By Shelly Esser
Sitting down with singer-songwriter Laura Story is like sitting down with one of your best girlfriends. She’s relaxed, real, and relatable. She exudes an inner joy and peace. It doesn’t take long to discover the extraordinary depth to her faith that comes through in conversation and in her songwriting. It’s a depth that has been born out of walking through some very tough times. The things she sings about are the fresh lessons from God that she is in the midst of learning. She doesn’t sing as someone who has mastered them all; but rather sings as someone who needs these truths to seep deep within her own heart. “It’s these truths that keep me going,” she says, “It’s believing that God is in the center of each of our stories, in both the good chapters and the hard ones. It’s believing that no page in our story is ever wasted. God not only redeems all people, He redeems all things.” This is something Laura has experienced firsthand.
After only one year of marriage to her high school sweetheart, Laura’s husband, Martin, was diagnosed with a brain tumor – a medical crisis that has forever changed their story. There were some incredibly terrifying moments when Martin was on a breathing machine and they weren’t even sure if he would make it. Martin underwent multiple surgeries, experienced severe, life-threatening complications, and has been through extensive rehabilitation. Today, he is still troubled by vision and memory problems and is unable to work or drive. While supporting Martin through surgery, radiation, complications, and intense physical therapy, Laura wrote songs literally out of her diary entries.
Laura believes that God is at the center of each of those things we all find ourselves crying out to Him about when we’re trying to figure out life and the curves it throws us. Her songwriting centers on how God’s promises and truths intersect with our lives. What does it mean for us that God loves us and that He has a good plan for our life? “What if our blessings come through raindrops? What if healing comes through tears? What if trials of this life are Your mercies in disguise?” Those words penned out of Laura’s 2012 Grammy-award-winning song “Blessings” is her story put to song. It’s a song God uses over and over again at her concerts. “We have a voice that wasn’t there prior to our suffering. I can hardly begin to tell you of the hundreds of hurting people going through more than I have. This is a chance to share the gospel.”
Laura never set out to be a songwriter. She didn’t even know she could sing much less write songs until her early twenties. Her first song has become one of the most loved worship songs of our generation: “Indescribable,” recorded by Chris Tomlin and a multiple of other artists. More importantly, it has—like all of Laura’s songs—helped people all over the world worship and trust our magnificent God. She continues to write music that blends corporate and personal worship. Laura is also balancing her music career with her position at 4,000-member Perimeter Church in Atlanta, Ga., where she is worship leader. Currently, she is finishing up a 40 city-wide tour with Casting Crowns.
In 2012, Laura and Martin welcomed the birth of their first child, Josephine (Josie) Grace. God has indeed poured out grace in the gift of their daughter who has lifted both of their spirits. Both Martin and Josie travel with Laura. Recently, Laura found out she is expecting twins in October!
JBU had the opportunity to sit down with Laura to talk about what it means to walk through the tough stuff of life hanging on to the promises of God.
JBU: How did you get interested in writing worship songs?
Laura: I didn’t start writing until my late teens and early 20’s. “Indescribable” was one of the first songs I wrote so I can’t say I was a songwriter before that. And it’s just like anyone who does anything in life; it’s just a manifestation of what God is doing in your heart and for me that just came out in songs. Mine is not a perfect voice or the perfect life. My life is as messy as the next person’s, but God is using me to speak to the church. For this season, God has really blessed me with some insight into who He is and what that has to do with me. For some reason, He just gives it to me in song form. In a way that there’s young moms who change diapers for the glory of God—I sing songs for the glory of God. A worship song to me is a natural expression.
JBU: What do you think worship does for the soul especially during hard times?
Laura: Music in and of itself is such a great memory tool. That’s why we put the alphabet to music to teach our kids. And I think no matter what age you are the same holds true. I need the truth of who God is and the promises that are steadfast stuck in my head as anchors for my soul. Especially on one of those days when you wake up thinking, “I don’t know if I can get out of bed,” you push play on your IPod, and hopefully those songs are enough to encourage you to take that first step even though you feel hopeless. I heard a long time ago that we don’t worship because we feel like worshipping, we worship because God—no matter what season of life we’re in—is no less worthy of our praises, and so when we worship with that effort we find it does something for our soul. Worship is a faith step. It’s saying, “I’m going to believe this to be true about God even though my life is chaos right now.”
