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Sad News and The Path Forward

January 14, 2016

Dear friends,

From the very beginning of the work I believe God has entrusted to me, the songs I’ve written and the stories I’ve told have circled around a couple of recurring themes. One of them is the belief that it’s through our weakness and brokenness that the light of God’s power and love best shines through. Another is the hope that if our Father is able to work all things together for the good of those who love him, then His love—not our losses, not our failures, not the worst that has been done to us nor the worst we have done to others—no, not these things, but rather the unfailing love of God, whose mercies are new every morning, will have the final word over our lives.

“Nothing Is Wasted,” “Everything Sad Is Coming Untrue,” “Even This Will Be Made Beautiful,” “Remind Me Who I Am,” “The Wound Is Where The Light Gets In,” – these and many other songs were born out of this belief and hope.  It’s the medicine I’ve been grateful to share with anyone who would listen and the medicine that I myself have needed most for many years and now more than ever.

It is with deep sadness that I write to let you know that something I loved very much has died. After many years of painful struggle, my marriage legally ended in January of 2015. I’ve taken the past year to work through my own grief before attempting to talk about it publicly.

It’s still difficult for me to find the language for all of it, but maybe it’s enough to say that two people enter marriage believing that it will last and hoping that it will be a place of healing and wholeness in the world. When it breaks down, it is both devastating and disorienting. Anyone who has gone through divorce will tell you that it’s one of the most painful things a person can experience in life—an ongoing series of deaths that break a person’s heart and often their spirit. The best anyone can do is try to not lose themselves in the storm of it and in time work toward wholeness again. The best way I know how to do this is to bring the broken pieces of my life to the God who redeems, restores, and puts broken things back together.

I believe there is something about pain that is holy, and over the years I’ve been privileged to stand on the holy ground of other people’s pain, humbled and honored to learn of the hurting places where my songs have found a home and, amazingly to me, brought hope to people in desperate places. Ironically, many times people have told me how one of my songs helped heal their marriage. I suppose now it’s me who is inviting you to step on to this broken little piece of holy ground that is mine.

One of my favorite quotes is from Elizabeth Kubler Ross who wrote:

“The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.”

Though this is not the story anyone hopes for, it is the story I am in, and by God’s grace and with the help of my friends and family I will do the best I know to bring my brokenness before the Lord again and again and pray that I may become wiser, gentler, more compassionate, kinder, a better minister, listener, friend, and human, and to do this with the hope that nothing is wasted and that even this can be made beautiful. These were prayers in my heart long before they were song lyrics.

This is the path forward. I would be grateful for your prayers for myself and my family.

Not Right Now, The Story Behind The Song

March 6, 2014

Following is the piece I wrote as an essay for the special edition of my new record, Love Will Have The Final Word, available in both the standard and special edition at

The suffering of others can make us talkative, loosening the tongues of even the most timid among us. We mean well, we want to help, but more often than not we end up being like Job’s comforters: doing more harm than good by offering half-baked answers, which are no comfort at all and leave the hearer feeling even more alone. When we do this we are asking the suffering person to be okay, to cheer up, and in doing so we are rejecting their pain.

The loneliness of our own suffering can make us introspective. It can lead us into the shame and regret buried deep in our hearts, warranted or not (a friend of mine who had a miscarriage told me that all she wanted to say over and over again was, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” though she had done nothing for which she needed to apologize). In this we see how pain has the power to unearth our deepest wounds, driving them to the surface where perhaps God can begin to heal them.

Several years ago, I experienced one of the most healing moments of my life. It happened in the back lounge of a tour bus. I had just poured out my broken heart to my friend, Andy Gullahorn, when I recognized in the silence that fell between us that I was bracing myself for what he would say next. Would he try to fix me? Correct me? Would he reject my pain by offering answers?

After a moment Andy said, “Jason, I want you to stand up with me. Here’s what we’re going to do. I’m going to hug you, and you need to let me hold you for at least two minutes. And I’m going to time it,” he said as he took off his watch, “so you’re not going anywhere.”

I’m not afraid of male bonding, but two minutes is a long time to hug anyone, let alone in the back lounge of a tour bus. I laughed nervously at first because I felt awkward. But then I found myself crying, and not long after that I started ugly crying. And then, as the last bit of strength I had been clinging to gave itself up, I felt like I sort of went limp and mostly just hung there, held up in the arms of my friend. He didn’t ask me to be okay. He didn’t offer answers. He just offered himself.

