Granted, most of us have introspective moments when we stop and take a look at what we’re doing with our lives. How are we using our gifts? Are we investing in eternal things? Are we acting from the right motivations? Is it time for a change? Has Elvis left the building? That process of re-evaluation is a natural part of maturity, and even more so, of discipleship for believers.
But most of us don’t have a record of, say, nine million albums sold (That’s not a misprint.), 47 Doves and four consecutive GRAMMY Awards won and 41 No. 1 singles notched at radio. Do those statistics really leave any room for doubt? Apparently so.
“Every album, every creative season it gets more intense,” Steven Curtis Chapman says, reflecting on the genesis of his 14th studio project, "All Things New" (Sparrow). “It’s this process of trying to get to a place where I can hear one voice above all the others — that being the voice of God’s Spirit. Three years ago I lost my voice for about three months with paralyzed vocal cords. I didn’t know if I’d ever sing again. That gave me even more of a sense of, ‘God, I don’t ever want to do this just because the calendar says it’s time to do another record and the record company says it’s time to do another record.’
“I’ve always prayed, ‘If this isn’t what I’m supposed to be doing anymore, please make that real clear ‘cause I’m a slow learner; and I’ve got a hard head. So every time this cycle comes around, it’s been real important for me to take some time and say, ‘OK, God, first of all I’m assuming this is still what You want me to be doing; but if it’s not, show me that.’”
Chapman’s willingness to repeatedly assess the direction of his life and vocation rather than make the assumption that “material success plus popularity equals God’s approval” has lent a certain gravity to his work over the last several years … which is to say that if he wasn’t convinced God was still giving him a platform and things to say from it, he’d hang it up tomorrow and move on to something else. But, so far, each time he’s considered whether or not to make that next record, he’s found something he still felt compelled to say. And the best way he knows how to say it is still through tightly crafted, three-and-a-half-minute pop gems.
The current project is no exception. While it flips a few things around musically for Chapman (more about that later), lyrically, "All Things New" revolves around the central theme of God’s promise and commitment to renew all creation. Chapman approaches the weighty subject head-on in several tracks. But he also explores the minutia of the way that overarching theme plays out in the context of his own increasingly busy life and family in songs such as “I Believe in You” (written for his daughter Emily’s high school graduation) and “What Now” (a song about encountering Jesus through service to orphans).
“I’ve never been more compelled and never been more inspired,” Steven says. “I’ve never been more sure that God has given me things to say, and I’m not having to guess. I can’t stop wanting to communicate these things. But I’ve also never been more exhausted. I’m 41 years old, I’ve got six kids, and two of them are under the age of 4. Since the last record we’ve adopted two new daughters from China, and then here’s Emily [the Chapman’s oldest daughter] getting ready to head to college. I’m not sure how to live with it yet.”
In addition to the changes in Steven’s own life, a major influence in the writing of "All Things New" was John Piper’s recent book "Don’t Waste Your Life" (Crossway). Steven picked the book up before a flight to Seattle; and, by the time he touched down, he had not only read the book but had eight song ideas inspired by Piper’s teaching. Several of those ideas eventually made it to vinyl, so to speak.
“There are things you’ve heard a hundred times,” Steven says, “but somehow it gets said in a way that your understanding of it suddenly becomes so much deeper. Piper was simply saying that to not waste your life means you invest all of who you are to make much of who God is — to make much of Christ. And that’s the point of our lives. And I could have told you: I’m not the point. It’s not about me. I’ve said that in songs before. But I think it was the first time I really began to grasp it.”
Through his recent adoptions as well as through the ongoing work of his foundation, Shaohannah’s Hope, which has financially assisted in the adoptions of hundreds of other orphans and worked with U.S lawmakers to address global adoption concerns, Chapman has found himself increasingly invested in the day-to-day outworking of what he believes are God’s purposes for the world.
“You just start to get this bigger picture of what’s going on around you and what God has given us the opportunity to be involved in,” Steven explains. “God is renewing all things. If this is truly the course of all of history, and I believe it, and I believe it’s worth dying for and, therefore, worth living for, then how is it really affecting the way I’m living my life? How does it affect the work I’ve been doing to rescue orphans when I consider there are as many as 15 million orphans in China, and we’ve only adopted three?
“But then I go, ‘Wait a minute. There’s a day coming when there won’t be any orphans. And if I really believe that, then what I can do today by adopting one orphan is to participate in what God has already determined. God has invited us to live out before the world these little previews of where [history] is going, of what’s coming.”
