Rearranging Christmas: Q&A with Sara Groves

Every year, there’s a flood of new Christmas cover songs by everyone from Mariah Carey to My Chemical Romance. We’ve heard these songs so many times, they usually just become white noise at the mall. But Sara Groves’ new Christmas album, O Holy Night, injects new life into familiar songs and shows that their lyrics are as powerful today as the day they were written. Here, Groves discusses her new album, her work with International Justice Mission and how to begin helping others right now.

RELEVANTmagazine.com – What made you decide on certain arrangements, specifically your rendition of “O Holy Night”?

Sara Groves – It’s a very range-y song, it’s a very what I call a “sanger”—as in “singer” with an “a”—song. Sangers would include Natalie Grant. I’m a singer-songwriter, and I guess I put myself in a little different category. I love writing new arrangements. This album was just like a free-for-all for me, so here you’ve got all these amazing lyrics and these songs that have stood the test of time and I think their melodies can be fundamental, but I also feel that the melody, as it’s always been, can almost feel like an old chair in your living room that you just don’t pay much attention to.

I’ve found that when I give a new melody to these lyrics, they’re framed in a different light. It’s like that old dress of your mom’s—you put new boots with it and it pops out. Not that I can help these songs at all because they’re amazing and have stood the test of time, but it was fun to take out the silver polish and figure out ways to make it shine.

I love to [highlight] a line from a song like “O Holy Night,” the line that I literally meditated on for almost a year after I wrote this new arrangement. It says, “Long lay the world in sin and error pining / ‘Til He appeared and the soul felt its worth.” I’ve dwelled on that for a year, thinking, “This is what I want my walk to look like”—that when I’m in contact with a person, because of Jesus in me, they would feel their worth. And I thought, “As a believer, am I acting in such a way where as I interact with people, they walk away from me feeling the very Kingdom worth of their soul?”

I wanted to write this song in such a way where I could sing it and also to highlight that lyric. In the bridge I come back to that lyric, and say, “Lord when you came to this Earth, my soul felt its worth.” And maybe someone else, like I have, will actually stop at that lyric and ponder it for a moment.

One of my favorite moments was “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” which is a song I’d never really paid much attention to, but as I thumbed through different songs and read different lyrics it [stood out].

It became very meaningful to Troy and I—we lost our dear friend and cousin, Trent, this year. Trent had a brain tumor for four years and, while we were making the album, he came to our house, basically to say goodbye. He sat in our living room and I picked the song, seemingly at random, and the second verse talks about, “You who are crushed by life’s load / Whose forms are bending low / Who toil along the climbing way / With painful steps so slow.” At that point, he was walking with a cane and we all cried listening to this song. The whole thing was very powerful. The story’s true, the angels continue to sing the song, even when we can’t through our overly saturated lives and sight and ears.

RM – I saw that one line in “O Holy Night”—“Chains shall He break, for the slave is our brother”—specifically spoke to your dedication to social justice issues and IJM.

SG – For me, what’s resonated the most is the work of IJM and that song is dedicated to them. I wrote that arrangement for the event that I did for them in Washington, D.C. [last year]. That was the same event four years ago where I met Elisabeth* who was trafficked at 15 years old. Her story and her faith during that ordeal were just so life-changing and have mobilized me in such an incredible way. To learn that there’s an underground railroad at work today, freeing people who are in bonded slavery and who are victims of human trafficking, I could hardly sit still. I told my husband after I began to learn about this and the work of IJM, I would love for my life and my work to be synonymous with this work. As soon as I began to read about it, my heart was just ringing like a bell and I haven’t looked back since.

RM – You recently finished the Art*Music*Justice tour, which benefited IJM and Food for the Hungry. How did it go?

SG – It went really well. I was talking with the vice president of IJM at the time, who’s now moved onto something different, and he said, “I feel that Christian artists above anyone should be creating new and very thoughtful nights that are fresh, creative, something we’ve not seen before.” Troy and I for a few years have been ruminating over what that could look like and we just happened to invite some incredibly like-minded artists who are also willing to put everything aside, the way things are normally done, and try to reinvent it.

It was first and foremost a concert, I think anyone who attended felt that we created a night that was seamless and single-minded in its message and that was about the work of IJM and Food for the Hungry. We raised $50,000 for IJM and we had close to 550 kids sponsored for Food for the Hungry. At the end of every night, I’d say about 95 percent of people go home with something new to think about, and 5 percent have this wild look in their eye and will talk to the wee hours of the night about what the possibilities are.

I was there. I was that person. I think that’s part of what’s been so life-giving about my dialogue with Gary [Haugen] and others at IJM. They have a tremendous amount of patience for people in process. I always thought of anybody who has the right to say, “Don’t you get this?” it would be Gary Haugen. His grace and graciousness to me and to others who are crawling out from under the rock we’ve been living under has helped me set a tone for my own message in music.

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The first year of this conversation was about my ability to handle the conversation. That’s a process everybody has to go through and I think if you keep asking the question, “All right, now what?” I feel like God will begin you on an adventure that’s very life-giving and is the fulfillment of your call as a believer. Everyone is at a different point in that process and I think there’s room for all of us and where we are in our journey.

RM – How would you suggest people get started helping others, especially at Christmastime which is such a giving time of the year?

SG – One of the biggest revelations to me was that guilt is an enormous waste of time. I’d been burdened with and semi-motivated by guilt for a long time and I feel like my trip to Africa really shook that loose in me. Guilt, this vague feeling that you’re not doing enough, is not from God. He said He would lead us through conviction and I think conviction comes as a bread crumb trail out of the place that we are in and to a better place. Sometimes conviction is as simple as this vague feeling that you’re not doing enough in your neighborhood, you’re not doing enough for the poor, you’re not doing enough in Africa.

But [there are] really specific ways to help: your neighbor Kevin is going through a divorce, and [you think to] bring him a lasagna. Or Team Challenge is having an open house on Saturday where you’re able to come bring goods and volunteer for a few hours and something in you says, “I need to pick and focus on a local organization here where I can give my time.” Everybody should be involved with one local thing and one global thing. If the Church did that, it would be incredible. A lot of these political conversations, things that we wait for the government to do, I think the Church would be able to accomplish without government intervention. [It’s important] to learn and practice listening to the Holy Spirit and following conviction.

God only asks for the boys’ fishes and loaves and then He brings the increase, He does the miracles. I think our ability to do something and to discern between guilt and conviction is a good part of getting started. And then understanding that it’s gonna take some practice. I think everyone wants to be good at things right away and it’s kind of embarrassing, it can be awkward, when you’re first embarking on social justice kinds of conversations.

A great deal of it for my husband and I has been practicing. I said to him one day, “We have not been the good Samaritan. The next time someone’s hurting by the side of the road, let’s run without any excuses and see what that’s like.” I said that on Friday and [Hurricane] Katrina hit the Gulf Coast on Sunday. That was our first step. It wasn’t, “This is what we usually do and here we come swooping in.” It was very scary, I very much felt in over my head and it was just practicing.

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