Evan Thomas Way: The Full Interview

Way back in August 2016, I had a long chat with Evan Thomas Way, music pastor at Door of Hope in Portland and frontman of the acclaimed indie band The Parson Red Heads. Last summer, I published a profile based on that conversation at Mockingbird. If you’re new to Evan’s work, head there first. But if you want more, here follows the entire interview with Evan. As someone who cares deeply about music in the church, and who leads music regularly, I found Evan’s approach both refreshingly realistic and healthy. Rereading the conversation before posting it encouraged me again, so I hope it benefits you too.

Which album do you send people to, or that you think is the best representative of The Parson Red Heads?

I don't know, because I feel like they are all representative of specific times, whether it be different versions of the band, or where we were at in life, or what we were listening to.

The band includes you and your wife?

Yeah, pretty much. My wife and I are the founding members, and we've gone through lots of different changes. Some of the [members] have been through it for the most part, for almost the whole time. But it's hard to say what represents us most, 'cause I feel like every album is fairly different and representative of a specific...  you know little documents, so I don't know. That's a hard question.

I feel like Yearling is a special album, in the same way that I describe Wesley Randolph Eader's latest album. Somehow we ended up with this one collection of songs that were really strong as songs. Song for song, they were probably the best. You could play them just on an acoustic and they would still [hold up]. As songwriter songs, maybe it's the strongest in that way. And we spent a lot of time working on it, really all over the country, recording it at different studios. So it's this really special... probably it will go down in history for us as the most special album to make, maybe like the strongest, most cohesive collection of songs. But then at the same time, I don't know if it really represents where we are now, so it's hard to say.

At any stage of one's art it is hard to really narrow it down and say, "That's me!"

Yeah.

How long have you been making music?

Well, Parson's have been playing... I've been doing music in this form for 12 years, I had some bands before then, but they weren't very good. Laughs. So we'll say 12. 12 years.

Anything you've learned...?

I'm sure I've learned a ton! Laughs.

But that you'd look back at on and say, "Man, I wish I had known that." Or, "I'm glad I learned that over time."

Yeah, all sorts of things. You can't help but learn about songwriting, about being a musician, about playing with other people, and just about how to treat other people by being in a band and touring. Especially because we started the band and had been playing for a little under a year before we moved to L.A. When we moved to L.A. we were like, taking it really seriously, and it was good to do. But I was certainly... like, I would write songs that I was pretty extreme about. I was writing everything and I was telling everybody what to play.

Maintaining control.

Yeah, you know. Not to justify it, but I had these ideas, like, “This is the guitar part that I thought of for this thing. This is how I hear it in my head, so I'm going to tell people what to do.” And, in retrospect after growing up and learning more, I don't think that's the best way to be in a band. Laughs. Maybe there are some songwriters who are talented enough that it's the best way to do it. But as we've gone on, I've realised that even if people are writing a part that maybe I thought of in my head, [theirs is] almost always better. When somebody can invest and come up with their own contribution to the song, it's going to make the song more dynamic, and it's going to represent the band as a whole better rather than the two dimensional version of what the song would have been if I would have written everything.

It's a band, not an artist, so it should reflect everyone.

So once I learned that – and that was a hard lesson to learn! – I feel like we got better. Laughs. But yeah, it's hard to sum up everything that you've learned, because it covers so many different categories.

It's interesting hearing that, and then watching you play with your team at church. How much more that is important in a church context, where if you're the one controlling everything!

I'm sure that there are people in my position at a church [who] control everything, that's pretty common. But that's not how I like to do things. No, it's certainly...

But even you think of a band making music, and how members are bringing things they've invested into that song... If you are talking about the church, that's a picture of the church itself!

Yeah. It seems illogical now!  [But] at the time, I don't know... I just wasn't thinking that way. [Now] it just makes sense. Not only is someone going to care more about what they play, if it's something that they've came up with, they are going to play it better. Laughs. There's going to be more character and... it's going to be better if they've thought it up. Because everyone has their own unique way of doing things. If they replicate something that I've shown them how to play, it's just not going to be as good, or as interesting.

It brings more to the table, and when you listen to a good record, or a song, it unfolds itself more the more you listen to it. If other people are bringing stuff to it, it's just going to add to that richness.

I was reading Bob Dylan's memoir and realised how much of his early career was spent just playing other people's music that he loved. Same thing with The Beatles early music. They just covered people.

Yeah! That was indicative of the 60s though, everybody was doing it. It was kind of weird. There would be like four versions of the same song on the radio, and they'd all just be playing at once. “May the best band win!” You know?

Did you start out as songwriter?

Yeah, I just pretty much jumped right in, wanting to be in a band that did our own songs. [But] I definitely learned the value of covers. Parson's have made it a habit of knowing some covers, because they are fun to do. For the past 6 years, on every New Year's Eve, we do a concert where we perform an album from beginning to end, so we learn a band's album that way.

Wow! What's your favourite?

We did the Weezer's Blue Album. You don't know Weezer? Man, Canada! So that was probably the most fun. But we did The Beatles “Hard Day's Night.” We did Tom Petty's “Wildflowers”. We just recently did Fleetwood Mac's “Rumours”, we did Stardust this last year. So that's been so interesting – how much it informs and teaches you. Like one time in L.A. we were the house band for a Beach Boys tribute show. All sorts of different vocalist from around town were singing and we were just the band and did harmonies. We had to learn like 20 something Beach Boy songs and all the harmonies. We were learning harmonies off sheet music, choir style.

And that was so educational! We grew so much as musicians having to do that. And my appreciation for what the Beach Boys do... Because it's hard to write something that's hard for you to do. Like, I would never write a song that I can't play. Some people do. They hear something, and it's really hard for them to play, and eventually they get it. I'm not wired that way. I don't write something that's hard for me to do. So being forced to learn something that's hard for me to do just makes me grow that much more as a musician.

Did you watch Love & Mercy?

I have not.

That film really helped me appreciate them. It also made me appreciate the amount of personal suffering such brilliance brought Brian Wilson.

Yeah, I've got to see it. All my Beach Boys fanatic friends saw it, and it passed. They all approved of it. I have some friends who are historian level [Beach Boy fans], so if they approve it, it must be good.

 Apparently they found the original recordings of the studio sessions and replicated them exactly.

I guess even the scenes in the studio were replicated off photos and footage, so everything was laid out the same, the microphones were all in the right places.

 And it's fun to watch! Especially seeming them create these ideas together.

Yeah, I gotta see it.

 I find it cool that you and Wesley are both making music that's not explicitly Christian, along with Gospel music, and having that combination.  Are there things that you keep in mind when you are wearing those different hats?

Yeah, I guess so. For me, writing gospel music and... worship music?

Church music?

Yeah, church music. That's a good way to put it. It was something I didn't do until I started working with the church. And started working with the church, and Josh, our lead pastor, writes a lot of the songs that we do. and there were lot of other songwriters writing songs for the church. And he encouraged me, like, "You write good songs. You should try writing some worship songs. Might as well try it." And so that's kinda when I kinda started trying my hand at it. And it takes me... it's a lot harder to write a good worship song.

Why's that?

Because there's a lot more.... You can't do whatever you want. Laughs. It's gotta be theologically sound, it's gotta be clear. In my opinion, this is what it takes. It has to be easy to sing along with. There's just all this other stuff. Whereas when you are writing a song, it doesn't have to make sense, really. And I take it a lot more seriously. I'm a lot more critical. I'm like, “Is this all true? Is this all worth singing, will people get it?” So it just takes a lot longer. I mean, I've only written church songs in the context that this is for our church, for this church specifically. So for everything on that record, I wasn't just writing Christian songs. I was like writing a bunch of songs to be congregational worship songs

For your church.

For my church, yeah.

For people that you know!

Laughs. And I was a little weirded out making a record, because I wrote [all the songs] not thinking to do a record, I was like, “I don't know if I wanted to.” It felt weird. I wrote these songs to be sung in a worship service. Is their function to be recorded, and put on a CD, and be monetised, and [played] in the car? Is that what they are for? Is that right? Or is their purpose to be sung? And I still think about that some times. I realise that there are people who worship to them outside of the confluence of church. And that's fine, if you can put it in your car and drive and you're worshiping, and it helps you, that's good.

Once I decided to do it, working with the guy I work with, Danny (who did Wesley's record too), [he] helped me kind of realise that the record is an opportunity not just to recreate what [I] do on Sunday, but these songs can be done differently on the record than what [I] do at church. Like, they can still be worshipful, but they don't have to be a congregational worship song. So we changed the arrangements and made them a little more experimental.

More spacious.

Yeah, which helped me justify doing the album more.

In the sense that you were making something that people can enjoy as art?

Yes.

It is worship, but you are not singing it in your congregation.

Right. So yeah, I mean, that is very different from what I do for Parsons, in that it's a different function, if you think about music as functions, I think about the songs I write for church as serving a very specific purpose, whereas the songs I write for Parsons can serve all sorts of different purposes I guess, depending on the song. Over the years I've found my songs for Parsons, whether I try or want to or not, have more clearly expressed my worldview, you know? Laughs. The more I've grown as a Christian and [have] taken following Jesus seriously, the more I can't help it. I'm not thinking about it when I'm writing lyrics, but its coming through somehow. Because more and more, every release I'll have questions asked by interviewers, "Are these sons about... God... like?" When we first started no one would every ask me that about any of my songs. It just [has] kind of sneaked in, like, " I guess it is, yeah." Laughs.

In what ways do they sneak in? I listen and find it very joy filled. You're reckoning with these things and realising there is something greater going on.

I think it really started happing with the last record, with the Orb Weaver record. Just on certain lyrics, [critics] were picking it up much more quickly then I thought they would be. Laughs.

When you're writing music for the church you're very specific. It almost sounds like you're hearing a need in the congregation.

I'm seeing the need In the church in general, for good worship songs. Not to offend anyone, but I feel like there is a lot of bad church music out there being done by churches. So I see a need because I know there are a lot of people like myself who hear these songs and are like, "This is terrible." And they're conflicted because they want to be good worshippers. Certainly you don't want to go to a church and feel like... I mean I've done it so many times, where you hate... you just don't like the songs, but that's not your job. You're not there to please yourself or be entertained, so then you're trying. You want to worship God well, and humbly, but you're like, "Man, I can't help it, this song is terrible." Chuckles. That conflict! So I see a need for good worship songs [that] I think are pleasing artistically. But also I find that a lot of modern worship songs are devoid of all actual content. Like, they are Christian lingo just repeated over and over again that just means nothing. So I see a need for that in the church in general.

So, the immediate use is for our church. And then the nice thing is that through Deeper Well, through any reach that we have, it is able to echo out [into] other churches. Whenever I hear about another church doing some Deeper Well songs I'm, like, so happy. I love that people are finding that music and using it in their congregation and that it's growing from there.

We use some of Wesley's stuff, and it's great. We do a lot of Indelible Grace and Sovereign Grace songs, and there is still so much from them to draw from. But the more I listen to Deeper Well, the more I want to introduce your songs.

When you’re making the art that is specifically Gospel focused, especially that made in context for the church, you know that it explicitly includes truth. So you trust that its going forth and being used. Is there a sense that you wonder how if your other music is having any impact? Obviously you can trust God...

I guess I don't worry about it too much, because there is not much I can do about it. I think that songs that are outside of [the church] context sometimes can be more powerful. They certainly can communicate to people who are... I mean, I would love it if Deeper Well...

One idea was if the records sound great, if the songs are good, [then] even if the content is explicitly Jesus content, maybe people outside of the church would gravitate towards the music anyways, and [it could] sneak in there. [But} I think that outside of maybe Liz Vice's record, that's probably not happened, I mean for various reasons. When a black woman is singing traditionally sounding gospel music a lot of people let that slide sooner then they would a bearded man singing about Jesus. Chuckles.

I was talking to her about it yesterday, and I was surprised at the types of venues that invite her.

Yeah, I think she can get away with it, and it's great. [But] the idea that my record being heard by someone who is not a Christian and being like, "I love it anyway!" like... it's a little ridiculous. But, are they going to listen to the Parson's records where the messages [aren't] explicit but certainly [have a] worldview engrained in them that can, I don't know, soften their hearts? I think that's totally possible.

Especially because music can get under your skin and in your head.

Yeah. So I think it can still be used for good. I think it's [also] a vehicle to express other ideas, and like, you know, more personal introspective about life in general. I don't think that's the place where Gospel music [can]...

So even though the worship music talks about life, the other stuff talks about it in a broader sense, in ways that the other stuff can't?

Yeah. More introspective, I guess.

At my church, when we write gospel music our pastors give it a read through to make sure that what is being taught is accurate. And you mention something similar, in trying to be careful. Do you do something similar when you write something that's not explicitly Christian? Because you are still conveying a message.

Not really. I guess I trust myself enough. And I feel like if I were to do that, would I expect other artist attending the church [do to the same]? Would I expect Wesley to bring his songs [to me]?

Would you expect a coffee roaster to do something similar with their coffee?

Yeah. [You] have to exercise accountability, and you have to be able to have the freedom of expression to express doubt, or pain, and sing from different perspectives. I certainly have written songs that, when I take a step back, I have to admit that, "Man, I wrote that from the perspective of maybe a character who is not where I am at." And I have to be okay with that. You have to take that step of bravery I guess. That [perspective] might get associated with me, but I think it's a valuable story to tell anyway.

How did you get into the worship pastor position at Door of Hope?

Laughs. By accident, I guess. We moved up here, and I was working as a website project manager from home, and we were sort of looking for churches. Like I was telling [you earlier], I was struggling with going to churches and just really not responding to the music. In a way that wasn't healthy, that was very selfish.

In the sense that you wanted to be pleased?

Yeah, like I'd show up ready to judge the music. The music would happen. I would judge the music. [I was] completely shut off from the experience, just not good. It was not good.

It's so easy as an artist to do that.

Oh yeah! And so, after a while of looking for churches [and] that being the thing over and over again, both my wife and I were super convicted about it. [We] started realising that we are not... everyone else is just worshiping and we are just being so self-righteous and treating it like we are supposed to be entertained. And so we really had to take a step back and just choose to put that aside and be like, "We will find a church and music will not be a factor. Because it's such a  problem we can't actually let that be a factor in our decision anymore. So whatever the music is, if we find a church that has solid teaching, that were compelled by, that we think is healthy, we just need to go. We need to commit to a church, and we need to lay that down. Music just needs to not be a thing."

And so we did that and a little while later we found Door of Hope and it was just God rewarding some amount of faithfulness and repentance. Because when we walked in, I was like, "Oh, the music is good. But it doesn't matter, it doesn't matter if the music is good!" And then the message was great, and halfway though the sermon I leaned over to Brette and was like, "We should go here." And so we never stopped going.

And through committing to the church a couple weeks later we introduced ourselves to Josh, and Josh, being the way he is – it's hard to describe – he was like, "Oh you guys are musicians, what's the name of your band?" And we told him and the next week he comes up he's like, "I checked out your band, it's really good." He's just really immediate and informal. He's like, "It's really good, do you want to do a special song sometimes? Like special music for a service, like do a song?" We're like, "Sure." He's like, "Okay, cool. Next week."

Alright! So then next week Brette and I did a song, and after the service he was like, "That was awesome. Do you want to do worship with me sometime, like co-lead?  Okay, cool, next week we will do it."

