A few months back I came across Marlena Graves on Twitter and noticed she had a new book coming out. It intrigued me and we made a connection. I bought A Beautiful Disaster, and it resonated with my life. I felt like I had found a soul sister from far away. What a gift! Marlena writes for Christianity Today’s Her.meneutics and Leadership For Today blogs, she’s contributed to a variety of magazines, she’s a Pastor, has two daughters, a new baby on the way, and as she said on her bio, is married to her favorite person in the world. Please pour yourself a cup of coffee and soak in this interview.
I’m currently reading your book, A Beautiful Disaster, Finding Hope in the Midst of Brokennes and loving it. Can you tell me about your process in writing it, how you came up with the idea? How long it took you …
Thank you, Tina. Your words are gifts to me. Thank you for featuring me on your blog.
I started my book in 2008 but my call to the ministry of writing goes back to 2003. Back then, I sensed God speaking to me about all the lessons I learned throughout my life. They were bottled up inside of me with nowhere to go. At the time, I’d often bemoan the fact that I wasn’t really good at anything, had no skills except being kind to others. People had always called me kind and smart, I guess but I didn’t sew or cook or bake skillfully. I didn’t learn these things as a child-as a child I functioned as an adult due to familial circumstances. I’ve always admired beauty, been drawn to the beauty in nature especially and to the beauty of God, but couldn’t draw or sing like I wanted to. I never learned to play an instrument (my parents didn’t have money for that) though I appreciated music and picked apart songs to see if I could hear distinct voices, keys, instruments, or chords. My favorite thing about music was beautiful or pointed and passionate lyrics.
Anyhow, I felt lost and skill-less. And also, I wanted to go to seminary but was taught by some that it wasn’t the place for women. After months of confessing my longings to my husband he said, “Marlena, just go to seminary. You’ve wanted to go since you were a teenager.” So even though I wasn’t sure that I’d get a paying job after going, I entered seminary. It was one of the best decisions of my life. At seminary, my professors affirmed my thinking and writing. Some encouraged me to be a professor or pastor. I wrote my papers as if each was a work of art. I had fun crafting artful and articulate answers while engaging theological and ecclesiastical questions.
During seminary, one of my internships was at a radio station. At the end of my internship, I had to do a project. So, I did a radio show. Those at the radio station liked it so much they encouraged me to go on the air. The format of the show was music (rap, hip-hop, alternative, rock, hard rock) with a 10-15 minute message in the middle and music at the end. This was right before widespread live streaming on the internet. So, lots of people called in requesting copies of my messages. One 20-something even said she rearranged her work schedule so she could listen to my live show. I had listeners from diverse denominations, ethnicities, educational, and economic backgrounds-both male and female. Many called in and requested copies of what I shared. And I read on air what I wrote. I think I read well enough so that it didn’t come off as stilted. The public response to my radio show, particularly the affirmation of my messages from all sorts of people, combined with the encouragement of my seminary professors, is how I gained the courage to go more public with my writing. And I thought maybe, just maybe, I’m halfway good at something other than being kind. Kindness came more naturally to me than writing.
The main theme throughout A Beautiful Disaster is finding God in the wilderness, coming to know Jesus and His presence in the arid seasons of one’s life, and you do such a tender job talking about all the different kinds of wildernesses we go through. What is one thing you’d like people to walk away with after they read your book? Something you hope for them?
My deepest desire is that those who read my book will know that they are deeply loved by God – even in the wilderness. Sometimes it’s hard to believe in and feel God’s love in what for some seems like a hell on earth because God at times can seem so distant. I hope to have in some ways shown how God is very close to us in our sufferings. A bruised reed he will not break, a smoldering wick he will not snuff out (Isa. 42:3).
In a nutshell, this is my hope for my readers, those I come into contact with, and for myself:
And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God (Eph. 3:17-19).
You opened up in such a vulnerable way and used your own life stories. Was that hard for you? Natural? In particular, I’m thinking about how you write about your dad and his alcoholism. How did your family react to you wanting to write about these things?
My first chapters in 2008 didn’t have a lot of personal stories. But an editor told me I had to include stories not just insights from the lives of those in Scripture. At first it was really hard. But then I figured I wouldn’t have any credibility unless I shared from my own life. I wanted people to know that these were the truths I learned, the sermons I preached to myself, and that this was how God, his word, and his people shaped my life. My dad’s alcoholism is tied to his bi-polar condition. I know that now. It’s a way of self-medicating. He doesn’t drink when he is in right states of mind. I asked permission from my mom and dad to write about the circumstances in my book. My dad doesn’t remember anything that happened to him when he wasn’t well and really has no clue about the effects on others except for what he was told afterwards. I wanted to and want to honor my parents and I hope that comes through in the writing. They’ve always loved me deeply and I’ve loved them.