JBU: How do we worship God when we feel let down?
Laura: I love that line from the old song “On Christ the Solid Rock I Stand.” One of the verses says, “When all around my soul gives way, He then is all my hope and stay.” Worship in hard times is remembering that God is good and His promises are true. It’s letting God’s truth anchor our soul. In the midst of hard times, it’s believing that everything around our soul can give way, but if we have God and He’s with us, who can be against us?
I love old hymns like “Jesus, Jesus, how I trust Him/ How I’ve proved Him o’re and o’re.” I have sung them since I was a child, never knowing what it meant until walking through some of the hard trials that we’ve been through as a family. I’ve realized that when I worship God even when my life is hard, I am proving that Jesus is trustworthy. Others may look at me and say, “Are you crazy? How can you still worship, how can you get up at events and sing about how great God is and how faithful He is when He hasn’t healed your husband?” It’s when I continue to worship Him when things are in chaos that proves that Jesus is still trustworthy.
JBU: Why do you think people have resonated so much with your song “Blessings”?
Laura: Because it’s a song for people that are in process and reminds us that life doesn’t have a tidy bow. The chorus in Blessings is just a bunch of questions – a lot of “What Ifs.” We were praying for healing for Martin and God, for whatever reason, wasn’t answering our prayer the way we wanted Him to. So was He blessing us? That was our question. It’s about bringing our questions to God rather than responding to a trial by running from God. We’re eight years out and we probably have more questions than we did the first day of Martin’s injury. But we’ve realized that walking with the Lord isn’t about getting those answers. It’s about finding comfort in a God who is big enough for our questions. Hopefully I don’t try to solve everything in a four-minute song that is Blessings. I’m just trying to help people start that conversation with God. What if God is up to more than just what I can see? The very last line in the song talks about “What if trials of this life/ The rain, the storms, the hardest nights/ Are Your mercies in disguise?” I feel like that could have been the whole song right there. You want to say to people, I know you’re disappointed in life, but what if God is allowing that disappointment to show you that it’s about more than just this life?
We are so thankful that God is using the song. If He had only used it to stabilize my own heart in the midst of my grief, it would have been enough.
JBU: Tell us how Blessing is your story put into song.
Laura: I wrote that song out of such a place of vulnerability. It really just started as a diary entry and then all of a sudden it ended up on the radio. “They’re playing my diary on the radio!” I thought. But it ended up being a very good thing. Recently I was talking on the radio about the hard things in life and how there is this isolation epidemic in our culture and even in the church. There are people who show up at church saying, I’m fine, I’m fine, I’m fine because they’re scared of what would happen if they really broke down and told you how they really were. I was that way for a long time, too. The song, Blessings, exposes my fears and anxieties and even my disappointments with God. The response that we got was just this resounding “me too.” We found not just healing in beginning to share our story and our struggles, but we found healing in hearing other people’s stories and struggles and how they’ve seen God proven to be faithful every time in the midst of their stories. My greatest hope is that Blessings will be a catalyst for people to begin to be honest with God, themselves, and with other people, and realize that they are not alone.
JBU: How have you adjusted to God’s version of the story you had planned?
