Is the altar as far from the door as the east is from the west?
For another of my GMA interviews that i'm busy catching up on, i was able to sit down with Mark Hall and Megan Garrett of Casting Crowns, one of the most popular groups in the Christian music world at the moment. Their latest album is called The Altar and the Door and continues their dominance on the radio and in the stores.
After some banter about our preference in tech gadgets - spurred on by my iPod equipped with a Belkin TuneTalk microphone, the same device that Mark uses to record rough drafts of songs - we dove into the "official" interview. That part's below.
How have you guys been this morning?
Mark Hall: We're doing good, man. We're just getting started this morning. We didn't have to get up early today, this time. Yesterday, started at 5, but today we're good.
Didn't you perform the night before as well? They should've given you a little rest after your concert. . .
(laughs) I think the deal is, that because we don't live up here, when we do come up here, we just get it all done.
Makes sense. So you just went to North Korea?
So how did that come together?
Usually what we hear is North Korea, wait a minute, did you say north? NORTH KOREA?
THE North Korea? Yeah, that one.
(laughs) Yeah, we were there for seven days as part of a Spring Festival that's annual there, celebrating the birthday of the leader of their country. We saw it as a way. . . There's a non-governmental agency that works with them doing humanitarian stuff, like through agriculture, just partnering and trying to help. They saw a way to build better relationships through the arts as well, so we went over just to represent our country and to build friendships. We just wanted to try to get a little more peace going on between the two countries. That's worked in the past with other countries, in Russia and in Germany, just the trading of the arts and stuff. So it was a big step. It was a big, big step. We're hoping that we're starting to build a bridge so that more and more artists can start going over and we can start being friends.
Was it out of the blue?
Well, there was talk about it for at least a year. Originally we figured that surely we wouldn't be able to go because of the genre of our music and all that kind of stuff. But we sent our CDs and our lyrics and our website and everything that was there and we were invited. So, it was an amazing thing.
So CastingCrowns.com is now allowed in North Korea?
Oh, no no. I'm just saying that they checked out our website.
It's not like we were going over there with a surprise. At the same time, we were respectful. We did our songs, we served and we made friends. It was good.
That's gotta be pretty humbling to be on what I imagine is a pretty short list of acts allowed in.
Megan Garrett: In the past 25 years, there have been five American bands that have been allowed in and we were the fifth - the first Christian band ever. It was pretty cool.
Yeah, that kind of floored me when I saw that. Threw me for a loop.
So what else has been going on? Obviously that was a big thing, but what's been keeping you busy these days?
We've got babies.
We do have babies. I'll give you the run down. A year ago, I had my little girl, Lilly Addison. Four months ago, our bass player Chris and his wife Amanda had a little girl, Bailey Elizabeth and three weeks ago our violin player and guitar player, Melodee and Juan, who are married, had a little boy named Jesse Dean. So, we are taking over the world.
I've noticed that band members tend to have babies in groups.
Yeah, Pillar in the last year or so. . . I think everyone in the group had a baby within a year of each other.
Big Daddy Weave is doing that now.
Yeah, they're all really Big Daddies.
That's great. Now you mentioned at the Songwriter's Showcase that you had just finished recording a new album.
Yep. We're finishing up Thursday. A couple more things to add, but the album is called The Altar and the Door. We're still dealing with. . . Lyrically, I think we're still in the same place. We're just moving on with the struggles that we're having in our Christian walk and the everyday type stuff, you know? Musically, I think progressed a little bit. We've done a few things a little differently, but not to the point where the words get lost.
There's plenty of daily Christian struggles to address.
So what kind of things are coming up on this album?
Well, the album is called The Altar and the Door and it deals with the struggle that we often face when we're trying to get the beliefs out of our Bible in our head and into our speech and our actions, everything we do. Usually all of us are caught somewhere between the altar and the door and that's. . . The album is sort of written in that place. When you're realizing there's a difference between the God that you want and the God who is. And trying to deal with the fact that His dreams might be different than yours, His plans may be different than yours and reconciling all that in your mind to know that we're here for Him. He's not here for us. So, we're going a lot of places in there, but that is the central theme.
Are there any songs that stand out to you right off the bat that. . .
There are a couple. The one that we're singing tonight is called "East to West" and it's the struggle we have to allow ourselves to be forgiven. We read the verses. We pray the prayers, but it's sort of like if you cut yourself. The pain's gone and the band aid is gone, but there's a scar and you're always looking at it. You're always remembering what you've done and you're scared that you're going to do it again. The question in dealing with that is: "Lord, can you tell me just how far the east is from the west? I'm just not sure about this." And the answer is that He knows how far the east is from the west. It's from one scarred hand to the other and that's how he paid for our sins. That's one that stands out to me.
