by Greg Sharp
We’ve sung his words in worship on Sunday morning, and the words of “This Dust” sustained us through a season of grief. Kip Fox is a nationally recognized singer/songwriter and worship leader at St. Luke Lutheran Church in Mesa, Arizona. You can order his latest EP, Gathered, at his website, KipFox.com or on iTunes. He joins us here to give us a glimpse into his ministry, and the inspiration behind his music.
Greg Sharp: Kip, thank you for taking time to let us get to know you and your ministry. We have loved singing your song “This Dust” in worship at St. Luke Lutheran Church. It captures the essence of Lent as a season of repentance… recognizing that humanity is riddled with the disease of the world, while offering a message of hope and redemption through the senseless love of Christ. Can you please share your lyrical inspiration for the song?
Kip Fox: Well first of all, thank you for singing “This Dust!” And thank you for asking me to talk about it. I have to start by explaining my church background a bit. I was born to Lutheran teacher parents, raised in the Lutheran church, educated in a Lutheran elementary school, high school and university. The reason I say that all first is because it means I have been raised with a clear understanding of Law and Gospel. This understanding moves me to write as a sinner, forgiven in Christ. So then, the lyrical inspiration for the song is broken down in that way. My recognition that I am a sinner, and God’s mercy being the answer to that. The first line of the song existed for a long time on a notepad before I ever wrote, “This Dust.” And the, “mercy rains,” section came second nature.
GS: Why do you think this song has connected with the Church? What is some of the feedback you’ve received about it?
KF: I think it has connected because it tells the whole story without really sugar-coating anything. It acknowledges the reality of sin and death and the hope of the gospel. It doesn’t step around the one truly universal topic of death, it walks right through it.
GS: The end refrain, “death is all around us, we are not afraid. Written is the story, empty is the grave,” became a bit of a mantra here in the last year as we dealt with the scourge of death in our own church community. Can you expand on that idea of bravely facing death, both to a reader who might be personally facing their own mortality as well as to someone who may be walking that path with a loved one?
KF: This song all began with those four lines. Actually this was the first song I ever intentionally wrote with corporate worship in mind. Because of that intentionality, the first thought I had was, “what is the absolute most important truth of the Christian faith? What is it about what we believe that matters the most?” To me, it was that death has been conquered by Jesus. I know now through the past few years that these lines can be tough to sing in the face of death. But I also know that at my own Grandfather’s funeral, I was filled with gratitude and joy for this truth. And when I think of others that I love that are facing their own mortality, it is the hope I cling to and trust.
GS: You lead worship at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church in Arizona, and serve on the leadership team for the Worship Arts Leadership Institute (WALI), an LCMS network of Worship Arts Directors. How has your background as a Lutheran informed your songwriting?
KF: Well I may have jumped the gun with the first question, but I’ll expand on it. There are a lot of songs written for the church these days, and there are a lot of churches using the same ones because of radio and digital distribution. That’s a great thing because there are great songs being written, but it has also left some theological perspectives out. I don’t meet a lot of songwriters in Nashville that are Lutheran, and while that’s unfortunate, I see it as an opportunity for me to bring our rich theology into that world. My Lutheran background is a major part of my identity, and I’ve found I cannot escape it at any point in the songwriting process. From the beginning of my songwriting journey, I intentionally set out to write from the Lutheran context.
GS: Of course, Martin Luther was a writer of hymns, so songwriting is in the Lutheran DNA. Can you speak to the dearth of Lutheran songwriters that have managed to break through the crowded field of contemporary Christian musicians? Why aren’t there more?
KF: I think one of the reasons is because the Lutheran Church body doesn’t overtly accept the modern musical expression or the poetic language of modern songwriting. Consequently, talented songwriters that may exist within our church body are reluctant to share their offering knowing that many within our fellowship would scoff at it. In other words, while they may be creative like Luther, they aren’t writers of hymns like Luther, and they know that the labor of their creativity isn’t often met with the same approval. I have been immensely blessed with great Lutheran mentors that have encouraged me to step into that world throughout the years, and I’m so grateful for that.
Secondly, since the modern worship songwriter, as we know it today, was born within other denominational/doctrinal walls, we don’t have many examples or mentors that have written from a Lutheran distinctive. Consequently, we have no one to inspire or invest in the songwriters that may sit within our own denominational family. Instead they are often drawn to those church bodies that are firmly connected to the industry and that have examples of successful, accepted (indeed, even celebrated), worship leaders and songwriters.
GS: I mentioned the Worship Arts Leadership Institute. Can you briefly describe what that is and how it’s shaping modern worship in the LCMS?
KF: Yes, the Worship Arts Leadership Institute at Concordia University in Irvine exists to connect leaders of worship with one another for empowered learning, common support, and professional inspiration. It is a wonderful network of LCMS Directors of Parish Music, worship leaders, pastors and lay leaders. There is a great need in our churches all over the country for leaders who are knowledgeable in theology, ministry leadership and modern musical skill. We seek to bring those leaders along in a healthy and constructive way, with an open dialogue about worship in light of Scripture and the Lutheran confessions of the LCMS.
GS: I lead worship here at St. Luke-Ann Arbor, and one of the challenges I face with my weekly song selections is choosing music that connects to a multi-generational church. As a worship leader, how do you tackle the task of choosing music that will connect with the congregation at large while resisting the temptation to only choose your personal favorites?
KF: I constantly live with that tension, although it can hit closer to home, because I’m usually sifting through my own songs for this purpose. I start with the need first. And as I pour through a list of songs of all topics, meters, and tempos, I never say, “I want to do this song I like.” Instead I say, “what is the scriptural basis for this song, how will my own congregation connect with it, and is it a good fit for our worship team’s skill level.”
GS: What other challenges do you face as a worship leader?
KF: The main challenge I face every week is to stay focused on being both invisible and helpful. If I, or my team, have distracted people from hearing the Word that is being proclaimed and receiving the gifts that God gives, I have failed. Thankfully God works despite my shortcomings.
GS: What are the criteria you have in mind when selecting a new song to put on the lips of your church?
KF: Is it speaking the truths of Scripture? Does it allow people to respond to God’s work in Christ? Does it reflect the distinct nature of Gottesdienst and our Lutheran understanding of that rhythm within worship? Is it good – meaning: does it reflect a certain artistic excellence?
GS: Thank you so much for taking time out to spend with us. Finally, we are in the midst of a lenten sermon series called Season Of The Cross in which we will look at Jesus and His mission for us through the lens of different types of crosses. Different symbols of the cross have emphasized different aspects of Christ’s ministry for us. From the Anchor Cross to the Tau Cross, from the Barbed Cross to the Ankh, the variety of Christian symbolism surrounding the death and resurrection of Jesus helps us appreciate more fully what Jesus did for us.
You use what some might say is an unexpected word to describe the cross in your song “Dignity Of The Cross.” Dignity is not a word that often comes to mind when describing how we killed our Savior. Can you expand on that idea?
KF: I get this question often. I had the privilege of attending the ordination service for an Anglican Priest. It was cool! Within that service, there was a lot of beautiful language about what the Priest was committing to do. About halfway through it I realized these were all attributes of Jesus. One of those words used was “dignity.” Dignity, in the dictionary, is defined as ‘the state or quality of being worthy of honor and respect.’ It struck me that when we think of important dignitaries, kingly sort of folk, we think of the noble things they’ve done. I don’t think there’s anything more noble, nothing worthy of more honor and respect than dying on a cross for the sake of the world.