Josh Garrels is out on a limb. And that's no mere idiom. Idiotic, maybe. Reckless, certainly. Because at the moment, he's scampering about the highest branches of a tree, hamming it up like a gangly Tarzan—he's a skinny 6-foot-4, with the wingspan of a condor—swinging, swaying, swaggering. He's climbing trees with friends, and one of them is a girl he's trying to impress.
When he's sure she's looking, Garrels takes a flying leap from one branch to another, nothing but air between him and the ground far below. He sticks the landing. The girl is both aghast and astonished. And she's sold. This is the man—the crazy, passionate, Jesus-loving man for whom carpe diem barely begins to describe the way he embraces life—she is going to marry. "I was smitten," she says today.
Garrels was too, from the moment he met Michelle Ramsdale just a couple days earlier in that summer of 2001. She had grown up in Peru as a missionary kid and, as a young adult, had returned there to work with Food for the Hungry. She had come to Muncie, Indiana, for her brother's wedding, where Garrels was scheduled to play. They met at the rehearsal dinner, and "I knew it pretty instantly," says Josh. Michelle concurs: "Instantly."
When Michelle returned to Peru, Garrels was suddenly interested in taking his first "missions" trip—to the jungles of Peru, where they also have trees with high branches. For Josh, it was another leap of faith—metaphorically and literally—in a life that has been (and still is) defined by taking one leap after another.
Skipping like a calf loosed from its stall
I'm free to love once and for all
And even when I fall I'll get back up
For the joy that overflows my cup
So go several lines from "Farther Along," the signature song from Garrels's latest leap, Love & War & the Sea In Between, Christianity Today's Album of the Year for 2011. (See the complete list of our award winners here.) In the tune, Garrels, an indie singer-songwriter who lives in Portland, Oregon, with Michelle (whom he married in 2005) and their two young children, addresses life's mysteries ("I wondered why the good man died / the bad man thrives … / Confusing illusions I've seen") with the honesty of a man who knows no other way. An interested record label once asked Garrels if he had to be so candid with his lyrics; he turned down their offer, opting to remain independent so he can write what he wants.
"Josh doesn't know how to be dishonest in his songwriting," says Michelle. "He writes about what he is learning—spiritually, relationally. Whether he chooses to write that in a straightforward or a more symbolic, storytelling way may vary from song to song, but the subject matter is always springing from real life lived. I believe he is a true prophet in music."
Longtime friend Jay Kirkpatrick agrees. "His songs are honest and really do reflect his heart. That's why people love his music. People can tell when a songwriter doesn't believe what he says …. I think Josh's songs are able to penetrate the defenses in people's heads and hearts, and hit them at a spirit level. Like flicking at an eternal tuning fork that has been placed in us all."
'Destined for something'
Garrels, 31, has always been in touch with his own inner tuning fork. As a young child, well before he dove headlong into Jesus, he believed God made him for a reason. Through his rebellious teen years—skater dude, party animal, drug abuser (everything from pot to hallucinogens)—he somehow still believed it. "Even when I was on these crazy acid trips, I had this weird sense that the Spirit of God was with me, saying, 'You're God's child. You're destined for something.' "
Even as he lived a lie—good boy at home and school, bad boy sneaking out at night—he was still compelled to tell the truth. Once, when he and two teenage buddies were driving from one party to another, a cop pulled them over. They'd each had a few beers, and all had open cans in the car—including Garrels, who was behind the wheel. In the back seat, somebody was rolling a joint.
As the policeman approached, Josh's friends frantically tried to hide the evidence. But Josh, inexplicably, didn't panic, and when the officer asked if he had been drinking, Garrels looked him in the eye and said, "Yes sir, I have." His friends groaned and shook their heads. The cop asked Garrels to get out of the car, to walk in a straight line, to touch his nose, to count backwards. Garrels flunked them all. Busted, he thought.
The policeman looked down, kicked the gravel around a little bit, then said something wholly unexpected. "Get in the f---ing car!" he barked at Garrels. "And if I ever see you again, you're going straight to jail!" Josh and his buddies drove away in silence. Thirteen years later, Garrels remembers that episode as a strange sort of divine intervention. "I was already at a point where I knew something had to change in my life," he says. "It was like the Spirit of God was after me. I had a sense that we received grace because of my honesty and confession in that moment."
