The post that follows was written late in 2020 and posted to my blog at that time. The blog then was based on a theme of living a Christian life. However, the writer in 2020 was somewhat different to who I was to eventually become.
One fundamental reason for what may be called a change of direction was the realisation that the message being delivered from the pulpit and through the pages of the Bible (in its current format) was simply one of many lies woven to disempower, manipulate and control humanity.
In my ‘About‘ page I explain how this recognition led to my stepping away from the church and onto a new path of self discovery.
Recent discussions on a social media chat group prompted me to give thought to my life as a Christian and to revisit some of the gospel music I’d once enjoyed. Although the zeal I’d formerly felt on hearing the messages within the lyrics has gone, some of the content continues to resonate with me on some level.
I now know that my creator is not some obscure bearded fellow, forever beyond reach and understanding, but is within me — and you, and every one of us. I no longer search for Him through the pages of a book, but by looking within. In that respect, my journey of self-discovery continues, and will never end. That said, some aspects of the compositions that follow remain relevant and touching.
Originally published November, 2020
The casual visitor to this blog will quickly realise that I enjoy listening to contemporary gospel music. Indeed, several Christian artists receive a mention on this site. Artists such as David Crowder and Zach Williams.
For me, however, the musicians that stand head and shoulders above all others are the American Georgia-based band, ‘Casting Crowns’.
Why should I hold that band in such high regard?
The answer is a simple one. I feel that the words of their songs speak to me directly. They encourage me but, more importantly, they challenge me as a Christian. Am I doing enough? Am I becoming the man God wants me to be? Am I setting a good example for others? I could extend this list much further but these will suffice as I’m sure I’ve made my point.
When starting out on my path as a Christian back in the 1980s I would regularly attend both of the Church’s Sunday services – the morning worship and the more-relaxed family service in the evening. During the latter we’d sing many uplifting songs of the sort I now consider to be ‘feel-good music’ – music which prompted my late father to nickname my church ‘The Happy Clappies’. Whilst heart-warming and jolly, there was usually little in the content to provoke reflection or confront issues of faith.
In stark contrast, Casting Crowns are performing a vital ministry, connecting with people through music. In the words of Mark Hall, the band’s founder, lead singer and prime songwriter:
‘…what I’m starting to understand is that it’s just a totally different side of ministry because the church is already in that city. God doesn’t need me to go in there and be the church. God’s calling me to go into that city and pour water on the seeds that are already planted there. We’re not bringing anything into town on our bus that wasn’t there before. We’re not saying anything new that hasn’t already been said. We’re just reaffirming what’s already going there.’
Since the release of their first album in 2003, they’ve regularly performed to sell-out audiences, not only across the USA but also the world, and have been awarded with many prestigious awards. One commentator summed-up their influence on the Christian music scene by saying:
‘There’s not much within the realm of Christian music the band hasn’t accomplished. The impact of Casting Crowns is incalculable, the fingerprint of their songs forever imprinted onto the hearts of millions of people.’
Despite this and other accolades, Mark Hall is keen to deflect the focus away from the band and toward the one they sing about, and their mission to promote understanding of God’s love and Jesus’ sacrifice. Through song he invites listeners onto a ‘heart-journey of foundational faith, immovable trust and ultimately, freedom in Christ.’ He declares:
‘I want people to see that God is the author and the finisher of our faith. He starts the work and He finishes the work. If we could just rest in the fact that He saved us, that He’s got us, we can rest in what He’s doing now and strive for what’s ahead.’
It was more than simply the music quality and the message contained in each song that so impressed me. As someone who’s endured a lifetime of uncontrolled epileptic seizures, I’m sure another factor is that Hall, who is also youth pastor in his home state of Georgia, has himself been forced to overcome personal hurdles to achieve his life’s goals. In addition to being diagnosed with learning disabilities as a child, he was found to have dyslexia. Mark defines himself as ‘a broken person made whole’. I can relate to that so well.
That then is a potted history of the band. The best way I can explain exactly what it is about their music that resonates with me – and no doubt with tens of thousands of other believers – is to use the band’s own lyrics. A good place to start will be with the song ‘One More Song for You’ as this encapsulates Mark Hall’s commitment to ministry through music.
The song begins with a personal reflection. This possibly relates to his years spent in music collage.
Staring at this old piano Playing through the memories that it holds Singing through the stories that it's told And all the prayers that have been lifted The leaps of faith, the giants slain Desperate cries, and broken praise Have all the songs been sung? Is there still room for one?
