With Jason Gray’s recent release of his single “Remind Me Who I Am,” it seemed the perfect time for another Rabbit Room interview. One beautiful facet of the Rabbit Room lies in the direct access to the artists that we love so much and the opportunity to hear them expound on their own feelings, behaviors, or experiences. Yet from time to time, a conversation will illuminate more than merely an essay. Here, Jason talks about the violent “one-two punch” of fear and shame and why he wanted to sit apart from heavy hitters like Third Day and Michael W. Smith.
Matt: You gave us a first taste of the album in your recent post featuring “Remind Me Who I Am.” Is that pretty indicative of the rest of the album — that theme of identity?
Jason: You know, identity is a big focus in my life right now, it’s the thing I most want to talk about, and originally I set out to have it be the focus of this project and wrote several songs around it. But at some point I kind of released myself from writing around a specific theme and decided to let in whatever wanted to come.
But as other songs emerged, so did themes, specifically the one-two punch of fear and shame. But I still think identity takes center stage. Understanding who we are as God’s loved children and the place we hold in his heart is, I think, the answer to every question being raised on the album.
The idea of our essential belovedness kind of bookends the record. “Remind Me Who I Am” is the first track and lays claim to the rest of the songs by setting up the terms of the conversation that unfolds. The last song on the record is a hymn-like song I wrote called “Jesus We Are Grateful” and it closes with this lyric:
“Jesus who gathers us like children in his arms
You are the lamb of God who shepherds us from harm
We will follow into family
And be seated at your table
Where matchless grace
Of an orphan makes
A child of God in full…”
And so the album ends where it began: with the security of knowing that we belong, that we are no longer aliens and strangers–King Lear’s “poor naked wretches…that bide the pelting of this pitiless storm.” We are held by the great love of a father who makes a place for us at his table.
So though the concept of identity may not be the specific theme of every individual song, I think it’s still the crucial revelation for the album and haunts the rest of the songs.
Matt: I love that you call it a one-two punch, because that definitely insinuates a level of violence–something we might not correlate with the issues that attack our identity.
Jason: It is a violence, isn’t it? Fear and shame rage like storms inside of us that, if not for God’s grace, can destroy everything that’s most important to us.
One of the songs on the album is called “No Thief Like Fear”, and that’s just how I see it, fear as a thief that threatens, bullies, and knocks us around before finally binding us and taking everything we care about most. I suppose a part of the irony is that it’s our caring for these things that makes us most vulnerable to fear.
I am learning to be grateful for scripture’s guidance on keeping first things first, enjoying the good things while holding them loosely, treasuring my relationship with Christ above all else. I’ve heard people say this kind of thing for years and I admit it has often sounded like white noise to me, like Sunday school smarm, but I’m experiencing it these days as a crucial revelation, the kind of thing that defines a life. To love a thing too much is to drive it away. The commandments to love the Lord above all is a mercy to us.
The problem of shame runs even deeper and causes even more damage, I think. It can be harder to diagnose because it finds really good hiding places behind our virtues like humility, service, and places like that. This past year, I feel like the Lord has led me personally on a journey of discovering shame that has long been hiding in my heart and that has, invisibly, infected every corner of my life. It’s that thing in us that always makes us afraid that we’re outsiders, and therefore causes us to act like outsiders.
So yeah, I experience shame and fear as a violence in my soul.
Matt: You discuss that journey of discovering shame, and certainly that must contrast with the life of a performer. Are you learning things about the tension that can exist there of the self on stage and the self inside that you didn’t know an album ago?
Jason: I’m not sure if it certainly must contrast. Most performers I know are often tempted to use the stage to compensate for their deep sense of unworthiness. Maybe performers are so good because they’ve been performing all their lives, hiding their shame and hurt behind a persona they’ve developed. It’s like how so many comedians are profoundly sad people. There are few better hiding places than the stage–maybe the pulpit comes close.
But as for me, shame is a theme I’ve kind of danced around for a long time, especially in songs like “The Golden Boy & The Prodigal” and “I Am New” from the last record. I think I’ve just been thrust deeper into it this time around.
It’s been the most challenging couple of years of my life, with many circumstances that have forced me to look a little harder in the mirror. It has also been the most blessed two years of my ministry with the radio success and touring opportunities that we’ve had. God has used both of those things to peel back layers in my life and expose things that I didn’t even know were lurking in the shadows of my heart.
One of the most remarkable experiences–that probably deserves it’s own blog, but I’ll skim the surface of it here–was the Make A Difference Tour with Tobymac, Third Day, Michael W. Smith, and Max Lucado. The trouble came every night when I would join them all on stage to sing Agnus Dei together before an arena full of people. Every night I was confronted with my deep, deep discomfort with being up there with those artists. Come on, I didn’t belong there with those heavy-hitters, right? There’s a rich story in there that I don’t have space here to talk about, but suffice it to say that I think that moment and that discomfort was why the Lord put me on that tour.
About halfway through the tour I nearly stopped joining them for the last song, telling myself that I didn’t belong there and I was only doing it to be seen, to promote myself, etc. I was feeling mighty pleased with my humility–that I would choose to not join them on stage, instead trusting the Lord to promote me (never mind that he was the one who made it possible for me to be on the tour in the first place.) But the Lord didn’t let me get away with that and I was practically forced into this discomfort every night.
You know how we’re told that it’s his kindness that leads us to repentance? I had some deep-rooted shame in my heart that had found a decent hiding place behind my humility and the Lord got to it by putting me on the biggest tour to go out in a decade and putting me on stage with a lineup of the most successful artists of the last twenty years. By the end of the tour, I realized that a lot of my discomfort was on account of wounds I didn’t even know I was carrying around in me related to my history with the fathers in my life. It was the Lord’s kindness that revealed the shame and unworthiness in my heart.
It’s funny, too. I’ve been singing “I Am New” for about 4 years now, and I felt like I finally understood the song this year. Of course I thought I knew it when I wrote it (with Joel Hanson), but it means something different to me now to sing “Forgiven, beloved, hidden in Christ…” So yes, I have deeper access to the brokenness of my own condition – the Lord has been leading me there, surfacing deep wounds to bless them with a kiss and begin healing them.
There’s a song I wrote that didn’t make this record that kind of sums up the past couple of years called “Love Is Going To Break Your Heart” – it may end up on a future project. The chorus goes:
Love will only let us go so far
This love is gonna break your heart
Break it open, open wide
Kiss the wound deep inside
You may try to run, but you can’t hide
From the love, the love that’s gonna break your heart…
That’s where a lot of these songs came from — and I imagine there are more to come. “Remind Me Who I Am” is all about that. “Nothing Is Wasted,” “I Will Find A Way.” Others, as well. “The End of Me” is about that, too–about coming to the end of your self, your hiding places, and finding grace waiting there for you to offer a new beginning. “It’s okay, this is just the end / don’t be afraid, this is where it begins…”
You can pre-order Jason’s upcoming release, A Way To See In The Dark, here. With your order, you’ll receive an instant download of his new single, “Remind Me Who I Am.”
Matt Conner is a freelance writer and music journalist. As the founding pastor of The Mercy House, he led a church community for more than six years in intense community development across racial and socio-economic lines. As a writer, he’s interviewed thousands of musicians for multiple print and web-based publications.