Episode 058: Devotion in Life with Zach Bolen
What Does Devotion Look Like in Life?
Does a daily devotion look like a 30 minute “quiet time” in the morning or evening? Or does devotion seep out into all the aspects of the day? To talk about devotion in life this week we have the great privilege of chatting with Zach Bolen, lead singer of Citizens & Saints. Not only does he get into how his devotional life works in and through a busy schedule, but also what safeguards he and the band put in place to protect themselves from the negative affects popularity could bring.
Zach Bolen is the frontman for Citizens & Saints.
Their new album is A Mirror Dimly.
*Below is an edited transcription of the audio.
Well I’m super pumped to be talking with Zach Bolen today from Citizens & Saints – it’s a band from Seattle who write and record songs for God’s glory, at least that’s what comes across. But anyways, thanks for coming on the show today Zach!
Yeah thanks Isaac, I appreciate it man.
Your latest album, A Mirror Dimly, that came out – that was last year correct?
Yeah, it came out in September of last year.
That’s right. And I got to say, it has been a gift. I was actually just talking with my brother-in-law a little while ago who is a worship pastor from Vancouver and we were saying that A Mirror Dimly is the kind of album where, at least for us, we just want to be able to, you know, if we’re driving somewhere, we just want to listen to good music but at the same time, solid theologically. And at the same time, not just straight congregational, Keith and Kristin Getty kind of sounds. Your album did that, so I’m really pumped about that. Thank you!
That’s great to hear. I mean, that’s definitely one of the values we had. We wanted the record to really just feel like something that people could personally listen to and not necessarily need to be, sort of, this gathered thing. But also, there could be that trade off too, so listening to it in a group and finding comradery and solace – knowing that we’re human and experience lots of things in life like doubt – even just really great moments of faith too. That’s cool to hear that it’s been like that for you.
For sure, yeah exactly. And as you say that, the whole, you know, doubt and things like that, reading through Psalms in my daily reading plan, it’s like, that is what God calls us to be – we have to be open like that, to lament, you know? In Psalm 44 the Sons of Korah even say, “Wake up God!” And I’m like, “Well, God never sleeps!” He just wants us to be real, right? I think that’s really cool.
To our listeners, Zach has graciously allowed me to talk with him for a bit today, just for a short time on what’s it’s like to grow in devotion to the Lord while in the midst of busyness and life, especially in our culture, and especially for Zach as, you know, is a full-time musician.
So, anyways, first of all Zach, a lot of people have maybe heard of Citizens & Saints but they don’t know who you are. Why don’t you just tell us a little bit about yourself, as well as when you realized or sensed Jesus calling you to Himself.
Yeah. I live in Seattle, WA right now with my wife and four kids with two boys and two girls, but my life obviously started a little bit before all that too. I grew up on the East Coast of the States, in the State of Maryland. I grew up in a small church there and I was always around musicians. Different people in my family would sing. It seemed like every holiday there’d be a time where everyone, at least, until you’re a ‘too cool teenager’ to do it, all the cousins, aunts and uncles would gather around and we’d sing songs and stuff like that. So I have that as a part of my upbringing which was really special.
And then in high school, that’s when I would say that I really started to follow Jesus and walk with Him. Prior to that, for the eight years prior to that, my dad, he had died when I was six and so, that was a really tragic death, which, death, it seems like it always is in most cases. And so, it was very sudden. I really dealt with a lot of things from that and I still do personally today. But God used his death and the suffering to show me that I was loved by God and that he was with me. I didn’t need to be living for a man that wasn’t going to come back, you know? And so out of that, I really think that that’s kind of when music started really to take off for me as far as my interests go.
I had done piano lessons and started playing guitar for a lot of years, but I was really intrigued by, at that point, wanting to talk about my faith. One of the ways that I knew to do that was through music. I went to a public high school that was primarily, I mean, there just weren’t very many Christians there, so it was really interesting to have this band that everyone in my school knew about, but they also knew that we were a Christian band. Now I kind of wince at calling, you know, saying that we’re a Christian band, but back then it was a really cool thing to say, I guess, I don’t know.
What was the name of the band?
Oh my goodness, we had a lot of names. The worst of them all was “Great Scott” though.
That is awesome.
We had been watching Back to the Future and thought, “Aw yeah, that’d be a great band name.” And then we kind of went with it as a joke, and then from that point all of our friends just called us that so we’re like, “Well, I guess it works.”
Hey that’s great. It’s catchy.
Yeah dude. We were not good, we were terrible. But anyways, people, friends and family really sat through a lot of hard nights, I tell ya.