Translating the "All Things New" theme into the mechanics of the recording process as well, Chapman made an early decision to disrupt his own comfortable routine and “mix it up” a bit. For the first time he recorded in L.A. rather than in Nashville; and, with the exception of producer Brown Bannister, who’s been a staple for the last five or six projects, no one who had played on a previous record was allowed into the studio (the same studio, by the way — for those of you who keep track of these sorts of things — where Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” and Van Halen’s “Jump” were recorded). In addition to special guests such as Mac Powell (Third Day), Jason Wade (Lifehouse), Kendall Payne and blues sensation Jonny Lang, the L.A. players hired were some of the hottest in the industry, with resumés that include credits for Sheryl Crow, Emmylou Harris, Pearl Jam, Iggy Pop, Michelle Branch, Jane’s Addiction, Alanis Morissette, Carly Simon, Jude Cole and David Bowie. Those new players and engineers pushed Chapman’s music to places it had never gone before.
“It was really crazy,” Steven says. “I was like, ‘Man … we would never have tried that in Nashville; it’s too crazy!’ It was just that kind of exploratory, experimental stuff. I would end up reeling it in, just to say, ‘This is more what my record needs to sound like.’”
Even prior to the official release of "All Things New," there was a growing music industry buzz that the vocals captured on the album were easily Chapman’s best ever, somehow bigger and deeper and fuller than his past efforts. This says quite a bit when you consider how many “Best Male Vocalist” and “Artist of the Year” Dove Awards he’s already won, which is, well … a lot. Steven gives most of the credit for the improved vocals to the folks who engineered and mixed the record. But he says it also partly goes back to his vocal cord injury.
“When the damage began to heal,” he explains, “I found that I was going to have to back off from screaming the high notes. So I wrote all these songs in lower keys and sang in a lower register. That gives a different kind of texture in my voice. Some of it could just be age, too — just hanging out on planet Earth a little longer now and getting less sleep with more kids and all the crazy stuff like that.”
Not to worry. There’s probably still a Dove or two in there somewhere. …
Shaoey and Dot: Bug meets Bundle
To introduce kids and families to the idea of international adoption and to raise funds for the Shaohannah’s Hope Foundation, Steven & Mary Beth have recently co-authored "Shaoey and Dot: Bug Meets Bundle." Told from the perspective of a friendly (aren’t they all?) ladybug, the book’s rhyming verse and colorful illustrations (courtesy of Mary Beth’s brother Jim who also has an adopted Chinese daughter) tell the heartwarming story of Shaohannah’s adoption from the orphanage, and of her subsequent trip overseas to join her new family. Published by Tommy Nelson, the book’s royalties will assist other families with adoption expenses.
8 is Enough
For the Moment at Least
It started out as a one-time thing. Emily, the eldest Chapman child, had hounded her parents for months ever since learning of the plight of millions of orphan girls in China. (Due to the “one child” policy and because boys have higher social value to families than girls, thousands of Chinese girls have been left for adoption.) Her brothers, Will and Caleb, joined the cause; and, in time, they wore their parents down (or won them over, depending on how you look at it). And so a trip was made to China, and little Shaohannah Hope joined the family. The Chapmans even started the foundation Shaohannah’s Hope afterward to assist other families with adoption. But that was where the family was going to stop — four kids, that’s it.
That was the plan, at least … until they felt compelled to go back and adopt Stevie Joy. “I was sure we were done then,” Steven recalls, “But I was making another trip to China, and people joked, ‘You’re going to China again, man? That’s not a good sign. You’re gonna bring another little girl home, aren’t you?’ It’s not like I was in denial. I totally felt at peace.”
But as Steven finished singing in a Beijing church and walked outside, he met an American family holding two Chinese infant girls. He picked one of them up. As it turned out, the girl in Steven’s arms was with the foster family because of a heart condition. Most healthy orphans in China bypass the foster system and go straight to adoption. “We’re just taking care of her until God sends a family for her,” the foster parents said. The baby was named Maria.
“In my mind it’s like this siren goes off,” Steven says, “because years earlier I wrote a song for a little girl, and the chorus says, ‘Who’s gonna love Maria?’ I hadn’t thought about the song in 10 years. But the chorus immediately starts playing in my head, and I immediately start to tell God, ‘No, it ain’t gonna be me! It’s gonna be somebody, but it ain’t gonna be me!’ So I get in the car, and I drive away; and I’m crying. And I’m saying, ‘God, what is the deal? I’m not supposed to feel this way about another little girl. I’ve held hundreds of orphans on trips like this, and I’m able to walk away and pray for them and trust you to send a family. So why am I feeling this way about this little girl?”
A week later Steven ran into the family again. This time they took his picture with Maria. Steven returned to Tennessee shortly thereafter and poured his energy into writing and recording. One day, as he was sitting at the computer, his pastor, Scotty Smith, walked in. “I had come home and argued with God for about two weeks, telling God this was crazy and didn’t make any sense.” Steven remembers. “Scotty asked me, ‘What are you doing?’ and I said, ‘Well, I’m trying to make a record; but right now I’m trying to convince God that I don’t have any business adopting another daughter.’”
