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Messy.

My daughter’s space–her bedroom, her study area, her play area, whatever–will never be a picture of tranquility or order. Her imagination and interior world are so engaged at any given moment that whether or not her clothes are on the floor is her very last thought–and nowhere near as important as whatever she is creating or processing or dreaming up in her head. Truth be told, she’s just messy. And this has been true since she was a small child, leaving a trail of “projects” or half-dressed dolls or artwork everywhere she went, piles left here and there like little altars to all that is holy about childhood.

I, on the other hand, need my space to be, if not clean, at least everything-in-its-spot. If you’ve ever seen me adjust a piece of furniture or a bookshelf trinket just so, or been privy to my constant room-rearranging, you know–my outward need for my personal space to be in order is generally directly proportional to how disordered I am feeling inside. And because I am a deep feeler, and have a brain full of thoughts and words at any given moment, and also tend to absorb the feelings of those around me…well, let’s just say my insides are almost always a wreck.

Needless to say, the girl and I, we’re different. And, I’m learning to settle for the happy place of “Mom’s mostly satisfied,” and “CG feels not too oppressed” when it comes to her space and my space. 

Mostly because I feel like her approach is more honest. The reality is that life is messy. Living is messy. And this mostly terrifies us–because somewhere early on we often get the message that order is supreme and that presenting a good front is paramount.

Don’t get me wrong–there’s a time and place for putting your best foot forward even if that means cramming a week’s worth of laundry into the hall closet and out of sight, while praying the pantry doors don’t fly open from the strain of the disorganization behind them. There are even moments that must be gotten through by smiling when you don’t feel like it. I’m grateful for the years of my childhood spent in South that taught me that grace-under-pressure-or-anger-or-sadness can be a good thing. A survival tool.

But the deeper thing that matters is that very little is as it appears. And most of us are walking around without our insides and matching our insides.

And mostly we’d rather no one know it.

Except…

How much better would it be if we could just name the messiness and then move on with growing into our best selves anyway? To be sure, boundaries and discretion are both important things to learn to use, and use wisely and well…but not if we’re trying to hide who we are in the process.

Messy.

Life is messy.

Relationships are complicated. Marriage is hard work. Sometimes we don’t do our best at our jobs. Sometimes people we love and admire let us down–tremendously. Sometimes we get betrayed. Sometimes we let our own selfish desire blow up. Sometimes our children disappoint us and sometimes we disappoint them. Sometimes the world is a terrifying place and it’s literally all we can do to face another day. Sometimes our emotions riot. And sometimes we fail. Fail hard. And sometimes we feel so miserable, full of so much self-doubt and anxiety, that we cannot even imagine how revealing our real self those around us would be good for anyone.

Because life is messy. And many, many people do not like, and are supremely uncomfortable with, messy.

The key is finding balance–which can seem impossible. Finding the joyful place of knowing you aren’t perfect and agreeing to stop trying to be. Of not letting someone else’s box be what you’re trying to fit into. Of finding your own truth and living in it. Of sometimes leaving your shoes by the door, just where you kicked them off when you came in, and definitely leaving the dishes in the sink overnight, because spending that half hour curled up with your kid on the couch is way more soul-satisfying.

Life can utterly shatter us, y’all, leaving messes beyond what we ever thought was possible to live through. This is just how it is. It happens to all of us. And it seems to me that sharing this mess, maybe even braving our own painful mess to help another person through theirs, is a far better route to gratitude and joy than is pushing it all away, to the dark and cold places of our souls where we can pretend it doesn’t exist.

It’s complicated. All of it. I know. But I think probably owning that is what’s important.

And then loving each other through it. 

 

 

 

 

 

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Thank you, Evan Hansen.

Even when the dark comes crashing through
When you need a friend to carry you
And when you’re broken on the ground
You will be found

–“You Will Be Found”, from Dear Evan Hansen

I’m lucky enough to have seen more than a few of the big name stage musicals live. Rent. Les Mis. Miss Saigon. And, most recently and unbelievably, Hamilton. There’s nothing quite like it, ever. A huge auditorium with killer acoustics and live orchestra and crazy-talented actors and crowds generally hanging on every word. The energy is palpable every time, and it’s always stunning to me how hundreds, sometimes thousands, of people can get so caught up in a singular story that you lose all track of time or space and are quite literally transported somewhere else.

