2014 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog. This was pretty fascinating! Thank you to my readers for all of your comments, support, and encouragement. I am looking forward to 2015!

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 1,200 times in 2014. If it were a cable car, it would take about 20 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Character over Victory: What I Learned about Leadership from Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers

In the past few years, Green Bay Packer fans have come to rely on a solid offensive line and a dynamic quarterback. But what happens when the season begins at 1-2 and fans suddenly start to doubt the success of the team? Well, that very element played out at the beginning of this season. In a radio interview, Aaron Rodgers, quarterback, addressed his teammates and fans with five simple letters: R.E.L.A.X .
Weeks later when the team’s record had reached 8-3, Rodgers was asked about his seemingly confidence-building mantra. The interviewer asked something like: “When you said that, was it more to convince everyone else, or did you need convincing too… that everything would be okay?”
Rodgers responded with a few words about leadership. He remarked that the record may have had him a bit rattled, but he wasn’t ready to hit the panic button. He wanted to give the team and fans the picture of calm and confidence, even if he wasn’t feeling it 100% himself. And even though it was five little letters, it has seemed to help as the season has played out.
Some of the wins have not come easily for the team, but other games have resulted in blow-out victories. When asked about the games that resulted in 3 or 5-point victories, Rodgers and coach, Mike McCarthy remarked that those were character wins because they served as confidence boosters.
As the Packers continued forward in their progress toward a hoped-for playoff stint, I found myself comparing my music ministry to some football-themed concepts. One Sunday morning as we sound-checked before leading worship, things just weren’t clicking. The harmonies were off, and the guitarist and I were still figuring out the arrangement. We were just minutes before the start of the service, and I was worried. We just weren’t ready in my opinion.
During the prayer time with the elders before the service, I was silent— too stressed to utter a word. I knew I had some great musicians with me that morning, but still, my confidence was shaken. In that moment, I could have used a little encouragement from Green Bay’s quarterback, for sure! I was far from being relaxed!
In the seconds leading up to our first set, I furiously tried to get the attention of my team. As congregation members greeted each other and shook hands, I leaned over the piano and stage-whispered: “Tyler, remember the quiet part after the bridge. And girls, no harmonies there either, remember?”
They all nodded and affirmed that they heard me, but I was still not completely at ease. Even though our first set went pretty well, it still hadn’t quite met my standards. I was really battling perfectionism that morning! As the rest of the team left the platform, I realized I had to quickly transition to my piece for the offertory. As the pastor prayed, I placed my hands on the keyboard, ready for the first chord of the song. But my mind blanked on the first lyrics.
For a moment, I thought about just playing through the chords. No one would know that I had forgotten the words; they would just think that I was playing an instrumental tune. But then I remembered that the tech had arranged for the lyrics to go up on the big screen! I was trapped. I couldn’t see well enough to read the lyrics up there, so I knew I had no other choice. I had to admit defeat.
I sheepishly said into the microphone: “Um, so I forgot the words. I—”
Before I could even finish my sentence, Pastor and the tech stage-whispered back to me my opening line. With trembling hands and shaky legs, I began to play, seeking to find my calm again in the midst of chaos. As I moved through the song, some of the initial panicky adrenaline ceased, but I still felt an element of dread. I had just messed up in front of my congregation and worship team.
Here I had been worried about the team messing up, and it was me who had made mistakes. My perfectionism had sought a flawless performance, but I had not succeeded. If anything, it made me appear more human to everyone else, which was probably a good thing, but it made me feel rotten inside. I realized that I had not expressed confidence in my team when I felt our sound check had not gone well. I should have had the faith to press forward with the knowledge that bad rehearsals usually result in good performances. But instead, I had seen all doom and gloom. Although our first set had gone well, my mind was elsewhere, more than likely resulting in my botched offering piece.
I thought about other times in my leadership roles when I should have found confident peace in the midst of chaos. Several performances and worship leading experiences come to mind, but directing at camp has also created quite a few instances as well. I can think of the day when a camper was homesick and wanted to go home. I had only been directing for two hours when he made a dash for the parking lot. He was leaving no matter how hard I tried to stop him. I leaned on my two head counselors later that day and cried because I felt like a failure. Rachel and Abe were strongly affected too, but I didn’t think of them and how my doom and gloom persona was probably making them feel worse.
And then there was a roommate altercation between campers that resulted in a staff disagreement. I am embarrassed to admit that my anger toward the staff squabble was first priority in my mind. Somehow, I managed to insert myself into the middle of the drama instead of concentrating on the campers who needed me. At 1:00 a.m., I was once again the emotional director who was more concerned about my reputation as director than my campers and staff.
As a leader, I have a long way to go when it comes to leadership through strength of character. The victories, as I have seen in football, don’t always come easy. Sometimes, you have to slug it out— one altercation, one song at a time. But in the end, the victory can be sweet if I have the confidence that our goals can be accomplished. Sometimes, I just need to R.E.L.A.X. and let the game play out— whether it be on the stage or in Dominican Hall. Leadership isn’t always easy; in fact, I believe it to be incredibly challenging. But is it rewarding? Yes! And those character-building wins make the journey that much sweeter on the road to victory.