Mark’s personal impediments (strengths?) are also reflected in the second verse:
What can I offer You but weakness? All my life I tried to hide You brought it all into the light I'm still amazed that You would choose me If You can use the least of these Then there is no one You can't reach In a world that's lost its song Show them there's still room for one
Of all the lines in this song, perhaps it is the following ones that underscore his – and by extension the band’s – commitment toward spreading the gospel:
With no one here but You to listen My heart is bursting at the seams Out of all the songs I've lifted What I truly hope to see Is one more broken life made whole One more prodigal brought home What better way to praise Your name and majesty [Chorus] Than one more hand in the air saying, "You are holy" One more shattered heart singing, "You are good" Maybe one more voice crying out for mercy One more hungry soul declaring, "You're enough" As long as there's breath in me (As long as there's breath in me) Lord, there will always be One more song for You
To hear ‘One More Song for You‘ click on the image:
From where I stand right now as 2020 draws to a difficult and uncertain close, the following example is one that embodies perfectly where I am in faith right now. One part of me wishes to surrender fully to God (and ‘be held’ as another ‘Crowns’’ song puts it), whilst another is struggling to fight the injustice and tyranny that I see is destroying so many lives. No-one ever said the Christian life is an easy one.
The opening verse of ‘Already There’ sums-up this conflict perfectly:
From where I'm standing Lord it's so hard for me to see Where this is going And where You're leading me I wish I knew how All my fears and all my questions Are gonna play out In a world I can't control
This picture of doubt and its ensuing sense of instability is brief and does not continue beyond this first verse. From there, the lyrics deliver an assurance that God is in control and the song ends with a confident pledge that, whatever may transpire, all of life’s jumbled pieces will fall into place and all will be well.
One day I'll stand before You And look back on the life I've lived Cause You're already there You're already there When I'm lost in the mystery To You my future is a memory Cause You're already there You're already there Standing at the end of my life Waiting on the other side And You're already there You're already there You are already there
To hear ‘Already There‘ click on the image:
I’ve already alluded to the fact that much of the band’s music provokes serious contemplation at a personal level. Some songs, however, are a challenge to the church as a whole. Here the messages are usually direct, clear and are calls to action. As one who has sat in church feeling unworthy at a ‘life messed up’ while surrounded by supposedly impeccable believers, and have consequently turned away to continue my walk ‘in the wilderness’, the lyrics of ‘If we are the Body’ chime well with my own experience.
The song portrays two individuals searching for truth and who experience rejection. First up is what we perceive to be a young girl who enters a church to seek God but finds only scorn:
It's crowded in worship today As she slips in Trying to fade into the faces The girls' teasing laughter is carrying Farther than they know Farther than they know
Next we are introduced to a male traveller. Like the girl he is ‘found wanting’ in the eyes of others.
A traveller is far away from home He sheds his coat And quietly sinks into the back row The weight of their judgemental glances Tells him that his chances are better out on the road
These two stories are followed by an appeal to churches; a reminder of the one who suffered so much to save the souls of those such as the young girl and the man.
Jesus paid much too high a price For us to pick and choose who should come And we are the body of Christ If we are the body Why aren't his arms reaching? Why aren't his hands healing? Why aren't his words teaching? And if we are the body Why aren't his feet going? Why is his love not showing them there is a way? Jesus is the way
‘Start Right Here’ is a similar reminder to churches. This time, however, it appears to be a call for believers to step outside the comfort zones of their church buildings to deliver the gospel into their own communities.
We want our coffee in the lobby We watch our worship on a screen We got a rock-star preacher Who won't wake us from our dreams We want our blessings in our pockets We keep our missions overseas But for the hurting in our cities Would we even cross the street?
As with ‘If We are the Body’, the first verse sets the scene and is followed by a direct summons to awaken churches to rise:
But we wanna see the heart set free and the tyrants kneel The walls fall down and our land be healed But church if we want to see a change in the world out there It's got to start right here It's got to start right now Lord, I'm starting right here Lord, I'm starting right now
The instrumental opening to ‘Every Man’ is a reminder of 1970s Brit Pop and, whilst it begins with a picture of a ‘typical’ man, it leads into a heartfelt cry for hope – a hope for love and peace ‘in troubled times’. It goes on to convey a desperate search … a search for someone ‘…who knows my pain and feels the weight; the uncertainty of my tomorrow, the guilt and pain of yesterday.’
