Sara Groves: Tell Me What You Know

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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.


30 Comments

  1. morgan

    I love Sara Groves and wish I could afford this album (I know, it’s on sale on iTunes, but I seriously have no money), but I do have to stick up for consumer oriented worship music you mention. Not because I think you’re wrong, but because whenever I hear people say this, it’s as if listening to Chris Tomlin sing “You are the Famous One” somehow makes it impossible for me to appreciate the lyrical depth and breadth someone like Sara Groves brings to the table. Far from it, I think that having a multiplicity of ways to recognize who I am as a Christian, and what it means to be a Christian worshipping. I enjoy being in a big venue at a Christian concert jumping around with the words on the screen and the fancy lights, and I participate in and believe worship is helping the poor in a concrete way here where I live and elsewhere. I can’t wait to hear this album, I was thrilled to see Sara Groves as last week’s Discovery Download, I think she has some hard words for Christians to respond to, but I don’t think that has to mean Christians who worship in other (perhaps cheesier or more emotionally oriented or whatever) ways will never get to the point where they can listen to music that challenges them in some serious ways.

  2. Ron Davis

    Great review. I’m looking forward to hearing this one.

    My wife has told me that I most definitely WILL be buying it when I see the BTLOG tour. Who am I to argue with her? 🙂

  3. Jeff Lane

    What can be added after Jason’s review except ………Amen! That’s why this room is so addictive, it is because of these types of reviews and words and music, Music that inspires and speaks so much to me and others. I thank God for artists like Sara, Jill, AP, Jason and Andy, I thank God that he has gifted evryone one of you to say what I think we need to hear. Thanks for those words Jason.

  4. Tara Hietpas

    I just received this CD in the mail today. As a big fan of all of Sara’s previous work, I’m really looking forward to listening to it.

  5. Chris R

    Check out the music video for the title track on relevantmagazine.com…. go to that website and click on Relevant TV and select the song. I dont know if you can find it elsewhere but the combination of her lyrics and the images is powerful.

  6. Curt McLey

    @curtmcley

    Chris R. wrote:

    Check out the music video for the title track on relevantmagazine.com

    I saw that somewhere recently. Maybe it was You Tube. It’s moving in a very dignified way.

  7. Jason Gray

    @jasongray

    I wanted to dig a little deeper into the whole worship comment. I know I’ll probably get into trouble with this, and I sincerely don’t mean to be contrary, but this is something that I’ve been wanting to dialogue about anyway.

    I totally agree that there is a lot of great worship music out there that has been good for the body of Christ. And I agree that there is room for both kinds of music (worship music and introspective singer/songwriter fare) in the life of a believer. My major bone to pick is that there doesn’t appear to be room for both in the marketplace. The ravenous demand for worship music at Christian retail and radio has left singer/songwriter’s feeling like the red headed step child. How many people did you see at the last big worship concert? How many people did you see at the last Andrew Peterson (or insert any one of your favorite thoughtful singer/songwriters here) concert? Most singer/songwriters I know are pressured by their record label to write a worship song because they know it’s money in the bank.

    I know people who say they will only listen to worship music, regarding it as more spiritual (“I only listen to vertical music…”), and I’ve heard comments like, “when I listen to worship music throughout the day, I feel like I’ve worshipped all day long.”

    My concern is that this distracts and distorts what genuinely transformational worship can be. Again, I think there is some great worship music out there, but some of it strikes me as easy listening. And I don’t think “easy” is a proper adjective for worship. Specifically, I’m thinking of Isaiah 58:

    Tell my people what’s wrong with their lives…
    They’re busy, busy, busy at worship,
       and love studying all about me.
    To all appearances they’re a nation of right-living people—
       law-abiding, God-honoring.
    They ask me, ‘What’s the right thing to do?’
       and love having me on their side.
    But they also complain,
       ‘Why do we fast and you don’t look our way?
       Why do we humble ourselves and you don’t even notice?’

     3-5″Well, here’s why:
       “The bottom line on your ‘fast days’ is profit…

    
The kind of fasting you do
    
   won’t get your prayers off the ground.

    Do you think this is the kind of fast day I’m after:
    
   a day to show off humility?
To put on a pious long face
    
   and parade around solemnly in black?

    Do you call that fasting,
    
   a fast day that I, God, would like?
     6-9″This is the kind of fast day I’m after:
    
   to break the chains of injustice,
    
   get rid of exploitation in the workplace,
    
   free the oppressed,
    
   cancel debts.
What I’m interested in seeing you do is:
    
   sharing your food with the hungry,
    
   inviting the homeless poor into your homes,
    
   putting clothes on the shivering ill-clad,
    
   being available to your own families.

