Janesville, Minnesota native Jason Gray became an independent artist in 1999 and has since made ďstrength in weaknessĒ an emphasis in his songwriting. Gray has a speech handicap, he stutters, but despite it has enabled others to see things in North America and beyond from a different perspective; taking strength in their weaknesses. Soul Shineís Lindsay Whitfield recently spoke with Gray about his major label debut album entitled All the Lovely Losers, what authentic worship is, and how each of our weaknesses can be used for good.
SS: What sort of music did you listen to growing up?
JG: I grew up on the road with my momís bar band; I would travel on the road with them. I grew up [listening to] The Doobie Brothers and The EaglesÖand Heart [laughs]. My mom fronted the band. Iíd be hanging out with the truckers in the bar who thought it was great to have a little boy there. I was doing that from about 4-8 years old.
SS: Was it odd to be in that environment at such a young age?
JG: It didnít seem weird to me at all because it was the only experience I had. I got all kinds of attention; of course because I was really cute! So I just grew up around a lot of music. The kind of music I really attached to and ended up caring about was Simon & Garfunkel and Billy Joel. In fact the first record I had was Glass House by Billy Joel. So I was always drawn to great songwriters who knew how to tell a story well. Itís also what I hope to do with my work, to have lyrics worth listening to and worth singing along with.
SS: Your work definitely embodies those qualities.
JG: Well, thank you. Itís hard to get radio airplay with the lyrics I write, which is a complete drag, but you have to do what you believe, what youíre called to do and just ask God to help it go where itís supposed to go and not worry about much beyond that [laughs].
SS: How did you come to know Christ?
JG: So I grew up on the road with my momís bar band and she became a believer and had a conversion experience when I was in 4th grade, which was actually in the middle of a custody battle, my mom and dad divorced, and from that moment the gospel was kind of sewn into my life and I tried to understand it. I held out for the longest time. I always knew God was there and that He was calling me, even before my mom, so I had a sense of His presence and His calling in my life. Once my mom became a believer, I held out to really making a commitment to Christ until high school. Basically, it was because I didnít want to stop making out with my girlfriend. So, we lived in an abusive homeÖI donít really want to go into it allÖbut it was dangerous. It was Christmas Eve and after a huge argument and a death threat, I remember hiding in my room that night behind my locked door and I remember praying to God, ĎLord, if you get me through tonight, Iíll see what I can do about serving you with my lifeĒ and He held up his end of it and He made sure I held up my end up too. The day after that we fled to Colorado and stayed with some friends out there and thatís where I began to really respond to what God had been doing in my heart all along.
SS: I feel awful that you had to go through an abusive experience.
JG: It was awful at the time, but often times itís strange that you can look back at some of the most awful experiences that you have with fondness and gratitude. I look back on those things and think of the awful things I was going through, but especially in hindsight now I can see how God delivered me and redeemed those times by building in me a compassion for other people who go through those things. They were times when God was undeniably real and close and His kindness and mercy every morning was there. So it helps take the sting out of it.
SS: How has your perception changed from your first and second visit to Africa with World Vision?
JG: I think you can have a certain romanticized idea of what it means to serve the poor and I knew that going into it, but when I went over there I still had this kind of romantic idealism of being a crusader on behalf of the poor. I would say that the next time I went I was able to see a little bit more of the complexities. The first time I came home it was a sort of dreamy and self righteous feeling with anger towards those who werenít sponsoring kids here [North America] and doing their part. The next time I came home I came home with more of a realistic optimism. So the first time it was more about my experience and the second time it was more about the poor themselves. The first time it was this amazing experience, seeing their need and helping to equip others to meet this need. The next time I went there, I understood the long hard work that lay ahead.
SS: What can we do here in North America to help besides praying for them?
JG: Sponsorship is the most obvious and real thing someone can do and it makes a difference, Iíve seen it firsthand. Over there we were able to meet the first girl that we sponsored. We arrived in Zimbabwe and got in a vehicle and were able to drive the 6 hours through the jungle to get to her village. There are no roads, so itís not even like you can swing a left at the cows and take a right at the monkeys. It was deep into the heart of remote Africa, we were a long way from Kansas. In fact the interpreter even said he flew over on a ďbig metal birdĒ, thatís how remote it was there. As we drove up into the village, the kids were all waiting there for us, including our sponsor child, the teachers and elders and students who hadnít died. As we arrived they jumped up and surrounded our vehicle and began to sing the words ďWell DoneĒ over and over again. And you know, these are the words you hope to hear at the end of your life from Jesus, ďWell Done Thy Good and Faithful ServantĒ. And to hear these words from the poorest of the poor, it was one of the most beautiful moments of my life and it was almost as good as hearing it from Christ Himself who claims to be among the poor. It was moving and so humbling and uncomfortable to try to feel worthy of that. What we realized is they werenít just singing it to my wife and I, but it was intended for everybody who had sponsored kids in the village and a thank you for the work we had done and the sponsorship and so it works and theyíre grateful.