Laura: He didn’t give me a choice! We just hit the ground running. What we thought was the detour in our life after realizing things weren’t going back to normal, was actually the road. As I step back to evaluate the situation, my greatest grievances had to do with the plan not looking the way I wanted it to. The plan greatly inconvenienced me. Martin has a vision deficit and a memory deficit and life has slowed down in a lot of ways. One big adjustment for our marriage; however, is realizing that Martin’s disability isn’t the biggest problem in our marriage, sin is and the fact that we’re two sinners married to each other. The disability can be a means of anger, resentment, bitterness, and all of that or it can be a means of grace. It can either frustrate me to no end when Martin asks me the same question five times or I can change my mindset and view it as five times more opportunities to serve him and bless him than most wives get. Would I choose that – no. God is always saying to me, “Laura I didn’t call you to be in control of this situation, I called you to respond to this unexpected plan with grace and humility.” People ask how we’re doing and I like to say: at the end of the day, God has met our needs. He has kept every single promise. He has given us so much more than we ask for or deserve. He hasn’t answered all the prayers we wanted Him to, but that’s okay too. We’re learning to trust Him in the midst of the unanswered prayers, in the midst of waiting.
JBU: How do you face the reality that your husband hasn’t experienced the complete healing you prayed for?
Laura: I don’t want to sugarcoat it because it is hard every day. Martin has just recently started working part-time coaching baseball. This is the first time he has worked in seven years. Disability is still a reality that affects us every day. So we limp along, yet God is there, even in the midst of our heartache.
I was doing a radio show a few weeks ago with a very broken woman whose husband had a brain injury and she was talking about their five year old and how hard it is that her husband can’t remember anything that the child said. I’m listening to this thinking this is my life. This is what we’re going to be facing. I pulled her aside afterwards and said, “I’m sure a lot of people say hang in there; it’s going to get better.” I’m not going to say that to you, because medically and statistically it’s probably not going to get better, but you can get better. It’s not always about God bringing the healing that we ask for for the physical ailment. It’s about the healing He can bring in our own hearts as we live in a marriage that involves disability. When I think about some of the greatest inconveniences with my husband’s disability, it’s my own impatience because he can’t do things as fast as I want him to. So now I have this opportunity to learn patience. If we believe that the Christian life is a journey on the road to the crucified self then being married to a disabled spouse is probably the best thing I can go through for sanctification. Would I have asked for it—absolutely not. But I have to accept that that’s the road God has me on. My greatest desire is for my character to be conformed to that of Christ’s and I have the opportunity every day, every moment to die to self. I’m trying to view the disability that way.
I also had to reach the place where I realized that if God could heal Martin and He hadn’t, then He must have a very good reason. He does not owe me an explanation this side of Heaven.
JBU: What have been some helpful things others have done for you during these difficult years?
Laura: Just listening, being there, and remembering after everyone has stopped remembering. I’ve sent a reminder to myself six months after someone’s hardship to send them a text. It takes literally five seconds to say, “I’m praying for you.” Often, when something happens everyone swarms in for a good six weeks. But things like disabilities or marriage issues don’t go away in six weeks, but the crowd has moved to the next need and you’re left feeling more alone than ever. Ask people how they’re doing and don’t try to have all the answers. Leave out comments like “he’s in a better place,” because although it’s a great truth, the timing is terrible.
When I first came to Perimeter Church, I’d been on staff only four months when my husband had this huge health catastrophe. I had to take three months off. After being in the ICU with him, I remember coming back to work thinking, “How am I going to do this?” My pastor said to me, “If we truly believe that God is sovereign, then taking care of Martin right now is not only the best thing for Martin and the best thing for you; it’s the best thing for our church.” He said it’s understanding how God is going to use this trial to minister to our church. “Your trial is our trial.” It was such an amazing perspective and what a comfort.
The power of presence goes a long way. Sometimes when I was in the hospital not knowing what the outcome was going to be with Martin’s health, the most powerful words anyone ever said to me were, “Here’s your latte.” Friends would show up and just sit and listen and cry with me. They didn’t come up with answers. I wasn’t looking for answers. I had this huge gaping wound, and I just needed to have someone be present with me and drink lattes together.
JBU: What encouragement do you have for women whose stories aren’t turning out like they planned?
Laura: To keep holding on. Keep believing the promises of God even when the world around you tells you something different. And as I say in the chorus of my song God of Every Story, “He is the God of every story/ He sees each tear that falls/ We may not understand/ But one thing is certain/ He is faithful/ He’s a faithful God.”