A Selfless Gift

There are two dates on the calendar when it is nearly impossible to get away when you are employed at a church: any given Sunday morning and Christmas. Ordinarily, this doesn’t cause a problem for me; I can think of no other place I’d rather be at both of those times. Corporate worship is an integral part of my life, and second to Easter— Christmas services are my favorite events on the church calendar.
But as December of 2013 drew near, I was caught between a rock and a hard place. My family was having a difficult time getting together on Christmas Eve as was our tradition, so plans were made to celebrate Christmas at my parents’ house on the Sunday prior to the holiday. Apparently, this date worked for everyone… except me. Although my father was a pastor and also busy that day, he was still open later on in the day. I was open later that day too, but because I had to lead the music that Sunday, I figured there would be no way to get transportation to my destination more than two hours away.
But all of that changed when one of my sisters called. She knew about my dilemma and the fact that I didn’t have a ride to our parents’ house. She felt it was important for me to participate in family Christmas, so on that Sunday morning, she and her husband drove up to my church in time for the morning service. They waited in my office until I was done leading worship, and then I met up with them to start our travels. We hadn’t told anyone else about our plans, so it was going to be a surprise for my parents, my two other sisters, and their significant others.
I distinctly remember driving into the parking lot at my dad’s church and parking outside the parsonage. “I think Karla just saw you,” Becca said, taking note of my sister looking out of the kitchen window. We came into the house to my sister’s exclamations of: “What are you doing here? How did you get here— with Becca? I thought you couldn’t make it?”
And then my mom appeared, and the exclamations started all over again! For the first time in a long time, I truly felt a wholeness with my family. Since I am the only one who lives at a distance from everyone else, it has always been hard for me to feel completely included. There has always been a bit of a separation over the years, and that day, I finally felt like I had filled a void.
My sister gave me a selfless gift that day— more valuable than money or any physical wrapped-up box. She sacrificed her time, money, and finances to make sure I was included in family Christmas. I have to say, it was probably the best Christmas I had celebrated in a long time. And to top it off, my sister joined us for Christmas Eve worship just two days later. Her beautiful voice and sweet spirit made the celebration of Christ’s birth so meaningful for all of us.
I hope you, my readers, have the opportunity to make special memories with your families and friends this Christmas. And if you could be so kind, please consider those who may not have a family to celebrate with this year. Invite them over for coffee or perhaps include them in your family festivities. Remember those in care facilities, single without family, or elderly and widowed. Reach out and make someone’s Christmas truly special. After being on the receiving end of my sister’s Christmas gift, I am actively seeking ways to give to others this Christmas. So thank you, Becca, for your example of selfless service.

