Three days ago I was tangled up in one of life’s rare, divine God moments.
I was somewhere inside the Michigan hand, a few notches west of the thumb and leading worship for the 44th Annual Deeper Life Retreat. The retreat is non-specific to a single church, denomination or national conference circuit, but rather a hodgepodge of women who have gathered over the years and been brought together by nothing more than friendship, word-of-mouth, tradition and a love for Jesus. My favorite kind of retreat.
The room was full, 400 or so ladies of all ages. Some women were there for the first time, others have been coming for decades. One lady had been coming with her daughter since her daughter was 12-years-old; this was her first year coming alone after her baby lost the fight to cancer. Another lady has only missed one retreat, making it her forty-third year to attend. I met sets of sisters who leave their young kids at home and come each Fall, cousins in their 60’s who insist on yearly cousin trips, and girls my age that I am sure are my long lost best friends. When my head finally hit the pillow Friday night, I fell asleep to the laughter, storytelling and giggles of women in rooms on every side of me who were gathered like family at the best kind of family reunion. My heart was full.
Earlier that evening I led worship. We started by singing 10,000 Reasons straight into the Matt Maher song, Lord I Need You. I invited the ladies to prepare their hearts for the unexpected. Unexpected was the weekend’s theme. It occurred to me as I sang, that I had seen God unexpectedly move on my family’s behalf through the song Lord I Need You and the man who wrote and performs it, Matt Maher. I told the ladies that only four weekends before I was with them, I was at the graveside burying my two beautiful nieces Maggie and Ellen. I told them how hard it was to find someone far enough removed from the pain to lead worship for the community my brother-in-law pastors and how my sister was getting frustrated as we planned the service in the hospital for her daughters. I told them that I asked Sarah who she wanted to lead worship and she answered “Matt Maher.” How we opened the computer- there in the hospital- to check Matt’s schedule (because why not dream big!) and sure enough, out of all the places in the entire country he could have been playing the following weekend he was playing in Ponca City, Oklahoma. Ponca City. Yes, it’s a real city y'all! How the night before the funeral Matt was going to be in Oklahoma City, literally playing a concert a mere 42 miles down the road from us.
And I told the ladies how the following weekend my dear friend Matt sat at the piano and sang these words as my family and I walked into a packed sanctuary to say good-bye to two little girls we never knew, but loved so much it hurt.
Lord I come, I confess
Bowing here I find my rest
Without you, I fall apart
You're the One who guides my heart
Lord I need you, oh I need you
Every hour I need you
My one defense, my righteousness
Oh God how I need You
I reminded the ladies to remember. Remember that God shows up in unexpected moments. Sometimes it looks like Matt Maher singing over your family at a funeral. Sometimes it looks like a prison smack dab in a cornfield in Greenville, Illinois or the right night nurse being on duty the night your Grandpa is checked in and unexpectedly put on life support. It’s as small as a free drink at Starbucks, a card when you most need to know you are not alone, a coupon at the exact moment to hold you over, a scripture verse speaking loudly a promise that you had never thought of the first hundred times you read the passage. And sometimes God shows up unexpectedly on the front row while you are leading worship reminding other people to expect the unexpected.
She sat there, in the front of the room three days ago, and sang Lord I Need You without hesitation. While most people sat, she raised her arms in worship. When others stood, she knelt down on her knees, near to the ground, near to the feet of Jesus. She looked to be in her late teens and her mom, young and beautiful, with tired eyes and a story written on her face, stood directly to her left. Never in an emotional frenzy, and without tears, they stood side by side- eyes often locked in on me- and worshiped deeply throughout the night. After my part there was a speaker, Micca Campbell, who talked about peace that passes understanding. Peace when our plans fall apart and we have to start over. Peace when there is no logical reason to have peace. Peace that passes the understanding of this world. And then we sang one final song, How Deep the Father’s Love For Us.
The service ended. Announcements were made. The late-night concert and book-reading was about to begin and I was making my way back into the crowded room after an emergency bathroom trip. And there they stood, the mom and daughter, at the front of the stage- eyes wide like they had seen a ghost.
“We have to tell you what has happened,” the mom said. The girl, words broken, mouth slightly contorted grabbed my hands, looked deep and unflinching into my eyes and interrupted her mom, “IIIIII aaaammmm sooooo hhhhaaapppy tttoo meeeet you.” Each word required effort, each word slow and labored. We hugged and lingered, loving one another as though we were the most dear of friends, though I did not know why just yet. Then they took turns cutting one another off, excitedly jumping ahead and back and forth in the timeline, telling a story they were nearly too overwhelmed to share.
The daughter had been in an accident while riding her horse and arrived at the hospital with a 1% chance of living. The doctors did not know if she was brain dead and told her mom there was no way her daughter was walking away from this accident. If she did manage to live, she would certainly not be walking or talking again. Her mom prepared for the worst as the daughter languished in a non-responsive coma. While at the hospital the mom’s best friend suggested playing her daughter's favorite song as a way of rousing her. The friend turned the song on from her iPhone and they played it repeatedly. Suddenly, the girl’s mouth began to move and her lips struggled to form the words of the chorus
What do I know of You who spoke me into motion?
Where have I even stood, but the shore along Your ocean?
Are You fire? Are You fury? Are You sacred? Are You beautiful?
Lord, what do I know-
What do I know of holy?
The best friend saw it first and began to weep. Then the mom. Autumn was moving her lips. She knew the words to the song. She was more than just a body- she was still alive inside.
“IIIIII kkkknnnneeewww ittt innn myyy heaarrrttt” she told me as she stood across from me Friday night holding my hands and looking deep into my eyes. I could hardly breathe.
Three years ago this beautiful 22-year-old-girl standing in front of me was in a coma. She couldn't yet speak and her family had no way of knowing whether the girl they knew before the accident was still inside. But as she mouthed the words to a song I had written, their deepest fears were allayed.
She was alive and she knew my song by heart.
What she didn’t know was my name.
And what her mom didn’t know three days ago was that someone would call Friday afternoon and tell her that she and her daughter had been gifted tickets to a local women’s retreat that evening if they wanted to attend. Her mom didn’t recognize the name of the speaker or worship leader, and contemplated not going, but in the end reluctantly decided to come. She and her daughter showed up and sat at the table closest to the stage.
They didn't know that it was me.
Until I opened my mouth and began to sing.
And then they knew.
I suppose they glanced at their program and saw the biography, “Jenny Simmons was the lead singer of the former band Addison Road.” Or maybe they didn't need that confirmation, maybe they looked at one another in shock and just knew. As I stood in awe, I forgot to ask that part.
No one in that room knew what kind of story was unfolding.
Only two weeks before they had sat with a man who is helping them write out their story of hope and survival and he asked them who was significant to their story. The mom answered, “We have to find that Addison Road girl. It was her song that let us know Autumn was still with us. And her song that we played for other people in the traumatic brain injury unit. We must have played it hundreds of times. We need to find that girl."
And there I was Friday night.
Five feet from their table.
Singing What Do I Know of Holy over them.
Three days ago I was tangled up in the kind of divine God moment that cannot be scripted, planned or fully understood. Tangled up in the holy unexpected.
If you know me well, you know I refuse staking a claim in most theological absolutes and debates besides Christ’s death, burial and resurrection on behalf of mankind.
It feels too dangerous to reckon I have the full understanding of the One who is capable of aligning such beautiful, holy and divine moments for the sake of His children and the adoration of His name.
So I am content, instead, to stand in awe. Constantly overwhelmed by the unexpected, what do I know of Holy moments which flood the world with grace and hope. Reminders that God is ever at work on earth, as He is in heaven.