You know. You’ve seen it all—the religious abuse, the sexual harassment, the crippling body shame, the deep spiritual confusion. I wrote songs about it all those years ago when I started out on this path of making music for a living…I wrote that You knew me “as a lover knows his beloved’s heart—all the shapes and curves of her, even in the dark.” What or Who was I even writing about then, when I was still trapped deep in the crevasses of legalism and fear?
I was talking about You. I didn’t even know You then. But oh, how I wanted to. I wanted to know You with every cell in my body and with every pulsating vein.
You. You who were both outside me and within me—You waited at the window for me to creep tremblingly and open the curtain. When I looked out into the snow and met Your eyes, You pointed at the lamplight inside and said “I am there. I have never left.”
I thought You didn’t want me at all. I thought You only wanted me because Jesus died for me. Oh, how wrong I was. I forgive those who taught me such things. I forgive them wholeheartedly, for I see that they were frightened little children too, just like I was. We’re trying to figure out why You love us, really.
And there is no human “why” to explain Your love—there is only Your astounding affection, winging through the sky like a flock of birds in patterned flight. There is only Your love, ringing down the halls of time like church bells forged in an uncreated Fire.
You are Love. It is only I, and other frightened little ones like me, who make You out to be anything else than what You are.
And that is why I can say the following. That is why I can write words like these. Because You are Love.
Drawn To You
All my devotion is like sinking sand I’ve nothing to cling to but your sweet hand I’ve no clear emotions keeping me safe at night; Only your presence, like a candle light.
After everything I’ve had After everything I’ve lost Lord, I know this much is true I’m still drawn to you.
I pour out my sorrows like a precious oil I kiss your feet, Lord, with a holy joy My tears an offering of the highest praise; Your eyes say ‘welcome.’ I receive Your gaze.
After everything I’ve had After everything I’ve lost Lord, I know this much is true I’m still drawn to you.
After everything’s been said After everything love cost Lord, I know this much is true I’m still drawn to you
As a child, I manufactured a god in my own image—a sordid being with good intentions, but with the tide of reality and the rules of the universe working relentlessly against its compassion. This god I sketched operated at the behest of its own ideas, which it had written into laws—I imagined this tiny maniac shrugging its shoulders when confronted yet again by my repeat offenses, and all the tears which accompanied each ‘yet again’—and it would say “if to hell you are going, it is your own fault. I could not intervene even if I wished to.” It is disheartening and painful to remember that this is exactly how I spoke of salvation to my childhood friends. I offered up this salvation as if it were a cold, sterile medical textbook. This is what is—and these are your options. Choose as you like, but don’t come crying to me if you choose wrongly. I wish it was different, but it just isn’t.
Christ, in my childish and terrified mind's eye, was something like a public defender—a litigator assigned to argue for me in my god’s hostile court. I was the underdog, and he the only advocate I had. He showed up and pled my case as though it were his job—and in my head, that’s exactly what it was. Salvation was Jesus’ profession—it replaced carpentry as his area of expertise, so in that sense, I ‘trusted’ him with my life. I received his services gratefully but not for a moment did I mistake them for affection originating in anything but the pity my case inspired in him. He was merciful, kind, and good—but he was not mine, and I was not his. I used the language of Lover dutifully—’I am my Beloved’s and He is mine’—but I continued to live and exist as though Christ were a lawyer. This spread through all my christology, my theology, and my anthropology—I had no idea how deeply until time, suffering, and at least a little maturity began to make glaringly apparent the flaws in my thinking.
In my lifelong theology of a god who could take or leave me, but for the convincing closing arguments of that Wonderful Counselor there existed a deep wound of abandonment. Abandonment was the story of me and my god—I believed my god had left me at the mercy of my own brokenness. And I believed it was just, because it was exactly what I deserved—my god did not want me. The garden of my heart was insipid and sad. I built my constructs of love and relationship on this foundation of fear.
Eventually I grew bold enough to wonder if maybe the entire idea of god was a construction of my own mind, and a million minds before mine. I came to the conclusion that, if it was, it was worth leaving. I was determined to deconstruct this pallid, impotent paradise I had dreamed—so brick by brick I laid waste to the barns my fear had raised up—I set fire to the rotting wood of my morbid ideas of God—I leveled it all like a vengeful ex-wife. Torch in hand, breathing deeply the smoldering air, I waited, and the smoke cleared. To my great astonishment, a tree remained. Like the burning bush of Exodus, it was not consumed. The tree of life stood there spotless, and in gazing at it, I began to wonder if perhaps I could begin again. Perhaps God did want me. Perhaps God was not at the mercy of the laws of God, but the laws of God flowed and flowered out of the Love of God. Perhaps...perhaps.
