By Andrew Greer
Sara Groves is arguably one of the greatest poets storyboarding Christian music over the past two decades. Her propensity for penning the most human verses, married with the most elegant melodies, is so poignant her musicianship can persuade even the hardest of hearts to simply confess and believe. And for those of us who teeter between faith and doubt, Sara’s songs have expressed our heart without judgment, shouldering up with us in our questions as if to say, or sing, “It’s okay. I’ve been there, too. And I suspect God is right here with us.”
No wonder then that a hymns recording – Sara’s first, surprisingly – is the most natural candidate for her latest album, Abide with Me (Fair Trade). Though the details of the stories that foundation these well-worn songs of faith may look a bit different than the details of our modern world, the heart of man, and the heart of God, remains the same. And so considering her high standard in telling the story of God and man through her own original compositions, Sara seems like a trustworthy source for hand-selecting a list of must-listen hymns.
Joining the conversation to talk about why hymns, and why now, ladies and gentlemen, Sara Groves.
Andrew Greer: When I think about hymns, I think about how they initiate my first conversations with God. Where did you first discover hymns, and how do they interact in your spiritual life?
Sara Groves: I grew up in a charismatic church and had a more, well … we sang hymns, but we also sang a lot of choruses and stuff.
My first engagement with hymns was being, not bored, but biding my time in church, flipping through the hymnal and reading through different hymns. I continue to do that. In fact, after we bought the Art House North [in St. Paul, Minnesota], I would go over and flip through our hymnals. I was always kind of impressed with the amount of doctrine you could squeeze into a short song, and the attempt to say the whole story [in one song].
But what’s funny to me is how not-universal hymns can be. We see that word – hymns – and everyone nods knowingly, but then you find out that people have a really different range of songs that they grew up with or that they reverence. When making this record, people would say, “Oh, I hope you did such-and-such,” and I’m thinking, I’ve never even heard of that song. It is interesting there isn’t this ubiquitous hymn lectionary that everyone is pulling from. There is the sort of “Top Ten,” the biggies, but then after that, the list diversifies pretty quickly.
Andrew: When you did decide, OK, we’re going to actually put this hymn on tape, did you feel intimidated by the history of hymnody preceding this recording?
Sara: I don’t think I did. Bob Dylan makes a case, basically, that it’s arrogance to think you’ve ever come up with anything new. He gives a lot of liberty in the folk music world that there are all those tunes floating around out there and they just keep adding new lyrics to the same tunes. In a lot of ways, the hymn history is like that as well. You have tunes out there, and then hymn writers reflecting, devotionally creating text for those tunes over and over again. I felt like I was walking in a long line of re-workers and people who say, “I want my people to know …” I want people to hear these words and have access to them today, so I did take some liberties and it was probably after the fact that I felt the intimidation.
“The Love of God” was written by a father and daughter hymn-writing team from the turn of the [twentieth] century. Different stories tell it different ways, but there was a man in an asylum who wrote this verse on the wall, and everyone thought that in his madness he had written this beautiful verse. After it was printed — I think it was published in the newspaper that this crazy man wrote this thing on his wall — the Jewish community came up and said, “Actually, this is an ancient rabbinic text we’ve been reciting at the festivals for centuries.” So the second verse — “Could we with ink the ocean fill / Were the sky with parchment made / Were every tree on earth a quill / Were every man a scribe by trade / To write the love of God above would drain the ocean dry / Nor could the scroll contain the whole or stretch from sky to sky” — I remember hearing that for the first time and thinking, Dear Lord, that’s a lyric. That transcends. I could never come close to writing something like that. But they heard this rich text and drop it in as the second verse of a new hymn they created around it. Their heart, I think, was — because this would be my heart — I want my people to sing this. I want this to be remembered and sung.
Andrew: As you recorded, did you feel a connection with our forefathers of the faith – the spiritual legacy that has been woven through these tunes?
Sara: There are two moments that come to mind. One, my husband and I purchased a one hundred-year-old church in 2011 to [host] art community, and we set up a studio inside, which is where we recorded this record. Just months before we started recording, someone had posted a picture on Facebook of the church being built. The walls are about halfway up. The shape of the stain glass window has just been raised, but there’s no glass in it yet. And there are men standing on the landing holding hymnals and they’re singing, and the people are out around the church having a service in the street. I’m guessing it’s their first service at the new location. Everyone’s dressed up – the girls are wearing hats and dresses. I had this very poignant moment thinking about, Who went before us? What was congregational life like there? The church is such a resonant space. It has natural reverb, and it’s built for voices, not amplification. It’s built for people to sing. So for us to be recording a hymns album a hundred years later, there were several moments that had that zap of transcendence and connection.
And then, just for my own solace, my own catharsis, we had stacks of old hymnals that we inherited with the church – several different varieties of hymnals. I would go over there and play through them. There are a lot of songs that aren’t very good. That’s funny to me. We tend to elevate things and enshrine them so that they’re all one thing and they all have this sort of monolithic meaning to us, and I think, like anything, if you dive in and you look deeper, these are human beings that are writing these songs and many of them from really diverse backgrounds – some with seminary training and some with no training at all, some with musical training and some with no musical training at all. I did feel a connection to Fanny Crosby and the lyric of her song, “Oh My Redeemer, What A Friend You Are To Me,” which I have shortened to “What A Friend” and put a new melody to it. At the time, I was feeling the friendship of God extended [to me] at such a personal level. So that song was a connection point for me, thinking of her writing these songs and trying to communicate the character of God to her people as I am trying to do now.
Andrew: I think about all the mysteries of God that are so unknowable, and yet in the context of singing out our faith, there seems to be some rest and assurance.
Sara: I agree. Thinking about the humanness of our predecessors, our bent is to sort of immortalize something and become fundamental to such a level that we forget that that was a human being like us contributing to the story in their day, just as we are attempting to contribute to ours in our day. There’s something very comforting about that, that I’m not alone in what I’m experiencing. “Abide With Me,” that very first verse, “Lord, it’s getting dark / I’ve heard that You’re a friend to the friendless / Will You be a friend to me?” offers such a beautiful solace over hundreds of years.
I also think that it’s surprising what the hymnist emphasizes. A lot of modern worship is about what we are going to do — I bow, I come, I’m doing this, I’m doing that – and hymns are oriented around revealing the character of God. That feels different, and I think a lot of people have returned to that now in thoughtful ways. To me, that is one of the main key components of when I gather in a corporate way – I’m coming out of my stuff and I want to remember who He is. Those hymns are so rich and really emphasize the character of God and His great pursuit of us. It’s not a bootstraps theology. It’s a real portrait of grace
Andrew: Music seems to be a magical, extra-powerful way to connect with God.
Sara: It’s like the first announcement of the angels. They are singing, “Peace on earth, goodwill to men.” God’s heart towards you is one of kindness. His heart towards you is one of goodwill, not of vengeance. I think at it’s base level, that felt through song is one of the most powerful things that we can sing about, that we can come together and remember.