Take my Hand

Two scenarios, both lessons in trust… one features a deep friendship— the other taking place in the doctor’s office. Our story begins at Mayo Clinic in February of last year. I was at the clinic to investigate some odd symptoms in the only eye I have vision. I was worried that something serious was happening and that in a worst case scenario, I would completely lose my vision. The doctor examined my eye, but he could find nothing wrong. Test after test continued to support this, but I wasn’t satisfied. I knew my eyes well, and this wasn’t normal. I wanted answers.
So when the doctor asked me if I would like to move forward with an ultrasound, I quickly agreed. The doctor seemed to think that my diagnosis would be severe dry-eye, but he figured the ultrasound would give me peace of mind that there wasn’t anything more serious going on. My sister sat beside me in the waiting room in the minutes leading up to the ultrasound. I was trying to get control of my emotions, but the panic kept rising to the surface. I just wanted a definitive diagnosis! I trusted the doctors, in theory, but this trust was sorely lacking at that moment.
Karla reached over and touched my hand, telling me some silly medical-themed joke. You see, she’s completing her degree in radiology right now, so hospitals are kind of her thing. Her presence brought me comfort in that moment. She was my sister; I trusted her.
The story continues in the following November. I had come through that frightening day at the clinic and I was now symptom-free. I was at the Wal-Mart with a good friend, and we were checking out at the registers. As we moved toward the exit, my friend began to search through her purse. For some reason she was unable to locate her keys. I’m not going to lie; I got a little nervous at that point. I have traveled with far too many people over the years who encounter issues along the way; either the car breaks down, there’s a flat tire, the keys get locked in the car, etc. “Please don’t let the keys be locked in the car,” I thought to myself. I was not looking forward to waiting for someone to come to our rescue. It was cold and I just wanted to go home.
But I had no cause to worry. In fact, I should have trusted my friend to a greater degree. After all, she had proven herself trustworthy in the past. She had always been on time when picking me up from my house. She had even taken me to my doctor appointments and been an encouragement in other difficult situations. I should have known she would not leave us stranded.
When we reached the van in the parking lot, the doors were unlocked, and the keys had been safely deposited on the back seat. We were just grateful that nothing else had happened. I found it restored my trust in small-town Wisconsin. Nothing was missing from the van and miraculously it was still sitting there.
As my friend took my arm and helped me across the ice so I could get into the van, I thought about the correlation between that day at the eye doctor and that dark night at the Wal-Mart. In both situations, I had been called upon to trust in someone. Although I was nervous about the ordeal with my friend’s keys, I found I trusted her more than the eye doctor. After all, I had known my friend longer than the doctor; we had developed a relationship. The same was true with my sister in the waiting room; even though my parents were nearby that day, I clung to my sister’s hand because her goofy medical humor gave me some perspective on what I was facing. God had sent her to be there that day to help me through that trial.
Lately, I have been processing this concept of “immeasurably more” from Ephesians 3. I think about how easy it is to cry out to Him when things go wrong. I know in my head that He has always been faithful and that He will carry me through, but for some reason, my heart hasn’t quite caught up with the knowledge I possess. I have to tell myself that He is trustworthy— that He will never leave me hanging when things seem dismal. It means that I need to invest in a deeper relationship with Him, for only them will I find the comfort and security that I need. He’s not some lofty Being up in the sky that simply watches over me; no, He is present and active in every aspect of my life. How can I not trust Him? He knows me better than I know myself— even better than my sister, my parents, and my dear key-displacing friend. He is faithful, trustworthy, and the greatest friend of all! And all the while, He holds my hand.

Snowed in

The date: December 11, 2010. I had just moved into my new apartment and was getting settled in a little more each day. There was very little snow on the ground the day I moved in, but that all changed about ten days later. One of the biggest snow storms to hit Wisconsin came roaring in that Saturday morning, the 11th, and the accumulation was ridiculous!
Snow blew against my south-facing windows, which by the way, were my only windows. The building manager had the flu that day, but even so, he did his best to shovel the main walkways. But the snow kept coming, and before it was all said and done, we were buried under nearly two feet of snow. I took a picture to memorialize the day. You can see the topper on my four-foot Christmas tree just below the mass of snow and caked-on ice that covered the windows.
I couldn’t have left my apartment that day, even if I wanted to. I was okay with this quiet Saturday at home, but I was a little concerned about the days to come. The next day was Sunday, of course, and I was scheduled to help lead worship at church. I wondered if the service would be cancelled, and I wasn’t surprised to hear that the service would indeed be cancelled for the next day even before I went to bed that night.
The next morning, I woke to bright sunlight, but I couldn’t see much of it with the snow piled against the windows. I listened to the news as I lazed in bed. A portion of the roof at the Metrodome had collapsed overnight, and the upcoming Vikings game would need to be postponed to the following Tuesday. I couldn’t believe it! This storm was doing more than just keeping me inside; it was postponing NFL games and prohibiting travel.
I was trapped at home, and there is nothing more frustrating than feeling like you are stuck somewhere. Now, we haven’t had a storm this big since here in Wisconsin, but even so, I know what it feels like to be stuck. If the temperature is below zero, if there is ice on the roads, if snow has me barricaded inside— I can’t go anywhere. I cannot drive, so I have to wait for others to pick me up or simply change my plans for the day.
But there are also times when I feel as if I am stuck emotionally. For years, I struggled to move forward as an author and musician. I found I wasn’t very good at publicity, so as a result, I didn’t sell many books or albums. When my attempts at obtaining a record deal didn’t pan out, I wondered if I would ever succeed. Then there was my health situation, causing me to have to move just to be free of the environment that made me so ill. And then I wondered if I would ever have a secure job with a dependable pay check. I eventually did obtain that job, but fears and doubts began to rise to the surface once more.
Would I always be single? Would I always be dependent on my parents, especially now with the new house? What if something happens to them or one of my sisters? Who will be there to take care of me years down the road?
Now, I know I’m getting ahead of myself here. I try not to worry about the future, but sometimes, I just feel stuck in my current situation, wondering if I will ever see the other side. I have to keep in mind that I am truly blessed right here and right now. I have a wonderful family who provides for me, a church community that has supported me since birth, and friends who make each day a beautiful gift to experience.
It’s like the snow-filled Sunday morning. I might have been trapped at home, but I had groceries in the cupboard, a warm apartment, and a church service to watch online. No, it wasn’t the way I would have wanted to spend my Sunday, but it was a time to slow down and appreciate the simple things. Besides, it wouldn’t always be like this. Spring would come and I would be able to move around outside with my independence restored.
Spring will come to shovel me out of those stuck places too, and I truly believe that. It may not happen according to my time table, but God has everything under control and He will prepare me for any storms on the horizon. I have to trust that the roof above me will stay intact and that I will be safe in His arms no matter what is on the horizon.
And just in case you’re wondering, I wasn’t stuck in my apartment too long that day. In fact, they plowed us out the best they could, and I was able to get a ride to Christmas cantata practice. It’s remarkable what a little sunlight and hope can do after the storm.
snowed in

