A Tale of Two Songs (Plus 3)

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In a recent post I talked about my writer’s block and the song that broke it.  I thought I’d revisit a similar theme here and talk about the process of writing the most challenging song on my new record.

During a session at a songwriter’s retreat several years ago, I asked Pierce Pettis, one of the greatest singer/songwriters of our time, how to know when to let go of an idea that seems to refuse to be reeled in.  His answer was not to worry about it, that the best ideas won’t let go of you. I went home and later that week finished a song that had been evading me for years.  Since then, I’ve tried to pay attention to the ideas that seem like they won’t let go of me.

In the midst of an almost 3 year stretch of writer’s block, I was at another writer’s retreat that my friend Doug McKelvey was leading.  At one point, he read an excerpt from The Lord Of The Rings – the scene where Sam wakes after the darkest day of his life to find that the worst that seemed inevitable did not come to pass.

“’Gandalf! I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead myself. Is everything sad going to come untrue? What’s happened to the world?’

‘A great shadow has departed,’ said Gandalf, and then he laughed, and the sound was like music, or like water in a parched land… “

It was the felt truth of those words – the idea of everything sad coming untrue – that captured my attention.  I felt what Frederick Buechner terms “the lump in the throat” that usually indicates that something holy is afoot.  The words carried a certain coalescence of the mysterious and absolute that spoke to where I was at at the time.  Here’s what I wrote about it in the liner notes of my new CD:

The beauty of those words rang so many bells inside of me: the idea not that everything sad is untrue (which would be a cruel invalidation of our present sorrows) – nor that everything will come untrue someday (which reduces the hope of redemption to mere wishful thinking) – but that somehow, even right now in the face of the saddest that we see, the seeds of its undoing are sown.  In fact, they were sown the day the body of Jesus, like a seed himself, was laid in the ground.  What took root on Easter is the undoing of the curse, and it is flowering all around us if we have eyes to see it.

This thought grew into an idea that wouldn’t let me go and I determined that I would write a song about it.

I quickly found, though, that it was a difficult song to write – all 5 times that I wrote it!  It is a beautiful statement, to be sure, but it is also somewhat abstract, and for some people it reads like an algebra equation.  How could I take the beauty and truth of the idea and translate it from conceptual abstraction into something urgent, emotional, and compellingly real? Would it move others the way it did me?

I’d play the latest version of the song for my inner circle of friends who would tell me that it was cool, but that was the problem – I wasn’t aiming for cool, I was aiming for heart and joy.  Much prayer and reflection went into the process, and eventually I called in co-writers to help me bring it across the finish line.  The first was Randall Goodgame who went to work with me on my original version.  After several weeks of us banging our heads and hearts against the seemingly impregnable walls of this song, he put it best when he said, “it’s close… but it’s like this song has a beautiful face, but her arms are on backwards…”

Eventually we abandoned it and started from scratch. We raided the bone yard and brought some of the ideas over from the last version, but for the most part rebuilt it from the ground up.  I had a little piece of music – a riff – that felt like springtime to me, like everything sad coming untrue, so we started with that.  When I read the journals of some friends who had recently been to Rwanda – a country ravaged by genocide little more than a decade ago but whose rebirth through reconciliation looks nothing short of miraculous – I found a compelling real world evidence of everything sad coming untrue through the power of forgiveness. It was then that the song finally took wings for me, and after nearly two years, it was finished!  This became “Everything Sad Is Coming Untrue (Part 1)” that is on my new record.

But it seemed that the idea of everything sad coming untrue was too big to be held in one song, and that the ground was still fertile enough to yield something more, so I went back to work.  If the one song felt like springtime, I wanted to write one that acknowledged the winter that sets us longing for spring in the first place.

I wrote a ballad with my friend Jason Ingram that felt quite lovely and might even  have possibly worked as a radio single – and yet the form of it felt restrictive to me and like I was circling around but never getting to the heart of the matter.  This lead to one of the harder decisions of this project: abandoning this version – even one with commercial potential – to try to write yet another entirely new version.

