Several years ago, I discovered a book called The Ragman And Other Cries Of Faith by Walt Wangerin Jr who is, among other things, a pastor and award-winning novelist. The combination of his pastoral heart and his gift for storytelling are a potent mix that have been a companion and comfort in my journey. I can’t recommend his writing enough.
There is a remarkable chapter from Ragman called “An Advent Monologue” about the mystery of the incarnation that is strange, poignant, and utterly beautiful. It has haunted me ever since the first time I read it with its story of an abused woman whose history and heartbreak have caused her to be suspicious of any kindness and resistant to love. The story is narrated by a Protagonist who is determined to gently break through her best defenses to heal and love her, and ultimately deliver her from the prison of her own misery.
The story has never failed to move me and about 6 years ago I was compelled to write a song inspired by Wangerin’s beautiful vision of the incarnation.
After many starts that never quite felt right, I started to be afraid of failing the material – Wangerin’s prose was so beautiful, I feared ruining it. And since fear is the chief enemy of creativity, I knew early on that I would need some help finishing it.
The idea was pretty precious to me, so I was very guarded with it, bringing it only to a few writers who I felt might be able to help me make the most of it. No one that I shared it with seemed to resonate with it the same way that I did, until years later – when my record company was asking me to write an original Christmas song for a compilation they were putting together – I remembered the song and brought it to my friend Andy Gullahorn.
Andy is one of the most gifted songwriters I know, and his work never fails to move and inspire me. His songs have the magical qualities that mark all the songs I love the most: they surprise, fill me with wonder, and create a quiet place in me where the Holy Spirit can speak. I’m a big fan. That I also get to call him a friend is one of the great blessings of this season of my life.
Sitting in his songwriting room above his garage, grateful for another chance to collaborate with this giant of a songwriter (Andy and I have written a number of songs together, including “Holding The Key” and “How I Ended Up Here” from my last record), I shared Wangerin’s “Advent Monologue” and was encouraged when I saw it hit him much the same way it hit me.
[spoiler title=’Spoiler!’ style=’default’ collapse_link=’true’]Let me say here how nervous I am to presume to put words in the mouth of the Almighty by doing a song from God’s perspective, but for this particular song, it seemed there was no way around it. But it also seemed fitting to be so bold in a story depicting the boldness of the Incarnation. So with a sense of—I don’t know…God’s approval? Blessing?—we put pen to the paper (or fingers to the laptop) and started writing. [/spoiler]
I had written a bunch of verses that we were able to keep much of for the middle two verses in the song (it’s always gratifying to raid the bone yard), but I was having trouble figuring out how to hang the song on a singular idea that could be the chorus.
Years ago, I had arrived at the idea of the Protagonist singing:
How should I come to the one I love so she will receive me… or … so she won’t be afraid…
But it just didn’t seem quite right. I liked the vulnerability of the question, “how should I come to the one I love…” but the next line made the Protagonist feel weak and anxious to me.
Andy’s first suggestion was that the next line in the chorus should be “I will find a way,” so that it would be:
How should I come to the one I love I will find a way, I will find a way…
And that was when the Christmas lights turned on for me and I knew we had a song. The earnest longing of “how should I come to the one I love”, answered by the unrelenting determination to “find a way” – that was when the song began to take the shape I had always hoped it would.
Andy has an amazing knack for getting to the heart of things – and he helped to make sure that every line had heart. In the world of songwriters, Andy is definitely one of my all time favorites. I might even go so far as to say I have a kind of professional crush on him as a writer.
Oh, uh… hi Andy… I didn’t realize you were here… um. Did you hear any of that?
Enter ANDY GULLAHORN: Yes, I am here. But don’t worry, I didn’t read that last part.
First let me thank you for bringing this song to our writing appointment. I remember having some hesitations when you said you wanted to write a Christmas song. If I have any strengths as a songwriter, writing Christmas songs is not one of them. But as you explained Wangerin’s story to me I quickly realized that this wasn’t going to be a typical Christmas song – so I could jump in with you.