Pain is holy, and in the presence of holiness it’s often best to keep quiet. No words passed between us, but what Andy was saying, and what God was saying through him, was clear: “You are loved. You are not alone.”

The Story Behind “With Every Act Of Love”

March 3, 2014

“With Every Act of Love” was the last song to be written for my new record. Knowing I didn’t really have a song that felt like the lead single, I turned to N. T. Wright’s Surprised By Hopefor inspiration in a writing session with my friend Jason Ingram. I enjoy the idea of taking a compelling theologian’s idea and shaping it into a pop song that might extend the idea’s reach. What follows is the essay I wrote that is included in the Special Edition of my new record.

With Every Act Of Love

A doorway placed on a set or in a scene is often a sign of new possibilities. A wall divides worlds, and the door is a portal between them, a passageway through which change can enter from one world into another.

In his book, Surprised By Hope, N. T. Wright reminds us that though we live in the world of men, the Kingdom of God is always at hand. Statements such as “This world is not my home, I’m just passing through” are meant to affirm a deeper reality beyond reality, but they may tempt us to imagine Christianity as an ideology of evacuation and abandonment.

However, the hope of the Gospel is as earthy as it is eternal, marked by a Love that pursues, engages, renews, and is fulfilled in the marriage of Heaven and Earth—when the Kingdom that was launched through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ comes to fruition in the new Jerusalem, “coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband” (Rev 21:2 NIV).

The hope laid out for us in Scripture is that this world will not be abandoned! It is being redeemed as part of God’s new creation. The Kingdom of God is not for “someday when” but is an eternal reality that we are invited to participate in here and now.

“Every act of love, gratitude, and kindness;” says Wright, “Every act of care and nurture, comfort and support . . . every deed that embraces holiness rather than corruption, and makes the name of Jesus honored in the world—all of this will find its way, through the resurrecting power of God, into the new creation that God will one day make. . . . What we do in Christ and by the Spirit in the present is not wasted. It will last all the way into God’s new world.”

This means that all that we do with love—whether mission work in a foreign land or doing laundry in our own home, feeding the poor or feeding our kids—advances the Kingdom of God and will last forever. Or in the words of one of my favorite songs by David Wilcox, “You will always have what you gave to love.”

The outlandish beauty of all this is that God doesn’t need us to build his Kingdom—he is God after all—but for reasons of his own, he’s decided he wants us. And in the wildness of his wisdom, and as unlikely as it seems, he has put us where we are and asked us to be a portal between worlds, a doorway through which he arrives to redeem and renew. “Amen! Come Lord Jesus!”

Watch the “With Every Act Of Love” lyric video at

Nothing Is Wasted EP releases

March 26, 2013

ImageToday Centricity released the Nothing Is Wasted EP as an iTunes exclusive (you can get it here!). It features the radio remix of “Nothing Is Wasted” as well as 4 tracks that were originally part of the Special Edition of A Way To See In The Dark: “Nothing Is Wasted (solo piano version),” “Before I’ve Done Anything,” “Love Is Rebuilding Us,” and “The Angel Of Your Presence”.

I wrote a piece for the Rabbit recently about the decision to do a remix (you can read that here). The gist of it is that Centricity believed in the song and wanted to release it to radio, though they were concerned that the album version didn’t feel like a radio single.

I was so grateful for their belief in this song that I was happy—with a few reservations—to explore the idea of a remix with them. When it was suggested that we bring my friend Ben Shive on board (producer for Andrew Peterson, JJ Heller, etc), my reservations were laid to rest. I think that Ben did an outstanding job of delivering a fresh vision of the song while preserving the spirit of the original.

I hope you like it.

And I’m so grateful that it appears that radio likes it! It was thought the song was a bit of a long shot as a radio single, but because of the belief in the heart of the song Centricity moved forward with it–a risk that now seems justified as more radio stations are adding it quicker than any of my previous singles. So far it’s being received enthusiastically, and I couldn’t be more grateful about all of it. This was always an important song to me, and when we made the record it was the one that I most hoped would have a chance to be heard.