I had a few lyrical starts, and I brought them to the master of the slow-building epic: Andy Osenga.  We went to work on it and found that this song didn’t get any easier even after so many versions…

The goal for this last incarnation was to follow Frederick Buechner’s advice which in essence is this: that before you affirm your creeds at the start of each day, you should read the daily headlines of the worst that happens in the world.  If our greatest hopes can’t hold their own against our greatest fears, then they may not be worthy of our devotion.  For our hope to be believable, it must be believable in the face of the worst that we see and know.  So this is what we wanted to pit our idea of everything sad coming untrue against: relationships at the breaking point, death, and the isolation and despair that is the fallout of the Fall.  Could even these be coming untrue? These thoughts became “Everything Sad Is Coming Untrue (Part 2)” – the song that closes my new record

By the time I was through, I had completed 5 versions of the song – two of which ended up on the official record and two more of which ended up as bonus songs on a special edition of the project.  Did I ever get it right, though?

I’m certain there are more gifted writers than I who might have served this song better, but the work seemed to fall to me, and it was a responsibility that I didn’t take lightly.  I’ve never worked harder on a song, and in the end, in spite of my limitations, I hope I did it some semblence of justice and helped others to feel a little of what I felt that first day when Doug McKelvey read the words and it kindled the hope that everything sad, even now, is coming untrue.  And if I failed to do that, with 5 versions of the song It could never be said it was for lack of trying…

Everything Sad Is Coming Untrue (Part 1)
Jason Gray, Randall Goodgame, Jason Ingram
In the way the shadows hide
When the sun begins to rise
And in the way the world comes alive
At the first hint of spring
The frozen rivers run
The death of winter comes undone
Whispers of Kingdom Come
While the bluebird sings

Everything
Everything that I thought I knew
Everything
Everything sad is coming untrue

From the war torn city streets
To the trash the slum dogs eat
It seems so hard to believe
And meaningless to pray
But in Rwanda’s killing fields
Forgiveness blooms and heals
And the power of love reveals
The Kingdom come today as…

Chorus

Life is coming alive
Death is destined to die
But Love…

When we learn to live again
And let forgiveness win
There’s no wound that love won’t mend
And finally redeem
The Son of God woke in the ground
The angel laid the soldiers down
To bring the King his crown
Oh I believe

chorus

Everything Sad Is Coming Untrue (Part 2)
Jason Gray, Andy Osenga
You had to have that hard conversation
Where nothing hurts quite like the truth
And now you wonder what she’s thinking
Who she sees when she looks at you
How could it be everything sad is coming untrue?

Another nail in another coffin
Arms that held you return to dust
Yet in our grief we know death must be a liar
For no goodbye is ever good enough
How could it be everything sad is coming untrue?

Every father helpless and angry
Every mother with her heart on the shelf
Every daughter whose innocence was stolen
By every son who couldn’t help himself

The winter can make us wonder
If spring was ever true
But every winter breaks upon
The Easter lily’s bloom
Could it be everything sad is coming untrue?
Could you believe everything sad is coming untrue?

Broken hearts are being unbroken
Bitter words are being unspoken
The curse undone, the veil is parted
The garden gate will be left unguarded

Could it be everything sad is coming untrue?
Oh I believe everything sad is coming untrue
In the hands of the One who is making all things new

When the storm leaves there’s a silence
That says you don’t have to fear anymore
The trees look greener, the sky’s an ocean
The world is washed and starting over

(Jason’s new album can be pre-ordered at jasongraymusic.com.  A free immediate download of the entire album is available immediately with the purchase of any of the special editions of the album.)


22 Comments

  1. Adam Bennett

    “What took root on Easter is the undoing of the curse, and it is flowering all around us if we have eyes to see it.”

    I love this statement! It conjures up the idea for me of floating in the middle of a lake looking up at the puffy white clouds and just soaking this in until I’m completely wrinkled and pruned from head to toe with the reality of it’s truth.

    Beautiful Jason. Thanks again.

  2. Paula Shaw

    Ever since I downloaded the album and every time I listen to it, I hear something new in the same words you’ve written. I really, really love both of these songs. . . or this song, as it really has turned out to be. I’m sure, too, that when I get the CD and get to listen to the extra songs, I will love them as well. I think it may be because there is so much truth in them. The repentance issue is so up front, almost tangible in these words. Jason, I really think that because of who you are, because of the roads you’ve had to walk down, and the things God has spoken into your heart, that you are being so used by Him. That is pretty incredible. My prayer is that you will remain so in love with God that He can’t help but keep gifting you with incredibly true songs like these. Thank you so much for letting God take all the time it took with you to produce this new album. Thanks be to God for His abounding and abiding love to us all!

