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After taking a hiatus from blogging in order to focus on writing and spending time with my family, I’m dipping my toe back in the waters to give you an update on what’s brewing in our world.
In November of 2011, Centricity and I talked about doing a Christmas record for 2012, and as I wondered about what that would like—what kind of Christmas record I could get really excited about—I thought about a Gray Christmas tradition that involves one of my favorite books by one of my favorite authors: Beyond Words by Frederick Buechner, a kind of dictionary/encyclopedia of religious words and characters that come to new life under Buechner’s observant eye.
Every year I pull the book off the shelf and look up each of the characters who make an appearance in the Christmas story, and every year I’m moved by the humanity of these people who find themselves unexpectedly caught up in the middle of The Greatest Story Ever Told. With all that has muddied the waters of the meaning of Christmas in the years since “redemption ripped through surface of time in the cry of a tiny babe,” it’s been good for me to be reminded that it actually happened, once upon a time, in a certain place, in the lives of very real people who look much like myself.
So I set out to write and record a collection of Christmas songs based on the individual characters in the story, filling in the gaps with traditional Christmas carols that would advance the narrative.
Our own Andrew Peterson’s masterpiece Behold The Lamb Of God: The True Tall Tale of The Coming Of Christ was also a guiding light for me, an example of a non-traditional Christmas album that has found a home in the hearts of so many people, deepening their experience of the wonder of Christmas.
I had no idea what I was getting myself into! Here I had an opportunity to take it easy and record a bunch of classics and be done with it! But once this other idea took hold of me it drew me deeper and deeper into it until each of the characters presented themselves, asking for their stories to be told. Ten songs later (and several others that won’t make the record) we decided we had to stop and leave some room for the carols that would help identify this as a Christmas collection.
Making a Christmas record is tricky because just about everyone has a different opinion about what a Christmas record should be. Actually, it’s less an opinion than it is an impassioned conviction. When I let word out about this project on my facebook page one commenter would write something like: “Please do the classics!” and then the very next commenter would write, “whatever you do, don’t just do the songs that everyone else does – original songs please!” Even my own house is divided over the idea of what makes a great Christmas record.
Throw into the mix the consideration of what kind of songs best serve what radio is looking for and what my record label Centricity is hoping for (though they’ve been very generous to let me chase my passion on this) and it makes for a bit of a tightrope walk.
Trying to please everybody is the enemy of creativity and at some point in the process I had to set aside the various imagined expectations. My guiding prayer became this: to make the kind of record that was true to God’s call on my life, that most honored the heart of God made flesh in Jesus, and that gave a voice to those who were there on that holy night at the dawn of redeeming grace. This left me at the mercy of my most demanding critic: myself. But it also put me in a position to be led by my delight.
It seemed like a great opportunity to work with my friend and one of my favorite producers, Cason Cooley, whose work on Katie Herzig’s The Waking Sleep and Jill Phillips’s In This Hour are great examples of both his playful adventurism and his humble service to the song (do yourself a favor and check out both of those records!) Cason’s work has a quirky and joyful exuberance that I thought would be a perfect fit for this project. I wanted it to be a really joyful record.
As I got deeper into the story and the characters, though, I found myself in an intense narrative peopled with characters in the midst of great drama and crisis. The young girl who carries the secret of angels; the heartbroken young man whose fiancé is pregnant with another’s baby (will he forgive her when it’s in his power to ruin her?); the wisemen with their gifts of gold (will they give the child what he desires most, the gift of themselves?); the harried innkeeper so overwhelmed with his work that it’s hard for him to recognize the wonder on his doorstep that would make him whole.
Yet there is great joy in the midst of this sober drama, too: the exuberance of the shepherds, wide-eyed and breathless the moment after the angels split the sky with their chorus. They are running into town with Gloria! still ringing in their ears—not entirely sure where they’re going, but what is there to do but run!—to see the newborn King. And of course there is the child himself who will make us children again and heal the world with joy.
I’ve played the little bits that we’ve gotten done so far for some friends, and I received the greatest compliment I could have hoped for when a friend told me that he thought it sounds more like “me” than any thing I’ve ever recorded.
Complicated scheduling and a spring full of touring made it more difficult to pull this project together than we ever imagined, but Cason and co-writing friends like Randall Goodgame, Andy Gullahorn, Nichole Nordeman, and Joel Hanson have been generous in their time and care to help me bring these songs to life. And so here we are putting the finishing touches on a collection of songs about the incarnation that we hope will surprise, delight and give people a sense that once upon a time and a place, among men and women just like us, a baby was born who changed everything. It’s the greatest story ever told, and it’s a story that we are all a part of, caught up in, and inexorably shaped by.
Frederick Buechner, whose writing plays a significant part in these songs, has said that the story of one of us is the story of us all. If we’ve done our job well, then hopefully these characters will feel like old friends, as familiar as the person in your mirror. I hope you like it when we’re finished! I’ll write soon about the experience of writing and recording this record. Until then, merry Christmas!