February 26, 2009

When the Saints

There are many songs that reach my heart. Recently I came across this one from a CD that my wife owns (Tell Me What You Know by Sara Groves). The name of the song is When the Saints. Every single time I hear this song I cry. No joke. Though it is not just in the lyrics, but how the lyrics combine with her voice and the instruments. If you have not heard this song, find it. Now.

As is my tradition on this site, if I really like a song, I need to break it down. So here is the break down of When the Saints:

Verse 1:
Lord I have such a heavy burden of all I've seen and known
It's more than I can handle
But Your word is burning like a fire shut up in my bones
And I can't let it go
Both verses are rather simple, though the rhyming scheme is horribly complex, if one can even call it a scheme. The rhythm of the whole song is very jazzy and offbeat, though the tone is more subtle. The rhymes are not only mostly off-rhymes (such as known and bones), but there is almost a suggestion of rhyme throughout most of it. Like with the word fire, it feels like she is going to say candle, but doesn't. The verse almost flows like a river with phonetic undercurrents, rather than a literal scheme. This will be true of the rest of the song, though I doubt you can tell from the text alone.

As far as the content, it is very simple. She is speaking about a heavy burden that she has. I don't believe this burden to be a specific problem in her life, but more the struggles of her life as a whole ("All I've seen and known"). Indeed, if I have to give it a name, I would refer to it as her calling: the difficult tasks in life that God has called her to. But this is based off of the rest of the song. In either case, this burden is beyond her and only believing in the promises of God keep her going and giving her strength and energy.

And when I'm weary and overwrought
With so many battles left unfought

I think of Paul and Silas in the prison yard
I hear their song of freedom, rising to the stars

And when the saints go marching iiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii-in
I want to be one of them
Here we come to the true theme of the song: the example of the saints of the past inspire her to keep going. When she thinks of them, she wants to be like them, and this pushes her on.

It is important to point out the first couplet in the refrain. When I refer to a couplet in the rest of this post, I am pointing to this particular feature of the song: a two line description of a saint. In the first refrain, there is one complet followed by "And when the saints... etc." In the second refrain there are two couplets followed by "and when the saints". Then she goes into a long list of these couplets. Each of these couplets points to a particular example of a saint or saints from which she draws inspiration.

The first example that she gives (for she gives many) is important because A) it is the first and B) it is the only one that is repeated. This is the example of Paul and Silas in the Philippian prison (Acts 16: 12-40, focusing on verse 25.) Like all of the couplets that will eventually follow, she briefly suggests an example of great saints of faith in a way that denotes power to the event, without divulging precisely what happened. This is somewhat the true beauty of the song, since it's power comes in the form of suggestion.

Let us take this first example. The details include the exorcising of a girl on the streets, a panic that ensues from it, Paul and Silas being beaten and imprisoned, an earthquake destroying the prison, Paul and Silas remaining to spare the life of the jailer as well as the shear confidence in their being justified, the conversion of the jailer and his whole family, and ending with them being released by the magistrates of the city in person. That's a long and powerful story.

And yet she merely focuses on one snippet, that while these two men were in prison, they chose to worship God and sing songs of praise to His name. I also don't think her wording is accidental. "Songs of freedom rising to the stars" points to the eventual earthquake, releasing them of their shackles, suggesting that it was their songs of praise to their God which set them free. She pinpoints the power of their faith within that jail, not the mere fact of it. If they could overcome their imprisonment through faith in God, then why am I anxious...

Verse 2:
Lord it's all that I can't carry and cannot leave behind
It all can overwhelm me
But when I think of all who've gone before
And lived a faithful life
Their courage compels me
Here is the point of the song expressed simply, to the point where I do not believe it needs explanation.

And when I'm weary and overwrought
With so many battles left unfought

I think of Paul and Silas in the prison yard
I hear their song of freedom rising to the stars

I see the shepherd Moses in the Pharaoh's court
I hear his call for freedom for the people of the Lord!

And when the saints go marching iiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii-in
I want to be one of them.
In this refrain we see two couplets. The first is once again Paul and Silas, and retains all of the same power that it held before. Her choice for the second one here to compare Paul and Silas to is interesting, for Moses is one of the largest, if not the largest, figure in the Old Testament. I wonder if she was intentionally pairing the NT example of Paul and Silas with an OT one.