We also got to make a video with my friend Doug McKelvey (who directed “Remind Me Who I Am”) that should be up really soon! (while you wait, there is a lyric video here)

Centricity decided to take the bonus songs from the Special Edition and make them a part of this EP—An idea I liked, hoping it will give songs like “The Angel Of Your Presence” (written with Doug McKelvey) more chances to get heard.

Meanwhile, I’m hard at work writing new songs and trying to get ready for making a new record this summer! So far, it seems like the theme of “Nothing Is Wasted” will carry over into the next family of songs. I spent time finishing a song today called “Love Will Have The Final Word”–kind of a sister song to “Nothing Is Wasted.” I’m excited to sing some new songs and am so grateful that you’re listening.

If your station is playing “Nothing Is Wasted,” I’d be grateful if you let them know that you appreciate it!

Nothing Is Wasted EP available here

Nothing Is Wasted, the Remix

February 12, 2013


(Originally posted in the Rabbit Room. Join the conversation here:

When Centricity (my record label) is considering which song should be the next single to promote to radio, they will do “pre-testing”, which means they hire a service who plays a portion of the song (sometimes only 8 to 16 seconds of it) for the target demographic of radio listeners. If it scores poorly, it’s not a single. If it scores well, then that becomes part of the case they’ll build when talking with radio about the song.

If you’re anything like me, this whole business of pre-testing 8 to 16 seconds of a song is . . . discouraging. What happened to listening to a song? And what happened to the romantic image of DJs who played music because they believed in it? Well, that still happens, too. And while it’s tempting to feel “pre-testing” lacks soul and conviction . . . well, I guess I just don’t want to give any more energy to judging it (or anything else for that matter).

I bring it up, though, to highlight one of the reasons I’m so grateful for my label, Centricity Music. As they wondered about what the next single would be, pre-testing revealed a clear front-runner. However, as we talked about it (and please understand what a remarkable thing it is that I get to be a part of the conversation!), their conviction was that, though it wasn’t the obvious choice, “Nothing Is Wasted” is the song they think people need to hear most. I’m beyond grateful for their belief and willingness to go with their heart on this rather than the numbers.

We recorded two versions of the song—the album version and then the solo piano alternate version for the Special Edition—but neither were deemed radio ready, so a remix was proposed. I get a little nervous about that kind of thing because it’s often the best way to ruin a perfectly good song. But when they decided to hire Ben Shive (producer of Andrew Peterson’s last four records), I got excited.

Ben worked hard to preserve the heart of the song while also reshaping the track to help it feel like the kind of song you might hear on the radio right now. Lauren Daigle, an artist in development at Centricity, lent her amazing voice for some beautiful harmonies. Ben also added cello and hammered dulcimer. He also took the two pre-existing versions and combined them, so that the song has the original bridge and final chorus that I wrote for it.

I’m nothing but grateful: that Centricity went with their heart and picked this song, that Ben remixed it, and that early response from radio has been really positive. But more than anything I’m grateful that of all the things I could be talking about at this time in my life, I get to talk about the goodness of God, the way that he works all things—all things—together for the good of those who love him. Pain, loss, even failure . . . these things don’t get to have the last say over our lives. God has the final word, and his word over our lives is love.

I hope you like the song, thanks for listening.

Lyric video:

[The new mix of “Nothing Is Wasted” will be available soon in the iTunes store ]

Nothing Is Wasted
Jason Gray/Jason Ingram/Doug McKelvey

The hurt that broke your heart
And left you trembling in the dark
Feeling lost and alone
Will tell you hope’s a lie
But what if every tear you cry
Will seed the ground where joy will grow

Nothing is wasted
Nothing is wasted
In the hands of our redeemer
Nothing is wasted

It’s from the deepest wounds
That beauty finds a place to bloom
And you will see before the end
That every broken piece is
Gathered in the heart of Jesus
And what’s lost will be found again

Nothing is wasted
Nothing is wasted
In the hands of our redeemer
Nothing is wasted

When hope is more than you can bear
And it’s too hard to believe it could be true
And your strength fails you half way there
You can lean on me and I’ll believe for you
Give it time, you will believe it too

Nothing is wasted
Nothing is wasted
Sometimes we are waiting
In the sorrow we have tasted
But joy will replace it
Nothing is wasted
In the hands of our redeemer
Nothing is wasted

Caring For The Right Thing At The Right Time

January 24, 2013

Originally posted in The Rabbit Room

The other night while we were washing dishes, my son Jacob said he’d seen a trailer for a movie he wanted to see. “Oh yeah? Which one?” I asked.

