In my life, as a writer a minister, a mother, a wife, a person…there have been a handful of pivotal moments and bittersweet seasons when everything was turned on it’s head, when things changed forever. Often, these moments and seasons have been marked in time by words I have read or songs I heard, words and songs, forever bound up in my heart, that then become the forever- soundtrack for those transitions, a holy reminder of those tears, those celebrations.
Sometimes the words and melodies helped me move through those moments and seasons with faith and hope. Other times they are what propelled me forward, soothed the dryness in my soul, and comforted my anxious heart. And all of them are woven into the fabric of who I am today.
Sara Groves is an artist whose songs belong to that group. Her songs Painting Pictures of Egypt and Remember Surrender were songs I clung to for dear life when a particular church season was ending. Her entire album Fireflies and Songs I am pretty sure is about my life, and is the soundtrack to a season where the thread Letting Go ran through everything. Tent in the Center of Town (live version) gives me chills almost every time I listen to it, and I know that it is a call that I will someday figure out (maybe what is why I loved working on the recent Way of Love Revival so much?) And finally, there is her Christmas album O Holy Night, which is hands down the best Christmas album ever. I get giddy every November when I realize it is almost time to break it out.
Today I am sharing a conversation that I had with Sara, one where I invited her onto my porch to share her thoughts and wisdom on how – she like a lot of us – lives life at the very busy, very daily, very holy, intersection of faith, art, and family.
Website Name: Saragroves.com
Art Form: Singer/songwriter
Kids Names/ Ages: Kirby, Toby, Ruby
Relationship Status: Married to Troy
Expression of Faith: Cedar Valley Church –But I grew up in the Assemblies of God
Where Do You Live? – Small old renovated house in St Paul, MN
J: How did you find your creative niche? Was this something you have always done, or did you fall into it by accident?
S: I have been writing songs since I was a girl – it has been my outlet for a while, but I never expected it to become a career. It wasn’t an accident, and I wasn’t reluctant, I just didn’t think that it was possible. My father-in-law and husband really lead the way for me to record my first independent record in 1997. After that, things just continued to unfold. As far as finding a niche – that’s an interesting question. I came up in CCM (Christian Contemporary Music) which is the only genre of music defined by lyrical content alone. Within CCM you have every genre imaginable. So, my niche is a niche within a niche! Some days I wonder what I would do differently if I had come up in a different framework – my passion is the integration of faith and life, tearing down the walls between sacred and secular – but the CCM paradigm is defined by strengthening those terms. That has made it interesting to find my place in CCM.
J: Oh I love that! Yes, let’s tear down ALL those walls, please.
Where do you create? Office? Kitchen table?
S: I bought a piano in college, and I have written almost every song on that piano. It is in my living room now, which can make it challenging to follow inspiration. I used to have a larger home with a studio, but three years ago we moved into the city, purchased an old church and a much smaller house. The church building is called Art House North, and is a dedicated space for art community. It is in use all week-long for different creative endeavors, which has been wonderful, but it can be hard to find time alone there to write. These days I find myself writing at home when the kids are at school. I used to always play at night, from 10 – midnight, but that was when I had small kids at home. It is hard for me to make space for writing. Even though it is my vocation, it is pushed into the margins. I am also not great about regular disciplines, like writing everyday. I have wondered how my music would change if I wrote in a more regimented way. As things are, passions, thoughts, conflicts, and emotions build up like a steam inside me until I have to write. Writing serves a very real purpose in my life. It helps me sort things out and find clarity.
J: I struggle in similar ways to fit my writing in, and days when I am at the house by myself are by far my most productive. Do you create best in solitude or in the middle of chaos?
S: I need solitude and a lot of time. My mom is an educator, and she used to talk about the ‘dance’ that every student does before they are ready to learn. Some kids can get right to work, while some kids have to get a drink, adjust things on their desk, sharpen their pencil, have things a certain way. She has always said that I have the longest dance she has ever seen! It is hard for me to work if I do not have a block of time, and I can find a lot of other things to do when I’m supposed to be writing!
J: A dance! I love that. I am adopting that phrase because I am also very much that way. There is always something else I could be doing other than writing.
