Sara Groves irritates me just a little bit. With each album she makes, she moves from strength to strength and is always raising the bar with the quality, depth, and lyrical ambition of her work. And as a fellow artist, that’s just a little irritating since it means the rest of us are going to have to work harder if we hope to keep up.
Sara’s husband Troy gave me a copy of “Tell Me What You Know” back in August, and I’ve been living with it since then, awaiting with great anticipation for the rest of the world to be able to hear it. And now that it releases this week, I thought I’d say a few words about it.
Sara’s best songs have a real way of getting beneath my skin and messing with my junk. She’s always trying to talk about the real stuff of life, love, faith, and even doubt, and always in a way that nobody else has before. (I’ve been blessed to write with her before, and am always challenged by how hard she works to be both very accessible to her audience but without falling back on language and imagery that we’ve all heard before.)
When she told me she was working on a record that would center on themes of social justice, I was both excited and worried.
The words “social justice” have almost reached cliché status, especially now with celebrities like Paris Hilton involving themselves in social causes in hopes of re-inventing themselves. And here lies one of the challenges that the social justice movement faces – people who want to help the needy because of how good it makes them feel about themselves. (honestly, I really don’t care all that much as long as the needy are truly being helped)
But Sara sings of a different kind of service to the poor, the kind that casts us (the benefactor) less as heroes who save the day and more like determined soldiers who march on in the face of a battle that we may not win and where there is little promise of glory, a battle that she calls the Long Defeat. Sara names the challenge, but she also names the deep joy that comes from knowing you are spending your life and heart on something that truly brings God pleasure.
It’s SO hard to write songs about serving the poor and changing the world that don’t degrade into either preachiness or Michael Jackson singing “I’m looking at the man in the mirror…” Now, don’t get me wrong, I like MJ as much as the next person (pre-scary MJ days), but I’ve been there and done that (and besides, I liked “We Are The World” better). So how would Sara frame this story?
Of course I shouldn’t have worried. The girl who brought us “we’re taking our church to the moon” would surely offer us a fresh and compelling vision of Social Justice. Check out the lyric of hope in a song Inspired by the story of a girl Sara met who had been abducted and forced to work in a Brothel in Thailand.
in the girl there’s a room
in the room there’s a table
on the table there’s a candle
and it won’t burn out
in the woman there’s a song
in the song there is hope
in the hope revolution
in the boy there’s a voice
in the voice there’s a calling
in the call there’s a promise
and it won’t quiet down
in the man there’s vision
in the vision is a road
it’s the road to his freedom…
oh, tell me what you know
about God and the world and the human soul
how so much can go wrong
and still there are songs…
Another song, “When The Saints”, moves me to tears every time I hear it.
The song “Abstraction” is an ambitious reiteration of a line from a Mark Helprin book that wonders how we can know the meaning of one life. I remember listening to this song and thinking Sara is maybe the closest to the depth and poetic versatility of Suzanne Vega that Christian music is likely to have.
But my personal favorite is the song “The Long Defeat” that offers a perspective that we don’t often hear in the American church on why we spend ourselves on behalf of the victimized and marginalized. It’s a quiet call to a war of attrition with no guarantee of a win.
I have joined the long defeat
that falling set in motion
and all my strength and energy
are raindrops in the ocean
so conditioned for the win
to share in victor’s stories
but in the place of ambition’s din
i have heard of other glories
and i pray for an idea
and a way i cannot see
it’s too heavy to carry
and impossible to leave
i can’t just fight when i think i’ll win
that’s the end of all belief
and nothing has provoked it more
than a possible defeat…
I’m weary of our church culture’s love affair with worship music.There are of course wonderful artists making meaningful songs of worship, but much of the rest of it seems so disposable and consumer oriented.This record calls me to what I believe is a more significant worship, the kind that truly brings God pleasure. The kind of worship that ministers to him.
When I was in Africa working with AIDS orphans last year, I was startlingly aware that when I would make them laugh, that it was Christ who was laughing; that when I would bring them comfort, it was Christ who was comforted; the one who tells us that he hides among the least of these is well served when we serve the poor – in whatever kind of poverty we find them.
This is what Sara’s record reminds me of and inspires me to.
Jason Gray is a recording artist with Centricity Records. His latest single, out now, is "When I Say Yes".