  3. Jeanne

    Thank you so much! How about a part 3 – where I am right now – waiting for the sadness to come untrue? I wonder sometimes how many times a heart can break before the pieces finally become too small to break any more and they can’t be put back together at all – and maybe the sadness can’t come untrue.

  4. Mike Westendorf

    When the storm leaves there’s a silence
    That says you don’t have to fear anymore
    The trees look greener, the sky’s an ocean
    The world is washed and starting over

    To me this was the lyrical picture and you nailed it. The thought of waking up from a dream/nightmare to have the restlessness and pain from the images in a dream melt away in the morning light, leaving us standing in a moment of haunting warmth and tested joy. I can remember a dream of my father as a very old man and the image crushed me. Only to wake up to the dream and a pillow soaked with tears, the realization that it wasn’t true, compared with the reality that the image may become one someday – and that my hope is not in my earthly father, but in my Heavenly one. That sort of completed the undoing of that image.

    Jeanne, I can understand what you’re saying. In the completion of a broken heart can come God’s best healing. Thinking of Job and his ultimate reality that he was totally dependent on God and had no answers for God’s questions – as a human being I find that to be one of the most peace filled places to be. To bad as a sinful human being it takes an aweful lot of crushing for me to see it.

  5. Jason Gray

    @jasongray

    It’s interesting that you, Jeanne & Mike, have used the imagery that you did, because those images showed up in the other two versions of the song that didn’t make the official record, but ended up on the special edition:

    You’re afraid that you’ve been broken
    One too many times
    All the pieces that were stolen
    You’re afraid you’ll never find
    And the rain just keeps falling
    And you’re too weak to swim
    But the knots are all untying
    And this is not the end…
    (from “Everything… Part 4”)

    and then:
    Like waking up to the light of day
    As the darkness slowly melts away
    Like it was all the saddest dream
    But every wound will close without a trace
    And every tear that stained your lovely face
    Will rise to wash it clean

    Watch the clock hands all unwind
    As “too late” runs out of time

    Could it be
    Everything sad, everything sad is coming untrue…
    (from “Everything… Part 3”)

    Jeanne, your comment broke my heart. I have two friends in my life who have gone through hell on earth this past year – one who lost her husband to a long battle with cancer and another whose wife unexpectedly left him for another man. Their stories coupled with my own experiences of disappointment were a plumb line that guided me in writing these two songs. I had hoped that these songs would not ring false to those, like you Jeanne, who are going through their own crisis.

    I won’t presume to tell you to take heart, that everything will be alright, but I will humbly offer this: in my own life there have been a number of times of great pain and long seasons of waiting for deliverance. What I’ve experienced is that when the deliverance finally came (quietly, and never the way I expected), all the damage that had been done melted away in a moment, and a healing of my heart that I never imagined possible came all of a sudden, as a gift – even after many years of waiting, hoping, and great pain.

    I know there is some suffering that will not be relieved during the days of our life here, and I imagine that the moments of grace and healing I’ve experienced in my time are reflections of what the final healing will be like, when all of our hears will be unbroken at last, our wounds closing without a trace . This is my hope, and this is what these songs are trying desperately to point to.

    In the meantime, I take some comfort in the thought that Christ’s heart breaks along with ours, and that we are not utterly alone in our pain, and that it is because of our shared suffering that he is passionate in his promise to make all things new…

  6. Peter B

    As a serial doubter who’s felt dry and still for a long time, I came expecting nothing in particular. Listening to Part I, though, something started to wake up — like I really wanted to break free and dance, if the rest of me could just remember how. Obviously there is more work to be done, but this is an encouragement.

    Thank you, Jason, Russ, Randall, Andrew… all of you here who labor to bring God’s goodness to living, breathing reality so we dull-hearts can grasp it.

  7. E

    Jason,

    Look forward to the stories of people that will come back to you about how God used this song to bless them, bringing comfort and hope when they desperately needed it.

    They are on their way.

  8. john

    Jeanne, I’m praying for you. There is healing. Trust Jesus to be the faithful lover He promises to be.

    Jason, Thank you for allowing our Lord speak through you.

