Last summer I was at my trusty Starbucks working on a Rabbit Room post when I got a phone call that changed the last five months of my life. It was my manager, Christie, asking if I’d be interested in going on tour with Steven Curtis Chapman. I remember pacing outside, processing the invitation. I knew I had to say yes, but I tried to play it cool and told her I had to think about it. In truth, I did have to think about it, but only because I was so excited; knee-jerk excitement can lead to bad decision making, and I wanted to be sure that it was the right thing for my family.
I came home for lunch and told Jamie about it, and her knee-jerk excitement affirmed my own. A day or two later I accepted the invitation and not long after that the Songs and Stories tour with Steven and Josh Wilson was confirmed. To make the deal even sweeter, Steven asked Ben Shive to be his piano player for the tour, which meant I would be on the road with one of my best friends. I spent the rest of the summer and fall swinging between disbelief and mounting excitement until the day I showed up for rehearsal. Contrary to my cynical expectation that the tour would somehow fall through, I was undeniably there, in the rehearsal studio with Steven and Josh and a world class band.
The Crew Today I’m sitting in Starbucks again, this time in Lakeland, Florida, a day away from the end of the tour, trying to think of a way to sum up the last forty-five shows. It would be easy to write a full post about each of the 12 other guys on this tour: Tyler Cook, the guitar tech (and member of the band Neulore), who, when he’s not tuning one of the 5,000 guitars, is usually reading something by Dostoevsky; my friend Harold Reubens, who runs the front-of-house audio with astonishing skill and humility (as he does on the Behold the Lamb tour); Michael Pierce, one of the production crew, who’s as quick with his one liners as he is to serve; Jesse Blinn, Show Hope advocate and road manager, who never seems to run out of kindness or energy; Casey Webber, who has been my own road manager off an on for a few years, managed the ridiculous amount merchandise and joyfully coordinated all the Show Hope volunteers; Tony Fransen, the lighting designer and production manager, whose burst of laughter could be heard from almost anywhere in the building throughout the day.
The Band Then there’s the band: bass player Brent Milligan, a crazy talented, artful producer and player, who encouraged me more than he knows; drummer Ken Lewis, who never missed a beat and never failed to crack me up, inspired me with his passion for the church and his family; and of course, there’s dear old Ben Shive whose friendship and camaraderie to me are impossible to overstate (as are his talents). Josh Wilson, he of the incredible beard and mad guitar skills, was delightful. He’s a fellow preacher’s kid, so I have a feeling he and I would have been friends in junior high, and would have probably gotten in a lot of trouble together. One of my favorite parts of the tour was the deep conversations we had about songwriting and community, about doubt, and faith, and gratitude.
The Point Man The point man on the tour, though, was Steven. He’s the one carrying a 3 hour show, doing interviews every day, talking about Show Hope, meeting adopted families every night, recording, writing, and treating each of us kindly in spite of his crazy schedule. Quite a few people have asked me how on earth I ended up on this tour. If you read the first paragraph of this post, you have the short answer: I got a phone call. The longer, truer answer is that the Lord out of his great goodness, blessed me with the friendship of a good man. I’ve jokingly referred to this tour in interviews as my own personal “Steven Curtis Chapman Appreciation Tour”. I didn’t grow up paying much attention to Christian music, but it’s hard not to know who Steven is. At some point, most of us have heard his music, whether it was someone singing “I Will Be Here” at a wedding, or a duo covering “Listen to Our Hearts” at church, or cranking “The Great Adventure” when it came on the radio. He’s had more number one singles and more Dove Awards than any other Christian artist, which is truly remarkable, whatever you may think of those kinds of stats.
The Third Option And yet, though everyone seems to know him, I’ve never heard a single negative story about the guy. I’ve been in Nashville for 15 years now, and, well, you tend to hear less-than-flattering stories about folks from time to time (I’m sure there are a few about me floating around out there), but I have yet to hear one of those about Steven. What that might lead a rascal like me to conclude is that either a) Steven is so squeaky-clean he must be hard to like or b) he’s a complete wreck and he’s hiding it. I didn’t realize until this tour was underway that there’s a third option. Here it is: Steven is a wreck, he’s not hiding it, and because of the mighty presence of Jesus in his life, grace abounds to those around him.