And like the first one, in this couplet we find the tale of Moses poetically understated. I do not think that it is wise for me to try and divulge all of the complexities of the story of the Exodus (besides, if you don't know it, stop reading this right now and read the book of Exodus).

What is fascinating about what Sara Groves does with it is what she chooses to highlight: namely the image of a lowly shepherd making demands to the king of the greatest empire on the earth in the midst of the king's throne. That is a powerful image. It is a statement that with faith in the Almighty God, we have the right and power to contend with kings! And look at what God was able to accomplish through Moses!

Again, we are left to consider, if Moses could face that kind of challenge, then why am I so anxious...

The rest of the song is essentially a list of couplets which flow as follows:

I see the long quiet walk along the underground railroad
I see the slave awakening to the value of her soul
Many of us have forgotten that the core of the underground railroad was Evangelical Christians. Here Sara somewhat reminds us of that, but her heart is on the result: the love and value of each human soul, and how that great ministry demonstrated that to so many. She personalizes it by focusing in on one unnamed women, who mentally shifts from being someone's property to being a human being made in the image of God. The way she shapes these words, though they are brief and simple, paints a clear image of the secrecy, fear, and triumph of that path to freedom and life.

This makes evident something which the couplets have been saying all along: faith is not there to get us through the hard times, but it is there to compel us into the deep dark places of the world to bring God's life and power. How we waste God's power on promotions and cars when there are souls being deprived of their God intended glory.

I see the young missionary and the angry spear
I see his family returning with no trace of fear
The story of the conversion of the Huaorani tribe is legendary. Five missionaries by the names of Jim Elliot, Nate Saint, Ed McCully, Peter Fleming, and Roger Youderian came to the Ecuador for to reach this tribe for Christ. Due to the disingenuousness of a native all five were killed. However, shortly there after Jim's wife Elizabeth and Saint's sister Rachel returned. Due to their efforts, most of the tribe is now Christian.

As Sara Groves sings this couplet, we first feel a sense of sorrow in the first line, but for the second she dramatically changes her tone. The emphasis is more on the returning of the family, and how nothing should be able to stop the faithful. They did not seek revenge, but instead sought to bring these people to Christ. Their heart was the same heart as those sacrificed, and the power of forgiveness and mercy won the hearts of this people.

I see the long hard shadows of Calcutta nights
I see the sister standing by the dying man's side
This is a reference to Mother Theresa and her hospice work in India. I find the concept of "long hard shadows" interesting. A long shadow assumes sunset, essentially. The concept of a hard shadow refers to the lines of the shadow being crisp. The smaller or farther away the light source is, the harder the shadow. Also the fewer the light sources, the harder the shadow. Thus, "the long hard shadows" suggest that the sun was the only source of light, and that it was fading away at sunset.

This is a rather beautiful image. I wonder whether Sara meant anything symbolic by it, but, for now, I'm just going to assume it. She is painting a death scene with her words, with Mother Theresa standing by a man's side as he lays dying, with the window open, and the sun setting in the distance. In film, such scenes are often at sunset, referring to the sun setting on the person's life.

However, the point of the couplet isn't just to be a beautiful scene, but to point to the accomplishments of Mother Theresa. From Wikipedia, I gathered this stat: "At the time of her death, Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity had over 4,000 sisters, an associated brotherhood of 300 members, and over 100,000 lay volunteers, operating 610 missions in 123 countries." Recognize that this was a woman who sacrificed everything she had for the sick and dying in this world, and look at what she managed to accomplish! And it wasn't easy for her either. Mother Theresa is simply another example of a Christian saint who was willing to push through her limitations and make a mark on the world for Christ.

I see the young girl huddled on the brothel floor
I see the man with a passion come kicking down that door
I had a lot of trouble figuring out this couplet until I found an article about Sara Groves that referenced this song (this was after I was about half way through writing this post). The main reason why it was difficult to identify is that this couplet is dealing with someone who Sara knows personally.