  9. Margret

    May I contribute the first? And, before I do, may I say it’s wonderful that God has gifted you to write these songs! How amazing to know you were willing to struggle for years to do justice to the idea and its truth. You plumbed the depths and came up with a magnificent jewel! Thank you so much.

    So, my story (shared and personal) is two-fold, offering an example both of physical and emotional healing.

    Physical: I know someone born with one leg shorter than the other. As a grown man, within a few years of saying “yes” to the Lord’s offer of a relationship, one day he was healed. His shorter leg grew to match the other. Yet because his back had always only known uneven limbs, it required much physical therapy and working through the pain before all was as it should be. True story, and well documented? Yes! By his doctor who referred him to the physical therapist. Was he grateful? Oh, yes! But he still had to work through some pain before everything was completely right. Does it always happen this way? No, but this time it did.

    Emotional: My mother died the day after my husband and I returned from our honeymoon. It took a decade to mourn the loss, and every year between my mother’s birthday (August 27) and her death day (November 11) I was very sad. I missed her, but not because we’d been close. In fact, the decade before she died she went to great pains to tell me I no longer existed to her because I walked away from life as a Jehovah’s Witness). And we won’t even mention my dysfunctional childhood! Then, with so few happy memories, why was I so depressed? Because I had received a gift from the Lord when my mother died. He told me she’d said “yes” to Him before she left this earth, so I could look forward to getting to know the person she was meant to be when we’re reunited in Heaven. Grateful? Yes. Excited at the prospect? Yes. Thrilled that one more person was prevented from an eternity in hell? Oh, yes! But the flip side of that coin of rejoicing suggested that a relationship with her, in the here and now, might have been possible had the cancer not taken her first. Thus, sadness, for a possible lost relationship.

    What I’m trying to say, albeit poorly, is that each experience is different and no one else really understands the feeling or the situation. I’m so thankful for people such as you and all the rest, here in The Rabbit Room. Your conversations, your hearts of love, your precious offerings of art and expressions of beauty, each of those pieces (as well as the sum of their whole) do much to comfort the wounded heart. They also “…strengthen the hands which hang down, and the feeble knees, mak[ing] straight paths for [our] feet, so that what is lame may not be dislocated, but rather be healed” (Hebrews 12:12,13, NKJV). Thank you, so very much!

    All of Heaven’s best to you and yours,
    Margret

  10. Paula Shaw

    Wow! limpdance ~ what can one say to that, except for the sadness of Hell can come untrue for anyone who accepts Christ. The sadness of hell comes untrue for someone every day. All the things Jason writes about in this song are someone’s hell that is coming untrue. Every time Jesus touches us to heal us, admonish us, direct us, take things from our lives that are not His best for us. . . every time one of those things happens, the sadness of it is coming untrue. And a lot of the time, we can’t see that the sadness is coming untrue because the sadness itself has blinded us, but then, one day we see it in the distance, and a bit of hope springs up from nowhere, and it grows, and in a while, we are aware that the sadness is coming untrue, and even if it takes years, it is true all the same.
    I know I’m not Jason, and he is the one to whom your question is addressed, but when I read your question, it sort of startled me, and in my pondering it, I wrote this down.
    I hope all of the sadness in your life is coming untrue as you allow Him to make it so. . .

  11. euphrony

    Jason,
    I got the online download a few weeks ago and I have been really enjoying it – worth the wait! The first think I noticed was the contrast of Part 1 and Part 2 and loved the interplay between the two thoughts. Wonderful album – even if I ended up not getting one of the uber special editions (but I thought about it).

  12. Z-man

    Jason I am hopefully going to see you on the tour. I got all four parts of the song and put them in a playlist to listen to in order. They play out like a play and you can see them.

    What I get out of it is the first song is becoming a Christian is like spring coming over winter. The example of the genocide in Rwanda to me says if peace and hope can come from that then why can’t I have it. It’s sort of like I’m small but I can still peace and hope.

    Part 2,3

    All the hard things you deal with in following the Lord but while the songs take a deeper meaning and sad tone they still have the hope that part 1 has and it runs throughout the song.

    Part 4

    Truly becoming a Christian and following God.

    It is as if the song could cycle. Part 4 ends with Spring coming again aka to me finding God again and then you go through spring and happiness. It says to me through the hard times you will always see God and find him again.

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