Writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn endured eight years of prison camps and another three of exile in Stalinist Russia, suffering through isolation, deprivation, malnourishment and near-fatal stomach cancer. Years later, in looking back on his life from a very different vantage point, he composed a prayer that included the following lines:
Atop the ridge of earthly fame,
I look back in wonder at the path
Which I alone could never have found,
A wondrous path through despair to this point
From which I, too, could transmit to mankind
A reflection of Your rays.1
And this is where our story has to begin. Because while we could talk for some time about the sudden rise to popularity of Jeremy Camp as a performer – the string of massive No. 1 hits from his first three studio recordings, the headlining tours, the film soundtracks he’s showing up on, the Dove Awards he’s garnered, the excitement over his new album "Beyond Measure" (BEC) – none of these can be fully appreciated apart from the story of who Jeremy has gradually become, as a husband, a father, an artist, a minister and a follower of Christ. Camp’s story is one that includes both hard providence and severe mercy. And, like Solzhenitsyn’s, it’s been a “wondrous path through despair.”
Walk by Faith
Jeremy’s fans are, for the most part, aware of the loss of his first wife, Melissa, to cancer several years ago. It was out of that season of brokenness and confusion that Jeremy wrote and recorded his debut album, "Stay." But what fans might not realize is the degree to which the lingering imprint of brokenness continues to shape and define Jeremy, giving him an added depth of compassion even as he celebrates the new joy he has with wife Adie (former singer for The Benjamin Gate and now a BEC solo artist) and their two young daughters, Isabella and Arianne. He seems to have learned through his own experience what it means to rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn because, in his own life, he’s had the opportunity to do a lot of both.
“It’s funny,” he says, “Unless you really experience certain things in your life, it’s hard to relate. … I don’t want to be someone who goes places and sees things that really pull on your heartstrings and it’s like ‘Wow, that was really intense, that really pricks something in my heart,’ and then walk away, and when you’re out of the situation you forget. I don’t want to forget.”
The roots of Camp’s empathy run deep. Growing up in Indiana, the oldest son and second-oldest kid in a family of six, Jeremy remembers his parents’ active engagement in ministry. Sometimes Camp would accompany his father on visits to prison or to a boys' home to share the love of Christ with inmates and troubled kids. Though his dad didn’t formally become a pastor ’til Jeremy was 14, the passion with which his parents pursued God’s work, even in those early years, sometimes meant the family had to live on faith.
“Because my dad was constantly ministering,” he says, “there were times when we wouldn’t have groceries, and my dad would say, ‘Just pray, and God will provide.’ And being a kid you’d just say, ‘Okay.’ You just don’t really know what’s going on. And then you find groceries on your front doorstep. So I think – for me – that was a huge example and the preparation for a lot of what God was going to do in my life in the future.”
Further preparation of Jeremy’s heart for ministry came about because of his youngest brother, Josh. Josh, now 18, was born with Down’s Syndrome, and Jeremy’s concern for his baby brother throughout their growing-up years translated into a real desire to extend mercy to “the least of these.”
“I would drive by and see someone who has Down’s Syndrome sitting on a park bench waiting for the bus, and I would seriously start crying, wondering what his life is like,” Jeremy says. “Because I know some people don’t have compassion for people who are disabled mentally.
“If I see a family who has a child with Down’s Syndrome or who’s disabled in some way … I make it a point to always say, ‘Hey,’ and show some kind of compassion because I know how much of a difference it can make. My heart really does go out. It’s not just trying to be nice to somebody. My heart goes out because I’ve experienced that.”
Some who know him well would argue that, beneath the music career, Jeremy’s heart has always been a pastor’s heart anyway. Several months ago he actually received a ministerial license through the Calvary Chapel network of churches. His now-official status as a minister was the result of two years at Bible college, as well as the consensus of local pastors and elders that he was ready to take on a more visible ministerial role. As to whether that means he’ll eventually be on staff at a church somewhere, Jeremy says it’s likely.
“I don’t know exactly when or how or what, but it’s always been my heart,” he explains. “I definitely feel like, even right now, that I’m a pastor in a different way. Not the typical pastor of a church. But I know I have to share my heart. I have to share what God’s been doing in my life because He’s given me that platform to do it. If there’s any way I can share Christ with somebody, I’m going to.”
Believing that his responsibility to model Christ has to begin with his own children, Jeremy made several proactive choices to maximize family time. First, he and Adie settled in Jeremy’s hometown of LaFayette, Indiana, where they knew there would be plenty of family support. Shortly after his first daughter, Isabella, was born, Camp realized he needed to permanently restructure his touring habits to avoid long stints on the road. More recently, he built a recording studio close to home. And when he had to leave town on several weeks of the “Beyond Measure Tour,” he just loaded the family up and took them all with him.
“It was tiring,” he says of life on a tour bus with a baby and a two-year-old in tow, “but I’d rather be tired and have my family with me and be able to wake up and see my kids and my wife. It was great to be on stage and have that settling feeling that they’re right there on the bus sleeping. My little daughter, Isabella, had fun, too. She loved [tour mates] Hawk Nelson. She would dance every night at the side of the stage.”