Ah, alright! After that, he was like, "That's great!" and we'd get lunch or coffee occasionally. And through co-leading, sometimes I started seeing how... because at this point it was just him and two guys working for the church. He was preaching every week. He was the only pastor, he was doing all the music, coordinating the band to whatever extent he could. He was just doing a lot. And my Dad's a pastor, and so I know what it looks like for a pastor to do more then he should, plus [Josh is] just like, not organised. So I got the inside view of, “Woah, he's sending out an email to people like on Saturday night, telling them that they're going to play worship with him tomorrow. Like, that's not going to work. That not sustainable. I'm surprised it's lasted this long.” And I was working at home at the time, a computer job, so I offered; "Josh, can I just make a monthly schedule? I'll handle scheduling. Give me the musicians. I'm an organised person. It will take no time. I've got time at home. Give me their emails, I'll make a schedule every month, that way you don't' have to be doing this ridiculous scramble every Saturday night."

He's like, "Alright.” So I started doing that, and co-leading more regularly, and after doing that for a few months he finally offered me a job. And I didn't really want the job.

No?

Not really. I didn't think that I'd work for a church, I was comfortable doing what I was doing; we were able to tour whenever we wanted, doing what I was doing. And so when he offered me the job it took me a while to say yes. I was so comfortable. "Yeah, the job I have now is stressful and giving me ulcers, but we can tour. I know what it is." The known vs. the unknown. And I called my dad and I was like, "Dad, should I take this job?" My dad's a pastor and I was half expecting him to say, "Of course, work for a church!" He was like, "Well, I don't know. The band's important, and working in ministry is hard. If you're not called to do it it will destroy you."

Well, alright, I'll take that into consideration! But after praying about it and my wife really calling out my... I was holding on to the comfort of like, "This job pays good, we can tour whenever." [But in the end], if you have an opportunity to do music for church, for a job, just do it. And I did it.

That's an amazing story! And how, over the years of doing that, how have you changed?

I've probably changed completely. Laughs. I doing know, I mean, yeah, it's been almost totally different then I thought it would be. I love it. I don't know if I would... I don't consider it my career. Were I to, for some reason, loose this job tomorrow, would I be like, "Alright, better find another church to do worship for"? I don't think so. I mean, not only do I think that I'm called to be the worship pastor for this church, that's how I feel now. I don't feel like I'm called to got on another church. So if I didn't work for the church, I guess I would just do a different job. But also, but I don't think any other church would have me.

Why?

Because I don't like to do the job how most churches like to do it, or do the songs that most churches want you to do. I think either I'd quite or they'd fire me. Laughs. Yeah, I don't view music as a career. I view it as a calling to this specific church. If I were to loose the job, I would just go back to...

But that feels healthy. It feels organic, even just watching you do your thing. This is you doing this because this is how you serve the church. It's in this capacity, but ultimately you are still going to serve the church through music wherever you are.

Right. Yeah. So, I mean I've changed a lot in that I've embraced the role in ways that... I never thought that I would have a job that I would do. I actually realise that I care a lot about how worship is done. Not only artistically, but like, even more so on a pastoral level.

What is that?

Well, I feel like my job is first and foremost carrying for the musicians and volunteers that are put under my care. That's number one, fostering that community, pastoring this community of these people at the church. I don't think that my job is to be the guy who makes music. I feel like worship pastors nowadays they are the guys who are hired to make music that sounds good, and looks good, and people can... "Can you sing good? And play guitar good? Then you're the worship pastor!" How does that qualify you to be a pastor? You're just a musician. And there [are]a lot of guys who can sing good, and play good, and look good on a stage, and be compelling. But I don't feel that's the appropriate thing. I feel like first and foremost, when you pastor people, do you care about the people who are put under your care? Do you have a healthy vision of what constitutes healthy, humble worship rather than a concert? And then, maybe, like 5th down the line, can you sing.... Actually, I don't think it even is on the list. [It}doesn't matter. If a church is like a family of Christ, do you care if you're around the dinner table and your brother tells a joke and it's not good? It's your bother, just let him tell a joke. I don't even think it matters.

But your musicians are very good.

They are very good. Yeah. I don't know. I'm blessed to serve at a church where the musicians are so good. So I can't take it for granted.

 So let’s say you have someone that comes in and says, "I want to serve the church this way" but he or she is not the best musician – yet. What would that look like? Especially since you've got such good talent.

Right, yeah, there's the brass tacks of everyday, where I have a rotation of 40 something musicians who are all pretty stinking good. Do I have a need for even a really good musician right now? Not really. I will try to use them somewhere because I want everyone to be able to serve with their gifts if they can. But what I've done in the past is when somebody wants to serve in the worship team but they're just not good.... which happens. I mean, [if] they can't play their instrument well enough it would be a distraction, it would take away from it. Or they don't have experience playing with other people, all sorts of things. Usually I have to gently tell them that they can serve yet, and that they should maybe try to serve the church in some other way, with other skills or interests that they have. But I always offer to continue playing with them, to help [them]. I have a group that I meet with every other week. They might not be ready to play on a regular rotation, but I want to pastor them and I want to help them get better. Maybe sometime they can play. I don't just say, "Sorry, not good enough." I don't like the whole idea of it being an audition process. Like an American Idol thing.

Offering that takes more work out of you, but then that's pastoring.

Yeah. I'm the pastor. So we get together and we play. There's not a promise that they ever will be on the rotation, but maybe they aren't supposed to be. Laughs.

But you're still going to learn how to enjoy...

Yeah. If nothing else, I can help you learn how to play with other musicians better and listen.

When it comes to disciplining artists in the community, because Portland's got a lot of artists, which is really cool...

Mhm.

But as a church you are called to disciple people and artists have specific shortcomings and idolatries...

Sure! Laughs.

...that are specific to them. How do you, as a church, disciple artists?

Hmm. I mean, we're not a church that's very programmatic. We try very hard not to be. So, we try to be as organic as we can. But how do I disciple artists outside of trying to go through life with people who go to the church who are artist, and be their friend and their pastor? Laughs.

Outside of that, I guess we try to be very real with.... Artist have the tendency in communities to think that they are a gift to the church, like the church needs artists. That's something that's talked about all the time. But artists very rarely think that they need the church. So I try to tell artists that we don't really need them, and that they actually just need the church and [need] to be in community. And you know what? It's cool that you paint good. [But] you need to be here every week and just, like, serve coffee. Laughs. Right?

Totally!

I feel like one of the best ways to disciple artists is to try and strip away the idolatry of their art, like, "I live for my art." No. You live for Jesus. And you're lucky to be able to do art. "The church needs me." No. That's ridiculous. Like, we'd be fine without the painter. We'd be fine without 48 musicians. We could have one guy up there with a guitar lead[ing] a hymn and it would be awesome. So we don't need you. You need the church. Laughs. That's how I disciple artists. Laughs.

That's good! And you mentioned that idolatry piece. I find I'm understanding more about how much my identity is placed in what I'm doing. Even when I'm getting frustrated by my creativity – I can't write, or it doesn't succeed, or whatever – that's where I place all my identity.

Oh, of course.

Are there things you've found as an artist that you have to kill?

Yeah. I mean, I'm killing sin all the time, right? Laughs. It never dies. It won't be dead. And in any artist the tension is always there, because it's the tension of being imperfect, selfish, broken humans that...

Speaking for myself, I love making music. I love finishing a song and playing it and being pleased by it. Is that healthy? Only to a certain extent. Like, what are the reasons why I like to put out music that people like? I'm sure most of those reasons aren't glorifying to God. And every artist is like that. No artist makes art without the idea that they want people to like it. Well, why do they want people to like it? Why does it matter?

When you notice that in yourself, do you continue to make art? Or do you pause sometimes and not put it out?

No, because I don't think that's any healthier. Laughs. You've got to deal with the problem, and certainly I think that as beings created in the image of God, part of that is being creators, and everybody is.

I feel like that's a whole other thing. Artist's get put on this pedestal as being like, "You guys have that part of the image of God!” But everybody's a creative. Literally everything humans do is creative. The guys who laid the pavement out there are artists.

Teachers. Mothers.

Yeah. So, I mean, that's something that has to be stripped away anyways. Like, artists get treated like, "Wow, you guys have that blessing and burden of being creators!" Nah, that's every human, ever. And that's a whole other problem.

No, you don't stop doing art because God gave you that gift. It's not a bad gift.

If he gave you that gift, then with it comes temptations, as every gift does. Perhaps that's how he is disciplining you and how he's sanctifying you.

I mean, I think there are certainly times... I know guys who have really confronted the fact that playing music in some capacity, or making music... "I can not avoid it causing me to sin. In whatever way, this is a threat to me. It causes me... for whatever reason. It causes me to drink too much, because I always drink too much when I play shows." Or, name the reason. Countless reasons why doing art could cause your walk with Jesus to be compromised. And I certainly know guys who have taken that step, that at least for now, I need to not do that.

Or for family reasons.

Right. And I think that's totally respectable. I know guys who have done that and then, years later, have been able to come back to it in a much healthier way. But I don't think anyone should expect that they can do art without constantly battling self.

It's life.

Yeah.

It's really cool to have a church that cultivates a community of creativity. And Door of Hope definitely does that. You just walk in. How do you encourage a church to do that who doesn't? And how do you avoid being seduced by the beauty?

I mean, I think the idea of a church cultivating creativity is a little..... Like I get asked a lot from those who pastor churches that aren't [like ours], "Your church is so creative! How do you cultivate creativity?" Well, if you are serving a church that is not made up of people who are artistic in that particular way, you can't. Laughs. And you shouldn't want to. Because you are serving a church made up of these people. What do they want? And your church is going to look like that.

I think a church should be responsible for the people who make up the church, and not try to be something they aren't. Because they think that's what a good church looks like. Our church looks like this because, for whatever reason, we are a church that from the very beginning [had] a lot of musicians. Musically creative [and] gifted people started coming. And that feeds upon itself. But if we didn't have that, I wouldn't got out to try, like "How do we get these people here? How do we make our music sound like that church’s music? Because I don't think that's healthy.

No, it's not.

So do we cultivate creativity? No, we just have a lot of creative people and we have a healthy view of how they could be used in the church and it's probably not even... I feel Imago Dei does a lot more with their visual artists then we do, and they have a lot more, but they also have found ways to use them that we don't. I don't try to pursue copying them.

You just aren't connected to the needs of that community.

Yeah. I think cultivating creativity is just an idol that churches have that they want to make. They need to do music that works. That worked for that church. What do your people want? Can they even do it?

Because that serves them.

So I wouldn't say we cultivate creativity, we just happen to have people here who want to serve. [We are] trying to guide them in a healthy way to serve, but I'm not trying to get people to be more creative. You can't make... if you have artists, like musicians, you can't make, you don't have to do anything to make them be creative and make music. If anything, you have to stop them from doing a lot of stupid stuff.

And how does that play in? I see of a lot of art organisations that do great work, but you see them start to loose the doctrine side.

Yeah! You know, I could totally think of times when someday said, "I wrote this and I want to do it for the church on Sunday." And maybe I didn't look at it close enough, and I let them do it, and then I think, "Yeah, I shouldn't have let them do it like that. That did not serve the purpose. It shouldn't have been done at church." Either the point hadn't been clear, or, you know, for whatever reason. You can get away with a lot under the guise of being artistic in the church.

It's a pass.

Yeah. And I just think you have to be really strict about it. Chuckles. You have a lot of freedom to [personally] be creative as a Christian. As a member of a church you have a lot of freedom to be creative. Not all of that freedom is allowable in a church service. Where I work at a church, a big part of my job is overseeing a church worship service.

Freedom under the context of the proper framework.

I wouldn't play a Parson’s song in church. Even though it's something I do that I think brings glory to God, I wouldn't do it, because it's selfish. I mean, as far as guiding artists away from doing stupid stuff, you can't. They're always going to do stupid stuff. Laughs. But being willing to have those hard conversations. How many times [I hear about them outside] the church just being, doing all sorts of dumb stuff outside of the church, how that reflects on the church and how that reflects on them. Are you going to have those conversations that are hard? And be like, "What are you doing  and why are you... Why do people see you smoke pot after church, that's crazy? Why are you talking like this?" That's pastoring. That's holding people accountable.

And it's not just for artists.

Right.

How did Deeper Well come about?

Pretty much just through me and Josh talking. When I started working, he had just finished his last record for Tooth and Nail. He had finished his contract for Telecast, a big worship band. He finally finished his contract, he was so happy to be done doing that. But you know, he is a creative guy, he writes music all the time. [He's] still constantly writing music. So what does that look like now, [with] both of us being musicians wired to write songs? We have a real heart for musicians making music. So he's got songs, he's done with Tooth and Nail, [he] certainly doesn't want to go down that road again. And then starting to look at his songs and other musicians in the church who were writing songs for the church. This is something that God has blessed this church with. What are we supposed to do with this? Are we just supposed to sing these songs on Sunday? Or can we do something, like we talked earlier, to address the need in Christian culture, in worship culture? Is there a way that we can do it differently? Can we learn about Josh's bad experience with contemporary Christian music and can we do something else?

What has the impact been on the church and its community?

I think it's helped our worship. I think there's something really powerful about having the bulk of the songs that you sing as a community being written by people who've been in the community. Because they speak to our growth as a church, and they've come from our experience as a church. I think it's undeniable that when we sing 'Victory in the Lamb' it's powerful. Because it's a powerful song, but also because Wesley wrote it, and he's part of our church, and he wrote it while he was at our church. [There's] just something inherently strong about that.

I've heard that it's brought other people to the church. I'm blown away by the reach that it's had. Like Miranda [a missionary from our congregation] on Sunday [telling us that] people in Nepal have heard of it. That blows my mind, and it's humbling to hear.

But how it's affected our church? It's strengthen our worship. I love that we've been able to serve the musicians that we have by allowing them the ability to make a record that they're proud of, that serves the church but is also something that helps them grow,

It's affirming as artists!

It strikes me how Wesley's songs are very much hymns, with a traditional hymn structure. But Deeper Well has also released stuff that's very much not. Those songs are played different style. They even have a different way of writing words. It's neat that those can exist in the same context. I'm curious why that happens and how you avoid having it so simple and one dimensional.

I think it's just by not telling people what to do. Laughs. Being willing to have Holly write her songs and be like, "These are good!" Pastoring her, but not being like, "No, it should be more like this." People are unique, and by writing these great songs... I'm not looking at Wesley's songs and [saying], "These have the potential to be great if he does x y and z." But seeing them as they are. Seeing Cory's songs that he's written as a song writer, not because of what I've told him to do. Because he has the gift of writing songs. All these people are better at writing songs then me, in my opinion, so what should I tell them what to do?

I've enjoyed having the Sunday worship sets up on SoundCloud.

Yeah, isnt' that cool? Not my idea. But it ended up being a good idea. I'm like, so cautious about putting the music up on any sort of pedestal. I'm just all about why. Why would we do that? Wouldn't that just make people idolise the music and the musicians?

And covet the quality of your church's music?

Sure. So I'm always more about saying no then yes. But our executive pastor was like, "We've got such great music that could bless churches all over the place. It could bless people at our church that want to hear this music throughout their week." He was like, "Even more so..." – and he probably said this to convince me –"there are other churches who could really use the inspiration of hearing these worship songs done in a way that, clearly, you think is good, because that's how you do it."

