Sara Groves is a mom, wife, singer/ songwriter and recording artist with a passion for justice and a heart of mercy. She has joined forces with International Justice Mission to advocate for victims of human trafficking for the past 8 years. Sara has been nominated for 7 Dove Awards and has produced a string of successful albums including her latest, Floodplain, which was inspired by the Mississippi River in her hometown, and speaks of God's provision. Sara, her husband Troy, and their 3 children (Kirby, Toby & Ruby) reside in St. Paul where they cultivate an artist support community out of a 100 year old church called Art House North.More
Hearts Built on a Floodplain
I am always on the lookout for music, poetry, and prose that opens a door between Christian spirituality and people who aren’t religious – or even people who are, in the words of 18th c. theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher, “cultured despisers of religion.”
Why? Well, partly because of an endless tussle in my own heart and head that bumps between Christian spirituality and the “cultured despisers of religion.” And partly because, as Billy Joel says, I am tempted to the position that “sinners are much more fun.” In Blue Like Jazz: Non-Religious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality, author Don Miller reflects on his non-Christian “hippie” friends: “They loved me like a good novel, like an art film, and this is how I felt when I was with them, like a person John Irving would write.” Who wouldn’t want to be loved the way John Irving writes his spectacularly flawed characters? Isn’t that how Jesus loves?
Singer-songwriter Sara Groves’ Floodplain is a journey through the landscape of a heart “built on a floodplain.” Along the way, Groves joins subtle religious and secular imagery with such a deft hand that the religious and non-religious run together. Hence all of my divided self – and perhaps my friends who despise religion yet love me like a good novel – can be moved by this music together.
Floodplain (the album as a whole – it’s also the name of one of the tracks) begins with “This Cup,” a lyrical cry to live in the moment with all its challenge and beauty:
what if my whole world falls apart? what if my life could be different? what if I sat right here and took you in without the fear and loved you whole without the flight and didn’t try to pass…this cup
You don’t need a concordance to recognize the allusion, and yet you also don’t need the allusion to be taken up into the desire. The next song, “Expedition” (reprised on the last track) frames the collection with an invitation:
meet me at the river I’ve fashioned us a raft and oar we’re going on an expedition we’re looking for lost time
What is “lost time?” Whether or not the obvious literary allusion is intended, in Floodplain’s frame, “lost time” is time spent avoiding “this cup.” “Expedition” invites the hearer to savor the present:
did you get an invitation to have nothing to show to see the invisible goodness of deliberate and slow as well as to regain the past:
spread the map out on the raft scenes appear like photographs while we search the starlings play reeds on the shoreline nod and sway they don’t toil to be that way
The river, the framing metaphor of the collection, receives its most extended and moving treatment in the song “Floodplain,” where the floodplain symbolizes not depression per se, but the gifts and challenges of hearts that are “built on a floodplain:”
oh the river it rushes to madness and the water it spreads like sadness and there’s no high ground and there’s no high ground closer to the danger and the rolling deep closer to the run and the losing streak and what brings us to our knees
The real existential danger, though, is not “what brings us to our knees” but how we deal with it when we are brought to our knees. Yet why should I accept this cup that I’ve been handed – a heart built on a floodplain? The earlier song, “This Cup,” already anticipated an answer:
thank God for our dependence here’s to our chasm of need and how it binds us together in faith and vulnerability
Let’s say, then, that I vigorously desire with the narrator to accept this cup that is my own heart “built on a floodplain.” There’s still a profound cultural and religious prejudice against that acceptance.
Let me tell you a story about that. A few years ago, a young woman struck up a conversation with me on a train when she saw that I was reading from a collection of writings on Christian spirituality. A mainline Protestant, she’d recently entered a period of doubt about her faith. At the same time, she was attempting a difficult acclimation to her new home, an Evangelical college campus. “Read the Bible more,” her friends told her. “Pray more.” “Go to church more.”
I told her that when I had experienced doubt in my early twenties, I’d read Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals and Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents. With the help of those masters of suspicion, I had pretty well knocked faith out of my life for thirteen years. Then several things brought me to my knees and I made a gradual return to faith, but with a difference. “Beyond the desert of criticism,” says the philosopher Paul Ricoeur, “we wish to be called again.” I told my young friend, “If you avoid the desert, your faith will never be what it could be. Read Freud. Read Nietzsche. But listen to your heart, and perhaps it won’t take you all of thirteen years to get to the other side of the desert.” (As a side note, I did refrain from saying anything snarky about the friends who were telling her to read the Bible more.)