It’s the great, confounding reversal of the Gospel of Jesus. If the word we preach is one of attainable perfection, of law, of justification by works, then when we fail, our testimony fails with it. But if we preach our deep brokenness and Christ’s deeper healing, if we preach our inability to take a single breath but for God’s grace, then our weakness exalts him and we’re functioning as we were meant to since the foundation of the world. Steven isn’t super-human. He’s just human. But what a glorious thing to be! An attempt on our part to be super-human will result only in our in-humanness–like a teacup trying to be a fork: useless. But if the teacup will just be a teacup, it will be filled. Humans were made (as was everything under the sun) for the glory of the Maker. Why should we try to be anything but fully human? Let God fill us up and pour us out; let him do what he will, let us be what we were meant to be. That gives us the freedom to sing about what’s really happening in our hearts without being afraid of sullying the good name of God. If our hearts are contending with the forces of darkness, clinging desperately to the hope of a Savior, then to sing boldly about the battle is no shame to us and all glory to our King.
The proof is in the pudding. Everyone I know in Nashville who knows Steven has said to me something like, “I love Steven. He’s a good man.” But from the first week of the tour I discovered that Steven isn’t a good man. He’s as sinful as the rest of us. He wears his weakness on his sleeve. He’s quick to share his pain and his struggle. That doesn’t make him mopey–he’s quick to share his joy, too. But what’s so wonderfully subversive about the Gospel is that our ability to honestly bear our grief and woundedness just makes room for God’s grace to cast light on all that shadow; it makes room for us to love each other. When we encounter that kind of grace we come away remembering not just the sin but, overwhelmingly, the goodness, and the grace, and we say, “I love that guy. He’s a good man.” What we’re really saying is, “I love that guy. God is so good.”
The Vav Principle Most of us know about the accidental death of Steven and Mary Beth’s daughter, Maria. It’s a tragedy that didn’t just happen four years ago, but as anyone who’s dealt with grief will tell you, it’s a tragedy that’s happening now. Death has no place in this world, and it’s right for us to feel its wrongness. But every night for more than forty concerts I’ve stood in the wings and watched Steven sing (often through tears) about God’s trustworthiness. I’ve watched him tell thousands about his pain, heard him remind the audience of the promise of Heaven and the peace of Christ. He rewrote a verse for his song “Yours” after his daughter’s death:
I’ve walked the valley of death’s shadow So deep and dark that I can barely breathe I’ve had to let go of more than I can bear And I’ve questioned everything that I believed But even here in this great darkness There’s a comfort and a hope that’s breaking through So I can say even in life or in death, God, we belong to you
It’s hard to imagine more honest writing. But it isn’t just honest. It’s faithful. And that’s what’s inspired me that most. Father Thomas McKenzie said in his recent Rabbit Room Podcast that there’s a faithful kind of doubting and an unfaithful kind of doubting. The unfaithful kind sees doubt as evidence that Christianity is a farce and should be dismissed. The faithful kind of doubting costs us something. It harnesses the questions like a sail in the wind and drives us on rather than away. It reminds me of Chesterton’s quote:
Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.
One of the beautiful paradoxes of Christianity is that it is at once incredibly simple and infinitely intricate. Faith bridges the chasm between our understanding and the truth we feel in our bones.
Michael Card’s book A Sacred Sorrow talks about the Hebrew word vav. It’s a word that means “and yet”, and is a crucial ingredient in almost every lament in scripture. Again and again, when you read the psalms, you hear the psalmist crying out against God, shaking his fist at the skies, demanding justice, wailing and abandoned, all but accusing God of being unworthy of our worship–basically, the psalmist is throwing a fit. Then, as if he’s exhausted himself, he says vav. “And yet, I will praise the Lord.” In spite of all evidence to the contrary, I believe in my bones that you are good. Your intentions for me are loving and kind. I believe in your presence though it feels like you have forsaken me. And yet. And yet. And yet. Those two desperate words may be the most faithful prayer we ever pray, and our most triumphant battle cry, though we whisper them through tears.
That’s been the greatest gift of this tour to me: Steven’s example of faith and faithful doubting. He doesn’t just stand on the stage and talk about the death of his little girl and his family’s continuing pain–he follows it up with vav. Every night when Steven closes the show with “Blessed Be the Name of the Lord,” it’s like he’s bellowing “And yet!”, and he does it with authority, because we can all sense what it costs him to say it. “You give and take away! Blessed be the name of the Lord!” More than once I have thought, “This wouldn’t make sense if the Gospel weren’t true. But there it is.” I have felt more than once that we’re in a battle, and that Steven is the commander of our little unit, waving the flag of God’s goodness in the face of the darkness. And I have felt more than once that I would take a bullet for him.
I’m grateful beyond expression that Steven invited me on this tour. Let this meandering post be my thank you to him and to the band and crew that worked so hard and so well to make every concert happen, if only to make space for the “and yet” to be proclaimed every night. It was my honor to have worked with such good men to tell such a great story.