In this episode, Jimmy sits down with 9-time Grammy Award nominee Matt Maher, a Nashville based musician and worship leader. Together they discuss the topics of time, being part of a meaningful liturgy, the pervasiveness (and subversiveness) of anxiety, the unchangeability of the past, and how love Incarnate is the answer to every riddle life throws our way. Matt also shares about his new Christmas album and what inspired him as a musician and as a father to finally get into the studio to lay these tracks down after five years of planning.
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Jimmy opens with Matt’s career, how it’s blossomed. What does he miss? Matt says facetiously that he misses sleep. Then he adds, after a pause, that he doesn’t really miss anything, because the added responsibilities that come with marriage and family life have distilled him into the person he believes he’s meant to be. The margins of time narrow the older you get, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing; and as your life unfolds you start to recognize whether or not the carefree timelessness of younger days was well-spent or not.
Community and a sense of being part of the local fabric. Matt says that there was a time when he realized he truly missed being a somewhat anonymous part of daily ritual within the context of a community. Back when he worked part-time as a youth minister at a parish in Arizona, he would come home from touring and people would simply treat him as, “Oh, it’s Matt!” “Now when I go back, ten years later, it’s within the context of a meet-and-greet,” he says. In order to regain that sense of being a constituent part of a bigger body, he recently began playing music for mass at his parish one weekend a month. The simplicity of it – the utter lack of advertisement and careerism – has been grounding. “The thing is, I have kids now,” he says. “There’s nothing like having three kids to remind you of what’s necessary.”
Anxiety. Pivoting off the idea of responsibility giving way to freedom, Jimmy asks Matt about his experience with anxiety, in the age of smart phones. Matt admits that anxiety has played a large role in his life, though for a long while he didn’t recognize it as such, due to its subversive nature. He brings up how Jesus, who didn’t say a whole lot (as far as things that have been recorded, at least), did devote time preaching on the topic of worry. “In this season of life,” Matt says, “I’ve realized I need to identify anxiety on a spiritual level, and admit to God that it’s there. The existence of anxiety doesn’t prove or disprove God’s love for me. I can ask him, What do You think of this? Where is it coming from?” He then goes on to share how certain repetitive prayers have recently brought him a marked sense of peace and wellbeing: “I was freaked out by how much peace flooded my heart,” he says.
Technology and empathy. Jimmy asks Matt what he thinks causes our cultural, collective anxiety. “For the first time in human history, we’re carrying around super computers that are informing us of all the malaise that exists in the world,” Matt says. “And this causes a physiological response in us. The fight or flight mechanism is alerted – a quick fuse of adrenaline – and it triggers you into remembering (even if subconsciously) some situation or memory that causes you deep discomfort.” This leads to an endless negative feedback loop, wherein it’s nearly impossible to distinguish what’s feeding what. The thing that breaks this cycle is empathy, Matt says – the ability to place yourself in another person’s situation. This requires the practice of self-forgetfulness: you have to stop thinking about yourself and your own issues long enough to notice another person in order to have empathy for them.
The Christmas album. Jimmy brings the conversation around to Matt’s new Christmas album, which drops on Friday, October 19. He asks Matt about the phenomenon that surrounds this season – the tendency for everyone, regardless of their background, to attempt to engage with the humanity around them in a unique way around Christmas. Music, decor, talk show hosts, annual traditions and parties – these all speak to some kind of preparation. What does Christmas have to say to our current culture of anxiety and distrust? And is it still relevant? Matt replies that, absolutely, Christmas still carries immense weight – the weight of God becoming man – regardless of whether or not anyone acknowledges that that’s what they’re attempting to connect within beneath all of the tinsel and feasting. “This is the one time of the year where we take as much of the past as we can carry and bring it into the present moment. And although people try to pretend Christmas isn’t real – it doesn’t change the fact that God became a baby. You can’t change the past. That’s the big lesson for everyone. You can’t change your past; you can’t change the past of what happened 2000 years ago.”
The inspiration behind it. Matt shares about the fact that he’s been planning the album for the past 4 – 5 years, and how each Christmas he’s heard something – be it a lyric or a melodic phrase – that he’s stowed away in the memory bank as something that might be worth materializing one day. The main impetus behind his timing for the album – and the accompanying children’s Christmas book – is his children. “How do we talk to our kids about Jesus,” he asks, somewhat to himself, “How do we talk to them about – the fulfillment of all things?” His own father’s passing last year also lit a fire beneath him to revisit these central questions. “For [my father], Christmas was an indictment on the decisions he had made when he was married (my parents divorced). So for him the holidays became very, very difficult. Christmas comes around, and if you’ve been through a marriage and it fails, this idealized time of the year that symbolizes family and friends and connection and hope causes you feel the weight of [those decisions] more than you do at other times.” The real tension of Christmas results from a lack of incarnate love in the life of man, he says. Some of us attempt to assuage the tension with sentimentality, some of us attempt to assuage it with isolation. But the hope is that we venture every year into deeper waters, even if it requires sitting in the pain of our decisions. And the best way to do this, Matt says, is to go be the face of Christ to somebody else – to forget, even if for a moment, ourselves.