That my Curly Girl is growing shares this love of live musical theater is one of my greatest joys, and making the sacrifices necessary to be sure we can see a show from time to time is a priority in this house.

It’s Fall Break here in Louisville, and we were not able to travel anywhere; but, I was able to score tickets to the national touring production of Dear Evan Hansen (DEH) during its week-long engagement here.

Real quick, and with no spoilers, DEH centers around the events that unfold after the suicide of teenager Connor Murphy, predominantly told through the actions and decisions of his classmate, Evan Hansen, in the days immediately following Connor’s death. It’s utterly gut-wrenching, but not overly dramatic at all–instead, the writers of this show manged to strike a real balance of raw and gritty and, to a degree, instructive about this time we are living in–social media and anxiety and broken relationships all creating this perfect storm of anger and sadness and, eventually, hope.

Actual, real, life-saving, make-you-breathe-again, hope. 

Like I said, I’ve seen some big shows. I’ve watched dancers and huge full cast scenes and amazing special effects. I’ve been blown away, several times, by what’s possible to bring to life on a stage. But I have to tell you, I’ve never experienced anything quite like the effect I watched DEH have on the couple thousand folks packed into the Kentucky Center for the Arts, especially the first act finale, “You Will Be Found.”

It’s a song that strikes straight and true to the heart of what it means to feel alone. What it means to truly believe no one cares. With a simple and somehow heart-string tearing melody, it crawls right under your skin and forces you to face the times in your life when you’ve known the very real pain of loneliness. Of believing you might not matter. Of thinking nothing will ever be okay again.

And with a very insistent and richly harmonized chorus, it also promises you that you are not, in fact, alone. That the voices screaming that you don’t matter are liars. And that all around you are people begging you to see that you will, in fact, be found.

You will be found.

In the moments this mighty chorus resolved into its closing notes, there were about 2 seconds of the very loud sound of a theater in total silence. Silence so brief, so profound, you could actually feel it. And then…thunderous applause. Thunderous. Mixed with the very audible sounds of hundreds of grown adults unable to hold back their tears. The mix of sobs and hands clapping and faces both beaming and streaming tears was truly unlike anything I have ever seen.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this–and I have come to the conclusion that DEH is having such deep effect on people because it grapples with the very things no one wants to talk about. Namely suicide–but also divorce, broken families, the way social media can warp any existence of reality but can also harness so much good. DEH does not shy away from difficult conversations around mental illness–specifically severe social anxiety–nor does it back away from the realities of single parenting, or the dysfunction a still-together-but-very-messed-up marriage can create.

Which is to say, DEH gives its audiences permission to face, even dwell in for 2.5 hours, their very worst fears and grief and insecurities and failings…but it doesn’t leave you there in the mire…it reaches down a hand, pulls you out, and says, “Ok. Yep. That was pure hell. But you’ve been found. And one day…one very blessed and grace-full day…you will be okay again.”

Many days, I feel like the world, especially my particular corner of it, i.e., the United States and its communities, is a full-on dumpster fire, in which we have lost any and all respect for the basic sacredness of life. Our failure to see in one another’s full humanity is fanning the flames of our burning in ways that terrify me. That make me afraid deep in my bones for what my precious girl is going to grow into.

But also…and (and is such an important word, y’all), you might say…there is grace. And there is DEH. And there is real and sacrificial care between neighbors. And there are people putting their lives on the line for justice. And there are voices shouting above the din that this is not the way and doing their best to redirect us to towards life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness. 

In other words, there are people seeking those who need to be found Every. Damn. Day. And I believe that in this lies our great hope. 

Maybe you feel lost right now. Maybe right next to you is someone trying desperately to help you see that you’ve actually been found all along. Maybe you’ve got some strength to go searching for someone who needs finding. Maybe you have a voice to use, a talent to share, a way of helping people see that no matter what, they are part of you, because the beauty of our humanity is this: We need each other. 

We need each other. 

We need each other. 

We need each other.

And in the space between…we are found. 

 

 

 

 

 

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Searching for beauty.

