We sometimes envy those with successful careers, but – as public figures from Tony Hancock to Caroline Aherne have shown us – inside their skin, they may be living in a far more fearful world than their public face reveals.
Stu Garrard had lots going for him. Guitarist with trailblazing worship band Delirious?, he had singles and albums chart success in several countries; supported acts like Bon Jovi; and performed at Wembley and Glastonbury – feats dwarfed by twice playing to over one million people, once in Germany and then in India.
But when singer Martin Smith unexpectedly quit the band and the others went their separate ways, Garrard’s self-confidence went off with them.
It added some personal oomph to his new project – a book, album, and a forthcoming film – about the Beatitudes, Jesus’ eight counter-intuitive blessings from the Sermon on the Mount.
When I last spoke to him, a few years ago, Garrard had been playing a solo set at the Greenbelt Festival and in his interview afterwards, he seemed to have been robbed of something.
In the book of the Beatitudes, Words from the Hill, dealing with what it means to be ‘poor in spirit’, he reveals his deep disappointment in the wake of that split. He writes that, like many of us, he had two selves and, “When one of them starts to crumble, the other one struggles as well.
“I was Stu G., the guitarist, songwriter, and professional Christian. And then I was Stuart Garrard, the ginger kid from Suffolk. Trouble was, even though he was a professional Christian, Stu G. was the false self. And he was falling apart.”
The band had just had their first experience of meeting real poverty during a visit to India and responded with the album Kingdom of Comfort, giving them a fresh burst of purpose after a few years of treading water. So it was a bad time to end.
Speaking from his new home in Nashville, Garrard remembers being disappointed, “Because I didn’t feel like we were finished, like we’d made our best music. Yes, I was sad about it, but at the same time, trying to cope with the reality of it as well, and create a way forward.
“I wanted to get through the grieving stage of it; wanted to jump into something else straight away. I learned that you really have to go through those moments, experience them, rather than wanting a quick fix. There are things in life’s journey that there is no quick fix for.
“The Beatitudes project was something I‘d been thinking about way before that even. So the process of losing the career with Delirious? and having to create something new, entering a time of transition, actually brought new meaning to the Beatitudes and the message behind them, which is like, ‘When you’re at the end of your rope,’ as Eugene Peterson says in The Message, ‘You’re blessed’.”
This helps to answer my surprise at the tone of the project. Normally, I’d expect something based on these words and aimed at Christians to say, “Get out there and be a peacemaker; comfort those who mourn.”
But Garrard’s project brings comfort to the Christians he writes for.
Giving credit to theologian Frederick Dale Bruner, he explains, “First and foremost, the Beatitudes are the ‘announcements of God’s presence in God-awful situations,’ rather than telling us to do something.
“It doesn’t say, ‘You should be a peacemaker’; it’s saying, ’If you’re a peacemaker, you’re blessed; if you’re mourning, your comfort will come’.”
Almost immediately, he adds a caveat, remarking that although the words are passive, they are also, “Invitations to show mercy, to be peacemakers, to live a life that is swimming against the dominant powers. Holy troublemakers don’t just conform to the way that we think the world works, and what success looks like.
“So we are saying that we need to be the miracle, rather than just pray for it; we need to be the hero sometimes, rather than just wait for someone to come along.”
To make the project happen, he needed friends who understood the story, but how to choose? Some people were simply unavailable, but he decided that if it took more than two tries to get hold of someone, he’d stop there. But he particularly wanted people who, “Caught hold of a vision for this, that this is about God at the bottom of life. Most of the folks have lived the stuff of life a little bit, where we experience things that we’re not expecting.
“I never want to forget that, if your spirit is crushed, it says that God is with you. That’s the blessing. So when we wrote a song, I had no box to put around anyone’s contribution. I said, ‘We need to write the song together that we feel we need to write’.”
One enthusiastic contact was singer Amy Grant. “She was really surprised. She was the same as me earlier on, thinking the Beatitudes were this set of things that we could try to achieve, but really it was for the super-spiritual, not for the ordinary person. So to flip that on its head say, ‘No, this is for when things are broken,’ she immediately grabbed hold of that side of the story and was in from the word go!
“People brought their talents, but also their vulnerability. This project really marks that, like Michael W. Smith singing a song about his father dying. My friend Terrian Bass, a really young African-American girl from Memphis, has grown up among drug and gang violence and domestic abuse in the poorest neighbourhood in Memphis, and [is] singing a Dr. Martin Luther King-esque song ‘Let My Dreams Fly’.”
When Jars of Clay released their album The Shelter, it was making a statement as much by how they recorded it – in community – as by what was being recorded. It was a sacrificial album, because the amount of people who worked on it meant that it was unviable to tour the project and so to promote it. Garrard can see the parallels here.
