Listening In: Doug McKelvey

WARREN SMITH, HOST: I’m Warren Smith, and today you’ll be listening in on my conversation with songwriter, author, and liturgist Douglas Kaine McKelvey.

Douglas McKelvey believes that every square inch of creation is under the authority of God and every moment of our lives should be lived coram deo—”before the face of God.”

That means that every activity from preaching a sermon, to washing dirty laundry, to cooking dinner should be done to the glory of God. His book Every Moment Holy is an expression of these ideas. Every Moment Holy is a collection of liturgies, prayers that remember God in what Luther called the mundane faithfulness of everyday life. He’s written prayers and celebrate the first snowfall of the year. There’s a liturgy for those who weep and don’t know why. A liturgy for feasting with friends. This is not the kind of book that becomes a best seller, you would think, yet that’s exactly what’s happened with Every Moment Holy. Published by The Rabbit Room an arts community that has grown up around musician Andrew Peterson and his brother dramatist Pete Peterson, Every Moment Holy has now sold tens of thousands of copies and future additions of the book are already on the way. Before he started writing modern day liturgies, Doug McKelvey made his living as a songwriter, writing more than 350 songs for Switchfoot, Kenny Rogers, Sanctus Real, and Jason Gray. His books include The Angel Knew Papa and The Dog and The Wishes of the Fish King. I had this conversation with Doug McKelvey in Nashville and I began by asking him to read the first liturgy in Every Moment Holy, a liturgy that explains why he wrote the book and what his prayer is for the book.

DOUG MCKELVEY, GUEST: A liturgy for the writing of liturgies: “How fearful a vocation is the writing of liturgies, O Lord, for it presumes the shaping of words that others will speak to you. Therefore, make me faithful to my craft, O Great Architect of Truth and Poetry. Let me be diligent to the discipline and the labor required, but let me never forget that all such measured faithfulness yields only a polished stone, meaningless until it is stirred from within by your breath, until it is set by you in a crown of your own crafting. Grant to me, then, an unmerited wisdom to anticipate the needs of your people in their varied seasons of life. Let me find form to convey their loves and fears, their thoughts and hopes, their sorrows and their celebrations. Inspire me to tell in words of the holiness of your presence made manifest in all tasks in all hours of all days for you, O Lord, are with us always. Every sphere of life and creation is yours and all are threads of the same bright weave. Our goings out and our comings in. Our fellowship and our loneliness. Our youth and our old age. Our passions and our vocations. Our chores and our entertainments. You are equally present in our failures and in our successes. In our sleep and in our wakeful hours. In our tears and in our laughter. In our births, in our lives, and even in the hours of our deaths, you are ever present with us. May this book and these prayers, therefore, serve to train the hearts of your people to practice a mindfulness of your presence in all moments. Move within these liturgies, O Spirit of God. Stir these pages, stir hearts, stir minds, stir imaginations. Call your people to remember you always. O peoples of God, remember your God. Remember Him in all places. Remember Him at all times. Remember His grace and His love. Remember His comfort and His mercy. Remember His beauty and His wonder. Remember His instruction and His holiness. He is here. He is with you every moment. Every moment is holy, Amen.

SMITH: Well, Doug, that is just amazing. It’s beautiful and we could spend many podcasts just unpacking this. I mean, I hear so much that resonates with me personally and so much that resonates with the work that I try to do. For example, you mentioned — at the Colson Center we sometimes speak of ourselves as Kuyperian, that Abraham Kuyper and his understanding of all of creation belonging to God. I hear echoed here. I don’t know whether that was an intentional echo of yours. Every sphere of life and creation is yours. Sounds like it comes out of Kuyper.