Saturday night we did one of my favorite local things and caught a Louisville City game. LCFC is temporarily housed at Slugger Field (to the chagrin, I know, of many a local baseball fan) while a new stadium is being built in Butchertown.

Slugger Field sits just downtown along the Ohio River. If you are in the right section of seats, and happen to be catching an evening game on a clear night, you’ll get the bonus of a gorgeous sunset while your team plays. Saturday was exactly such a clear night–and just as halftime was coming up for the City men, I looked up, and saw that the tallest points of the Abraham Lincoln bridge, normally a steely gray, were burnished pure gold in the fading light of the sun.

For two blessed seconds, everything else blurred and went quiet and all I could see was the pink and gold and peach fire of the sun settling down across this town I love so much, turning everything in its evening path into something beautiful.

I am long overdue for a early morning beach sunrise or a mountain sunset or just getting lost in a small tourist town and discovering something lovely where you least expect it. And maybe I’d be feeling that overdue-ness anyway (because work and life and middle school and everything else), but I suspect I am not alone in this keen sense that, these days, beauty is hard to find.

There is very little around us testifying to real beauty. Oh sure, there are advertisements. And TV shows. And social media posts telling us how to be better, fast, thinner, whatever-er. But none of that is real. And on top of it is this vicious layer of broken relationships and hate and mistrust and shouting matches and finger pointing. And, at least where I live, heat, as the world’s most stubborn summer refuses to go gently into the good night of fall. Things feel angry. Chaotic. Unsettled.

Meanwhile, we’re missing sunsets. And moon rises. And the simple goodness of a still backyard, early in the morning, before the world is quite awake, when for even the tiniest moment my heart is able to remember what it means for something or someone to truly be beautiful. We’re missing the hearts of our children expressing themselves in art and song and poetry.

We’re missing the very thing we are wired for–physical connection with one another and with the earth that sustains us.

Last night at a busy and noisy restaurant, I sat across from my own tween and our sweet friend Livy–two twelve year-olds, both of whom were caught up in YouTube videos as dinner wound down and folks were getting up to say goodbye. Suddenly one of them squealed, “Looookkk!!!” and began flashing around her phone for all to see–a meme depicting Winnie the Pooh and Mickey Mouse, two characters who are not generally seen together. But the essence of the meme told a story of Mickey having shared his clothes with Pooh Bear, such that Mickey now only wears red shorts and Pooh now only wears a red shirt–shorts and shirt that were, so the meme indicated, once one outfit that is now shared between friends.

“It’s so sweet!” they both said. “That’s such a great way to look at it!”

See? Beauty. In a new story of old characters. In two middle school girls who understood that the new story mattered. In a depiction of deep friendship, where what one friend has is shared with another friend in need. 

Y’all, we are aching for real relationship. And we are aching for the beauty of a stellar sunset. Because far too much around us is ugly. Mean. Selfish. Greedy. Fake.

And we’re going to have to open our hearts and eyes far wider, with much more intention, if we’re going to notice that all around us is evidence of goodness in the world, of grace on the job, doing its merciful and salvific work, of love refusing to bow down to the voices of hate.

All around us are normal things like steel bridge supports being made into sacred and beautiful altars to a just and loving Creator, when we’ve eyes to see that even in our darkest moments–as people, as communities, as a nation–there is light pulsing within, begging to be seen.

Light a candle or sing a song or breathe a prayer or hold a hand or take a walk against what’s ugly today. Insist on searching for beauty. I know…it seems a lot to ask on a gray Monday morning when there is so much to do and so much to fear and so much to worry about.

Do it anyway. Because my hunch is that none of us will have to search very far. 

 

 

 

 

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Giving voice. Singing hope.

CG and I leave before the sun’s up for school. For real.

We follow the moon from where we can see it still shining bright in front of our house, all the way west of downtown, and then by the time I turn around to head east home, the sun is rising over the Ohio River. Every clear-sky weekday, this is how I morning.

Also, I listen to the Bobby Bones show. Which keeps me either laughing, singing, or listening to good stories for the roughly 40-minute round trip. This morning, however, it had me wondering why it was So. Dusty. in my car…such that my eyes were leaking. Because this morning, thanks to Bobby, I first heard the voice of James Dupre.

