man after God’s own heart” (1 Sam 13:14) faltered until the end. And it’s into all that mess that Messiah comes and stamps His image, redeems and breathes life.

Now back full circle to Goliath; I didn’t set out with an intention for this song. It’s one of those ones that even as I was crafting it, its meaning was something I was discovering, and even to this day I think I’m still trying to fully uncover it. But to the best of my knowledge, I think it’s a song about expectations. Because as a songwriter and musician in the church, people often say things like “oh, you have the heart of David.” And don’t get me wrong, that is such beautiful encouragement and it brightens my soul every time. But feelings of inadequacy so frequently flood in, and I’m left to wonder. Because, I know my heart well, and I never quite like what I see. It’s that whole second verse is what resonates most strongly with my own being:

The youngest of seven // no one was ever looking at me //
Except the Almighty // staring right through my chest cavity //
The prophet man said God looked in my heart and saw a king //
But I know my heart well and I never quite like what I see //

I was unassuming for much of my life, and doubted that anyone paid all that much attention to my existence (though my Enneagram Four-ness led to me pretending my life was a movie pretty much all the time). And then all of a sudden people took notice and it was overwhelming and I didn’t feel ready. This song became a hard look in the mirror for me, and the hope is that it would be a mirror for the listener as well.

And so maybe you’re like me–that when YHWH comes calling to use us, our response is often “You sure about that, God? Have you seen me lately?” And of course He has…He knows us full well, far better than we know ourselves…and chooses to use us anyway. To His own glory, despite our weakness. And it’s that knowledge He has of our hearts that needs to lead us to honesty in our communion with Him. Because he knows the depths of us. And as soon as we fail to be honest, we’re just fooling ourselves, trying to fool Him, and failing to. And it is at the end of us that He meets us and does what only He can do. And we need not fear it.

Concerning the end of the song–again, not really a planned exercise. Once the line was written, there was simply nowhere else for it to go. So often the temptation is to wrap things up neatly and cleanly. For there to be a bow on top. But reality often doesn’t get Hollywood endings and life far more often resembles a fog then a romcom. And this felt like it needed to be left in tension. There are moments unresolved and this song is no different. And they leave us all the more expectant of the Hope that will pierce through all that black and bring the Day that does not cease. And it is that black that shows us just how radiant His light really is.

j

Top Ten Tips For Beginner Songwriters

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If you’re a musician, it’s probably happened to you.  You know you have something to share with the world, something to say that’s yet to be said, something yet to be sung. But for the life of you, you just can’t craft it into something viable, something captivating.  There’s all this brilliance dancing around in your head, but it just doesn’t seem to want to land.  Songwriting, like any form of meaningful and piercing art, rarely consists of raw creativity, but rather channeled creativity.  Just like you had to learn disciplines with your instrument to actually make music, so it goes with songwriting.  If you’re struggling to put this into practice, or have written before but find yourself in a rut, these are some tips to help you get started!

I.  Make Your Song Memorable

There’s a lot that goes into a memorable song, but let’s start with something easy and tangible.

The key to memorability is two-fold:

a) simplicity 

b) repetition

If you’re thinking, “But I don’t want to write simple repetitive music!”, hear me out.

a) Simplicity—done well—is king.

Too often young writers try to “say it all” in a single song, and it ends up being far, far too broad.  Try to narrow your song down to a single idea, and elaborate on that idea.  Instead of saying everything, try to say one thing really well.

Try to ensure that everything in the song, whether musically or lyrically, helps to convey the idea of the song in one way or another.  Simplicity brings focus and direction to a song.

b) Repetition is what glues our brains to a song.

Music itself is based on repetition and variances of established patterns.  The best melodies and lyrical hooks involve a great deal of repetition.

Hooks are the best way to make a song memorable.  A hook can be anything in the song, but not everything is a hook.  A hook can be a melodic idea, a lyrical phrase, a riff, that is repeated  throughout the song.*  The primary hook is what people would typically think about when trying to recall, describe or sing a song for someone else (“it’s the one that goes like ‘______________’”).  There can be multiple hooks in a song (and different kinds), and the more deeply you hook, the more memorable a song will be.