So I was convinced. I drew the line at audio. He's like, "We could film it?" No. Yeah, so it’s been great and I've been blown away by how many people are listening to it.

I've really enjoyed it. It's been a great way to get ideas for new ways of doing songs. Like, hearing a different person sing Of Old it was Recorded and thinking, "Okay you could do it this way too. " Even Liz's version of Amazing Grace that you did yesterday.  I want to do it like that, and now I can look it up later.

I was thinking of [that song as an example of] why not to tell people what to do. Liz was like, "I heard the Blind Boys of Alabama do Amazing Grace this way and I loved it.” So we did it through once. [But] for my taste I didn't want to, it seemed a little silly. I just didn't gravitate towards that idea. [But I thought,] "Is there any real reason outside of my personal taste why I wouldn't want to do that? Does it change the content of the song? Does it make it less singable? No, people will pick up on it just fine."

So you've never done it like that in the church at all?

No, no. Liz just suggested we do it that way.

I just didn't have any reason, other than my taste, to say no. And that's not a good enough reason. So I was like, "All right, let's do it. It works with your voice good. I guess we'll do it." And, it turns out, my taste was wrong, because everybody loved it. Laughs.

It was fun to sing to! I sang along louder on that then probably anything else that morning.

I got a ton of comments about it. So I was wrong! So all the better for me to not go with my tastes most of the time.

Well, this has been a terrific conversation. Thank you for for your time!

You're welcome! I'm glad that you are able to meet with Wesley, and talk to Paul [Ramey at Imago Die]. You're going to get all kinds of different perspectives [from him.} Laughs.

What's it like having two different churches with similar focuses, especially both in the same neighbourhood?

Yeah. Well, similar but different, We just have different ways of doing church. Neither wrong nor right.

Um, I love it. I think more churches need to be more unified and less divided about things that don't matter. And I think Imago does a ton of great stuff, and they do a ton of stuff that we don't do. And so to know that there's a church right there that's doing all of this stuff, and somebody might come to our church and not like it, but they can just go right over there and know that they can got to a church that is preaching truth, and doing great things, and loves people. It's not a competition.

It's cool that that events like Canvas Conference that can bring that talent and the people of the community together that way.

Yeah, I think Portland's unique in that [way]. At the first Wednesday of every month there's a lunch at Imago. Any worship pastor or worship leader from the Portland area is welcome to come, and we all just come together. Usually like 10-15 different churches are represented. And we just we talk about stuff, sometimes there are different themes, sometimes not. We sing and worship together, we pray together. And it's us! I think it's a healthy way to get there.

Yeah, I mean Paul's a good friend. He and I get together pretty regularly. I love the guy. We probably don't agree on somethings, [like] philosophies of how to do church, but I don't know if Jesus cares about it or not. Laughs.

Portland gets that reputation of being one of the least churched cities [in America] but I'm not sure where that comes from.

I wonder if it's a Pacific Northwest thing?

Maybe...

 That statistic applies to Victoria for sure. Maybe Vancouver,  but not as much. I don't know about Seattle...

I don't know. I just look at all the churches that I think are great around here and I think, "How can [Portland] possibly be unchurched?” I look at our church and Imago, and [at] how many younger people are involved. To me, I can't relate to that statistic.

Last year I talked to Tim Mackie more about the unique church situation in Portland. There's a certain strange flavour to this city, but when I'm amongst the Christians I remember why I keep coming back.

Yeah, and I mean certainly with any major city, there's plenty of opposition to the Gospel and the people who are not into it are really not into it. And that's fine, but that's everywhere.

That's a good thing. It means you are not watering down the gospel.

Yeah. I mean, I would love for that not to be the case. Me and Josh have had this [conversation] sometime. It seems like sometimes people come to plant a church, or do ministry here, and they are almost proud. "Yeah, we're going to Portland, the most unchurched city. It's cool." It's not cool! I'd much rather it be he most churched [state]. We're praying ourselves out of a job. I'd rather it be more churched then less churched, but I don't expect that to happen in my lifetime. And I love this city, and a ton of my good friend are entirely opposed to the gospel. I'll work on [that]. Laughs.

It's neat that you're involved in the music scene as a pastor. I've been to churches where the staff seem to be in the church office all day. At my current church the staff include farmers, firemen, teachers, and a former Chelsea football star.

That's awesome.

Yeah, it brings this real-world grit to their ministry.

Making music outside of church, and being in that context grounds you.

 That's important. It's evangelism in its own way, maybe.

I think it's totally valuable, I encourage all my musicians, "Don't just make music here. This is the safe place to do it."

Do they all do it in bands?

A lot of them do, not all of them. Its' such a wide spectrum. And some just do it at church, they've got three kids [and a] full time job, but they love playing guitar. But in anyway that you can, I do encourage people to.

Well, thanks again for your time! This has been excellent.

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Turning 25

I was terrified of turning 25. It would be a moment of reckoning. Whatever state of accomplishment at the quarter century mark would be a litmus test result of my self worth.

That dreaded date has finally come, and it's not as bad I thought. Maybe that's because I feel better about where I'm at in life. I'm certainly glad to have moved on from Apple and to have settled into the university life. The prospects head feel good.

Does this contentment come only because my plans are "under control?" How swiftly they can change! Already I feel cracks of potential tension. My health has flashed warning signs and I can almost predict that it will wreck havoc on my schooling. My income is limited. I've been told that I'll do well in school, but of that there is no guarantee. I've ruined my potential many times in the past, and that can certainly happen again.

This last year has been a season of letting go, of new vistas, and of small blessings. I've said goodbye for good to long held career ambitions at Apple. I've had an important trip cancelled at the last minute. My health has been violate, leaving major repercussions. But I'm happy with the small, local school that seems just right for my needs. I've received satisfying success in my writing. I've been given a ministry at church that suits me so very well. Crowded amongst these major events events are countless small blessings; an unexpectedly lovely week with Malcolm Guite, friendships both new and renewed, a room filled with bookshelves and art.

Ah, things. All very good, of that there is no question. They are gifts that our Creator gives us, and we see His hand of blessing through them. But how quickly they consume.

Are my standards for what makes a year good based primarily on how I feel about my accomplishments, accomplishments that fade so quickly? They are truly fragile. As I live my 25th year, may I learn to find my stability in the Lord and His character. May I see the effects of his hand in my life, and find my contentment in them rather than my own strivings for success.

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Evan Thomas Way: On Pastoring Artists

Over the past couple of years, I've developed a great affinity for Portland's Door of Hope church. It's the home church of Josh Garrels and Lize Vice, and over the past two years I've attended multiple services and interviewed former pastor Tim Mackie and songwriter Wesley Randolph Eader. Last summer I met up with Door of Hope's worship pastor Evan Thomas Way, who also leads the popular and highly acclaimed West Coast indie band The Parson Red Heads. 

For a church that has such an emphasis on creativity, producing some of the best church music of the 21st century, Evan is surprisingly down to earth. "Artists have the tendency to think that they are a gift to the church, that the church needs artists. I feel like one of the best ways to disciple artists is to try and strip away the idolatry of their art. You don’t live for your art. You live for Jesus. And you’re lucky to be able to do art.”

 My profile on Evan got published by my friends at Mockingbird. We talk about his songwriting for Parsons, but most of our conversation revolves around his thoughts on writing and leading music of his local congregation. Working on this piece greatly encouraged me in my current role of making humble music at my local chruch. I hope you give it a read. 

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The Perils and Rewards of Artmaking: Micah Bournes's Blues

While in Portland last summer, I spent an evening with blues singer Liz Vice and spoken-word artist Micah Bournes. I listened in as they swapped stories of the frustrations and joys of making art amongst the church. During our conversation I learned that Micah, a well-regarded poet and hip-hop artist, was about to release a brand new record of blues tunes that he made in collaboration with Liz. He played us some of the early demos and they were haunting, relevant, and felt as old the genre itself. 

Later that year, his album, No Ugly Babies, dropped. It had me dancing with infectious joy and mourning over irrevocable failures. I had to learn how this spoken word poet picked up this well-worn genre and made it his own, so I arranged an interview with him over the phone.

This week Mockingbird has published the finished piece. Friends, if you are in any way creative, you've got to read the lessons Micah learned making this record. His insights on the creative process are so insightful and they've been shaping my creativity since I first heard them. Go read the piece and then go check out Micah's terrific music. 

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Wesley Randolph Eader: Full Interview

Wesley Randolph Eader's songs have become a fixture of my community's repertoire of hymns. He is a genuine old school songwriter living in our late modern age. To learn more about his faith community, his songwriting habits, and how his life has influenced the texture of his songs, I traveled to Portland to meet with Wesley.

That interview became an essay published by Mockingbird. If you are new to Wesley's music, I suggest starting there. But since my conversation with Wesley was so enjoyable, and since I spent far too many hours transcribing the whole thing, I'm posting the entire interview here. It has been edited for clarification. 

 

Wesley suggested that we meet at a small brewery mere steps away from his house. Over Ruben sandwiches and red ales, we talked at length about his life and his creative process.

I came back from Portland after hearing you sing Oh Perfect Love Come Near to Me at Door of Hope and I thought man, this song is describing all of things I'm going through. So I looked it up, thinking maybe someone at the church wrote the song, knowing its reputation. And I just listened to the whole record again and again, especially after Tim Mackie recommended it.

Yeah, that song is... I feel like that's the one that most people comment on.

Why is that?

I don't know. I think on that record it is the most personal. I think on that record, a lot of those songs I was trying to not be a part of them. I don't know if I was conscious of it or not. But I mean, a lot of them were modelled off of folk music. I think of folk music as telling a story about something other than yourself Of course, yourself bleeds into them, but...

They are stories.

Yeah, and I think gospel music is that way too. I think there's a lot of gospel music that isn't  super personal, [you know]?

Yeah, more declarative.

Yeah, gospel is supposed to besomething that everybody - at least within the body of believers - can connect with, you know? And I think sometimes a personal song can do that, but you have to be more careful.

The songs are completely personal, but I think that wasn't what I was thinking of when I was writing [Oh Perfect Love]. There's that one and... the two that, on that record, [where] I think I was really trying to write a hymn, [where] that one and 'To Christ the Ransom Sinners Run'.

Yeah, that song sounds like something John Newton would have written.

Yeah, it think [it's because] there is no chorus. The idea of a chorus came later for a lot of hymns. I think that came with gospel revivals in the US more, where it was about getting people to sing at tent revivals and stuff. But I think a lot of the classic hymns didn't have refrains, just a strong verse and melody,

They told a story.

Yeah.

I remember I came home from Portland, and I was hanging out with my family and I said "I don't have any energy to tell about my trip, but you've got to listen to this guy." I played your music and got emotional over it, being really tired. They all said "we've got to introduce these songs to our church!" Then we realized we were already singing Victory in the Lamb. So my band leader and I started to play it more and more.

That's cool! Yeah, Victory in the Lamb is the first one I wrote that sort of started the gospel songs.

Why do you think that one gets so much attention?

I think it has a strong medley that sounds like something that already exists. I mean, that's the hard thing with folk music: melodies. I am not a trained musician, in the sense that my melodies - I don't know how to describe it - they aren't very well thought out. At least, in the process of writing they may change. But it's very much based on the way the words line up.

Okay, so you write the words first, and then the melodies.

Yeah. I think I find the melody within the words. It comes from... I write poetry too and I read a lot of poetry. I think it's that side of it. But in Victory in the Lamb all the verses sort of line up with the beatitudes really, if you look at it. I actually had three more verses to complete them all, but it was too long. So it's kinda, in some ways, a rewording of that kind of stuff.

But a huge impact on writing gospel music was [when] some friends and I started going to Burnside Bridge here in Portland, handing out coffee and hot chocolate to homeless people and singing gospel music down there. Me, and Liz Vice, and my friend Laki, and those kind of people.  We were singing all the same songs and I was like "I think I can write them" and sort of started writing them. It was a good place to test them out. If all of my fiends like it and those people, then... I don't know. It was funny. It was cool too.

So that and The Jesus House.

Yeah, the house I was living at. I think it was all really connected and Door of Hope... I don't know if I want to call it a golden [age], but I bet a lot of people who were going there [at the time]... It felt, felt like a really new, really unique place. And it still is. But I think there are so many people for whom this was their second... for some people it was either their first or their second chance at church. [They previously] hadn't felt like church was for them and what not.

Our church also has that core group of people who became believers around that time or really found their faith and got a footing in their faith. A similar age group, really. And then they go on and have kids and that's the church that comes around that.

Yeah! So that was a big aspect of writing those songs.

So you were born in Mississippi?

I was born in Oregon, actually, but my whole family is from Tennessee. And as a child I would visit there a lot. My parents are very Southern, both Tennessee raised. My dad's a Southern Baptist minister.

Is your song, Country Preacher, about him?

It's sort of basically his story. [How he was] adopted as a child from Germany by his parents in Tennessee, and the story of his becoming a minister. They came out here basically to pastor a church in Kalama, Washington, which is where I mostly grew up. But my Dad was in charge of a tent revival of Southwest Washington and Oregon. He would have a whole huge truck with a tent in the back, and I would go with him. As a kid it was the best thing ever. Going to like this country place, setting up tents. It's not something everyone would experience, especially not [in the] North West. [Which is] kind of interesting . So I think there's a bit of old time religion thing to my upbringing.

That's something you seem to celebrate in your music, in the sense that your music bears that sort of sound. But from what I've picked up, the theology of your songs would probably be different from what you grew up with. Do you look back at those old times and what your Dad did with a certain distance?

I do. I think it [might be] one of those things that I have a love and hate sort of relationship with, [you know]? Because it's so much a part of who I am, but [also] part of my upbringing that I'm not proud of, [which] I want to distance [myself] from.

Like what?

I just think the pressures of morality as a young kid. [The] really impressionistic things that are told to you. I think just the guilt complex that you come out with. I think that's why Victory in the Lamp is such a powerful song, because I think there's a lot of people in the church that deal with that guilt complex. Which is totally an unbiblical thing. We're supposed to live... like we should feel guilty when we are actually legitimately sinning against God and against other people, but we are also... we are covered.

Right. Understanding the freedom that comes from that. Here's the guilt. Place the guilt where it should be, and now be where you are.

Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

Did you come to faith through that environment? Because you moved to Portland, when?

I moved to Portland about 8 years ago. [Portland] is not too far from where I lived. I lived about 30 minutes away, but it's a much different place. I'm from a small town, you know. But I'd say I was culturally a Christian for my whole life. I'd say I had a real awakening and took it a lot more seriously when I was 20 or so.

How old are you now?

I'm 29.

Okay. So that was just before you came to Portland.

Uh, yeah. [So my awakening] was probably in the middle of college or whatever.

So Door of Hope was a pretty big part of these last eight years.

Yeah! I had [previously] been going to the same church my whole life. My dad's a pastor, my parents [were] very much the centre of that congregation for so long. I was helping out teaching kids and youth for some time. And I was like "I need to get to place where I am being fed." I encountered Door of Hope visiting once, and I met somebody there who needed a roommate. I was already thinking of moving to Portland, so it sort of worked out. And I got immersed in a pretty amazing group of people.

And that was that prayer room?

