In the Zone

The fireplace casts a warm glow over the living room.  My Tablet is in my lap, and a gripping historical fiction novel is open on my Kindle.  A steaming cup of Pickwick Rooibos Mango & Peach tea is at my side.  Worship music plays in the background, and the atmosphere is relaxing.  Even as darkness falls in the evening, I don’t need to rise from my recliner to turn on a lamp because my Tablet casts enough light for me to read my book.  I am comfortable, content, relaxed…

I often hear someone talk about their “comfort zone,” and I am immediately transported to a scene like this in my mind— a time and place when everything is easy and there are no challenges.  There are no surprises, and I don’t have to worry about anything changing.  But even as I sit by the fire and read, negative factors can creep into this comfortable state and create discontent.  My music might buffer and stop because the Wi-Fi signal is weak.  My Tablet battery might go dead and I need to charge it before I can continue reading.  I might spill my tea all over myself.  I might even spill my tea on my Tablet which would inevitably result in a horrible situation.  A water-damaged electronic device never functions very well.

Within a time of comfort there is always something that causes discomfort.  Nothing is ever perfect, and as a result, I have come to realize that for me, there probably is no such thing as a comfort zone.  I know this might seem bold to admit, but I truly believe it is true for me.  A comfort zone seems to imply a time and place that is devoid of negative reactions.  There is nothing that stretches a person’s abilities or tries someone’s patience.  It’s comfortable and predicable with little to no threat on the horizon.  Simply put, its safety from anything outside “the zone.”

Now, I like it when things are easy and there isn’t any drama on the horizon, but I’ve come to realize that when my surroundings seem too peaceful, I almost seek out a bit of adversity.  I have always liked a challenge, and when there is very little action around me, I crave a change.  I need something to work for and a task to complete.  I feel motivated when I have to solve a problem or polish a musical arrangement.  Sometimes my tasks create stress and worry, which is not very enjoyable, but in the end, I come out stronger.

It’s a little like my development as a musician.  When I first started performing concerts with my family, I would have a few solos here and there.  I would sing along with a back-up track because I didn’t know how to accompany myself on the piano.  But as I grew older, I felt limited by the number of back-up tracks that were available.  Sometimes, I wanted to perform a song, but no track existed for it.  In those times, I wanted to buy the sheet music and learn how to play it in the worst way.  But quite often, the arrangement was just too difficult to replicate by ear.

That’s when I gradually started to muddle through beginner piano.  Week by week, month by month, year by year… I worked my way up to playing hymns and praise songs— simple arrangements that I could play without needing written music.  Then little by little, I began to write songs and developing my own style.  For the first time in my life, I actually felt more comfortable singing from behind the piano.  In the rare times when I sang with a back-up track, I felt very much out of my element.  You might even say that I was outside of my comfort zone.

But then the big jump took place.  I was volunteering at the church while I pursued my Masters degree when Pastor Tim first suggested that I try leading worship.

“You mean I would play and sing at the piano and the congregation would actually sing along with me?” I exclaimed.  “I’m not sure I know how to make that happen.  I mean, I’ve given concerts and performed the songs I’ve written, but no one has ever sung along with me.”

“You can do it,” he said.  “I have confidence in you.”

And it was there that I got my start.  Four-and-a-half years later, I would say I am fairly comfortable leading worship.  In fact, it is now a rarity for me to present concerts or perform on my own.  It isn’t that I have stepped out of my comfort zone; it is more like my comfort zone has shifted.

I came to recognize this recently when I was watching a reality show based on competing acapella singing groups.  Each group had hired a coach— a director of sorts— and they were hoping to increase their chances of winning in the finals.  Each coach stepped in and did the very thing the groups had asked them to do: move them forward and challenge them with songs and routines that they may not have considered without the coaches’ guidance.  As a result, the groups were stretched beyond their comfort level.  Singers who had always been given solos were suddenly being asked to audition for the right to sing lead.  Beat-boxers were given further direction on keeping the tempo in place and shown new techniques.  Choreography became more than just simple dance steps to the beat of a song; instead, full-fledged skits or scenes were acted out to enhance a song emotionally.

At first the singers protested the changes.  They had been accustomed to running things on their own, and it was comfortable.  Now, suddenly, the coaches were making changes, and it was a huge shift.  But little by little, the changes began to take root, and there was a new normal in place.  Routines began to be polished, and soloists found they were more confident singing the lead.  Sometimes, the comfort factor was so enhanced that singers would zone out for awhile, almost on autopilot because they knew the arrangement so well.  They had entered a new zone in their performance.

But one night, everything came down to the wire.  The last group to compete sat through an entire night of performances.  Everyone had sounded so good, that intimidation was taking root.  For the first time in the competition cycle, the coach noticed that the singers were shutting down.  They were showing fear and doubt, and that didn’t bode well for a good performance.