(*people often mistake a chorus for being synonymous with a hook.  A chorus absolutely can be a hook and often is, but it does not  have to be the primary hook).

II.  Musical/Lyrical Consistency

Be consistent with the rhythm of the melody.  Make sure it flows—don’t force syllables into a phrase just to make sure it rhymes.  And DO NOT flip syntax just in order to make something rhyme.

I’ll explain what I mean by that…

Here’s a negative example:  the pop song Beautiful Soul by Jesse Mcartney.  In it, he sings, “To you I’ll be always faithful,” flipping words around just for the sake of rhyming.  In modern English we say, “I’ll always be faithful to you.”  His wording is archaic, which isn’t in and of itself a bad thing, especially in writing for the church.  With the right subject matter—or if done consistently in a song—archaic language can be awesome.  But if it’s shoehorned in only one instance (as in this case) just to rhyme,  it just sounds immature, like he doesn’t have command of the language.

Make sure the lyrics sing naturally—if you have to elongate or stretch certain words beyond what sings comfortably, or cram a ton of syllables into a small phrase just to fit them in, the song will feel amateur.  The lyrics and melody fail to blend seamlessly, and even an untrained listener will instinctively feel that you have command of neither.  And if you want to have command of the language…

III.  Read Voraciously (if you don’t know what “voraciously” means, you aren’t reading enough)

Seriously, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, read as much real literature as you can possibly get your hands on.  You will subconsciously be learning what makes for good writing, and it will provide you with a vocabulary and syntactical arsenal that will greatly expand your lyrical ideas and creativity.  I strongly recommend reading British authors, especially from the late 19th Century to the early ‘50s.  Their elegance and command of the language is perhaps the deepest well to draw from, while not being too far removed from our English today.

And in addition to reading…

IV.  Consume As Many Different Forms of Art As Possible

Inspiration can come in almost any form.  The best music helps people to truly feel and connect with something that words alone can’t do.  Often, an experience had in one art    medium can be transferred into another.  For instance, I used to often be inspired with song ideas from attending my sisters’ dance recitals and competitions.  The combination of the movement set to music would often spark up different lyrical and melodic ideas in my head that weren’t explicitly related to what I was experiencing in that moment, but they emoted in the same way.

Like reading, taking in as much art as possible in various forms expands your  arsenal, and can inspire you in the moment or down the road.

And speaking of inspiration…

V.  Read Scripture Until It’s Coming Out Your Ears

For those who want to write music to or about God, whether for congregational or non-congregational purposes, this is crucial.  And honestly, even if you just want to write about anything.  The hymns that have stood the test of time until today were written by individuals who knew their Bibles—and wrote from a depth and richness of understanding that was conveyed in their lyrics.  Much Christian music currently being written treads in shallow waters for lyricism.  There is no better place to find more nuance and subject matter for a song than God’s Word.  And there is so much in Scripture we could take advantage of lyrically but don’t!  Worship songs often go back to the same wells for lyrical ideas over and over, when there are so many different ideas from Scripture to draw from…so draw from new ones!

VI.  CLICHÉS DISENGAGE THE LISTENER—DON’T USE THEM!

“We give you all the praise.”  “All of my days.”  “I give You everything.”  “Your amazing grace.”  “I will worship with all of my heart.”  We’ve heard things said the exact same way thousands of times.

Clichés are tempting to use because they’re “tried and true.”  It’s not risking anything to use a cliché, and so there is great temptation to use one in order to fill in a lyrical gap or lend credence to a song.

The problem with clichés is that they pretty much instantly disengage the listener.  Clichés become cliché because they’ve been used a thousand times.  When a person has heard a concept said the same way over and over and over, it becomes hard for them to really process its meaning when they hear it.  The brain just shuts off.

Clichés  are often very general as well, especially in worship music (see above examples), which, again, keeps people from engaging as fully.  The broader the brush strokes, the lesser the impact.