Yeah, that was about a year after I moved. We got a house in southeast Portland together, like five guys. And it just so happened that the next house, which was [by] an identical architect - the architecture had the exact same layout and everything. But this house next door [had] also five guys from Door of Hope. It felt like a summer camp for a whole year.

Was that helpful?

Oh it was good. It was definitely a lifestyle that wasn't sustainable. There was also... Portland was still at this point where [the] "Keep Portland Weird" was so prevalent still. You'd see tall bikes everywhere, hula hoopers in all the parks. Just the hippie vibe was still strong still, which I think has lessened a little bit. You were at the service this morning?

Yeah.

You heard Miranda, the missionary, talk about Door of Hope's reach?

Yeah!

It's crazy! The people she's staying with in Nepal listen to Tim and Josh.

Yeah! And of course The Bible Project is extending this. I first heard of Door of Hope primarily through Josh Garrels and then through him I heard about The Bible Project and then it circled back to Door of Hope.

It's an interesting place.

Has it become a weird place to be as a church, as you are almost becoming a celebrity church in a way?

I think that probably accounts for a good [portion] of our Sunday attendance. Probably like  20-30 percent are visitors these days, Which I think is cool. I think it's cool to have a church to go to when you're visiting a place. It's always good to be reminded that there are people gathering, you know?

Yeah! Even seeing the people streaming forward for communion. And I've seen how God works through the sermons and the music in my own life. I remember when I came to Portland last year I was really struggling with some things and both sermons from the two churches I went to were talking about that same thing! God's working through this, you know? That's really encouraging.

Yeah, yeah.

So what is Door of Hope's role in your life, specifically as an artist? Do they disciple you in your art?

I would say no. I would say maybe indirectly. Just [because of] the fact that I lead there once a month, I've grown a lot as far as playing in bands. I typically play by myself a lot around town. I think the songs I write lend themselves to a more... like the lyrics really standing out. That's the kind of the stuff I try to write. [For] my album release show I'm going to have a full band, so that will be fun. I'm fairly... I keep to myself a lot. I'm a little introverted. I think I would just rather not have to structure [my] music stuff around four or five other people. For me, the art form is more in the writing of songs than [the] playing them. But I'm definitely learning and coming to the reality that touring and stuff is a huge part of making a living as musician.

Do you do music full time?

Not currently. I actually work at Powell's [City of Books]. Yeah, when you asked if I like to read?  I work there part time. So I take home a lot of books. I read a lot.

What are your favourite books?

Oh man.

It's a tough question. C.S. Lewis said that the books you re-read show that you are a good reader. But I haven't re-read a lot of books. I'm just trying to get through the stuff that I want to get through.

I think that's the challenge. You're challenged with all these amazing books, and we have more access then ever before, Like, we see lists of all the books that you must read. And it's like, how many of these books can I get through? But the book I've read the most... A book I've read six times in the last three years...

Okay, so you're a reader. You qualify, according to Lewis.

Well, that's just because this book is so good. It's The Violent Bear It Away by Flannery O'Conner. Such a good novel. It was her last novel. Read Wise Blood or The Violent Bear It Away. They are incredible books. But I've also recently read a George Saunders. He wrote some more short stories, a contemporary writer. Kinda a Kurt Vonnegut mixed with a... sort of a little bit more serious. They are very bizarre stories about people living in a weird United States [in which] corporations have taken over, that kind of a thing.

It's interesting that you mention short stories as a songwriter...

I think that's why I like short stories. I think a lot of songwriters approach writing songs as short stories, just even shorter. And in some ways it's like getting a story across in 4 or 5 verses. John Steinbeck was really angry at Woody Guthrie when he wrote The Ballad of Tom Joe, because he just retold the entire Grapes of Wrath in a four minute song.

I read East of Eden for the first time this year.

Oh man.

Man!

It's a beautiful book, especially if you like nature imagery, or people. I haven't read a Steinbeck book in about three years. I've got to try and pick one up again. He has a little novella called To a God Unknown, it's a really early good one. It has a lot of Christ imagery in it, which is I think why I really like it. It's about a guy who becomes really obsessed with the land.... it's an interesting book. He has an obsession with this oak tree in front of his house. It's like a hundred pages, but it was good.

My favourite book I read last year was Cry the Beloved Country.

I haven't read that. I know about it. Was it Alan Paton?

Exactly. It was the best audio book I've ever listened too. It's a very Christian book too.

Interesting. Have you ever read anything by Graham Green?

My cousin did his Master's degree in Graham Green. I tried getting into it, but I did read Endo's Silence, which is very influenced by Graham Green.

Really? Read The Power and the Glory. I couldn't put it down. I mean, it's a super Christian book too. I mean, the main character is an alcoholic priest, who's sort of on the run doing road masses to small villages, risking his life, but also an alcoholic. It's a really good picture...it raises questions on the complexity of God's grace and who we sort of feel like is fit to receive God's grace.

That's Silence too. Very similar. I highly recommend Makoto Fujimura's recent book on Silence.

They are piping in some good tunes [at this brewery]. Stacey's Mom [is playing right now]!

What are you listening to these days?

Oh man. I haven't sat down with a record in along time, to be honest. Which kinda bums me out. While driving around sometimes I've listened to a lot of the Deeper Well records, to be honest. Cory Dauber's is the last one to be put out and it's really good. He was another guy who lived next door to me, but he's one of my good friends and super talented.

 You've mentioned the music influences on some of your records and I've picked up some of the influences on this new album, like an early Dylan on some of the songs. Some of my musician friends don't actually listen to that much music, which kinda surprises me. Do you listen to music as part of that process?

I do. I collect a lot of old folk and bluegrass, old time country records. So I listen to those. I think I... it takes like a lot of convincing [for me] to get behind a more contemporary artist a lot of times. I don't know why. I'm always skeptical and I don't necessarily like that about myself. Because I think over the last year I've actually... I think I've tried to get rid of those preconceived notions. I listened to The Cactus Blossoms, they put out their first record on Red House Records. But they sound like... they're two brothers that have an amazing country harmony and sound like The Louvin Brothers or The Everly Brothers. Their songwriting also fits into the 1950s stuff, country stuff, like a little poppy. Like, not a lot of depth to the songs, but beautiful music.

I find that contemporary, whether music or books... There's so much richness to the past and what's been done in the past that I've never touched. I'm just getting into Bob Dylan's and he's now one of my favourite artists. There's so much there that I haven't touched.  So that bias you have isn't necessarily a bad thing. At least you're listening to the old stuff. It's usually the other way round!

Yeah. I think I really see more.... I think I like finding artists that feel like they are further away from sort of the music marketing mentality. It feels like older folk [music] was written out of a really genuine place. I think that's something that I find lacking in modern music.

And I mention [the] sort of the personal songs, you know, that come from a place... like almost a first person sort of thing. I see a lot more... think I like the idea of writing songs that are separate from me, you know. I think my next... I have a good batch of tunes that I'm getting ready for another record, that I think take the sort of the storytelling that's in [Highway Winds], to a little bit more... Like almost every song has a character that's it's centred [around]. [Highway Winds is] a good mixture, there are some personal songs, but it's almost half and half.

Whether that character is yourself or Eliza.

Yeah, and Country Preacher. Carry On Down the Road is like almost five little tiny stories. Big Steam Wheel is also a story one.

Where did you get those stories from?

Hey, I don't know. I'd like to think I'm influenced by revisiting sort of my home town, [revisiting] my visits to Tennessee and other places. And I think also just [the] stuff I read. And I think I like thinking about myself as a little bit of a tradition bearer. Folk music is what I listen to. Bluegrass all the time. Blues. So I really write, [or] try to write in that tradition to some level.

You also bring back stuff one hardly hears nowadays. Like the talking blues, right?

The talking blues are fun! I have a number of them. And I have this idea down the road of putting out 10 of them on a record. I almost have enough. I have the ideas, I just need to sit and write them. I think it's a song form that is underrated.

I had never really heard of it until I popped on Dylan's first Bootleg record, The Bootleg Series Vols 1-3.

Yeah, Dylan did a few good ones. World War III Blues was his one that was actually on his second record I think. But then Woodie Guthrie did a bunch of them. I'm sure he wasn't the first one to do it. I don't know who was. But Folkways, the Smithsonian label, put out a whole talking blues anthology.

Are they all very humorous?

Usually. I mean, it's talking. It sort of... the joke starts off on a humorous note. It's like, "I thought this was a song. Why are you talking?" But I think a lot of them, though, are able to talk about more social issues that, because... I think humour has a way of talking about more stuff then serious [music] would.

Well sure, Even in your talking blues song, you pick up some of those things, the tension in yourself. I mean, you're critiquing the consumerism but you are also picking up those themes in yourself and your solution of just shopping online.

Yeah. I'm sort of commenting on the craziness of corporate consuming, but also sort of... I don't know. Yeah, I like to think the character in it is not a perfect person to be critiquing it. At the same time...

That's the fun. You're critiquing Wal-Mart, but then you are ordering things online. A little bit of hypocrisy.

Yeah, yeah!

I listened to Bob Dylan's Talkin' Bear Picnic Massacre Blues and shared it with my family, with whom I never share music with. And lines from the song have become household colloquialisms.So I had to play your talking blues song for my family. And my dad burst out laughing at the Alice's Restaurant line.

I love when people get that reference. Usually old people get a good laugh, cause they know that reference.

What's great is that there is the reference joke and then there is the joke right after ("darn, they got her too"). So no matter if you know the reference or not, it's a funny line on both occasions.

Yeah, yeah.

Do you have a favourite poet?

I think I do. I really like Richard Hugo. He's a poet from Montana. I connect with a lot of his imagery.

When you talk about the hymn writing process, it's fascinating because what struck me the first time is that the words you are using to describe these things - "Adam's shadow it was casted, how it covered all the land" - are just fantastic. You're putting theology into poetry. Is there a process that you use to do that? What goes on your mind when you are taking doctrine and applying imagination to it?

I don't know, man. I'm really conscious of being overly poetic when it comes to theology,  because I don't want to say something that is misleading. I actually had one of the churches singing my one of my songs message me about it and said they had posted something [about my song] on their website, including the lyrics. So I went to their website and I think they transcribed [the song] just based on listening, so they had got some of the words wrong. And in my mind it was changing the meaning to a lot of it, [you know]?  They wanted to share the lyrics with their congregation. But then I saw that a lot of the words were not what I was singing. Little words, like articles, that seemed so insignificant but they actually changed the meaning of it.

I wish I had the email, but it was enough where I was like, "that's saying something that I don't think is biblical." I think just from listening to my recordings some of the words I sing are difficult to hear correctly. [But the church was] super appreciative. I sent an email saying, "hey, I love that you are using my song and singing it it, but I just wanted to say that these words are not correct and here's why." And they were like, "oh yeah."

But when I think when I write gospel songs, which i think are a lot harder to write than any other songs...

...Because they are taking truth and making it poetry?

Yeah, and you just run into so many cliches and so many recycled things that have been done in a lot of modern music. That I think, frankly, just lends itself to being a really lazy writer. Which happens in so [much] contemporary Christian music, is that they just settle for the easy lines, you know?

Yeah. How do you avoid that?

I think I just know about it. (Laughs.) I don't know. I write something and [I realize] that [it's] not good enough. So I don't write it. I wait until I come up with something that, to me, sounds like something that's powerful. I don't know. It's... I feel like... I feel like it's a hard place to get to, in being simple. Because I think you loose a lot when you make something more complicated than it needs to be, especially with gospel music. Yeah. I mean, it's funny because those songs I wrote... I wrote that whole album in a two month period. Like all those songs, plus a few more that I didn't record. And they just sort of came to me because... I think I was at a place spiritually where I was, um, I don't know, very in tune with what God had been doing in my life and [amongst] the people around me. I don't know. I can't really speak too much about turning the theological into [the] poetic. It's something that... I think it comes from [the fact that] I think more like a poet because I read a lot of [poetry]. Like you mentioned the Adam's shadow imagery and I think that's... I don't know. I guess I just think of Adam in the garden, like maybe... I don't know.... like, obviously shadows always existed, but I think it is this interesting idea that this darkness falls as soon as they fell in sin.

So... it sounds like you are immersed in poetry, but you are also immersed in theology and the life of the church. You're not trying to be clever.

Yeah! I think I also just have a sense of, like hymnody and the history of that, because I grew up singing [them].

Right, so that kind of the rhythm is in your head.

Yeah! And I think my reason for not writing gospel music sooner in my life was that we have all these amazing hymns, but the new stuff [that] people are writing is so much lesser, you know?

Definitely! Well, you mentioned that you are singing all these songs and you got to the point where you ran out of songs to sing, so you had to create something new.

Yeah! And that came with going down to the bridge with the homeless people. We need more songs to sing. Yeah, I mean, I'm waiting to get back to the place of writing gospel music like that again. I think it's difficult. Two years ago there was an interview in Rolling Stone with Bob Dylan when his album Tempest came out.

In 2012?

2012. Yeah, it was when my record [Of Old it Was Recorded] came out. Times fly!

Tempest is a great record.

No, it's an amazing record. But in that interview he said... I think the interviewer asked him something like "was Tempest the record you set out to make, that [you] wanted to make?" And he was like "no, I actually wanted to make a religious album." And they asked the question "like songs that are on your album Slow Train?" And he's like, "no, more songs like Just a Closer Walk with Thee." And he's like "Those are way too hard to write. It's way too hard to write 10 songs in that vein." So I'm like, I think there's some truth to that.

It's because... I think if you are a song writer, and you have a high standard of what a song is, I think it's harder to write gospel music. Because I think one of the standards of being a good songwriter is writing something that hasn't been heard before, and with gospel it's like... you know. Familiarity breads contempt.

[And it's the] same thing we deal with in our lives as Christians. We get too familiar and the gospel doesn't ring as true to us anymore. Because we've heard it. And that's when it comes down to discipline and choices and actual level of faith. Not based on a feeling or experience, but based, like, in a deep belief and discipline that "I'm going to, you know, push into this and I'm going to believe that the scriptures are true when I approach them, even though in just the past 20 days I haven't felt anything strong."

I think that's the challenge with writing gospel music. For me, [it's] like there's so much stuff that sounds too familiar. Like, I don't need to say that again. But, that's the Gospel. At the same time, it's something that doesn't return void. The same message can be proclaimed and it can change people, like the same way it changed all of us. But, yeah, so that's why I'm like... I don't know. I've tried to force myself to write gospel songs, like "I'm going to sit down and write one." And, like it doesn't always work out, but I think it... yeah.... I don't know.

And it sounds like, because your standard of doctrine and the church is so high you don't want to feed the church poor quality doctrine, because they are learning through your songs.

Yeah.

It's funny that you talk about familiarity. Because since I grew up Christian, I find it easy to remain unchallenged hen reading the Gospels. But it was your song He Loves Them So that helped. I was listening to that and was struck anew and was reminded of the childhood Jesus that I knew growing up.

Nice. That's interesting. My mentality for that song was [to make] a song for children.

Are there things that as an artist you struggle with specifically, that the church has helped you address? For my, my sense of identity and success gets caught up very quickly in my art.

