God Is In the Messy Places: Sara Russell

Luther Memorial Church is experiencing a “Big Messy Summer” of renovations to the building. To go along with that, we are doing a series of stories shared by members called “God Is In the Messy Places”. Read more Messy Stories here.

In October of 2015,  I was in San Antonio with my family, to stand up as a bridesmaid in a friend’s wedding.  On Friday night, as John and I were leaving the rehearsal dinner, I checked my phone.  There was a voicemail from Sean Hennegan, another member of Luther’s Praise Band.  I listened to it and he said “Hey Sara, it’s Sean…. Can you, uh?  Just, call me back”  Something in his voice bothered me.  I told John, “Sean would usually just text – mind if I just call him quick?”  Sean answered right away and asked me where I was and if I was in front of a computer.   “I’m in Texas for a wedding,”  I said, “What’s wrong?”

“Briana’s been arrested”  He said, “It was on the news tonight”
I didn’t understand
“What? For What?”
“Something with one of her students”
“No” I said  “Something’s wrong.  That’s not right.  Who’s helping her?  What does this mean?”
“Sara” he said “They set a very high bail.  They have some kind of evidence.”
“What do we do?”  I said  “How can we talk to her?”

We didn’t really know what to say and we hung up.

I was stunned.  I told John.  I googled the story, of course.  We rode back to our bed and breakfast, shaken.  Her mug shot was plastered in my mind and the sparse details of the article were disturbing. I didn’t know how I would get through a wedding the next day.  It took me a long time to fall asleep.

For the day of the wedding, I put it out of my head.  I supported the friend who was celebrating the beginning of a new life.

On Sunday, we walked the Riverwalk with family.  As we walked,  lyrics repeated over and over in my head.  One thing I have learned about reading scripture and singing worship music:  when you read or listen long enough, the words will come to you when you need them. I hummed on an endless loop,  “Everyone needs compassion, Love thats never failing, let Mercy fall on me, Everyone needs forgiveness, the Kindness of a Savior, the Hope of Nations” , one verse of that same song over and over and over as I walked.  I finally let a tear roll down my cheek.

When we finished our exploring, everyone fell into a mid-afternoon nap.  I took that opportunity to call my Dad.  Not only do I have a great listener for a Father, he has also been a Pastor for more than thirty years.   He has seen and heard it all.

“Dad”  I said, “I’m calling you as a Pastor not a Father – do you have a few minutes?”  I could hear him move locations.

I told him I had bad news. I told him what I’d heard about Briana.  Instead of asking about her current situation, he asked me about our relationship.  I was emotional as I told him John and I had been to her wedding and reception here in the church basement. We had worked together in Arbonne.  I had talked her through some of the challenges of being a new mom.   I was with her many times as she struggled to help her husband start a business, hang on to her marriage and eventually go through divorce.  Then, I told him what Briana had done for me.   I explained how after I had Owen, I was struggling to find my new identity.  I wasn’t performing anymore.  I thought I was no longer an artist and had to sacrifice all my talent and desires on the altar of family and motherhood.  I was bored creatively when Briana invited me to sing.  I came to band practice,  and just a few weeks in, I realized I wasn’t starving creatively.  I was starving spiritually.  Music is my worship.  To use Anne Lamott’s words, it’s my “Help”, my “Thanks”, and my “Wow”.  Briana ushered me into this place of worship again.  We connected there.  We understood how much was said with music when words failed.  She is a gifted musician and just singing next to her made me better.

My Father was quiet and after a moment he said, “You don’t need my permission, but you can still be Briana’s friend.  She will need someone to listen.  She needs to know she is God’s child; loved and forgiven”

I thanked him.  I cried.  I knew I needed to figure out how to talk to her.

During one of my first days back in Chicago, after Owen left for school, I played “It is Well” by Bethel music over and over on my laptop. “My sin, not in part, but the whole, is nailed to the cross, what a glorious thought, Praise the Lord, Praise the Lord, O my Soul!”  I was comforted for me and for Briana.  I was still shaken.  We knew nothing of what happened.  Details were scarce and so much of it felt like none of my business. What I knew without a doubt was that I had to see her.  I wanted her to know I cared and was worried and would help however I could.

