The progression of life’s journey can easily be analogized as a series of doors one walks through. The number of doors that anyone has to choose from at a given time varies just as much as our abilities to open one door, but, not another. At first glance, it may seem like there are countless different possibilities, but, as we walk down the hall we find out that some doors are propped open while others open and close at seemingly random intervals. Still, others remain closed and, try as we might, we can’t get them to budge, so, they remain shut, leaving us to wonder what might be on the other side.
I first learned about Kevin Max Smith when he was one-third of a Christian hip-hop/rock group called dcTalk in the early 90’s during my adolescent years. I found comfort in the encouraging lyrics of songs by dcTalk, as well as the likes of Michael W. Smith, Petra, Stryper, and others that were the face of contemporary Christian music at the time. But, as an impressionable teenager with the challenges of life lying in wait a little further down the road, it wasn’t long before my comfortable bubble burst in the face of my parents’ bitter, ugly divorce, my newfound college freedom to experiment, and an over-zealous enthusiasm for drinking alcohol to the extreme whenever the opportunity presented itself, I found myself walking – no – running away from everything that I knew Christianity to be: an organized group of flawless models of morality, slow in exercising compassion, but, quick to judge.
It was during my first semester in college, when a small part of me was still trying to hold on to my fragile teenage faith, that I found myself in my local Christian bookstore picking up a book of poetry called At The Foot Of Heaven which featured poems by Kevin Max Smith and paintings by Jimmy Abegg. As a college freshman with a concentration in art, the idea of a book being available in a Christian bookstore that featured contemporary art and poetry captivated me. At the time my interest was much more inclined toward the paintings, but, it only took a few minutes with the book before I found myself intrigued by the poetry, too, and it was soon after that I discovered the potential poetry held in terms of providing not only an additional creative outlet for me, but, more importantly at that time, a therapeutic valve for me to sort out my thoughts and emotions with regard to all that was changing in my life: circumstances and variables that I wasn’t comfortable addressing with anyone else, but, that I knew I could release on paper under the cover of words.
Over the next decade I continued to stumble my way through life, medical issues, relationships, and alcohol abuse all while continuing to try to distance myself from any spiritual ties. Somehow I managed to find an amazing girlfriend (who I couldn’t possibly deserve any less, but, amazingly, would later marry) and, after surviving a ruptured pineal gland cyst in my brain, a month of radiation, and brain surgery, I graduated with a bachelor’s degree and a major in elementary education and a concentration in art history. It was by sheer grace, and the therapeutic power of poetry to help me sort out my demons in the form of words arranged on paper, that I made it through those years until my daughter was born in 2003.
It was, in fact, her birth that caused me to realize just how far off course I’d traveled and how high the walls were that I’d tried to construct between God and I. But, it wasn’t until I randomly stumbled upon a Kevin Max MySpace page around 2004 or 2005 and I read a post he’d written about an author named Brennan Manning that the door to my own personal broken temple began to budge open and allow the light to trickle in. The message of grace in Manning’s books The Ragamuffin Gospel, Abba’s Child, and Ruthless Trust was like a sledgehammer to the calloused shell I’d built up around my soul. It was at that point in my journey, while studying Manning’s explanation of grace and employing Max’s album The Imposter (an album lyrically inspired by Manning’s writing) as a soundtrack to my days, when I learned that despite my deeply rooted sin and ever-present flaws, God still loved me. My sin wasn’t as strong as His grace.
But, it should be noted that it was the sometimes ambiguous nature of Kevin Max’s lyrics on The Imposter and Between The Fence And The Universe that enabled me to connect with the music. It was a decisively different direction from the music he’d been a part of as a member of dcTalk and I’m thankful. Lyrics that reside on the surface level of interpretation often offer little challenge to the audience and, subsequently, neuter a song’s ability to relate to the listener on a unique and personal level. Praise and glaringly positive lyrics have their place, surely, but, so, too, do more textured lyrics that connect at a deeper level with the listener. Max’s knack for striking the right chord with the disenfranchised, jaded masses that live just outside the walls of America’s churches is a critical connection for so many like me who, at that point, wanted nothing to do with the over-the-top evangelical blatancy of artists like the Newsboys and other Christian radio darlings.