“I can tell when a group is in the zone,” he said just before the group went onstage.  “And you are not in the zone.  Get in the zone now; don’t think about anything else.  You can do this.”

And just like that, the group turned in their best performance of the year.  There may have been some challenges along the way, some unexpected methods, and the intimidation of other talented musicians, but when it was all said and done, they had expanded their comfort zone.  It was only through this experience that they could perform like they did.  They took everything they had worked through and used it to motivate success.

So for me, there is no jumping outside of the comfort zone to tackle something new; it’s all about taking what you have and expanding on it— increasing the boundaries of the comfort zone, so to speak.  In “the zone,” you can accomplish almost anything if you have the means to do so.

Good News!

I was reading on my Tablet when the music I was streaming suddenly stopped and there was a “ping,” alerting me that I had a new email message.  Instantly, I stopped what I was doing and opened my email application.  My fingers fumbled over the touch screen.  I could feel the nervousness welling up inside of me.  I had a feeling this was the email I had been waiting for, and I was anxious to read the reply that had been sent my way.

It had been a stressful few days as I communicated with someone in my work circle.  The emails that we had sent back and forth had carried a great deal of weight and there was no way of knowing what this most recent email contained.  It could be good news, I hoped, or it could be very bad.  With mixed dread and eagerness, I tapped on the sender’s name and scanned the message.  I would soon have my answer!

Have you ever experienced something like that?  You are eagerly awaiting an important phone call or email, and you can’t wait to have the answers in front of you?  I have encountered this situation numerous times in my life.  I can remember dating online, and I would almost hold my breath before opening a new message from the one I was getting to know.  I recall sitting on the floor of my bedroom, talking to a good friend the night the church consistory was considering hiring me as worship and music director.  I told my friend that as soon as Pastor Tim called, I would have to hang up with her because I wanted to know what he would say.  When I got the “beep” that alerted me to an incoming call, I said a hurried good-bye to her and turned my attention to my new caller, Pastor Tim.

I can also say that I have anticipated text messages as well.  Often, this is the way friends contact me if they are on their way to my house to pick me up.  A quick “I’m on my way” lets me know that I should get ready.  I have the time to put on my coat and shoes and retrieve anything I might need.  It also puts a smile on my face when I know that I will soon be in the presence of a good friend or will be going somewhere exciting.

I have noticed a sort of trend in these circumstances.  As soon as I hear the alert on my phone, whether it be for email, Facebook, text, or call, I often jump to attention.  The alert promotes a certain sense of urgency, as if to say: “Don’t you hear me?  Don’t you want to know what I have to say?”

I think of how quickly I reach for my phone in those moments.  Most of the time, it is as a result of curiosity.  Is it a bill being sent to my email, a text from a friend, a nice comment on my Facebook page, or is it just my Green Bay Packer app. informing me of Jordy Nelson’s preparations for next season?  Each time, for a split second, I wonder: is it good news or bad?  Ironically, the alert for my Facebook utilizes a notification sound called: “Good News.”

Speaking of Facebook— I was scrolling through my newsfeed one day when I came upon this text offset by a nice graphic:

“What if we began to treat our Bibles the way we treat our cell phones?  What if we… Carried it with us everywhere?  …Turned back to get it if we forgot it?  …Checked it for messages throughout the day?  …Used it in case of an emergency?  …Spent an hour or more using it each day?”

Instant shame and regret filled me upon reading this.  Now, I will say that I read the Bible, and quite frequently, but am I attached to the Word of God like I am my cell phone?  Sadly, no.  Each morning, I will sit and read through three different devotionals I subscribe to online.  I will read the Scriptures that correspond to each reading and contemplate any questions that are presented at the end of the devotional.  Throughout the day, depending on what needs to be accomplished, I will reach for the Bible if I need to work on an upcoming service, research a concept for an upcoming blog, or consult a set of verses to meet a need personally or in my circle of friends.  I may be reading the Word, but I’m not reaching for it with eagerness like I reach for my cell phone.  Sadly, I am not desperate for its Words of life and comfort.  If the Word of God is truly God’s words to me, I should be hanging on every word, right?

Recently, I was listening to a sermon by one of my respected mentors.  He preached from the book of Nehemiah, telling the story of Ezra and his reading of the Word in front of the assembly.  The people would gather in the square, and Ezra would read out loud from daybreak until noon.  The passage in Nehemiah 8 states that “all of the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law” (Nehemiah 8:3).  In language that we can relate to, it was as if they hung on every word.  And to think, these people had plenty of time to check out and daydream.  I mean, think of long summer days when the sun rises just before 5:30 a.m.  In literal terms, this would mean that Ezra would be reading and the people would be listening for about six-and-a-half hours.  And remember, they weren’t just listening; they were listening attentively.

The dedication of these people inspires me.  If only I could devote that kind of time to reading and studying the Word!  And the thing is, I do have time.  The fact of the matter is, will I take that time to invest in the Word?  I might not be able to sit for that length of time due to my commitments with work and such, but if I put forward the effort, I’m sure I could find a way to get into the text with a whole lot more dedication that I already put forward.