I was back in church for service on the 25th.  Briana had already chosen the music and emailed us two weeks prior.  I promise you the Holy Spirit is alive and working among us!  I opened my email and on her song list for the 25th were the songs “Mighty to Save” and ‘It is Well” – the song I hummed on the riverwalk and the song I played on repeat just days before.   The second one is primarily piano and was hard for the guitars and bass – they wanted to switch it out, but I pleaded.  I don’t usually ask for specific songs and they couldn’t argue when I casually mentioned the Holy Spirit told me to sing this one.  It was hard to sing without seeing Briana at the piano. I found the music from deep within and the communion song was my lamentation.  I was grieving my friend.  I was grieving her actions, even though I still didn’t know what they were.  I was grieving our church braving so much transition at one time. I grieved and let go of my own sins and the dark places I had gone.  I reached out to God through that song and asked for Peace and Strength. I wanted to say, “It is well”.

During Briana’s time in Jail, I went to no less than five court dates in Lake County. I sent her letters at least twice a month. I set up web chats with her and listened to her cry from a cell.  I  made sure in each letter and each conversation I reminded her she was loved and forgiven.  She would reply thanking me for small comforts and for “washing her feet”, for reminding her there was more to her life than the current situation. She said she felt Jesus in the letters she received from a few members at Luther, people reaching out in spite of the accusations against her.

What is the point of Christianity but forgiveness? I thought this so many times over the past year and a half. When I heard others disgust, anger or condemnation after Bri’s arrest, it’s not that I didn’t understand; I was frustrated that grace didn’t also come up as freely. I was baffled at the aversion to mentioning her name.  She wasn’t dead. Eventually, I had to work harder myself on extending forgiveness to those not in a cell wrestling their own emotions than the one who was facing a lifetime behind bars.  I found myself explaining over and over that we are all sinful, that God forgives all of it. Growing up I remember you never left a service of my Father’s without hearing Jesus took it all away.  Boom. Forgiven.  As an adult, when we visited churches, sometimes I left with an instruction on how to live but no mention of mercy.  That always made me sad.  I come to church for a little grace.

I was so nervous driving to the court date almost a year later where Briana took a plea bargain. Fellow LMC member and my friend, Emily Haite, came with me.  I didn’t know if I could handle it, hearing more details, hearing the plea or the sentence. My stomach hurt and I had a perpetual lump in my throat.  The day will live burned in my memory.  She read a statement with tears and snot streaming down her face, unable to wipe them away, her hands cuffed together.

I sat silent and watched her, just trying in my mind to beam love her way. I never looked away.  I surprised myself. Peace and Strength.

Throughout this experience, I learned that I do have peace.  I learned that I have a strength inside me I didn’t know existed.  I just have to ask God to come and take over when I feel weak or weary.  He shows up.  I stepped into my talents.  I felt a strong obligation to show up to church week after week and sing – to be a leader and to offer hope during a tough time for so many of us.  I had an unwavering conviction to champion grace. I feel it wasn’t me, but the Spirit in me, singing on Sundays, driving to court dates, and writing letter after letter, especially those first few months. It was so far out of my comfort zone, but it always felt like the right thing to do.

The Lord spoke to me over the past year and a half through my Father and my husband, through my letters with Briana, through scripture, through music and through some members of LMC.  I heard over and over that we are each so much more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.  God does not define us by our sins.  The Lord whispered to me nearly daily as I made time for long walks, “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat…. I was in prison and you came to visit me”  The Lord broke my heart open for those incarcerated and for our broken, racist, and punitive justice system.  The Lord broke my heart for victims of sexual assault and abuse.  The Lord broke my heart for Christians; such a flawed, messed-up and often misunderstood bunch.  I thank God for Briana and our time singing together.  I thank God for the brutal and ugly experiences in life and the challenge to truly offer grace.  It hurts, but we learn, and instead of becoming hardened to pain, we can emerge softer.

Sara Russell started attending LMC in 2007 when, humored  by our sign which read,  “This church is prayer-conditioned,” she and her husband John decided to come in a see what LMC was all about. Sara loves LMC’s emphasis on family – watching kids help with communion and eating dinner together at One Stop Wednesdays – and she is as much a gift to our Praise Band as it is to her. Sarah, John and their son Owen are currently on a mission to visit all 59 National Parks. They’ve crossed off 11 so far and have 48 to go! 

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