Bebo Norman: Deeper Still

Janet Chismar | Senior Editor, News & Culture | Tuesday, October 30, 2001

Bebo Norman: Deeper Still

"Today I woke up early, today I woke up sad. It's funny how it hurts me, this love I've never had. But I can feel You breaking me through this mess. I can feel You through this loneliness..."  With empathic insight into the human soul, Bebo Norman captures both the pain and beauty of singleness in the hauntingly poignant Break Me Through. And, in many ways, the song reflects the very depth of Norman's personality: tender, transparent, contemplative and compassionate.

And complex. While singles can find solace in the lyrics of Break Me Through, the song has a deeper, more universal appeal. Most believers, even those happily wed, are designed with a God-shaped void, an insatiable hunger to connect with the Lord. Norman brilliantly writes: "If I had a ladder to reach up to the sky, I would climb up there forever, and it would just be You and I." He describes the song simply ... as a prayer.

Underneath all that "depth" though, resides a man who "tries not to take himself too seriously." He freely admits struggling with the pressure to "always" be profound and meaningful, and longs sometimes to just "be."

If you have never been to a concert, nor met him in person, you'd be missing out on another endearing aspect of his character. The man is plain funny. Sit down at a Bebo Norman show and soon you'll be rolling. He pokes fun at his "frosted hair" and "acrylic fingernails" and spins long, humorous tales about any number of matters: his failed kindergarten romance, his "vicarious" dating experiences, a broken guitar string.

Somehow, he manages to make you laugh one minute and weep the next, as he talks about his trip to visit the child he sponsors in Brazil through Compassion International. The legendary monologues reveal other aspects of Norman's multi-faceted nature: a long-standing struggle with doubt and fear, a deep hunger for God, and a sweet love of family.  

In fact, Bebo's kin provide much fodder for songwriting: Home is Where You Are pays tribute to his mother's quiet devotion to her family; All That I Have Sown portrays the grief his grandfather felt upon his wife's death - and the joy of discovering her spirit alive in their offspring; The Healing Song tells of his brother's victory over substance abuse; A Page is Turned celebrates his brother's wedding.

No doubt that Bebo's unique personality bears the Norman family stamp … starting with that name. Born Stephen Norman on May 29, 1973, "Bebo" is actually a nickname that might have arisen from his younger sister's attempts to pronounce "big brother." No one quite remembers. So how on earth did it stick?  "Well, I am from Georgia," he laughs, laying on the Southern charm.

Norman also credits his parents for the compassion so visible in his lyrics and in his conversations with fans: "I think that, in so many ways, comes from my parents, who always felt absolute compassion and empathy for people in general, but especially for our family and for their children.
"When we did things wrong, or were in trouble growing up, it wasn't an issue of 'You did this wrong,' - but you could tell it legitimately hurt my parents when those things happened. And I think that's a picture of how it is with God."

A difficult season for Norman is when he feels numb - when his innate compassion seems to evaporate. "That is one of my biggest fears, being in that place, because I don't ever want to be that guy."

The Norman family influence also led to the vulnerability and transparency of Bebo's songwriting: "My house, growing up, was extremely honest and there was never anything hidden. When we were mad, we said we were mad. If we were happy, you knew we were happy. My parents encouraged that, and led by example on that. So there weren't very many secrets.

"In a way," Norman continues, "I guess that sort of fed over into when I started writing songs. There was never a filter on what I was feeling when I was writing them, and there was never a filter on explaining why I wrote them, as I started playing shows for people."

One of the first things about music he fell in love with were songwriters who had an ability to be transparent … an ability to say things intellectually profound and emotionally intimate at the same time. "That's what made me want to start writing songs."

Two Turning Points

Norman started playing guitar and writing songs when he was a junior in high school, which was also the period when he truly committed his life to Christ. It was earlier, at the age of 8, when Norman first told his parents he knew what it meant to be a Christian. "So we went and prayed with my pastor and I got baptized in my church.

"I really think I understood, like a child, what the essentials were at 8. But I went through a crazy time when I was in high school and was into pretty much everything you could be into.

"So, it basically took me those eight years or so in between to teach me what it meant not to walk with Christ, so that I knew what it meant to walk with Christ."

As Norman started to dabble in music at 17, he continued to pursue his first career choice -- medicine -- and majored in biology in college. The encouragement of friends who recognized his raw talent led him to perform, and soon after, he began to pray about a life of music vs. medicine. Norman adds, "At first I wondered if I could combine them in some crazy way."

