In Unspoken, from bestselling author Dee Henderson, a family legacy brings Charlotte back to Chicago, where a reporter is writing a book about the kidnapping. The cops who worked the case are cooperating with him. Her options are limited: Hope the reporter doesn’t find the full truth, or break her silence about what happened - but her silence is what has protected her family for years.
Charlotte Graham is at the center of the most famous kidnapping in Chicago history. The task force of FBI and local cops found her two abductors, killed them and rescued her, but it took four very long years. The fact that she was found less than three miles from her home, and had been there the entire time, haunts them. Now, she’s changed her identity, found a profession she loves, and rebuilt her life. But she’s never said a word - to the cops, to her doctors, to family - about those four years.
Charlotte wants to trust him. She needs to tell him what happened. Because a crime cops thought was solved has only opened another chapter...
Talk about suspense...
We asked Dee a few questions regarding her new book, Unspoken.
Unspoken is Charlotte Graham and Bryce Bishop’s love story. Bryce Bishop is a good friend of Paul Falcon, so I took advantage of that fact and brought back Ann and Paul Falcon during the investigation within Unspoken. I like being able to continue on with characters and see the next chapter in their lives.
Are you constantly creating new plot lines in your head?
I work on one book at a time, but I’m a slow writer. It’s not uncommon for me to spend three months searching for an idea, writing down scenes until I find a good story spine. Then I spend about five months writing the story, and another three months fixing the story with the help of good editors. I’ll start that process with maybe ten or twelve ideas from my idea box. I write down every idea I have, even if I have to get up in the middle of the night and reach for a notepad. Ideas are like nuggets of gold, some I can use immediately, while others haven’t found a story yet. The ideas are accumulated in a box behind my desk. I think of that box as my security blanket. If I am really stuck, something in that box might generate a place to start.
Who is your favorite author?
Francine Rivers has written some beautiful and timeless stories. I like reading Nora Roberts—I love her characters. I’m currently reading all the Robert Parker Spenser novels; the early ones in the series are worth tracking down.
What inspires you to create your art?
God designed me to be a storyteller. It’s what I enjoy doing with my time. The hours involved in figuring out a story are a process of discovery. All the work involved is trivial compared to the joy that is that moment in time when story threads come together and I can see a book and how its components fit together. It’s a very unique point and something I look forward to with every novel. I’ll often mention to my mother, “I’ve got the story done. Now I just need to sit and write it down.” The rest of the job is tinkering to find the right words for a scene, to cut out what doesn’t need to be on the page and put down what does need to be there. Compared to every other job I’ve done, writing is the most absorbing and fun. I’m inspired to create stories because I want to write the end, and then tell God—I wrote another story, would you like to read it? And hope God likes it as much as I do. The stories are gifts I can give back to God that I hope He enjoys. And I can create them with only paper and pen, so I’ve been making those gifts for God since I was a little girl.
I sat down with Holley to talk about how she began her career in the card industry and how that lead to encouraging so many people around the world.
What I found is a lady who is more interested in having a cup of coffee with her followers than anything else. Holley is a passionate woman who is on a mission to point others to Christ.
John: Let's just talk a little bit about Holly and where you’ve come from. You're from Arkansas, right? Have you always been a Southern girl? What kind of inspired you to start writing?
Holly: Okay. I'm originally from Texas, which is like a whole different country, really.
John: It is.
Holly: My grandparents had a Christian bookstore when I was growing up in South Texas. I was the little kid with a big stack of books in the back room. I always dreamed about being a writer when I grew up. That's how I got started and began loving words.
John: Were there particular authors that you were kind of drawn towards when you were working at the store?
Holly: I was too young to work. I was in elementary school. I remember even in fourth grade, I had Kevin Leman'sBirth Order Book. I was analyzing all my little friends on the playground. I would just go straight to the adult Christian living section and pull out whatever I could find and just read and read and read.
John: That's pretty funny. Does Kevin know or that he inspired you?
Holly: I don't think so.
John: No? Have you ever met Dr. Leman?
Holly: No. I haven't.
John: I think he's published by the same company that publishes you, isn't he?
Holly: There you go.
John: Maybe someday... That's pretty cool. How did you come to know the Lord?
Holly: I was raised in a Christian family with, the grandparents having a Christian bookstore. I grew up learning about faith and Jesus. I remember just one time being in, it was actually in my grandparents' house, and they have a little Gideon Bible, my grandpa is really active in the Gideon's. I remember just kind of flipping through it. For whatever reason, that was the moment for me. I was about seven, I remember praying and just saying, "Okay Jesus, you know, I'm yours." I got baptized the next Sunday and have had ups and downs in my faith, especially when I went off to college. I had a little rebellious streak for a while. I was fortunate to have a family that was always a part of it.
John: After this and being influenced by Dr. Leman and others, is this when you gave writing a shot?
Holly: Yes. Where I really got my start writing was at DaySpring Cards, a subsidiary of Hallmark. When I went off to college, just before Christmas break my freshman year, the DaySpring sales rep went to call on my grandma at their store and she said, "I have this granddaughter who wants to be a writer." You know nanas are irresistible, so the DaySpring sales rep, "She can send some things to us." I did that, clueless at 19 years old and all. But they actually did accept my writing samples and I connected with their editorial team and freelanced when I was in college and interned. Then I spent about nine years there as an editorial director.
John: That's pretty wild to think about the fact that your cards or what you have written have inspired and encourage probably thousands of people all over the world. That's pretty spectacular. From DaySpring then you kind of transitioned to taking a stab at writing?
Holly: Yes, I started a blog around 2008 when all of that was ramping up, and I loved being able to engage with readers in that way. Then a coworker of mine, Stephanie Bryant, and I co-founded the website (in)courage, with an “I” instead of an “E”. We're at DaySpring and DaySpring was like, "I don't know what you crazy girls are doing, but go for it." We were thankful for that, that they let us go ahead and do that as part of our jobs. That took off in ways that we never expected, it was a God thing.
I always wanted to write books, but it felt like God was saying it's time to take that step at that point. I always thought I'd be at DaySpring and just felt called to transition into something new. My last day at DaySpring was on a Friday and Revell offered me a three-book contract on the following Monday, that I didn't even know was coming. That was a pretty good confirmation.
John: That sounds like a God thing. That's pretty awesome. Your first title ... I don't remember the title of your first book.
John: How did it feel transitioning from one avenue to another?
Holly: I had also written two smaller devotionals and published those. It was fun to actually do the kind of books that I read growing up, the longer chapter books. I love the team at Revell. Jennifer Lee, my editor, was awesome. There were a lot of times I was scared in the first go around, and she would say, "It's going to be all right Holly, just keep writing." I loved that.
By that time, I had also got licensed as a counselor, and certified as a life coach. My life was just full of all these different voices of women, whether it was online through my blog, or face-to-face in a counseling office, or in a lot of other ways. I felt like the conversation was already going and so having a book come out of that just kind of felt like the next natural step. It's really just about what all women struggle with and how God's truth sets us free. It was really fun to take all of that and put it into a book.
John: When you write a book, do you think about writing for your audience, or do you feel like you're writing because this is what God has told you to write about?
Holly: I would say both. I always say I feel like the first reader of whatever I write, because I feel like that's how God speaks to my heart. My job is first to listen and then just listen to my audience also. I always say on my blog that I'd love to have coffee with all my readers. That's what I think of when I'm writing. It's just what would I want to say if this reader was right across from me and being able to listen to what she is saying is really helpful. I feel like my books really are, in a lot of ways, a conversation between my readers and I.
John: Do any of your readers try to take you up on that?
Holly: Yes. (laughs)
John: Have you?
Holly: Yes. Last night we did an event at a store. I got to have coffee with a lot of my readers and it was so much fun. Yeah, if I Facebook, "I'm going to be in ____" like we were in Southern California last week and readers were like, "I live there, let's have coffee." Whenever I can, I do because that's what I love the most, just hearing the hearts of women and being able to be a part of their lives in that way.
John: That's great.
Holly: Yeah. The coffee helps, too.
John: Coffee helps too, nothing wrong with that. I think it's very biblical. (Smiles) Your new book is entitled You're Made for a God-Sized Dream. Want to talk a little bit about that? What's behind that?
Holly. Yeah. I felt like I got to go on a God-sized dream journey in the whole transition through launching (in)courage and my work at DaySpring, and then getting to write books. I wanted to come alongside other women, who maybe knew what they were called to do, but were just feeling a little scared to step out, and really equip them to make that transition into their dreams. That's what that book is about. A God-Sized Dream isn't really about size at all; it's about what perfectly fits your heart because God created it for you.
I love saying to women, "You know what, you can be a dreamer wherever you are. If you're called to stay home and raise your kids, awesome. That's a God-sized dream. If you're supposed to move to Africa and do a non-profit, awesome. That's a God-sized dream, too." Just saying, whatever it is that God's asking you to do, go ahead and say yes. I know it's going to be scary and hard, but it's also going to be amazing and full of joy and it's going to change the world. That's just what that book is, coming alongside those women who are just stepping into that dream that God has for them.
John: What do you say with you being a licensed counselor, how do you respond to a lady who comes up to you and says, "I feel like God has a dream for me 'here,' but yet I'm stuck 'here.'" What would you say to that person in attempting to fulfill something that they feel that they've been called to, but feel there are barriers there?
Holly: They're in a different season. I would say to start with whatever you can do today. Even last night, I talked to the ladies and I said, "You know what? A dream can happen in 15 minutes a day. So, if you're chasing toddlers and you have 15 minutes to sit down and write one page, that's enough." Dreams are always about a process. It's not about the finish line. It's about the journey along the way.
Really the best part of a God-sized dream is just going on that adventure with Him. You don't have to wait for that. He's always willing to meet you, every single day, wherever you are. You can get up every day and say, "God, I'm going to pursue this dream. Whatever that looks like today, whether it's five minutes or I get to do it full time, because what I really want out of that dream is more of you." I tell them, "You don't have to ever delay. It's not probably going to be everything you'd like to be doing or that you might be doing one day, but there's something that you can do today." It's really just about living fully engaged and awake.
John: What is God teaching you right now, Holly?
Holly: God is teaching me that He's never going to stop asking me to get outside of my comfort zone.
John: What does that look like?
Holly: I think just ...
John: Can you share?
Holly: Yeah. I'm an introvert.
John: I can't tell (jokingly).
Holly: On like the Meyers/Briggs, I'm like 90% introvert. I love being with people, but it's outside of my comfort zone a lot of the time. I feel like this journey is just very much about dependence on Jesus. I say the Help me, Jesus” prayer a lot. "Help me Jesus. Help me Jesus." Every day, I just pray that He would give me words that are perfect for His daughters. "Give us this day, our daily bread," and "He's the Word," and "He's the Bread of life." I just have to continually go back and say, "I got nothing, but I have you and that's enough."
He continues to expand, books do well and things, and new opportunities arise. I tell women, "The fear never goes away." That's just part of it. That's what keeps us leaning in and saying, "Okay, I can do this with you Jesus, but I could never do it on my own." I think that's a lesson I just keep continuing to learn.
John: Do you ever have a down day?
John: HA! It doesn't sound like you do.