    Do this and the lights will turn on,
    
   and your lives will turn around at once.

    Your righteousness will pave your way.
    
   The God of glory will secure your passage.

    Then when you pray, God will answer.
    
   You’ll call out for help and I’ll say, ‘Here I am.’

     9-12″If you get rid of unfair practices,
       quit blaming victims,
       quit gossiping about other people’s sins,
    If you are generous with the hungry
       and start giving yourselves to the down-and-out,
    Your lives will begin to glow in the darkness,
       your shadowed lives will be bathed in sunlight.
    I will always show you where to go.
       I’ll give you a full life in the emptiest of places—
       firm muscles, strong bones.
    You’ll be like a well-watered garden,
       a gurgling spring that never runs dry.
    You’ll use the old rubble of past lives to build anew,
       rebuild the foundations from out of your past.
    You’ll be known as those who can fix anything,
       restore old ruins, rebuild and renovate,
       make the community livable again.

    This is why I regard Sara’s album as a compelling worship record – music that calls us to a radically transformational kind of worship that changes our lives, changes the lives of others, and brings God great pleasure.

  8. morgan

    In the ongoing discussion I see concerning the commercialization of of Christian music, I definitely agree that it is frustrating to see artists not following the Holy Spirit, but rather following the money, and I really, really appreciate the artists who are getting away from that (and would note that six steps, the Passion label, is a non-prof). And I think it is a great point that more ‘thoughtful artists’ may not be getting the crowds in concert that prominent ‘worship artists’ may get, and that’s frustrating, but by no means limited to Christian music. Aside from, let’s call it, music from above, to take a step and look at music from below and how the masses are using this music once they have it, that cannot be as easily addressed. If my iPod paid royalties per play or something instead of a flat fee per song, a quick reference to my iTunes tells me the top earners would be Derek Webb, David Crowder, Andrew Peterson, and Caedmon’s Call (gosh, this makes me feel like I need to be more indie or something. Maybe I should start listening to the bands my sister keeps trying to force on me). And the scriptures you quote are dead on; I might even add Paul saying that while we are infants we need milk, but will progress to solid food. I can sing with Crowder that the name of Jesus never gets old, and so praising God never gets old, regardless of whether it’s through old school hymns, modern worship artists, or the ‘thoughtful’ genre that goes for some personal introspection on how I worship God in both my interior life and in my actions towards others.

    I’m not sure this is coherent, but it is almost 1am.

    At any rate, I love the reviews, and appreciate the desire for dialogue.

  9. Jason Gray

    @jasongray

    Great comment, Morgan. I’d say that you could make your sister listen to Derek and Andrew since they are both in the most practical sense independent artists – in both philosophy and spirit.

  10. John Michalak

    I feel like I’m as much in the middle of these extremes as anyone. I personally don’t care for much of the contemporary worship today. Not because of the content, necessarily, but because the style is general, pop-FM, which I’ve never cared for. I certainly love the singer-songwriter genre, but don’t want to live too offen in self-reflection. I totally concur that acts of social justice and compassion are acts of worship and should be celebrated in music. I call my own music “performance worship” much to the chagrin of those who say you can’t worship and perform at the same time. As has been said, there are lots of ways to worship, and I think reflective worship is something that’s missed. My songs encourage quiet reflection without the extroverted sing-a-long. Many are “vertical” but (hopefully) encourage personal assimilation of the lyrics and/or story before reaching up into the Heavens. I think a lot of Fernando Ortega’s music is like this. It’s very “worshipful” but it creative, reflective and personal.

  11. euphrony

    I totally agree with your description of “living with” this album. I got a pre-release in September and it’s been in constant play, either in my CD player, iPod, or my head. Seriously a wonderful and challenging album.

    The horizontal worship (worshiping God through blessing and caring for His creation) is something I and a group of others have been called to do, and we’ve made a stab at it with a collaborative blog recently. I share your concerns about the modern worship movement as shallow, finding myself much hungrier for more than just myself and God – it seems so selfish to me, to keep it so personal and reflect God only back at Him and not at the world.

    I look forward to reading more on this site – looks great! And I look forward to trying to see you this Sunday in Houston with downhere.

