Grace Calls Us

Yesterday our church honored the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 

My pastor, a scholar and total history geek, walked us through King’s entire life, birth to death. Sadly, I confess I learned more about the totality of King’s life in that brief hour yesterday than I have my first thirty-four years of living. Tears slid down my face the entire service. What a man. As I thought about his life’s call to unleash his oppressed brothers and sisters, I thought about Jesus. A man around the same age who lived in a time when women were not taught- and yet Jesus taught them. When dirty lepers, who were a threat to Torah abiding Jews were sent to live beyond the boundaries of the city so no one would accidentally touch them and become unclean- and yet Jesus went to them and touched them. A time where, within the church, some attempted to segregate Jews and Gentiles and elevate one over the other, and yet Jesus said there was no difference between Jew or Gentile in his kingdom. Jesus spent an awful lot of time freeing the oppressed. In that regard, Martin Luther King Jr. followed in his footsteps. Giving a voice to the oppressed. 

In other regards, we are now well aware that Martin Luther King Jr. was a flawed man. 

Towards the end of our time together yesterday, our pastor addressed these shortcomings too. He said something profoundly merciful, that will perhaps always stay with me and I want to pass on to you.

“Grace,” he said, “Calls us to come to these things last.”

I immediately thought of myself. I am grateful that my music and writings have touched the hearts and lives of countless people around the world. But I am not without brokenness, shortcomings, flaws and major mistakes. I am grateful that grace calls the listener and reader to these things last. 

I immediately thought of my father’s father. My papaw. In the heart of deep south Mississippi, in a predominately white, segregated town my papaw withstood death threats to his own family to ensure that de-segregation was carried out under his watch. As the superintendent of the Enterprise School District he and our family’s pastor, Brother Thomas Wallace, stood by the front door of the high school for months on end to make sure that all children, regardless of color, were peacefully welcomed into the newly de-segregated school. Much like myself, and Dr. King, my Papaw was a broken man with his own shortcomings, flaws and mistakes. I am grateful that grace calls us to come to these things last. 

I immediately thought of the writings of Brennan Manning that have so deeply influenced my spiritual life. A man whose own alcoholism nearly destroyed him.

I immediately thought of King David, whose poetry and music shape the Old Testament and Moses who led the most oppressed people in history out of slavery. Both men flawed by little things like murder and adultery.  

So today we honor and give thanks for the life work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. And while some are quick to denounce the work he has done based on his moral flaws and personal shortcomings, I am not. Thankfully, no person is the sum total of their flaws. 

If I have learned anything in this life, it is this-
There was only one messenger who delivered the message without sin.
Jesus alone was perfect and the rest of us walk with limps. 
I for one am grateful that grace calls people to these things last. 
I for one am grateful for messengers who are used despite their messes. 

More Than Whimsy: Defiant Joy

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"Sometimes you have to poke holes in the darkness until it bleeds light."
-Margaret Feinberg, Fight Back with Joy

As many of you know, 2014 was the hardest year of my life. This is almost comical since I began 2014 with an endeavor to finish my first book- a book about the pathway to new life in the face of what I assumed had already been the hardest year of my life. Boy was I wrong. The thefts, fire and subsequent near bankruptcy in 2010 that left my husband and I, and our band, Addison Road, unable to move forward in our music and ministry was nothing compared to this past year.

2014. A year where my Mamaw stared at me and asked me who I was and why I was in her bedroom and my heart crumpled. A year where my grandpa's legs slowly decayed while his mind, spirit and heart only fought harder to love us well before he died. A year where my baby sister announced she was having identical, twin girls, Maggie and Ellen. And the year that we buried them. 26 weeks old, fully-formed and more beloved than we could have ever dreamed. There was also the whole: Ryan's complicated back surgery, our rental home being condemned with black mold, my diagnosis with asthma, the unexpected death of a precious friend and the paperwork that came through and finally confirmed what I had known for a while (but refused to believe) that I had lost my record deal and publishing contract of over eight years.

It was the most painful year. By Thanksgiving my mom announced that if anything else bad happened in the family, she would be bringing a priest to the house to start performing general exorcisms on all of us. Just in case. My friend Matt suggested the same thing in jest, "Maybe you guys have generational curses?" My friend Missy said, "You are not moving into a new house until we all come out and pray over it. Seriously. Just in case."  And when I asked my soul-therapist, Al, if we were cursed he answered by saying "You know it seems to me your family just gets a little more than it's fair share of crazy." 2014 was bitter, hard, gritty, painful and often downright unbearable.

And in the same breath- in the most unexpected, unexplainable, un-cliche way I can possibly muster- there was joy. Deep, abiding, nonsensical, powerful JOY. At the park, around the table, moments after the babies died, at the funerals, in the hotel rooms, long car rides, hospital rooms, driving Annie to school, watching the birds out my window, deep down in my soul after all my cussing diatribes and foolish I-give-up-on-living temper tantrums... there was joy unexplainable. 

I didn't have the words for it then, but I do now, because a woman I so love and admire finally penned them during her own season of unbearable pain. "More than whimsy," Margaret Feinberg says in her new book Fight Back with Joy, "Joy is a weapon we can use to fight life's battles."