Holly: (laughing) Yes. I absolutely have down days, right? Mark as my witness (Her husband Mark is sitting, nodding his head in agreement). Yes. I get overwhelmed. I get scared. I struggle with depression and anxiety. Every once in a while, I just get up and I think, "Oh, I don't want to do this anymore," or I'm having a really bad day and my life's a mess and I don't know what I'm doing and these people on my blogs seem to think I have it together in some way, and I don't. I try to tell them that, again. I think that's part of it. We all have down days. None of us are perfect. We all have struggles and we're not home yet. That's not going to go away until we're in heaven. I think it's knowing that we can be used by God even in those times when we feel inadequate or we're really depressed or something hard is happening in our lives. That's really comforting to me that He can use us in spite of us. That's a really reassuring thing to know.
John: I'm always amazed on how liberal God's grace is towards His children knowing how much He knows about us. Even when we feel that life is going great, He still sees all the crud in our life. He still says, "Yes, you are the one that I have chosen to be my child, my bride." Pretty spectacular. Do you have a favorite Bible passage that you continually go to?
Holly: I tend to have one that I focus on for each book. With this book, it's Matthew 19:26, "All things are possible with God." I love that because "with God" means it's a partnership with Him. That verse doesn't mean I can do whatever I want and God will make it happen. It means that if we partner with Him, and we're seeking His purposes for our lives then nothing is impossible for us. That's really reassuring to me that I can just show up and say. "Okay, I'm willing to be used and God will work out the rest and make His purposes happen.
John: What are your big goals for the rest of this year?
Holly: The rest of this year? I have another book coming out in September, a devotional companion to this book.
John: Is that finished yet?
Holly: It's Opening The Door to your God-sized Dream, it goes along with the most recent book that's coming out.
John: That's great. That's awesome, Holly. I appreciate you coming in here, bringing me coffee and taking the time to chat with us today. I'm excited to see what God has in store for you.
The earthly crisis within manhood will be there until Jesus returns, but in Christ men are pointed toward the gospel as the vision for renewal. Manhood Restored by exciting new pastoral voice Eric Mason combines theological depth with practical insights, putting men in step with a gospel-centered manhood that will enrich every facet of their lives.
John: I’m wondering if you could just give us some background information, Eric, where did you come from? What is your overall background? How did you become a Christian? A short synopsis on who you are and what brought you to this point.
Eric: Short synopsis. I grew up in a quasi-Christian home, more non-Christian than fully Christian. I grew up in inner city Washington, D.C. and didn’t trust Christ until I went to college through my campus ministry on my campus. A couple of years later I received the call to ministry, went to Dallas Seminary and was on staff at Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship in Dallas. I played some roles there in ministry. Took a pastoral role at a church in Houston for a couple of years and started to listen to the call to plant a church. I went back to Dallas for a while and then went through a program and fellowship in Little Rock with Fellowship Associates and got commissioned by a multiplicity of churches to plant.
In Philadelphia, I have my wife and two sons. We’ve been married almost 16 years and the church is now six years old and we are a multi-ethnic church in the inner city of Philadelphia, and that’s where we are now.
John: That’s great. Eric, you wrote a book about restoring manhood. And in the introduction you ask a rhetorical question, “Another book on manhood?” What drove you to write this book?
Eric: Several things. I think people around me, the disciples. They’ve watched me make disciples for 20 years and have seen or heard when I’ve been to a conference somewhere ministering. Or just on a very, very personal level with people, feeling like there was a deep need to communicate the Word of God to this generation in dealing with humanity issues. They kind of connected with me and extracted and affirmed that’s what I needed to do through prayer and in getting with the Lord. That’s kind of how it came about, and the pandemic in our minds with the challenge of manhood and masculinity as it relates to Jesus Christ across economic lines.
John: Eric, when you look at that topic, do you see this as a pandemic within our country alone, or do you think this is something that’s going on worldwide?
Eric: Well, it’s interesting because I’m getting people from Australia, South America, Europe, all over the world contacting me about this. It has been not just an American phenomenon but it is also a global phenomenon in which manhood needs to be restored. I think that there are other contextual issues. I can’t personally say from every single country where it is, but everybody has attested to me from different backgrounds in a context that there is a pandemic need for men to be restored by the gospel.
John: And Eric, where is this problem coming from? Where is it stemming from? Obviously we could easily quantify it and say hey, we are sinners. To some extent, do you think that’s been hitting a little closer to home in this last generation? First of all, let’s identify what is that problem and then is it associated specifically with today’s generation?
Eric: Yes, I think that you really don’t see the impact, it’s just like being the president. A president can be in a presidency with a great economic upswing. But they say it takes eight years later to feel the economic impact of a presidency. I think that there has been a pendulum swing within our culture as it relates to manhood. And so I think that is what this generation is experiencing. We had the civil rights generation and their philosophy of America being as a hippie generation/black power/immigrant/bourgeois generation. And then after that we had the hip-hop/pop generation. We have what I call now the eclectic generation and I think that in light of all of those threads, there has really been a decline in manhood. And I’m talking specifically in America. There’s a good book on the father of the American economy, the kind of talks about the downswing of manhood over the last 60 years. It was written in the mid-90s and kind of gives some sociological forecasts that fatherlessness consists of not only being physically absent from the home, but can be presently absent as well. I think the fatherlessness issue is a big issue. I think there are some aspects of technology that play into man’s detached connection to the home, too. For instance, a guy that’s 35 years old and a deeper gamer, that kind of thing. And some of the quote-unquote urban context where there’s a phenomenal downswing of fatherlessness that has been a huge part of the crisis that’s in manhood today.
John: What do you think is the biggest problem? Guys not seeking Christ or guys not seeking their wives well?
Eric: Of course the bigger issue is Christ. Everything starts with that. Jesus says, “Apart from me you can’t do anything,” so I think that’s the main issue. I think it’s both an evangelical issue and it’s a branding issue. In relation to the world and in the Western culture, the church seems to be in the mind of the loss as more of an entity that there’s more robust females in Christianity versus men. So that detachment has created a lack of an apologetic for why the church can’t put a dent in this issue of fatherlessness. When seeking out why as a result to me, of having a robust relationship with Jesus Christ.
John: Eric, did you write this book for the church, for lay leaders, or did you write this for individuals?
Eric: I wrote it for both. I think the curriculum part of it is more for the church, and the DVD set. But the book I wrote for people who are not believers and believers so that, you know, I saturated it with Scripture because I believe the Word of God is alive and active in my mind. Whether or not they know that the verses are there, I think the biblical reasoning of the book can connect with the lost guy and the found guy. I wrote it for both, but I wanted it to be discipleship material that transcends the time. So that it can continue to be something of a tool in the hands of men to be able to walk with men, so we are not just pointing out a whole bunch of problems, but tooling this generation hopefully with solutions that are willing the person to work with Jesus Christ.
John: Eric, you wrote and I think I’m quoting here, “Jesus is the prototype man for men. All of us men are only as manly as it relates to the standard set by Jesus.” Do you want to explain that statement?
Eric: Yes, I think one of the things I didn’t want to do was alienate the fact that Jesus is an example for women. So my point isn’t to really alienate women because the book is on manhood I wanted to voice it, if you will, to men. And so it’s all about being the prototypical man. You know the Bible talks of him being the firstborn above among many and he’s the first fruit. Not only that, but it talks about the Word became flesh and blood and dwelt among us. There’s a Greek word in that verse which means to pitch a tent and to take residence, which points back to the Old Testament covenant of the presence of God being among men. And so Jesus Christ became the prototype of what the church based on 1 Corinthian 3 and 1 Peter 2 , was eventually going to be a house of God. And so, in light of that indigenizing that to men, what I see there is Jesus Christ being the prototype of what it means to be a man because he came to restore all things, but God chose to send him in a masculine form. And since Jesus is in every aspect of who he is based on Hebrews is the greatest of all. That would include him being the greatest man because God made him a man and he is the perfect man. Watching him in his incarnation, I wanted to extract principles from his incarnation that reflect a robust biblical masculinity.
John: Do you think there’s, I want to be careful how to say this, but do you think that there is controversy in that statement because you’re telling guys to look at Jesus because he was a man. You talked about the fact that you’re not alienating women here. How do women look at Jesus? How was your wife or my wife supposed to look at Christ?
Eric: This is like what the Scripture talks about. In relation to their was suffering. You’re looking at the first of Peter four, and it says and he left his example for us to follow. He’s not just talking to women. However, I think it’s very important that Jesus, there is a neutral part of his character that is applicable to both men and women.
Eric: The other issue though, is because He’s a man, He directly images Himself in a way that helps men to see that Jesus Christ was a man and a real man. He didn’t come in the form of a woman. Now that doesn’t mean He’s better for men than He is women. It’s interesting that you asked what women are saying. It’s funny. I have had many women comment—either through Twitter or Facebook or through Instagram—that they’re buying the book for their husbands because they’re excited about it. I’ve had some people say some stuff on the Christian profile group, and the Christian Post did a great job discussing this. And of course, some of the comments are just from people that are in different places in their spirituality.
The main point of what I’m trying to do is to encourage men to live up to their God ordained role. And it’s interesting. The Bible calls Jesus the second Adam. The fact that there was a first Adam who sinned, and what we have learned about our masculinity from that, well, we wouldn’t have learned it from Eve. We learned it from Adam. Jesus is the second and better Adam based on Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15. As the second and better Adam, he’s a better man than the first. And since God made them male or female, in Genesis 1, he made them male or female, Jesus Christ is the remade, upgrade maleness of Adam and therefore, we would have learned masculinity from Adam, I think we can do so with Jesus Christ a lot better.
John: Needless to say, you wrote the book to men. It’s about men and you wrote it to men. At some point, may be a year or a couple of years from now, you may write a book to women.
Eric: Yes, I just finished a series on Eve this spring.
John: Well, there you go.
John: So the people that are reading this blog post, the women that you had just mentioned that are tweeting you and Facebook messaging you and are excited about it. If the lady is married to a gentleman who is not proactively seeking Christ, reading His Word, leading his family, what would you say, Eric, in that context to that woman?
John: What would she do with her husband in that state? Is that what you are asking?
John: Yes, if she comes to you, hypothetically, and says, “Pastor, my husband seems to be unengaged in all of those areas that you’re talking about.” How would you encourage her? What would you say?
Eric: I think the Bible answers this question so simply. First Peter 31 talks about her serving her husband, respecting her husband and praying for her husband. That he may be one with the Word. I think that there can be some nonthreatening ways that God graces us to facilitate her to get this resource and I think this resource is, of course, engaging. And basically, everything in the book pretty much comes from pastoring people. And having heard that a billion times and having discipled men and telling her about that, that’s what I would let her know. For me, when you’re looking at a pastor’s husband, I think she needs to pray for him and then talk to him about some of the challenges. And we’re assuming he’s a Christian. I think if he’s a nonbeliever it’s a little bit different. I think that when it’s a believer, she needs to communicate, which women do. Communicate her challenges with her desire to see him be the man that God wants him to be in whatever way she can serve him. And then I would hope that she’s in the church, which hopefully they are talking to leadership and asking them to help facilitate the man being more effectively engaged. The last chapter of the book is on restoring man’s relationship with the church because I think the church has to be intentional about facilitating what it is for men to be fully engaged and be the men that God has called them to be. And when that gets in order, then I think by God’s grace, the women won’t have to push towards their husbands to beg them to lead them.