But anyways, from there, God really used music a lot and continues to teach me how to engage with (in a lot of ways) my emotions, culture, but also with Him.
And I think too it’s through my love for music that God has really shown me how vast the ways are that we can connect with Him.
In the church we say “Oh, we don’t just worship through music,” but I think we still use language that kind of reinforces that idea, and that’s not helpful I don’t think. And so it’s really nice to see, when you get to that place, to anyone who is listening and I’m sure you feel the same, where you realize, “Oh wow, there are so many ways, like, God has gifted us with so many ways to connect with Him.” But for me, music has definitely been one of those.
From there I just kept doing music and it kind of brought me out to where we are out here in Seattle now.
So back when you were in high school doing music, did you sort of consider yourself as doing music as a career?
I mean, any teenager with a guitar in a band in high school, I would say for the most part has aspirations of going bigtime. But, what’s funny is that I have this very distinct memory of when I was in high school, I think I was in ninth or tenth grade, and I was at this big festival and it was predominantly Christian bands. I can remember leaning over to my aunt and telling her, “One say I’m going to do that.” And, I think at that time the thing that was really appealing to me was like “Oh, the big crowd! This big band!” And you’re like this rockstar thing. And it’s just kind of crazy to think back on it, like, woah, that was a desire that I had and God totally redeemed that desire and now it’s like completely different.
I don’t want to do it for the reasons I thought I wanted to almost twenty years ago, but, you know, it’s kind of cool how God – it’s just a reminder in a little way, depending on where your theology is, but, we sort of have these desires and with hindsight it’s pretty remarkable if you were to just sit down and really think about how many things these dreams that we’ve had and hopes God has brought to fruition, and probably not in the way anticipated. But it’s really humbling when it’s like, “Woah, God brought me to that place but He also saved me from myself because if I had been the one getting there, it would have been really bad.” So, I definitely had that desire when I was young and it’s really cool to get to do it now in a way that’s way more fulfilling than it would have been if I had gone with my fourteen-year-old desires.
For sure, and you know, it’s funny – as you’re saying that I’m totally reminded of, just in the Fall I had the privilege of chatting with Josh White (musician and pastor from Portland) and he had a similar kind of [story]. He really wanted to make it in the music industry for the wrong reasons, and he tried and tried, and then finally the Lord took him and now he’s doing it again but, you know, with that redeemed sense and it’s just beautiful to see God working that way. That’s cool that God is working that in His children on earth.
At least personally, for me, I find it fascinating when I’m reading, say, Church Fathers, Puritans, whoever, and I’m reading about these traditions of them devoting themselves to the Lord. So, maybe I’m reading some Edwards or Spurgeon or whoever and you read about, you know, how they devoted themselves to God in the midst of their crazy busy lives. And just recently I was reading about Spurgeon’s life, and I was like, “Oh my goodness, this guy was nuts! He did so much!”
So, I guess my question for you (and I’m not comparing you to anybody), but obviously Citizens & Saints has become quite popular for great reasons, I love that, so as one of the members of the band, what has your devotional life looked like and shaped into in the midst of, I can imagine, very busy schedules, practices, travel, family (you know, four kids), like [what] does your devotional life really look like?
You know, it’s interesting. So, when the band started we were a part of a church and then up to that point I had spent the past, I don’t know how many years that would’ve been, almost eight years working at churches. And that was unintentional, I never wanted to necessarily go into vocational ministry. But I do remember as a young, you know, being in high school, like, God calling me to ministry, not necessarily vocational. But I did for a couple years and it was really fulfilling and also really heartbreaking in certain ways too. But, you know, it was coming out of working at the church [that] I kind of realized that a lot of my devotional, or my devotion to God was built around a job versus a desire. So I kind of spent a period of time where I was really wrestling through that and praying through that. Actually, even with A Mirror Dimly, a lot of the doubt and stuff that I was experiencing really was out of that.
And then you kind of fast forward to now, and it’s been really cool, you know, my wife and I talk about this a lot, for the past couple years it’s felt really fulfilling to just read my Bible and talk to God and pray and come as I am and not feel like I need to do that out of some duty to something else. That’s just a gift God has given me, an opportunity to come before Him.