MCKELVEY: Well, I haven’t studied Kuyper directly. I have benefitted over the last 20-some odd years, maybe 30 years now from being in proximity to people who have taken those sorts of ideas and integrated them into their lives and who then I’ve had the privilege of being friends with and being taught by and mentored by. Those would be people like Charlie Peacock, that he and his wife Andi started the Arthouse Foundation in the early 90s and it was their invitation to come and work with that that brought me to Nashville. And Charlie was really the one who introduced me to this idea of coram deo, of all of life lived under the gaze of God, of every part of life belonging to God and being lived under His gaze. And then Scotty Smith who was the pastor at Christ Community Church where I went for about 13 years after I initially moved to Nashville. And then people who worked with the Schaffer Institute that I was privileged to become friends with and be mentored and be influenced by over the years.

So, yeah, I can’t claim that I have the first-hand academic knowledge of a lot of the primary sources, but I’ve definitely been the benefit of those good theologies as they move downstream.

SMITH: Yeah, exactly. Well, you know, there’s something else in this opening liturgy which I take, when I read this, I took this to be in some ways as your prayer for the book, your prayer for what people like me would get out of this book. Is that fair?

MCKELVEY: Sure. Yes, definitely. And that was one that I wrote — It was probably one of the first 20 or so liturgies that I wrote and it was out of a recognition of my own need that even in the process of writing this, I needed my heart to be re-centered over and over again in relation to what I was doing, the reasons why, and in relation to the people that I was hoping to serve with what I was creating.

SMITH: To go to what I was trying to say earlier, or about to say earlier was that another idea here is this idea of remembrance. Towards the end, you say, “Remember Him in all places. Remember Him in all times. Remember His grace and His love.” I won’t read what you just read, but that is an — when we think about the great liturgies of the church — So, for example, I know that you’re Anglican, the Book of Common Prayer would be an example of a collection of liturgies. That is in some ways what they are. They’re remembrances. They’re remembrances of the great works of God and what our posture should be before those great works.

MCKELVEY: Right. They help to shape a rhythm in our lives. They help to give it a shape where it is about remembering. And I think that’s the power of liturgies is that they shape us over time. They shape our thinking, they shape the way we see the world. They shape the way we relate to God and to others and to scripture. It was kind of an interesting process of how the idea for the book came about, but when that happened, my hope was that while this would be a resource that single people, that married people, that church groups, that all sorts of organizations could get some benefit from, the heart of it for me was always this idea of families—especially families with young children—finding some of the liturgies that would fit well into their lives on a weekly basis, on an annual basis, but that their life as a family together would be shaped by this. And that the theology of children would be shaped over the years by this. And I just loved the idea of imagining that at some point when the electricity goes off in the house that it’s the six-year-old who remembers, “Hey, there’s a liturgy for when the electricity goes off. Can we do that?” So while that was my hope, it’s still been very surprising, in a very humbling way, that I really didn’t foresee how there seems to be this connection that a lot of young children have had with the book. That has even, I think, stymied some parents. But I think there’s something that we often don’t give our kids credit for and that is that hunger to make sense of existence and of the things of God and to find those kind of rhythms in their own lives as well.

SMITH: The idea of liturgy, which I’ve been told is a word that means the work of the people, the idea of the church calendar and the seasons and rhythms of the church calendar has largely been lost to evangelicals today. You go to an Anglican church, as do I, and we still maintain at least some semblance of that depending up on the church, but that’s mostly been lost to evangelicals today. And I don’t want to read too much into this, Doug, and I don’t want to turn you into an activist whenever you’re just trying to be a guy that’s trying to make a beautiful thing, but was that part of what you were going for here or not? To try to recall believers back to these ideas of discipline and being in tune with the seasons of the day and seasons of the year?

MCKELVEY: Well, this is something that I came to late in life. My church background is very varied. So, having a liturgical rhythm to the church calendar, the seasons of life, and experiencing that is really only something that I’ve been apart of for about 8 maybe 9 years. I didn’t set out with an agenda or a mission to call anyone back to anything. But I did recognize that there’s something here that has deep roots in church history and that we have mostly lost the benefit of. And that there might be a good thing to remind people that, hey, this is part of our history together as a church. And I think the two strains that I was most aware of as I was writing this are the early Keltic Christians and how they created these beautiful little prayers for everything—for milking the cows, for putting out the fire at night in the hearth. There was just something that resonated with me about the idea of moving through your day with such an immediate moment to moment awareness of God’s involvement, of God’s intentionality in those day-to-day things. That they aren’t just mundane. That we are doing these things in the presence of God and as part of living our lives out before Him.

