Gray will be in the area this week for a Christmas concert at CrossRoads Fellowship Church in Jackson. The concert, which starts at 7 p.m. Friday, will also include local singer Ryan Corn.
Tickets are on sale at the church office or online at www.itickets.com. In this week's Ministry Focus, Gray answers questions about what he hopes concert attendees come away with, and more how we writes songs.
Q: How did you get started in contemporary Christian music?
A: I feel fortunate in that I always knew, since I was a little boy, that I wanted to make music. It's discouraging to struggle with wondering what it is you're "supposed" to do with your life, and I've always been grateful that I had real clarity on that for as long as I can remember.
I grew up on the road with my mom's bar band, so I was always around music. Also, as a boy with a speech impediment (I'm a stutterer), I was very introverted and shy. I was kind of a lonely kid, so I spent a lot of time in my room listening to a lot of music. Music was a very intimate companion and a real comfort to me, and so I think I always wanted to share that with others. Author Frederick Buechner summed it up nicely when he said, "The place where God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet."
How I got to where I am now is a long and surprising path, but I suppose it started when I became a youth minister when I was 20 and started doing concerts at my church, youth rallies and local coffee shops. I decided that I didn't want to knock down any doors but rather wanted to be led by the doors that God chose to open for me. Those open doors have brought me here and are about to bring me to Missouri.
Q: How long have you been a member of your faith?
A: That's always a hard question to answer because it's such a mystery to me. When does a person come to faith? Is it when they pray a certain prayer? Or did it happen earlier when they decided to pray? Or did it happen before the foundation of time? The love of God is a delightful (and sometimes terrifying) mystery. All that to say, I always knew God loved me, before I even knew who he was. I never heard much about him when I was growing up, but he made himself known. I remember the first time I heard Simon and Garfunkel's "Bridge Over Troubled Water" and how God whispered to my spirit that this was his heart toward me. It would be many years before I finally gave myself to God fully (I resisted for many of my teenage years because I didn't want to stop making out with my girlfriend but he was always in the picture, always drawing me to himself, always offering a better life beyond the sad things I was clinging to and that were happening around and through me.
Q: As a songwriter, tell us how the process works for you?
A: Usually it starts with an idea or some concept that I really want to talk with my audience about. If I'm moved by the idea of how God's love for us heals us and makes us whole, I write songs about that so I can tell others about it. If I'm inspired by the idea that God's name, YHWH, is like the sound of our breathing so that we are all of us always calling it out, dependent upon his very name for life, then I write a song about that. If I'm challenged to abandon my fear and no longer let myself be blindly enslaved by it, I write a song like "Fear Is Easy, Love Is Hard." Once I have an idea that I'm passionate about, I look for the right kind of music to carry the idea, sometimes writing several different versions of the same song until I find the right combination.
Q: Contemporary Christian music listeners know your songs like "Remind Me Who I Am," "Good to Be Alive" and "More Like Falling in Love." What do you hope listeners get out each song's message? Are these songs inspired by life experiences or a particular Scripture?
A: I write the songs I need to hear. Most of them are self-corrective or songs about the very hope that I need the most. I hope people find comfort, peace and joy in my songs, but I suppose the main hope is healing. I think we can get so numb, crushed under the daily grind of demands, that we forget to bring our hearts to each moment. I just heard a teaching about how the Chinese character for "busy-ness" is a combination of the characters for heart and killing. Music is the language of the heart, and I hope my songs help people bring their hearts out of hiding and back into the presence of God to be healed by his love.
Q: What's your favorite Bible verse and why?
A: Isaiah 49:16 (NIV): "See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands; your walls are ever before me." I love this because it speaks of God's commitment to love us -- he's tattooed our names in his hands.
Q: What artists in the industry have influenced you?
A: In my own industry, I'd say the work of my friend Andrew Peterson has been the biggest influence in recent years -- especially with my new Christmas record. Andrew is one of my best friends and one of the finest songwriters I know. He is in a passionate pursuit of Jesus and his work is committed to the deep, deep beauty of the unfolding story of the grace and the Kingdom of God.
Beyond our industry I suppose I'd have to say that my biggest influences have been Paul Simon (America's greatest songwriter) and U2 (Bono's passion and the way he lives out his faith on a world stage is a wonder to watch). Both of these artists have great integrity in their work, but also don't serve their art at the expense of everyone else. They are conscientious of their listeners and serve them well.
I'm into a lot of newer artists, too, who influence me, but the artists I've named above have had a long lasting and consistent voice in my life and work.
Q: When you perform, what do you hope audiences take away from the concert?
A: I hope they walk away feeling loved by God, with the hope that he wants to heal and make them whole, and that there isn't anything they've done or that's been done to them that he can't make good use of and redeem.
Q: How did you decide which songs to include on your new Christmas album? Do you have a favorite?
A: Since I wrote songs about the different characters in the narrative, it was less a matter of which songs to choose than it was to decide which part of a particular character's story to tell. For some of the characters I wrote multiple versions and went with the story that felt the most "human." But I do have two favorites: "Easier (The Song of The Wise Man)" and "I Will Find A Way," which I believe is the best song I've ever written. I spent six years working on that one. It was inspired by a piece that Walt Wangerin Jr. wrote about the incarnation called "An Advent Monologue." It's the most beautiful thing I've ever read. Google it.