(Cover art courtesy of Thomas Nelson)
The Songwriter: Sara Groves
Taken from Uncommon Ground: Living Faithfully in a World of Difference by Tim Keller and John Inazu Copyright © 2020 by Tim Keller Used by permission of Thomas Nelson. www.UncommonGroundBook.com.
The Songwriter: Sara Groves
For the last twenty years, I have been attempting to engage as a songwriter with the world in which I live. Like a theologian, pastor, or translator, a songwriter looks for language that will help us name our experiences and understand what we are feeling. Precise language is important, and I have chased it for years. But I see an additional invitation for the songwriter: the songwriter is invited to say it all. To bear witness to the whole range of human experience, including all of its tensions. A songwriter is invited to speak of lament, fear, banality, silence, injustice, justice, hope, wild adoration, beauty, love, passion, natural and supernatural things. A songwriter is called onto the scene not to make spiritual sense of it, or to answer for it, but simply to look around and cry out, “Oh my God! Look at this unfathomable beauty!” Or, “Oh my God!” This is what we see in the Psalms anyway.
The best writing advice I ever received, the advice that has produced the most fruit in my work, was to not edit myself. By not editing, I don’t mean avoiding all self-restraint, but rather saying the closest thing to what is true. Tell the truth—the whole, complex, messy, conflicted, unflattering truth.
Truth-telling can’t begin with the question, “What am I supposed to say?” or even, “What is the faithful thing to say?” It begins with an experience and moves toward whatever flows out: confession, praise, naming, testifying. If we judge our thoughts before we even have a chance to experience them, we create a hostile environment where we can’t access our true testimony.
Several years ago, I was working on a song loosely based on a friend who had made an impulsive choice that had hurt people. It reminded me of Esau, who sold his inheritance for a bowl of soup. The song was going to be about how the good things of life require a little commitment; the chorus, of course, was going to drive home the point that we should do the hard work of waiting for the good, eternal things in life. But this is not what we do—and this is not what I do—on a pretty regular basis.
The more I worked on the song, the more I could see my own belly full of soup. It took me seven years to figure out that I didn’t need a didactic song telling me what I should do; I really needed a song that sat with Esau and me in our post-lunch remorse and admitted that it gets cold here on earth. I needed a space to recognize that I still sell my here-and-now kingdom over and over again, even when the future inheritance is infinitely better.
Oh the power of wounds left unattended
Sold my kingdom for a lightning bolt
Am I to blame for all that is upended
Searching for a god that I can hold?
Moving like a proton through a neutron sky
Looking for my healing in every passerby
Oh my inheritance for a bowl of soup
Something warm and real in the space of you.
I have found it very hard to tell myself the truth. It takes humility, awareness, grace, and room to write and wrestle with unvarnished truth. I, too, often fall short of that goal and fail to express my unedited self. I almost always start a song with what I think I’m supposed to say, then work my way to something that is true.
Flannery O’Connor spoke to this beautifully in Mystery and Manners, a book of collected essays on the act of writing:
The novelist is required to open his eyes on the world around him and look. If what he sees is not highly edifying, he is still required to look. Then he is required to reproduce, with words, what he sees. Now this is the first point at which the novelist who is a [Christian] may feel some friction between what he is supposed to do as a novelist and what he is to do as a [Christian], for what he sees at all times is fallen man perverted by false philosophies. Is he to reproduce this? Or is he to change what he sees and make it, instead of what it is, what in the light of faith he thinks it ought to be?
In O’Connor’s estimation, those who endeavor to tell the truth about what they see have prophetic vision: “The prophet is a realist of distances.” Prophets see the way things are in painful contrast to their knowledge of and belief in full reconciliation.
It can be hard to go first—to be the first to confess inadequacies, anger, confusion, fear—but I can attest to the fact that every time I have taken that risk, it has been fruitful. Vulnerability begets vulnerability, and I have met listeners of all kinds who have found comfort and freedom in the songs that were the hardest for me to write.