More important than just not using clichés, however, is finding something new to say! Or a new way to say it!  Don’t write lyrics that you think will “get by” by today’s standards.  Write the lyrics you wish others were writing.  Which leads us to…

VII.  Make Sure Your Song is Actually About Something

Don’t just write music for no reason!  Write something that’s from you.  An idea, a feeling, or an experience you’ve had.  If you can’t tell someone what your song’s about, the lyrics likely won’t convey it either.  And it’s not that ambiguous lyrics are bad, they can be fantastic.  There are plenty of songs where I’m not fully sure what the writer had in mind, but they’re still brilliant.  But if you just are stringing together a bunch of phrases, hoping something sticks, there will be nothing to compel the listener.  Like tip #1, you want to try to say one thing really really well.  And even if your listener isn’t quite sure what that is, your conviction should be clear.

If you’re struggling to come up with ideas, here’s an exercise:

Try starting with an actual physical object.  Could be anything  Then ask some friends what comes to mind when they think of that object.  What feelings it calls up in them.  Do this until you end up with something a bit more abstract.  Then, use that object as a vehicle to explain that abstract idea.  Help people connect with the abstract through the tangible.

For example, I did this in a lecture at a young adults conference I played/taught at, and asked someone to name something.  First thing was “popcorn.”  I wrote it down on the board.  Then, I asked people to start saying things that came to mind when they thought of popcorn.  Eventually, someone said, “it transforms.”  Another person talked about movies, and I led that towards shared human experience.  First date.  We tried taking different ideas in different directions.  Specific, tangible things help people understand and feel what you’re trying to say.  It’s more real.  Or, try it in reverse!  Start with an abstract concept, and try to figure out some physical thing that could convey that idea.

VIII.  Write Leanly

Writing “leanly” means squeezing the most out of the words that you use.  Try to find the shortest, most effective way to say something.

People often confuse lots of big words with strong writing, but that simply isn’t the case.  Sometimes good writing will require a great deal of words, but it is certainly not necessary—or even ideal—for strong writing.  Strive for what one of my college professors, Keith Molberg, called “pregnant brevity:”  saying things that are full of meaning and depth in as few words as possible.  Learning how to write like this goes back to the fourth tip—reading and listening to strong writers will help intuitively form a basis for lean writing.

Let the verbs do the work.  Instead of using a regular verb and an adjective to colour it, use a more interesting verb that contains the idea of the adjective.  Instead of saying “she walked slowly into the room,” say, “she ambled into the room.”  You don’t need to say she “slowly ambled;” the idea of “slowly” is already packaged into the verb.**  If you need help finding new verbs (or any words, for that matter), use a thesaurus, it’s a great tool and easily available online!

IX.  Co-Write/Get an Editor

No matter how skilled a writer you are, we all have blindspots.  We hear everything through our own filters (ones we aren’t even aware of), and because of that there are always things we miss. This is why writing with others and getting an editor is so critical.

Choosing who will be your editor is extremely important.  It needs to be someone you can trust, someone you can be vulnerable with, someone you won’t be specifically writing for.  You need to be able to feel the freedom to be yourself in your writing, the editor should only help trim the fat and make it better.  So, you need someone who you know doesn’t have an ego at stake and desires to see you do your best work.  They don’t have to be musical or a writer themselves, but it certainly helps!  In fact, it can be great if you can show your music to one person who is savvy when it comes to music and writing, and to one who doesn’t know music and writing but has a critical eye and a good instinct.  That way you can see how it will land with musical and non-musical audiences alike.

If you don’t have access to other writers or people to edit, you can also serve as your own editor, by using time.  Simply write, and then don’t look at or think about the song for a while, at least a few days.  Then come back to it.  Sometimes we write something in a moment when we’re inspired, and the critical aspect of our brain shuts off.   THIS IS A GREAT THING!  It allows us to better exercise our raw creativity and come up with better ideas.  Sometimes while in that creative mode, however, we come up with things that don’t quite make sense (this happens to me a lot).  By spending some time away from our work, and coming back to it later, we get out of that space and are able to analyze with a bit more objectivity.    Sometimes I’ll return to a song I’ve left for a while and look at a line and go “what was I thinking?”  Self-editing is invaluable.

