Aaron Shust is a brilliant songwriter. But more importantly, he is a man who deeply loves Christ and keeps the gospel at the center of life. Married and raising three sons, Aaron and his wife recently encountered some intense moments regarding the health of two of three boys. Through the journey, their faith was strengthened and many of the songs from his new CD Morning Rises were born from that experience.
Aaron’s first album was Anything Worth Saying. The second single from the project, My Savior, My God, started generating airplay on its own and rose to #19 on the Christian Radio & Records chart before being released to radio. Once released, it shot to #1 on six charts by April of 2006. At the GMA Awards in 2007, Shust was honored with three Dove Awards for Song of the Year (My Savior, My God), Songwriter of the Year, and New Artist of the Year. I asked Aaron to share some of his story, how he goes about the creative process of songwriting, and how the church can better engage with our communities. I appreciate his answers and I think you will as well.
PN: What triggers in you the desire to write lyrics and create songs?
Aaron Shust: What I call “ah-ha moments” I got that concept from a former pastor in Atlanta, Randy Pope. Things that make me stop and say “wow!” Whether it’s a phrase in a movie, or a word in Scripture, devotional or sermon, I try to capture that concept some how so when the task to sit down and write approaches, I have a wealth of “ah-ha” moments to choose from. Then, honestly, there are the rare occasions where I get a strong gut feeling that if I sat down at the piano right now, something good would come. I tend to drop everything less important and find a piano!
Creativity is often a solitary journey, how do you know when something beautiful has been accomplished?
Beauty being in the eye of the beholder, I know something is beautiful when I am moved by it. I have balled my eyes out through songs I have written because of the power and strength of the message, but my entire team ends up rejecting it as boring or campy. In turn, my entire team has enthusiastically approved songs and I watch others weep when they listen, but then someone outside of my team might feel the song falls a little flat. It is difficult to critique art.
What has been the role of hardship in the writing of your latest music on the CD Morning Rises?
While everyone experiences hardship, only few can identify with the intense amount of concentrated sorrow that Job faced when he lost all of his wealth and the lives of all of his children on the same day. While my family has dealt with health issues, near death experiences, special needs children, and slanderous accusations, I would not want to trade places with Job. But we have struggled and have had to choose whether or not we believe the promises of God: that His ways and thoughts are higher than ours, that He has a plan not to harm us but to give us a future and a hope, that despite the trouble in the world He has overcome the world. Like Job, dropping to his knees in worship and proclaiming that the name of the Lord is to be praised, I desire to respond to difficulty with praising first. Yes, I still pray for deliverance, His kingdom to come and for Him to come quickly, but beside the song “Deliver Me” on this album every other song is a reflection of a heart of praise because God is worthy of it.
When you wrote after the pain of having a very ill child, how did the process change for you?
It honestly didn’t. I have steadfastly believed for as long as I can remember that God is who He says He is. I learned as a very young boy the concept that everything this side of Hell is grace. That means that what we actually deserve is permanent separation from God, therefore everything else falls into the category of His grace freely given to us. With that perspective, I can look at my situation and thank God from the bottom of my heart that my wife and three boys are alive and home, we have a roof over our heads, air conditioning and we eat three times a day. What an absolute blessing! Even better, even if all of that were stripped away, we have HOPE; the confidence that we will spend eternity with the God who defines Perfect Compassion and Love. What do we have to be fearful of? …besides snakes and spiders for now. 🙂
In our modern culture, much of what we call art is expressed as music. What are some of the unnoticed ways that creativity can be expressed through the church and with our faith?
I recently visited a community of worshipers in my town called Taize, a Community of Celebration. They worship through silence, reading and simple songs. While iconography (intentional paintings of Jesus and other characters throughout the Bible) is frowned upon by some as graven images, I found it a beautiful and powerful way to focus my mind on Christ. I know He probably didn’t look like that but that’s not the important thing to me. I’m more a fan of renaissance art so when I see a painting that expertly captures the emotion of a Biblical account, my heart and mind are transported to acknowledge the bigger picture that I’m a part of. I’m personally not a banner-waver but I’ve recently watched one girl in my church who asked permission to create and wave a skinny little banner off to the side during worship. It’s her personal expression of adoration to the Father and I believe He loves it; therefore I do too!
We have been made in the image of our Creator. This makes us creative by nature. When we create, we have the potential to ascribe worth and value to the One whose image we bear! I consider that worship provided our hearts to giving Him glory while we create. One of the Hebrew words for worship indicates labor and service as opposed to bowing or bending the knee. Both are considered worship. That helps me in the moments when my work of creativity is difficult, slow and draining. I can remind myself that what I’m doing could be considered pleasing worship in the eyes of God. On a more mundane level, I think of those sparks of inspiration that come. It’s exciting and I try to capture those moments because there’s a great chance I won’t remember it 5 minutes later. The work comes later when you sit down in a quiet room with your instrument, pen and paper, maybe a co-writer, and having all intention of finishing what you started within a couple of hours. That’s work and I usually need a nap afterwards.
