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.

All Shall Be Well

We can be assured that God’s love indeed means that all will be well, but here and now this truth must be held in faith rather than full understanding.

Julian of Norwich

A dear friend invited me to join her on a two-night silent retreat at a Benedictine monastery in December. It was perfectly timed as I was surfacing from a painful conflict with a friend and an intense season with a growing ministry. I was wrestling with realities I couldn’t control and questions that weren’t being answered.

It’s been a dry season with little sense of leading or emotion in my spiritual life—not a dark night, but perhaps a “gray afternoon of the soul.” I went on the retreat with no expectations (hence, no disappointments) but longed to feel a fresh sense of God’s presence and leading. For the friends who know us well, their first question was, did we “cheat” and chat? No, although we were given a reprieve for two of the meal times.  And we followed the advice of a friend who had been on a silent retreat, “Don’t eat raw carrots during dinner.”

We joined the rhythm of the monastery, early to bed, early to rise, simple meals, set times of prayer, and silence. I took long, quiet walks in the monastery’s hundreds of acres of woods and trails using my camera as a way to stop and see. I slept. I journaled. I listened for God. That was the hardest challenge.

God did meet me as quietly as my surroundings with two simple messages. I’ll write about the second in a coming blog.  But here is the first:

All Shall Be Well. As I walked and waited, prayed and pondered, I heard a quiet reassurance, “All shall be well.” And that one simple, but not ‘pat’ sentence, allowed me to breathe.  These words originally came from Julian of Norwich, a 14th century Christian mystic who wrote and counseled during the dark days of the Black Plague and 100-Year War. As a mystic, she longed for deeper intimacy with Christ and struggled with the big questions such as why God allowed sin in the first place and what was the fate of those who had never heard the Gospel. She never received a direct answer to her questions, except to be told that whatever God does is done in love, and therefore "that all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well."

Like Julian, I too received no specific answers to my questions. No clear direction. Except to be re-directed to the truth I needed most to hear.

God is love. Therefore.

Julian wrote in her Divine Revelations“For some of us believe that God is almighty and may do all; and that He is all-wisdom and can do all; but that He is all-love, and will do all–there we fail. And it is this unknowing that most holdeth back God’s lovers, as I see it.”

But how can I live with “unknowing,” with unanswered questions and unfulfilled longings? Again the answer comes back to love. A God who chooses to create and love, a God who longs for relationship, is a God who also lives with longing.

“God and we must live with longing if love is the life we choose . . .  We accept the pain of longing, for it is also joy.”

So God has directed me in my struggles and questions. Choose love.  And choose to trust that God is loving and therefore, “All Shall Be Well”—not as some shallow platitude, but a truth which acknowledges that all manner of things may not be well at this present moment. There will be storms and dark nights and gray afternoons but, ultimately, the light will break through.

As worries or weariness take me down, breathing in the truth that “All Shall Be Well” doesn’t fix my problems, but fixes my thoughts on the One who loves. The one who proved His love for us by sending His own son to die for us.

I don’t only “breathe in” this statement but sing it out. Many artists have written songs on All Shall Be Well. My favorite version is by Andrew Peterson.

You may not have the option to go on a retreat, but pause in the middle of your busy life and consider:

What is the question you most wrestle with before God and where in your life do you most long to hear “All Shall Be Well?” Photography thanks to Bill Carroll.

Scroll to the bottom of my blogsite to comment or respond to nancy@nancywcarroll.com. Thanks again for reading and pondering with me and Julian. I'll post the second "message" in a few days.