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Hundred-Year Vision: An Interview with Doug McKelvey

We recently became aware of two wonderful interviews with our friends Doug McKelvey and Ned Bustard, both conducted by Tim Madden at his blog, Maddening Theology. In the interest of sharing good things, we are reposting them on the Rabbit Room blog. Click through for an interview with Doug McKelvey about the writing of Every Moment Holy.

TIM: Tell us a little about yourself.

DOUGLAS: I grew up in East Texas, but have spent most of my adult life in the Nashville area. I’ve been married almost 26 years and have three adult daughters and two sons-in-law. I spent 15 years as a song lyricist, then transitioned to video work as a writer, director, and editor. I published a few books early in my career, but over the last few years have returned to book writing as my primary vocational focus. My indulgences are well-crafted shots of espresso and well-crafted fantasy literature. Also, I love to travel but haven’t done nearly enough of it.

TIM: When did you start appreciating liturgical writings, and what was your background with them?

DOUGLAS: I grew up in traditions that had no clearly defined liturgical practices and that, to some degree, might even have fostered a suspicion of such things as being rote and devoid of the Spirit of God. Consequently, it was much later in life that I began to recognize there might be artful ways in which my own gifts as a budding writer might be offered to the church. I was in college when I first encountered

TIM: When did you first start writing liturgies?

DOUGLAS: I first experimented with liturgical “forms” as a structure for poetry probably 15 years ago, in the context of a work of fiction I was writing. They weren’t technically liturgies, or necessarily even prayers, but they borrowed from the “leader” and “people” interactive format, as a symbolic way of communicating a level of meaning both ancient and spiritual in those poems. The first actual prayer I wrote as liturgy was “A Liturgy for Fiction Writers” which I penned some three years ago because I personally needed that centering reminder of who I am in relation to my Creator, my craft, and the community I hope to serve each time I sit down to write.

TIM: When and how did you decide to turn these liturgies into a book?

DOUGLAS: I was invited to co-lead a session on writing at the Hutchmoot Conference two years ago, along with Heidi Johnston and Andrew Peterson. I sent the “Liturgy for Fiction Writers” to Andrew, suggesting that it might make a fitting close to the session. His response was “I love this, but I wish there was a liturgy for beekeeping and all sorts of other things too.” The lightbulb clicked on. I wrote another two or three liturgies, imagined what such a book might be, and put together a publisher pitch, which I presented to Rabbit Room Press a few days later. Their immediate response was “Yes, we will publish this. But it might take a while to find the funding.”

TIM: So this is how you chose the Rabbit Room Press?

DOUGLAS: Yes, it was never much of a question. The older I get, the more I’m intentionally focused on creating things that might continue to serve people, even after I’m gone. I like to think in terms of a “hundred-year vision,” of building things that might or might not have mass appeal, but that might still be deeply meaningful to those present and future pilgrims who will one day encounter them. Rabbit Room Press is the only publisher I trust to shepherd a project like Every Moment Holy in such a way as to lay the groundwork for long-term service rather than short-term sales. The Rabbit Room was founded on the idea that “Art nourishes community, and community nourishes art.” The larger Rabbit Room community has played a tremendously meaningful part in my own journey over the last several years, and this book is born out of the encouragement of that community, and is in a way a gift that I can offer back to that community. To have chased a deal with a bigger publisher would have felt purely mercenary, I think, and would probably have resulted in a very different (and probably lesser) book that might have been abandoned after the few-year surge and ebb of initial marketing and sales.

TIM: Is there any influence from Scripture from the pattern of the liturgies such as found in Psalms or Lamentations?

DOUGLAS: Definitely! I find in the Psalms and some of the prophetic books of Scripture a lot more license to be honest about our disappointments, failures, sorrows, and turbulent emotions than we’re sometimes comfortable giving voice to. As a song lyricist 20 years ago, I was consciously absorbing some of those patterns of lament from Scripture and trying to give new expression to them. I think what I was reaching for back then as a writer has a more satisfying fulfillment in some of the prayers in Every Moment Holy.

TIM: Interesting that you would add the prophetic books to that. I’ve never thought of that genre as having liturgy in them, but now that you say it, it makes complete sense.

TIM: What are three of your favorite liturgies that you personally enjoy from the book?

