"All the sins you can think of, I am those things, but I am like Christ too. Simultaneously sinner and saint."

by Melissa Riddle

Wearing thick brown corduroy pants and a decidedly casual sweater, {{Wes King}} is in the kitchen making cappuccinos. He's a small man with a boyish face and mischievous eyes, but just beneath his brow, fresh lines are forming.

"He's a big, goofy kid, but he's also little old man," says King's percussionist and friend Ken Lewis. "You should see him on the road with all his traveling amenities. He has plug-in booties to keep his feet warm, a Swedish pillow for his neck, and I've even seen him wearing a little shawl over his legs while reading."

The cappuccino machine, obviously maneuvered by a master frother, is churning out a familiar ccccuuuuuuuuuuuuhhhhhhhrrrr, while Wordsworth, Longfellow, Byron and Dickens all form a proper line on the fireplace mantle, whispering to each other through the vintage-yellowed pages. Andrew Wyeth, the artist, sits quietly on the endtable. A soothing lamplight blankets this room where the "Son of the Circus" dares to rest alongside "The Twilight of Courage." Encircled by poets and artists and storytellers of old, we settle in for a long winter's talk.

Tossing the Crown

At 31, the writer of "The Love of Christ," "The Robe," and "Common Creed"--all deeply theological in thought--has come to place in his life where the answers aren't all neatly packaged and tied up in theological bows. It has been a season of pain and defeat. His fourth album, ==Common Creed==, had met with more success than his previous work, but King had grown increasingly uncomfortable with being a "Christian music star." The result, several years in the making, was what some would call professional suicide. He took his record deal, his management, and conceivably his financial security and did the unthinkable. He ditched them, one and all.

Frustrated with what was happening in Christian music, with what was happening to him, King was having trouble sleeping. "I was questioning whether or not I should even do this anymore. It was just so hard to please so many people--you fire up one person, and the next person thinks you're the anti-Christ." He was trying to come to grips with the cold marketing realities of surviving in the music business. "I thought. 'these people are supposed to be Christians. Why do you have to elevate me to some kind of god to sell records.' I just don't understand that. I saw people on the sidelines getting wounded, really talented people being dropped from labels and questionable people getting signed simply because they had a good look." When career issues ultimately conflicted with convictions, he chose to bail out of his record deal with Reunion.

Embracing the Man

While career confusion plagued him, extended family turmoil further dampened his spirits. But the greatest sorrow of all was he and his wife's struggle with infertility. The compounded stress left him looking for answers he thought he already knew.

"So often we want neatly packaged answers for questions that are very difficult," he explains, "I became the king of that-giving people pat answers. I was always the first to pull out my gospel gun and ready, aim, fire." But no more. There were now more questions than answers, more fears than confirmations, and more doubt than belief. Wes had become a king of pain.

The fear of feeling pain has pitched its tents around Wes for many years. When he was in the eighth grade, his twenty-something year-old cousin was murdered. This violence so affected Wes that he went into a deep depression. "I thought, 'if this is the way the world turns, baby, I'm out of here.' I just shut down. I cried all the time." At the tender age of 13, his body fought a valiant fight with his mind. He was hospitalized, his white blood cell count dangerously low to the point that his life was in danger. "I remember lying there, seeing my mother, and thinking 'I don't want her to die. It's not worth hurting her to leave. From that point on, I was afraid of feeling too much, afraid if I did I would go over the edge.

"Even now sometimes I wonder what in the world I'm doing or why I'm in this particular place? But I trust God, and I believe that He foreordained some crazy way that I don't understand--that he planned this to happen, that I'm supposed to walk in it, and I'm supposed to feel what I feel. That's something else that I've learned. I saw a counselor this past year, just because of all the stress and anxiety that I had--a Christian woman, very gifted-and for the first time somebody told me, 'Wes, it's okay to feel that because grieving is a part of the process of healing.' I thought, 'But I'm a Christian; I'm supposed to go 'well, he's in a better place, she's in a better place,' or 'God's gonna work it out.' It's okay to hurt. It really is. I mean, Jesus wept when Lazarus died, and He knew He was going to bring him back to life. So I think I've allowed myself to feel a lot more than I have in a long, long time."

{{Michael Card}}, Wes' friend and mentor, challenged him to do some critical thinking about his life, to "meet each issue head on" and to remember that "people are more important that theological points." In pursuing those goals, King has come to a place where he can see himself more clearly, in spite of the dilemmas that surround him. "I'm just a classic pleaser. For so long I've just been terrified of somebody being disappointed in me or not being happy with a decision I've made, or afraid of sounding arrogant or cocky or mean or cold-hearted. I've read articles on myself and thought, 'man that sounds cocky.'" He pauses for a moment to re-collect his train of thought (he is, after all, speaking words for a future article).

Finally, after a few contemplative seconds, he adds, "All the sins you can think of, I am those things, but I am like Christ too. Simultaneously sinner and saint."