In terms of what we can do, I think one of my chief frustrations with the North American church is I think we are a consumer culture and its crept into the church even to the way we worship. We seem to be filled with consumerist worship with so much emphasis on worship music now on the market. Also, worship music here seems like itís for us, like itís to make us feel good. But the worship in the Scripture we are told that really matters is bringing God pleasure and itís for Him. In my mind it has very little to do with singing songs in church to set the mood or the stage to receive the Word. Worship is increasingly, to me, about going out and doing my work so that I can sponsor children. We sponsor a family who is extremely poor and we were able to buy them a plot of land that they can farm on. And as expensive and scary as it was, being a musician and in the ministry, we stepped out and we did this and to me itís one of the profoundest acts of worship that weíve done. A key thing is to move beyond, itís great to sing songs, but lets not think that thatís our most significant worship. The most significant should be when we bring God pleasure by living our lives as worship. He says ďTrue religion is this: that we look out for the widows and the orphans in their distress.Ē
SS: In terms of shame in our weakness, how can this generation let God shine through that?
JG: I think God offers this great reversal of fortune in a sense in that He gives us the opportunity to offer all the things, our shame and brokenness, all of the things the devil may have intended to use to destroy our lives. Maybe itís growing up in an abusive home, maybe itís a speech handicap, maybe itís addiction, depression, a broken relationship, wherever it might be, God offers this redemption that when we bring this stuff to Him he turns it around and uses it against the enemy to build the Kingdom and to me that is the sweetest thing. And so I think because since we live in a culture that puts so much emphasis on performance and competence and being impressive and strong, it makes us feel like we need to be embarrassed and hide our weaknesses. And I think that if we are not willing to be weak we deny the people around us the grace of God that can only come through the broken places in our lives. And if we can just embrace our weakness and allow God to use it, I mean, thatís how He gets His best work done, I think. It means that the junk that we go through, it allows us to bring His mercy to other people who have gone through the same thing.
I think we get to be revealers of His message; we are called co-creators with Him. I think each of us gets to bring an expression of what Heís doing now and I know that a part of the story, the part that I get to bring is about understanding weakness as a great asset. Itís called the Good News, and one of the best parts of that is that we donít have to be so strong [laughs] we donít have to try so hard. And He says that in our weakness that His strength is perfected and yet we are people so afraid of being weak, including myself. I talk about it a lot because I struggle with it a whole bunch. I want to be impressive, but I think that my speech handicap may have been one of Godís greatest gifts that He allowed it in my life because it didnít give me the opportunity to develop an image of myself who was impressive and had no flaws. I could never hide behind a mask of strength, because every time I opened my mouth it was pretty obvious what was wrong with me. And so thatís been a wonderful teacher to me and He made me deal with my weakness and its what I do on stage each night, I perform my own weakness and I hope it helps my audience to look for theirs and discover what God may intend for it and how God meets us there.
In terms of how God speaks to us, man, daily Iím more and more aware of how my instincts are so contrary to the truth. And so I just daily have to spend some time in the Word or in prayer as a corrective and even with that I get it wrong so much of the time. I believe God has given me a part of His truth that Iím supposed to emphasize and bring to the church, but I try to do it very humbly.
SS: What do you hope people will get from your music?
JG: I think a big theme in my music is grace, so I hope people will get a sense of Godís grace and a sense that they donít have to strive for His grace or His favor or His love or to be used, you know? They can relax because they already have it. I think relaxing in Godís grace is a great compliment to Him, I think it honors Him. I have a song on the album called "GraceĒ and itís personifying grace. Imagining what grace would look like if it were a person, and since grace is also a beautiful girlís name, I imagined Grace as a person whoís way out of your league, but she takes you anyway. And the chorus says, ďIíll never be good enough for grace, but she takes me anywayĒ. I used to think that it was a statement of despair, you know ĎIím always in need of it, Iím always blowing ití, I can never live up to it. Since then Iíve embraced it as a joyous statement and now see it as Ďyeah Iíll never be good enough for grace and thatís what makes it beautifulí. Because if I could be good enough for it, it wouldnít be grace, itíd be math [laughs]. He lavishes us with it anyway and as we deal with that we donít have to worry about trying so hard to be worthy of it as we surrender. The grace sinks deeper into our lives and we get transformed and we live in response to it. And it begins to do in us what we could never do in ourselves. I think slowly I am becoming holier [laughs] and itís not because Iím trying, because I tried for years and it didnít work, but itís happening in spite of me as I surrender to His graceÖ.Anyway, for a guy with a speech handicap I talk a lot, huh? [laughs]
You rock Jason! And hey, I also heard about The Rabbit Room on your site, can you tell us about that?
Yeah, absolutely. Thatís my favourite thing Iím involved in right now. Andrew Peterson is one of my favourite artists and when we became friends I still couldnít believe it, Iím hanging out with him and saying to myself Ďok donít act like a geek, just play it coolí. [Laughs] Whatever Rich Mullins had, if it passed on, if thatís how that works, I believe it passed on to Andrew Peterson. When I hear his stuff I feel like I just heard the new Rich Mullins record. Andrew Peterson went to London, England to a place called The Rabbit Room where C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien hung out and discussed literature and art and all that and so Andrew wanted to start a website that talked about film, music and books and art like that experience. So Iím grateful to be in on that. It gives me a chance to focus on being honest on art that moves me. I donít have to be democratic, which might get me in trouble, but I think itís great.
Any plans to come to Canada?
Iím on tour with downhere right now, love those guys, great pop songwriting, and past that Iíd love to come to Canada, if someone asks me Iím there.
For more on Jason Gray please visit www.jasongraymusic.com.
Writer: Lindsay Whitfield