John: Eric, who are you influenced by? What authors are you reading, what music are you listening to?
Eric: You know, I’m a research reader but I’m also a real man. Right now, I’m deeply influenced by Dr. Tony Evans, Dr. Carl Ellis and others. Those are spiritual fathers to me. All of them have influenced me. What am I currently reading? I’m currently reading Anthony Carter’s book, Blood Work, which is a phenomenal, pastorally theological work talking about the blood of Christ on our lives. That’s been helpful. And then I’m going back to a book by Richard Lovelace that’s called, Dynamics of Spiritual Renewal. I’m excited about that. And then I’m going through the book of Esther as well. In Scripture.
John: Eric, one last question here. You started an organization called Thriving.
John: Do you want to talk a little bit about that?
Eric: Yes, Thriving is an organization that we started in planning a First Peter fellowship in in a really difficult area in Philadelphia. God has graced us to see tons of people meet Jesus and to be able to really get stability, financially. It’s almost a full sustainability there, then seeing it be multiethnic and engaging our neighborhood and doing work over in Malawi and planting churches in difficult areas to bring the hope of the gospel there. And so as that began to happen, people began contacting us asking us how we did it, and it got so overwhelming to the point we, for the better of the Lord, thought that an organization to help facilitate training urban leaders to be able to engage contacts with the gospel so that churches can be planted and ministry can be done in places that people don’t want to go but has a rich potential with what’s needed to engage the unreached people groups in all areas.
The redemption of manhood sets Jesus as the true standard of biblical manhood, looking to his perfect example to redeem and restore a man's life in the areas of sexuality, home, and work.
The only true alchemy in this world occurs when trials turn to gold, the debris and heartbreak of life transformed and polished into shining beauty by a loving, unseen hand. We try to catch a glimpse of this remarkable change in action, yet human eyes fail us. However, once these storms of life pass, we see the afterglow through signs as sure as Noah's ancient rainbow. A loved one overcomes. Morning breaks after an impossibly long night. Grace thunders through spiritual drought with a mighty downpour of living water. All of this, and more, affirms the fact that yes, life is beautiful.
Such was the thought going into the new album from The Afters. I sat down with lead singer, Josh Havens to discuss the lines between the lines of what made up life and it's beauty.
John: New record. Life is Beautiful. Josh, what is underneath the title? What is the theme of the record. When you guys are singing about the idea of life as being beautiful, what does that mean for you guys?
Josh: Well, this record is really a collection of stories that comes straight from life. It's little vignettes that come straight from our lives. It's the beautiful things that we experience in life, the things we're thankful for and the good things, but also some of the pain and the struggles that we go through. What ties this record together is how God is present in every moment of it. He's with us on the beautiful sunny days and the good times in life, but he's also there when we face the valleys in life and walk through the harder things too. That's why the stories on this record are a real collection of some of the joy and the sorrow that we've walked through and just God's faithfulness through all of it. Ultimately, I think no matter what situation we find ourselves in, God can make beauty in anything. That's definitely been our experience as we were walking through the making of this record.
John: Was there ever a moment in the recording process where either you, individually or the four of you guys together, after a lyric is written or a song is recorded, you kind of just step back and go, "Okay, this is a God moment." Where the song almost becomes outside of who you are and God is speaking to you?
Josh: Absolutely. Yes, there's definitely been songs where it's almost like you blink and you're like, “Okay, where did this come from? Where did this song that did not exist just a little while ago come from, because there is no way we could have just done this ourselves?” There were moments for instance in the song called “Broken” where I remember looking up, and we were all in tears as we were writing that song. The subject matter was so personal to us, and you know, I think writing in a way is therapy for the people who did the writing because you're dealing with the harder things that you go through and you're facing some of these things that are sometimes difficult to confront. For instance, with the writing of “Broken,” we were all discussing different losses that we've been through. I had just come out of being in the hospital with my son. When my son was born he had some unexpected complications and had to spend quite a while in NICU, and that was a pretty crazy experience. We saw other children there who never left the hospital. Parents that never brought their children home, and it was a difficult thing to be there and see all the suffering. We also saw God do some pretty amazing things and he really did show us His faithfulness in those times. I remember being in the hospital and reading the book of Job for comfort and seeing a man who lost everything in his life. I mean he lost his family. He lost all of his possessions, and then in the midst of that loss and brokenness he shaved his head and took off his clothes so he truly had nothing left, and then he fell to his knees and worshiped God. I just remember being so inspired by that and just thinking, “Wow, that's the man I want to be.”
John: You guys had the opportunity to partner with the Erwin Brothers on their film October Baby. Then you made a music video for the song "Life is Beautiful" that was in correlation with the movie. What kind of experience was that like seeing your song being such an integral part to the message of that movie?
Josh: Well, the way that that all came about was pretty interesting. We were actually on tour with Casting Crowns and we were working on songs for the new record. Most of the venues were these sports arenas, so we would have stinky locker rooms that were basically our dressing room for the day. So we would bring out equipment into these locker rooms and set up kind of a little mini studio. The idea for “Life is Beautiful” is one that's been kind of in my head for a while. I've wondered about that song and thought even about maybe doing a record with that scene for a while. We started discussing the concept of it and it just flowed out. It was one of the fastest songs we've ever written. We had it written and demoed within a day. Sent it to our manager. It was almost like once we started talking about the idea of things that we're thankful for in life and things that make life beautiful and those little gifts from God, it just started flowing. I remember sending it to our manager the next day after we had demoed it, and he said, "I've got to send this to the Erwin brothers because they just did a movie that this would be perfect for." Well, they had already finished it and turned it in, but they actually pulled it back and asked if they could make a tweak on it and they put the song in the movie because they felt like it would be a perfect fit. Then we did the music video for it. They had a whole campaign surrounding this film called “Every Life is Beautiful.” They didn't know about our song and we didn't know about the campaign. It just happened to be the perfect blend of ideas and the right thing at the right time that got put in place. It's been cool to see. It's such a great film. It's been cool to have a song that was a part of it and see the lives that were impacted by that movie.
John: Josh, are you always writing songs?
Josh: Try to. Right now we're writing songs, but not necessarily for us. We're working with some other artists on some songs. I try to keep fresh. It's one of those things like a muscle. If you don't work it out it gets flabby and you've got to work it back up and tone it again. It's better to not get out of shape. Songwriting is the same way. You don't want to lose it because it seems like once you practice the songwriting muscle as they say, you get better at it and faster at it and you're able to collect your ideas a little better. I definitely feel like once we're in the songwriting groove it's easier to finish songs and to channel ideas. I try to stay up on songwriting. I heard Charlie Peacock, he said he writes a song everyday whether it's good or bad. I think that's a great discipline to have. I'm not that disciplined, but I definitely try to stay up on it.
John: What does this year look like for you guys? You're going on tour?
Josh: Yes, we just finished a tour that we did together with Francesca Battistelli, and then during the summer we're basically just traveling all over doing festivals and fairs and things like that. Then come fall, we're doing an exciting tour. We're partnering with our friends Building 429 and we're going to bring out Hawk Nelson, some good buddies of ours as well. We're going to do a big fall tour so that's going to be really fun.
John: Awesome. Josh, when you look back at The Afters touring experiences through the years, through all of your records that you guys have done, is there a most embarrassing moment that comes to mind?
Josh: Most embarrassing moment. We've had quite a few numbers of them. We've had a number of embarrassing moments. I think for me, I've had some pretty epic falls on stage because I'm pretty mobile. I move around a lot and I go into the crowd and I climb on my piano and things, and I've had a couple of instances where I’ve had some pretty big falls. One of which was actually collected on video and somebody put us on You Tube. That's always fun. I think just the shear length of time that we've done this, we've all had our fair share of embarrassing moments.
There's been times when I walked on stage and said the wrong city’s name and that's something I think most singers have done at sometime or another, and that's always something that's hard to recover from. And it’s like, no really, I am glad that I'm in your city.
John: Yeah, wherever we are.
Josh: Wherever it might be.
John: Have you ever broken a bone on stage?
Josh: No, I've been fortunate to not break a bone, thankfully. I have broken equipment before. My guitar has suffered through my falls.
John: What has God been teaching either you personally or the band in the last month? You had mentioned a few minutes ago in looking at some of the songs you guys were wrestling with the fact that God is present in all things, both good and bad.
John: What about today? What would you say ... you're a married man who has children. Speak to other guys that are just kind of hitting the daily grind, attempting to love their wife well, love their children well, and pursue Christ. What does that look like on a daily basis for you, Josh?
Josh: I think that the reality is we all struggle with very similar things. We all want to be better husbands. We all want to be better parents. We all lose our temper at times. We all say things that we regret. We all make mistakes. I think what God has really taught me on a family level here recently has really been showing me through having kids is a little glimpse of the picture of grace. It's kind of given me an understanding of grace that I didn't have before being a parent, because anyone with kids knows that kids can be rotten sometimes and I have great kids, but they can still be rotten sometimes. No matter how rotten they are, it's not going to change my love for them. If they lie or if they hit their brother or sister or if they do something that I've asked them not to do and are disobedient, that's not going to change my love for them and they can't make me love them any less than I already do, and they can't make me love them anymore than I already do because I already love them as much as possible. That's given me a little glimpse of what God's grace for us is like and His love for His children. That no matter what we do in life even though we can be rotten sometimes and we make mistakes, that doesn't change God's love for us. He loves us so much that nothing we can do can take away even a single bit of that love.
John: Amen. That is a good word, Josh.
Josh: On the band side of things, I think gratitude has been something that God has really shown us through the years. We feel really fortunate to have done this as long as we have. Matt and I have been playing music together for going on 14 years. As a band, we've been touring full time since 2004. So we feel really blessed to be able to do what we do. I always remind my guys, if there's a day where people are complaining or maybe the bus breaks down or we miss flights or things happen that make the day difficult, I always remind them even on the worst of days that we're living somebody else's dream and we're so fortunate to be able to do this day in and day out. We definitely feel gratitude. It's cool to be able to see the fruits of what we're doing because when you write music you never know how God's going use it. Through touring you get to see a little glimpse when people come up to you and tell you these stories. We'll never hear all the stories, but when we do hear those little glimpses of what God has been using the music for, it's definitely encouragement to keep going.
So what are the beautiful things in life? Havens sums it up thus: "Our hope for our record—and a lot of heartache went into this album—is that it will encourage people to see how God is working in their lives. He's not just there on the sunny days. No matter what we go through in life, God is still with us and life is beautiful—God is beautiful."
"Tell us what we want, or we will beat you. You might as well tell us now and save yourself."
The story of Maryam Rostampour and Marziyeh Amirizadeh is not just a story isolated unto itself. It's not just a story about two young missionaries in a highly politizied country. It's not just a story of the persecuted church.
But it's my story.
It's your story.
It's the story of what Christ is doing through His precious Bride. The Church.