Keep Breathing

It’s a moment that takes your breath away— that moment when everything changes. It’s the moment when you get that dreaded diagnosis, that life-altering phone call, that split-second decision that forever shifts the course of your future. I’ve been there. I’ve experienced the death of loved ones and the crushing news that they are gone. I have also witnessed the death of a dream.

In 2005, I never would have dreamed that a panic attack and stress would prepare me for a prolonged illness nearly four years later. As I prepared to audition for “NC/DC Extreme,” an American Idol- themed competition, I gave in to an unsatisfied drive for perfection. I talk about this in an earlier post entitled “Imperfect Progress.” As a result, I allowed panic to take hold in my life. It almost shut me down, until the phone rang.

You see, I had decided not to audition after all; my stress level had peaked, and I didn’t need one more thing vying for my time and attention. But I had forgotten to take my name off the audition list, and so they called me to remind me of my upcoming time slot. For a moment, I thought about telling the committee that I wasn’t going to audition, but I couldn’t get the words out. I found myself grabbing up my coat and making my way over to the audition site where I later sang my heart out for the judges. Long story short: I made it into the top 14 for the competition.

I bounced back from my nearly paralyzing stress and simply sang. It was incredibly freeing to set all expectations aside and just carry on. So when another road block to my music career emerged in 2009, I found myself at a crossroads. I could carry on as I had before my “NC/DC” audition, or I could cave under the stress and panic. It was a war in my heart and mind. I was legitimately sick during that season so my symptoms were not all under my control, but my panic and stress level was something I could surrender to God. After all, He was able to carry me through, right?

There were times I had my doubts. I would cry and plead with God to relieve me of the breathlessness I was facing because of my allergies. At times, it seemed so hopeless that I didn’t think I had the energy left to take another breath. I knew in my head that God had delivered me from struggle in the past, but I was in a very dark place.

As I struggled forward in this tangle of medical drama and faith trial, I was reminded of Joni Eareckson Tada’s first moments after the diving accident that rendered her paralyzed. It was a life-altering and spiritually defining time for her as well. Although I wasn’t physically paralyzed by my health struggles, something inside of me poignantly identified with Joni’s realizations in the first few days after her trauma. As she pressed on in rehabilitation, she was gripped with the ordinary strains of daily life: “eating, breathing, sleeping”— this routine that pushes each one of us toward another day. For someone with a disability, this routine takes on a whole other meaning.

I think we often take the little things for granted: the food in our bellies, the breath in our lungs, the comfort of our beds. But when you come through a trauma like Joni experienced, sometimes, it’s just a miracle to be alive. Oh, if only I could have seen that miracle in the bleak days of my breathing struggles! If only I could have recognized that God was preparing me for another day in service for Him.

He was faithful in bringing me through, and every step along the way, He proved that He could do “immeasurably more” than I could “ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20). There were times in the months and years that followed that I would slip back into that place of doubt, fear, and stress, and I continually had to remind myself of His promise that He would carry me through. I vowed that nothing as simple as panic attacks or allergic reactions would derail my focus to such a degree again. After all, my God was greater than all of that; in fact, He had even enabled me to move forward despite a visual impairment and I was still standing.

If He is truly able and His provision for me has no measure, then I need to set my view of Him higher than my limited expectations. I want to seek to glorify Him even when the stuff of this world tries to drag me down. I want to set the bar high and not place any limits on His amazing love for me.

Sometimes, the wisdom of my teens at camp humbles me, and I would like to leave you with these incredible words from one of this year’s campers. This is from the pen of an amazing young man who, like Joni, was paralyzed in a tragic accident. But his attitude is far from tragic. In fact, he is doing more than just breathing; he is breathing in God’s grace and pressing forward in faith. “I also never want to lose my vision to walk again and to try to glorify God with everything I do.”

The reality is he may never walk again on this earth, but he’s walking in faith every day of his life. His words of confident faith breathe life into a world that needs to be reminded of the greater vision. So I’m going to keep breathing and moving forward. Joni, my camper, and I— we’re all in this together— and God is our source of strength.