And then there were the Puritan prayers that many of them were collected in the book Valley of Vision. And I think it was Steve Green who gave me a copy of that many years ago.

SMITH: The Christian artist, the musician? Yeah.


SMITH: Who you’ve written some songs for, right?

MCKELVEY: Correct. He gave me a copy of that and I was surprised as I looked through it because the Puritans, there’s kind of a knee-jerk reaction just to the word Puritan and it has negative connotations and some of that might be deserved. I’m not enough of a church historian to evaluate that. But those prayers that individuals—and as I understand it, it wasn’t just church leaders who would do this, but this was kind of a discipline. It was a common practice that people would write these poetic, artful prayers and then those would be shared with other people so that they could also pray through them.

And that stuck with me. That stuck in the back of my head every so often over the years after Steve gave me the book, I would pull it out and read some of those prayers, and I was stuck with the depth of the theology, the grasp of that understanding of our own brokenness, but also of the grace that’s available to us. So I had both of those things in mind, both the prayers of the early Keltic Christians and then the prayers of the Puritans as something that maybe I could find a way to reintroduce people to those disciplines and to give people permission to begin to explore this for themselves. To give them permission to begin to write prayers for their own use or for communities that they apart of to use for various occasions.

SMITH: Doug, I’d like to pivot in our conversation and talk about some of your other creative work if we could, one of those aspects of your life is songwriting. You’ve mentioned Charlie Peacock a couple of times already. And Charlie, of course, a great singer, songwriter, musician, keyboard player, producer. I mean just a polymath, the list goes on. And he was responsible for founding Arthouse Nashville, which has kind of become the Arthouse America movement. There are others around the country. Can you say a little bit about your involvement there with Charlie and also your own songwriting?

MCKELVEY: My early history with Charlie I can only explain as providential because he did not know me. He didn’t know my college roommate, Nick. The two of us were huge fans of Charlie’s and we would drive from Tulsa down to Dallas to see his concerts when he would play there. And we would hang around and talk to him afterwards. But at a certain point he, out of the blue, extended this invitation for Nick and I to move to Nashville and to help he and his wife get this new Arthouse venture off the ground. And of course we jumped at the chance. I mean he was one of our heroes. But to this day, if I bring it up and to ask Charlie, why did you invite us? You didn’t even know us. He will just kind of laugh and doesn’t really have a good answer for it, but that’s what got me to Nashville and started volunteering with the Arthouse and as a result of that, Charlie saw various things that I wrote and eventually he came to me and said, hey, do you want to try a songwriting experiment where you write the lyrics and I write the music, and the short version of that story is that that opened the door for me to pick in songwriting professionally in Nashville.

SMITH: And you’ve written a couple of hundred songs with this point, right? Including we mentioned Steve Green. You’ve written for Charlie Peacock, you’ve written Christian bestsellers. You’ve written songs for secular artists as well.

MCKELVEY: Right. Yeah. Most of what I wrote was within the parameters of Christian music. There were a few things that went beyond that, like Kenny Rogers recorded a cover of a song that I had written years before.

SMITH: You’d made your living at that for 20 years, more or less.

MCKELVEY: Well, probably for 15 years that was my primary source of income, but then the industry just radically changed the technology, MP3s, people quit buying music and were just downloading it and suddenly within the space of a year, I just couldn’t pay the bills anymore off of a royalty-based songwriting income. So I continued doing that for several more years, but it was tapering off as I was beginning to focus more on doing video work, some script writing and directing and editing.

SMITH: And I don’t know when and, in fact, you can tell me when you sort of fell in with The Rabbit Room crowd, but in some ways you sort of gravitated from this community around Arthouse Nashville to this newer community that has been growing up around The Rabbit Room. Can you talk a little about that?