Sometimes I feel as if writing, parenting, and the practicing my faith are all drawing from the same well inside me, that they tax the same part of my heart and the same source of energy. This means that sometimes I use up all of my resources pouring into just one of the three, leaving the other two wanting. Do you have this same issue, or is it just me?
S: I understand what you are saying. We are finite with limited resources. But I have found another economy with creativity and divine elements that transcend commodity. One example of this is that with creativity (as with spiritual formation) slow is fast, wasteful is productive. The artist Mako Fujimura writes in his essay Tears for Fragile Emanations: A Lenten Reflection
“As an artist, I swim directly against the current of utilitarian pragmatism, and have been sensitized to its dehumanizing effects. The bottom line of efficiency, the bottom line of survival, has taken over culture. I smell them in every church, in every institution.”
The very space needed to create can be seen as “extravagant and wasteful”. I can detect that same thinking in myself – what is the utility of a new song? What is it for? But when I take the time to create space and time for writing, useful or not, there is a strange multiplier at work. The same can be said of spiritual formation. The very idea of Sabbath could be seen as wasteful, but I know it is not. These callings, given their own time, pour over into each other. This inspires me because it means there is another economy at work. If I had to fill all of those cups myself – my husband, my kids, my music, my own faith journey – I would fall extremely short. I DO fall extremely short.
With that said, I often feel lacking in all areas of my life – that’s not just you – ha!
J: I think I need to frame that quote. If you only knew how many times I have asked myself lately, “Why am I doing this?” when it comes to my writing and creating. Good to know I am not alone in that question. Others have said (and I agree) that these three areas also can inspire each other – do you find that to be true? If so, can you think of an example?
S: I wish I could find it, but after her first son was born, Sandra McCracken wrote a beautiful piece about how she feared her new baby would absorb all of her time to be creative. She said a unique thing happened. She did have less time, but when she went to write, she found the margins of her life were verdant with ideas, green with inspiration and creativity. Her life gave her something to write about. She said it better, but I have to say, ‘Amen’! One of my favorite songwriters, Pierce Pettis, sings, “Everything matters if anything matters at all.” Faith, our gifts, our relationships are integrated, like it or not. We might try to compartmentalize our time, but I think the best and most true creative expression comes when we don’t compartmentalize our lives, when we push back against definition/labels, and let some unedited stuff come out. We don’t have to share everything with everyone, but to get somewhere, you have to let it all flow together, even if you don’t understand it.
J: Less time but more ideas – yes!
So, how does your creative process influence or enrich your faith or your parenting?
S: Well, I don’t want this to sound too weighty, but my faith process and my creative process are kind of the same thing. I work out my salvation like a puzzle, somewhere between scripture, prayer, deep frustration, internal conflict, the way things are, human suffering, joy, the need to be loved, my own weakness, God’s mystery, His goodness – I get a word picture, or a metaphor, and it helps me get a foothold. Maybe once in a great while I will write a song just to write a song, but often they are working on me, and I have to get the ideas out. Many times the song comes before I am even aware that there is a question or an issue. Some of my most deeply rewarding songs were recorded on albums before I fully understood what they were about. I don’t mean the words were that unintelligible, but that I might say to myself, “I’m writing about this person, or that situation over there,” when in reality I am writing about a deep feeling I have inside, much closer to home. That all sounds so serious. It is, I guess. Maybe not serious, but crucial.
J: Just two weeks ago I heard Anne Lamott speak and she said that she often doesn’t know what a chapter or an essay is about until she is neck-deep in it. I think this is the same thing. We have to do the work to find the good stuff buried underneath all the noise of our lives.
Speaking of noise, what do you do to recharge, or refill the well?
In your creative process?
S: Creativity begets creativity, so if I have a block, sometimes I will do another creative activity instead of just staring at the problem waiting for solutions. For one record I made aprons, for another I crocheted slippers, for another one I bought an electric guitar and a Boss loop/reverb pedal, and just tried to play something cool.
In your parenting?
S: I listen to a lot of mentors, and I interview people I admire. I try to remember to have fun! My husband is good for me in that regard. He plays well, and is good at inviting others to play. I love what Andi Ashworth has taught me about thinking vocationally about every area of my life instead of just the stuff I get paid for. Thinking vocationally about parenting means bringing the whole of my creativity and gifts to parenting, problem solving, hospitality.