At the end of all my deconstruction, I now find that “…God is with me, and He sits in the ruins of my heart, preaching His Gospel to the poor.” (Thomas Merton)
I recorded this song on Inheritance (and then, released a new version on Inheritance Deluxe) because, as long as I’ve known it, as long as I’ve sung it, and even having recorded it twice, I’ve not yet reached the depths of its balm for what has proven to be my very broken heart.
About two years ago I became aware of the fact that my heart was far more broken than I understood. I had some breaking and broken relationships. I was starting to suffer greatly from some of my own behaviors; years of on-and-off talk therapy with my wonderful counselor had not led me to the realization until I started to admit, *really* admit, a few big things. I am afflicted with several addictions and obsessions, one being religious OCD, or scrupulosity. I wasn’t sure how far back the roots of it went, but I started to see how it had taken over my interior world like a pernicious clinging vine. No application of the Gospel of freedom or charismatic worship or even Sacramental Christianity had been able to kill it, apparently. And so I began to ask myself, to really ask myself—have I ever really believed in God? Have I ever known God? Have I ever really had a choice? Or have I just been medicating my obsession my whole life long, meticulously and desperately applying a blistering salve of legalism that cures absolutely nothing?
I started having anxiety attacks at church in those days, and would have to walk out every time. Every time I would travel to sing or speak, my thumbs would start twitching maniacally while my heart rumbled and shook like a tectonic plate colliding with the rest of me. My whole body was revolting. I would practically run off stage when I was done, and spend many minutes doing breathing exercises and trying to calm down. It felt like my whole foundation had been swallowed into a sinkhole and I didn’t even know who I was anymore, much less who or what God was.
These questions were not fleeting and they were not satisfied by a quick Scripture study or reading apologetics books, or even by the 24 months I spent obsessing over figuring them out. All I found was that my questions really had no answers. Pat answers, sure—stuff that used to work—but no answers that satisfied me now. It frustrated the hell out of me. Between my scrupulosity, my broken heart, and my investigative temperament, all that I wanted was for God to speak up, to show up, to reveal Godself to me. Are you real? I just need to know. I need to know. I really really need to know. I’m freaking out. Show me, I begged, but there was only silence. There was only the quiet void. It proved to be just what I needed for a scrupulosity and obsessiveness that needed to die. The supply of food (answers, certainty, safety in correctness) was cut off, and I was experiencing the death rattle of my need to be right. What I had to become at peace with was the reality that, faith or no faith, there are just things I cannot entirely grasp with my intellect. There are no boxes that I can fit God into, or other people into, or myself into. That’s not how mercy works. And no matter how hard I try, I just cannot fit God into my head. And that blistering salve of legalism had only served to wound me and others around me, even though it offered me answers.
I made Inheritance in the midst of that weird and blurry and disorienting time. I have said this before, but in case you missed it, one of the reasons I even decided to make a hymns album was that, in addition to how much I love the songs, I couldn’t write a worship song to save my life back then. I was just too shaken up. I didn’t have a clue what to say, really. Songs like Be Thou My Vision were like a hospital to me then. I didn’t have any idea about what to do, so I sang what I knew—I lifted up the melodies that had walked with me since childhood. Even when I didn’t know if I believed the words, I found refuge in the sounds. They seemed like Medicine—an antidote, a tonic.
The way forward is no clearer than London fog in some ways, but I am settling in to not knowing things. It doesn’t torture me in the night much anymore that I don’t understand. I don’t lie awake weeping because I don’t know if God is real (not often, anyway) or if I believe all the correct things. Most importantly I am realizing that my obsession with right belief was me trying to earn God’s love just like any other “works-based” religious behavior—it was my way of trying to feel safe. And if there was going to be any hope of a healthy relationship between me and God, that awful cancer had to go. So I am just lying here as best I can, in my incertitude, looking up at the heavens and re-connecting with my awe and wonder and questions—questions that no longer send me into a spiral of fear and depression as much as they once did—questions that just have no immediate answers. I am learning to love my questions, and feel loved in them.
Hymns like this one have come alive for me with fresh and thrilling meaning in this time of my life. Lines like “Thou my best thought, by day or by night” have a new breathtaking significance—the fact that I spend so much of my time dreaming about what God might be like is the best thing I can be doing. It doesn’t matter, really, that I don’t *know* what God is like exactly, or that I don’t comprehend the metaphysics of this whole God with us thing. I’m thinking about God. I’m dreaming about God. That is beautiful. It’s my best thought, by day or by night. If that’s the only way I pray right now, then okay. I’m all right with it most days. I’m still healing from this and many other things in my past, but at the moment I am more at peace than I have been in a long time.