MCKELVEY: About the transition?

SMITH: Well, not so much about the transition. What appears to me looking at it from the outside in, the importance to you of being a part of a community, being a part of a creative and artistic community.

MCKELVEY: Sure. I mean the early days of the Arthouse were so formational for me and having that community was just — it whetted my appetite for it. It just created a hunger and an awareness of my need for community. For various reasons. The Arthouse had to go through a number of changes over the years and what we were doing in those early days lasted for a few years, but then it changed so that it was no longer the same sort of ongoing weekly community gathering place that it had been previously.

When I met Andrew Peterson, it was because I was hired by his record label to write a marketing piece, what we call a bio for his album Counting Stars. And the two of us met over coffee and bonded pretty quickly, found that we had a lot in common. And I went home and told my wife, I think we just became friends. And it probably wasn’t until two or three years later that somehow that came up in a conversation and it turns out he had gone home and told his wife Jamie exactly the same thing. But The Rabbit Room community, it’s given me new life, I think, in a new phase of my creative work.

SMITH: Yeah. And by new life you don’t just mean a commercial new life. I mean, Every Moment Holy, that we’ve talked about is published by The Rabbit Room, so there’s obviously been some financial benefits there, but you mean creative and spiritual life as well?

MCKELVEY: Yes, I mean, I spent a lot of time as a songwriter trying to figure out what radio stations wanted to play, what various record labels would be happy with their artists singing about. And after many years of that I just felt creatively drained because I was no longer writing about anything that I was personally passionate about. And I had no opportunity to write in the voice that I wanted to write in either. So, once I stepped away from my last songwriting deal, I did not write a song for a year. I couldn’t. I was just wearied and spent in that regard. When I began to be become integrated into The Rabbit Room community, both the circle in Nashville, which is very much an organic network of friendships. People tend to have the idea from the outside that there is some formal thing and there’s not. It’s really just a group of people becoming friends and walking through life together and, as a result of that, frequently collaborating with each other on creative projects.

But as I became integrated into that and into the larger Rabbit Room community online and those who come to the Hutchmoot conferences every year, my vision for what I’m to be about began to change as a result of that. And I began to let go of this idea of, oh, I have to pay the bills so I have to chase whatever might be commercially successful, which incidentally never worked. Anything I had that was commercially successful that I look back at pretty much tended to be something that I did for some other reason because I had an idea that inspired me and then that got picked up and used in a way that I didn’t expect that was commercially viable. But in this case I really began to look at this community that I was a part of and to say, okay, how can I serve this community?

Because I think this is a community that is having an impact on the culture and I want to serve this community and help us together offer things that can shape the culture. We want to create stories that can produce hope, that can stir wonder in people, and hunger for things that are eternal, that can point people toward this grand story, this fairy tale story that that we believe is actually the reality that we’re a part of.

And so the Rabbit Room community was the context in which I able to begin that transition away from trying to create things with an eye on what will sell, what might be commercial, what could be a big hit to saying, okay, here’s the community that I’m part of, here’s where I’m planted. Can I do something that would serve these people? What do they need? What do we as a community need? But also realizing if something serves the community I’m a part of, there’s a good chance it’s also going to serve the world. It’s also going to serve people outside of that community.

So that’s what The Rabbit Room has meant to me. That’s what it’s done for me. That’s how it has shaped me. I’ve found a place where I can put down roots, seek to serve, and it’s another beautiful aspect of creating within the context of community and creating for community is that it’s not about me and can I build something successful. Anything that’s birthed within the context of that community, I think, is something that we are birthing together. That, yeah, one person might write this, but—this could be at the subject for a whole podcast, I think, and I’m actually starting to put together a talk for Hutchmoot next year where we’ll be exploring this—but the idea of community as a part of the process of birthing redemptive creative works into the world. And to me, that’s the bottom line of what The Rabbit Room is about.

SMITH: Andrew Peterson wrote four books in The Wingfeather Saga. And then there was a fifth book called Wingfeather Tales. You made a contribution to that book. That was in some ways an incarnation of this idea of community that you’ve been talking about, right?