In the practicing of your faith?
S: I am really blessed to get to travel and hear from neat people. I feel like I get so much rich content, and things to chew on. I also get to visit all kinds of churches from a variety of denominations. I think every pastor should go on the road with me to see what I have seen! I used to think of the Body of Christ as my local congregation, but now I see that it is the whole thing. I can see the strengths of each group, and how they bring a value to the whole. The sad part of that is that each part pretty much thinks it is the whole body, or they are quick to discredit the contribution of the others.
J: Good stuff! I especially love the parts about vocation and parenting, . Vocation as a theme or way of being and not as just a job-title is something I am working right now, so this hits home for me. Also loved the creativity-begets- creativity idea. Which is why we have to keep creating to keep the juices flowing.
Do you have any advice for other mom’s out there who are also trying to learn how to live out their callings as artist, mothers and followers of Christ?
S: A few things come to mind, but I will share a story. I was playing with some younger musicians recently and they were defining themselves (as young people are prone to do, and as I am prone to do), but in their self-identifying there was a lot of judgment about what was relevant, cool, etc. I left feeling really beat up, and down. I went for a walk to think, and was just crying and feeling sorry for myself. I said, “God if you really want me to make another album, you are going to have to make it VERY clear. There are MILLIONS of people making CDs, and there are MILLIONS of songs; why would I add to the noise?” While I was praying, this bird landed right by me – extraordinarily close – and just went to town singing. I literally stopped a few times to say, “Do you mind?” or “How am I supposed to concentrate with you singing like that right in my ear!” I went on asking my questions until a thought descended on me like a cool mist. The thought was, “Sara, there are MILLIONS of birds. MILLIONS of them are singing right now. Would you have this one stop?” Nope. I shook my head. No. Sing on, friends.
J: Ok, I think Sing On, Friends needs to be a song. Love that. May have to embroider it on a pillow – what a beautiful image! And especially at this time in history when we are all so tempted to “compare our insides to someone else’s outsides.” So, earlier you talked about listening to mentors and people you admire – What is something you wish someone had told you earlier on about trying to juggle these areas?
S: I wish someone had explained the ‘tyranny of the urgent’ to me, and that there will always be things that seem urgent that require your immediate attention. When it comes down to it, we create a lot of our own drama in that regard. You have to fight to make space for the longer work. This goes for opportunities too. They will come again, even things you think will never come again.
J: Yes, and Amen. The ‘tyranny of the urgent’ is death. Especially because life keeps moving – what is ‘urgent’ keeps changing. Better to figure out what matters vs. what feels urgent.
How has the process of creating and parenting changed as your kids have grown?
S: Wow. That’s a good one too. I hope I am always changing as they change. Nothing is static. One thing I appreciated about my mom was that she always treated me like an adult in the making. She saw my value, and placed a lot of value on my ideas, questions. Sometimes I think parents forget that their kids are going to be adults very soon… I think treating them with respect is important. I haven’t always done that well, but it has always been a goal.
J: Solidarity sister. At our house we say “we aren’t trying to raise happy kids, we are trying to raise whole humans.”
So in the midst of your ever-changing life, what are some specific challenges you are facing right now in all three of these areas?
S: Well, again my life tends to slide into one big pile, so if I am having issues in one area, I am having issues everywhere! Right now I am working on living my intentions or my values instead of my feelings. If that sounds clinical, it is straight from my therapy sessions! I struggle with anxiety – when it is in full gear, that is a very physical experience. I don’t want it to shape my life, so I am working on accepting the way I feel, and doing stuff anyway, even if I feel afraid or uncomfortable.
J: Thank goodness for therapy, right? If you could pick the brain of any other creative momma out there, who would you want to talk to?
S: Martha Stewart
J: Ha! Love it! What would you ask her?
S: What’s your deal?! You’re making the rest of us look bad! Slow down just a little.
J: No kidding. My husband has to always remind me that I don’t have her staff.
J: Thank you Sara for doing this – talking to you is a dream come true!!
S: Thank you for inviting me to be a part of this series!
So there you have it friends. Some really great stuff from the amazing Sara Groves.
I am trying to not pay any mind to the ‘tyranny of the urgent,’ and embrace slow living this week – hope you will do the same.