“I loved that project, so the idea of doing something in community is the best idea for me. I also feel like it’s part of the ‘upside-down’ message in the Beatitudes, where Jesus turns what is successful in our eyes on its head. It’s important to me that the story that I tell is that we need each other. It’s about opening our eyes to those around us and so for me, that includes my music community. That’s why we pulled from such a big pool of people and tried to share the vision with everyone, and so in that respect it’s a very similar idea to The Shelter, for sure.”
Having felt the relief that God’s presence brings, he wanted to go deeper and make the project something that others could benefit from. “At that point it became not just about the music and writing songs,” he explains, “but about actually finding stories: what does mercy look like? What does being meek look like in the twenty-first century?”
What does being meek look like in the twenty-first century?
And that is a question for now. Much of the political turmoil in recent years – the Brexit and Trump debacles in particular, stirred with the catalyst of immigration – seem to have been provoked by swathes of disaffected people ignoring experts and reacting wildly in their feelings of helplessness and desperation for change. Could these be people who Garrard sees as the meek?
He maintains, “I’m not really a scholar. I’m a guitar player; I like words and art. This is my experience of the Beatitudes. I’m not saying it’s the only way to look at it.
“But with the meek, for instance, I grew up thinking that meekness was a virtue, like you just don’t get mad when you’re bullied. But I’ve come to look at it as those whose presence is ignored; those that are downtrodden, marginalised. I think everyone has people that they see as ‘other’ and the challenge is to actually engage and not tolerate. I think that’s a tough invitation at times.
“It’s not just about being a voice for the voiceless; it’s about being quiet and giving the voiceless the microphone – and for us to listen.”
He has done this literally, with a Syrian refugee playing on the album.
In the accompanying book Words from the Hill, he tells many stories that flesh out the verses, such as a woman who experienced mercy when her death sentence was commuted to a life sentence; a Muslim living in America’s south; and a Bethlehem pastor peacemaking between Arabs and Israelis.
There seems to be – especially in America, where the politics is so polarised – a tendency for Christians to let their political persuasions colour their Christian ones, rather than the other way round. It is as if it is easier to see God’s heart through scripture than in front of our eyes. Scripture has been somewhat culturally assimilated, so that its power for us now is compromised – churches would almost certainly find it easier to empathise with a prostitute in scripture than in their own pews. The voiceless are rarely comfortable people to be with; they can have painful back stories.
But although, as Garrard notes, “You can’t really foresee how people are going to respond,” he seems relatively confident that the message will get out and take effect. He stresses that he is trying to be kind in his approach and maybe that spirit is eating through people’s reservations.
“Even though NavPress, the publishers of my book, historically are really conservative, they allowed me to put in the conversations with religious Muslims and my friend James, who’s part of the LGBT community here, because it really is saying, ‘You don’t have to agree with everyone, but we are everyone’s neighbours’. So what does that look like, to inhabit that same space, and to love your neighbour as yourself?
“I wanted to find out. I wanted to ask people, ‘What is it like, being you, in this culture?’- especially in the South, here in America, which has a very religious overtone, and typically not very kind to people that we see as the other. That’s the kind of stuff I can imagine some people might raise an eyebrow to, or be offended by, but I haven’t written it from trying to say, ‘We need to change our mind on all this stuff’. It’s not that, it’s just we do need to change our mind on how we interact with the other.
“I think that anything that offers transformation and change to us, if we let it get on the inside of us, there are things that we kick and scream that we don’t want to let go of: how we’ve been brought up, our prejudices, things like that; but at the end of the day, I just hope people are drawn to kindness and community through it all.”
Garrard has seen positive posts on social media, but has been most affected by the personal responses from a devotional session he did on the dc Talk reunion cruise, where he was invited to present the project. He based it on the line, “Blessed are the pure in heart.”
“The way I’m looking at it, the pure in heart are those with an undivided heart. It does include moral purity, but it’s not just about that. It’s about how most of us walk around with our hearts divided (we have a true self and a false self) and I put together an animation, with a friend here in Nashville, and I was reading a poem to help tell the story.
“We finished this devotional time and I showed this animation, and really the message of it is, ‘What are the voices we hear that tell us we’re not good enough; that give us those moments of shame and regret that we stuff so deep? I suggested that for most of us it’s our own voice and the action of showing ourselves kindness and mercy is really necessary. It just touched them so much, and I think that we do have a disease in our society: people don’t think they’re good enough, they’ll never meet the mark, and I think that’s really sad.”
“I had people coming up afterwards that couldn’t speak after this animation, because they were so emotional about it. It really took me by surprise. I think there’s a lot of people in churches that put on a false self, but inside they’re crumbling, because they don’t think they’re good enough or pure enough or holy enough. It’s completely the opposite of what the message is in the gospel in the Beatitudes, which is that God is on your side.”