In their new book, Captive in Iran, Maryam and Marziyeh recount their 259 days in Evin, the notorious Tehran prison. Here, prisoners are routinely tortured, abused, and violated. Executions are frequent and sudden. But for these two women, this hell on earth was a place of unlikely grace as they reflected God's love and compassion to their fellow prisoners and guards. Against all odds, Evin would become the only church many of them had ever known. It's an amazing story of unyielding faith—when denying God would have meant freedom. Of incredible support from strangers around the world who fought for the women's release. And of bringing God's light into one of the world's darkest places—giving hope to those who had lost everything, and showing love to those in despair.
I had the privilege to sit down and converse with Maryam and Marziyeh about their life of pursuing Christ.
John: Ladies, what an honor it is for me to talk with you. I’m very thankful to you for giving us the opportunity to dig into what’s been going on in your lives. Obviously, you have a book that tells the entire story of what took place and your activities. When I was going through it, I was amazed that, ultimately, this is a God story. I’m wondering, maybe, before we get into some of the specifics of that story, if either one of you, or both, could share with me, and the folks who read this blog, what is it like growing up in the Middle East? What is it like growing up in Iran as a child? What are some of your favorite childhood memories?
Marziyeh: Thank you, John; it’s really a blessing for both of us to share. Whenever we share, we consider it an opportunity to be a tool in God’s hands and we really appreciate you having us. About life in the Middle East, we both were raised in Muslim families and, as you know, Iran is an Islamic country. In our country, religious laws and regulations always stop people from knowing the truth. But, I can say that there are some differences between countries like Iran or other Islamic countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan and Egypt. It’s not the same; especially the way that the people follow the rules and the religious laws.
In Iran, most people are not real Muslims and they don’t believe in Islam. In fact, they are tired of these Islamic rules and believe that Islam is not their religion, but is forced on them. Most of them don’t know anything about the Koran or its teachings, and it might surprise you to know that they are very open to hear about Jesus and the message of salvation. That’s the difference between Muslims in Iran and Muslims in other countries. But, the government usually tries to force people to follow the old religious rules.
I remember from childhood we had to follow these rules. For example, at school, students were forced to read the Koran or other Islamic books or pray in a mosque that is in Arabic. And they didn’t let the student’s learn about other religions, especially Christianity. And all we were told at school was that Jesus was the prophet of love and peace, nothing more. It was not just about Islam and Christianity; they don’t even let the students do research and learn about other religions either. We both remember that when we were children of about seven or eight years old, they would force us to stay in line and say things against the U.S. and Israel. They forced us to say, “Death to America. Death to Israel,” before going to classes. At that time we were just children, we had no idea what we were saying, but these are the things that the government tried to force people to do even though they don’t want to do this.
Maryam: And I can add one or two more sentences about that. As you know, women in Iran have less rights compared to men, because according to the Koran there are many verses which are about women and about their rights [or lack of]. About how a husband can punish his wife it she doesn’t obey, and most of their rules are against women. Women usually have to wear a hijab, which most of the women don’t believe in, and don’t want to do. But, this Islamic government, they force them to wear Islamic cover.
John: Based on what you both just told me, is there a condition in Islamic countries, or, I guess it sounds like it’s okay to be specific to Iran, that when people think of Christianity they think of America? Or if they think of Americans, they think of Christianity. In other words, are both of those words synonymous with each other?
Marziyeh: I can say that I usually teach people that Christianity is good for Western countries because they teach them that most Christians don’t have hijab and don’t follow Islamic rules, and they don’t cover their hair. That’s why they teach (because of this) that Christianity just belongs to Western countries.
John: So any Western country, not necessarily the United States?
Maryam: It’s mostly about the United States. When they refer to the West, they refer to United States.
Maryam: And I remember I had this experience when I was talking to people about Jesus, especially young people. Some of them, their first question was, “Oh, so in Christianity, we are allowed to drink wine because in Bible it says that you are allowed to drink wine?” They like this about Christianity and they think that this is from the West.
Marziyeh: And also, they tell people who converted to Christianity that you are converted to Christianity because of this, these things, that you can drink as Maryam told or that women don’t have hijab. And also in their worship, they dance--sometimes they dance. And they tell that most Iranian people who are converted to Christianity is not because of Jesus, it’s because of freedom in Christianity.
John: Ladies, can you take a few moments to talk about how you were introduced to Christ?
Marziyeh: My story is a long story. Can I tell whole testimony or just briefly?
John: You can do whatever you would like.
Marziyeh: Okay, so Maryam said that about 10 years ago we both converted to Christianity, but at that time, we didn’t know each other. It’s been about 8 years we have known each other and we have lived together. As Maryam explained about Iran, we both grew up in an Islamic country and from my childhood I always loved God and wanted to find out more about His truth. I did everything to get closer to Him. Since I was born into a Muslim family, my only means of getting to know God was religious teachings among the Muslim and at school. But, I always had many questions that Islamic ideology and Sharia law [the moral code and religious law of Islam] could not answer for me.
The God who created me, He is like a father. He is closer to me than members of my family and I didn’t believe the wrong belief that exists in Islam. Because in Islam, they teach people that God is one who rules over the human right and punishes them for their life of sin. I believe that that was a terrifying image of God. I didn’t believe the daily mosque prayer bending several times in front of a God who was already in my heart. I had many questions like, “Why should I speak to my God in Arabic instead of my native language? Doesn’t this God understand my native tongue? Why should I pray to Him as if He is a great leader or ruler over me? and Why should I cover myself in front of a God who created me?” There were many questions like this in my mind and the answer I was getting at school was not convincing me. Despite all of this reservation, I decided to follow my religious duties and told myself, “I may be wrong, and the truth will show itself to me one day in the future.”
So I prayed in the mosque for two years with the prayer I used to with the Koran. And even would wake up in the middle of the night and pray to Him again. But this type of prayer and worshipping were not making me feel any closer to my God. On the contrary, they were distancing me further from Him as they had become a routine action that I was forced to do, not that I wanted to do. And I remember before I converted to Christianity, I had a dream and God spoke to me through my dream.
In that dream I was praying to the sky, suddenly the sky opened and a white horse came down and it spoke to me, and it said, “Sit on my back.” When I obeyed, the horse took me to a city where they were just coming out of the mosque.
At first, they couldn’t see me, or the horse, but suddenly the Muslim worshipers were revealed as wild animals with savage features. As soon as I saw them, they could see me, and they tried to kill me. So the horse ran like the wind to save me and I remember as I held its neck I felt its love pouring into me with the power and purity I have never known. After that, we were safe. I awoke but I couldn’t explain how much love God let me touch in that dream. I’ve never touched love like this before.
After this dream, I decided to put aside my religion and came to the conclusion that the most important part of being a believer is just my heart. Then I began to speak to my God in the way of a relationship between a father and a child. And one day I heard, at that time, one day I heard (from my friend who had converted to Christianity) about Jesus. That Jesus is the Son of God who has come to this Earth for us, for freedom from our sin. At that point, I became very curious, because I haven’t heard anything like that about Jesus. I just thought He was just another prophet as He had been introduced to us in our textbook at school.
John: I want to interrupt here. Did the idea of having a personal relationship with Jesus scare you, to some extent, because it’s so contrary to how you were raised?
Marziyeh: No, it doesn’t scare me. But I didn’t know anything like that, I didn’t hear anything like that about Jesus. Because I just thought He was only another prophet, because in our school they teach us Jesus is just a prophet.
John: But He was not Mohammed? I mean, there is something very …
Marziyeh: They teach us He is a prophet, but not like Mohammed. In Islam they believe that Mohammed is the best and perfect prophet and that you cannot compare Mohammed with any other prophet. And that’s why I became very curious about this. I told myself, “How do I know Jesus is the truth?” It was the first time I heard that about Jesus, that Jesus is not a prophet, but that He is the Son of God. So I decided to study other religions and also I began to read the Bible because I wanted to find the truth. But, after awhile I realized that I could not possibly spend many years to study all religions of the world because there are many religions in this world, even in Christianity. I just decided, I just knelt and prayed and told God, “Please show me the truth because if Jesus is the truth, you must guide me to the right path and save me from being misguided. Because I don’t know what is the truth in this world. You are my God, you created me and you know what is the truth.”
After this praying, at that time, if I want to tell the whole story it’s long. But, I had a disease and for the first time I was invited by my friend who told me about Jesus to a church. It was the first time, first experience that I was in a church and it was very interesting for me because people were worshipping in joy and praying in their own language. And during the worship, suddenly, I heard the voice in my heart that told me Marzi, you are healed, Marzi, you are healed. I wanted to ignore it, but I told my friend, and she told me, “That is Jesus and he can heal you.”
And later at the medical appointment--that day I had a medical appointment too--when I went to my doctor’s office, when he wanted to write my prescription, he couldn’t. He put his pen down and told me, “I don’t know why I cannot write anything for you. Come back another time.” I wanted to insist him, but God reminded me of His message in the church and told me to trust Him. He had healed me, but I didn’t believe Him. I didn’t fully believe in Him because the healing was not enough proof for me. I just asked God to show me more about Himself and I wanted to be sure about this. Actually, at the bottom of my heart I had begun to believe in Jesus. But, still I had some doubt. For example, I had read the Bible but I had some doubts about Holy Spirit. What is the Holy Spirit? I couldn’t accept it; I didn’t believe it.
I remember one day I was praying, and suddenly the flames of the Holy Spirit came on to me and I received it and I began to pray in tongues. I couldn’t know what had happened to me. I didn’t know the meaning of my words but I could fully understand what I was telling to my God. And at that time, I remember while I was crying, suddenly I saw Jesus in front of me who was standing next to a large throne, which was covered with shining gold. And at that time, I wasn’t on the earth, and the middle of my forehead was burning as though someone had branded it. Suddenly, all my doubts disappeared and I felt that God had removed the curtain before my eyes and now I could see the truth. I couldn’t stop my tongue and just kept worshipping Him and I remember it was 12 at night until four in the morning. I kept praying and singing the song of praise nonstop. It was like a spiritual lovemaking that I didn’t want to end, but I couldn’t control it. By about four in the morning, I stopped praying, but what had happened to me was so incredible that I couldn’t describe it.
I always tell people that no one had forced me into anything or manipulated me. No one had cast a spell on me or hypnotized me. The explanation that I could legitimately derive from that experience was that I had met my God through the Lord Jesus Christ. From that day on, I dedicated all my life to Jesus and it’s been many difficult years with Him. During these years, I had many stories and dreams about God that each one is a long story. But I always tell that Jesus was the only person with me, every single day during the lonely life I had. And even without going to a church, I always have long walks with Him. He is next to me and He has been my guide in my life.
After that, at that time, I was working in a beauty salon and I had earned a trainer and management degree for training new hairdressers. I had this passion from the day I converted; I had this passion to talk with people about Jesus. After that, some of my friends suggested to me to start my own business. But I wasn’t interested in that because I believe my calling with people is their heart not their hair. So I quit my job, and after one of my friends suggested theology, I traded a certain future for the unknown because I had this passion to follow Jesus.
John: Were both of you ladies in Iran when you became Christians?
John: Is it different for a man than a woman being a Christian in Iran?
Maryam: Because women’s situations are different than men’s in Iran, we believe that women are more open to hearing about Jesus and the message of Christianity. This is because in Islam they don’t have equal rights with men. There are many Iran rules in the Koran about women, like temporary marriage. I don’t know if you have heard about this. Men can have a wife and also they can have temporary marriage. They can marry a woman for a few hours, for a week or a few months. They just sign a contract, they spend time with the woman, and after the contract expires, they are not together.