  12. Kevin Beasley

    Our faith community was talking about Gratefulness on Sunday night and how much I complain about stupid stuff like getting out of bed early when we have ancestors in the faith that actually died for the advancement of the Kingdom! What a loser I am, especially in the mornings. I shared about Betsy Ten Boom’s thankfulness for fleas. I shared some of the stories that Sara sings about and then played (which is very unusual for me to play a song publicly) When the Saints for the gathering. Wow! It was truly a spiritual experience to reflect with a group on what we are called to in the name of Jesus! What a tremendous song!! I usually have to take time to process the first time I hear a song, but this one sent me to babbling tears the very first time I played it! I was riding down the road and it reminded me of the very first time I popped in Love and Thunder and how I sat in the parking lot of a gas station and cried like a baby. Similar experience. Although AP and Sara don’t look a lot alike or act a whole lot alike, they have the same effect on me. Tears…joy…acceptance…challenge…faith…

    By the way, I’m pumped to hear that Sara is on the Christmas tour this year! I was at the Ryman last year with my wife on her birthday and Sara is her hero. It was special.

  13. Kevin Beasley

    Jason, how many people did you see at the last few Rich Mullins concerts. The last one I went to there were probably 300. I think it’s not so much that worship bands are stealing the Thunder of the s/sw, I just think people are infatuated with easy to please popular worship music. I’m not sure exactly what it is, but it has something to do with emotional energy verses spiritual richness in language and thought. The emotional stuff requires no “work”, it just happens.

    I agree that worship music is valuable to the body, but I feel like a heretic when I tell people that I’m sometimes bored on Sunday morning during…what…wait for it…worship (translated singing for the “spiritual” illiterate). However, give me a Sara or AP or Gullahorn or Jill Phillips or even the “less spiritual” so they say Pierce Pettus CD and I’ll know God the closer every single time the last note emanates from that last track.

    I really don’t think I’m a heretic. And I hope that I don’t sound bitter or critical, because I’m really none of the above. Just a little confused.

  14. Mary Ann

    This review brought me so much joy; someone else who is as excited about it as I am! awesome. I just got this CD about a week ago and cannot put it down. I want to sit and have a cup of coffee with her and pick her brain. This CD is my heart and such a gift to listen to. I am headed to Africa for 11 months this June and the lyrics only grow my drive and passion for the love I hope to show while there. Sara gets life, she gets it in a way that is hard to find in a lot of other singer/songwriters’ lryics. She stirs my soul to action and I could ask no more of an album.

  15. Jeff

    As a worship leader and professional musician, I felt compelled to write a response here. Regarding worship music being written these days, it’s must better than it was 10 years ago – deeper, more compelling texts. Still, for every 30 new worship songs coming out, there may be one that I consider using in worship. Much of it does sound similar and no different from other (and often better) songs already in circulation.

    I am always drawn to songwriters such as Andrew Peterson, Sara Groves, Ginny Owens, etc. I got Sara’s new CD the day it was released. It’s by far her best ever. In addition to it being more commercially accessible and radio-friendly, the texts are quite deep and intelligent. With some of Sara’s songs, I tend not to really “get” them until the 50th hearing. Her songs stay with me and compel me to grow and mature in my faith. Her humility is amazing. She is never preachy and always seems on the same level as I am, while at the same time, pushing me on to a better place. She bares her soul in her songs, and that helps me as a worship leader to do the same. I sure wish more people would know of her music and her ministry. She is fearless, as are others who put out music without aiming for the commercial masses.

  16. Micah Ballew

    I think that a great deal of music (whether intended for a church service, a coffeehouse, club, arena, or open mic night) is now being made for people who don’t pay great attention to detail or who just want some background music. Some songs are literally being written for the intended purpose of being faded into a montage at the end of hit shows, while the main character sums up the lessons they’ve learned in this episode.

    I recently read an article in which a writer for a major network hour long drama was told to keep the plots simple. His boss basically said that people are ironing, cooking, folding clothes, checking email, and eating dinner while watching the show, so it has to be easy to follow.

    Many things have gone this way, music, movies, etc. Which makes me very grateful for people like ap, sara groves, & others who have made cd’s so good that sometimes i don’t notice how good a song is until months after i 1st heard it. And like it has probly been through all of Church history, some of the new songs are amazing and some won’t stand the test of time. Seriously, thumb through a hymnal & realize how many songs just didn’t really last.

  17. Owen Beatty

    Worship/praise music is popular because it expresses Christianity in an easily digestible form. When a Christian artist/author challenges our faith in God, our commitment to living as Christ lived, it can be humbling…generally speaking, that is an unnerving feeling that most people move away from…

  18. Beth

    Thanks for the reviews and comments. I am getting this CD for Christmas from my dear hubby. Now I don’t know if I can wait that long. With that good of a recommendation, how can we go wrong? I eagerly anticipate music that can move a person to tears.

  19. Corey Beebe

    Great review, I love reading what you write, Jason. I can’t wait to get my hands on this album! Sara’s music has marked many important times in my life and I’m sure this album will be no different.