“The new Red Dawn.”

“Ugh.” I said. “Why would you want to see that one? You know they’ve been sitting on it for a couple of years because they knew it was a stinker. I think they’re only releasing it now because it’s got Thor and Peeta in it and they’re hoping they can cash in on their popularity and at least get something back for their poor investment.”

Jacob continued, unfazed. “It’s also got an actor in it who I used to love when I was a kid—Josh from Nickelodeon’s Drake and Josh. I’d really like to see what he’s doing now.”

Undeterred, I continued my diatribe. “Well, I loved the original when I was a kid in the ’80s, but this one got TERRIBLE reviews. It’s going to be bad. I’m just telling you because I don’t want you to waste your money.”

About the time these last words came out of my mouth, I began to realize how much of a self-righteous jerk I was being. Unfortunately this is not uncommon for me—I can be oppressively opinionated and uppity. By God’s grace, however, I am learning to recognize it better and quicker. I’m so grateful for growing conviction, the evidence that God is still at work in my life.

A part of my problem is that sometimes I care about the wrong thing at the wrong time. Sometimes I care about fairness instead of generosity. Sometimes I care about someone else’s theological accuracy when quiet listening would be better. In this particular instance I was caring more about the quality of a film than I was caring about the quality of a conversation with my son. (In fact, I think he knew that I wouldn’t care for this movie but brought it up anyway, risking my scorn. Brave.)

Of course it’s good to care about things, and I do care about well-crafted films and good storytelling. I care, too, about nuanced and cathartic performances that are as delicious to the soul as a fine meal is to the palette. I am grateful for my capacity to enjoy these and other forms of art-making: books, music, painting, and on down the list. I care about these things because I’m convinced that beauty matters and is both a grace to be enjoyed and a calling to participate in.

But in that moment with Jacob, my care for a certain kind of beauty turned ugly and it was because I was picking the wrong thing to care about. Consequently I failed to recognize a more subtle and significant beauty that was being offered to me: the beauty of my son sharing his simple desire to see a movie—one that reminded him of fond memories of his childhood.

In that moment I had also been offered a chance to create something beautiful myself: a generous response with the power to foster a culture of kindness, grace, and intimacy in our home. What work of art—be it a song, a book, or a film—can compare to this?

By God’s grace I recognized what I’d done early enough to maybe do something about it. “Ah Jacob. I’m sorry. What a jerk I am sometimes. Can we try this again, would you let me? Let’s start over. Tell me again what movie you want to see.”

He laughed, but played along.  “Dad, there’s this movie I really want to see. It’s calledRed Dawn.”

“Oh yeah? Man I loved that movie when I was kid. Tell me more about it, why do you want to see it?”

“Well, it’s got Peeta from the Hunger Games in it. It’s also got Josh from Drake and Josh” and just looks kind of cool to me.”

He was creating something beautiful of his own by graciously playing along with me, giving me a chance to make amends. This is the beauty of grace. “Awesome! Well, let me know when it comes out and maybe we can watch it together.” I said, smiling.

“Okay, dad,” he said, smiling back. He had accepted my apology and offered me a way back into his world. He is a kind boy.

Later that night my youngest son Gus asked if I’d lay by him in his bed a little bit before he went to sleep. After a little reading (from The Jesus Storybook Bible—Woot!), we lay there a bit in the dark. Kipper and Jacob had come upstairs and were across the hall talking with their mom, laughing, being rambunctious and making some noise.

I sensed it was distracting Gus in the quiet of the moment we were sharing. With every word and bark of laughter he heard from across the hall his body would tense. I could tell he was about to holler down the hall for them to be quiet because he was trying to sleep. I was about to say, jokingly, “Man, your brothers are noisy!” But remembering my earlier moment with Jacob, I wondered if there was something else I might say that would be better, something that might help foster kindness, grace, and intimacy in our home. What was the right thing to care about?

“It’s nice to hear their voices, isn’t it?” I whispered to Gus in the dark.

“Yeah,” he said as his body noticeably relaxed. He was quiet for a moment, and then said, “That’s just what I was going to say.”

