The Gospel According to Jill Phillips and Andy Gullahorn
“My story is important not because it is mine, God knows, but because if I tell it anything like right, the chances are you will recognize that in many ways it is also yours… it is precisely through these stories in all their particularity, as I have long believed and often said, that God makes himself known to each of us more powerfully and personally.” Frederick Buechner
At the heart of the gospel is The Story of us all. We are created in the image of The Father. We choose independence over dependence. He is relentless in pursuing his children. We are loved infinitely in the midst of our unloveliness. We need to remind each other. We need to be reminded. Thus, the power of story.
We all have a story to tell. Sometimes, we need others to go first. Eighteen years ago, I married David, a single father of two young children. Within the span of six months, I became a wife and full-time parent, took a new job, we moved to new city, and took the first tentative steps on the journey called marriage. Eventually, we became part of a small group of folks from our new church. During our first several meetings, we spent time getting to know one another by sharing life stories. I’ll never forget one evening in particular. We were meeting at our house. I burned the spaghetti (yes, I was newly married and figuring the cooking thing out). I asked one of the women if we should make a new pot, or if that one would suffice. She gently said that a new pot may be best. It may seem like an insignificant detail, but such gently honesty became a hallmark of the group.
The most memorable part of that evening, however, was not the culinary near-disaster. One of the couples was nestled into the love seat in our small family room. These friends were measured, yet generous, when sharing their story. They were open, honest, and genuine. They were warm toward each other and laughed easily. Within a span of minutes, they spoke with consistent cadence and tone about their enjoyment of one another as well as significant struggle. But the wisdom that burrowed into my soul, and still has a home there today, came in the form of a brief, passing comment. The couple, who many of us held out as having the”model” marriage, had been married for eighteen years. She turned to him and said, as casually as if they were reaching agreement upon when the tires were last rotated, “Yes, I think we’ve had five really good years.” The last five. Out of eighteen. Oh my.
Immediately, the twin emotions of dread and relief flooded through my heart. After one year of a difficult marriage, was it possible that we may need to log in thirteen more before experiencing “really good years?” Just thinking about it was exhausting. Yet oddly, at the same time, the pressure was off. The cat was out of the bag. They had given words to unspoken truths, and confirmed a sneaking suspicion. Marriage can be really, really hard. There are rarely quick fixes. But there is more.
That night, our friends gave us an invaluable gift. They spoke truth. Without apology or despair, without false hope or empty promises. They put to words what we were feeling, and as a result, we had the courage to speak the “t” truth (life as we experience it). Marriage, and life for that matter, wasn’t what we thought that it would be. It all seemed to fall quite short of what should have been. By putting to words the “t” truth of experience, our friends made it safe for us to struggle with questions of “T” Truth (ultimate Truth): What had we really been promised? What could we depend upon with complete certainty? Where were we wrong, or defiant, or just naive in our thinking? They went first, which made it easier for us to speak when our turn rolled around. Yes, our friends entered the darkness with us. For us. When we didn’t quite have the courage to go there ourselves. They gave us hope.
Fast forward sixteen years. David and I had just discovered Andrew Peterson’s music, and friends happened to have two extra tickets to his sold-out Christmas concert. As we took our seats, one glance at the stage proved promising. Several guitars, a cello, violins, and a piano waited silently, pregnant with possibility. I might add that large cardboard cut-outs of Star Wars characters were dappled among the instruments. Not your typical Christmas show backdrop.
Eventually, without pomp or fanfare, folks filed onto the stage, one by one. Their presence was one of humility. Andrew introduced his friends, and thus began the “music in the round.” Each took his turn sharing a song or two, along with the story behind it. Andy stepped forward. He shared briefly, then sang Any Other Way – a song written about the hardest day they’d experienced in marriage.
I was stopped. It had happened again – only rather than being spoken in the family room of our home, the cry of our hearts was being sung from onstage. Andy and Jill shared words of truth. Without apology or despair, without false hope or empty promises. They expressed through music what we had experienced, and doing so, validated the “t” truth about marriage. About life. They went first. Making it easier for others to speak the unspoken truths in their own stories.
When I listen to their music, I’m given the gift of reassurance. Like an intimate conversation with a dear friend who “gets me”, I’m reminded that I’m not alone. In the struggles, joys, challenges and dreams of life. Jill speaks volumes in just the first few lines of A Lot Like Me:
Sometimes I think you hesitate to say the way you really feel
Like there’s no way that I could understand where you are coming from
But if we could tear down these walls of bricks and mortar built with fear
I think we’d be surprised to find how small our differences become
We’re all in the same boat
Sailing on the same old stormy sea
If you look real close
You’ll find you’re a lot like me
So, outside of the fact that they’re two of the most genuine folks I’ve ever met, that is my brief explanation of why I’m so very drawn to and grateful for Andy and Jill. Their music affirms the dignity of struggle, the joy found in “everyday” moments, and the promise that we’re known and loved. They are storytellers who are gracious in sharing their very personal stories with us. In doing so, they invite us to consider our own. And ultimately, they gently redirect our attention to the Author of all Hope. The One who spoke first. The One who knows us intimately. The One who is relentless in pursuing His children. The One who loves us in the midst of our unloveliness. Andy and Jill remind us. At the heart of the gospel is The Story of us all.
If you live in or near Charlotte, please join us on June 30th as Andy and Jill are in concert at The Barnabas Center’s Birthday Celebration. The first time I met Andy, I was struck by how similar his heart was to the very heartbeat of The Barnabas Center. He and Jill paint a beautiful picture of redemption. They work through the medium of music in the same way the folks at Barnabas use the medium of conversation. We are so very fortunate to have them join us for an evening of song and story designed to “remind us” that:
Something about being vulnerable
Makes us think we’re setting ourselves up for pain
But you won’t find judgment in these listening ears
This is a safe place – Jill Phillips
Julie Silander is a board member for The Barnabas Center and long time friend. She is married to David and has 5 children. They live in Charlotte. For more blog posts written by Julie, visit her personal blog at http://greenertrees.net/