I think from the very beginning of doing Door of Hope, [our lead pastor] Josh [White] - who is also an amazing songwriter, who I think is a good example in a lot of ways. And I think it was hearing his songs that like... because I wasn't writing gospel music at the time I [had] started coming to Door of Hope. And I think it was Josh at the time that like [encouraged me]. Maybe I can try my hand at this, and I had [previously] sort of thought that [it] was not a possibility.

But he's always - in his sermons I think he's always addresses artists a lot, because he knows they are such a central point of Portland, [as is] sort of the artist's mentality. [He addresses] sort of that idolatry of art that can occur, that there is more to life than trying to make it as an artist or as a musician. I think that's sort of, for me, a message that has kept me in check a lot of times. Like what are [other] priorities here? Why am I creating, why am I writing songs? It's one of those things that can easily become a motive of a gospel singer, you know?

I think it's just a motive of attention, maybe? I think that's something you run into leading worship at church. Trying not to be focused on yourself and your gifts. [In leading worship], you have a place of notoriety in the church. I don't know. It's interesting balancing being a Christian and being an artist. Because I think the church at large, the evangelical church, wants to tell us that our gifts are only valid if they are being a blatant witness to nonbelievers, you know? Which I don't think is true. I think, for me, there's more power in doing your creative work well and not mentioning Jesus at all in it. I think that the world is more looking for good art to come from the church. They are not looking for...

A message.

Yeah, because that's been done. And I as an artist, I put a clear line between... Like, when I write gospel songs I have the mentality of that these songs are more oriented [to] a Christian congregation than they are as being a tool for witness. Like church music. And I think that's why I like to differentiate my gospel music as church music rather than folk music or whatever. Like, obviously there is going to be crossover at some level. I think if you were listening intently to [Highway Winds} you would come to the conclusion that I'm somebody who believes in a higher power, if not more. But I think they are definitely spiritual songs.

It's an interesting thing [and] I think [it] was one of the reasons that it took me a while to release another record. Because all these people know me as...and I say all these people knowing [that my fan base is pretty small], like just my friends and people that have come...

...To have listened to your music.

Yeah, have come to know my gospel songs, but I like I wasn't... I could have put a non-gospel album out before my gospel album, [but] because [the gospel songs] just happened to come to me and and things lined up with Deeper Well. Eric [Earley] was like "I want to record a record for you" and I was like "sweet". So it's sort of an interesting thing. [But] it's something that I... when I started writing songs I didn't want to put like myself in a box as a quote-unquote "Christian Musician" you know? But it's funny that God gave me all of these songs and they are clearly having some sort of an impact on peoples' lives and people [are] finding value from them to be used [and] to be sung in congregational worship, and... I don't know.

I was talking to someone about how I think there is a cultural context to gospel music and folk music, you know? I think if you look at any of the folk traditions in the United States, like there is gospel music somewhere there. Whether it is blue or bluegrass, if it is country of if it is rock and roll. Like, the foundation of a lot of songs in the US are gospel centred. So I don't know.

I love the fact that you're doing both church music and this new music... Do you have a word for this new music? Would you call it secular?

Not secular. I would just say it's folk music. And in an ideal world, where some of these marketing labels wouldn't exists, it would just all be folk music.

Totally. And you go back far enough in music history and you find that being the case. You'll find folk albums that consist entirely of gospel lyrics.

Yeah. But I think we live in a time where language, in a lot of people's minds, requires labels for those things. I'm a little bit strategic in how I label my music, you know? Like "church music". I prefer that label [over] worship music. Because I think worship music isolates the act of worship in the idea of singing, when I think worship is so much more than that. Like certainly [singing is] a big part of it, in why we meet together [as] a church congregation. It's a biblical thing, too. But I think it's difficult when worship is so much based on the music that churches are producing on Sunday mornings. And I just don't think that... like you can flip on your iPad and listen to a worship song. And that is some people's way of worshiping, and I think that's a valid way of doing it. But I think there [are] way more intentional and challenging ways that I think worship plays out in lives. And I think, there [have been] some periods in my life where I've turned to gospel music to feed my soul, you know? But I think to become dependent on [the] experience you get from listening to a song [can, be damaging, I think] on your spiritual life. Because that's not always going to be there. There's more to it. So that's why I feel like church music is [the] phrase that I choose.

It encompasses the life of the church.

Yeah, and I think there [are] songs that I think are meant for the church and I sing some of these songs in bars and stuff when I play out. And I think it's cool. And I think - I hope - my folk songs get me into places that normally wouldn't play that stuff.

The brewery is playing Paul Simon right now. I really enjoyed seeing Paul Simon live this year.

How is his voice holding up?

He had a cold when he performed, but it was just fine. Interviewers kept remarking on how well it's held up over time, compared to, say, Leonard Coen. Coen just talks on his songs now.

Sort of like Dylan too.

Yeah. Although I like Dylan's older voice!

I do too.

But Paul Simon can still do the falsetto.

I like Leonard Coen too. He relies more on his backup singers

And his songwriting skills. And his character: this grizzled, distinguished man.

That's the other interesting thing with songwriting: sometimes your limitations can actually be your benefit. Like, I think of super talented vocalists. Most of the best songwriters are not the super talented vocalists. Because they had to rely on something else. They had to rely on the writing, because they couldn't get by [otherwise]

Versus vocalists who can rely on the showmanship or just the beauty of their voice.

Yeah. And I think [their] songs can get too complicated [in] the melodies, because they range [so far].

Right. And then in a worship context, it gets hard to sing.

I've been asked before, or I've been told that it seems that people sing along really easily with my songs and some people have asked me why that is. I think a lot of it is that the melodies are simple; they don't move around much.

There are examples of songwriters with both amazing vocal ranges and excellent song writing skills, like Bono.

Oh certainly!

Have you ever read Francis Schaeffer's little book Art and the Bible?

I actually have. The little tiny one? It's really cool.

In that book, he talks about the major and minor themes of Christian art. He says that for Christians creating art in the context of a biblical worldview, there should two themes that should come out. There is the minor theme, which is the fallenness of life, the pointlessness that comes from that, and even in the Christian life the defeated nature, the sinfulness. But you also have the major theme, which is that is that there is hope. God is real. Salvation has come and there's a future hope coming. And he says that to remove the minor theme would be false to life and to the gospel. And a lot of Christian art does that. And there are times when it is appropriate to be in the minor theme the whole time. But all in all, we should end up in the major theme, because that's where our hope is. But both have to be present

 I was thinking about how your first record is very major themed. There are minor themes there that come out, but it's overwhelmingly a very hope-filled, comforting album. But in Highway Winds, I get the feel that there is more minor, that even though there are hope filled bits and humour and encouragement, there's a lot of sadness and disappointment and sorrow.

I would think that you have it figured out. I think that it's interesting that Of Old It Was Recorded was such a... like you described it as a joy-filled kind of album.

The joy comes out of it and it's an album that you to give people who are depressed. And I have other friends who have done the same thing. Friends who have lost jobs and who have listened to Oh Perfect Love again and again. And another friend who had to move cities for a job and who told me that listened to I'm Going to Rest in Jesus on repeat during that process.

That's neat. Well, yeah. I mean, I think if you were to hear the majority of the songs I've written, [you'd notice that] they are more filled with sadness than they are with hope and joy.

Why is that?

I don't know. I think I've been often labeled a realist. I've been labeled a sort of pessimist as well. I don't know. I think that it's interesting that God [has] used me to write the songs on that first record, because I'm somebody who's a little bit more in tuned with the sadder side of life.

But it comes out. It's there. It's a realist's album, but a faith real.

Yeah! And I think our job as Christians is not to just say "Jesus loves you and everything is going to be all right, you'll be happy and go to the carnival."

...That we are hosting for VBS. Come on down.

Yeah, yeah! It's much deeper than that. I guess that's the minor key. It's just as much of a gospel act to present a fallen world to people and what that looks like then it is to present heaven or whatever. I think in the gospel there are the two sides of the coin. There's heaven and there's earth.

And there's hell.

Yeah. I guess it would be three sides to the coin. It's not a coin actually. It's some sort of other thing. It's a Trinitarian coin.

I don't know. I mean, I know a lot of reasons why there are sad songs on [the new record]. Things I went though personally while writing some of that stuff. Right when I put out that first record - like literally right after it, I think the release show was postponed because of it - I had two collapsed lungs. One, and then two months later a second time, so it was like two 10 day stints in the hospital. Where I was like "I don't know what's going on with me", and I had to have lung surgery. And I was in the middle of that, and I felt like... the overwhelmingness of life and the struggle and trying to make sense of things. I think [that] comes out on the record, and I really turned to music and songwriting as something to get me through that. And it wasn't gospel songwriting, but trying to tell stories about fictional characters that I had made up or that were probably more a picture of me than I might even know. So I don't know. That played a big aspect on that record.

In the essay you talked about how even the gospel songs were written for personal reflecting and understanding and confirmation of God's grace. So this is the like flip side. You're processing whatever's going on in your life, whether that's spiritual or earthly.

Yeah, yeah. I think songwriting is ultimately a personal act. I wouldn't know how to write a song with somebody else. I guess I've never really tried to much. It [would] be an interesting thing. I can't even write a song if anybody [else] is in the house, if I know anybody is. Like my best, ideal time to write a song is when I know I'm going to be alone for 4 hours in my house.

And you have to have three candles lit.

Haha. Right now if I had candles in my room there's so much paper I'd probably burn everything down.

Songwriting is loud. It's not like writing a short story or something. You got to be able to sing. I don't like people being all up in my process. I like to keep that to myself a lot. Like, I'll talk about it later. I think if I were to actually lay out, you know, [the] minute by minute of my songwriting process, most of it would be embarrassing to me, you know? [It includes] a lot of stuff that seems, to me, really strange.

Like what?

Like singing the most inaudible things. Or singing whatever word, the same word that has come to my mind, which is usually, like, I don't know, like something I wouldn't think would just be on my mind, you know? Like the same couple of words or whatever. Maybe as I'm trying to get a melody or something going. It's sort of like an awkward old car, that won't start almost.

Because a lot of the songs on the new album have this kind of... It's almost like you're looking back on mistakes, regrets, disappointments and you're reckoning with them and you're sad about them, but there's also a hope. You're dealing with them. But it's encouraging to listen to that. Because I'm 23 now and all of a sudden I realize that life is full of regrets. So how do I process that? Hearing some of your songs and how you process that, makes me realize that it's okay to be sad about the waste of time, but it's also... You can't linger over it, but yet you can write a song about it, so it's okay to have to process it.

Yeah. I don't know. I think my songs are not... I think a lot of them are about somebody that's not me, but somebody that's dealing with some things that I've gone through on some level, you know?

So it's less personal?

I think so. In some ways. But it's also me trying to find the universal theme in humanity. I think that's something I've always been good at. Giving people the benefit of the doubt and trying to meet them where they are at. And realizing that the stuff I'm going through other people have gone through, or [that] other people have gone through worse. So I think for me it's like writing a song or like coming up with a story of some kind is about... I think analyzing my own situation in life but also taking into account that there [are] a lot of different people out there you know?

How do you do that? It's easy to recognize yourself or it's easy to look at others. But that's interesting that you are keeping both in mind.

Yeah I don't know. It's something I see after the fact a lot of times. Like, in the process of writing I'm like... I don't know where that came from, you know? I write a lot of my songs based on coming up with the title first. I don't know if that's something a lot of others people do. You'll notice that of the tiles in my record, almost all of the titles are in the songs. Usually [as] the refrain or they're in some part of the song that's significant.

I think that is more of a folk music thing in a lot of ways. I think a lot of modern music is trying to find a title that isn't even related to [the song]. I talk to a lot of people that don't like titling their stuff anything in the song, that [it is] almost like one of those weird 80's action movie cliches where at some point in the movie the hero has to say the tile. Some people view it like that! But to me, once I know that there's a title to the song I know the song is going to be worth something, almost. Like this title sort of wraps up what the song is going to be, in some way.

I was looking at the first song, which is very much dealing with depression or even suicide.

Big Steam Wheel. Yeah.

Then there's a contrast with the next one, Carry On Down the Road. Are they hinged?

That was a little bit deliberate, the way I placed those.

But they both complement each other quite well.

Well, Big Steam Wheel is supposed to be the perspective of a ship captain who's sort of spent his days going up and down the Mississippi and [is sort of not really feeling like there is anywhere] else for him to be, like he has given a shot at not working or working somewhere else. But it's him sort of contemplating that he's worked so many years [and] what has he gotten out of it, what is his life like, you know? And I think that's something that so many... I mean anybody who's spent time working encounters that, you know? Especially if they are working for someone else's gain, for whatever reason. It's a very Ecclesiastes. Ecclesiastical - is that a word? My housemate Lacki call is it an Ecclesiastes song.

The Teacher's Song.

I think that it comes down to me as a believer, how I'm not afraid to try to encounter the fallenness of the world. Scripture has things like Ecclesiastes, things like Lamentations, things like Job. Where it's dealing with the real intense things and that's like... If the scriptures are not all just hopeful, happy, Jesus-is-going-to-give-you-a-hug kind of thing and there's that side of it, why are we as artists and creatives... Why are we supposed to only be presenting sentimental and happy things, you know?

It's interesting how listening to this gives me permission to process my own feelings and experiences that align with the songs. Why am I carrying on? Why do I? What's the Devil saying to me to stop me from doing that? Well, all of a sudden now that these feelings have been spoken about in a song, especially coming from someone who has also written such profound hymns, I can see that somebody else is dealing with this. That this is part of life. And that these experiences have influenced your church music. Because I then listen to the hymns and go - oh, okay - these truths are not just philosophy, they are lived out of the "real life music." The two go together.

Yeah! Yeah. Yeah, that's interesting. I appreciate that statement because it took me a while too come to a point to think that the next record I put out was going to be this and not another gospel record, And I think [what you said is] what ultimately made me realize that these songs are just as important as the other songs. I [had] thought that, but...

My experience with believers is, I think, [that] there is a line drawn [between] Christian music and non Christian music. But I felt like if there were people into my music [who] were listening and [who] were maybe songwriters themselves or artists themselves and [if] were to hear my fist record and my second record and were to come to a conclusion like you said... I'm almost like, if I feel like it's okay to write not to just gospel songs but songs that are portraying more of a fallen world, if that inspires other people to do that too, that's awesome. Maybe I should put this stuff out because I think that line needs to be taken away.

That's my opinion and I think people who are writing Christian music need to write it for the church. I don't think they need to be writing it for radio or for whatever. I think church music has historically been funded by the church to be used in the church, you know? And I think that's something cool that Deeper Well is doing in a sense, We're doing it in a modern way.

Amongst a modern system.

I think Deeper Well is able to sort of take down the motivation to make money off of music. Josh Garrels too. It's an interesting thing, that if there's going to be a music that has to be free, I feel that it is gospel music.

Like Humble Beast's philosophy.

Yeah, and I'm obviously for artists making a living. I'm trying to do that myself. But I think, for me I wouldn't have made a gospel record if I was going to sell it. When I found out it was just to be a non-profit thing, it [became] an opportunity for me to be using gifts for the church.

Obviously, I love the idea of Christians creating art. And even understanding why unbelievers can create art of value, being made in the image of God. But when you put out a Gospel record, it's easy to justify it because you are showing Christ. But when you put out a more subtle, less explicit album that shows the gospel in more subtle, worldview rooted ways... Is that kind of music a witness? How do you just trust that to do its thing?

