Hopefully in the next year or so Russ Ramsey and I will publish an Advent book loosely based on the Behold the Lamb album. You may remember Russ wrote a series of Advent pieces for his church (and for the Rabbit Room) last year. Well, he’s expanding those writings a little, we’re adding Evie Coates’s artwork, and part of my job was to write the foreword. In light of the release of the special edition of Behold the Lamb of God (which is hot off the press), and the upcoming 10 year anniversary of the tour, I thought I’d share the foreword. Many of you have seen this concert and heard me talk about this more than once, so this post may bore you to tears. But for those of you who haven’t, the following tells the story of how this tour was born.
I was sitting at a table with Ben Shive, someone who probably knows the musical ins and outs of Behold the Lamb of God better than I do, and Sara Groves, a songwriter for whom I have the utmost regard. Sara asked me, “So what was it like writing these songs? How did they come about?”
I nodded eagerly and took a sip of coffee, settling in for a long, insightful discourse on the creation of this work–and was stumped. I sat back from the table a little embarrassed, wishing I had some colorful anecdote or spiritual insight. But after those few awkward moments passed the conversation turned to something more interesting (like the color of the carpet or the turkey sandwiches), and I was left wondering why I couldn’t think of an answer. It would be easy to say these songs wrote themselves. But that’s not true. They didn’t come easily, and they didn’t come overnight. My first clear memory of all this was singing “Gather ‘Round, Ye Children, Come” for Fernando Ortega backstage at one of his concerts in the Fall of 2000. He listened graciously and made a few suggestions that vastly improved the song. I remember almost nothing about writing “Passover Us”, or “Deliver Us”, or “It Came to Pass” or “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks” except that I knew I couldn’t perform the songs alone and that I had serious concerns about whether or not my hare brained scheme would work.
What was the idea?
At its core, it was to present the story of Christmas in a new way. I wanted to reach deep into the Old Testament and sing about the Passover, and King David, and Isaiah’s prophecies. I wanted to capture with song the same thrill that captured me in Bible college when the epic scope of the Gospel story first bowled me over. But I didn’t just want to dwell on what came before Jesus’ birth. I wanted to sing about what came after. His crucifixion and resurrection were the reasons he was born in the first place. You can’t have Christmas without Easter. So there was a lot of ground to cover with a handful of songs, and I had my doubts.
I didn’t doubt the caliber of musicians on the tour. I didn’t doubt the story that was being told. I did, however, wonder whether the idea was a good one. The band Silers Bald, with whom I had played several shows, agreed to join me, my wife Jamie, and my friend Gabe Scott on the tour even though none of us really knew what we were getting into. I remember when they arrived in Nashville they wore looks of amused confusion, and after a few days of rehearsal were only a little less confused. “The concert has two parts,” I told them. “First, we’ll break the ice by playing in the round. You do a few songs, I’ll do a few songs, we’ll tell stories and let the audience get to know us. Then after the intermission we won’t talk anymore. We’ll just play the songs.”
Now, if you’re familiar at all with concerts by Christian artists, you know that if there’s one thing we love, it’s introducing songs. Sometimes the introduction is several times longer than the song itself. Sometimes this is good, most of the time it’s bad. For the Behold the Lamb half of the concert, though, I was resolved that the songs should do the work of telling the story. I wanted the audience to lose themselves in the story (which, by the way, is a good picture of what our response to the Gospel ought to be). Let me tell you, that was a scary thought. To play ten songs in a row with narry a word between meant there was no way to gauge the audience, no way to change songs mid-set to accommodate a lukewarm crowd, no way to break the ice with a good joke. We had to trust that the story was good enough.
And, of course, it is.
That first tour in 2000 was an act of faith on the part of the promoters who brought us in. It was an act of faith for Silers Bald, who drove to Nashville to rehearse a bunch of songs that hadn’t even been finished. And every night we took the stage it was an act of faith that the audience would listen close, connect the dots, and open their hearts to a new telling of the old Story. It was a rough tour in many ways, but to our great relief, the idea worked. The audiences got it.
The next year I wrote “Labor of Love”, “So Long, Moses”, and (with help from Laura Story) “Behold the Lamb”, which more or less completed the song cycle. Again, I have only a vague memory of writing these songs. I thought “Labor of Love” was too simple, and I thought “So Long, Moses” was too complex–but the band liked them and they served their purpose in the narrative. Again, we took the stage and prayed each night that the audience would connect. And, even with all the feedback and the wrong notes and the odd structure of the concert, they did.