And there are also many other rules that men have. Husbands can beat their wives and [it says] that the wife needs to obey her husband. Because of all these wrong rules in Islam, especially for women, the women are more open to hearing about Jesus. They are tired of these rules and they don’t want to follow these rules. But I cannot say that men are not eager to hear about Christianity, too. They’re also open to hearing about Christianity; but in comparison, women, we believe, are more eager to hear because of all the Islamic rules against women.
John: Obviously, your story centers around the fact that the two of you started a couple of house churches that were underground. One was for prostitutes and the other one was for women. So both of them for women, but one was for prostitutes, specifically?
Marziyeh: No, the second one was for young people, women and even some men.
John: Oh, for young women and men. Okay, all right.
Maryam: Especially for young people.
John: Okay, like college age or even younger?
John: Yes, college. Then you were both turned in and you went to prison for almost a year? And not just any prison, but you went to one of the most severe prisons in Iran, in Tehran there, correct?
John: What was the most difficult part of being in prison?
Maryam: Prison is prison, and going to prison is not a pleasant experience for anyone. From the first day we suffered from many physical and mental tortures. For the first 14 days we were in a detention, which was in the basement and we had to spend our time with women who were prostitutes, addicted and homeless. The women who ran away from their homes… they sent us to that detention. We had to sleep on the ground. There were no carpets and we couldn’t eat for five days, for the first five days we didn’t eat at all.
Also, in Iran prisons, the situation is very difficult. Not just for political prisoners but for all prisoners. For example, there is not enough medical care and there is no doctor in prison. We could be, for nine months we suffered from different kinds of physical diseases but we were not allowed to see a doctor. Especially when they heard that we were Christians, they did not let us to see doctor. Most of the time we were under pressure and we believe that mental torture is even worse than physical torture. They sent us to a building, which is called 209 for interrogation. For 20 days we were not together and once a week we were being interrogated by two interrogators for long hours. We had to sit on chairs facing the wall blindfolded. These are all pressures that we suffered in prison.
But our most painful experience in prison was executions of prisoners with whom we were living every day; we had never experienced such a thing, it was so horrible. After those executions, we could feel the spirit of sorrow and death. We couldn’t say anything, we were just, we were shocked and we stared at each other but we had no power to speak. That was the most difficult experience for us in prison. Especially after prison, because when we got released, they executed one of our best friends and that was a shock for both of us.
Marziyeh: And also, you know our situation in comparison with other prisoners was worse because we were Christian. We were not allowed to use other facilities that there are in prison. For example, there were some classes. I cannot say it was good classes, but there was a center in prison that each prisoner could go to every day and participate in some classes. But when they heard that we are Christians they told us, “You are not allowed to come here. You are dirty. You are Christian. Because you have converted to Christianity, you are dirty.” The managers talked with me very bad and she told me, “You should be executed. You shouldn’t be here because you manipulate the mind of other prisoners. That’s why we don’t allow you to come here.” In most situations, like Maryam explained about the clinic, about these places, our rights were less than other prisoners.
John: How does one share the gospel story in an Islamic culture?
Maryam: We had this experience in New York after we finished the study in theology in 2005. We returned to Iran and we had this passion to go back and talk to our people about Jesus, because we knew how much they were thirsty to hear and how much they needed Jesus as their savior. I can say that when we were in prison, we were trying to, when we wanted to evangelize to people, we wanted to share our own testimony because we were from the same background. We were from Muslim countries and they would listen to us when they heard that we were from a Muslim background and our situation was the same as theirs.
Sometimes some of our American friends ask us, “How do you evangelize to people and how can we evangelize to Muslims?” We always tell people, it’s better for a Muslim to hear about Jesus from a Muslim background person who converted to Christianity because they can see the changes in our life. They could see how Jesus revealed himself to us and it had a great impact on them and they would listen to us. But if a person, for example, from Europe or America goes and talks to people in Iran, they wouldn’t listen as much as they listen to both of us. Usually, I share our own testimonies and how Jesus revealed himself to us.
John: Switching gears just a little bit. What do you ladies think of the church here in the West? Or, specifically, here in the United States? Is the church healthy here?
Maryam: We had different experiences here. When we moved here we understood that there are different denominations here and the churches are different. That teachings in churches are different from each other too. In Iran, there was just one official reading that the pastor was preaching in Farsi [a widely spoken Persian language, primarily spoken in Iran] and we could attend that church. But when we moved here, we observed that there are many churches, many denominations. We had both good experiences and sometimes not very pleasant experiences because of some teachings. Some churches, we believe they are just following the rules and in some churches we could see that people and believers are not--how can I say it?--alive. We couldn’t feel the presence of the Holy Spirit in some churches.
But, we had very good experiences also in other churches. We were in a church recently and we told the pastor that it was good that we came to their church because we could feel the presence of the Holy Spirit. We met with many believers; some of them are really an encouragement and blessing to both of us. I can say that it’s different. Some Christians here are just believers. They are Christians because they are born as a Christian, like Muslims in Iran, they are born as a Muslim. There is a difference between a person who calls himself or herself a Christian or a person who is really a believer and had some personal experience with Jesus.
John: I’ve heard it said before that the persecuted church, that brothers and sisters in Christ who are being persecuted for their faith in other countries are praying, to some extent--and take this in the right way--that those of us who are in the church here in the West become persecuted, because then we would live a more authentic Christian life. Do you feel a similar thought or ideal when you think of the church here in the West? Are we authentic? Is the church passionate enough for the glory of Christ?
Marziyeh: In our country, I can say sometimes persecution helps. For example, in our country they say because of persecution many people came to Christianity because they don’t have any hope. They are hopeless and they are disappointed. It helps to have a good relationship with God. What about here…? We heard in some churches that they believe that America needs persecution because people need persecution to have a good relationship with God. But, I don’t believe that we should pray for persecution.
In America, there is freedom, and Maryam explains that many people are born as a Christian. People should have a live relationship with Jesus, they should have a personal relationship with him. Most of the Christians here are born as a Christian, and they don’t touch Jesus in their life, it seems. They don’t have personal experience with Him. But I don’t believe that persecution can help these people or that we should pray for persecution. I don’t believe it’s correct.
Maryam: And also I think, I have this question because in some churches the pastor asked us, “If you need to pray for persecution, come to our churches.” But I don’t believe we need to pray for persecution and we don’t need to wait for persecution to come to change ourselves. These days we can hear the news about Middle East, about countries like Iran. There are many examples like Marzi and I, and other people who are in prison. These days an American pastor is in prison and many people, thousands of people hear the story. Why should we wait for persecution to come? There are many examples around us, we can look at them, we can start changing by just knowing that we cannot always be free, we cannot always worship God in freedom. There may be some time in our life that we will experience persecution. Persecution is not just going to free them. We all have difficulties in our own life and I don’t agree that they need to pray for persecution to come.
John: Amen. The truth is is that the persecuted church is still very much part of the church that I belong too. We are the body of Christ and if the church is persecuted anywhere, all of us should be on our knees praying for our brothers and sisters.
John: Ladies, how can those of us who are reading this blog or reading your book, or how can the church here in the United States be praying for our brothers and sisters in Iran? What is the biggest need?
Marziyeh: There in Iran, there are many Christians who are still there in the prison, like Saeed Abedini, I’m sure that you heard about him, and also Farshid Fathi, and there are also Christians. After we got released we heard the Iranian government arrested many Christian groups. We don’t know all of their names, but as you mentioned earlier we are all part of a body, one body in Jesus, and we should be responsible for those who are still suffering. We can pray for them. Maryam and I, when we were in prison, we could feel the power of these prayers and we have, we believe that we have power in our prayers and that we can change many things with our prayers.
And also, it’s very important to send letters to prison. When we were in prison, we heard from guards every day, we received about 50 letters and they told us that your letter is more than our official letters. And this kind of support scares Iranian government because they knew that Christians all around the world were uniting. And Christian people who are in prison are not alone. Because of all the pressure, they are scared to continue their cruelty. And also, it’s very important to inform other international organizations, people who work for human rights like the United Nation and embassies. Also, when we were in prison, we heard that the Pope from the Vatican sent a letter to the Iranian government, and that all of this activity scared this government that kept us in prison. We believe that when the public speaks out, it makes a huge difference.
John: How can we be in prayer for you ladies?
Maryam: We would like to ask you to pray for our families. They are still in Iran and we usually ask readers to pray for them. Also, here after publishing the book, we are under pressure from some attacks. Whenever we start a new mission, we have felt these attacks from Satan. When we were in Iran, we wanted to start our house churches or start distributing the Bible, and we had some attacks. Here also… it’s been three weeks since our book was published and we can feel these attacks, and we just need to be focused on our mission. We don’t want to be focused on the enemy. We want God to strengthen us so we can be focused on what He wants us to do.
Captive In Iran by Maryam Rostampour and Marziyeh Amirizadeh
Download the first chapter from Captive in Iran by clicking here.
Bonnie Mohr is wife. A mom. A farmer. An artist. And normal. She wrote once, "My work is a reflection of who I am, and what I believe. It is simple, and it is truthful! It defines moments, places, and things in life that are good, pure and right. I believe that if you engage your life and everything you believe in whole-heartedly , with conviction, passion and love…..everything else will fall into place."
If you are reading this and thinking, "I have never heard of Bonnie Mohr." You are probably wrong. Her paintings have been seen by thousands, if not millions of people. It's because of Bonnie's simple approach to both her life and work that drew me to want to sit down with her and find out what is on the other side of that brush.
So read on. I hope that you will not just get to know Bonnie in a better way, but you will understand more of her passion.
John: Bonnie, you grew up in a large family, correct?
Bonnie: Yes. There were eight children: seven girls and one boy. I was the second oldest. We grew up on a small, family dairy farm in Southern Minnesota. I really would have to refer to that as a simpler time compared to way we raise our children now. Especially with social media and the technology era that we live in. I grew up on a dairy farm and because most of us were girls, we grew up as a strong family unit. We worked as a family. Us girls, we milked cows and stacked hay and picked beans, and picked up rocks in the field.
We grew up in a world where less is more. It was also a world of hand-me-downs and shopping at the garage sales, and, I guess you’d say, really just being happy with what we had. It was kind of a nice way to grow up. Our family believed in church and togetherness. My parents gave us a strong foundation to go on with life and we learned to make the most of what we had. So that’s my upbringing.
John: Have you and your husband raised your kids in a similar fashion then?
Bonnie: Totally. Our strategy is to allow our kids enough freedom to grow and fit into the world of today, while instilling a strong foundation. What a lot of kids lack today are strong roots and the basics that prepare them for life. By that, I mean work ethic and responsibility and trustworthiness; about the ethics of life and going to church. We follow in line with a lot of families in that our kids participate in sports and are involved in different clubs and activities, and so we don’t always have those sit down meals three times a day—like I grew up with.