It isn’t a secret to anyone who knows me that I am not a well-read individual. Most of my knowledge about books comes from listening to friends talk about the books they are reading. So although I had heard of Walt Wangerin before that day, I am pretty sure I hadn’t read any of his work. I remember when we first started trying to write the song, I didn’t want you to show me the actual story – I was just going to go off of your re-telling of it. But it didn’t take long before I caved in and asked for the book. I was blown away when I read the story. I know I read it at least twice while you were sitting there pretending to think of lyrics but actually checking email or something. I think my first response to you was something like, “Instead of writing a song about this, you should just give a copy of this story to everyone in your audience.” I am grateful that you didn’t listen to me. You have had a vision for a long time of making this story accessible to people in a new way – and I hope we came close to that.
JG: I couldn’t have hoped for it to turn out better than it did! What I loved about the story and had hoped to capture in the song is a sense of the mystery of the incarnation. Because we’re so familiar with the concept of it as a doctrine I suspect that we’ve forgotten how radical it is that God chose to infiltrate humanity this way. Wangerin’s story awakened me again to the messy mystery of it and forced me to reckon with it all over again.
AG: I have been playing this song most nights on this Christmas tour. Every night that I play it, at least one person finds me after the show to ask me about it. The standard comment I get is “I really like the song but can’t figure out what it means.” The funny thing is that in some ways I feel the same way about the original Wangerin story as well as the song – and that is part of why I think it is special. I mean, on one hand I can easily say what the song is about – the Incarnation. On the other hand, none of the metaphors in the story tie up neatly. It is about a battered woman – but it isn’t. It refers to Mary – but it doesn’t. All I know is that when I read the story I am deeply moved – but it isn’t a movement I can easily explain. It is like the truth in the story completely bypassed my brain and my reasoning to take up residence somewhere deeper. So although I can’t really explain it, it feels more true to me than some things that are more easily explained.
JG: What I like about it is that it refuses to be reduced, categorized, and then shelved. Something about the messiness of it forces me to engage it (and therefore the mystery of the incarnation) every time.
AG: Ok. I have to say this feels a little weird talking about a song I “wrote” in this way. I am not saying it is one of the most powerful songs ever written. I can say, however, that it speaks to me as much or more than any other song that I have had a part of. I think I can say this because the most powerful part of the song (the story) is something that neither one of us can take credit for. That is all Mr. Wangerin. So even as I play the song, I am still moved by the story – every time. And I don’t say that to take away from the work that we put into making this song come to life – it was just as challenging (if not more) than writing something from scratch. But I have to say it is fun to sing a song that always feels like someone else is telling me a story.
JG: I suppose it doesn’t hurt that it’s the greatest story ever told. ________
I Will Find A Way JGray & Andrew Gullahorn At the end of this run down tenement hall Is the room of a girl I know She cowers behind all the dead bolt locks Afraid of the outside world
So how should I come to the one I love I will find a way
Many thieves and collectors have used that door But they only brought her shame So she won’t even open it anymore Still I will find a way
I could call out her name with love through the walls But condemnation is all she hears I could break down the door and take her into my arms But she might die from the fear
So how should I come to the one I love I will find a way, I will find a way How should I come to the one I love I will find a way
No hiding place ever kept her safe So she hides inside herself Now to reach her heart the only way Is to hide in there as well I will hide in there as well
She gave up on love waiting for a change But a change is coming soon Cause how could she not love the helpless babe Who is waking in her womb
I found a way
She’ll know I am coming before I am here When she hangs her head she’ll see me there And then when I come she won’t turn away All the beauty and joy will return to her face And what of the loneliness? Now it is gone Lost in the bond of the mother and son Every sin that she suffered at the hands of men Every single disgrace will be washed clean again I will love her completely and when I am grown I will carry her out of that tenement room I am doing a new thing and soon you will see I am coming among you and my name shall be Emmanuel, Emmanuel
After writing the song, it felt like it wouldn’t fit very well on a compilation record that included Christmas classics recorded by other artists in various styles, so I wrote another song for that project. I hope to record “I Will Find A Way” in the future, but in the meantime I couldn’t have been happier to learn that Andy included the song on the Christmas record he made with his wife Jill Phillips (he sings and plays it better than me anyway). I hope you’ll check it out! You can buy the record here in the rabbit room store or on iTunes.
Click here to buy Walt Wangerin’s book that includes “An Advent Monologue” from the Rabbit Room Store
And here’s a recent live performance of “I Will Find A Way” from this year’s Behold The Lamb of God tour.