Christmas Is Coming… to a city near you! Will You Be There?

November 21, 2012

One week from today will be the first stop of our Christmas tour! This is a special occasion for me for many reasons. First of all, it’s the first tour that is all my own. In all the years I’ve been doing this I’ve had the good fortune of touring with amazing artists like Sara Groves, Sanctus Real, Downhere, Tobymac, The Afters, Jeremy Camp, Andrew Peterson, Todd Agnew, Third Day and others. I’ve been grateful to find myself in such fine company time and time again. But I’ve never done my very own tour and I decided that it was about time.

Second, I’m excited to bring my friends Zach, Aaron, and Steve with me—a group of guys I’ve been blessed to be making music with for years. They’re a great band and I’m a huge fan of their musicality! I can’t wait for you to hear them. Joining us on the cello is my new friend Ben Rosenbush who will also sing a few of his own songs as my guest artist  (check out his song “This Fire” here:

Most exciting for me is that this will be a family affair! We’ve never gotten to do a bus tour all together and I’m grateful we get to go on this adventure as a family with Taya representing World Vision, Jacob working his mojo behind the scenes with merch and multi-media, Kipper playing keys as part of the band, and Gus gearing up for his solo, “Christmas For Jesus”.

We’ll be bringing our telling of the story of Emmanuel to 10 cities this Christmas season, playing the songs of my new record, Christmas Stories: Repeat The Sounding Joy—a telling of the Christmas narrative through the characters who lived it. I wrote the songs with the hope that—if I told their stories as honestly and humanly as I knew how—those who listened would recognize themselves in these characters and maybe take the Christmas story personally.

I hope you can join us as we chart a course for Bethlehem, following the footprints of those who first traveled there, believing the journey is meant to lead us deep inside our own hearts to find a manger and the child who can make us all children again. Come celebrate and sing the story with us!

Here’s where the tour is coming:
11.28 – La Harpe, IL
11.29 – Hot Springs, AR
11.30 – Jackson, MO
12.1 – Aurora, IL
12.2 – Weston, WI
12.5 – Rapid City, SD
12.6 – Mankato, MN
12.7 – Waukesha, WI
12.8 – Zeeland, MI
12.9 – Zanesville, OH

Hope to see you there! For more info, go to

Have you heard the Christmas Record yet? It’s streaming here this week:

Christmas Stories: Repeat The Sounding Joy should be pretty much available everywhere

The Story We Tell Ourselves Part 2: The Monster In The Mirror

September 24, 2012

I wrote a follow up piece to “The Story We Tell Ourselves” that posted in The Rabbit Room last week. For those of you who might be interested, here’s the link! “The Story We Tell Ourselves Part 2”

The Story We Tell Ourselves (Part 1)

August 30, 2012

I wrote a new piece for the rabbit room and thought I’d post it here as well. Thanks for reading!

A part of what draws us to this peculiar treasure of a community called the Rabbit Room is a shared love of stories and storytelling. We are a bookish and thoughtful tribe who believe a book is more than something to read—it’s a doorway to enter a universe as significant as our own, full of life, wonder, and wisdom. We walk the aisles of second-hand bookstores with the fervor of treasure hunters, smelling the open pages when nobody is looking, intoxicated by them. We love to lose ourselves in grand and beautiful tales, believing that it’s one of the best ways to be found again. We regard our favorite writers with a sacred awe, letting them into the deepest, most intimate places in our hearts.

Yet for all of our love of storytelling, it’s easy to forget that each of us is a powerful and accomplished storyteller in his or her own right, with a vivid imagination and capacity for creating wonderful and terrible worlds. It is a gift bestowed upon us by the Great Storyteller who made us in his image. He whose words are made flesh endows us with the power to bring our own stories to life. When we remember this and walk in the truth and grace of it we tell better stories with our lives.

We are, of course, a story that he is telling, but I believe he also invites us to be co-storytellers with him, participating in the tale, every one of us a novelist and autobiographer. Our work is published in the daily living of the life we lead. It shapes us and everyone we know.

I believe our storytelling falls into two categories, each a part of the other: the story we tell the world and the story we tell ourselves. The story we tell the world is a pro-active and intentional kind of storytelling, paving the road as it opens before us. “What kind of story do I want to tell today?” is a question that helps me participate with purpose in the daily chapters of my life. The story we tell ourselves is responsive and interpretive of events as they happen to us or around us. It’s the way a plot line runs through me before continuing on to others. Together, the story I tell the world and the story I tell myself form the single narrative of my life and either lead me deeper into the life-giving heart of it or drive me away from it.