Hmm. Yeah. I don't approach a song as... maybe I should be doing this. I don't approach it as a chance to evangelize. I feel that soon as that enters my mind the song won't be any good.

Yeah, that Schaeffer quote about how "a Christian should use these arts to the glory of God, not just as tracts, mind you, but as things of beauty to the praise of God."

Yeah. I don't know. Let me think about that. I don't know.

Well, here's another question. I know that when a church like Capital Hill introduces a new song, the leadership critiques the song, ensuring that it speaks truth and is suited for the church. And if I were to write a song for my church, I would bring that song to my pastors and ask if it were true.

Yeah, is this teaching true?

Right. The song is going to have a lasting effect on those who sing it. So is this good teaching? Does this line up? Now, when you are writing folk songs, you are still teaching, you are showing forth your doctrine. But, I feel like as a church disciple, being discipled by a church in my art, I don't necessarily bring it to the church. If you were a bricklayer, you wouldn't going to ask the church for advice on the quality of your bricklaying. But once you are teaching...

There's more risk involved [in my music], I guess, of leading people in wrong direction.

Yeah! And songs are more powerful than stories, even. Stories are sneaky, music is sneaky, it gets into your head.

Yeah. I think there are songs [that] I've written that I've choose not to sing because of those reasons. I don't know if this [song] is benefiting anybody. [It's] just dwelling on pure sadness, like, presenting a character that has no redeeming quality. The thing is, I don't write too many of those songs because I believe in redemption. I think redemption always usually comes through, even if it's like a song about... whatever,  somebody who has committed some crime that they shouldn't be redeemed from. I think the gospel offers that redemption.

Yeah, I think, with the gospel music that's presenting itself as gospel music for the church, that's the one that has a standard. You have some standard you have to live up to. And I think there's certainly Christian music that is passing as Christian music that is doing more to lead people astray than [certain] secular music [is]. Whether it's almost a prosperity brand of the gospel or whether it's giving a false representation of...

...of trials?

Yeah, you know? I think half truths are dangerous. And I think there's a lot of Christian music that's doing that. I don't know. Not to mention just what they are doing as far as culturally for the church. Like, as far as digging us [into] a deeper hole, into a lack of inspiration, showing the world that we just aren't creative people. We're supposed to be image bearers. But I don't know.

I really want to talk about your song Eliza (Saint of Flower Mountain).

That's the oldest song that's on there, actually.

Really! I think it's the best song on the record.

Thanks, man. It's also the most spiritual song out of them all.

You think through it and you realize that it is. But it's also one of the more physical songs. It talks about her eyes and her hair. And it's a very sad song.

It is sad. A lot of people tell me they cry on that one. It's good that it comes across on the recording. That was one of the hardest songs to record on the [album]. It's the one I'm the most conscious of. It's a song that had been around for so long and so many people had requested it when I play. And I think there's something special about that song. And that I think it, it presents sort of the cost... the Bonhoeffer book, The Cost of Discipleship.

Where did you get the story from?

It's funny. I think this is good picture of where you can get inspiration from for a song. I was just hunting around on the internet, reading old accounts of missionaries.

You couldn't find enough good stories at Powell's? Had to go on the internet?

Haha. Yeah, I mean...  I can't remember if I came up with the chorus and I thought "this is a good chorus I need something to go with this." I can't remember the order of how things came, but I basically found some missionary... I don't know.... I can't find it again. It's like one of those things when you are 20 links in off of a Google search and you're like "I don't know where I am." And I was reading about an account of a missionary who was killed. I think it was [around the] turn of the century, like 1900s, in a place in China called Flower Mountain. Which is was where the flower mountain [title] came from. And I was like that's an amazing name for a mountain and an interesting place for someone to be martyred, I guess.

It inspires a lot of different thoughts.

Yeah. I sort of just, I don't think.... I had also just sort of had a relationship that ended based on somebody choosing to sort of go elsewhere for mission work, [at] some point in my life and so that...it's an interesting...

It's interesting then that you choose to tell it from her perspective rather than his perspective

Yeah. I don't know. I think... I don't remember the process of writing it. But it was actually, the main thing that started the song was the guitar picking.

The melody of it?

Well, I finger picked a melody and it sort of just fit. I think also the rhyming of the name with the rest of the stuff in the chorus. I guess "Eliza" rhymed well with "eyes." "Eliza had eyes like..." It kinda sounding like it was repeating the same thing. And that sort of set me on a melody that sounded nice. But that kinda goes back to where words have a lot of melody in them. And especially when it comes to rhyming...

It's one of those songs where the words and music pierce the heart together. It reminds me very much of He Loves Me So, with that minor chord that pierces you each time you hear it. But you say that it's the melody of the words that brings that out?

I guess. I think I was just coming to a point where I was getting more confident in my picking on the guitar, so I was writing more songs based on that. I could pick melodies out. So that allowed me to write a little bit more based on melodies [rather] than off lyrics. There's also only two minor songs on that whole record, the first song and that one. I don't tend to write a lot of minor keys songs. I tend to stick to a major key; you know, the three-chord-country type folk songs. Because I think the minor key can be overused, for me. I think it's...I think my songs already tend to be on the sad side of things, [so if i make the music that way] I tend to, it tends to be too much.

I also find it's easy to be lazy with minor songs, because they are so beautiful already.

Yeah, yeah. I don't think there's a single minor song on [Of Old It Was Recorded], expect for To Christ The Ransom Sinners Run. Yeah. I don't write too much in the minor. I tend to... the first instrument I picked up actually was the banjo and I played more kind of claw hammer, which lends itself to more minor stuff. So I really like that stuff.

When was that? When did you start making music?

I started when I was... let's see... I think I was 20. I didn't pick up an instrument to write on until I was 20. I played trumpet in middle school. That was it.

Why did you pick it up the banjo?

I don't know. I think I was bored living in a small town. My younger sister was playing guitar at the time and I was like "if my sister can do it, I can do it." Since she was playing the guitar, I wanted to pick up something different. I took a couple lessons on banjo with the most rednecked guy I think I've ever met. He taught me a couple of lessons in Longview, Washington, and he had chickens running in and out of his house while we were playing. And it smelled terrible and he had a plethora of crude banjo jokes about, like playing banjo while being on the toilet. The  classic like, "this is why the banjo [has a reputation for] being such a rednecked instrument." And he was teaching me stuff I already knew on my own. And I think that made me reconsider the guitar. And I also just realized that the guitar was a way better songwriting instrument. I think the six strings just lends itself to strumming more.

I sing Eliza while at work. It haunts you.

People tell me that one has a tendency of getting stuck in their head. A friend of mine, they just had a kid named Elijah. They tell me that they reworded it to Elijah [and they sing it to him] as a bedtime lullaby.

At this point, the brewery was closing for the night. Wesley invited me over to his home, a couple houses down. We spent another hour with his housemate Laki, discussing Laki's creative projects and the creative community in Portland.

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Healing Wings on 'Highway Winds': An Interview with Wesley Randolph Eader

I first discovered Wesley's music when I visited Door of Hope, a church in Portland. A young man with long blonde hair was leading worship and we sang the song "Oh Perfect Love Come Near to Me".  The song described what was going in in my spiritual life with poetry that felt torn out of some long lost hymnal. I had never heard it before and wondered if someone at the church wrote the song.

That night I discovered the music of Wesley Randolph Eader, writer of the most extraordinary hymns of our modern time. I introduced his songs to my family, my friends, and then my church. A year later, I sat down with Wesley for an in depth interview on his work, his church life, and his latest album of world weary storytelling. 

And now I can share the result of that interview with you. My profile on Wesley has been published by Mockingbird. I'm proud of this piece, thrilled to have it published, and excited for you to read it.

If you like what you read and want more of Wesley, I've published an edited transcript of my full interview here. 

 

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Psalms for Lent

It's become an annual habit. Every Spring, in the season of Lent before Easter, I switch my iPhone's camera to black and white and post a photo everyday. It's become a discipline. I do it to prepare for Easter, but I also do it as an annual excuse to be forced to think visually again. I love photography, but amidst my writing and music hobbies it often takes third tier. These annual exercises are excuses to resurrect it. 

In past years, I've used collections of poetry as my Lent photo guide. That has become distracting, so this year I've stuck to the Psalms. Every day I would prayerfully read a psalm and hone in on the one verse that I needed most that day. That verse became my prayer, and I would select and edit an image with it in mind. 

Here are the results. I'm mostly happy with them. I needed these psalms during that season and I hope that desperation is echoed in the images. I also hope to do more photo projects around the psalms in the years ahead. Perhaps someday the work will result an a sort of illustrated Psalter? That's far in the future. I just know I want to dwell in these ancient prayers all my life, and that includes responding to them in this way.

 Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord?  24

Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord?

24

 To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.   25

To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul. 

25

 For your steadfast love is before my eyes  26

For your steadfast love is before my eyes

26

 Let your heart take courage  27

Let your heart take courage

27

 Be their shepherd and carry them forever.   28

Be their shepherd and carry them forever. 

28

 The voice of the LORD strips the forests bare  and in his temple all cry, "Glory!"  29

The voice of the LORD strips the forests bare

and in his temple all cry, "Glory!"

29

 "Oh LORD, be my helper!"  30

"Oh LORD, be my helper!"

30

 My times are in your hand.   31

My times are in your hand. 

31

 I shall counsel you with my eye upon you.   32

I shall counsel you with my eye upon you. 

32

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Those who look to him are radiant,

and their faces shall never be ashamed.

34

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Say to my soul,

"I am your salvation!"

35

 Oh, continue your steadfast love to those who know you.  36

Oh, continue your steadfast love to those who know you.

36

 Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him; fret not yourself.  37

Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him; fret not yourself.

37

 All my longing is before you  38

All my longing is before you

38

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For I am a sojourner with you,

a guest, like all my fathers.

39

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As for me, I am poor and needy,

but the LORD takes thought for me.

40

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At night his song is with me,

a prayer to the God of my life.

42

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Send out your light and your truth;

let them lead me;

43

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Hear, O daughter, and consider, and incline your ear:

45

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God is in the midst of her

46

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For God is the King over all the earth

47

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We have thought on your steadfast love, O God

48

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For he will receive me.

49

 Hear, O my people  50

Hear, O my people

50

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Restore to me the joy of your salvation

and uphold me

51

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I will wait for your name

52

 Oh that salvation would come out of Zion!  53

Oh that salvation would come out of Zion!

53

 the Lord is the upholder of my life.  54

the Lord is the upholder of my life.

54

 And I would say, "Oh, that I had wings like a dove!  I would fly away and be at rest;"  55

And I would say, "Oh, that I had wings like a dove!

I would fly away and be at rest;"

55

 You have kept count of my tossings    56   Monday

You have kept count of my tossings  

56

Monday

 I cry out to God Most High,   to God who fulfills his purpose for me  57   Tuesday

I cry out to God Most High, 

to God who fulfills his purpose for me

57

Tuesday

 surely there is a God who judges    on earth.   58   Wednesday

surely there is a God who judges  

on earth. 

58

Wednesday

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My God in his steadfast love will

meet me; 

59

Thursday

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O God, you have rejected  

60

Friday

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From him comes my salvation

62

Sunday

Brett Lott's Letters & Life: On Being a Writer, On Being a Christian

I've been slowly posting the assignments I wrote as part of last year's Creativity and the Christian course. I highly recommend Brett Lott's fine volume and am excited to announce that he has generously agreed to be interviewed later this month! I'm excited and nervous. Watch this space! And in the meantime, read his excellent book.

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Key Contributions

Bret Lott is a writer. He has achieved the commercial success that defines the dream a successful writing life, and he has the literary accolades to prove that he has not sold his artistic soul to achieve them. But Bret Lott is also a Christian who has thought deeply about the implications of his faith upon his writing life, and vice versa.

Bret refuses to separate his writing from his faith. There is a backbone of belief to his craft and the result is a joyful boldness. In the book's first essay, he reminds us of his belief in God's existence and intervention in our world, and the examples of it in Bret's life. This is in strong contrast to today's secular age, which "has become so primed to the self that there is no room to believe in anything else." But as Christians, the source of both reason and imagination has been met in Christ. The result of this truth in our lives is that there is nothing to stop us from being a witness through our art. We have been given a freedom to create art. In light of the supernatural intervention of the true God in our lives, what circumstances have we to fear?

This doctrine permeates all aspects of his craft. It clarifies and provides boundaries to his role as an artist and his relationship to both the church and the public square (chapter 2). It gives him courage to push hard in writing with precision, because "I have been made in the image of God, and not blurrily in his image, not almost in his image, not close enough in his image" (chapter 3). It gives context to his writings, rooted in the people around him (chapter 4) and it protects him from thinking too highly of himself (chapter 5).

In the end, writing can never be divorced from life. Bret explores this relationship in the second half of the book, an extended essay on his writing and the ordinary days surrounding the death of his father. Here is writing and here is life, together bearing fruit for all eternity.

Strengths and Weaknesses

Lott's thinking is saturated in the Bible yet also so obviously born out of his life as world class writer. This permeates the entire book, but the second essay stood out to me. It examines the relationship between the believing artist and surrounding society. Lott defines both a believer and an artist as being "blessed to be a blessing." He also recognizes that "we do not commit art in a vacuum but are a part of society," so we had best understand the moral order imposed on that society by God. In this order, the role of the artist is "a creator in a worship relationship to God." Satan usurps this order, convincing us "to divorce art from God." Lott quotes filmmaker Ingmar Bergman, who believed "that art lost its creative urge the moment it was separated from worship." The result is the desperate need to find meaning in yourself and your art, "an unmoored harmonic line, consumed with believing itself the melody."

This lie of Satan's has been broken by Christ's work on the cross. When our salvation is found in Him, our place in the moral order is restored and we can create "portraits of humanity that extend to all who have ears to hear and eyes to see the value of humanity for our having been created by God in his image." We now know we are, created to live lives "in service - in creation - to our creator God."

For Lott, these lives - people and their particulars - are the reasons we write. For him, his writing is all about the people involved in his stories. "People, in the dire straights we all of us have known and will know, carried with them their own ragged and sorrowful and mysterious worth." Lott expresses a real humility in the face of these people and their circumstances. They force him to get out of his writing's way and let their stories speak.

The book is a collection of essays, not a thesis. This is both a strength and a weakness.

Personal Application

Letters & Life taught me to have courage and to have humility. "For writing that will last, and that will mean something, and that will have pierced the heart and soul and mind not only of our readers but, more importantly, of ourself... precision is the most important element." This kind of writing takes courage - courage to trust what you are trying to feel enough to push past dead expressions and find new words, "precise words we don't yet know [that] will serve the purpose of showing us what we can't yet see." The life I am witnessing is a precise life. So don't let me trade it for vague stories that lack the courage of the particulars. I serve a precise God who has made precise people. May I listen and stare and have the courage to tell exactly what I see.

We also need humility. We need to get ourselves out of the way and minimize our own importance. It is "the dethroning of the writer, the constant and all-consuming bloody coup every story or poem or essay - every genuine work of art - must accomplish over its author in order truly to live and to breathe and to have something to say to us that will matter." Artists tackle the eternal. Much is at stake and as a result we tend to think highly of ourselves. But the eternal has "to be approached on one's knees... humbly, carefully, cautiously."