Mr. Dupre is a singer and former The Voice competitor. He’s got a single out that apparently is doing pretty well. He’s also about to head out on tour with Randy Travis.

And by “head out on tour with,” I mean, “make it possible for Mr. Travis to still share his music.”

You may know that Randy Travis, who’s been singing popular country music since the late seventies, cannot sing anymore due to a stroke in 2013. Y’all, I can’t imagine not being able to speak or sing–I rely on both things to get through every day of my life and they have been central to my career path and to my faith. How much more painful it must be for someone like Mr. Travis to not be able to do what, arguably, he was put on the earth to do.

He cannot sing anymore. 

And yet, this fall, there’s going to be a 16-city tour featuring all his #1 hits, his original band playing the music live, Mr. Travis present…but…James Dupre will be singing.

Y’all. An internationally known chart-topping country music singer who can no longer sing has picked someone to still bring his songs to life and is handing over his microphone and his band to make it happen.

James Dupre is literally giving voice to Randy Travis, who no longer has one. I’m telling you right now, that is what it means to be human. That is what it means to stand with each other no matter what. That is the Gospel.

I know, I know…of course, there will be money made for them all. Of course there will be good press. Of course Mr. Dupre’s career will likely get a much-needed boost. But none of these very pragmatic business matters take away from the beauty of one human being lending his voice to another.

One person…giving voice to the voiceless.

I can assure you, there is someone you know, or at the very least know of, who is struggling to find voice.

  • It might be a loved one, who is simply in such a dark or sad time that he can’t figure out how to speak his pain.
  • It might be your barista, whose trying desperately to hide the bruises her boyfriend left on her the night before.
  • It might be a coworker, who is fighting to stay above water financially and whose shame over that has stifled her.
  • It might be your daughter’s classmates who have less privilege, less security, less support than her, and so act up and act out in ways that harm both themselves and those around them.
  • It might be anyone…who has faced crippling loss, who has battled disease, who is an addict, who isn’t sure where the next meal is coming from, who has been trafficked, who is homeless, who is lonely, who is afraid.
  • It might be you. 

During a particularly difficult time in my life, when I could not believe that anything would be okay, ever again, a dear friend said to me, “It will be okay. This is not the end. And I am going to believe that FOR YOU until you can believe it for yourself.”

I’m going to believe that for you.

I’m going to stand here with you.

I’m going to give voice to what you cannot.

What an unbelievable shift we would create in our families, in our relationships, in our communities, in our country, if we could find our way to being so completely present for each other. Because at one time or another, I promise you, you will need someone to believe for you. To speak for you. To stand with you. We all do. Because this is what it means to live this awful and beautiful life. This is what it means to care for one another as brothers and sisters. As children of God.

When we lend to another a bit of our own strength, our own voice, our own heart, we create space for grace to do its mighty and powerful work. And in that space, mercy flows and hope is able to breathe again.

It’s all around us, y’all, even in an early morning commercial radio show–the things noticing each other, caring for one another, showing up for one another, make possible….

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The mercies of our differences….

I ran across a meme today that almost had freshly brewed Pike Place spewing out of my nose. It read, “Dear Algebra, stop asking us to find your X. She isn’t coming back.”

(pause for laughter)

My first though was this, “Whoever makes this shirt, Gets. Me.”

And my second thought was this (in two parts): memories of the freshman year high school algebra teacher who said to me in a moment of frustration, “You’re just never going to get this, are you?!?” and the female church member who pulled me aside after a sermon a few years ago and said, “Don’t tell us you don’t like math. So many little girls look up to you, and we need strong women who like math and are good at it.”

Sorry, Teacher. Sorry, Lady.

Because you know what? No, I still don’t get algebra. And no, I still don’t like math.

But at 44, having beat myself up long enough for not being “that kind of smart,” I am pretty sure that we also, in this world, need strong women who can communicate. And write. And think big picture. And tell a good story. These things, I can do–and it took me until I was well this side of 40 to learn that they, too, were gifts the world needed, gifts that little girls could also look up to.

Look, I get it. We ought to be ashamed as a society of how girls get pigeon-holed as not being good at science or math–but honestly, a 5-minute Google search can tell you all the amazing women who have advanced us as a nation and as a world in those fields. And also, I get it–teachers get frustrated. But I’m pretty sure that telling a 14 year-old she isn’t EVER going to get something does nothing but insure that, yep, she’ll never get it.