Though I prefer pro-active story telling in my own life—where I have a stronger sense of participating in the direction of the narrative—I believe I can be just as intentional in my responsive and interpretive storytelling, and this is what I want to focus on here. I am empowered when I’m aware that every moment I am telling a story and that the plot can turn in me, right where I stand. Knowing I hold a pen helps me mean what I write.

But just as I am empowered when I am aware, there are consequences when I’m not. Another voice takes over like a ghostwriter when I’m not looking: it is the voice of my broken nature and it speaks the loudest when I stop being intentionally responsive and instead become merely reactive—left to the mercy of whatever story my emotions, physical condition, state of mind, hormones, etc. want to tell me at the time. When I’m exhausted I am inclined to tell a different story than I would if I were well rested. When I’m sad, I may come to believe that a fiction is truth. When I’m lost in my own insecurity, I find rejection in the eyes of every character in the scene. When I’m full of fear, every shadow hides a bogey. When I’m angry, I may set my world on fire, burning up entire chapters of my life. This is how many beautiful stories turn very sad.

My friend Al, a gifted storyteller, helped me understand the power of the story we tell ourselves. He had a friend who was supposed to meet him for lunch one day but didn’t show up. At first Al was irritated. “It was inconsiderate of him to waste my time.” When Al couldn’t reach him throughout that afternoon to see what happened, he began to worry about him. “Is he okay? Was he in an accident?” By the next day, having still not heard from him, Al began to wonder if he had somehow offended his friend. “Is he ignoring my calls? Is he so angry with me over something that he refuses to talk to me? What did I do?” And so what began as a happy story about two friends sharing a meal and good conversation together was led away into stories of blame, fear, and then shame.

Several days later the real story emerged: his friend had a sudden family emergency and had to catch an early flight that morning. In his hurry to leave, he misplaced his phone and was without it until he got back home.

I recognize myself in Al’s narrative and in it see the kinds of stories that I so often tell myself, though I’m usually not even aware that I’m doing it. How often do I run with the stories of blame, fear and shame? I am vulnerable to this kind of thing everyday and, if I’m not careful, I can become the victim of my own worst story telling—led into the sad, shadowy corners of a confusing narrative and away from the heart of the plot and the characters I care about the most—including, and especially, myself, or at least the self that I most want to be.

Great wars are fought and lost daily in the broken storytelling of our darkened imaginations. But recognizing ourselves as powerful storytellers who have a say in our own story helps us to participate in the tale by inviting the light of grace into our narrative, taking every thought captive and making it obedient to Christ (2 Cor. 10:5), and submitting our stories to the ongoing chronicle of God’s larger tale of redemption.

Al’s account helps me to be more than merely reactive. It puts the pen back in my hand by helping me ask the question: “What is the story I’m telling myself in this moment?” Asking this interrupts the sad script that runs on autopilot without my being aware of it. Armed with the knowledge that God has gifted me to be a story-teller, I am entrusted and empowered to tell the kind of story I love the most: A beautiful narrative full of truth and grace.

I do this best when I ask these two questions: “What kind of story do I want to tell today?” and “What is the story I’m telling myself in this moment?”

The first question helps me to enter my narrative with purpose and intention. I shape and am shaped by it. Is what I’m doing right now adding to the beauty of the story God has given me to tell? Or am I writing a scene that I’ll regret?

The second question helps break the spell of the gibbering voices of fear, pride, and insecurity that are always trying to hijack my story. Like Oz the Great and Powerful exposed behind the curtain, I am liberated from the worst version of myself. There in the light of my awareness, the sad, scary lies that bully me in the darkened corners of my imagination are exposed and scattered. I can pick up the pen and by God’s grace I can write something new.

What kind of story do I want to tell today? What kind of stories am I telling myself right now? Do they ring with truth or read like bad fiction? How can I tell a better story starting right now?

Dreaming of a Gray Christmas…

May 21, 2012

Hello friends,

After taking a hiatus from blogging, etc, in order to focus on writing and spending some time with my family, I’m dipping my toe back in to give you an update on what we’re brewing over here.