The basis for my loyalty and support for the poetry and music of Kevin Max, however, is rooted in more than just well-arranged words and edgy arrangements. It was, after all, At The Foot Of Heaven, Kevin’s first book of poetry, that sparked my own writing habit and, consequently, gave me a way to sift through the challenges of life – a therapeutic release valve that I employ to this day, twenty years later. And it was Max’s reference to the writing of Brennan Manning that eventually lifted my head to the light of God’s grace, turned me, and directed me home as a prodigal son to God – my Abba.
Where I was in life just over a decade ago, it wasn’t going to be a Sunday morning sermon, a Billy Graham television crusade, or a bible tract that would turn me and lift my gaze back up to God. No, instead it would take the weathered, frank, and grounded grace of God, as explained by Brennan Manning, an alcoholic who persistently admitted his failures until the day he died, and the honest and broken questions humbly fleshed out in song by Kevin Max, to realize that I was not alone in my daily wondering and grapples with truth and meaning. Doors being opened for me and the passage of time, shielded by God’s grace, were necessary for me to understand my purpose in life and, standing on the other side of the doors holding them open more than a time or two, were the words and music of Kevin Max.
In fact, it was Kevin’s personal response to the loss of my Dad, a victim of brain cancer, in 2012 that would have another monumental impact on my life and purpose. It was roughly around the time that Kevin took on the role as the new front-man for Christian rock band Audio Adrenaline that he introduced me to an organization the band started in 2004 to care for orphaned children in Haiti called The Hands & Feet Project. After caring for my father in the manner that I had for the past sixteen months, my priorities and understanding of what is really important in life shifted dramatically and the scripture verse found in James 1:27 became a lightning rod of clarity for me in terms of where my attention should be focused.
It was Kevin who put me in touch with director Mark Stuart when I inquired about how I could best channel a modest donation for the greatest effect in support of the work of Hands & Feet Project and it was that initial donation, through what I can only describe as a series of divinely orchestrated circumstances aligning in a manner that I couldn’t have dreamed up on my own (with due credit to the generosity and compassion of Hands & Feet Project director Mark Stuart), that led to further fundraising, a kitchen named in honor of my dad’s memory (“Grandpa Rockwell’s Kitchen”), and the first two of what I expect to be annual mission trips to work with The Hands & Feet Project in Haiti for the rest of my life.
On top of all of this, I’ve developed a number of significant friendships with wonderful people who also respect the music and poetry of Kevin Max and embody a similar recognition and appreciation for the integrity of life and the questions that we all ask in relation to creativity and our understanding of God’s purpose in our lives.
So, what is my point in telling you all of this? It is, quite simply to lend the truth of my story in support of the livelihood, poetry, and music of Kevin Max. All of these doors that he at least had a hand in opening in my life have been opened, not because he has spent his career trying to walk in step with the status quo of the pop Christian industry and, as a result, garner big bucks from royalties, but, because he has consistently maintained the integrity necessary to ask uncomfortable questions, push the boundaries of what is safe, and fully employ his God-given talents.
At this point in his career Kevin Max is readying the release of his first solo album in several years, BROKEN TEMPLES. It is an album that, because of the narrow vision in the current Christian music industry, doesn’t have the backing of a major record label. But, it is an album that deserves to be heard and he has kicked off a Pledge campaign to support the release of the project which, in return for your support, offers some nifty perks.
His work is relevant and, as evidenced in my life, can have a significantly positive influence on those who don’t necessarily spend every Sunday in a pew or have their radio station tuned to the likes of KLOVE on a daily basis, but, who are willing lend an ear to hear his one-of-a-kind voice. Lyrically, it speaks to the prodigal journey that so many of us know so well and that so many need to hear about so that they, too, might find the inspiration and the courage to stop, turn, walk through the opened door, and find their purpose, too. Watch the video below for an explanation from Kevin himself and then please visit the Pledge campaign to see how you can get involved.