But my bigger concern is this–our propensity for valuing certain gifts over others, for lifting up one set of skills as marketable and another as inconsequential–this is utter BS. And it can do such deep harm to our overall sense of self and worth and well-being.

I read a news story this morning about a young man who was diagnosed with ADHD as a little boy. If you love someone with ADHD, you know how complicated and misunderstood it is; and, for this little boy, things grew profoundly difficult as he worked his way through grade school and into middle school. He was, simply and beautifully, different. And his mom said of him, so lovingly, “He’d sit there with me, trying to do his homework, trying to learn about multiplication…really trying…but in his head, he was building an airplane out of thin air.”

In his head he was building an airplane out of thin air….

That, too, is a gift. And one that is often entirely unappreciated. Because by and large we don’t value dreamers in this world. Playwrights and artists and musicians and actors and novelists…they are our entertainment, nice hobbies to have. We do not acknowledge that they are actually pulsing, vibrant, necessary pieces of who we are as a people. I, for one, am convinced we’d cease full breath without the oxygen the souls of such dreamers offer us.

The reverse is true, too. I know this. Even as we put a high market value on bankers and investors and planners and the like, we often stereotype such folks as being lifeless…as having no imagination and only caring about the bottom line. And while of course money talks far more loudly and with much more frequency than is good for any of us, we cannot dismiss those who handle it as unfeeling or callous. Because these, too, are gifts. And money can be used to do incredibly good and transforming things. 

My point is this: we are so freaking hard on each other! Mostly because we assume that my way of being should match yours and vice versa. This is so ridiculous, if you think about it–each of us are so uniquely made, so specifically gifted, so intricately made up of experience and aptitude and creativity…and instead of letting this inspire us, letting it encourage us to greatness, we become threatened, afraid, and judgmental.

(Now y’all, when I say, “way of being,” I’m not talking about racism or abuse or betrayal or any of the things evil sets loose in the world. Not at all. I’m only referring to the things in me and the things in you that are not the same…and how the world needs us both. Needs us all.)

I’ve been thinking a lot about mercy lately–which, for me, is the route by which love and grace are able to be made known. Mercy depends upon being able to offer compassion, and it is only when we are able to offer this, to both ourselves and one another, that we find what it means to love and to be truly loved. If mercy is present, arrogance is not. If mercy is present, narcissism cannot flourish. If mercy is present, truth and kindness are able to emerge.

There is such mercy to be found in the spaces between our differences. Different gifts. Different experiences. Different griefs. Different joys. Different ways of seeing the world.

There is mercy to be found in different political views; in theologies that don’t see eye-to-eye.

There is mercy to be found in the place where your heart and mine don’t quite understand each other, but where we’ve also discovered that each of our hearts bleed red…and so, perhaps, we are not that different after all, even if we do not quite see the world the same way…and maybe, just perhaps, we could summon the courage and the caring enough to try again at recognizing that a bit of God dwells in each of us. 

There is mercy to be found.

And where mercy is found, hope dwells.

And dear God, how we need such hope.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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5 things I’m trying to remember as a new school year begins….

Seventh grade begins in our house tomorrow.

SEVENTH. GRADE.

A new backpack, stocked with new school supplies, is already cozied up by the front door. A new outfit is already laid out in the guest bedroom. And the FaceTime convos I overhear from the Curly Girl’s bedroom tell me she and her friends have big excitement about tomorrow. I’m grateful for that, as I am for the teachers my girl has already mentioned she’s looking forward to seeing–because even on its best days, middle school is mostly a landscape fraught with change and hormones and insecurity. Surviving it with our children’s mental and emotional well being as intact as possible is the goal.

But even in my gratitude, my heart fights fear and anxiety as a new year begins, despite my best efforts to focus on what’s good and true about this time in her life and this community we are a part of.

Because y’all…the world…it’s terrifying.

