The least of these…

I had a friend mention to me that she was considering becoming a pen pal to someone in prison.

“Someone you know?” I said.

“No,” she said. “I just did a search online and found several Christian-affiliated organizations that will connect you to write letters to prisoners.”

Kinda scary, I thought. Sharing your life with a convicted criminal? Kinda awkward, I thought. Corresponding with a total stranger? Lots of questions. What if they tried to find you? What if they asked you for money? What possible wisdom and encouragement could I have to offer? Admittedly, they were selfish thoughts, but real.

I am increasingly concerned and aware that I do not serve enough the kinds of people Jesus has called on me to serve. How many orphans and widows have I visited this week? How many hungry and needy people have I handed food or clothing to? Do I visit the sick in hospitals? Have I ever set foot in a prison?

This passage seems to lay it out pretty clearly.

Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life (Matthew 25: 34–46).

When I think about taking time, energy and resources to serve people Jesus has called me to serve, the resistance from inside can come embarrassingly quickly. I don’t have any extra money. I have small children and I have no extra energy or time. I need to do everything that I can to keep my family safe and not expose them to complicated people and situations. My church, which I support with time and money, already takes care of all these things. But lately these concerns have started to seem more like convenient excuses. I certainly have limitations on the time and money that I have been given, but how to use these things must take Kingdom priorities into account.

At the suggestion of my friend, I researched Christian pen pal ministries for incarcerated believers. The process was simple. I wrote an email, said that I was willing, and was given a name and address of someone to write to. All the inmates in the program are professed followers of Christ who are looking for Christian friendship and encouragement, so all I’m required to do is exchange letters with them.

It’s amazing how much I have learned from them. I am heartbroken by their suffering and their difficult lives. I am inspired by their hope and strength. I am honored at the opportunity to show them kindness, forgiveness and truth when they so desperately desire it. Most of the people I have written to have been abandoned by their families. The only hope they hold on to is finding family in the body of Christ.

This post is not an attempt to impress anyone with this very small work that I do. I simply have a great desire to encourage other believers to consider becoming a pen pal to an incarcerated brother or sister in Christ. There are many, many inmates who want to have a Christian pen pal and never get one because there are not enough willing volunteers to write to them. It takes a very small amount of time to write and send a letter, but in doing so, you are serving the least of these. You are serving fellow believers whom society has shunned and forgotten. You are serving the people that Jesus has called upon us to serve. If you would like more information about the organization I work with, please visit


The age-old question: Music or lyrics first?


I understand the fascination with how songwriters write their songs. I’m fascinated too!

For many years I wrote “song seeds.” My initial idea would come to me as a lyric and a melody already tied together in my brain. These were tiny snippets of songs, some of them just three to four words and notes. I usually work incrementally—a few more notes, a few more lyrics, and back and forth. Only two or three times in my 16 years of songwriting have I ever finished a complete melody or complete lyric without touching the other. I usually stay at a piano or guitar while I work through my songs piece-by-piece, letting the chords go wherever I found interesting.

Prior to my most recent album, I always wrote songs with an instrument. I was in a pre-production session with my producer and he kept commenting that the songs I wrote on piano kept skewing toward a pop/jazz style and the songs I wrote on guitar were leaning more towards Americana—the stylistic direction we were going for on the project. I immediately guessed the source of the problem.

I was a much weaker guitar player, and this was actually helping my style as I was trying to craft a particular type of song. Why? Wouldn’t it make more sense to be better at an instrument to write songs?

What I discovered is that I was letting my chord changes dictate the shapes of my melodies. My melodies were following these random chord changes that I was throwing out as I composed, and I was neglecting to let the melody naturally go where it wanted to go. I wrote better songs on guitar because I could play far fewer chords on the guitar than I could on the piano. With my fancy, complicated chord changes out of the way, I wrote stronger melodies. Because of this revelation, I stopped writing with an instrument altogether. I was still putting chords to my music, but after the melody and lyrics were finished.

So, I decided this was my new method. Craft the shape of the melody (no chords) and then place the lyrics in piece-by-piece.

Now enters Michael Farren. I had the privilege of writing with Michael on one of the last days of a recent Nashville trip for the purpose of co-writing songs with many different talented artists. I was feeling pretty good about my “naked melody” approach and presented him with some song pieces I had started in that way. After I played him one song idea in particular, a song that I thought was probably the least impressive of the bunch, he surprised me by saying it was one of the best ones so far. Why?

He said something to the effect of, “Your lyrics really grabbed me on that one. You started to tackle a very interesting topic.”

I said, “Then why does it sound so average as a song?”

He replied, “Well, your music doesn’t fit the weight of those lyrics at all. You lyrics are weighty and your music and melody are happy-go-lucky.”

He then picked up his guitar and started singing the exact same lyrics with different music—music that near perfectly matched the sentiment of the words. Before the song was kind of boring. Now it was starting to be very interesting.

My “naked melody” approach suddenly seemed not to be the end-all-be-all system for me. As I worked with Micheal that morning, he kept asking me, “How do you feel like you would sing those words?” and telling me, “Don’t think about, just sing it like they ought to be sung.”

We also talked a lot about penning lyrics in a conversational style that was true to how I would talk as an individual. “Won’t you lose the poetry in conversational style?” I asked. “Not if you talk like only you would talk,” he replied. He asked me to describe what the process of forgiveness is like because we were dabbling in a song that dealt with that topic. I said, “I’ve done some things so selfish and insincere that I wouldn’t want anyone to know about.” And he said, “That’s it! The word insincere. That’s a word I would never use myself, so it feels very poetic to me. But it’s a word you obviously use in conversation, so you choosing that word also feels honest and conversational.”

My mind was blown.

Now I’m in a new phase of my songwriter’s life in trying to think this way—by starting with what I want to write about and then crafting a melody based on the way I would talk about the subject. I’ll start with a lyric that is honest and true to my conversational style and then try to sing it the way it wants to be sung. This is a whole new step in my writing style, and I’m excited to see if it makes me into a better writer (and hopefully doesn’t give me a mental breakdown!)

It seems to be another area of life where you arrive and find out the best way to carry yourself is to just be yourself. Like Michael said, “They’re gonna get it if it’s you.”