I really enjoy some JJ Heller! Some of you know who she is. She and her husband, Dave, write some heartfelt, folkish songs about faith that really resonate with me. My sister and her husband sang one of them for my wedding about five years ago - absolute perfection. And the Hellers have been on Christian radio stations for several years. They usually have at least one song floating around out there in the ether.
Seriously. Girl can write. And sing. I can't listen to this song without thinking of the summer that led up to my wedding and how this CD was constantly replaying itself in my car. I consider her to be an incredibly successful songwriter and singer. To someone like me . . . . someone who plays only local venues for no money . . . someone who can't get legit gigs to save her life - yes, to someone like me? JJ Heller is tops. Top of her game. Top of her field. If I didn't love to listen to her so much, I think I'd be jealous!
But as I was surfing around on Facebook with a sleeping baby in my lap the other day I came across something from JJ Heller's own music page. It was about a new song of hers that she really wanted to get onto the radio, but just couldn't seem to. And she was feeling the stress of being a songwriter who doesn't exactly write what's "popular" among Christian music lovers right now.
She seems always to be a very genuine and classy person, so her feelings weren't expressed in a negative or jealous way. But they're honest feelings. They are valid feelings. It's difficult to be a subversive writer or even just a different writer in the midst of a music making machine like the current popular music industry. It's HUGE. And little voices get lost.
The world would be such a sad place if the little voices stopped singing.
I am friends with several localized artists who often feel what JJ Heller has described - A sense of disappointment or discouragement because they're not being picked up or noticed by the venues that indicate success - on whatever scale they want. It's nothing to be ashamed of. People with all different sorts of careers crave success and acknowledgement.
A couple of years ago I did something silly.
I'd just come out with the Hymns for a New World album and I was feeling giddy. Of course, iTunes is the only "store" carrying it and it's a self made sort of project. It's frustrating music for people looking for a praise album because that's not what it is. It's a search and struggle album. In fact, during the editorial process I caught some flack for the fact that the songs don't repeat the name of Jesus frequently enough. Yes indeed. That made a bad impression on a few people. But I really wanted to emulate some of the writing in the challenging hymns that surround civil rights issues and problems of human governments and systems. So there's trinity . . . and there's theology . . . but it's not a praise and worship set list.
Anyway, I took these songs and I entered several of them in a songwriting contest. I had to pay to have them judged.
I spent almost everything I'd saved up for the music project to have these songs looked at by Casting Crowns and some other big names. I thought maybe, just maybe I had a chance at some of the words sticking in somebody's head - somebody "important."
I waited months and months for the results.
This past spring the list of finalists was posted. And I wasn't on it.
I experienced some of the deepest disappointment I've felt in a long, long time. Goodness. I may have even been a bit depressed from it. And I'd taken hard earned money - what little I had for accomplishing real ministry with my music . . . and I'd squandered it. Really squandered it. With the money I spent to enter this contest I could have produced at least 4 new songs. 4 songs that might have been encouraging to somebody.
Those "important" people are probably really nice folks. They have jobs like anybody else. And they listened to thousands of songs by thousands of hopefuls like me.
This is where I have to be careful. It's where all of us should be careful.
If we are working, writing, singing, or doing anything else for the glory of God, we're not meant to seek any kind of prosperity gospel for ourselves. "Success" is not guaranteed the way we expect it. Human systems are not the same as God's system.
We don't have anything to earn in the face of God.
We think we have to earn things from each other - respect, admiration, applause . . .
I feel a profound thankfulness that at some point God decided to let me be one of the weirdos shining a weird little light.
Yeah. My music isn't destined for the radio. And I will never ever enter another contest with any of my songs.
But here's what I will do.
- I'll continue to write.
- I will play "Send Me Into Life" for the ten millionth time as the commissioning song for any other minister, missionary, or graduate who asks me to.
- I will play songs for my own little family - songs that were prophetically written years before we needed them . . . and now we need them.
- I will play songs in the homes of dying people with no audience but God and the Holy Spirit.
- I will play songs with my sleeping son beside the piano so that his little ears are filled with encouraging ideas.
- I will play songs in tiny coffee houses and home churches for jaded college kids and thirty-somethings who believe they can't ask the tough questions anymore . . . and hopefully something I sing will help them ask the tough questions again.
What I won't do?
- I probably won't get paid for it. At least not right now.
- I probably won't get famous for it.
- I probably won't be long remembered for it.
- I probably won't win awards for it.
But that's not a problem.
No, it's not. Not if the calling is really what I thought it was in the beginning: a mission. Missions are not for profit. Missions are not for fame. Missions are not for ourselves, although I enjoy a great deal of personal fulfillment from writing . . .
There have to be weirdos writing weird and wonderful music. Without weirdos we'd have no Bernstein! We'd have no late Beethoven sonatas! We'd have no Scriabin or Barber or Ives!
Without weirdos there would be no Rich Mullins. What on Earth would I do without Rich Mullins?!? I wish he wasn't gone. I wish I'd known him.
Without weirdos there would be no Gungor. No delightful, whimsical JJ Heller tunes.
I don't want to stop being the goofball that published her own first album. I don't want that sense of purpose beyond power to leave me.
Every time we fall prey to our desire for the prosperity of our human systems we lose a little bit of the goofy, outlandish, terrifying Truth that was embodied in Jesus Christ.
I didn't sign up for a hike without my brother Jesus. That's not the journey I want. He's still willing to walk next to me, challenging me to write words that point straight back to God the Father, providence, and thanksgiving . . . challenging me to write words that counter wishy washy theology and shallow thinking.
There's a price for taking Jesus with us into the studio, the concert hall, and the business place. We will be required to lay down our own lives again and again and again until we're laid lower than the floor, able to see that there is a Love valuing all other human life just as much as we ourselves are valued - which means that we ourselves don't have room to pay our way into competitions to win trophies and crowns.
Y'all, I don't have it figured out. Sometimes I still have that sick sad feeling of being a loser.
But peace that passes understanding is such a good reminder for broken folks like me - in the Gospel, losers and weirdos and sick souls come face to face with God, all three in one.
"Let your weird light shine bright so the other weirdos know where to find you."