Encouraged by the surprising popularity of my lengthy profession of love for a superstar Aggie quarterback, I became emboldened to press more deeply into writing about controversial celebrities. And there was no question which pop culture icon and Aggie I would take on next: Ross King.
[That, my friends, is a master class in smooth transitions between seemingly unrelated topics.]
So perhaps I should get my disclaimer out of the way before I insist that you purchase Ross King’s new album, This Hope Will Guide Me.
For starters, Ross is sort of my boss. Wait, no. I’m sort of his boss. Well, we’ve been known to boss each other around anyway. We’re not very good at organizational charts or hierarchies in our little world. So maybe the best way for me to disclose my personal bias is to say that I’ve been given permission to spank his kids. The point is, we aren’t strangers. No doubt, it’s a bit of a strange and surprising road that has led us to deep friendship, both personally and among our wives and kids. When we met nearly twenty years ago, neither of us envisioned this life as co-laborers among a quirky, amazing group of people who are willing to be a church without a church building. But it’s our life, and it is very good.
So of course I want you to buy my friend’s record, right? Well, yes, but let me attempt to melt a layer off your cynicism by reminding you of something: it used to matter when those who knew us best spoke well of us. Back before we assumed everyone was just trying to make a buck or help someone who could make them a buck make a buck, we paid attention when people who would know would say, “This person is reliable to do what he’s doing; you should pay attention to him.” And it still should.
And that’s my angle here. I know Ross, and you should pay attention to the songs he is writing for the Church (by which I mean people). In fact, those of us who are a part of this peculiar little band of Jesus people called Community Church have something most church folks don’t: many of the songs we sing when we’re together actually grow out of the life of our community. I don’t mean to suggest that those who don’t have that experience are getting something less at church. Not at all. But we are getting something different, and that something is the life behind many of the songs on this new record. The songs Ross writes for the Church don’t exist because he has decided he can make money writing songs for the Church. They exist because he lives life with the Church, and then he locks himself in a room and turns that experience into art that can be poured back into the Church. I would love to tell you that all music that we label “Christian” (or even all worship music) was born in a similar way, but, well, maybe someday. Until then, these songs are, indeed, a gift, and not just to our local church community. They are for the Church in ways that few albums like this are.
I’m neither a musician nor a music critic, so my capacity for describing the quality of the music on This Hope Will Guide Me is limited. I can tell you that I am picky. I can tell you that I’ve heard more Christian albums and worship albums that I listen to once and never again than albums that I like, much less love. I can tell you that most of the music I own is not so-called Christian music. And I can tell you that this record sounds absolutely fantastic, and it has been in heavy rotation on my iDevices since he started sending me early versions of the songs. From a production, sound, and style standpoint, it’s the best collection of worship songs Ross has ever turned out. It just sounds terrific.
So I want it to be clear that when I write, “But what sets this album apart is the songs themselves” that I don’t mean that these are great songs that sound okay on the record. These are great songs that sound great.
But what sets this album apart is the songs themselves. As Ross is prone to do, he and his co-writers have found a way beyond the clichés and lyrical reruns and given voice to the things we want to say to and about God — and in this case, especially about where He stands relative to all the ways death seems to press in on our lives — but that often remain wordless. This is no small gift to the Church. As a teacher, preacher, or writer, one of the most meaningful and encouraging responses I get is, “You put words to what I think and feel but don’t know how to express.” Why does that feedback affect me so much? Because I know the value of having someone pull those scattered inner pieces of me together, making of them something whole that I couldn’t assemble myself. That moment is not just summary and synthesis of what we already knew; it is actually discovery. We find and are finally able to express that something that has been eluding us, opening life and the world up to us in a new way.
That is what these songs are doing for people in the Church. It is what they have done for me, but I’m glad I have waited several weeks to write about this album because I’ve been able to watch our community and many beyond it respond as they hear and sing the songs on this record. They’re saying many things, but they are all saying this: I am discovering something familiar, but brand new, about myself and God as I hear and sing these songs. I am finding that the Life that I hoped was real seems truer and closer when I hear and sing these songs.
The album is full of songs that do that, but rather than pretending to be a music critic and walking through them one at a time, I’ll just give you the simplest, most consistent example of it for me. The chorus of the song My One Response goes like this:
Unbroken, relentless, your love for me is endless
I have but one response
Hands open, defenseless, unguarded in your presence
This is where I belong
And it wrecks me every time I hear or sing it. It strips away all the layers of other Christiany stuff that I’ve taken on in my effort to be the right kind of person or make myself impressive or important to my Maker, and it renders me what and who I really am. And it reminds me that I don’t let myself be what and who I really am very often. And it reassures me that I am free to become what and who I really am anyway.
That kind of vulnerability does not come naturally to me, but I am better for having it exposed. I know some aren’t particularly keen on worship music for various reasons, in part because it often seems so oddly lofty and disconnected from real life. I easily could be (and can be) that person. And maybe I trust these songs and want you to trust these songs because they are not disconnected from real life. The same guy writing these songs about God for the Church wrote a fantastically out-of-place among religious loftiness song called The Non-Religious Me several years ago. Among other fantastically out-of-place among religious loftiness things, it says this:
I couldn’t find You in the sermons
I couldn’t find You in the songs
I couldn’t find You Sunday morning
And that’s when I knew something had gone wrong
I couldn’t see You in the reading
I couldn’t hear You in my prayers
I couldn’t feel You in my feelings
And I began to fear that You weren’t there
Then I thought I heard a sound
Somewhere in me
You said to stoop way down
And that’s where You’d be
I never thought I’d find You here
Way down in my shame and fear
I never thought that You’d draw near to this, my
I never thought to look for You
In this ditch that I’ve been crawling thru
I never thought You’d listen to the plea
Of the non-religious me
(You can buy that one here.)
Listen up, I’m a pastor, and that’s a worship song for me sometimes. No, always. Even when I can find God in all those places, I’m always in touch with the moments when I couldn’t…and with the next moment when I won’t be able to find him there.
That’s what I mean when I say I trust these songs. They have been crafted among the Church — not the organization, the people — and are fully rooted in the ache and angst of our real lives. And yet from those roots have grown up these tremendous declarations of hope and Life and the world-altering reality that Jesus is all that we are not.
And who can get enough of that?