Thursday, May 18, 2017

FEATURE | God’s Highway Leads Me Home

By Sandra McCracken

After twenty years of making music for a living, I think I am coming home. It’s the old ‘losing and finding’ theme, echoing back in my life and work like a familiar refrain. We all know what it is to experience loss. And with each loss, we are given new mercy to carry us. The loss and the mercy together bring us home to God. When we come home to God, we come home to ourselves, like coming up to rest on a big front porch. From this ‘front porch’ of belonging, we can offer that same invitation to others. As the Tom Waits’ song says, “You’ve got to come on up to the house…”

Whenever loss comes crashing or creeping into our lives, it comes as an unsolicited gift. And where there is grief, grace comes right along beside it, shaping us more and more into the people we were meant to be. There’s real hope in this as we try to hold both the loss and the grace in the same hand.

When I wrote and recorded the Psalms album in 2014, it was like walking through a doorway into a new landscape. After many fulfilling years as an independent singer and songwriter, writing songs about my experiences and relationships, God began to recalibrate my heart more specifically toward writing songs for people to sing together. With the Psalms as my guide, I wanted to write gospel songs not just for Sundays, but songs we could sing together on all the other days, too. Songs the kids can join in on. Songs the neighbors could sing. Songs for weddings and funerals. Songs for washing dishes and waiting in carpool lines. Drawing from the rich traditions of Appalachian folk music and African-American spirituals, I’ve had an increasing desire to encourage people to gather and lift up our plain-old voices together -- to sing the honest prayers of our shared life.

In 2013, while I was recovering from a season of personal loss, this desire to lead people in singing took an even more particular shape as I was invited to serve as worship minister for a small, Anglican church plant near my home. This was not a place where I was asked to perform every week, but rather the invitation was to be part of a family and to lead songs and hymns with the same families and neighbors, every week--same time, same place.

When I think about it, what seemed like a new sense of calling, this ‘gospel-music-folk-singing’ practice was already very central to who I am. As a little girl, I spent my childhood harmonizing in the church choir, accompanying groups on the piano, singing solos during the offertory and writing new hymns for our congregation to sing. From my earliest memories, this was also a formative devotional habit. I learned to pray while sitting at the piano and praying through the hymnal. This was where I was tuned to listen for God’s voice, and God’s Spirit shaped my affections while I was singing and playing. I look back, I see all these threads converging and pointing toward the path of where I am today as a songwriter and as a member of God’s big, beautiful Church.

From when I first started writing and recording in Nashville in the late 90’s, I wanted to write redemptive songs, but I was careful to dodge being outlined by the labels of ‘Christian music.’ I still find the marketing terms to be largely unhelpful, at best. And I continue to affirm that it is meaningful and good for musicians and artists of all kinds to make art that is about the whole of life, not just spirituality. Every corner and molecule belongs to God. The sacred is embodied in both the communion bread and our daily bread. It is sacred work exploring the whole of life with our hands and hearts and minds and creative energy. Under the same banner of freedom, but inversely, I am enjoying an ongoing creative season exploring Biblical poetry in my songs. These days, I can’t seem to get my fill of it.

After we finished recording the Psalms album, there continued to be an overflow of these Scripture-inspired songs. Melodies were springing up week after week, from the liturgy at church, from the stories of our community, and from just sitting at the piano at home with an open Bible next to me on the bench.

After a weekend of tour shows in early spring, the band and I set up our instruments again in our friend’s living room around the piano (the same team as Psalms). We recorded fifteen songs over two and a half days. We assembled 11 of them for this new project, which became like a sister album to Psalms. This new album, God's Highway, is a collection of prayer songs and a remembrance of people singing together in a room. We’ve made an effort to include song sheets and chord charts free with the album and on the website as an invitation for you to sing along. Pull up a chair with us and come home to these songs, to your neighbor, to yourself, and to God.

It’s a slow highway back to the start of things. I’ve come home to my heart for the church. And I’ve come home in singing the Psalms with you, with God’s songs as our prayer book. In loss and in celebration, we come as we are, singing ourselves forward, together, one song at a time. And love will bring us home.

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