MCKELVEY: Very much so.

SMITH: So can you say more about that?

MCKELVEY: Sure. So, Andrew is remarkably generous. The Rabbit Room has formed around him and he would say in a very humble way that has happened around his fear of being alone, that he has this fear of being alone and he sees how God has used that in a redemptive fashion. Because Andrew is always making new friends and wanting his friends to meet his other friends. So this organic community has developed around him and you can see this in the Behold the Lamb tour that Andrew does at Christmas every year. From the beginning, he made the choice that this is not going to be about me. He has seen it as a way to give other people, who might not be as known as he is, a platform and to introduce those artists to his audience. And I’ve heard people like Ellie Holcomb talk about what a turning point that was in their own career that Andrew invited them to share the stage with him and his audience then became their audience as well. It’s a beautiful generosity that he has. That same thing played out with the Wingfeather Tales book that you mentioned. Andrew had written this four book series. It had done well. I think it won one of the book of the year awards from WORLD Magazine.

SMITH: It did, yeah. It was our Book of the Year a few years ago.

MCKELVEY: Yeah. And then he decides to create a collection of short stories based on it, but he invites half dozen friends who are authors and a half dozen friends who are illustrators to all collaborate on this, inviting each of us to write a short story that takes place within the Wingfeather universe he created.

SMITH: Well, what I want to know from you, Doug, is what part of short story do you not understand? Your contribution was like a third of the book. It was like 60,000 words.

MCKELVEY: Yeah. I’ve been accused of over contributing to that.

SMITH: Well, I say that jokingly. I mean it was great, but it was almost novel length.

MCKELVEY: I think it ended up being technically novel length, maybe just over 70,000 words. I don’t know. But that was not intentional. I didn’t set out to do that.

It was more a byproduct of the way I tend to write. I don’t outline a story typically before I write it. I just jump in. And that’s part of the excitement of writing to me is I don’t know how it’s going to resolve, so I’m just like a reader. I’m following the characters through the tale and I’m surprised by things that happen and I’ll go back after the fact and edit and tighten things up. But, in this case, my entry into writing that story was on the first few pages of the first book of the Wingfeather Saga, On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness is the title of that book. There’s a reference made to a father whose child is taken by these villainous creatures. And then that father, he’s not a really a character in the books. We never see him again. And for me as a father of three daughters, I just thought about that and I thought, well, I want to know his story. I mean, I want to know what happens to someone, to a father after the devastation of that kind of experience, where something tragic happens that he can’t protect his child from. What does he do? Where does he go? What’s his journey?

And as I begin to follow that character from the point of that awful night for him, it turned out to be a journey that I couldn’t tell in 20 pages. And that’s how it became novel length was just because I followed that character through to the resolution of his story

SMITH: Well, and it made a wonderful capstone both for that book and in some ways for the — all of those stories in the Wingfeather Tales book sort of wrestled to the ground some of these loose ends of the book, which was kind of cool as well. And I know for fans that must have been in some ways it’s maybe like reading The Silmarillion after you’ve read the Lord of the Rings, right? Or kind of figure out what else is going on in that world.


SMITH: Well Doug, thank you so much for your time. It’s been a real blessing to be able to sit down with you just want to say once again how much my wife and I and the rest of my family—the kids are grown, so we only get the whole family together during holidays—but it’s great that you got some holiday liturgies in there as well, or some special occasion liturgy, shall we say. But we’ve really been nourished by Every Moment Holy. We’ve been very much nourished by The Rabbit Room, all the things that The Rabbit Room community has done over the years that you’ve been a part of or at least been cheering on the things that you haven’t been actively a part of. So God bless you for that work. And we look forward to having you as part of the Wilberforce Weekend coming up in just a couple months, so thanks so much for that, too.

MCKELVEY: Well, thank you, Warren. We’re very much looking forward to participating in that and I appreciate the opportunity just to sit down and talk through these things with you.

(Photo/The Rabbit Room)

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