I find that our lifestyle is more on the fly and more on the go, but the advantage we have to raising our kids today is that we do live on a farm, and a dairy farm on top of it, which is quite labor intensive. A lot of the learning about responsibilities just naturally happen on a day-to-day basis around here. It’s not like we have to think of ways to try and raise our kids to be good, responsible young citizens. It’s a lifestyle. Farming has all the hard work and sacrifice and commitment that goes into a very rigorous lifestyle, and it’s one that’s almost hard to make a living at.
The upside of it, the silver lining in the cloud has been that if you’re trying to raise good kids, it happens almost in a natural manner on a farm, because of the things that happen here. They learn about life and death, they learn about care and responsibility. They learn about working together. They learn that our livelihood is contingent on the weather and circumstances that are out of our control. Truly, out of us eight kids growing up, there are only two of us now that live on a farm. And I’m the only one that is sort of repeating my own childhood in the way we are raising our children. I think it’s just a real rich blessing and I know that our kids are going to be set for life.
Our job is to raise them, and I say we’ve got them until they’re 18 and after that they’ve got to be ready to go. Having a farm and being able to raise our kids this way has been just a huge, wonderful blessing for us and it feels good. There aren’t a lot of people who have that opportunity anymore.
John: That’s very true. Bonnie, you had mentioned that in your family growing up, church was certainly an integral part. How did you become more aware of who Jesus is and how did you start to follow Him, as opposed to, say, riding the coattails of your parents?
Bonnie: I think everybody has his or her own journey in life to finding Jesus, and then with figuring out to what degree of commitment you’ll live your life for Him. For me, my life every day is a glorification to God and what He has blessed me with. I know that the blessings in my life are because of God and that it is He that works through me to create and fashion my life. I think as a kid growing up, I just followed in line with the rest of my siblings. We didn’t question going to church. We didn’t question who God was.
We were taught who God was. We were taught what our religion is and we went to church. We grew up in an era where you didn’t challenge your parents or talk back. You were just obedient and disciplined. I’m really thankful that I was blessed to have that sort of an upbringing, because at a pretty young age I became aware of who God is and why we’re here. And that everything we have is a blessing from God, too. Thankfully, I married another Christian, and we were both Catholic. That was another blessing: not having to choose what religion we would raise our children with.
Come to the water
Live in the moment, and Be.
Refresh your mind. Rest your body. Renew your spirit.
Regain a gentle heart and Peaceful soul.
Restore in The Power that is greater than you.
- Bonnie L. Mohr
For me, once we started farming and my business was starting to grow and we were having children, the load got heavier and heavier. Managing and coping with the load of life, really hit a threshold for me when our third baby was born. I was still trying to be a farm wife and milk cows. I was up at night with babies and I was trying to paint and I was running my own business by myself.
I guess the defining moment for me in life where I really made a 100% conscious decision that I needed God in my life--and that Jesus was my strength—was when that third baby came along. I crashed and burned. My wonderful, busy, happy life became too much for me. It was at that moment that I truly turned my life over to God. And I saw that because I was young and ambitious and strong and healthy, like a lot of people in life, I was wanting and expecting more faster and was in the “bigger is better” mindset.
I wanted it all, so to speak. I couldn’t work fast enough and the days weren’t long enough and I was trying to do everything. But what I was really doing was living life with my own set of goals and values, and not asking myself what God and Jesus wanted for me. It was at that time that I turned my life over to God and decided that I would let him take the wheel. That I would be happy and enjoy and embrace every day of my life and whatever he put in my path for each day. That was a big turning point in my life. And ever since then, I’ve really lived my life more about what does God want me to do. What does God want me to do with what he’s given me? How am I able to serve him?
I’ve really started to learn that the true root of my happiness is living my life for God and for Jesus. When you are open to that reality, all sorts of wonderful things start to happen to you, because you now are … you’re working for God. Your life is for Him and life here takes on new meaning and purpose all of the sudden, which makes it very exciting.
The other part is that, I guess, for the first 15 to 18 years of my career, I thought I was going to be a cow artist. I grew up on a dairy farm and I was painting cows and rural America and domestic animals and the like. I have built a very substantial following in the rural American art field, and especially, in the cow world with dairy farmers. Kind of obtained a level of worldwide recognition as a cow artist. When I starting painting inspirational art, and when my life starting changing, I began to see and feel that there was a lot more to what was going to happen with my art. And now I really believe that the first part of my career was a warm-up for the more important stuff, for what’s coming ahead.
"Life is not a race - but indeed a journey. Be honest. Work hard. Be choosy. Say 'thank you,' 'I love you,' and 'great job' to someone each day. Go to church, take time for prayer. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh. Let your handshake mean more than pen and paper. Love your life and what you've been given, it is not accidental - search for your purpose and do it as best you can. Dreaming does matter. It allows you to become that which you aspire to be. Laugh often. Appreciate the little things in life and enjoy them. Some of the best things really are free. Do not worry, less wrinkles are more becoming. Forgive, it frees the soul. Take time for yourself - plan for longevity. Recognize the special people you've been blessed to know. Live for today, enjoy the moment." - Bonnie Mohr
I think really I’ve just started to tap into the second phase of my career, which I believe will be more inspirational art that holds great meaning and changes people’s lives. It’s been pretty amazing so far, and I’m more or less just a sponge soaking it all up right now. So I’m very excited about what type of work I will be producing down the road.
John: I really appreciate you sharing that testimony, Bonnie. It sounds to me like God has done some amazing things in your life, and I know those words carry a lot of weight behind them, so I certainly appreciate that. I’m wondering if you could share a little bit about how you first became interested in being an artist and painter, and if there are any other mediums that you enjoy?
Bonnie: I work only in oil. At the beginning, I started out in some acrylic and a little bit of pencil drawing, but oil is my number one choice because of the richness of it. And also because of, I guess, the qualities of oil paint and everything you can do with them. I’m fascinated with—frankly, in love with—oils for another reason, too. The masters used it. I think, if you’re going to do anything in life, why not try to be the best and stack yourself next to the best if you can. Why not try to emulate them? So because they painted in oil, it’s just my love and fascination also to paint in oil.
I would love to do some sculptures some day, but there’s just so much for me to learn in this area yet that I don’t know if I’ll live long enough to get that far. As far as why I’m an artist, there’s really only one answer to that, and it’s because this is what God’s quest is for me. The likelihood of me becoming an artist, in my opinion, was about equal to me becoming an astronaut. I had no calling at a young age for it, other than that I was fascinated with color and design. There was something magical about artwork to me, though, and I was just drawn to it because of color and design. I had a silly fascination for anybody that could paint. I just thought that was so cool.
I remember going to college for Dairy Production, with a minor in Communications, and one day while studying in my dorm room, I began thinking about how great it would be to spend my whole life doing something fun, like the way hobbies are fun. Like an athlete, a pro athlete, who gets to play football or basketball their whole life and get paid for it. I started thinking about using the talents that I’ve been given--and we each have something we’re good at—but then I kind of just put that thinking away in a box and put it up on a shelf somewhere and that was the end of it. It was the seed, perhaps.
On a side note, on evenings and weekends when I wasn’t studying or going out or traveling, I used my art as expression of who I was. I enjoyed picking up a paintbrush and putzing with it. That was really the extent of it then. In fact, I have no formal training; I’m self-taught. I just have always had this fascination with art. I went to some art shows back in the ‘80s. I don’t know if you remember, but western and wildlife was huge and there were western and wildlife art shows all over the country. You could go to convention centers and attend art shows and look at artists’ work and things like that. I did that.
I went to a couple of shows and walked around in great awe of these people who had this talent, this amazing talent. I really don’t know why, but I just thought, “I wonder if I could do that?” Thinking back to high school, I did take an art class and loved it. I’d say I was maybe average or slightly above average. As I got older, I continued to have this magnetic attraction for art and just kept wanting to do it.
When we got married, my husband had a job where he traveled a fair amount and so I had time on my hands. I did pursue learning to teach myself to paint. At that point it was purely a hobby though. The more I worked at it—and it was a struggle since I’m not naturally that gifted or talented—the better I got. I’ve had to learn a lot, and I struggled, but I really worked hard. There are no artists in my family, and I didn’t know any artists personally. What it really boils down to, I believe, is that this is the path God wanted for me. I’m just a slow learner and it’s taken me awhile to get this far and develop my skill level.
Today is a gift. Embrace it with joy and anticipation... realize the possibilities. It beckons you towards your destination in life. Be at peace - you are exactly where you are meant to be at this moment. God has carefully chosen the people, events, joys and challenges on your path today. The things you will encounter are stepping stones of what is to come. Make the most of today. Focus on "the present" - you will see and appreciate things you might otherwise miss. Follow your heart - search to find your purpose in life and you will find meaning and happiness.
Use your talents, do your best, contribute. Make a difference, because you can. Be passionate about your journey - sing, dance, laugh, and love as you go. Give praise and allow time for prayer. The promise of tomorrow begins with the endeavors of today. Do not let the fast-forward pace of the world deprive you from savoring "the now." Seek things that fill you with love and bring you joy. Have faith, it fosters hope - it makes the difference. Believe, with God all things are possible.
Live well - live today, for it is a gift.
- Bonnie L. Mohr
Once I really got going with it and became serious about my art, I just did it on evenings and weekends while I had my other job. I was in marketing and communications for a publishing company. At that point my husband traveled and we didn’t have children, so I had time to work at it. In a very big nutshell, that’s really the process I went through. I guess, after about two or three years of actively pursuing art and teaching myself on a serious level, my skill level got to a point where I was painting quite well. I started showing my work and I landed a job with an IA company to paint one their bull studs.
At that point, I decided I was going to try this full time, and I put in my notice at my job. My husband was very supportive and he just said, “You know, if it doesn’t work out, you can always get a job.” I made the decision that I wouldn’t wait until I was 65 to pursue my dream, or wake up one day and say, “I wished I would have done that.” I decided that I would try it in the here-and-now, and it’s been a big journey. I definitely have earned my stripes. It’s been wonderful, and there’s no doubt in my mind that this is the path God chose for me. I think that’s where faith really comes in, when you need to stick with it and pursue it. So, here I am.
John: Bonnie, who would you say is your biggest influencer? Who do you look at and go to or listen to or read or whatever and find yourself inspired by that person?
Bonnie: I have a couple of pieces of art, actually, hanging in my home that are by an Italian artist from the 18th century. William Adolf Bouguereau is his name. It’s very interesting; he’s painted a lot of religious images. He was actually French. His work is phenomenal. He has some great religious pieces that he did. I’d say right now, he is probably my greatest inspiration as an artist. Actually, hanging downstairs in the house I also have a couple pieces of other pieces I love by … Oh, geez; I’m drawing a blank right now. I’ll run down and check after a while, but I don’t know. I’d have to say that as far as artists those two are probably my favorite and as far as authors, I don’t know. I don’t really read a lot. Max Lucado.
John: Yeah, Lucado.
Bonnie: He’s a very inspiring man as well. I love some of his books. He’s sort of been an inspiration to me as well.
John: What would you say to the young inspiring artist? The 8-year-old or 12-year-old young man or lady who looks at your work or at William Adolf Bourguereau’s work or anybody else’s and says, “Wow. I want to do something like that.” How do you encourage that young person?
