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The title of Jason Gray’s newest Centricity Music release, “Love Will Have the Final Word”, speaks of decisiveness and closure. It’s a statement of confidence and determination. And it’s true: we live in the assurance that through all of our ups and downs, the ultimate victory has been won for us, and Love has spoken.
It’s those ups and downs, though, that are the tricky part, and this soul-stirring collection of music speaks directly and powerfully to our present reality. This is an album that bravely avoids trite and simple platitudes thrown at our very real and complex circumstances. It’s an album that recognizes our loneliest of lows and our most hopeful highs. It’s an album that knows when to show empathy, when to give advice, and when to just come alongside and grieve.
Jason Gray has emerged as a songwriter of extraordinary depth, with a noteworthy ability to convey deep theological truths in engaging three-and-a-half minute songs. The Minnesota native is steadily drawing legions of fans who recognize his ability to connect with listeners on an emotional level, offering not escape or distraction, but healing and hope. His 2012 release, “A Way To See In The Dark”, was named Album of the Year by critics and garnered three top-five radio singles, including Nothing is Wasted, which hit #1 for nine weeks.
That success and exposure is a testimony to the power of music and an artist willing to be used by God. As a child, Gray developed a speech handicap. Like Moses arguing with God over his effectiveness as a communicator, Gray naturally resisted the call to ministry through music. But God, the Champion of the lost cause, chose Gray to become a living, breathing, stuttering example of His strength in our weakness. Maybe that’s why so many are drawn to Gray’s music. Through songs like All the Lovely Losers and Remind Me Who I Am, he’s been vulnerable, honest, and trustworthy in making music that ministers.
It was in the response to one of those songs that speaks hope into our trials – Nothing is Wasted – that Gray noticed something important. People are hungry to believe that when bad things happen, God is in it, that the experience won’t be wasted. “But I found,” Gray says, “that it was harder for people to believe that about their own failure, their own shame, and I thought, man, if the Gospel’s not true there, then it’s not true anywhere.”
Shame is a daunting and hopeless word, but it doesn’t have to be. The new album’s anthem As I Am retells the emotions of Adam and Eve in the Garden, after they’ve sinned. “They become aware of their vulnerability, their nakedness, and they become ashamed,” Gray observes. “Then they become afraid, and then they hide. What does God do? God comes to the garden looking for them, calling their name. He doesn’t withdraw. We are the ones who withdraw out of fear and shame. We are the ones who hide our presence from him. He doesn’t hide from us. God’s part in the story is, He comes to the garden, He draws closer, He comes looking for us, calling us by name, in order to draw us out of our hiding places and make sacrifices necessary to cover our nakedness and to assure us that there’s a way back home.”
Ultimately, that’s the theme of the album: the redeeming power of love. But here’s where Gray is different: he recognizes that sometimes it’s just not adequate to declare to someone, in the midst of their shame or their challenging circumstances, that if they’ll just trust in Jesus, everything will be okay. Instead, Gray clings to an idea expressed in a quote by Keith Miller: “The way to love someone is to lightly run your finger over that person’s soul until you find a crack, and then gently pour your love into that crack.”
The idea is voiced in the song If You Want to Love Someone, and in Gray’s ability to speak into the cracks in people’s souls. He will be the first to admit, though, that often it’s because God has used others to pour love into his own failure and shame. Gray recalls a time when the man who co-wrote the song with him, Andy Gullahorn, embodied its very core. “It was four years ago, and I was on tour with him and Andrew Peterson. It was at a painful time in my life, and I was in the back lounge talking with him, and just spilling out my pain and regret. I got done and I braced myself for the point where he would offer me an answer or try to fix it. Instead, he said ‘Okay, I want you to stand up, and here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to hug you. And I’m going to time it, and you have to let me hold you for two minutes.’ Okay. Awkward. He’s a man’s man, he’s not a huggy person at all. But I stand up and he hugs me and he has his watch and he goes, ‘Okay, I’m timing it, I’m not letting you go. And I’m kind of laughing, and then I start crying, and then I start ugly crying, and I kind of slump, and my friend Andy is just holding me. He didn’t offer answers, didn’t offer me anything except for loving kindness in that moment of pain and shame. It’s one of the most healing things I’ve ever experienced in my life. A real example of him pouring love into a very exposed, broken place in my life.”
The moment was pivotal in forming one of the album’s standout tracks, Not Right Now. It’s a first-person song about grief, spoken not unlike Job’s desperation in the midst of his less-than-helpful friends. And it hits directly at the sentiments so many well-intentioned Christians offer to friends who are hurting, when sometimes it’s better just to be present. “Don’t tell me, when I’m grieving,” the singer declares, “that this happened for a reason.”
In time, love does its redeeming work, and this album speaks to every step in that recovery. The Final Word is set in the midst of confusion and struggle. Begin Again is a beacon of light, pointing to recovery, even if “you’re afraid you’ve failed everybody you love.” Finally, love does its mighty work and we feel the joy swirl around us.Laugh Out Loud is our celebration, and With Every Act of Love recounts the positive actions that follow redemption. “It was important to me to have a song about grief and a song about laughter on the same record,” Gray notes. “Each makes the other one more meaningful and believable.”
Lead single With Every Act of Love has already broken records. Its debut helped mark the most successful week at radio in Centricity music history with 39 adds across the country. The song was inspired by N.T. Wright’s book Surprised by Hope, and it’s a direct challenge to the sentiment that this world is not our home, we’re just passing through, so little of what we do here matters. “Everything matters,” Gray declares. “The kingdom will come, but the kingdom is also coming right now and we are invited to participate in it. With every act of love we are allowing the kingdom to come into the little part of the world that we influence, whether we are building a home for the poor, or building a PB&J for our kid. Whether we are clothing those in need, or doing laundry for our family, if we’re doing it as an act of love, then it’s eternal, it lasts forever.”
Producers Jason Ingram and Cason Cooley provide a strong soundscape for these truths, blending elements of Gray’s acoustic guitar with touches of banjo, mandolin, and sweeping pop. The music is at turns somber, thoughtful, and ebullient, matching and emoting the powerful lyrics. Gray co-wrote every track with an all-star team including Ingram, Gullahorn, Ben Glover, Josh Wilson, and Nichole Nordeman.
“Love Will Have the Final Word” is, in the end, an album that meets us where we are, gently points us to the redeeming power of love, and spurs us on to share it. We move from the idolatry of shame to the restoration of action: “God put a million, million doors in the world for His love to walk through. One of those doors is you.” Without even realizing it we notice how far we’ve come, we marvel at the impossibility of it all, and we laugh out loud.