How do you remain in a posture so that God is the inspiration of your art rather than creation becoming your muse?
As I listen to Christian music, I find that what my heart craves is truth. I need to be reminded of truth, the promises of God, so that I can have the clearest perspective possible regarding my circumstances. I want to see things on earth in light of eternity. I want to see people as God sees them. When I simply hear a song that tells me how someone is feeling that doesn’t inspire….it doesn’t breathe life. So when it comes time for me to write or cover a song, I want it to be Christocentric (a new word I just learned recently) where Christ is undeniably at the center. Billy Graham tells a story of one of his earlier messages when the response wasn’t nearly what he had expected. He was confused and asked a mentor what he thought the problem might have been. His mentor, in essence, replied, “Billy, you didn’t preach the cross.” The cross proclaims the love, mercy, grace & forgiveness of our Lord and Savior. I want to stuff every song I write or sing with that truth.
“Beauty” is a concept that seems to be embraced by artisans and sometimes ignored by theologians. What can the trained theologians in academic circles learn from the poets and artisans of the church?
One of the healthiest ministries I’ve been involved with is a men’s ministry I helped launch in 2003 called Outpost Advance. We gather no more than 40 men and get off the grid to some remote location replete with the beauty of Creation. We maintain three core values: Restored to God, Reconciled to each other and Reconnected with Creation. When all three of those elements are present a more complete view of God is discovered. There is truth and there is beauty. When natural beauty is acknowledged through the filter of God’s truth the circle is completed, the loop is closed. We don’t just say, “What a beautiful sunset,” or “What a great cup of coffee.” We can thank God as we fellowship with each other, “I am so thankful for black coffee, so thankful God created the coffee bean and imaginative people who thought to turn it into a hot liquid! Good job God!” My friend who heads the ministry, Jim Eaton, is definitely a theologian but also a bit of a mystic. He has never lost his sense of wonder at the beauty of God’s creativity and that helps shape his theology.
Conversely, what do poets and artisans need to learn from the theologians?
Beauty’s only skin deep. Substance must exist. When beauty and substance collide, explosions happen. I think of John Mark McMillan’s How He Loves Us. He paints a beautiful picture of trees bending & wind blowing at hurricane force, but then he adds “all of a sudden I am unaware of these afflictions eclipsed by glory and I realize just how beautiful You are and how great Your affections are for me.” He sounds like C.S. Lewis! The lyrics are poetic and they flow and lilt and the melody is beautiful. Emotion is more easily evoked when truth is combined with art done with excellence.
What can a local church leader do to best use the artistic gifts of the people in the congregation?
I’m a believer that the best expression of worship a group of people (a congregation) can bring to the Lord is one that comes from their heart and personality. That being said, if I decided today to start painting, that doesn’t mean that my church should start hanging my paintings around the church. They would probably be distracting because of how bad they would be, even if my heart was pure. If a passion exists in someone for a certain artistic expression, but the talent doesn’t seem to be there, wouldn’t it be fantastic if we as the church encouraged them to develop that passion? Painting lessons, piano lessons, voice lessons, dance lessons? My church has had two violinists over the past 3 years, but one moved to Miami in February and the other is moving to Virginia next month. I could panic and try to find a new violinist to fill the spot, or I can say, “God, we will worship You with all our hearts and without violin until You bring us another player.” We look for the skilled people God has brought into our congregation and encourage them to use their God given talent for His glory.
How can the church better engage the artists and arts community in their city?
That’s a great question! Potentially by providing a platform for artists to display their art. If a community finds that there are many budding artists in the area, maybe an evening gallery with some punch and finger foods could be held in the fellowship hall! With advance notice, a theme could be chosen and the artists could be on assignment to capture different aspects of that theme. If your church has a great sound system and there are songwriters in your midst, invite some to participate in an evening concert and ticket sales could go to help a local ministry. Let your creativity run wild!
God of Brilliant Lights is an anthem of celebration. What are you finding to be the response from believers to this song?
There has been a strong response in concert, especially as the song becomes more familiar on the radio. We’ve been playing it in concert for five months now and have only used it as an opener, as it’s just a fun way to open the concert. But at the same time, that means that I don’t really set it up thematically. Songs always seem to have more connection with an audience when we set it up with Scripture or some insight as to what it’s about. I look forward to that opportunity with “God Of Brilliant Lights.” I read on Twitter that a church used it in their worship set last week and it went over so well that they’re using it again next week. That thrills me because I classify it more as a “declaration song” than a “worship song.” But then again, “My Savior My God” is a declaration song as well. We can worship God in our hearts, while we declare to each other what we believe about Him.