Frederick Buechner, one of the most spiritually intuitive minds of this age and one of Wes King's favorite writers, speaks of the place where faith embraces humanity in his book The Longing For Home (Harper Collins, San Francisco, 1996): "There are times when all our explanations ring false, even as we make them. There are times when it is hard to see how any honest, intelligent person can look at the world without concluding, like Macbeth, that the whole show is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury but signifying nothing. At least doubts prove we are in touch with reality, with the things that threaten faith as well as with the things that nourish it. If we are not in touch with reality, then our faith is apt to be blind, fragile, and irrelevant." After many months of questioning and wrestling with God, this is where you'll find Wes King--in touch with reality, in touch with his own humanity. He has chosen to embrace defeat.

"To be overcome by God, to be defeated by God, I mean, what better thing? That word, 'defeat,' we're so afraid of it. We're always fighting against Him. We want the carrot right in front of us, but God, in His infinite wisdom, knows what's best for us. Sometimes," King continues, "He has to get us mad enough to where we go 'alright, come on, let's wrestle.' We wrestle with Him, our beloved enemy, and He overcomes us. We're defeated." But as Buechner penned and King now sings, it is "a magnificent defeat."

And Telling His Stories

Out of defeat, out of places at once joyful and sad, Wes has begun sharing stories of his life--not creeds and theology, but very real experiences of joy and pain. His new album, ==A Room Full of Stories==, is the honest result. "==Common Creed== was terribly theological, but it's funny, sometimes the thing that ends up doing what theology wants to do is just a simple story," he says, trying to put his new work in the context of the old. "I don't know of any sermon where Jesus had three or four points and broke down the Greek. He told stories. And the people listening not only got meaning, the lesson that was being taught. They saw themselves in that story. That is why he condescended and became a man. He became a man and told stories." King punctuates, "That's pretty amazing."

Without a doubt, the most heart-wrenching story in the 'Room is "Thought You'd Be Here," a song of love for a child yet to come. There is a definite downshift, a slowing in his voice when he speaks of it. "Talk about a range of emotions--hope, despair, anger, embarrassment, shame. Just writing the song for me and Fran, as a prayer. And if in some crazy way, also for that child who's going to be born someday--who I know is gonna be born someday, whether it's through our seed or somebody else's--that somehow, not in some mystical way, just in a heartfelt way, maybe the child could hear us. It was something I needed to express." He had second and third thoughts about including "Thought You'd Be Here" on the album, but in the end, the desire to be vulnerable won out. "I didn't want my pride to not let it go on the record."

Already the song has touched emotions often-neglected in Christian music--sadness and longing. The first time he played the song for a live audience, it was as if God confirmed Wes and Fran's decision to make public a very private issue. He introduced the song, awkwardly, as a song of "hope out of despair." Then he played and sang the words, finished the song, and with the last strum of the guitar...nothing. He looked up to see over 500 people standing still, arms at their sides. No applause, not even a half-launched clap, only silence interrupted by tears.

"I've had the most incredible response from that song I've ever gotten, and it just makes me feel like that the purpose of that song is just not me and Fran--it's much, much bigger than us."

The song, like the album, signifies a new era in Wes King's life, not just in keeping with the new era in his career--in August of '96, he signed a new record deal with EMI/Sparrow. An era of realities, of seeing camels as camels and gnats as gnats, of recognizing the joy in simplicity, of feeling pain when it comes, and of being real with himself. "The difference in this record for me is of all the records I've done, this is the first where I just threw my hands up in the air and said, 'I've just got to be honest.' It was written out of real honest places, not just being a songwriter."

With Eyes Wide Open

There is an ebb and flow to life. It is not a science to be explained away with irrefutable facts and figures. The tide rolls in and returns again. Pat answers are just that. Both kings and commoners exist, above all, by order of divine providence, at the will of the giver and taker of life. And their struggles, great and small, matter to Him.

As Fran King so beautifully puts it, "God has a picture of your life. He has a picture of your family today. He has a picture of your family twenty years from now. We can only see it from this side."

It is somewhat comforting to know that one so theologically grounded as Wes King doesn't want to be the man with the answers. He doesn't believe in or aspire to perfection.
"Maybe its just the ebb and flow of art. Historically we got to the point where we realized, 'we can make this [music] perfect, so let's do it.' And then everyone starts getting real weird if there is a note a little flat or a guitar a millisecond off time, we can't let that go. So with our technology, we can make our music perfect, but there's no life, no heart in it, and no humanity. And if there was, you couldn't hear it."

In music and in life, Wes concludes, "there is nothing perfect, except God, because we are all fallen. For now we see, if we are brave enough to look, only through a darkened glass. Our frailties and doubts set us apart, clearing paths where faith becomes sight."

This article first appeared in the March 1997 issue of CCM Magazine.