I hope that readers will see the context of who I am and how God has worked and continues to work in and through my wilderness life. Each of us has our own wilderness experiences. Maybe my book will encourage readers to share their struggles with trusted others so they will know that they’re not alone.
You quote some of my favorites. I adore Kathleen Norris and her book Acedia and Me. I read it last year during a particularly painful wilderness season in my own life. If you had to pick – Who’s your favorite author? Or what’s one of the books that has had the biggest impact in your life? Excluding your Bible …
Tina, this is a hard one. A hard one! There are so many books that I love deeply. But, I’ll pick a contemporary one. One of my favorite books ever is Tattoos on the Heart by Father Greg Boyle. It is a book I read over and over. His book has enlarged my soul and my capacity to love. It is full of goodness and insight.
Can you tell me a little about what God is doing in your life right now? What’s he talking to you about? What is he teaching you?
What great questions! I want to know him better—his love and his goodness and also his power. I heard Dr. Tony Evans say that power comes from intimacy with God. When I think of the power, I think of the power to live a holy life, the life of Jesus in my flesh, and of the power to love others. But I also think of the power that comes in the form of answered prayers (obviously sometimes the answer is ‘No.’). So, I am asking to know him better and to better love others. I am also becoming even bolder in prayer and keeping my eyes peeled to see how he answers those even bolder prayers.
Also, one other thing: my book came out at the end of my second trimester. I am now in my third trimester, pregnant with our third little girl—quite a surprise. I’m in that 1% of women who gets extremely ill in pregnancy, so ill that they have to be hospitalized. With my last pregnancy, I had home health care so I didn’t have to go to the hospital. And also, the doctor told my husband and I not to have any more children because of how hard pregnancy and deliveries are on my body. So, we thought we were done with children. God had other plans. So anyhow, my book came out at the same time I started a part-time job in my church, and when I can barely get around physically to promote my book. It takes me a lot longer to write and reply to correspondence. But I’ve been hanging on to this truth of which a friend reminded me (spoken by Dallas Willard): “We do what we can and let God do the heavy lifting.” I am praying that God does the heavy lifting when it comes to others finding out about my book and reading it. There is very little I can do, even physically. I am keeping my eyes peeled for this too.
In reading through your bio on your blog, I really appreciate the description of how you like to write and share about the Hospitality of God. What does that mean, exactly to you? It resonated with me.
God is welcoming and gracious and completely loving. He’s not prejudiced or exclusive. God welcomes people we wouldn’t. By that I don’t mean that anything goes, not at all. The closer we come to him, the more he melts away all in us that is not of him.
All sorts of people were attracted to Jesus except for those who were jealous of him or who thought him a heretic. The rich, the poor, the marginalized, the intellectuals, men and women were all drawn to Jesus. In addition, those with various thoughts on politics and religion were drawn to him. I hope that my life and writing exhibit the inviting hospitality, love, and beauty of the Triune God. Yet that will only come if I dwell close to him, if I follow him closely. I cannot radiate what I do not experience myself.
So, someone’s in a wilderness in their life and they come to you and share how they feel – broken, tired, alone, confused. Besides, telling them to read your book, what would you share with them? What would you like to give them?
I am not sure I’d tell them to read my book. I think such long for loving and attentive presence first and foremost. If they’ve heard of my book and express interest, I might suggest it, but only secondarily. First, I ‘d really try to listen and be present. My response would be determined by what is shared.
Some people really don’t want advice; they want someone to listen them, to render them visible. They want, as you and I noted above, a hospitable space for their souls. I hope that by being in my presence they would sense the love and grace of God. And if they wanted advice, I’d try to offer advice based on what I discern from what they’ve said. Most of all, I’d want them to know that they are not alone, that there is hope in the midst of this brokenness, and that God and others love them deeply. I think one of the saddest things in the world is to feel alone and without hope and without God in this world. In short, I hope to be (and that others in the church would be) an icon of Jesus to those who come to us for help.
Thank Marlena for such a wonderful interview.
Please look up Marlena’s Book A Beautiful Disaster, Finding Hope in the midst of Brokenness. You won’t be disappointed.
Feel free to ask a question or to interact on the comments today, Marlena will be around.