In Groves’ Floodplain collection, there’s an analogous moment of frustration (or so I read it) in the song “Native Tongue.” I picture the narrator whose heart is built on a floodplain hearing, like my young friend, “Read your Bible,” “Pray,” and “Go to church more.” She responds (with more grace than I’ve ever been able to muster) “I know what you’re saying it’s my native tongue/ heard it as a child and it soothed me.” That language, she says, definitely expresses something real, and yet it’s not timely for her present circumstances:
something really happened it was wild and true we talked about it for a hundred years looking for the Spirit but the Spirit moves, I believe he’s moving here
Where, then, is the Spirit moving now? In the floodplain. The narrator’s challenge isn’t to escape the floodplain (compare Ricoeur’s “desert”) but to travel through it – only then will she be able finally to drink the cup she’s been handed. Beyond the desert, out of the flood, perhaps she can learn to speak differently, in a way that’s both older and more original than her “native tongue:”
looking for a language that is older still the taproot of a living Word resonating echoes of an Eden song waiting to be heard
Groves taps powerfully into that “language that is older still” in this collection of songs. Her gifts are nowhere more evident than in the last complete track, “My Dream,” which echoes the story of the prodigal in a tale for moderns who’ve wandered too far into a different kind of despair: “how much foolishness and folly are allowed in your graceland/ how much doubt and melancholy/ till I’m lost?” Assurance arrives in a simple image in her mind before she falls asleep:
every night for a year you have come to meet me here just a simple image in my mind as I fall asleep of you standing in the driveway as I come up the street I can tell by your movement you’re not angry you are running now you are running
In that image, who stands in the driveway? An estranged father? a mother? a lover? The lyric doesn’t let on. Honestly, the image works for me even when (I hope I’m not trivializing this for anyone!) I imagine my little dog I had to put to rest recently: you’re not angry, Biscuit, you are running now….
Oh, but get on with it, Meech! This is a Christian songwriter. Isn’t the image God?
All I can say is that the lyric doesn’t force that interpretation. But let’s say it is God. Then is there a claim in the lyric that God is actually present to the believer as “other?” The lyric does say “you have come to meet me here” (an implied other), but then it goes on “just a simple image in my mind,” adding an ambiguity about whether this “you” exists outside the imagination. Groves’ poetry lets the listener’s experience decide.
These are just a handful of the songs on Floodplain, yet to my mind they establish the logic of the collection. With her map spread out on the raft, Groves’ songs rise and disappear again “like photographs.” “Second Guess Girl,” is a sort of line-dance lament (really!) about living uncertainly in a culture addicted to certainty without discernment and compassion. (I highly recommend it to the President and Board of Trustees at Wheaton College.) “Enough” paints the materials of the narrator’s raft: “these patches of joy/ these stretches of sorrow/ there’s enough for today/ there will be enough tomorrow.” “I’ve been here before” finds her recollecting a stretch of desert, far from drinking “this cup.” The startling conclusion of the song is as delightful in its own way as Groves’ reworking of tale of the prodigal. Wait for it. “On Your Mark,” perhaps the darkest recollection, opens onto a set of three of the cheeriest “photographs” in the collection. While these three songs aren’t my favorites (I guess I’m decidedly dark), each brings gifts. An upbeat love song hums with an underground river, danger, and dirt. Groves’ lovely advice to a young person in “Signal” (“yeah it’s all been said/ but don’t be afraid/ to throw back your head/ and sing anyway”) seems an echo of the artist’s own determination to love this work of her own heart, whatever its wider reception. And “Your Reality,” while it grates a little (I flash – unfairly! – on Ingrid Bergman’s “You’ll have to do the thinking for both of us, Rick”) is spot on: when the river overflows my own floodplain heart, I have to test my reality with others.
The American psychologist and Pragmatist William James, who is decidedly not a “master of suspicion” like Freud and Nietzsche, argues that religious experiences do have real effects on believers. That’s why James can travel downriver with the religious person this far: Real effects of religion, he says, arise from activity in the subconscious mind of the believer. These effects are the “hither” or “here” of the subconscious – like the waves on the nearby shore of Groves’ surging river. Where James tacks a different course than the religious person is over the question of “Where?” the waves arise – which is to say the “thither” side of the subconscious. As a scientist, James is silent on the “Where?” and avers that, in this case, silence is best. Yet he allows that to accurately describe the experience of religious people, he must acknowledge that the experience is articulated in their consciousness as the action of another subject on them, a subject they call “God.”
Like James, most of you reading this probably can’t follow me there although, yes, that’s where I live. But if you can follow James rather than Freud, and if like me you can appreciate Groves’ light touch with religious imagery, then perhaps we can still enjoy the expedition together:
so meet me at the river I’ve fashioned us a raft and oar we’re going on an expedition we’re looking for lost time and it will take days and days and it might be extravagant and wasteful we’ll be gone as long as it takes looking for lost time
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Sara Groves @ First Presbyterian Church in Crossville, TN
Call church office to reserve seats 931.484.4644