Song story #2 (Streets of Jerusalem):
Of all the songs I’ve written, “Streets of Jerusalem” is probably the one most people associate me with. I haven’t put it on the shelf for the past few months now, but for the longest time I played it every night. And if I didn’t, someone would be sure to request it.
I wrote “Streets” in late August of 1998. I was in college in those days and I had just come home from internship. I think I was working as a youth pastor, part time, and I’d agreed to help with the skits for vacation bible school. I remember it being a beautiful summer afternoon and I had shown up early at church for a drama practice. As I sat in the sanctuary, waiting for the others to show up, I remember looking at the piano and thinking, “Boy, I wish I knew how to play.” (I’m strictly a guitar player and can’t even pick out Chopsticks on the piano). Now whether I prayed that, or just wished it, I don’t recall, but I do remember sitting down at the piano and almost immediately stumbling onto the familiar melody line. It just kind of came to me, and I was sort of mesmerized by it. Simple, pretty, sad, yet hopeful. The other actors showed up about 5 minutes later and we started our practice right away, but the melody tugged at me all day.
Late that evening, as I was getting ready for bed, I was reading a devotional book that my friend John Patterson gave me on internship. It was Max Lucado’s “No Wonder They Call Him the Savior”, a book of reflections on the events leading up to and following the crucifixion of Jesus. I haven’t read a lot of Lucado’s stuff, but I really enjoyed that book. That night I read chapter 14, “The Ten Who Ran”. In it, Lucado wonders what Christ’s disciples did between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Where did they go, what did they feel? He writes,
“I have wondered where they were when the sky turned black. I’ve wondered, were they near the temple when the curtain ripped or near the cemetery when the graves opened? I’ve wondered if any of them even dared to sneak back up to the hillside and stand at the edge of the crowd and stare at the three silhouettes on the hill.” (pg 73)
Scripture is silent and all of this is, of course, left to speculation. I think the thing that I connected with was the realization that for 2 days, the disciples didn’t know how the story would end. We have the privilege of reading the Gospels and skipping past that part to the happy ending, but they didn’t. They had to live through the doubt, fear, and uncertainty in a way that we seldom appreciate. As we read it, the text moves us quickly from crucifixion to resurrection with no mention of what happened in between. Tradition tells us that two of the Gospels (Matthew and John) were written by the disciples and another was written Mark who, we’re told, was writing down the memories of Peter. Strange that none of them should write anything about what happened during those two days. Or maybe not. Maybe they felt too shameful for doubting Jesus. Maybe they were too embarrassed to tell us.
That Saturday their faith was tested. This extraordinary man, whom they’d followed for 3 years, was dead and regardless of his miracles, regardless of His promise of resurrection, even the most faithful among them would have been crushed. I doubt any of them saw this coming. This shock combined with fear of meeting the same fate as their master likely would have caused them to run and hide, or to go back home. But how could you just go home after spending 3 years with Jesus? Lucado suggests, there was something about Jesus that drew them all back, and by Sunday night they had all come and were sitting around the Upper Room.
“So they came back. Each with a scrapbook full of memories and a thin thread of hope. Each knowing that it is all over, but in his heart hoping that the impossible will happen once more. ‘If I had just one more chance.’
There they sat. What little conversation there is focuses on the rumors of an empty tomb. Someone sighs. Someone locks the door. Someone shuffles his feet.
And just when the gloom gets good and thick, just when their wishful thinking is falling victim to logic, just when someone says, ‘How I’d give my immortal soul to see him one more time,’ a familiar face walks through the wall.” (pg. 73)
I sat at the piano and finished the song that night. “Streets” took a long time to grow on me. Initially, I didn’t really think much of it, and considered scrapping it. “Fade”, the song I wrote about yesterday, was actually a later attempt to try and write a better “Streets of Jerusalem”. “Streets” is a reminder to me that your intuitions as a writer are sometimes way off. It wasn’t until I started sharing the song with people that I realized its importance. This song went on to open a lot of doors of opportunity for me over the years. More than any other I’ve written. Most notable was a large youth conference that year at college, where I played it for about 1,000 people. At the risk of sounding dramatic, I can’t imagine how much different the direction of my life would have been if that song had been filed in the wastebasket.
My first recording, a demo tape called “Pile of Stones” featured a live recording from the youth conference. I recorded it on another demo called “Saturday” and then again on my first studio album, “Broomtree” (when I was getting ready to record “Rumors of Light”, one friend remarked, “You’re not gonna put “Streets of Jerusalem” on this one too, are you?). Despite my protest Jonathan, my producer, insisted I play piano on the “Broomtree” version, so that’s me you hear.
The song is about hope, particularly about hope in the Resurrection. The belief that God can intervene in the midst of a bleak situation. I suppose the reason the song has resonated with so many people over the years is because it tells this story which speaks both to our imagination and to our experience. We must imagine what those men experienced since scripture doesn’t tell us, and yet we know all too deeply. We’ve all had times when our faith has worn thin. We’ve all had times when the circumstances that surround us shouted louder than that still, small voice. As Lucado puts it, “We’ve all walked the Streets of Jerusalem.”
(This song originally appeared on an old cassette I recorded called “Pile of Stones” and also on my album “Saturday”. Both are now out of print, but you can listen to the studio version on my album “Broomtree”. You can purchase CD’s and downloads of the song on Bandcamp.)