I think about in Luke where Jesus has just healed somebody and it says that these crowds started to gather, but He would just find moments to get away and pray and find places of isolation. And that just really blew my mind, that, here Jesus is and you think, “Wait, Jesus should be healing all these people,” but it’s like, that was part of the reason He came, to heal people, but that wasn’t the main reason. He came to proclaim a coming kingdom, and so, part of doing that was having His being devoted to God the Father and seeing His greatest source of strength and peace and rest and joy, all came from that. And that’s been really, I mean really instrumental to me, to see that, you know,
my primary responsibility is to make and create space where I’m listening and communing with God.
And practically Zach, what does that look like for you? Obviously praying and reading the Word is part of it, but, do you separate yourself from everyone and be in your own space to do this?
Well you know, with four kids, especially at home, a lot of times I have to get up really early, that’s what my wife and I do. They get up at 6:30am, so we usually try and get up at least 30 minutes before they do.
But also, when the band is travelling it’s more of a fluid, organic thing. I mean, we were just talking to someone about this the other day. In a lot of ways when we’re travelling together it’s almost like church in a way, because for us we see how needy we are for that community and how important it is that all of us are pursuing God. And so, it’s always really encouraging to me, and it’s not just right before we play, but a lot of times it seems to be the case where, you know, someone’s got a passage of Scripture that they were reading that day that they want to share with everybody, or, you know, someone’s sending out an email reminding us of something or a text, [maybe] there’s a conversation that you can tell the Holy Spirit’s a part of, or they’re telling a story.
So I just think that’s probably been the coolest way, not isolating devotion to God with just specific moments in a day, but to really, just pray constantly for an open mind and to be ready to receive that. And that’s been a pretty cool thing.
What I’m hearing from you Zach, which is pretty cool, is this idea that, instead of just saying in one sense it’d be easier just to allot one hour to focus on devotion to the Lord and for the rest of the day I’m doing my and this and that, but what I’m hearing from you is like, be attentive to the Spirit all the time, like Paul says, pray without ceasing. Be attentive so that when that person says a Scripture, or when that email comes up with an encouragement, or this, or that, it’s like you’re constantly in this, like you said, a fluid and very organic devotion to the Lord throughout the entire day, which is actually a really neat concept.
Yeah, and I think it’s probably both/and, at least it is for me. Because I also feel like if I don’t have structured time it’s really easy for me to just get a little too distracted. So I have to be pretty intentional about even having that, but I mean I think that’s- I mean if there’s one thing that being a parent has taught me it’s that! You have to really be open and ready everyday, and know that you’re usually probably running on half to a quarter, to maybe empty tank. Just being tired and exhausted from different things. So, you’re quickly humbled daily by a lot of things.
That’s really cool. To move on to a different question, just something that popped in my head and I think a lot of people would have questions about it. The question is this: do you personally put up any safeguards or boundaries to protect yourself from the negative affects that can come from stardom or popularity?
Because, I mean, when you do a show you have a lot of people that really want to talk to you and see you and hear you and all that kind of stuff, so you know, temptation to self-glory and pride- like, it’s a very honest and open question, so, I just want to ask, do you personally struggle with this or do you put up safeguards or boundaries to help you? Or maybe you don’t, and that’s great too!
Probably one of the biggest safeguards, if you will, that we as a band are collectively united in is that we’re not on a mission to become the next biggest band.
We really try and view every opportunity and everything we do, not as a stepping stone, but rather just grateful and content for where God has us. That’s not to say that we stay in that place all the time, I mean, there are definitely moments when it’s tempting. You have a really great turnout and a great show and it’s like, “Aw man, that was the best! If it could be like that every time.” And then it causes you at the next show where it’s not that great (maybe I mess up a song, or there aren’t a ton of people there, it doesn’t sound people are very excited), all of a sudden you start comparing these things, and it just gets into really messy territory.
And I think entitlement in some ways too. God has been gracious to me and humbling me, and sometimes, kind of in more public ways in that kind of regard. [For example], being in a head space of, “This is going to be a great show,” and then going out there and totally botching the song, singing it in the wrong key – I’ve done that more times than I’d like to admit, but since we’re being honest!
I mean, I think God is just saving me from myself in a lot of ways, but at the same time, I think, and it’s not like this for everybody, some people are maybe a little bit more on their own in what they do, but I think for us in the band we just really value holding each other to that. And so, every decision we make, especially the big ones, [like] “Hey there’s a big tour coming up,” you know, we’ve turned down every single major tour we’ve ever been offered, and most of that is just because (and that’s not to say we won’t accept one in the future maybe) none of them have yet to align with our priorities and the values that we feel God has called us to.