It is true that our words matter. Our writing, if it is done with precision, "is a manifestation of the eternal... a foray into the Holy of Holies." But Lott is quick to acknowledge that words have limitations. In the face of the complexities, frustrations, and tragedies of life "words can not capture what I want to capture." There is even a weariness: "I have lived too much with words." Words alone are not enough. We write because of the people around us. We write to process and to explain the events of our lives, to bear witness to the "people who went before us and the people who are still among us." They are what matter. We write in the context of life.

Questions for the Author

"If we look either to Christian publishing or to New York for our venue, for our outlet, for our income, as it were, from writing... then we have missed the point of creating in God's name entirely." This is encouraging, but then how do we plan with wisdom for the practical details of a career in writing?

"How many of us who claim to be artists or at least want to be called such - and be honest now, as God is our witness - have done so in one form or another, to excuse our being lazy, or forgetful, or just plain irresponsible?" How does Brett overcome this?

He talks about the "artistry by which [others have] lived their lives in service to... God." Schaeffer says that "no work of art is more important than the Christian's own life." What does this look like? How does this apply to his life?

How does he balance the value of art ("a manifestation of the eternal and far more important than than the artist can ever be") and the value of people?

How does he keep himself humble as an artist?

"I have lived too much with words." "I am so tired of words." I too have this frustration. How does he respond, especially when his career is in words? "So why, when words are so deceitful, so scheming as to speak truth and untruth in the very same instant, why is the work of putting them in the correct order my work?" How does he answer this dilemma?

"Words matter, yes. But they are deceitful. Acts. Acts are what matter." Is our faith a faith of words, acts, or both?

What role does his church play in the creation of his art? How does it disciple him? Does it help him insure that his stories align with the true story?

My First Screener and The Resurrection of Gavin Stone (2017)

In past years I've been so immersed in the independent and prestige film scene, I almost forgot about the strange world of Christian film I grew up around.  I was quite content forgetting, until I got an email inviting me to watch and review the WWE Studios film The Resurrection of Gavin Stone. The film was billed as "a lighthearted, family-friendly Christian comedy" which is exactly not how I wanted to spent 90 minutes of my life. 

After much discussion with my fellow film reviewing friends, where we debated the merits of wasting precious time versus accepting my first screening, I decided that taking the assignment could be way to strengthen my writing and discernment skills. And to jinx my career as a critic by turning down my first screener invite just felt wrong.

Watching a yet-to-be-released film on my iPad in my bedroom via a private screening link was a pretty neat feeling. If only I could access films like Paterson or The Red Turtle this way! One can only dream... But The Resurrection of Gavin Stone was actually entertaining. But it was also flawed, revealing a sad and dangerous picture of church life and what it means to be a Christian. It was a great exercise to think through what it was trying to say. To read more about that, head over to my review at Reel World Theology. 

Let me know what you think! And if you know anyone looking to screen some indie or prestige films, you know where to find me....

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Le Innocents (2016) and an Unusual Community

I miss reviewing films. I miss taking the time to understand what I have just seen by wrestling with it through words. I don't want to simply consume media - I want to engage in it.  

So in 2017, expect to see more film reviews arrive at this space. I've partnered with my friends at Reel World Theology and my first review for them this year is up already on their website. It's for the French-Polish film "Le Innocents." 

The movies follows the strange, true story of a group of nuns in Poland who were raped during and immediately after the Second World War and who are now pregnant. Unlike recent films about monasteries, like the excellent "Ida" and "Of Gods and Men", the main character in this film is not a member of the nunnery, but a young atheist doctor. Her journey into the religious community and how this affect both her and the believers she has to work with has profound implications for how Christians like myself are to interact with those whom we get to know from the outside. 

In my review I tried to pull out some of these themes. Head over to Reel World Theology to read the whole thing. I definitely recommend watching this beautiful film and would love to hear your thoughts on how it might impact our communities.

 

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That Was the Worst Christmas Ever!

Well, not really. But it kinda sucked.

Christmas is one of my favourite times of the year. So for the first time in five years, I used several vacation days to extend my days off.  I was hoping to spend some time with my elderly grandfather, make lots of music with my aunt, see a whole bunch of movies in theatres, and spend time alone reading and writing.

On the 23rd, after a nearly perfect Christmas tree hunt,  I went downtown to meet up with a best friend to watch Jackie at Eau Claire. Thanks to the nasty roads and snowfall, he was unable to show up. So I went into a pub to catch up on emails and ordered a large serving of fish and chips. The meal was too expensive and left a bad taste in the mouth. Frustrated, I went across the street to watch the excellent film Manchester by the Sea. I went to bed around midnight, excited for my vacation to begin.

At 3:10 am I woke up with an even worse taste in my mouth. "Just get rid of it and all will be well" I told myself. That was not so easily done.

It was nine hours later that I dared swallow a sip of water. It took the next twelve hours to get rehydrated, forty hours before I dared eat a full meal, and sixty before the diarrhea stopped. I was throwing up so hard that I burst blood vessels in my left eye, resulting in two days of hazing vision  and looking like I'd survived a bar fight rather than food poisoning. It's now been four days and I'm still exhausted.

I'm surprised how easy I've fallen into despair. To not find enjoyment in the rich gifts around us is expected, for they can quickly grow old. But not finding hope and comfort on the truths and power of prayer and scripture is verging on inexcusable. I have so much to learn!

And then I saw reports of friends' Christmases. A trip to the emergency room on Christmas Day because an infant daughter is chocking. A Christmas Eve in the hospital due to colitis. A wife whose brain tumour has resulted in a hand refuses to recover and is throbbing with pain. Or even worse: a miscarriage.

So I resolve to enjoy these next few days off. It will be easy to look back with regret on time wasted and memories ruined. It will be tempting to find joy solely in the music I'll play, the movies I'll see, the friends I'll meet, the quite time I'll savour. What's the alternative? Perhaps it's knowing that these circumstances exist to humble us, to re-anchor us in something greater than the well-being that we have built up around us, that bursts so easily. When I am made aware of that again, contentment is possible. I can rest in someone outside of myself.

Advent Imagery

Advent is one of my favourite seasons. It's a time of waiting, to realize again the longing for the one who saves us from our sorry state, to yearn even more for His eventual return to set all things new, and our continual need of his coming into our lives.

This year I once again read Malcolm Guite's fine poetry anthology, Waiting on the Word. The book is like attending a poetry appreciation class from a beloved teacher. I got even more out of it this second year through. Perhaps my favourite part of this experience is listening to the recordings of the poems he posts on his blog. Even if you don't have a copy of his book, I encourage you to take the time to listen to these recordings

Every day for Advent, I selected a line from the poem and edited an image in an attempt to capture its spirit. Because I have lately been most comforatable in the multiple exposure style, I decided to challenge myself and limit photos taken in that style to the seven poems inspired by the O Antiphon sequence, which is the heart of Malcolm's book.

I hope you enjoy these photos as much as I enjoyed the discipline of creating them. Please click on the line of poem underneath each image to read the entire poem. 

  Even in the darkness where I sit   And huddle in the midst of misery   I can remember the freedom, but forget   That every lock must answer to a key

Even in the darkness where I sit

And huddle in the midst of misery

I can remember the freedom, but forget

That every lock must answer to a key

Frances Schaeffer's Art and the Bible

 Over the summer, I participated in a course called Creativity and the Christian. It was a challenge and a joy to be forced to write essays again. I'll be posting what I worked on over the next couple weeks, beginning with three book reports. Each of these books is excellent and I recommend reading. Here is my report for Frances Scaheffer's classic volume, Art and the Bible.

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Key Contributions

The Christian faith has enjoyed a historically rich relationship with the arts. The writings of Dante, the music of Bach, the paintings of Rembrandt, and the songwriting of Bono are small sampling of this heritage. So why is the Evangelical church marked by both an aesthetic barrenness and an attitude of fear and avoidance towards the arts? Is our church's understanding of the arts actually rooted in a proper understanding of the Bible? Francis Schaeffer's seminal work, Art and the Bible, provided a much needed clarity when it was first published in 1973 and continues to offer a reorienting view of a proper doctrine of creativity. 

The Bible's portrayal of reality is not limited to matters of the soul. The doctrines of the creation, the redemption, and the future resurrection provide a framework that permeates all aspects of reality. Christ is Lord over everything, giving us context and boldness for our own acts of artistic creation. With such an anchoring in the objective, true reality, we have both the strength and the freedom to pursue knowledge and art.

We see the character of God both in his creation of the world and in how he directs us through his word. And both point to a God who is himself creative and who made us to worship him creatively. "God is interested in beauty. God made people to be beautiful. And beauty has a place in the worship of God." Observe the beauty and complexity of His creation. Read the descriptions on the various types of art God commissioned for the tabernacle and the temple. Notice the wide range of writing styles that are included in scriptures. If we are made in the image of God, we too are called to be creative and our art has value in itself. "Why? Because a work of art is a work of creativity, and creativity has value because God is the Creator."

 

Strengths and Weaknesses

For Schaeffer, art is an expression of  "the nature and character of humanity." We can recognize the excellence of an artist's work without having to agree with his outlook on life. To enjoy an author's skill with words or a director's vision of the world is a way to honour the image of God in those people. But that doesn't necessarily mean we embrace what that artist is saying morally. Every man, artist or not, is bound to the Word of God.

Schaeffer's articulates the minor and major themes in the Christian message and how Christian art should include both. The minor theme includes the reality of the fallenness of man, the resulting sense of meaninglessness and tragedy, and the "defeated and sinful side to the Christian life." The major theme is the joy that opens up when we realize that God is real and knowable, and that there is hope through redemption and the future resurrection. To underemphasize the minor theme is to be false to reality. "But in general...the major theme is to be dominant - though it must exist in relationship to the minor."

He also distinguishes between using art to worship God instead of worshipping the art itself. He observes that the Law "does not forbid the making of representatives art but rather the worship of it." If our art finds its worth as an offering to God rather than to men, then there is meaning and significance to our efforts. But our tendency, as humans and as artists, is to instead worship the work of our hands and elevate it over God. "Fixed down in our hearts is a failure to understand that beauty should be to the praise of God." Hezekiah destroys Moses' bronze serpent "because men had made it an idol. What is wrong with representational art is not its existence but its wrong uses." May our worship be only to the True King, so that our art may serve Him instead of taking His place in our lives. The book was so rich I struggled to pick out weaknesses.

 

Personal Application

Schaeffer's charge to keep our art contemporary is an important challenge. "If you are a young Christian artist, you should be working in the art forms of the twentieth century, showing the marks of the culture out of which you have come, reflecting your own contemporaries and embodying something of the nature of the world as seen from a Christian perspective." This requires vigilance, being constantly aware of how the content of your messages fits within the style of your art. There is no easy answer. We must ask careful questions of our audience and listen closely to their feedback. Does the medium distract or confuse the content? "The Christian...must wrestle with the whole question, looking to the Holy Spirit for help to know when to invent, when to adopt, when to adapt, and when to not to use a specific style at all. This is something each artist wrestles with for a lifetime, not something he settles once and for all."

Ultimately, Schaeffer's book offers me freedom. "The Christian is the really free man - he is free to have imagination." It is a freedom rooted in a proper doctrine of our God and his world. It is a freedom offered through the redemption of our hearts in Christ and the guidance of His Spirit, replacing the paralyzing effects of idolatry. It is also a freedom coming from the realization that we are given a lifetime to express everything that needs to be said. "No artist can say everything he might want to say... into a single work... If a man is to be an artist, his goal should be in a lifetime to produce a wide and deep body of work."

Over the years, I've struggled with feelings of inadequacy or failure when my creative endeavours don't succeed. Through this book, I've realized how much of this stems from finding my identity in the art, rather than using my art as a means to worship God. My prayer is that my work would be to an audience of One and that my satisfaction would come from this alone.

 

Questions for the Author

If, through Christ, our "whole capacity as man is refashioned" - our soul and our mind and body - how does this apply to taking care of our bodies; health, fitness, and beauty?

"The arts and the sciences do have a place in the Christian life - they are not peripheral." It's clear from this book that having proper doctrine is central to holding the arts and sciences in place. What focus then should churches place on teaching these other topics?

He talks about the ugliness of many evangelical church buildings and compares it to the construction of the temple, which was full of physical beauty. How do these guidelines from the Old Testament era apply to building churches in the New Testament?

In what ways can our contemporary church's architecture and physical aesthetic provoke praise? How should we balance our emphasis on this with the other purposes of the church? How should we convey the importance of this to leaders in the church who overlook it?

Hezekiah "had the temple cleansed and worship reformed according to the law of God." In what ways does the church's contemporary worship need reforming?

How does he interact with nudity in art? This applies to viewing classical art, like paintings and sculpture, but also modern art, like film and literature. Sexuality and the body are beautiful and matter to God, but we are also accountable to a higher moral standard.

He talks about art that is produced within the Christian framework, even if the artist is him or herself not a believer. Does this happen less and less on our culture? Also, there are some who find truth and beauty and echoes of the Gospel in all art, regardless of who created it. What would Schaeffer say to this? When should we be critical of a work's worldview and when should we enjoy and learn from what it says?

Evening Prayer: A Photo Sequence for Psalm 4

 

Evening Prayer


A Photo Sequence for Psalm 4

 
Psalm4.1

Answer me when I call, O God of my righteousness!

You have given me relief when I was in distress.

Be gracious to me and hear my prayer!


 

O men, how long shall my honour be turned into shame?

How long will you love vain words and seek after lies? Selah

But know that the LORD has set apart the godly for himself;

The LORD hears when I call to him.


 

Be angry, and do not sin;


 

ponder in your own hearts on your beds, and be silent. Selah


 

Offer right sacrifices,

and put your trust in the LORD.


 

There are many who say, "Who will show us some good?

Lift up the light of your face upon us, O LORD!"

You have put more joy in my heart

than they have when their grain and wine abound.


 

In peace I will both lie down and sleep;

for you alone, O LORD, make me dwell in safety.


 

A Note on the Sequence

 

 

The day draws to a close, but I am not yet ready to relinquish control. To submit to sleep is to admit that the day is done, that not all its wrongs can be righted, that my plans to accomplish everything have failed, and that its tensions remain unresolved. Even though it is decreed in our bodies that we return to sleep, it is not easy. We want to stay in control. We want to oversee the operation. Evening prayer is a deliberate act of spirit that cultivates willingly what our bodies force on us finally.  Psalm 4 is an evening prayer. It has taught me to process the events of the day in light God's action and to offer my involvement as a sacrifice for him to transform. It does not ignore the day's frustrations, but places its peace in the trust of our Lord.

Eugene Peterson's book Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer contains a chapter on this psalm and its companion morning prayer, Psalm 5. (Quotes from this chapter are in italics.) I read it while visiting Victoria, British Columbia early this summer, sitting on a grassy bluff overlooking the ocean. It left such an impact that over the rest of the summer, I read it aloud to three separate friends. I had opportunities to turn that psalm into prayer at the close of many confounding days.  During the summer, I was also at work on a series of abstract photographs, taken on that same trip. The images were multiple exposure photographs, carefully selected for their continuity in colour and edited to maintain a consistency in texture and tone. I struggled to find a unifying narrative for this sequence, until realizing their parallel with this psalm.

