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.