And that’s because we’re not trying to get to the bigtime, we’re totally content with where God has us. And that’s not to say that there aren’t days where we’re like, “Aw man, I’d rather not have to do this one thing, or do that,” but at the end of the day when I look at it in its entirety, this is a really wonderful thing that God has called us to, and so, that’s huge.
And then the other thing I would say too (maybe I’m answering this question too long) that’s huge are the stories – that for sure keeps you in the right headspace. Because, when people come to you and share a story of a way a song has specifically spoken to them, how God’s used it, how they have been encouraged by it, like that, just immediately, it’s like, “Yeah, that’s why we do this.”
We do this because we’re not an extension of the body, we’re all a part of the body. And so it’s like, we’re not some separate thing, we’re like, the elbow, or the hand, the finger, or whatever you want to call it. That’s who we are.
So I think that when our perspective is that especially, it’s way more enjoyable. And that’s probably different than maybe some other bands that are doing stuff, but for us, we feel really comfortable with saying that we’re a band that’s writing music for all people, but specifically, it’s probably going to be mostly encouraging to those in the body of Christ.
That’s really cool. The last question: what’s one thing you’ve learned from growing in your devotion to Jesus that you could share? People always want to know how they can grow in their devotion to Jesus, so I don’t know if anything jumps to mind that you could share from your own walk and experience in life.
I’m going to borrow something for a minute. The pastor of the church that I’m a part – he was preaching from Luke and in particular John the Baptist. Luke is describing the ministry of John the Baptist, and [the pastor] is just saying how a lot of times in our culture we go a little too much on feeling. So it’s sort of like, “this feels right, this doesn’t feel right,” and he kind of brought up the point:
one of the beauties of trusting in God and following Him is that we can keep walking when things don’t feel right and trust that in that process God will bring clarity and peace in it all even if it doesn’t necessarily feel like it in the moment.
And when I thought about that, it’s like, I see the temptation in myself to constantly be a feeler. It’s like, “Aw man I don’t feel like I’m getting this right now, so I don’t want to have anything to do with it,” or “I don’t feel like singing,” or “I don’t feel like praying,” whatever it is. But just realizing that there is a really healthy aspect to just being disciplined and doing those things even when we’re not feeling it.
So I’d say, honestly, when I look back on the course of my life, I’ve experienced the most joy in the times when I’ve been the most disciplined.
And that can mean a lot of things to different people. So it’s not really like a rule, it’s just more of a mentality – it’s more of a posture. And I do believe that our emotions are a wonderful gift, obviously they are because if they weren’t then I wouldn’t be making music. But they can also be really misleading and they’re not really our guide. They’re helpful, but they’re not ultimately always going to lead us. And sometimes I think emotions actually help us in making good decisions, but that’s why they’re finicky because sometimes they can lead us down some wrong and hard paths.
I was using this image the other day, explaining to my daughter, I was like, in a lot of ways sometimes we talk about the heart, and God speaks to our hearts, but I was like, “Imagine your head is the soil and God’s planting this seed into your mind, and you’re thinking about it, and then it goes down into your heart and it’s in your heart where it actually takes root and becomes something more.” I genuinely believe, like, I don’t think we should discredit the minds God’s given us – I whole heartedly believe that God uses the mind as well in helping us understand and grow in our knowledge of His love. But also even in conversion, I just think that’s a part of it. It’s like God’s planting that seed, and it’s in our hearts where the true fruit begins to replicate and produce, so, that’s what I would say. We only get there through faithful obedience and part of that is just doing things when we don’t feel like it.
That’s so good. Thank you so much Zach, that was a lot of fun. Hey, if someone wants to learn more about Citizens & Saints (I mean, this is kind of a cheesy question, but I hear it all the time on podcasts – like, “What should they do?”). Obviously you guys have a presence on your website, but is there anything else you could encourage them to do?
Yeah, I’m pretty big on this kick right now. You can go to citizensandsaints.com and you can follow what we do. But, as an aside, as well, streaming is kind of a big thing right now, but just know that it means a ton when you go out and buy a band’s record, not just ours, but support music. It’s a huge thing. It keeps this artist realm continuing. But it also just means that we can keep making music and support our families, and you know, in particular with Citizens & Saints, we’re not aiming to make lot’s of money or anything like that, we’re grateful for whatever God gives us, but I also believe that God provides through you guys too so thanks for supporting what we do.
That’s awesome. Hey, and the last thing Zach. Your latest album is on vinyl as well, correct?
That’s correct yeah.
Okay good. We just want to make sure that gets out there! Hey, Zach, thank you so much for taking some time out of your day to chat with me,
Cool, thank you so much Isaac. Take care.