All Thy Waves and Breakers: Lenny Smith’s “Deep Calls to Deep”

July 4, 2012


After reading through part of Matthew some time ago, I could think of only one thing.  I wish I could’ve been there at the Sermon on the Mount.   No, not because I wanted to bask in the power and glory of God’s holy son, hanging on every perfect word (which would have been nice); but because I had so many questions that I wanted to ask him.  I wondered if anyone sitting on that mountainside had timidly raised a hand, had quietly asked for Jesus to elaborate, and if so, why did the writers of scripture not document it.

His language is so harsh at times.  He intones, “Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you.  Away from me, you evildoers!’”

In other instances his words seem cryptic and elusive, as if asking to be misinterpreted.  Wasn’t anyone thinking, “Rabbi, why?”

Near the beginning of his record, Deep Calls to Deep, Lenny Smith, reflecting on his Creator, asks his own difficult questions:

I will say to God, “Why have You forgotten me?

Why do I go mourning while they revile me?”

Questions are nothing new to the Judeo-Christian tradition.  David, throughout his psalms, oftentimes cries out in agony.  The ancient hymnists, in their darkest moments, laid bare their faith, their belief, and their uncertainty.

It’s in these modern times that we’ve lost the nerve to question.  Perhaps we fear God’s wrath.  Perhaps we underestimate His nature.  But certainly a God who sees all things, both past and future, can understand a broken heart and the questions that pour forth from it.

Smith’s entire life has been one of questioning and searching.  The writer of such hymns as “Our God Reigns”, and the father of indie rock’s brother and sister act, the Danielson Familie, has never been satisfied living on the surface of his faith.  He has been scavenging the deep places for as long as he can remember, trying to make sense of the profound mysteries of God.  He says of his first encounter with the spiritual,

I was about 10 and sitting in a basement of a little Protestant church, looking at a flannel graft, as a lady teacher talked about how much God the Father loved us and how His Son loved us enough to endure a painful death for us.   I was simply over-whelmed with a feeling of being loved and cherished.  That was when I was plugged into God’s Spirit and the lights went on for me.

Growing up, his mother was a devout Catholic and his father was a Protestant who didn’t attend church.  Until he was 12, his mother would drop him and his sisters off at the local Protestant building, then drive down the street to her own Catholic Church.  The kids finally asked their mother if they could go with her, and the young Smith fell in love with the pageantry and poetry of the tradition.

As he entered high school and eventually college, his interest in faith never waned.  He explored book after book on theology and religion. Out of high school, he studied literature and philosophy and theology, working towards the priesthood.  He found nourishment in the Bible, sustenance in the words of Christ, and kinship in the saints and martyrs of the past.  At the same time, Smith started playing guitar, putting his questions to song.

After 7 years of college and a master’s degree in philosophy, he felt a different pull in his life.  He saw God moving not only in the books and sacred traditions of the priesthood, but outside of its walls as well; and in deep and extraordinary ways.  Toward the end of the 1960s, he abandoned his attempt at the priesthood for the Jesus Movement, a group of countercultural pacifists shouting their love of Christ above the noise of Vietnam-battered America.  It was there that Smith recalls being baptized by the Holy Spirit.  He is reluctant to talk about the event, responding to questions only briefly.  I could tell though, that it was something special for him; something intense, supernatural, and even after all of these years, something he is still struggling to grasp.

Smith married his wife, Marian, in 1970.  Together they had five children, who would all eventually play a role in older brother Daniel’s Danielson Familie band.  In that time, Smith bounced from one corner of the faith to the other.  Andrew, the youngest of his children, says in the film, Danielson: a Family movie, “We changed churches a lot, always searching for that perfect connection.  In between this one and that one, we would have church at home, reading scripture, discussing the week’s stories, and playing whatever instruments we had or had created”.

Smith’s passion for his faith could sometimes border on obsession.  During the early part of the 1970s, he was reflecting often on the Second Coming, reading the Bible three hours a day.  He was losing focus, and jobs as well, but amid this distress, his eyes fell upon the words of Isaiah: “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!’” This good news, untethered from the burden of dogma, replenished his laden spirit.  In the ensuing two minutes, he had a verse and chorus written.  In the years that followed, as life threw its various challenges at him, more verses would be added, and choirs around the world would sing them.   “Our God Reigns” would even be a favorite of Pope John Paul II.

Through the years, Smith would continue to pour out his joys and grief through song.  After Daniel had established himself in the independent music scene as a performer, producer, and founder of a record label, he persuaded his dad to sit down and record some of his songs.  His whole family joined in, joyously shouting his choruses, ringing handbells and strumming instruments.  What emerged over those seven years was Deep Calls to Deep, an album of 60s style folk and rock songs that documented Smith’s ever-evolving faith.

Throughout the record, he sings songs of gratitude:

Lord, we bring our gifts and treasures,

lay them at Your lovely feet,

and we hope they give your pleasure,

reigning from Your mercy seat.

He rejoices in God’s promises:

None of those who wait for You will ever be ashamed.

And he utters, as if he were David anguishing over his misfortune,

Can You hear us calling?

It is a worship record through and through; one that’s not shy about its adoration of the Creator, but also isn’t afraid to ask questions.  It’s as real and as honest and as messy as the life of faith that inspired it.

It’s been over ten years since Deep Calls was released.  In that time, Smith has continued to live and breathe in a state of perpetual motion.  He and Marian, along with Daniel and Daniel’s wife, Elin, started another record label, Great Comfort Records; where they search and record atypical worship music that emphasizes poetry and melody; artists writing and working in the farthest outer reaches of the sacred music realm.

He doesn’t play the old songs as much.  He’s got new ideas and new paths to follow.  Ask him what he believes and he’ll pontificate at great length on Jesus, the faith, and on the Father of all.  “Jesus was like a full-moon, reflecting the sun’s light”, he wrote to me.  “Somehow we have fallen in love with the moon and have not gotten to know the Father”.   He’s been moving toward this new perspective on the Father/Son story for sometime now, comforted that his years of searching are revealing buried treasures.

Christians prefer to think about and talk about Jesus rather than the Father.  They think the Father is aloof and, possibly, angry and maybe even mean.  But Jesus basically said the Father is kind and gentle, generous and forgiving, long-suffering and patient, always having our best interests at heart.  I believe if we do not get to know Father, we will not ever be happy.

After writing back and forth to Smith, listening and reflecting on his inundation of ideas, I was left with even more questions than I began: questions about sacredness and music, about miracles and nature, about the subtlety my Creator’s love.  I can’t say that the answers are near.  I can only take joy, as Isaiah once did, in the fact that our God reigns.


Danielson: a Family movie. Dir. JL Aronson. Perf. Daniel Smith, Sufjan Stevens, and Lenny Smith.  Creative Arson Productions, 2006. DVD.

Smith, Lenny. Email interview. 11-11 through 12-11.

The two quoted Bible passages were taken from the books of Isaiah and Matthew in the NIV.


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