And so today, these are the things I am working to remember as a new school year begins:

  1. The days are So. Long. But the years? Well, you better not blink. Because just 10 years ago I was still living through sleepless nights and diapers with my stubborn girl. And now? Unthinkably, in just 6 years, she’ll be off to college. This in-between time, it is so precious, and I do not want to miss a moment of it. It’s sacred, this job of parenting, and the miracle of being her mother is the greatest thing I know. No matter hormones. No matter homework. No matter how dramatic the middle school hallways can be. No matter how busy our schedules get. This is pure grace.
  2. We do not have time for fear. If, for one moment, I gave in to the daily fear of what might harm her, what might destroy her, I’d never leave the house nor allow her to. The threat of school gun violence alone is enough to break me, never mind being a full time single mother, sexual harassment, car wrecks, mean girls and the general state of divided chaos our country is in. Any one of these things is reason to fall to my knees begging for a clear path through it all, some impossible guarantee of protection. Some days…some days are harder than others, and when I drop her off tomorrow at school, my stomach will roil, and my jaws will clench, and I will pray desperately for her safety. But I cannot–I will not–give in to fear. It is the work of evil, and I refuse to believe that evil has the final say.
  3. They really do know things we don’t. This is both unsettling and comforting. Our children have their own interior lives, their own ways of being that are not ours. And it’s tempting to try to control and direct every moment of their days out of our own baggage, our own experiences, our own assumptions. But their souls are full of so much fire, so much desire to live and grow, so much intuition that sometimes gets lost on the path to adulthood–mostly because our children know how to be real. And this terrifies us. We have to trust that sometimes, they do know things. Because the truth is that in the end, they do not belong to us. They belong to God. And God is at work in their lives in ways we cannot even begin to comprehend.
  4. We cannot keep them from sadness or disappointment or betrayal or anger. We can only stand with them in it and help them find healthy ways through it as we do. Our job is not to keep them from personal pain–it is to give them enough strength and compassion to face it.
  5. They need us. Y’all–I know that when they are slamming doors and screaming, “I hate you!” (So sorry, mom!), and insisting on their own way and pushing us away with all their adolescent might this is so hard to remember. But I promise you–they need us. They need to know we aren’t going anywhere and there is nothing they can ever, ever do to separate themselves from our love for them. This is the God’s honest truth and we must not forget it.

When the Curly Girl was very young–still small enough for me to take her up in my arms, but old enough to have her own mind, I stepped outside one night to see the moon. It was full and bright, so bright that it made the spring tulips in my front yard look as if they were under a spotlight. Everything glowed in its merciful beams. My heart swelled, and before I’d even really formed the thought to do so, I ran upstairs and I swept my sleeping daughter up out of her bed, her curls stuck to her full cheeks and her eyes popping open in wonder and surprise at my actions. “I need to show you something,” I whispered to her, and I carried her down the stairs and out the front door and I said, “Here, sweet girl, here is the moon.” And as she grinned, and pointed with her own chubby finger, mimicking me, I told her it was so gorgeous I had to show her, and I promised her it would always be with her, that she could always look to the moon for constant presence.

In retrospect, I think I needed to show her something beautiful. I think, even then, I knew the world would beat up on her, as it does on all of us, and I needed her to know, in her then-tiny bones, that no matter what, there was still beauty and grace and love and light at work.

And so today I pray, for her safety and well being, but also for strength and resilience in the face of whatever comes. I pray she knows how beautiful both she and the world are, and that while life is full of difficult things, and sometimes we think we cannot bear it, there is, always, around us a “grace that keeps this world” and the same grace keeps her, too. No matter what.

And I pray that I will remember…so that she will, too.

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“…from the book of Johnny Cash…” (h/t Eric Church)

“…Well, there’s things that never will be right I know,
And things need changin’ everywhere you go,
But ’til we start to make a move to make a few things right,
You’ll never see me wear a suit of white.

Ah, I’d love to wear a rainbow every day,
And tell the world that everything’s OK,
But I’ll try to carry off a little darkness on my back,
‘Till things are brighter, I’m the Man In Black…”

(I Wear Black, Johnny Cash)

Several years ago, Willie Nelson came to town, and I was lucky enough to head down to the waterfront along the Ohio River and hear him sing the night away. Part way through the show, the whole crowd loose on music and beer and a Kentucky summer night, the guy next to me, an aging long-haired baby boomer dude sporting a Vietnam Vet cap and an army green jacket, elbowed me and hollered over the music, “Honey, you look entirely too young to know all these songs the way you do.”