But shortly after, he felt God releasing him from medicine. He laid it down and hasn't looked back since. One trace remains though -- his "scientist's mind" has fed one of his biggest struggles: doubt.
"It's not necessarily that I doubt God," he shares, "as much as I am fearful that I don't know what to expect from Him, and I'm fearful because I don't know what to expect of myself, and I don't know what to expect out of life. The essence of the doubt for me ends up being fear, I think, more than anything else."

A Peaceful Place

Yet, lately, Norman has been feeling a new sense of peace and trust in God. "The last year and a half has been a huge, huge growth period," he says. "It happened really subtly, but looking back, I realize more and more that I've been in a pretty peaceful place.

"I think I'm coming to grips with the fact that success, however big or small, or however you want to define it, won't fulfill me. I feel like music has been a great thing and I've been incredibly happy with it, but I don't feel like being in front of people and having their approval is something that really drives me. It's something I definitely enjoy, but it doesn't fulfill me."

Norman says he has pondered what satisfies his soul then, and has found "the only thing that's really going to fulfill me is trusting that God is in control of things. That's been a huge peaceful thing."

How is he dealing with success? In the wake of ever-increasing adulation, does he struggle with humility? Norman laughs. "You know what? I know me. I know me way too well, and I know me on a daily level. Humbleness isn't a problem when you know yourself."

Norman says he is not confused about who he is, plus, "God has blessed me with friends that make sure I'm not confused about who I am. I also just see the reality. I see the cycle of sin that I struggle with, I see it every single day."

Care and Feeding

A hallmark of Norman's concerts actually comes after the last song ends; it is the hour or so he spends listening to and talking with fans. He considers that his personal ministry and pours himself into it wholeheartedly. So who pours into him?

Because he is disconnected from a church body at the moment, Norman instead finds a certain level of fellowship with his audience. "In a large way I am fed by that," Norman explains. "Talking to people after shows is fellowship for me in that sense, because it bears witness to the fact that there are other people that are relating and learning and growing in the same way that I might be. Or struggling and joyful in the same way that I might be."

He does miss the other type of connection that comes from being involved in a church body. "I think I'm starving for that in a lot of ways," says Norman. "I am realizing that I am hungry for a community and for a church. I think I found that [in Nashville], now it's just a matter of finding the time to actually be there and be involved in it. 

"As far as feeding myself on a day-to-day basis," he continues, "a lot of that is just reading and spending time alone. Honestly, foundationally, if I do that, if every morning I just spend an hour reading and writing, then every single other aspect of my life, whether it is physical, or mental, or emotional, levels itself out.

"It's just consistency and discipline and how that works and how God honors that. That's huge for me," Norman adds.

The Time Factor ... and the Singleness Thing

Merely finding time is a battle though, Norman admits. "There's not a whole lot of it." And that leads to a certain lack of human connection. "I think everybody would agree that the most intimate things that happen in our lives happen over a period of time spent with people. Real intimacy happens in the mundane everyday stuff and I only have tiny moments of that."

His schedule makes it hard for him to let down his guard with new people, "... to go past a certain point and say, 'I am willing at this point just to be me.'

"It's not that I'm necessarily holding anything back," he adds, "but I just keep things at such a pace that they don't somehow ever go deep. To really dig in and understand somebody has to be a day-to-day thing. And I don't get that with anybody. So it's almost like all I am left with, as far as real intimacy is concerned, are the people I've already experienced that with and know."

That's also what makes it hard working on a relationship or trying to build a romantic relationship, Norman explains. "It's fine to talk to somebody and to feel like you've had a great conversation. But to go past that requires literally, for me at least, daily time. And I don't know how I'll ever have that."

Back to Break Me Through and also Perhaps She'll Wait from Big Blue Sky. Both songs succinctly capture the jumble of emotions singleness can produce. Is this insight perhaps a spiritual gift? "I tell people I don't have any desire to be the 'spokesperson' for singleness," Norman says. "But in a lot of ways, just writing songs about it and the feedback that I get, it feels that way sometimes ... not that I'm all encompassing or anything," he smiles.

When he truly grapples with "trying to assess it and figure it out," he realizes his present state of singleness gives him the chance to "write songs and express things that are moving me or mean something to me. And they may end up moving other people or meaning something to them. And singleness ends up being a huge one of those."

Norman hopes that every stage of his life, whatever it is, will garner something that will be worth relating to people or that people can relate to. "If God uses singleness that way, then that rocks my world."

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