I sang along
To every chorus of the song
That the Devil wrote like a piper at the gates
Leading mice and men down to their fates
But some will courageously escape
The seductive voice with a heart of faith
While walkin' that line back home
More good words from "Farther Along." Not long after the run-in with the cops, Garrels started inching toward Jesus. While a freshman at Ball State University, he partied hard even as the still, small voice continued its gentle whisper. His older sister, Gala, had become a Christian and invited him to church—and he went, every Sunday, often with a hangover and bloodshot eyes, reeking of alcohol and smoke. "I'm sure she was embarrassed about my appearance," he says, "but she kept loving on me." Garrels says it took about nine months "for the gospel to sink in. I kept falling back into my old habits. It was like there were strongholds. I would go to a party and wake up the next day with blood all over me and not know what happened the night before—all while I'm praying, 'Lord, I want this to change. I want to follow you. Forgive me my sins.' "
Garrels says the cycle finally stopped one Sunday morning in May, at the end of his freshman year, when he felt that God was confronting him with these words: Today you choose.
"And I said, 'Yeah.'"
He was 19. The climb—to stick with the arboreal metaphor—had begun, and the sapling, his roots now in the right soil, began to shoot up and branch out. But his living-on-the-edge mentality—that impulse to leap before looking—would remain.
Sometimes it was costly. Less than a year after meeting Jesus, he met Michelle, and when it was clear they were on the fast track to marriage, he failed to make the most significant leap of his life: He called the whole thing off, terrified of the responsibility and commitment. It wasn't long before he regretted it, but Michelle had moved on and then fell for someone else, eventually getting engaged.
Meanwhile, Garrels was torn between vocational callings: musician or minister? He opted for the latter; he spent three years in theological training, and, at the age of 24, began pastoring a small Christian and Missionary Alliance church in Indianapolis. He loved preaching, teaching, and being part of a tight community. But it was an overwhelming job, and all the while, he pined for Michelle. He often dreamt about her, and frequently broke down sobbing just thinking about what he'd lost.
He had no clue that she was having similar thoughts. Michelle called off her engagement, and before long, she and Garrels reconnected and were married within months in what Josh calls "an epic romance." She joined him at the church in Indiana, but by then, Josh was having second thoughts about the ministry—and first thoughts about music. He had recorded two albums—Stone Tree (2002) and Under Quiet (2003)—and by the time he had finished Over Oceans (2006) with Michelle at his side (he calls her his "coproducer"), he was ready to quit the pastorate and pursue music full-time. It was another leap of faith.
Year of jubilee
When Garrels left the pastorate, two gestation periods began almost immediately. Nine months later, their daughter, Heron, and Josh's next album, Jacaranda (2008), were born. A year after that brought Lost Animals, and a year or so after that, their son, Shepherd. Along the way, they had spent a year in North Carolina after Michelle's father died, then moved to Portland for Michelle to attend art school.
And now, Love & War & the Sea in Between, the culmination of 18 months of grinding away at the creative machine and perhaps the biggest leap of his life: He is giving away the album for one year. Seriously. Download it for free at JoshGarrels.com. It's no marketing gimmick or publicity stunt. It's not even Garrels's idea. It's God's. In the spring of 2011, the album was almost ready, lacking only Josh's final vocals, arguably his best instrument. But he'd been fighting colds and flu, and lost his voice for four months. He tried antibiotics, vitamins, steam, extra sleep, lots of prayer. Three weeks before the album deadline, Garrels began fasting. One afternoon, while taking a hot bath, he said aloud, "Lord, I pray with this album that no one would rob you of your glory."
Garrels says God's reply was immediate: Are you going to rob me of my glory?
"I almost felt like Job," Garrels says. "All that time, Job had been basically raising his fist to God, saying 'What have you done?' And then when God finally answers, Job's humbled and put in his place. It was that kind of experience for me."
Garrels says he strongly felt God saying, "Give it to me." He says, "It was like an offering. I had to weigh the cost of giving away the most substantial work I'd ever done. It all came to me in about 20 minutes, like this big download. It reached a point where I had to say yes or no, and I had to say it out loud. So I said, 'All right. It's yours.' And I knew that meant I had to give it away for one year, like it was a year of Jubilee."
He got out of the tub, dried off and dressed, and came out to tell Michelle about his revelation. She started laughing, then crying "tears of joy," she says. She told Josh, "That sounds awesome!"
"It felt so exciting to me," Michelle says now. "So adventurous, so unknown. And it fit into this larger picture of what God had been teaching us about generosity, obedience, and simplicity. He obviously had plans far greater than our own, because it's something we never could have dreamed up."
Farther along we'll know all about it
Farther along we'll understand why
Cheer up my brothers, live in the sunshine
We'll understand this, all by and by
To date, Garrels has given away more than 75,000 copies of Love & War & the Sea in Between. Interestingly, but not surprisingly, the couple's finances have been just fine; as people discover his music, they're buying his older albums and coming to his shows, resulting in ample income.
And so they celebrate. They laugh and play and sing and dance with their children. They create. They live. They love. And Josh, well, he's still climbing trees, still riding his skateboard, still jumping from one thing to the next.
One flying leap at a time.
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