X.  JUST DO IT!

We all know what they say practice makes…

But really.  As much as you might not want to hear it, some of the best songwriters became great because they just write.  A lot.  Jon Foreman, one of the most poetic and creative songwriters working today, writes virtually every day of his life.  And as far as a professional touring musician goes, it’s hard to get much busier than him, so a lack of time is no excuse.  But in reality, lack of time is rarely the issue…

As musicians and creators, our art is part of our identity.  It just is.  And fear of failure, or a fear of making something that isn’t profound, may in fact be the biggest thing holding so many of us back.  It’s as though we were to make something that wasn’t great, we ourselves are lacking in some way.  And that’s just not true!  The reality is we will all make art that’s not all great 100% of the time, but it’s in doing that that we learn how to do it better.  Back to Jon Foreman—even with all the music he’s put out, between his solo music and Switchfoot and Fiction Family (not to mention all the writing he’s done for other musicians)—if he’s writing music daily, how many songs does that mean he’s written that will never see the light of day?  We have to accept that not everything we do will be a work of genius.  But it is those trudging, struggling times that help hone our abilities as writers, and it becomes an actual craft.

A common myth is that we have to be “inspired” to write good music, let alone write at all.  Not true.  This was debunked for me when I was in a songwriting class and had very real deadlines to meet in order to do the class!  Deadlines force the wheels to turn, and while the writing that occurs in that time may need some refining, it will teach you how to quickly get in a “creative space.”

Deadlines and writing for a specific purpose give focus and (surprise surprise) purpose to your song.  Is your church about to launch into a specific sermon series?  Talk to your pastor about writing a song that the church can sing for it.  Your friend’s getting married and wants you to sing at the wedding?   Offer to write them an original.  Are you leading worship at a Bible camp?  Write a song around their theme for the summer.  These        deadlines will help you to get over the false notion that good writing requires the stars to align perfectly in order to happen, and simply write.

There you have it, those are the tips!  Now, go write the music you wish was being written.

j

**A quick note:  some of the ideas in this post (especially around memorability in a song) were things I learned from my mentor and songwriting professor, Ken Dosso.  His work with me was invaluable in helping me learn how to channel my creativity and hone it into something stronger.

The verb example comes from Successful Lyric Writing by Sheila Davis (1998).

If you’d like to hear my debut EP, you can find it here (also available on all streaming services):

joshualeventhal.com/music

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Chord Charts:
https://www.praisecharts.com/albums/details/9841/lion-lamb-joshua-leventhal-sheet-music

All Of This

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When I finally bit the bullet and started a blog, I had decided I wouldn’t resign myself to expectations in terms of what it needed to look like.  But with that has come a healthy dose of procrastination and inactivity, which I mostly attribute to 2 main culprits:  lack of discipline on my part, and the whole out of sight/out of mind deal.  But I’ve also realized something about myself:  when I don’t do something for a while I overthink the heck out of it, and start ruthlessly critiquing it before it even exists.  With the first post I ever wrote, some sort of inhibition was sidestepped, and I pushed through my feelings of sheepishness and just dove in.  To be honest it’s taken a while to come back to that place, but here we are.  I had to talk myself into doing this the same way I did when I wrote my very first post.  That fear of sounding sappy-or-pretentious-or-ignorant-all-at-once, that I felt then and feel again now, is no small thing—but it is by no means too big.  There’s that feeling…and the fact that every paper I ever wrote in school came back with “wordy” marked in red.  And while yes, I definitely want to work on that, some of it’s just how I say what I’m trying to; with honesty, but also sometimes with a lot of duct tape on it.  This whole thing might sound kind of dumb to you, and that’s honestly fair, you might not relate to it in the slightest.  But if in the slightest you do… then this is for you.

I want to talk about being actually being vulnerable, but to do that well I need to give a bit of background to what these past couple years have entailed for me.