Bonnie: I think the thing I have learned is to dream the impossible, because it really is not the impossible after all. I truly believe that if you have a love of something, if you are passion-driven and want to achieve it—whatever it is—then there’s no replacement in the world for that passion and hard work. That’s probably what I learned as a kid growing up on the farm and that’s probably what has carried me to where I am today. Like I said, there’s really no logic to why I’m doing what I’m doing. I think I was just really true to myself and followed my heart. I prayed about it and I never gave up.
I think we live in a world today that’s more of a disposable, fast-paced, instant gratification type of world, and unfortunately our younger generations are learning that they have the ways and the means to have what they want instantly, and so much, too. Fortunately, that’s not the way I grew up, because that’s really not the way it works when it comes to really great things in life. Really good things require hard work, dedication and persistence, and they require having a dream and, of course, conviction. That’s sort of the moral of my story, I guess, since nothing has come easy for me either. But I had, and still have, the desire to be successful. My belief, as I’ve said, is that if you work hard and pray about what you’re pursuing—and if you persist—you will probably succeed.
Most people just never take it that far, from what I’ve seen. Many people give up. Then I think it’s all about being happy with what you have. Finding true joy and satisfaction in what you do have or already do is important too, because too many people in life just mope about what the next guy’s got and what they don’t have. Life can’t be about what they wished they could have, but about really plowing into their own life and what they do have. I think that’s it.
Skillet recently made headlines when their last album, Awake, became one of just three rock albums to be certified platinum in 2012, forming an improbable triumvirate with the Black Keys’ El Camino and Mumford & Sons’ Babel. The news that Skillet had sold more than a million albums in the U.S. came as a shock to all but the band’s wildly diverse horde of fans, male and female, young and old—known as Panheads—whose still-swelling ranks now officially number in the seven-digit range. This remarkable achievement was announced just as Skillet was putting the finishing touches on their eagerly awaited follow-up album, Rise (Atlantic/Word).
As soon as the master was turned in to the studio to finish post production on the new album, I sat down with John Cooper
(lead singer) to talk through what was behind Rise. As you will see, while reading this, John is a passionate man. He is passionate about his music. His wife. His family. About Christ.
John: I’m wondering if you could share a little bit with us about the new record, Rise. What’s the story behind this?
John C.: It’s a story about a typical, American teenage kid coming into adulthood and being faced with how brutal the world is. There are shocking things in the outside world, like school shootings, war and all the things you see on the news everyday.
This album is about how those things affect the life of a teenager. And it’s not just about the big problems from outside, but also about problems from within. That is, living in a single family house with an abusive dad, fighting at home, school bullying, just not being happy with who you are as a person and about trying to find faith. The whole record is about finding faith in a dark world. Rising up out of your circumstances. It all leads to a climax of the character realizing he is never going to be good enough. He is never going to do enough, and is born to let himself down. Even if the outside world doesn’t let him down. Even if his friends don’t let him down. He is going to let himself down because he needs to be redeemed. He reaches out to God and basically just says, “I need to be saved. I need something bigger than myself. I want a change and I want to be new.” That is the climax of the album during the song “Salvation,” in which he cried out for Salvation. All of the sudden, he is safe and able to rise up out of his circumstance.
John: John, throughout your discography, you guys have always had one or two songs that have dealt with that person who is being pressured by the elements of this world, by the things of this world. You’ve really kind of encouraged people to rise above it and move past that. This certainly has been part of your call as an artist and as a songwriter through the years. Is this a personal story in a sense, John C.? Do you know this person?
John C.: Right, well there certainly are aspects of me in this person. It’s not a mural. It’s not every little thing that happens. But, yes, absolutely. In fact, I dare say, there are elements of all of us in this person. I think that’s why this record is coming off well.
So far, people are experiencing it personally. I think it’s because most of us can relate to that feeling of worthlessness, or maybe we let ourselves down and we just realize that it’s amazing that someone else would love us, especially God. A holy God, for that matter! That He would like us is real shocking. There are personal things in my life, of course, that contributed to this, certainly.
My mom died when I was young. I was 14. My dad and I didn’t get along for a long time. There were times growing up that I felt afraid and wondered if God was there. When I cried out to Him to help me through those hard times. My story is embedded within this record, definitely.
Good to be Alive
Written by John L. Cooper, Zach Malloy, Tom Douglas
When all you've got are broken dreams
Just need a second chance
And everything you want to be
Gets taken from your hands
We hold on to each other
All we have is all we need
Cause one way or another
We always make it, you and me
This life can almost kill you
When you're trying to survive
It's good to be here with you
It's good to be alive
It’s good to be alive
I was lost and I was gone
I was almost dead inside
You and me against the world
It’s a beautiful night
It’s good to be alive
Driving down this highway
Soaking up the sun
Got miles to go before we get home
And the journey's just begun
We hold on to each other
You are everything I need
You feel like forever
You're a second chance for me
It's a beautiful night
Yeah, it's alright
It's good to be alive
John: Your last three records have allowed you guys to walk into various ideologies or arenas of thought where you've been able to speak a very significant message. What has that been like? How has that experience been for maybe you, your wife and for you guys as a band over the last couple of years?
John C.: It has been thrilling, because evangelism has always been kind of what my life is about. Ever since I became a Christian when I was five, it was a natural gifting and leaning towards sharing my faith with people. That longing and zeal has never changed for me. The only thing I think that has changed is the way I do it and the way that we go about it.
To answer that question, yeah, I think Skillet has begun to write songs, as you said, songs we could all relate to, not just Christian people. I kind of look at it like the way that Jesus told his parables. That is—and I’m just going to be honest here, but I hope nobody takes it bad—I’ve been a Christian since I was five, and still when I read Jesus’ words I still sometimes go, “Man, I just wonder why he wasn’t more clear about what he was talking about.” It’s a little elliptical you know? You have to dig in and watch it rise and see what he was pointing at. The only answer I have come up with is that the Bible said if you seek God, you will find Him. I started thinking, you know what? That’s how I’m going to write my songs. I’m going to leave them open to interpretation of things that we can all relate to, and then when people go to the website or they come to the show and they hear me doing an interview, they will begin to hear what the songs are about. I hope to point them toward Jesus in that way. The songs are kind of grouped by a message that people can relate to. That is kind of how Skillet has written our songs.
To answer your other question, it has been thrilling because I love evangelism. They tell of people that have gotten saved from music. Could be the unreachable type, the unreachables of the world and that is where I feel I have a lot to share.
When our last record came out, there was a guy who basically sent me an email saying he heard our song on NFL. “Hero” was playing and he liked it. He said he went to their website and found out who the band was, and bought the song. He said he loved the song and came to a show. One thing led to another, and basically this guy and his wife were both in the pornography industry. They both were filmmakers. The guy got saved and ended up leading his wife to it too. So they were saved now and got out of that industry and have gotten into church. And it was all from hearing our song on NFL. Stories like that are amazing! It’s something only God can do. And we are so honored He is using our music to do it.
What I Believe
Written by John L. Cooper and Korey Cooper
The world around me
Is lost in misery
The only good I've got in my life is you
No meaning, no other reason
When everything feels wrong I feel right with you
So madly, desperate, deeply, obsessed your love is better than life to me
Can I have this moment forever?
Take me to the beginning
You are what I believe
I'll live and die for you
This is all that I need
When nothing is real you are my truth
In the darkness you shine
Can you keep me safe tonight?
When I’m down on my knees
You are what I believe
When we started, wholehearted
I never needed anything or anyone else
I was broken, you made me whole again
The only one I trusted more than myself
So madly, desperate, deeply, I will live for you completely
Can I have this moment forever?
Take me to the beginning
Believe in your love
Believe in your life
Believe that you can put me back together on the inside
Chase all the fear away
Every time I speak your name
You are what I believe
You are what I believe
I'll live and die for you
This is all that I need
When nothing is real you are my truth
In the darkness you shine
Can you keep me safe tonight?
When I'm down on my knees
You are what I believe
John: That is absolutely amazing, John. And I appreciate you sharing that.
Let’s shift gears now and talk a little bit about the new record. How does a concept record get played live? What is the live show going to look like for Rise?
John C.: Well, at the moment, we are just going to keep showing our shows as we do them. The really cool thing about this record is that I think the songs live on their own outside of the concept period. It’s really cool because with concept records, sometimes individual songs aren’t as strong on their own outside of the full story. We wrote these songs not intending to make it a concept album. The songs themselves do live on their own, and yet the story seems quite clear per song.
That’s why I think this record is kind of unique. It’s a concept record full of songs that stand alone with impact, we hope. At the moment, we are going to keep playing the songs as-is, but in the back of our minds, we hope this album garners enough excitement, respect and sales that we could go out and do a tour. The whole show is basically like theater, not a theater performance, but more like cinema rock. Like a movie all the way through. That would be really great. You can’t really plan on that kind of success. You have to hope for it and wait and see what happens.
John: It’s all about cinema rock, isn’t it? Is there still going to be fire?
John C.: I sure hope so. I love that. Again, going back to Skillet, in the past a lot of people have told me, “When I’m listening to your music or I see the show, it kind of feels like I’m watching a movie.” People have said that quite a lot. I like the theater aspects and the fire. We were adding some stuff this summer that we’ve never done before. I won’t give it away right now, but we’re beginning to add other effects to our show that I think are bringing even more to that sort of theater/movie experience. We’re going to keep adding surprise elements. I hope that fire is always one of them for the rest of my life.
John: I do too, man. I keep voting for fire.
John C.: I agree. It was my birthday [a while ago] and I got these new shoes that I’m really excited about. I put them on and I said to my son, “So, what do you think? Do you like my new shoes?” He said, “Yeah, but I think they would be cooler if there was a skeleton on the side and his skull was on fire.”
John: I love it.
John C., with that in mind, either in a live setting or even on your records, we will hear hints of 80s glam rock.
John C.: Right.
John: I know you were born in the mid 70s. Are you in love with 80s glam rock as much as I am?
John C.: Absolutely. You definitely can hear it. In fact, it’s funny because some people ask in interviews, “Who is your biggest influence?” This is awful to say, but I think that in Skillet’s music you hear decades of influence. You definitely have that 80s glam thing. You see it in the show with the fire and the guitar solos. Everything is a little bit over the top.
Also, I am a really big fan of 70s rock, like the stuff Journey, Kansas, Yes and Fleetwood Mac put out. You can really hear that in the music, too. Even some Meatloaf. It’s got this kind of Queen opera rock thing to it that feels a little dramatic. I think with the strings, it feels a little romantic as well. You can definitely hear all of those. But my voice, I don’t sing like an 80s guy. I sing more like a 90s guy. That is, when I started really singing in rock bands, it was 1992–93, and you had Nirvana, Pearl Jam and all those kinds of bands on the scene. So we definitely have a variety of decades of influence and skill with our music and sound.
John: Cinema rock.
John C.: Yeah.
John: So you are a husband, a father, a songwriter, singer and follower of Jesus. Help the ordinary man—whether in high school, college or married—who has followed your career for the last few years. As someone who is reading this blog who struggles to follow Christ on a daily basis, how do you work that up? How do you follow Jesus on a daily basis and how could you encourage others in their walk?