The images prominently feature a passionate orange (like the ambitious discontent of my heart),  in contrast with a cool, collected solidity of blues, greens, and granite (like the overarching presence of God.) Psalm 4 acknowledges both of these characteristics, teaching the first to know its place in the second. This evening prayer is a symmetrical beauty, arranging two sets of contrasts on either side of a centre that uses six verbs to restore the rhythms of grace in us. 

The psalm and the sequence opens with a clamorous beginning, much like my heart upon entering prayer. The image - a confused flurry of fiery grass and grey sea rock - is a violent discord of both the orange and the grey themes. Similarly, the psalm's opening paragraph is a confusion of David's feelings over both his emotions and his knowledge of his Lord. In contrast, the final image - a bleached arbutus log caught in the rock of an ocean cliff - reflects the quiet conclusion of the psalm's final paragraph. The photo captures the peace, security, and steadfastness of that ending verse, like the flexible driftwood resting in the permanence of the rock. 

Next we have our first contrast (Image 2), between those who pursue futility and those who realize providence. Some people...fill the day with a desperate and anxious grasp for that which is not. Others discover God's providential motions in themselves and others. This image is chaotic, reflecting the vanity of those described in the verse. But nestled amongst the solid rock is a bright orange leaf, like the psalm's imagery of "the LORD setting apart the godly for himself."

The second contrast (Image 6), is between those who are perpetually asking God for what they do not have and those who are overwhelmed before God with what he has already given. The image, in continuity with Image 2, also contains bright orange contrasted by its surroundings. But this photo - an arbutus tree growing of a mossy rock - includes both the sense of urgency of the verse, along with its upward focused joy. 

Then we arrive at the centre of the psalm and my sequence. Six paired verbs move us from self-assertion in which we push our vain wills on the people and circumstances around us - acting as if we are in charge of the universe - to a believing obedience that acts as if God is in charge and that submits to becoming the kind of person that God is in charge of. Here I offer three images, one for each pair of verbs. Two contain the calm colour theme and the centre image describes this theme's intersection with the orange. 

The first - gnarly, spiked trees on a solid bank - reflects both the honest frustration we are told to express over the imperfections of our day, and also the boundaries that are to be placed on our anger. The second image - sunset-lit grasses like wildfire amongstdark, rocky hills - is a picture of the volatile self finding his proper place in silence, recognizing the person that God is gathering into salvation. The third - a bird-like kite dancing against soft clouds and a bank of grasses - is like the sacrifice of our days, offered to God to do with what he will. Christ's forgiveness will transform them. The Spirit's sanctification will redeem these offerings. You have had all day, now let God have all night. A sinful life is offered up, a holy life is received back. 

For years, my photography style has been driven by clean, carefully composed images. I see my craft as catching glimpses of the designs that the Great Artist has placed all around us. But recently, as I've found myself drawn more and more to the multiple exposure technique, I've struggled to reconcile its chaotic nature with the clarity of the gospel. By working through this project, I've recognized that this abstract style captures the tension of a life lived between the reality of the gospel and the confusion of our hearts, a tension that the Psalms acknowledges so well.

You can download a PDF of the complete sequence here.

Twenty Four

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In the past, birthday mornings have been typically cheerful occasions, but not this twenty-forth morning. I rose early to prepare for work and despaired over my situation. Twenty four years, one less from twenty five, and what have I done with myself? I know men in my position who are working on their second degree, or married, or who are off having adventures around the world. And here I was, no close to my ambitions than I was a year ago, still in my parents home, working a position that betrays my years poured into the company - in short, a mess of a man. In one year I will be 25 years old. If I were to then find myself in the same position, how could I face myself? I shuddered to think of where that despair might lead me.

The morning sun and Paul Simon's Graceland in my headphones cheered me up by the time I arrived at work, where the hugs and well-wishes of my many friends greeted me.  But it was mid-morning text from my pastor, Gavin, who forced a change of perspective and attitude on me. "Grace to you as you celebrate another year of God's mercies to you."

Mercies to you. Now that's a different way of looking at things. With such perspective, my success is not measured by how well I've done with myself, but by how gracious my Creator has been to me. What have I to complain about, really? What do I actually deserve? In such light, these years have been mercies indeed.

He continued. "It's been wonderful to watch how the Lord has grown you in these past few years. Keep on." With this attitude, I'm not looking at what I've done well and what I've achieved, but what the Lord has done in me. This is progress of a different kind, a supernatural work that I can not account for on my own. How could I give up? How could I discard His handiwork in me?

I reflected on the days that made up this last year. There have been few notable events to mark it, and, unlike the year before, less dark clouds of troubled turmoil. I got sick for several months. I wrote some things I was proud of. I was successful in a somewhat unchallenging work environment. I happily spent several months on my own. I planned an exciting trip to Portland and complete a graduate level college course. In short, the had the typical share of pleasures, events, disappointments, heartache, and ups and downs.

That evening, my family and a handful of excellent friends gathered on our beautiful acreage. We ate dozens of chicken kebabs, baskets of fresh pita breads, bowls of fruit and salad, about two chocolate cakes, and Chemex after Chemex of coffee, all prepared by my sisters while I was at work. We laughed, partly because of the sharp wits on display in that room, but mostly in delight over these remarkable people and the joy they brought. My parents told stories of their courtship while training teens on tall ships, stories that looked back and remembered with gratefulness.

We then pulled into the music room and gathered around the grand piano. Violins, clarinets, and guitars were produced, a couple iPads served as our hymnals, and for about an hour we sang some of my favourite songs: "Let Us Love and Sing and Wonder," Let All Mortal Flesh Be Silent," "Erie Canal" (the Bruce Springsteen song, not a hymn), "Jesus I My Cross Have Taken," "Oh Perfect Love Come Near to Me," and "On Jordan's Stormy Banks I Stand".

Farewells were said. Hugs were exchanged. Guests departed to their corners of the city and our family headed into our rooms and to bed. And so I am content. Not because things couldn't be better. Not the because the frustration will end. Not because things have changed. But because I can trust the One who is guiding me, and I can see his hand at work.

"Soul, then know thy full salvation

Rise o’er sin and fear and care

Joy to find in every station,

Something still to do or bear.

Think what Spirit dwells within thee,

Think what Father’s smiles are thine,

Think that Jesus died to win thee,

Child of heaven, canst thou repine."

A Piece of the Past

It's been two years since I've last stepped foot in Victoria. The first thing I notice as I walk the residential streets is that the greenery seems to be competing against the buildings. The second thing I notice is that the greenery is winning. Plants are nestled in every corner, pushing against the ubiquitous stone walls and pressing into empty spaces. The branches of trees, green and golden in the evening light, form a canopy above me. There are countless species: the massive Maple, whose leaves dwarf any of its competitors; the stately Douglas Fir, tall and narrow and pointing straight into the heavens; the occasional Arbutus, marked by its stark red bark; and the exotic and prickly Monkey Puzzle. But the Gerry Oak, its bark as twisted and knobby as its leaf, overwhelms the rest, memorable both for its texture and its constant presence.

I was born in Victoria and my childhood nostalgia is tightly linked to this city. Now I'm riding a borrowed bicycle through its streets. I'm not seeking out the memories, yet they persist in confronting me regardless. The map of memories becomes a literal map I use to find my way home. Lost in the dark streets at night? There is the church your parents were married in - you know your way from here. Not sure when to take the turn off Foul Bay Road? There is the yard where you gathered pine cones as a boy one December afternoon - turn now.

The memories come even thicker as I let myself into my aunt's house, which was once our family's home. The building is over a hundred years old, although the loss of city records in a fire makes knowing its exact date impossible. Shelves of books are in every corner, the remaining wall space lined with framed artwork of tall ships at sea. The floor creaks and its sound summons the past. There is the room where I sat on the couch next to my dad while he quizzed me on stories from my childhood Bible. That's where my sister's cradle used to be - I can still hear the sound of her wind-up lullaby music box. There is the kitchen where my mother made bagels and cheese sticks. I'm hesitant to enter the backyard, as even the smell of its soil conjures stories.

My aunt enters my room and pulls out a heavy photo album dedicated to my family. There is my Mum, bright eyed and radiating joy. She seems constantly fresh, not yet wearied by the toil of raising a strong willed first-born, followed by three more children. There is my Daddy, handsome in his dark hair. His modesty seems apparent even in the photographs and memories of his kindness shine through. And there is the little man himself, his hair whispy and blonde, his face round and beaming into the camera. He is happy, and beloved, and he knows it.

 
 
 
 

My aunt is getting ready to attend her goddaughter's 18th birthday. In English tradition, a godparent is responsible for the spiritual upbringing of a child and is present at every major event. I was always a little disappointed that my parents never assigned me a godparent, mostly because it meant less gifts. I cheerfully complain about this to my aunt, but she doesn't see any humour in it. "Of course you had godparents. When you were born, your dad approached three people and asked each us to commit to praying for you during all your formative years."

Well then. I was never told this before. "Who were they?" I ask.

"Myself, Dave Eggert, and Ken Smith" she replies. "And we kept our word."

Following this conversation, almost entirely by accident, I end up spending time with all three of these saints. Ken Smith, a retired math teacher with a rich Scottish accent, invites me into his basement suite, where his wife Kathy serves us tea and biscuits. He walks me through the formative decisions that shaped his life and career and how they reflected God's faithfulness. Dave Eggert I bump into when I visit the ministry, SALTS, which brought my parents together. This wooden tall ship program, with its voyages up and down the coast and around the world, fill the legends of our family's history. I attend a prayer meeting in the hull of the boat my parents helped build, which was setting sail that afternoon filled with kids from local schools. I sit next to Dave and, as part of the meeting, he spends several minutes praying for me once again.

How does a boy turn into a young man? How is he shaped away from the natural inclinations of sin and selfishness and towards the redemption of Christ? How does he change from a child of flesh alone to a child of the Spirit and the church? I was away from my family that week in Victoria. But I was confronted again of the steps they took to build a heritage for their son.

On Sunday I attend my aunt's Anglican church. My parents were married in the midst of this same congregation. It has changed names, buildings, and denominations and underwent a painful schism from the now liberal Anglican Church of Canada. This trial of conscience and conviction was a sad, wounding time for the church, but the resulting sense of clarity and purity is apparent when I attend. This service is filled with an older population, old even for Victoria. It's a small act of God's grace that they all make it up and down the pews without injury. Yet appearances deceive. Their worship is vibrant and alive. The joyful abandon in their singing is striking. I'm refreshed by the liturgy, so rooted in the Word and the Gospel. It reorients me to the true reality.

We celebrate communion. One by one, the white or graying heads make their way to the alter to receive the bread and wine. Suddenly I recall a memory deeper and dustier than any I'd experienced that week: my parents partaking of communion years ago in that very church. It's a blurry image of dark wood, white robes, blue glass, and the smell of wine and wafers. My parents would leave me to make their way to the front. I didn't understand what was happening. How could I? Yet I remember the serious joy of the occasion. I knew that it was something, something significant. Occasionally my mum or dad would break off for me a small sliver of their wafer. It tasted foreign and familiar and was always too small. But I couldn't partake fully. Not yet.

Then every night my dad would walk into the darkness of my room, lay his hand on my forehead, and pray Moses's blessing:

May the Lord bless you and keep you.

May the Lord make is face shine upon you.

May the Lord lift up his countenance upon you.

And give you peace.

 

Some of these words made sense. Most of them didn't. "Make his face shine upon you" provoked a not-all-too-wrong image of God having a shining, serious face that smiled down upon me. I had no idea what "countenance" meant, but it sounded special, almost like those rare occasions when my parents would lift up their film camera to take my picture. "And give you peace." A piece of what? I understood it to be a promise. That someday I too would receive a piece, a whole piece, of communion wafer. That I would partake as freely and as regularly as my parents.

And now I'm here, twenty-two years later, surrounded by that same church family. I walk forward, kneel between strangers, and am given a whole piece. "May the body of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was given for you, preserve your body and soul to everlasting life. Take and eat."

And so I do.

Mountains Beyond Mountains

I step off the LRT and into Lion's Park station just after 11pm, having finished my last shift of work. It's after I hoist on my backpack and make my way out onto the sidewalk that I notice the rain. All the way to my uncle and aunt's house it pours, increasing in intensity by the minute. It comes at me in sheets, blowing sideways off the pavement in waves of water. Streams pour off the brim of my hat. It soaks through my jacket and my shirt, my boots and my socks. It runs in rivulets down the sidewalk and surges into the drainpipes. I laugh, then let out a whoop of joy over the sheer craziness of the circumstances. What a perfect start to my week long West Coast vacation!

Five minutes later, I kick off my soggy boots in my family's living room. Five more minutes, and the freak storm has ended.

The next day dawns far too early. My clothes are air-dried and my leather satchel is packed with food, books, and headphones. My uncle drops me off at Calgary's Greyhound bus station. The wooden sign in the boarding area announces my bus's destinations:

BANFF

LAKE LOUISE

YOHO NATIONAL PARK

REVELSTOKE

SALMON ARM

KAMLOOPS

LANGLEY

ABBOTSFORD

VANCOUVER.

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I have several reasons to make a 15 hour bus journey to the Coast instead of catching a 90 minute flight. Chief among these is cost. The appeal of gaining such a long head start on the 6 books I chose for the trip was also a factor. And I wanted to travel the land. I wanted to feel the breadth of our country. I wanted to read the landscape like a book, crawling up and over the immense backbone of our western continent we call the Rocky Mountains.

I have a friend who recently moved from Edmonton to Calgary. She can't get enough of our mountains. Every other week she arranges a hike for us Calgary natives. Day hikes. Night hikes. It doesn't matter.  She says the sight of the mountains from her window never ceases to thrill her. Hearing her respond to the mountains with such joy has reawakened this jaded local to their beauty. To her, the immense solidity of the massive rocks reminds her that she is both "insignificant and beloved at the same time."

But what if those mountains are clocked in clouds, as they were my entire trip West?

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The coach heaves its way up and over the winding highway. The engine roars its disapproval as it forces itself up a punishing curve, then sighs in a sort of passive complaint as it clings to the roadway down another steep section. In the valley below me, I see clouds floating above a rich green forest. These greens and greys are interrupted by intense white cataracts of falling water. The peaks are slow to reveal themselves. It is easy to lure yourself into believing that they didn't even exist, and that this world of trees and rock and clouds is all there is.

But then the bus turns another corner, or the wind shifts, revealing an opening through clouds, and the towering walls of rock reassert themselves. "I'm here" they seemed to say. "Though you do not see me, though you doubt your map and your knowledge of the land, I am still here. Powerful and strong. Sure and lasting"

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Life occasionally gives us clear vistas, moments were the world and the road ahead are visible with clarity and joy. But those are the exception. The rest of the time, we are rumbling our way through valleys and hills of repetitive mists. I start to wonder if what I see out my window is, in fact, the truth. My head knows what it is supposed to believe, but everything else is yelling the opposite. I get depressed and I want to give up. Or, worse, I get complacent and don't care. 

And then the wind shifts and I see some hazy glimpse of Reality. A service at church clarifies and encourages. A conversation with a friend reveals I'm not alone and that I am making a small difference for someone else. A song, or a book, or time spent in prayer awakens what was previously lost or forgotten. These moments don't linger, but if I peer closely, I see them with enough regularity to keep me hopeful and content. I need such moments. I seek these moments out.