When you’re a student, your degree is something in the distance that seems a long way off.  You’re just chipping away at it, spending way too much time on Netflix and making McDonald’s runs at 2 am with some of the best humans you’ve ever known, and then one day four years have gone by and you’ve accomplished what you set out to do in what felt like 5 minutes.  I had no idea how much of my learning—and His shaping of me—was going to truly start after I finished college.  After graduating I went to intern at a church in Lethbridge, and after that internship I finally got to do (an awesome) summer of camp ministry, and then, two years ago, took my first worship position here in Kelowna.

To be able to look back at every single step of life and see His hand in it, gently (at other times, violently) leading me where I’ve needed to be is a gift that I take for granted not even for a nanosecond.  There is so much that has happened in the last few years that has formed me and grown in me that written English just simply isn’t equipped to incarnate well.  A maelstrom of goodness and agony and beauty that I’m sacredly grateful for.  Maybe some of that should be attempted in another post.  Maybe it’s the kind of thing I should talk about with you over coffee someday.  Either way, I won’t attempt it now.

What I do want to reflect on is what this most immediate season—one that you may have borne witness to externally, but not to the iceberg which lay beneath.  And that’s where the vulnerability comes in.  I think what we mostly collectively practice in the Instagram age of humanity is what I call “sexy vulnerability”—where we show people just enough of our weakness  in a way we can still control its appearance, spin it, make it post-able.  What I’m trying to do in my life is push past that easiness to the candor that no one could classify as particularly “sexy,” but the kind that hopefully leads to some semblance of bravery.

I hope this story doesn’t feel self-indulgent, I promise it’s not meant to be.  It’s meant to share my fear and my stepping into it, in the hopes that maybe you’ll step into yours.  And know this: that as someone who’s made something, I wrestle with its merit as a work on a fairly regular basis.  Even as a piece of art that’s consecrated to Jesus.  Actually probably especially because it’s consecrated to Jesus.

I, like most everyone, primarily fear two things:  failure and rejection.  What I wasn’t aware of is that when you actually start to chase any of your dreams—when they’re no longer floating around in the blissful clouds of “someday,” but actually start coming in for landing, and then finally hit pavement—you strip yourself of armour in a manner that leaves you so, so very open to falling flat on your face…in front of everyone.

I didn’t think it would be like that.  When I first fell in love with music and guitar as a teenager, I was naive enough to not consider that my early songs were terrible (they were) and that showing them to people might not be a good idea (it wasn’t).  I just showed them anyway.  As I grew up, making an album one day was always just going to happen in my mind.  But, like most dreams, it was off in “someday”; there was no flesh and bone to be found on it—no plan.  That changed when I realized two things.  Firstly, that there actually was a desire from others for the songs I was letting into the world.  As I led my own songs in chapels at Green Bay, people wanted to know how they could listen to them, and I had no answer.  Secondly, I realized that for an album to happen it would have to leave the “someday” and actually hit the pavement.  Writing songs was one thing, actually giving them life outside my head and heart was something entirely different.

Along the way of making concept into reality, there were many, many crossroads involving many, many fears.  First, I feared Ryan (my producer, engineer and all-around gem of a human) wouldn’t want to do this project with me.  Then I feared the musicians I asked to play on it wouldn’t want to.  Then I launched the Kickstarter and feared that I wouldn’t raise the money.  Lots of Wouldn’ts.  And through each of those Wouldn’ts, my fears proved vain.  But do you know what was actually the greatest fear, that coursed its way through the entire process, long after all I needed to be in place was?  It wasn’t that the project would fail entirely.  Not at all.  It was that it would happen—but no one would care.  That it would be just okay, and that’s all.

There’s a show on tv right now called This Is Us (you probably already watch it, I’m pretty late to this train), and one of the main characters is an actor who stars as the lead on a shallow network sitcom called “The Man-ny.”  It leaves him artistically unfulfilled, but he’s terrified that it may be all he’s capable of.  After spontaneously quitting the show, he sits drinking with his twin sister, asking himself if he’s just destroyed his own career.  He looks her in the eyes and says, “What if I’m not I’m not better than the Manny?  What if I’m exactly Manny-good.”  He’s not afraid of falling flat on his face so much as he’s afraid that what he’s made isn’t really going to have any sort of lasting impact.

