Leaning In and Making Space

A Conversation with Sandra McCracken and Kenny Meeks

A small gathering of musicians, potters, painters, writers, and other artists captured a few quiet moments of food and conversation with singer-songwriter Sandra McCracken and musician Kenny Meeks in the home of Birmingham painter and InSpero founder, Gina Hurry.

In hopes you can be encouraged—and feel less alone—in your own creative process, here are some notes jotted by Nancy Carroll from the morning.

Where does the depth of your work and words come from?

S: I hold loosely the seasons of flourishing and feasting with those of disappointments and roadblocks. Some of my best creative work comes from leaning into my limitations and wrestling with God over the confusions and realities of life.

K: I’m currently providing guitar tracking for an album about a man’s journey in the loss of his young son to cancer. To feel and reflect back his pain is both a privilege and weight, but the takeaway is the honest emotional truth of the material, and how universal and confessional it is. It takes courage for him—and me—to embrace utter disappointment and still hang onto God.

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Many artists juggle multiple jobs and family responsibilities. What advice do you have to help us keep creating?

S: To be sustained creatively, I need to make space for God and people. Because I am a worship leader, Sunday is a work day so I carve out a Sabbath on Wednesdays. It’s tempting, especially as a mom, to fill it with my to-do lists, but I choose to be intentionally non-productive.  It helps remind me to rest in a God who provides.

Then I have to make space for relationships—people I know and know me.  That means giving myself to a local body, a church, as well as family and friends.  These are the people who love me when I fail and don’t care if I never succeed.

And there’s nothing like children to keep you humble and grounded. They really don’t pay much attention to your career or creative process. I’m learning to lean into life’s constant “interruptions” as a way to have my curiosity and wonder awakened.  In the way of interruptions, my kids give me good gifts.

We noticed a sense of freedom and spontaneity between you and your band members.  What role does creative collaboration play in your music and performances? 

S: I like to remember and remind our audience that the Spirit is already present and working and weaving together people’s stories. For me, a live performance feels like I’m on the edge of a wave, living on the edge, open to what may happen in the moment.  Like that Willie Nelson song feeding through the sound system and interrupting our first song of the set on Sunday night; though it came in as a startling interruption, it ended up being a great ice breaker for the evening.

K: Sandra encourages creative collaboration and freedom within live performances. That’s rare.  Musically, it feels like living in a jazz moment: less scripted, more energy, and room for the Spirit to move.

What feeds your soul?

S:  I can’t jump into my day too quickly. That means not grabbing my phone or answering emails first thing in the morning. This new album, Psalms, flowed out of allowing myself to sit in the quiet of the morning to sing back the Psalms to God.

What doesn’t feed your soul?

S: Production and marketing are harder for me.

K: There can be pressure to present yourself in a certain less-than-genuine way, or to follow the advice of others when it doesn’t feel honest, just to be what some might consider more marketable or more successful. So learning who you are and who you can trust is part of the process.

S: I try to remember that we are simply to be good stewards of the gifts God has given us. It takes a long time to find out who you are and what your gifts are and to recognize your own artistic ‘voice.’  When I can just be myself in any given situation, it helps me in the struggle to compromise vision or please people.

I love Henri Nouwen and how he explains in his book, Reaching Out, that we must first live in our Identity as someone who is loved by God, so if we fail or flourish, our identity holds, regardless of the changing circumstances of our lives and regardless of our performance.  Nouwen talks about true hospitality as making peace with our own loneliness, which then makes space for others to do the same. It’s a more generous way to love and receive.  And it’s actually, for me a pretty difficult thing to practice.

You mentioned Joni Mitchell’s turning to painting after producing an album, what she called “crop rotation.”  What is your form of crop rotation? 

S: I have to be intentional to give myself permission to play with my kids. When I can unplug from all the tasks at hand and enjoy the unstructured moments with them, it helps me return refreshed to my music.

Where Was I When They Were Handing Out "Callings?"

Rethinking Calling and Creativity: You’ll Leave with Hope (I Promise)

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InSpero hosted Kate Harris at a lunch where she spoke on calling and creativity. I loved her. But I also hated her because she stripped away all my excuses. Excuses like:

  • I’d fulfill my calling if my life were simpler, if I wasn’t juggling so many different responsibilities and people in my life. How can I be creative when life is so complicated? How can I even know what my calling is when I’ve got so much to do?
  • I’d live up to my “potential” (can we just put that word on the top-ten toxic words list?) if I didn’t have so many limitations: time, energy, money, family and work demands, brain cells.
  • I can’t create because I’m too broken, too messed-up, not gifted enough. Because isn’t “calling” about offering what’s best in me—my strengths and abilities—to the world?

Kate was a mixture of whimsy and substance, charm and “gravitas.” She lured me in with her dimpled smile and down-home humor. She hooked me with her counter-cultural words.

She began by simply re-focusing our definition of vocation and calling. Vocation comes from the Latin voca (voice, summons) and calling’s Greek root is kaleo (to call, invite, to give a name to or receive a name from). A calling has more to do with identity and belonging than with productivity and duty, being more than doing.

“Vocation,” Kate said, “is a life lived in response to God’s calling.” Emphasis on God’s call and our response.

Kate explained that people traditionally categorize vocation or calling as what you do, what you have the potential to do in the future, and where you have gifts and strengths. She spun this thinking 180 degrees with these challenges:

1. Calling is not just your work. It incorporates all the complexities of your life and all the boringly faithful roles you play. A calling is comprehensive.

2. Calling is not just a projection into your future potential. It is each present moment, with all its roadblocks. Creativity operates within the context of constraints and limitations. As I wrote this and processed Kate's challenge, I read Tommy Hicks’ tragic story in AL.com about Brittany Huber, a young and beautiful deaf artist who died in a car crash the day before her wedding in Mobile, Alabama.

Brittany wrote, "I never let my disability hold me back. In fact, the older I became, the more I realized that being deaf is what has shaped me into the artist that I am today. By being deaf, my visual senses are heightened, and I have learned to become more aware of my surroundings.As a result, I observe and watch everything in sight carefully. It is this careful observation of my surroundings that has allowed me to understand what is going on in everyday life. God created me this way because he wanted me o see how beautiful this world is with my eyes and to understand what others may tend to miss out on.”

Another example of creativity within constraints is how artist Phil Hansen transformed his art after he was diagnosed with a tremor and nerve damage. Listen to his TED talk,  “Embrace the Shake” and tell me you still have excuses.

3. Calling is less about your strengths and powers and more about your passions. Your creative call comes out of your griefs as well as your gifts, your scars as much as your skills.  

This was the first time I left a talk on calling and creativity without feeling guilty that I had already missed it or just plain tired from the “be all you can be” pep rally.

I left with hope. With my ears open to hear because God is doing the calling. He calls me in the midst of all my rote daily take-me-down tasks, my past and present junk, my limitations, my brokenness and mess-ups. I just have to keep showing up and trusting he’s using it all, even the “slop.” Kate summed up her talk with a quote from Gerard Manley Hopkins as he referenced St. Loyola of Ignatius:

“To lift up the hands in prayer gives God glory, but a man with a dungfork in his hand, a woman with a slop pail, give Him glory, too. God is so great that all things give Him glory if you mean that they should.”

Kate is the executive director of the Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation, and Culture, and author of Wonder Women: Navigating the Challenges of Motherhood, Career, and Identity.