I like to think in terms of a 'hundred-year vision,' of building things that might or might not have mass appeal, but that might still be deeply meaningful to those present and future pilgrims who will one day encounter them. Doug McKelvey

DOUGLAS: My favorite piece from the book is probably “A Liturgy for Those Who Work in Wood & Stone & Metal & Clay,” which is a bit ironic, as I don’t personally work in any of those mediums—but I love the idea in storytelling of using elements that are very narrow and specific as doorways into those things that are more universal or transcendent, and I think that principle holds true here. The act of physically fashioning elements becomes a metaphor for all of our labors undertaken in the hope of Kingdom of Heaven, and I find myself more moved by that turn in the liturgy than I would be, I think, if it were written as a general prayer about our hope of a coming redemption. At the same time, it’s also meant to be a liturgy for literal use by those who do work in wood or stone or metal or clay.

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“A Liturgy for Those Who Have Not Done Great Things for God” is important to me personally, because I’ve been in a lot of churches or youth groups or Christian colleges over the years where tremendous burdens are placed on the backs of folks by well-meaning people who nevertheless create an artificial and unattainable and unbiblical standard of what a life of serving Christ should look like. A 16-year-old kid might not be in a position to “shake the world” or even to “take their high school for Christ,” and to continually have that thrown at them as the standard for discipleship is to set them up for failure and disillusionment down the road. But if they desire to follow Jesus, then they are in position to begin the lifelong work of learning what it means to daily love and serve those around them, to be more patient with their siblings, to be kind, to steward faithfully their time and talents, to progressively learn to submit their passions and desires to the revelations of God in Scripture. I believe those who are greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven are mostly those who learn to take up their cross daily, quietly and humbly and sacrificially serving those whose lives intersect their own. I hope this prayer might offer some conciliation, freedom, and affirmation to others who have experienced similarly misguided pressures in their own lives.

TIM: I’m in total agreement with your statement on setting up a standard of service for young people which does not exist.. Some of my friends and I have been talking about that for years.

TIM: What are some of the liturgies people really enjoy that surprised you?

DOUGLAS: People like the diaper changing liturgies. Which is funny, but fitting. It’s real life. It’s the sort of daily moment that on its surface can just feel like part of the endless drudge of caring for others in a mostly thankless capacity. But if the gospel is true, and the greatest in the kingdom of God are those who most humbly (and anonymously) serve, then the act of changing a baby’s diaper, seen rightly, is a holy act with eternal ramifications.

“A Liturgy Before Taking the Stage” is another one that seems to be taking on a life of its own. A number of artists and bands have told me they’re using it now before every show. I tried to write that one is such a way that it wouldn’t just be pertinent to musicians, but to pastors, teachers, or anyone who’s about to stand in front of others and share their ideas or their gifts. Being in Nashville though, it’s mostly performers I’m getting feedback from.

With the flooding in Houston and the massive wildfires in California, a number of people and even churches immediately started using “A Liturgy for Those Who Have Suffered Loss from Fire, Flood or Storm.” I wrote that one at the request of friends who lost their house to fire, but I didn’t anticipate it being used in community to the degree that it already has.

TIM: My readers may think that this was planned, but they should note that I interviewed you and Ned separately. The fact that out of some 100 liturgies, both of you mentioned the diaper changing liturgy cracks me up. I told Ned that this was actually the first liturgy my wife went to when we received the book. I think, in essence, it almost captures what the book is. It is taking things that we never think of as God things, and recognizing that everything is important to God and connected to Him. In reality it is the most mundane task, but I agree, if we look at it through the lens of Scripture, it is Gospel work. How much more could you love someone than to wipe feces from their body, and doing it in a loving way?

DOUGLAS: Exactly.

TIM: When you decided to take on the project of writing “Every Moment Holy,” how did long did the project take?

DOUGLAS: I penned six or eight of the liturgies before Rabbit Room Press was able to secure funds to green light the project. But from that point it was a grueling, nine-month writing process to meet the deadline. For my wife and me, it was a crazy season of life anyway, as two of our daughters got married last summer, and the third graduated high school and started college. Plus we had to be at conferences a full month of that time. I’m still not sure how the book got written.

TIM: Do you see any future projects in writing a second book with more daily moments?

DOUGLAS: Almost from the beginning we’ve envisioned this as a long-term, ongoing project. There were a number of liturgies on the brainstormed master-list that seemed key, but that there simply wasn’t space for in the current book. So yes, definitely, the plan is to offer more of these liturgies in the future. We’ll probably make some of the new ones available for download on the site, long before a second book is ever published.

TIM: Douglas, I appreciate your time, and even more than that, you sharing your gift of writing with us, so that we can remember that every moment in life is holy to God. Below I am going to put a link to several of your books in case anyone would like to read more of your works. Thanks again.


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