Joy... a weapon? Absolutely. Not the fluffy, easily thrown about sentiments that we Christians are so polished in handing out. The "Everything is wonderful! God is good all the time- all the time God is good! Oh, this ole' cancer? These ole' babies dying? Just be happy-God's got it!" While pithy statements may feel nice to say in the moment of suffering- they oversimplify the fight for "honest, real, gritty, messy and lasting joy—the one that people rarely talk about." Joy in the midst of suffering looks less like camp chants and more like this gritty, messy, honest joy that Margaret Feinberg describes from the over 400 references of joy found in scripture.

The miracle of my 2014? Joy. That joy is possible in the midst of the most dark moments speaks to the heart of our Savior's loving, redemptive nature. It is, as Margaret says, our heritage, purpose and destiny.

"When we fight back with joy, we declare that the darkness does not win," Margaret says, "Joy can change unchangeable circumstances. No matter what your circumstances are, you can practice defiant joy."

Never have I picked up a book and through tears and laughter (by page 5!) said, "YES- this is how I want to live. This is who I want to be. This is how I want to fight back." But this is that book for me. And if you or anyone you love has experienced a year like we did in 2014, I so hope you will get a copy of this book or join with friends over this 6-week bible study written by a fellow fighter and begin to discover how joy is the absolute best weapon we possess in the face of our hardest battles, deepest trenches and darkest moments.  

Joy is the sacred jingle of God within you.
Joy emanates out of the abiding sense of God's fierce love for us.

-Margaret Feinberg
Fight Back with Joy is available on Amazon




We Showed Up

To be quite honest I was terrified of Thanksgiving this year. Holidays are typically stressful- in the best of ways- for most families. Schedules, road trips, different beds, tired kids, unusual routines, faces you love-but-haven't-lived with since high school and about five, ten, fifteen extra people squeezed into houses built for, well, not fifteen. We walk into the holidays silently praying that no one turns on the wrong news channel or brings up politics, hoping that we don't get caught giving the stink eye to another siblings' kid (though we love our nieces and nephews- we do-it's just...) and praying that everyone eats the food with as much enthusiastic joy as the hostess is hoping for. 

Most people spend the holidays waiting for earthquakes, praying for tremors, grateful for fault lines buried deep beneath the earth's surface. Even the irreligious know to start the holidays off with a little holy help prayer on their lips.

So this year was no different than any others. There would be two sisters, four nieces, three husbands, one tiny house, two excited grandparents, and more food than we could stomach. There would be the normal aforementioned family issues that people face whilst heading into the holidays. Joy and stress co-mingling. Fault lines shifting. Families colliding. But this time there would be holes. Missing spots at the table. Grief, raw and unvarnished.

This year there would be no Grandpa. No Mamaw. No Maggie. No Ellen.

I was terrified that our family had weathered the most immediate moments of our deep losses but would come together, thrust into the familial chaos of holidays, and finally implode. I knew we had made it through the center of the storm. The part where you are thrashed about until your bones hurts and your soul cries mercy. But sometimes, when it's all said and done, that's the easy part. The storm. The decimation. In those moments you get these magical things called endorphins. They kick in and kick butt.  Leading up to the storm, and at the storms very height, you are surrounded by the prayers of people, generous doses of God's peace that passes understanding, super-human grace and an overall blurry, fuzzy feeling that keeps you from actually feeling the full weight of it all. But after all that passes and you are mangled up like driftwood, in a river three counties over, in a place you have never known...well, that's when the hard work and spaghetti aisle meltdowns begin.

And I was afraid that moment would happen for all of us, simultaneously, around the Thanksgiving dinner table. The spaghetti aisle meltdown. As if all our grief--- raw, unvarnished, different in nature and beast- would rub to together like sand paper until the fault lines had no choice but to find fault and finally falter.

What happened instead was quite unexpected.
We had our best Thanksgiving ever.

I think it's because we all came with our limps, battle scars and sadness and we were kind to one another. Empathetic. Gracious. And honest.

I think it's because my 83 year-old-grandma who had to take her husband of fifty-five years off of unexpected life support in August... was brave enough to get on a plane by herself and show up for the day of giving thanks.

I think it's because my dad loved on the granddaughters he did have, but when it came time to pray around the Thanksgiving table he gave thanks for Maggie and Ellen too. And then he openly wept, and in so doing, gave us permission to finally do the same. 

I think it's because we played football. And wore turkey hats. And drank more Starbucks coffee than can possibly be good for us. And played dominoes. And let our girls run free. And let our tears run free. And dwelt in the beauty of the moment while also being able to say to one another, "Hey, remember that one year FROM HELL?!?!? Yeah... it's almost over now." And I mostly think it's because we all showed up when we didn't want to.  When we didn't think we could and didn't know how or what the outcome might be. We showed up anyways. And we all knew we were walking on fault lines that might give at any moment- but still- we walked.

And you know what? The fault lines seemed to re-align. To pull in tight. To grow stronger under the earth beneath us. There were no stress fractures, no earthquakes, no tremors. There was strength in showing up with what little we had, but showing up all the while. And this year I am thankful for Thanksgiving. The actual day, the actual meal around the table, the actual chaotic holiday of it all. Because this year we are still walking... and we all walked to the table together.

In loving memory of Maggie Jane and Ellen Olivia Miller, my beautiful nieces. Merlin Hehn, my amazing grandpa. Merle Chisolm, my beautiful mamaw. Jimmy Mac McNamara, my friend and manna. All celebrating Thanksgiving in heaven this year.