Sara has become involved with a group called International Justice Mission (or IJM). IJM is a ministry committed to reaching out into the world for the sake of manifesting God's justice on earth. A major ministry of theirs is dealing with sex trafficking which actually involves sending teams out to brothels to stop them.

The couplet is about a particular Southeastern Asian girl named Elizabeth (see the Today's Christian article referenced above, and look under "The gospel in a brothel"). Elizabeth was a poor girl saving up to go to Bible College who was then captured and sold to a brothel. By focusing on the Psalms, she maintained her faith, and hoped in her salvation from prostitution. Meeting Elizabeth was an impetus for much of the passion that Sara has throughout this CD.

This couplet again employs an oversimplification of a complex story, but the difference here is the obscurity of it. Few people have heard of IJM (I never had before), and fewer have ever heard of Elizabeth before. There is something important in that obscurity, for it is not fame or global influence that defines the effectiveness of a move of God, or the faithfulness God's servants. Instead, it is the compassion, love, and desire to see God's will here on earth that defines them. Indeed, there is great value in obscurity, for God blesses the humble.

A further point here is the faith of the victim. Much of the song has been focused on the power behind a person of faith as they stand for the principles of heaven. That is here too with IJM. But much of this also has to do with the enduring faith of Elizabeth herself, who clung to the Word of God, even in the lowest place that humanity has invented.

As the song goes on, we see clearer and clearer that a desire to be one of the saints is not simply about going to church on Sundays, and doing your daily devotions. This is because faith is not merely the assent of beliefs and doctrines. Faith is trust in God Himself as a mover in this world, and requires action to be genuine. My pastor always says that the indicators that your faith is genuine is that it affects your daily planner and your wallet. Faith is life, and whether you have it is whether you live it.

I see the Man of Sorrows and His long troubled road
I see the world on His shoulders and my easy load

And when the saints come marching iiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii-in
I want to be one of them
It is at this point in the song that I always cry. Jesus has many titles in Scripture, but the Man of Sorrows is one that we often forget. Indeed, it was the one the Pharisees and the Zealots didn't see coming.

This is of course a look to Calvary. There, Christ died for our sins. Often songs tell of this important moment in history that stands at the center of our relationship with God. It is a defining moment of God's love and the foundation of our justification before the Holy King of the cosmos. These songs speak of the unending gratitude that we have to our King, and the joy and life that He has brought to our lives.

Yet this is not what Sara is doing here. She is referring to the greatest saint in history, not in as an act of gratitude, but as another example, indeed the greatest example, of what it means to live by faith. It is the action of Christ that is her focus.

This is brought home, not by describing the affects of His actions like she did in the past couplets, but by comparing His burden to her own, implying that we should do the same.

This is significant since this is wrapping up the dilemma of the verses. The verses sang of Sara's burden, and how impossible it is. Yet at the conclusion of the song, after considering the faith and strength of all the saints, she not only feels compelled by their courage, but her load has been dwarfed. How can we complain about our struggles and excuses in life when Christ bore the weight of the whole world? Who are we to be idle because our credit card bills are too high? Or because we "don't have enough time"? Where there's faith, there's a way.

I think if you were able to go to Sara Groves and give her your reaction to this song, she would not want to know how it made you feel. Instead, she would want to know what it made you do. That is how I hope you walk away from this post. I often feel frustrated because I am in a time of preparation. I want to be out their doing something for the Kingdom, and right now I'm waiting. But I am also acting, for I am preparing. My question to you is what does your faith make you do?


Anonymous said...

I have recently fallen for this song. It speaks to my soul. I value your insight. Not only is it well researched, but you utilize your personal feelings to frame your ideas about the song.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for going through and explaining the lyrics. I knew a few of the stories behind some of the lyrics, but I am singing this song to God in church this Sunday, and I wanted to know exactly the meaning of the lyrics so that God will be praised through every word. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your post - I've done a similar one and had to find this website to get the Underground Railroad reference.

Jc_Freak: said...

Thanks Ruby and the rest of you. I appreciate your thoughts. I really do love this song, and I am glad my post blessed you.

Ruby, I had the most trouble getting the part about the brothel. That took some digging.