I love listening to this version of Be Thou My Vision, because as incapable as I was of formulating my own thoughts about God when I made it, I hear my feeble and broken, but bound and determined heart in this recording. I took the title of the record from this song very much on purpose—it was a prayer in itself, a plea for adoption. Thou mine Inheritance, now and always.
If you have never heard this song, or if you have heard it a million times, I hope the lyrics come alive for you today in just the way that you might need them. Listen with the broken parts of you. Allow true Medicine to seep in the cracks. And if you are blind, like me, I pray that you and I might see a little more clearly today.
Be Thou my vision, O Lord of my heart. Naught be all else to me, save that Thou art. Thou my best thought, by day or by night Waking or sleeping, Thy presence my light.
Be Thou my wisdom and Thou my true Word I ever with Thee, and Thou with me, Lord Thou my great Father, I Thy true son Thou in me dwelling and I with Thee one.
Riches I heed not nor man’s empty praise Thou mine inheritance, now and always. Thou and thou only, first in my heart; High king of heaven, my treasure Thou art.
High king of heaven, my victory won May I reach heaven’s joys, o bright heaven’s Sun! Heart of my own heart, whatever befall, Still be my vision, o Ruler of all.
Heart of my own heart, whatever befall, Still be my vision, o Ruler of all.
I grew up in a very particular Christian environment which vilified active doubting—where I grew up, doubt meant one of two things; either you were allowing your mind to be polluted by the filth of the world and its evil skepticism, *or* you weren’t “truly saved” and needed to be delivered that ‘blessed assurance’ which was, I was taught, the privilege of the elect.
I am free at last of this unbearable burden of assurance!
My mind is voracious and curious, and I naturally seek to understand my environment, other people, and the mysteries of life. I study my surroundings, and questions arise. This is not a threat to me—this is just the reality of human existence.
Suffering and trauma need to be worked through, and during that process, questions and ideas arise which sometimes make faith and belief difficult. This is not a threat to me—this is just the reality of human existence.
Recovering from fundamentalism is a long and arduous journey. On the road, questions and ideas arise which sometimes make faith and belief difficult. This is not a threat to me—this is just the reality of human existence.
Assurance, which comes and goes with the wind, is not my burden to bear; realizing this has brought me great freedom. I am happy to float in the ocean of God’s mercy, with no need to discover and delineate its borders. I hope it is deep and wide enough for the whole world.
I get a lot of questions about beauty’s role in the Church today. My observation is that, with a decreasingly rich and nuanced understanding of Beauty, which is a great transcendental quality of God, our reverence for art is crumbling.
I have a theory on this. Art is powerful. It can be uplifting, it can be hypnotizing, it can be frightening or menacing, it can be surreal or hyper-real, it can be erotic (and sometimes, it can be some combination of all of those things.) Beauty has classically and historically been placed in the ranks of truth, goodness, and justice—a sort of primary quality of the universe and God and a primal need of mankind. In modernity, though, we sort of throw the term beauty around like we’re talking about adornment. We talk about beauty products, beauty school, beauty shots, or we say ‘that woman is beautiful” (by which we mean, she is physically attractive) and it sort of stops there for a lot of us. Because society sees and defines Beauty as stereotypically feminine and primarily physical, as opposed to exploring it as one of the great transcendental Realities, and because femininity has been sort of hijacked by misogyny to be seen as primarily ornamental and physical, our thirst for great art is waning. As a culture, even as a Christian culture, many of us no longer see Beauty as something as necessary to joy and survival as we do theology.
I feel that as our definitions of beauty become more hijacked by misogyny and more diluted, we need to remember that Church music isn’t merely ornamental. The flip side of seeing it as merely ornamental is that it easily turns into seeing it as threatening when it gets too sensual or bold. (If we think beauty exists to serve our purposes, then we start to be threatened and frightened when an artist is un-cowed by that. Beyonce’s Lemonade anyone?) But in fact, there’s a fiery call to the prophetic in this work. How many times have I heard some version of “you’re an artist—stop talking about politics, just shut up and sing?” I get that one all the time. Well, no—I won’t! Beauty isn’t just Bathsheba bathing on the roof. It’s Jael driving a stake through the oppressor’s head. It’s Joshua leading the musicians around Jericho and bringing down the walls. Music isn’t just ornamental—and neither is beauty. Beauty is powerful—beauty can be angry and it can be prophetic.
So let’s talk about the role of the prophetic in being an artist. If you’re an artist, whether making art specifically for the church or not, do you see what you do as being prophetic?