And for someone who creates, that’s the real fear.  The fear that your work will resound in a void.  I didn’t even know it was there when I started, but rest assured, it haunts you, quickly.

Thankfully that fear has not been where this story ends.  I’ve gotten to hear story after story after story of these songs doing for people what others’ songs have done for me.  That they’ve served as a means of people seeing the beauty of Jesus, better understanding His heart, helping them cling to the true Hope, as the little hopes that had  held them to this point come undone before their eyes.  The gratitude I have from hearing these stories is something I’ll never be able to truly demonstrate to you, I only hope that you can experience it in your own life in some way.  There’s really nothing else like it.

When you set out to do something that truly means something to you, whether that’s pursue a project, or a person, or a life of some kind, the fear that lies in wait is not only that your hopes and dreams might be dashed upon the rocks.  There’s also the fear that they’ll manifest, and simply evaporate quietly.  The latter is the one you’d have to live with silently yourself.  But you know what?  For anything that’s worth anything, that risk is there.  Because there are stakes required in things of value.  But no matter how high the stakes may be, nothing this side of eternity will grant us Ultimate Satisfaction.  There are some pretty incredible opportunities I’m going to experience in the next couple months, where I’m actually pinching myself that they’re even real.   But they don’t change the fact that when I go to bed at night, and wake up in the morning, I’m still me.  Those awesome things still don’t fix all the cracks in my soul that only He can mend.  They never will.  Only He.  And maybe that’s why this has been so beautiful.  Because even when all of this at its best, it still remains secondary.  Secondary to the Source of where these songs came from in the first place.  Because all these little graces pale in comparison to the big, big grace of His Mending, and the Knowing— the Mending and the Knowing I’ve received in part now, but await so much more in Fullness.  Hopefully, whether you’ve heard these songs or not, you’re awaiting too.

j

Soul Amnesia

Why do you say, O Jacob, and assert, O Israel,
‘My way is hidden from The Lord,
And the justice due me escapes the notice of my God’?
 Do you not know? Have you not heard?
The Everlasting God, YHWH, the Creator of the ends of the earth
Does not become weary or tired.”  Isaiah 40

I don’t journal enough, but I do it somewhat regularly, and when I do I write two things at the top of the page.  The first is simply the date.  The second I write in Greek.  It says “manna for today.”  It’s my small reminder that YHWH did not let his children store up His heavenly bread gift, that they might come to him in need each morning—so it is with me.  My tendency, like all of God’s children before me, is to forget how He sustained me yesterday, and five minutes ago.

The term Soul Amnesia isn’t mine—Ann Voskamp coined it.  And while she specifically uses it with regards the Israelite’s forgetfulness of God’s manna provision, it’s splattered all over Scripture and our lives like a Pollock .  Peter’s feet tread on turbulent saltwater, his eyes on his Lord doing the same, and all it takes is for the water to get a little more violent to forget Who is right in front of him.  I’m grateful for Peter, I feel like him often.  Zealous trust in a moment, quickly eradicated by circumstance.  Hope in the wild truth—that Jesus puts us on top of the water—evaporates once that water reaches our knees.  I walk in the shadow of men as weak as I.  And yet, He speaks to us gently: “Do you not know? Have you not heard?  The Everlasting God, YHWH, the Creator of the ends of the earth, does not become weary or tired.”  He patiently beckons our fragile fickle hearts, and rather than scold our amnesia, He shows us Who He Is.