By the end of the second tour in 2001 I was convinced that the songs were ready to be recorded, but there was a problem. I was under contract with a record label. I didn’t think they’d let me record the album without seeing the show first-hand, or if when they saw it nobody showed up. So I invited some special guests, artists who would draw more of a crowd than I ever could alone. I called the great Phil Keaggy, Fernando Ortega, Ron Block, and Jill Phillips and Andy Gullahorn, a couple whose music I had long admired–and to my amazement they all said yes. I also asked a graduating Belmont student named Ben Shive to arrange a string quartet. Looking back, I’m grateful beyond words for the friendships that grew out of that night. The crowd was amazing, the inclusion of these artists made the show more beautiful, and we were all glad to be a part of it.
But the label wasn’t sold. For two more years we performed the concert to increasing audiences, fine-tuned the arrangements, invited more special guests and hoped the label would let me record it, but they didn’t–to my eternal gratitude. In 2004, after I was released from my contract (read: dropped from the label), I was able to record Behold the Lamb of God: The True Tall Tale of the Coming of Christ. Part of the reason I’m grateful to the label is that those five years of touring this concert were basically pre-production for the album; the arrangements were fine-tuned, lyrics were tweaked, screws were tightened. The album is better for it.
But the main reason I’m glad for those five years is that I began to discover the blessing of an artistic community. You see, by then I no longer felt ownership of this project. I considered myself blessed to be a part of this Kingdom work, this culmination of the gifting of so many people–drummers, violinists, writers, singers, producers, sound technicians, and guitar players. But it wasn’t just the sonic side of things. I also met graphic designer Roy Roper, who skillfully assembled the packaging, and Evie Coates, the artist responsible for the beautiful images in the CD booklet and now finally showcased in all their beauty in this book. Both these people had seen the concert more than once, were moved by it, and thus poured themselves into their work. Evie listened to the songs again and again as she collected old wood, odds and ends, throwaway scraps, rusty artifacts, and in another rich metaphor for the work of Christ, made the broken beautiful.
So many artists dropped by the studio to sing or to play, many of them free of charge, and the same is true of the concerts. We’ve been honored to be joined over the years by the likes of Alison Krauss, Stuart Duncan, David Wilcox, Pierce Pettis, Randall Goodgame, Bebo Norman, Buddy Miller, Derek Webb, Sandra McCracken, Mindy Smith, and two-thirds of Nickel Creek, and not one of them cared a hoot for how much they’d get paid. They did it because of the story we were telling, and because it was a community telling it. Derek Webb sang “Deliver Us” better than I ever could. Ben Shive, who has become one of my best friends, brought his formidable musical gifting to the string arrangements, piano and production. Andrew Osenga’s passionate voice and guitar playing still gives me goosebumps. Jill Phillips’s performance of “Labor of Love” still makes me cry. How could I in good conscience call this an Andrew Peterson album? It’s not. It’s the fruit of many peoples’ work, and I got to be the lucky guy to pluck it from the vine. These humble souls have gathered with me for a decade now each December to sing this story again and again; wives and children have kept the home fires burning; churches across the country have opened their doors and prayed that people would come with ears to hear–all for the glory of Christ. Is there any higher call for an artist? For anyone?
Once again, God proves to me that he knows what he’s doing. And I think that’s why I can’t answer Sara’s question. I don’t know how I wrote these songs. God zapped me with the blessing of amnesia, probably to keep the swagger out of my step; he knows I’m prone to take credit where credit is not due, and so he’s keeping me from more temptation than I can withstand. When I’m asked about writing these songs I can only shrug and say, “I don’t really know. Would you pass me a turkey sandwich?”
What I do know is this: not long after I finished recording my second album I was given a burden. I was compelled to tell Jesus’ story with the gifts he gave me–the biggest of those not being my songwriting at all but the community of the Kingdom itself. And telling that story hundreds of times has changed me. I love the Gospel more for it. If you’ve been to one of these concerts you know I can hardly make it through a night without a lump forming in my throat (something that makes my voice go terribly flat). It usually happens when I look out in the audience and see someone with tears on their cheeks, and I realize that, by God, that dream I had ten years ago has come true: the story connects. The Spirit moves. The apostle says in John 20:31, “But these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” However the songs were written, I remember well the reason for the writing, and that was so that men, women, and children would believe that the stories are true, and that by believing they would find life in Jesus’ name.