Okay. So what kind of things have you been struggling with in the past year or so?
You know, I think, plenty. But the thing that I've been really thinking a lot on lately is what's going on around the world. How I've just in the last six or seven years of my life discovered that there are people everywhere. It's not just me in Georgia. Traveling in the States opened our eyes to a lot of things, but you travel around the world and you see how big this place is and how much hurt there is. You see where people are and what they're dealing with and suffering with. It really opens your eyes to your own selfishness. So we've become active in a lot of ministries and supporting a lot of ministries in other countries. Just trying to partner with what God is doing around the world. It's been a real eye-opener for me.
"Usually all of us are caught somewhere between the altar and the door. . . when you're realizing there's a difference between the God that you want and the God who is.."
Is it difficult to decide where to invest your efforts?
Well, it could be, because everything is good.
Yeah, there are a lot of good organizations and "causes" to be concerned with. . .
We don't get requests to help open new casinos anymore. . . Hector might get those. . .
But, I think it's just a prayer thing. If you're not careful, you'll spread all your resources out because everything seems like such a great idea and then you're not really helping anybody. So, for me, it's just a lot of prayer and just listening to the Lord on it. Not leaning on what I think I could pull off, because I don't want to take the classic American approach to everything and just throw money at it.
I try to invest in things where there are discipleship relationships going on, mentoring relationships, things where we are hands-on and we're a part of what's going on with the future of it.
Do you think that approach - the focus on discipling and mentoring - is related to the fact that you're a youth pastor?
Yeah. I think that just comes out of you. You don't want to see yourself as a director. You want to see yourself as somebody who gives it to them and they can run it when you leave.
Definitely. Now, I don't think that "Praise You in the Storm" is ever going to fall off the radio airwaves any time soon. . .
You mentioned that you get calls and emails from Viginia Tech and other sites of tragedy. . .
Yeah, Virginia Tech, those are just starting to come in. We've been getting lots of emails about Katrina, when Katrina hit. And we get emails from people who are just dealing with everyday struggles in their homes, tragic deaths and sickness and everything, because of the story of Erin, the little girl who passed away and inspired the song. Then in Enterprise, when the tornadoes hit the school, we had a teacher who contacted us. And we're just now starting to hear from people from Virginia Tech how this song is being used to encourge people. It's very humbling. You think you've written a song for one thing and God just reminds you that it was His song all along.
Does it make you rethink or consider your words more carefully as you go back to write more songs?
Very much so. To the point where, for example, I was working on a song last week and I erased an entire bridge to a song. When I backed up from it. . . I try to write and you're always very passionate when you write something. It's very fresh and it all makes sense to you, but you've gotta kind of step away and come back and, knowing what you meant to say, ask what's coming across. I think what was coming across in that particular bridge was more of a touchy feely God kind of thing instead of living on truth and I had to snip it. I don't just write songs to write songs.
Yeah, sometimes you write things just to get them off of your chest and it's surprising to find out later that it speaks to other people as well.
You start measuring your words a lot more. There are people out there who are really young in their walk with the Lord and will sometimes just go with what you say. Maybe they're not in the Word themselves as much as the ought to be and you've gotta be careful with what you're saying. As neat and sincere ad it might seem to you, it might not be Scriptural and you're steering somebody in the wrong direction.
Woe to the teacher who leads them astray. . .
That's right. There's a verse about that.
So, thinking about the Bible and the guidance you draw from it daily and in your writing, is there a specific verse or passage that you constantly find yourself turning back to that reminds you why you're doing what you're doing?
For me, there are many. I've talked about Romans 8:28 in other interviews. Another one that's been a big one for me right now is Psalm 1, because that's what a lot of our record is based on. It talks about our delight being in the Laws of the Lord. Our meditating on [His laws] is the life blood, it's the juice and the battery, in our friendship with God. Most of us are just kind of coasting on the last big experience we've had, instead of the daily walking. A tree planted by the water, to me, is a picture of gradual, constant feeding. It's not just a. .. You don't flood a tree and expect it to grow. You'll kill it.
And it doesn't just shoot right up either.
That's right. It doesn't just shoot up. Not every day is a mountain top experience. That's one of the biggest things with our teenagers. We try to make them understand that every quiet time that you have is not youth camp. It's just getting to know Jesus a little more.
[We were informed that our time was up]
Well thank you, man. It was good to see you.
For more information, visit CastingCrowns.com or MySpace
The Altar and the Door available now at: MusiChristian, Amazon or iTunes