Though my life has had its share of deep disappointment, when I do what the ancient hymn In Tenderness prescribes—”with all adoring wonder, His blessings I retrace”—I am left dumbfounded by the ways that He both carried me and at times dragged me.  Job never got to find out why he experienced his suffering; somehow by God’s grace, I’ve gotten to see time and again what would have befell me had He given me what I thought I needed.  And even with that knowledge, of steps directed, doors opened and closed, I so quickly recoil my hand and go back to gritting my teeth, succumbing to fear.  The fear that my head knows is driven out by His perfect love, but my heart clings to at the first sign of calamity.  Like the chronic pain that has plagued my back for almost three years now, the muscles of my soul cling for dear life to avoid pain, all the while the pain being caused by the clinging.   Then come the moments when I remember, and clarity comes—the mysterious made bright as it can be this side of eternity.

Today I had an image in my head of retracing blessings the way that you run your finger over the palm lines of a loved one.  It’s a moment often wordless—it transcends them.  But it results in a deeper knowing.  And we experience that intimacy with our Author.  As of now in my life, those moments happen interspersed amongst a lot of chaos and a lot of forgetting.  I don’t want that to be the case.  I want the retracing to be as natural as breathing.  Maybe you’re the same.  I don’t have answers on how to get there.  But I know I have to start by stopping—by taking my eyes off the violent waters and looking right at at the One they answer to.

Here goes

As someone who encourages people to just write on a fairly regular basis, I could certainly use a dose of my own medicine.  I’m a notorious conceptualist who, very often, leaves ideas to endlessly swim around in my head without ever incarnating them.  For how much I enjoy writing, my output is pretty pitiful.  Probably because I want things to be perfect before I let them into the world.  Probably because I want things I create to be bulletproof, when in reality that’s not only not possible, but it probably shouldn’t be.  Anything worth anything probably stands a strong chance of being hateable, or at least not particularly likeable.

Reading that first paragraph back to myself, it kind of sounds like self-sabotage, not particularly cheery, and it’s probably not the best way to start off my first ever blog entry but you know what?  I’m leaving it as is.  Because part of this is an exercise in me learning to let go of my own image management.  It’s learning to put flesh on thoughts even when they’re not pristine.  I’m not trying to take the “this is who I am, take it or leave it, I don’t need to change”approach.  Quite the opposite; I’m hoping that through this I will become more aware of my own faults and where I need to grow.  But I am trying to loosen my grip on some of my perfectionist tendencies.  It’s about me trying something that feels daunting and even sheepish to me and pushing past that initial self-editing and just stepping off the ledge (sometimes with run-on sentences), even when to most people it’s probably like “chill out dude it’s just a blog.”

While most people consider singing in front of people (especially songs you’ve written) one of the most vulnerable things you can do, I’ve been doing it long enough now that I don’t really have to think twice about it.  However, actually letting people in—showing them a glimpse of me beyond what they think they know by whatever means they’ve experienced me—now that freaks me right out.  Because like most people I deeply fear rejection.  And honestly as I’m typing this there’s a million voices going off in my head screaming at me to delete it all, or at least edit it for mercy’s sake.  To make it cleaner.  Because I’m afraid of sounding sappy, or pretentious, or ignorant, or all of those things all at once.  But I’m biting my lip and letting go.

This thing’s proably gonna be pretty eclectic.  I don’t really have a particular theme in mind, and posts will likely cover everything from the theological to the artistic to the relational to everything in between.  I just want to write about things I’m passionate about.  There’ll likely be reflections, reviews, lyrics, etc.  I’m not really holding myself to any one topic or format, and posts likely won’t carry equal weight.  I am hoping that by stepping into this, that those who read it might be a bit braver in pursuing whatever it is that they want to try, but fear failure in.  Even if that’s just looking into someone else’s eyes and being honest for the first time.  And even if mom is the only one who reads this, it will be an exercise in not placing stock in clicks and likes.

A note on the blog’s title—I wasn’t sure what to call this for the longest time.  The phrase was one that came to me a few months back.  It refers to the place where Christ meets me—in my mess and my mending.  In my perpetual state of becoming a New Creation, all the while waiting for the day when He makes it all right.  In the midst of all my failures and unsureties but also in my redemption and all His little graces.  It’s in the deaths and resurrections that are bringing me closer to His likeness in ways I can’t fathom and certainly aren’t by my heart’s strength.

So here goes.