Even as he was saying this, Steven received and opened an e-mail from China. It turned out to be the picture the family had taken of him saying goodbye to Maria.
“I called my wife,” Steven says, “And I said, ‘I just got a picture of me holding my little girl Maria. At that point, it wasn’t a man with an orphan anymore. It was a dad with his daughter. That was the moment when I knew we were supposed to go get her.”
Before Steven even got home from the studio, his wife already had the paperwork filled out. “All those times in your life when you pray, ‘God, is this really Your will?’… it’s almost like every time I asked God about these kinds of things related to adoption, I just hear Him laughing, going, ‘Please, give Me a break. Is it My will? How much clearer can I make it? It’s in Scripture. Yeah, you’ve got concerns. Yeah, you wonder about this and that; but don’t you think I can handle that? If I called you to it, won’t I give you what you need to deal with it?’”
After finally getting Maria home, the Chapmans took her to a doctor to have her heart condition evaluated. Following a thorough examination, the doctor concluded there was nothing wrong with her heart. She had been completely healthy from the beginning. “God gave her a misdiagnosis of a heart condition and put her in that foster family just so I would meet her and get to be her dad,” Steven says.
Now as the parents of three adoptive daughters, the Chapmans are firm believers that adoption is an invitation to the heart of God. “It’s like God saying, ‘You said you wanted to know Me … so I’m inviting you in,” Steven explains. “‘But it’s not just that you ask and all of a sudden — poof! — you know Me. I’m gonna reveal myself to you and invite you deeper and deeper into My heart. It’s mystery, but it’s not unexplained mystery. Scripture tells you this is where you’ll find Me. It’s why I said, “Care for orphans.” It’s why I said, “Visit the ones in prison.” It’s why I said, “Feed the hungry.” Because when you do that, you’re doing that to Me, and you’re drawing near to Me and you’re getting to know Me.’”
Chapman Cliff Notes
Steven Curtis Chapman is an artist (and avid reader, evidently) who wrestles with his own faith and humanity. And, beginning with his third album, "More to this Life," he has tended to create musical artifacts that honestly reflect where he is at a given season of life. The joys, the struggles, the doubts, the awe, the lessons learned — these (plus truths learned from a lot of books) become the raw material his songs are built of; and, with each project, a new theme emerges. Here is a behind-the-scenes “short story” version of how each was inspired.
"More to this Life" (1989):
Life is short. What more is there to this human experience than just living to die? Catalyst: The funeral service of [wife] Mary Beth’s uncle.
"For the Sake of the Call" (1990):
<p>What does it truly mean to call yourself a disciple of Jesus Christ? What does it mean to follow Him? Catalyst: "The Cost of Discipleship" by Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
"The Great Adventure" (1992):
Only God’s grace can tear down walls and free us to live the life we were created for. Catalyst: A meeting with Steven’s pastoral advisory board at which he confessed a sense of failure and, ultimately, was led to a deeper experience of God’s grace in the midst of his own weakness.
"Heaven in the Real World" (1994):
What does it look like to be living representatives of heaven in the midst of this world’s chaos? Catalysts: "Loving God", "How Now Shall We Live" and "The Body" — all by Chuck Colson.
"Signs of Life" (1996):
God makes Himself known in the most unexpected places — even in death row prison cells and at the funerals of friends. Catalysts: The life story of Oswald Chambers and experiences working with Prison Fellowship.
“Gospel astonishment” as God reveals a deeper level of grace in the midst of sin and brokenness. Catalysts: "What’s So Amazing About Grace" by Philip Yancey, performing at the memorial service for the slain Columbine students, attending the funeral of three girls shot at his alma mater (Heath High School), burying the daughter of dear friends after a tragic automobile accident.
Walking by faith through seasons when God doesn’t make any sense and, ultimately, realizing that God is God and doesn’t owe us explanations. Catalysts: "Disappointment with God" by Philip Yancey and multiple tragic circumstances in the lives of friends.
"All About Love" (2003):
Marriage isn’t just about a man and a woman; it’s about the faithfulness of a God who reveals Himself through the marriage relationship, using it to expose the selfishness of our hearts and draw us nearer to Christ. Catalysts: 18 years of marriage to Mary Beth; a continually deepening love and appreciation for her; lots of counseling.
"All Things New" (2004):
God is renewing all things, directing all of history towards a new heaven and a new Earth. How do we live today in light of this glorious truth? Catalysts: "Don’t Waste Your Life" by John Piper, Pastor Scotty Smith’s sermon series on the renewal of all things, "Rumors of Another
World (What on Earth Are We Missing?)" by Philip Yancey, personal involvement with Chinese orphans and the AIDS crisis in Africa.
© 2004 CCM Magazine. All rights reserved. Used with permission. Click here to subscribe.