Once again, the songwriter perfectly encapsulates the fear, uncertainty and anguish of a lost life for which the only answer is in Jesus Christ:
I'm the man with all I've ever wanted All the toys and playing games I am the one who pours your coffee, corner booth each Saturday I am your daughter's favourite teacher I am the leader of the band I sit behind you in the bleachers I am every man I'm the coach of every winning team and still a loser in my mind I am the soldier in the Airborne facing giants one more time I am the woman shamed and haunted by the cry of unborn life I'm every broken man, nervous child, lonely wife Is there hope for every man A solid place where we can stand In this dry and weary land Is there hope for every man Is there love that never dies Is there peace in troubled times Someone help me understand Is there hope for every man Seems there's just so many roads to travel, it's hard to tell where they will lead My life is scarred and my dreams unravelled Now I'm scared to take the leap If I could find someone to follow who knows my pain and feels the weight The uncertainty of my tomorrow, the guilt and pain of yesterday
Here, just when the evocative plea for help reaches its climax, the music stops. There is a brief pause for reflection – before a repeat of the song’s opening bars recommence and we are presented with the final verse. Here the words ‘is there’ are reversed to become ‘there is’, in a convincing assurance that:
There is hope for every man A solid place where we can stand In this dry and weary land There is hope for every man There is Love that never dies There is peace in troubled times Will we help them understand? Jesus is hope for every man
Many of the band’s songs hold personal significance for me, with words that perfectly encapsulate my own feelings and my own ‘Lifesong’. One in particular never fails to resonate with me as soon is the opening bars commence. The first time I heard this song was when I was busy cleaning the bathroom.
I’ve already explained on this site how I strayed from my church, drifted in the wilderness for forty years before, in 2019, Jesus’ ‘searchlights’ found me and directed me back. When I first heard the following words I was so overcome with emotion that I was forced to sit on the edge of the bath, and I wept.
The song is ‘Love Moved First’:
This is the story of a runaway With no way home and no way out I threw the best of me away I had my chance, it's too late now Too far gone and too ashamed To think that You'd still know my name But love refused to let my story end that way You didn't wait for me to find my way to You I couldn't cross that distance even if I wanted to You came running after me When anybody else would've turned and left me at my worst Love moved first Oh-oh-ohh, oh-oh-ohhh, oh-oh-ohh What kind of grace, relentless grace Would chase this rebel down Crawl into this prisoner's cage Take my hand and pull me out You knew I couldn't make the change So You became the change in me And now I live to tell the story Of the God who rescues You didn't wait for me to find my way to You I couldn't cross that distance even if I wanted to You came running after me When anybody else would've turned and left me at my worst Love moved first From the throne to the manger From a manger to the grave Your cross is the proof Love made the first move From a grave meant to keep You To a stone rolled away Your cross is the proof Love made the first move I remember where You found me I'm amazed by where I stand Your cross is the proof That love made the first move You didn't wait for me to find my way to You I couldn't cross that distance even if I wanted to You came running after me When anybody else would've turned and left me at my worst Love moved first Oh-oh-ohh, oh-oh-ohh Love moved first
Click on the image to hear ‘Love Moved First‘
I’ll end this post with one more excellent example of a song which challenges on a personal level. The song is provocatively titled ‘What if I Gave Everything?’
There are many others I could have shown, all of which deliver similar messages. My reason for selecting this one is that it contains a clever use of words and imagery which convey a vital message with crystal clarity. As with the above example, it’s worth showing the lyrics in full.
All my life I longed to be a hero My sword raised high, running to the battle I was going to take giants down Be a man you would write about Deep in my chest is the heart of a warrior/ So why am I still standing here Why am I still holding back from You I hear You call me out into deeper waters But I settle on the shallow end So why am I still standing here/ So afraid what it might cost to follow You I'd walk by faith if I could get these feet to move But I don't want to live that way I don't want to look back someday On a life that never stepped across the line/ So why am I still standing here Why am I still holding back from You You've given me a faith that can move a mountain But I'm still playing in the sand Building little kingdoms that'll never stand I hear You call me out into deeper waters But I settle on the shallow end/ I'm so tired of standing here What if I gave everything to You/ What if I gave everything What if I stopped holding back from You Starting now I'm stepping out onto deeper waters What if I gave everything What if I stopped holding back from You Starting now I'm stepping out onto deeper waters I want to see some mountains move/ Ready to give everything Say goodbye to standing here
To hear ‘What if I Gave Everything‘ click on the image:
I have personally gained so much from Mark Hall’s gifted song writing and the unique talents of Casting Crowns, both of which combine to enhance my Christian journey. I would not be able to close this post any better than by using the songwriter’s own words:
‘I want to shake people up and help them see that Jesus is not a religion, and God is not a book. You can’t pray to a book and you can’t draw strength from an idea or standard. If there’s no relationship with Jesus as a person to you, you’re in trouble. It’s about life, not religion. It’s about relationships, not books.’
‘Lifesong‘ – To listen, click on the image