Jeremy plans to use his new studio as a place to write with other artists, with an eye on expanding his role further into producing and engineering. Camp’s first fully-self-produced cut, a cover of the hymn “It Is Well,” appears on the recently released "Music Inspired by the Motion Picture Amazing Grace" (EMI/Sparrow) soundtrack. He was also able to co-produce Adie’s solo record, "Don’t Wait" (BEC), there.
“To see her pour out her heart,” Jeremy says, “to be involved with the songwriting process … was great, because it’s a different side [of Adie] that I haven’t been involved with before. I think it brought us that much closer, working through our differences musically. Her grace with me was amazing.”
Take a Little Time
In early 2006 Jeremy took the whole family and traveled to South Africa for the first time to get a glimpse of the world his wife grew up in. He was able to meet Adie’s friends, experience her culture and learn “how to love her more.”
“It was so awesome to take Jeremy to South Africa,” recalls Adie, “to show him my home, and where I grew up and how beautiful my country is.” While there, they stopped at an AIDS orphanage.
“Jeremy and his dad played with the kids, sang songs and made them laugh,” she says. “It reminded me of when I first met Jeremy – I was blown away by his faith and his heart for people, and no matter who he talks to, he’s always the same to everyone.”
“That was tough,” Jeremy remembers, “because I hadn’t seen the effect of AIDS before.”
The orphanage staff led the Camps to a room where a little girl was suffering. “They said, ‘She’s not gonna make it,’ and I’m just holding this baby, and I just wept,” Jeremy says, “because I’m like, ‘Oh my goodness, she is my daughter’s age.’ And to think this happens all the time. It’s a reality.”
“I think, in many ways, seeing people in hard situations is very humbling,” says Adie, “and we try to live that scripture that says we need to take care of the widows and the orphans and know that as believers it is our responsibility to do so.”
Jeremy’s first exposure to the realities of Third World poverty had come a year earlier on a Compassion International trip to Honduras. Before the trip, he says he would have agreed with the scriptural mandate to care for widows and orphans. But seeing, firsthand, the extreme need and the life-changing impact a few dollars a month makes, made him passionate about personal involvement.
Jeremy describes a life-changing encounter in Honduras: “These people were basically living on garbage,” he says. “We went into a shack that had 12 people living in it, and there was a boy there who was 14, and he weighed maybe 45 pounds because he had spinal meningitis when he was a baby. … His parents couldn’t do anything but wait for him to go be with the Lord. We laid hands on him and just prayed for him, and I said, ‘Hey, one day you’re gonna be with Jesus. No more tears, no more sorrow, no more pain.’ And I just wept. It’s hard for me to see that anyway because I’ve experienced death and experienced that kind of thing, and it’s tough.”
That same intermingling of temporary sorrow with eternal hope has long been evident in Camp’s writing. In fact, if you look at his body of work, there seems to be an almost circular connection between his first project, "Stay," and his most recent, "Beyond Measure."
Like a Storybook With Dreams
“I remember when I first started [writing and recording 'Stay'],” Jeremy says. “I was so broken. I just remember being in the pit of despair in my life when Melissa died. I remember saying, ‘Lord, I don’t know what to do. This is confusing. I’m hurting. My heart is broken. I feel so empty and weak.’ And having Him say, ‘Perfect. Now I can use you. I’m going to be the one that fills you up. I’m going to be the one that walks through with you and gives you the strength and gives you the words to say and the songs to sing.’”
Now Jeremy seems to be resting in a new kind of brokenness: this time, a brokenness that comes from a grateful and amazed recognition of God’s unwavering presence and faithfulness. It’s the joyful brokenness that comes from catching a glimpse of the longed-for redemption of our tears. And it’s where the title song of his new album, "Beyond Measure," was born.
The key moment happened in an interview when Camp was asked, as he often is, to share his testimony. As he told the story, he recounted his late wife’s words, that if even one person were somehow drawn to Christ through her death, it would be worth it. But this time, he suddenly found himself overwhelmed and had to stop the interview.
For the first time he saw a “bigger picture” of how the tragedy of her death had already been used by God as a means of bringing the reality of a sympathetic Christ to thousands of people. In fact, his whole ministry, in some ways, could be traced back to the sorrow and confusion that surrounded Melissa’s death.
“It just hit me; it completely floored me,” he says. “I felt like this fog kind of cleared, and I had to stop. … God had just opened up my eyes to show me the thousands of stories and people I’d talked to, how God has radically done things in people’s hearts and how people who have been through atrocious things and things that just blow your mind, how God has really used the songs and the ministry to dig deep into [their] lives. It just started humbling me. I got on my face, and I was just crying. I thought of my family, Adriane and Isabella, and I thought, ‘I wouldn’t have even thought of having a family years ago because of everything that had happened,’ and I just started to feel so grateful for what God is doing in my life.
“There’s a scripture in Ephesians that says ‘He has done exceedingly more than all we can ask or imagine,’ and I think that was a huge thing God was showing me. ‘Look what I’ve done.’ And it just blew me away and humbled me completely and broke me down.”
1Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, from "Solzhenitsyn: A Pictorial Autobiography," p. 88, The Noonday Press, 1974
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