The Art of Forgiveness
"Create in me from shapeless clay an instrument on which You play" (from "Artist of My Soul").
The press kit arrived today packed full of superlatives and more than 1200 square inches of plush photography. The singer looks to her right and smiles pleasantly as the breeze teases nicely coiffed blond hair. Her arms are thrown wide as she gladly embraces the moment. This is, after all, something of a comeback.
Open the lavish 9-inch by 12-inch publicity folio. Inside, the singer smiles up at you from a photograph a foot-and-a-half wide. Open the folder again and a photographic panorama spreads three-feet wide across the desk. On the left 18 inches, she's outside, same setting, still smiling, gazing skyward. To the right, indoors, under amber light, hands lightly clasped, eyes downcast, she strikes a contemplative pose.
Nestled inside the press kit, enfolded by all those smiling photos, are the words--the P.R.--and the praise is effusive. The singer has created "a distinguished work of art." Her voice is "distinctive," her songs "eloquent and articulate," the CD "masterfully crafted" and "breathtakingly performed." She's a "preeminent talent," who is "critically acclaimed" and "highly successful"--"stirring" with "remarkable musical diversity" and an "expansive vocal range." "Dynamic... quintessential... timeless... heartwarming." She is the recipient of five Grammy Awards, nine Grammy nominations, 35 Dove Awards ("more than any other artist"), three platinum records, five gold records.
Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
A millionaire gospel singer has released a new album--a comeback album--and the marketing department has been running full-tilt, the whir of creative minds working overtime.
Far beyond crafty packaging, hefty record sales, stellar performances and the avalanche of awards, another Creator has been quietly at work on the inside. A premier talent has released an album, and a fine album at that, but the art that matters most is her soul, and the artist to watch is the forgiving Creator, and the voice to hear is His.
No one knows this any better than Sandi Patty.
"The past few years have been rough," Sandi says, relieved those years are in the past. She can't let this statement stand, however, without quickly adding that the struggles came through "nobody's fault but my own." Her voice is quiet, and if the words seem rehearsed, it no doubt comes from being repeated so many times over the past months. There is a point she wants to make; she's eager that there be no misunderstanding. She is owning up to moral failure.
"I have come to see my desperate need for God in every area of my life and have come to appreciate in a new way His grace and mercy and unconditional love. You can believe all these things, but they take on new depth when you need them."
Sandi Patty has felt her need of them--grace and mercy and unconditional love.
She refers again to the choices she made, a theme that runs repeatedly through the conversation, and she affirms again the theme of grace: "I am in awe. God still loves me! God still loves me."
After her divorce and subsequent remarriage in August 1995, Sandi Patty was confronted with a rumor. That confrontation, less than two weeks after her marriage to Don Peslis, led to a confession before her church and the Christian public. A half-dozen years ago, an emotionally needy married woman was on the road, singing for God, but susceptible to the attention--and affection--of Peslis, a fitness instructor who was then touring with her as one of her backup singers. In an extensive interview with Christianity Today, Patty owned up to her affair and to her failure to be honest about it in the beginning.
She now recalls standing on stage singing one of her signature songs, "There is Strength in the Name of the Lord," yet feeling that her own life was spiraling out of control. "I sang those words as something I hoped for, something I clung to, thinking, 'Maybe I'll find it.'"
Finally Set Free
Life was unraveling. She felt as if she was sinking but could not fight her way to the surface. "A part of me knew better. But inside I felt a void that outweighed all logic. I felt as though I was acting out of frailty."
She edges toward this explanation, the revelation of the weakness that led to her sin. She reaches toward that place of self-understanding, then quickly pulls back from it, as if it burns to touch that truth. Or is it the fear of being misunderstood--the fear that someone will mistake her explanation of weakness for a justification of it?
"I don't say this to make any excuse. I am responsible for my life before God."
Now she sings another song, a song that touches the core of her struggle and the grace that has liberated her.
You set me free to run through fields of laughter/And to sing as though I have no yesterdays/You set me free from my befores and afters/From a debt I know I'll never pay/When You set me free" (from "You Set Me Free").
"I heard those words and cried," Patty says of the song from her new release Artist of My Soul, her voice almost still. Then she repeats the truth, as if through repetition it will somehow become comprehensible: "It was so hard to believe God still loves me."
Trace the years of her life. Like all of us, her life has been a blend of joy and pain, yet it is that mixture, plus grace, that makes us what we are. There is the pleasant memory of sledding in the Oklahoma snow with her dad--a memory instantly recalled, though she was only a preschooler at the time. But there is also the memory of sexual abuse, at age 6, from a female family friend. She recalls an elementary school music teacher who made learning fun (they still keep in touch, Sandi and her teacher), and she remembers the pain of trying to fit in as a junior high girl. She was a cheerleader in high school and sang the role of Maria in West Side Story, yet she always struggled with her weight, as a child and now as an adult.
She went off to a Christian college, was befriended and encouraged by Bill and Gloria Gaither, and saw her career emerge. She married, but the marriage was not easy. The ghost of her childhood sexual abuse haunted her and became a painful issue to confront. Her office was destroyed by arson, and she felt the pressures of popularity and public ministry.
A void enveloped her, took over more and more of her life, though she could not understand it or explain it to herself or others. Those unarticulated needs found expression in unhealthy ways, in her male relationships. Her marriage unraveled.
She faced the challenge of being a single mom and found the courage to face the truth about herself. She experienced the joy of reconciliation with her church and newness through the grace of God. She married her best friend, they blended their families, they adopted an eighth child. Life has begun again, but not without its scars.
In The Spotlight
And there are the awards, the record sales, the special honors, the high-profile appearances--CNN Headline News, The Tonight Show, Live! With Regis and Kathie Lee, ABC World News Tonight, Billy Graham Crusades, political conventions, presidential inaugural celebrations. Millions have seen her succeed; millions have seen her fail.
The temptation Sandi Patty faced was not unique to her. We are all vulnerable. Yet there is a greater pressure that comes with celebrity. The expectations that go along with public ministry can become a crushing burden. You can start to believe your own press kit and the polished, pristine image it seeks to foster. When there are always people around praising you, you can begin to lose perspective. You may wonder, would these people have such a high opinion of me if they knew the real me? If they knew the doubts I feel or the fears I face? Would they still embrace me if they saw the discrepancies between the real me and the marketed image of me? A core of insecurity can grow within you, weakening you from the inside. You can start to feel cut off and emotionally isolated.
This is the burden of success in the Christian music industry.
In the aftermath of her brokenness, Sandi Patty joined with her church to establish a practice she now recommends for all believers concerned about their own integrity and growth. She has made herself accountable to other Christians who know the worst about her, yet still love her. Christians who are friends, but not so close that their perspective is skewed. Christians who have nothing to gain or lose, either relationally or professionally, by being honest with her. In other words, people who will tell her the truth and lovingly insist that she do the same.
"These people are not family, not business associates, not too 'close.' But with each of them, I feel free to portray life as it really is. I can put aside the persona that things are perfect. They, in turn, can be confrontive, but it is not intimidating. It is so freeing when people know the worst about you because then there is nothing to hide."
A high soprano floats above a gentle, compelling accompaniment, a hymn to the forgiving Creator, an invitation that a loving God would not think to ignore.
"O Lord of beauty, Lord of art/Who gives a song for every heart/Carve out my life, reshape and mold/And be the artist of my soul."
This is the work our Father is pleased to do. And He does it quietly, without fanfare or publicity.