In November of last year Centricity and I talked about doing a Christmas record for 2012, and as I wondered about what that would like—what kind of Christmas record I could get really excited about—I thought about a Gray Christmas tradition that involves one of my favorite books by one of my favorite authors: “Beyond Words” by Frederick Buechner, a kind of dictionary/encyclopedia of religious words and characters that come to new life under Buechner’s observant eye.

Every year I pull the book off the shelf and look up each of the characters who make an appearance in the Christmas story, and every year I’m so moved by the humanity of these people who find themselves unexpectedly in the middle of The Great Story. With all that Christmas has come to represent in the years since, it’s been good for me to be reminded that it actually happened, once upon a time, in a certain place, in the lives of people much like myself.

So I set out to write and record a collection of Christmas songs based on the characters in the story, then filling in the gaps with traditional Christmas carols that would advance the narrative.

I had no idea what I was getting myself into! Here I had an opportunity to just record a bunch of classics and be done with it! But once this other idea took hold of me it drew me deeper and deeper into it until each character presented themself asking for their story to be told. 8 songs later (and several others that won’t make the record) we decided we had to stop and leave some room for the carols that would help identify this as a Christmas collection.

Making a Christmas record is tricky because just about everyone has a different opinion about what a Christmas record should be.  Actually, it’s less an opinion than it is a conviction.  When I let word out about this project on my facebook page one commenter would write something like: “Please do the classics!” and then the very next commenter would write, “whatever you do, don’t just do the songs that everyone else does – original songs please!” Even my own house is divided over the idea of what makes a great Christmas record. 

Throw into the mix the consideration of what kind of songs radio stations might want and what Centricity is hoping for (though they’ve been very generous to let me chase my passion on this) and it makes for a bit of a tightrope walk. Trying to please everybody is the enemy of creativity and at some point in the process I was set free from the various imagined expectations and my guiding prayer became to make the kind of record that most honored, the heart of God, Jesus, and those who there on that holy night at the dawn of redeeming grace. This left me at the mercy of my most demanding critic: myself, but it also put me in a position to be led by my delight.

It seemed like a great opportunity to work with my friend and one of my favorite producers, Cason Cooley, whose work on Katie Herzig’s “The Waking Sleep” and Jill Phillips’ “In This Hour” are great examples of both his playful adventurism and humble service to the song (do yourself a favor and check out both of those records!)  Cason’s work has a quirky and joyful exuberance that I thought would be a perfect fit for this project.  I wanted it to be a really joyful record.

As I got deeper into the story and the characters, though, I found myself in an intense narrative peopled with characters in the midst of great drama! The young girl who carries the secret of angels; the heartbroken young man whose fiancé is pregnant with another’s baby (will he forgive her when it’s in his power to ruin her?); the wisemen with their gifts of gold (will they give the child what he desires most, the gift of themselves?); the harried innkeeper so overwhelmed with his work that it’s hard for him to recognize the wonder on his doorstep that would make him whole.

In the midst of the sober drama is also the exuberance of the shepherds, wide-eyed and breathless the moment after the angels split the sky with their chorus. They are running into town with Gloria! still ringing in their ears—not entirely sure where they’re going, but what is there to do but run!—to see the newborn King. And of course there is the child himself who will make us children again and heal the world with joy.

I’ve played the little bits that we’ve gotten done so far for some friends and I received the greatest compliment I could have hoped for when a friend told me that he thought it sounds more like me than any thing I’ve ever recorded.

Complicated scheduling and a spring full of touring have made it more difficult to pull this project together than we ever imagined, but Cason and co-writing friends like Randall Goodgame, Andy Gullahorn, Nichole Nordeman, and Joel Hanson have been generous in their time and care to help me bring these songs to life. And so here we are making a record (and still writing! Probably until the last possible moment!) that we hope will surprise, delight and give people a sense that once upon a time and a place, among men and women just like us, a baby was born who changed everything. It’s the greatest story ever told, and it’s a story that we are all a part of, caught up in, and inexorably shaped by.

Frederick Buechner, whose writing plays a significant part in these songs, has said that the story of one of us is the story of us all. If we’ve done our job well, then hopefully these characters will feel like old friends, as familiar as the person in your mirror. Hope you like it when we’re finished with it 🙂