John C.: That is a great question. The problem is there is not a great answer, like click your heels together twice and take this pill. I wish there were because it would be easier. I think especially what I’m seeing with young people, young people’s attention spans are just so short these days because of the amount of information available. It is constant bombardment with Twitter, Facebook, YouTube. There is so much stuff happening that I think we get drawn into fads. We go, “Man, I’m all about this new TV show, or twit picks. Or the new iPhone.” It’s constant bombardment. Within all of those things, there may be a time for a lot of Christians that they are all about Jesus but then they move onto something else because it’s just constantly moving.
I tell people, “You have to make a decision in your life now, what your entire life is going to be about.” It’s kind of like when I chose to marry my wife. I made a decision and I knew for the rest of my life until I died or she dies, we are going to be married and that is just the way it is. Nothing is going to change that. I have a kid. Nothing is going to change it. You are going to be a father. Nothing in the world can stop that anymore. Even more importantly, that is what it means to follow Jesus. I am making the decision today that my whole life is going to be about Him, and I will do what He says and I just won’t falter from that. I think a lot of it just comes down to making a decision and sticking to it rather than jumping on and off fads.
For me, I made that decision years ago and I surrounded myself with other people who made that decision. My pastor, my friends, and my wife. We all have made that decision together and then when things are hard and the new fad comes in, and I go, “Man, maybe I want to give working out more time than I give Jesus,” I have my wife and pastor and friends chime in, and we all pursue Him together.
I think a lot of Christians don’t make that decision. I always tell people it’s not going to be easier to live for Jesus but you have to make the decision and it can be done. It becomes easier to live for Jesus once you have just made that commitment because that is what your life is about. Instead of finding things that seem more fun, find the most fulfilling thing and that is living for God. Knowing His love, speaking to Him every day and talking to Him. It’s absolutely more fulfilling to your soul than all of these other “fun things.” Anyway, that is what I do. Of course, I read my Bible and I pray, but a lot of it comes down to what our lives are going to be about, and it is Him.
Music and words: John L. Cooper and Korey Cooper
Who's gonna save my soul
Nothing and nobody but you
Who's gonna make me whole
Nothing and nobody but you
Can't change me, sway me
Don't know what to make of me
You've got my devotion fanatical though it may be
I love you mind, heart, body and soul
You're the only sanctuary that i know
I don't need to stare at stained glass and a steeple
I don't need to dress to impress all of the people
Don't need no priest
Don't need no pew
You are my religion my religion is you
I don't need no other purpose
You give me a reason
Ain’t their business what I wanna believe in
You are my priest
You are my truth
You are my religion, my religion is you
Who's gonna heal my pain
Nothing makes me feel like you do
Who can drive my demons away
Nothing makes me heal like you do
I love you mind, heart, body and soul
You're the only sanctuary that I know
I don't need to stare at stained glass and a steeple
I don't need to dress to impress all of the people
Don't need no priest
Don't need no pew
You are my religion my religion is you
I don't need no other purpose
You give me a reason
It ain’t their business what I wanna believe in
You are my priest
You are my truth
You are my religion, my religion is you
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me
Mind, heart, soul and strength
Belong to you, belong to me
Got my devotion I will follow where you lead
I won't be told what to feel and how to show
My love can't be stopped
Love you any way I want
John: I love it John, and I really appreciate your honestly there. That is really good to hear. One last question before we leave?
John C.: Hit me.
John: Red Bull, Mountain Dew or coffee.
John C.: Oh gosh, you know what? I’m not in love with any of them to tell you the truth. These days I drink coffee, not a lot, but I do drink coffee. I haven’t been drinking sugar or caffeinated drinks. I got off that. I am over six months Dr. Pepper-free. Dr. Pepper was my drug of choice.
John: That’s right, I forgot about that. I’m sorry I should not have offended you by saying Mountain Dew. I should have said Dr. Pepper, Red Bull or coffee.
John C.: It would be Dr. Pepper but I am recovering.
John: You are recovering.
John C.: That is one of those things that I could never touch it again because I’m like a Dr. Pepper-a-holic. I haven’t told anybody that in interviews. You are the first person to hear me say that I’m six months Dr. Pepper-free.
John: Can I ask why you gave it up?
John C.: It was just bad for me. Diabetes runs in my family. I’m like, you know what? I love this drink too much and it’s not good for me so I quit it. I think even more important than that, is they refused to promote Skillet and put anything behind it. So they haven’t put me in a Dr. Pepper commercial. If they did, then I wouldn’t mind drinking it (laughs). I would give them my Dr. Pepper anonymous card, and I would take it up again if they would put me in a commercial.
John: There you go. All right, Dr. Pepper, it’s on the line. It’s all up to them now.
John C.: Yes.
John: John, thank you, Man. You’ve made me laugh. You encouraged me in my walk with Christ today. I appreciate you. I appreciate your band and your ministry and your art. I’m excited about this new record.
John C.: Well, thank you so much. I appreciate it. It was good to talk to you.
Some of my fondest memories with my family is packing everyone one of us in our mini-van and driving to a music festival. Being surrounded by other believers that have the same appreciation for art is always a great thing to do. It was a picture of the Church - or what it will be some day.
There always seemed to be something for our whole family to do. Whether it was checking out the artist's booths, various ministries that were present on the festival, catching a great speaker, listening to music or finding the rock climbing wall. We always had a blast.
One year, on the first day of the festival, a huge rainstorm came rolling in. It basically turned out to be a Christian "mud-fest." Nobody minded though. All of us were muddy and none of us cared.
I thought that I would offer a "play-list" of sorts to help you get ready for your journey to your nearest Christian music festival. Check out these artists today and prepare for some amazing, God-honoring shows when you see them this summer.
Check out the sounds of American Idol contestant, Colton Dixon.
The journey of hard rockers We As Human from one of northern Idaho’s most beloved, bone-crunching indie acts to ink a deal with Atlantic Records is nothing short of extraordinary. After touring throughout the region alongside a soundtrack slot in a national commercial for Xbox 360’s “Section 8” video game, the guys scored an unexpected networking opportunity of a lifetime.
“Our road manager at the time was working a Skillet show as a runner and a couple of the band members ended up in our touring van,” recalls frontman Justin Cordle. “As they were driving around, he said ‘Hey, I know you get CDs all the time, but this one from We As Human is way more awesome than all the others.’ It wound up making its way to the band’s frontman John Cooper, kind of as a joke at first because they really do get demos pitched to them all the time, but he put it in, absolutely loved it and said we were one of the best bands he’s heard in quite a few years.”
The new album from We As Human streets on 6/25. Read below for our recent Q&A with Justin Cordle.
1 - What is your background? Where did you guys grow up? What made you interested in music?
A: We started our band in Sandpoint, ID, if you don’t know where that is, don’t feel bad, nobody else does either! We all come from different places though, Adam & I grew up together in Sandpoint and meet each other when we were kids attending the same church. Forshaw hails from Western Washington, Dave from Eastern Washington and Jake was reared in the lands of Austin, TX & New Mexico.
Music was a passion in each of us from a very young age and as we grew, it became more and more obvious that we were of the musician kind. God gives everyone a very distinct desire and passion to produce something in this world, ours has always been music. From the first time I stepped on stage with my guitar at 8 years old and sang a Don Francisco song -out of key probably-, I was hooked.
My desire to pursue music went into hyper-drive when I was 13, my parents and I were coming back from a conference in our 1989 wood-panel-sided Caravan, and I fell asleep and had the only dream I’ve had in my entire life that I knew was from Christ. In that dream I was standing on a stage singing and playing my guitar, I heard “This is what I have for you”, then I woke up. That was it, but, it was so profound, it altered the entire direction of my life to this very day.
2 - What are your biggest influencers? Musically and spiritually?
Musically, well, that’s where it gets weird! A few artists that have shaped us into the musicians we are would be : Alterbridge, Skillet, Steve Via, John Meyer, Extol, .S.R.V., Alice In Chains. Garth Brooks, Darrell Evans, Hillsong & Keith Urban, just to name a few.
3 - What does your live show look like?
We love playing live, and I think our love for music and our fans comes through in our performances. I don’t know how to explain our show, but I can say, we leave it ALL on the stage every night. We have walked off the stage on more than a few occasions bleeding. There is an excessive amount of guitar-head dodging, accidentally running into each other and guitar shredding on our stage every night to be sure. It’s the epitome of our musical passion and it’s where we feel the most comfortable and alive.
4 - Coffee or Mountain Dew?
This one is easy, Coffee, but not just any coffee, we like coffee served by a spider monkey who is wearing sandals, lemon-yellow-pleated shorts, and a T-shirt that says, “I’m here for the party!”.
For more on We As Human, and to listen to snippets of the latest EP, click here.
Citizen Way was formed in 2004, when two sets of siblings - Josh and Ben Calhoun and David and Ben Blascoe - crossed paths while in college. Their camaraderie made for a foundation that went beyond their biological connection and combined their vision for ministry with their passion for music. The result is Love is the Evidence, an infectious pop-rock project with sensibility.
The music on this album has a driving momentum that will connect to your core as a soundtrack for life. In the end, the guys of Citizen Way really just want to have a conversation with people, sharing stories that reflect Scripture, reveal the heart of God and speak to honest, human struggle. If they can accomplish that while inspiring people to walk with Jesus and find joy in the journey, then the brothers of Citizen Way will have done their job.
1 - What is your background? Where did you guys grow up? What made you interested in music?
We all grew up in Southern Wisconsin. The Blascoe boys are from Racine and the Calhoun boys are from Milton.
Growing up, music was always around the Calhoun family. Our mother, Lannette Calhoun, is an accomplished concert pianist and she paved the way for Josh, our sister Sarah and I to have easy access to all kinds of great music. Our dad is a pastor and we learned how to lead worship and serve at our church.
The Blascoe boys grew up in church and served on the worship teams as well. David started playing drums after watching “That Thing You Do” (our official band movie) and received his first drum set at age 12. Ben Blascoe was inspired to play bass during their first visit to their home church when he was 13 years old.
We all played and sang in the school bands and choirs and we all made lots of noise in church basements with all of our bands growing up. We all love to hang out in the recording studio; it's like a kitchen for band geeks! We formed Citizen Way in college at Judson University, and we still practice at the studio I helped build on campus and are music ambassadors for the school: www.judsonu.edu/citizenway
2 - What are your biggest influencers? Musically and spiritually?
We are so thankful for our youth pastors and parents for leading us to the Lord when we were younger. Each of us came to know Jesus early on and as we grew up, music was how we most naturally connected with the Lord. We want to encourage young artists to walk with Jesus, allowing him to do a work in their hearts as only He, the author of art, can do.
As a band, we will sometimes listen to the great jazz music of Dave Brubeck in the dressing room before a show on Ben B.’s portable record player. As individuals, Davd’s favorite band is P.O.D., Josh is a big Coldplay fan, one of Ben Blascoe’s favorite bands is North Mississippi All-Stars and my favorite band of all time is PfR.
We all grew up on Christian music; it is foundational in who we are. One of our most memorable moments was opening for Audio Adrenaline, and now we're label mates--It's a dream come true!
3 - What does your live show look like? The lights go up. The drums get loud. We definitely have a lot of fun out there – sharing our music and the stories behind the songs. We always love meeting everyone who attended the show and making new friends in each city we go to!
4 - Coffee or Mountain Dew? We all like Starbucks!!!! Gift cards are welcome! ;)