    Also, great comments about the state (I hesitate to say the “issue”) of modern worship music. I just read your review of Daniel Lanois and I agree with him about music, it’s all praise to me…I can’t think of music another way. Most often it’s the singer/songwriter “soul mining” type of music that is true, honest worship for me.

  20. Chris

    I just picked up this album yesterday…have listened through it about 8 times and watched the accompaning DVD twice. The day after I heard her CCM “hit” “The Word”, I went out and picked up “Conversations” and have loved her music and her spirit ever since. Great album and I think I would agree with several others…possibly her best work to date.

  21. becky

    I fell in love with Sara Groves’ music at a concert in a church in my small home town in Nebraska. She was eight months pregnant with her second child, and her band consisted of her husband, sister, and one or two others. She just sat at the keyboard, playing and singing. Harmonizing with her sister.

    Sometimes when I go to a concert I am disappointed, because the tone or feel of the “performance” does not match the music that has moved me. I wonder which one is the true person, the one I have heard in the music, or the one that was on the stage. This was not the case with Sara’s concert. It was intimate and real, just like her music. My favorite concert ever. I immediately went out and bought the 2 cds she had out at the time, and every one since.

    I love that she expresses what I can’t. That awkward feeling I sometimes have about bringing the gospel into conversations. The comfortable, easy refuge I find with my family and home. The relief of just letting things go, instead of trying to maintain the control I imagine I have over people and events in my life. She has made me think about beauty. What it is, and why it is, and why we need it. That kind of depth is a rare gift.

    I was given “Tell Me What You Know” in early December and have been listening to it obsessively ever since. I have heard “When the Saints” many times, now, and it still makes me cry every time. It puts my life into perspective, and makes me more conscious of the great cloud of witnesses that have gone before me. And that I do want to be one of them.

  22. Bo

    wow. be warned: don’t listen to “When the Saints” for the first time (or second, third, time for that matter) in public. a bit embarassing to be weeping behind your hands in the Tampa airport. but then, when you listen to this song, you might welcome a touch of public humiliation.

  23. The Rabbit Room

    […] I was so proud of him, up there on the empty stage in the mostly empty auditorium with the likes of Sara Groves (he made her cry), Bebo Norman, Andrew Osenga, Gullahorn and Jill Phillips, all watching him from […]

  24. Jim Baker

    Jaso, great review! It’s such a blessing to hear your thoughts about Sara’s new album knowing how much Sara respects you and your music. I would like to invite you and other Sara Groves friends and fans to join the Sara Groves Yahoo group by going to http://groups.yahoo.com/group/saragroves/ . We are a fairly quiet group and could use some more people that enjoy Sara’s music and appreciate the work and projects she’s involved in. Now that I’ve found this site, I am looking forward to reading and listening to more.

  25. RM Peters

    Although this was posted quite a few months ago, I came across it today, and just wanted to add a note about how much I love this album. I first heard Sara Groves at the BTLG tour last year in Milford, Ohio. Sara was amazing and “Song for my Sons” really touched me, being a new mother of a son, her words are my words and I sing this song to my son often. I have to chime in that whenever I hear “When the Saints” I cry almost every time. I have come to face the cowardice and laziness in me that often consumes me and prevents me from being a light to the world that God calls me to be. This song reminds me everyday of all who have gone before me in such insufferable circumstances, who have stood tall by the power of God’s grace and sung their songs of freedom to heaven and for all to hear. Thank you, Sara.

  26. Niner (formerly Jeannine) because small children would rather call me this.

    okay… to Jeff… as a worship leader myself… literally three weeks ago I was listening to this girls stuff (maybe not this particular album) and wanting to incorporate every song into my service. I feel like the ‘real’ worship is not found in songs that repeat the chorus three times and have general themes of the greatness of God. This girl sends out a message of worshipful hope. Her songs compel a thoughtful attempt to sing about our Lord, while ringing out the very life He gives. I couldn’t decide in the end which one to use.(I’m tempted just to play her album one Sunday morning and let people kind of join in where they can.)

  27. Emma

    In the midst of great despair brought by painful circumstances, I was close to giving up on all my plans and hopes of being involved in international ministry. This album was one of the main things that kept me going. And now that I’m finally here… Her words inform my perceptions and drive me to listen for the stories of the incredible people I meet every day. To look beyond poverty and see people.

    Sara Groves continually provides me with the mental pictures that help the story of my life to make sense. She paints God’s world with a brush that helps me see the beauty of living in it. And always with unique depth and subtlety. And I’ve always thought that she would be a pretty fun person to have as a next door neighbor.
    Thanks, Sara!!!

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