I smiled and hollered back, “That’s ’cause I’ve known these songs since I was in grade school sir!” His approval of this fact was evident, and we both returned to singing about mamas not letting their babies become cowboys.

He may not even remember this, but when I was very young, my dad had a picture book about the “outlaw” country singers, and for whatever reason, I was fascinated with flipping through it, and reading what my grade school brain could comprehend about Willie and Waylon and Johnny and Kris. And there was often a country music station on in the car those years, ’cause, well…South Texas was where we lived. All this to say, I don’t ever remember not knowing who those men were. This is maybe why, when the crazy-good Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line, came out, I snagged tickets its first week in the theater, and loved it so much, I paid to see it three more times before buying the DVD when it came out.

I know my fascination with these musicians is why yesterday, I took my dad along with me to see “Ring of Fire,” a musical of sorts about Johnny Cash that apparently was a total flop on Broadway a decade ago, but is currently touring nationally pretty well.

Lemme say this real quick–I feel about Johnny Cash the way I do about King David from the bible–’cause they both did some awful, awful things, and hurt something terrible the folks closest to them. Fame and addiction and sorrow and fear and lust can all–each individually and certainly collectively–lead a really good person to make some really horrible decisions. And there’s no romanticizing that. There is, however, learning from it. And having the courage to admit that our all-too-often Insta-ready lives are generally far more complicated, and often much uglier, than any of us want to admit. And having the humility to let God work through our brokenness, so that even the smallest sliver of light might be known through the cracks of our shattered lives.

Good and evil dwell side by side in all of us, and if we’re very lucky, we’ve got enough love around us, and enough of an understanding of grace, to know that even the sum total of our worst moments does not have to define us.

This is what I thought about as I watched five very talented actor-musicians bring to life the music of Johnny and June Carter Cash–because what unfolded before us was the ugliness of infidelity and drugs and unresolved grief and arrogance…and also what got told was the possibility of redemption: the beautiful mercy of a man who spent the latter part of his life using his music for good, maybe even searching for his own salvation through it–a man who recognized a world in deep pain, and who, having an intimate knowledge of pain in his own life, chose to stand in solidarity with the pain of others.

This, y’all, is what we call practicing presence, even if in doing so we’re making a desperate plea for our own redemption. And practicing presence–simply being with another person when everything else has fallen apart and when nothing feels as if it will ever be okay again, and when maybe, just maybe, you think this time you have finally fallen too far from God’s grace (heads up: you haven’t)–this is everything.

I was reminded, too, of the very complicated role that faith can play in our lives. I long some days for a simple assurance that Sunday morning is Sunday morning and that hymnbooks still matter and that there will be a potluck after church with Ms. Sandra’s lemon squares and I will be confident through music and food and the words of the Lord’s Prayer that I am loved, and held so very safe and secure.

The tricky thing about faith (speaking from my Protestant, Christian perspective) is that it is no guarantee against heartache. Or trauma. Or deep, gut-wrenching grief. And the faith I clung to as a little girl is not the same one I cling to now. Because all around me, across our nation, throughout the world, is often darkness…as far as we can see. And it is a terrifying time to be alive in many, many ways.

And yet…God is still God. And we are not.

And God is still love…over and against all else.

And God is always with us…and there is nothing we can do separate ourselves from God.

And so, no, faith is no guarantee against heartache…but it is a promise of presence…a promise that we are not, for one single second, alone in this life. No matter what.

I think Johnny Cash knew this by the time he died. Maybe he didn’t always, but in the end, yes. Because the truth is that his songs–they are not really about him–they are about all of us–with all that is beautiful and true, and all that is so very wrong, each held in tension every damn day of our lives.

And it seems to me, at this particular moment in history, that the very best thing we could do is set about seeing that the beautiful and true is brighter, louder, and bigger than the wrong. Whenever and wherever we can, in our lives and across our communities.

It seems to me, that gathering up the brokenness around us, offering it to God, and helping something new and whole be born out of what has shattered, is exactly what it means to be redeemed, as individuals, and as communities.

There are things that will never be right. And there is a whole lot that needs changing. But…if we could make a move to make a few things right….