JBU: How do you take care of yourself as a caregiver?
Laura: Changing the focus to say God is the caretaker. To realize that He is the ultimate caretaker of this person and He allows me to be His hands and feet in this situation. I don’t know why that shift in mindset has helped me so much, but it really has because for a long time I took so much of it on myself. God loves this person more than I ever could. A lot of us are trying to nourish the souls of people and that’s just not our job and it’s so exhausting. It’s not your job to make your ailing mother-in-law happy, it’s your job to love her like Jesus, but you can’t control whether she’s happy or not and put that on yourself. For a long time my goal was for Martin to never feel disabled, so I ran myself ragged trying to do everything for him so he would never be inconvenienced by his disability—to never feel the pain, to never feel the embarrassment. What it achieved was me being completely run down, completely burnt out, and he didn’t learn things he needed to from this trial because I was trying to cover up the trial. I was trying to manage the situation. Our first response can’t be how can I get this person out of their trial that God has allowed to teach them things.
JBU: How can women use their stories to help others?
Laura: By just opening up your hands and doing it. We get so caught up in our own stuff sometimes that we forget that everything God does in our life isn’t just for us. It’s also for everyone around us. It’s not a matter of whether or not God uses the trials we go through; He’s going to use them. Scripture clearly talks about comforting others with the same comfort we’ve received from God. One of my favorite experiences is going with a group of artists to Newtown, Connecticut to do a concert for the Sandy Hook community. What do you say to these families, to these first responders, to all these brokenhearted people? There was one person in our group who knew exactly what to say and it was Mary Beth Chapman – Steven Curtis Chapman’s wife. She stood up and said, “I know that you can’t imagine how you will ever get through this, but you will. I thought this would kill me, losing my baby, but it didn’t and God has continued to be faithful in my life.” She didn’t give a sermon; she didn’t have all the answers. It just took someone saying, “I’ve been there before you.” A lot of times women are going through something and they’re on month three of it or year three of it and to see someone whose made it through getting out of bed every morning is comforting.
JBU: How has your daughter changed your life and what have you learned about being a mom?
Laura: Martin can’t drive and he’s just barely starting to work part-time, but none of his disabilities keep him from being a fantastic Dad. He loves that little girl. I knew if we had a child we would love her, but I had no idea just how she would light up our world. It’s been a beautiful season.
Half of the songs on my most recent CD “God of Every Story” are written from things that I’ve learned about being a mom. I try to be prayerful asking God what kind of mom do you want me to be and just making sure that I don’t miss a moment.
This past Easter my pastor asked me to write a song. I thought, “How do you write a song for Easter?” I opened up the Scriptures and asked God to show me what He wanted me to write. There’s something about reading the story of the cross for the first time as a parent. I think about how I would not give up my only child, Josie, for my best friend and I certainly wouldn’t give her to my enemies. And, yet, that’s what God did for us. It just broke my heart. Josie has impacted the way I do life and the way that I write.
JBU: How are our trials “mercies in disguise”?
Laura: When I wrote that line I had no idea what I was talking about. Over the past few years I have just begun to scratch the surface of beginning to understand what that means. The trials we’ve walked through have shown me my need for God in a way that I had never experienced before. There’s an intimacy with the Lord that comes through walking through the valley and waiting on Him. There’s a reliance on His Word that we only know when everything else in life fades away. There’s a desire in all of us to live self-sufficient, tidy lives. Scripture doesn’t call us to that; Scripture calls us to live dependent, broken lives for the glory of God. Our trials made me realize that I could no longer pretend we/I had it all together. It was glaringly obvious that we needed help. With Martin’s disability, the outer need woke us up to look at some of the inner needs and that’s a blessing. Anything that makes us cling to the cross of Jesus Christ more is a blessing. It’s believing that everything – every single thing that enters into our lives—has been filtered through the loving hand of an Almighty God. If we believe that we can accept those things even when we go through very hard things. We can look for blessings in them realizing that they are indeed mercies in disguise. In that sense, I truly feel like I am blessed.
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