Reading the Word is so very important after all.  The book of Joshua instructs the reader to meditate on [the Word] day and night, and to do everything written in it.  Reading and meditating on the Word can bring encouragement, comfort, counsel, discipline, and such much more.  Its Words are truly the best news one could ever internalize, and no “Good News” notification is needed to announce its truth.  But only in spending time in the Word can one be obedient to do what it says.  That takes time, dedication, and a certain familiarity with the text, hanging on each Word as if God were speaking out loud to me.

To be more invested in the Word— that is a challenge I am willing and eager to explore.  I know my level of dedication may not flourish overnight, but I am willing to put forth the effort?  Are you willing to do the same?

Fighting Rescue

I had just been hired at the church as worship and music director.  I was nervous, excited, and so afraid all at the same time.  For the first time in my life I was going to have an actual, paid job.  I was cautiously optimistic— so ready to give it my all but yet so afraid that somehow I would mess everything up.  I hadn’t even gotten started and I was afraid to fail, but I wasn’t about to tell anyone that.

Just days after I was approved for the position, I was scheduled to meet with the pastor.  Since I am unable to drive, I arranged time in my schedule to allow enough to time to walk over to the church for my appointment.  What I didn’t arrange for was the coming rain storm.  Now, since I walk everywhere, I am typically aware of the weather, but that day, I figured I could work around it for some reason.  I kept an eye on the radar as I finished up some correspondence for camp and did some promotion for my recently released book.

At one point, I realized it was getting pretty dark.  I checked the radar again and sighed.  If I didn’t want to get caught in the rain, I would have to leave my apartment then and there.  Judging by the movement of the animated green blob on my computer screen, the rain was about 30 minutes away.  It took me about twenty-five minutes to walk to the church, but I needed to stop at the bank first.  I figured I might just make it in time.

I put on my coat and shoes and was soon out the door with my purse over my shoulder.  I walked a little faster than normal, determined to reach my destination before the rain.  I was only about a block from home when my cell phone rang.  At first, I ignored it.  I had no time to talk, and with my purse over one arm and my cane in my other hand, I couldn’t get to my phone that easily.  But as it rang, I realized my phone was announcing that my pastor was calling.  So I stopped on the side of the road and fished my phone out of my purse.

“You’re coming to the office at 3:00, aren’t you?” he asked after we exchanged brief greetings.

“Yes,” I said.  “I’m on my way right now, but I have to stop at the bank first.”

“Um… you know there’s a storm heading this way, don’t you?  I mean, I don’t think you’re going to make it over here in time before it starts.”

As if to confirm his statement, I heard a rumble of thunder in the distance.  I started walking again even though I fumbled with everything I carried in order to hold on to the phone.

“It will be okay,” I told him.  “I’ll hurry.”

“I don’t know…” he said hesitantly.  “I have to pick my daughter up from school in a few minutes so I’ll be out and around.  Let me pick you up.  I know your route, so I should be able to find you pretty easily.’

“No, really; it’s okay,” I said quickly.  “You don’t have to do that.”

He sighed.  “Are you sure?  I’m thinking it won’t be long before its really raining…”

I was almost to the bank at that point.  I figured I would just wait it out at the bank if it started to rain.  Yes, I would be a little late to my appointment, but at least I would be getting to the church by my own ability.  As you can probably tell by now, I was pretty stubborn that day.  I’m still pretty stubborn now.

Once more, I assured him I would be fine, and he finally hung up.  I increased my pace and found my way to the bank to the accompaniment of rumbling thunder.  I breathed a sigh of relief as I entered the lobby.  I was completing my transaction and chatting with the teller when another bank employee remarked that it was pouring outside.

“I guess I’ll be hanging out here for awhile,” I told the bank teller.  I proceeded to relay to her my recent conversation with my pastor and how I was bound and determined to get to the church on my own.  He had plenty to worry about without needing to pick me up on the side of the road.

No sooner had I finished my tale than my cell phone rang in my hand.  I looked down to see my pastor’s name in the display window.  “It’s him, isn’t it?” the teller asked.

I groaned and nodded as I stepped away from the counter.

“Where are you?” he asked without so much as a greeting.

“At the bank,” I replied.

“Stay right there,” he said, his tone leaving no room for argument.  “I’ll be there in five minutes.”

I knew in that moment that it was over for me.  I had lost the battle.  I had tried so hard to be independent, and here I was on the first day of my new job needing help already.  I was disappointed, hurt, and almost a little embarrassed.

A few moments later, my pastor made his way through the lobby doors with umbrella in hand.  Without a word, he led me outside where his daughter was waiting in the car.  It was raining in earnest now, and the sky was so dark that the streetlights were already coming on.

His daughter chattered in the backseat as we drove toward the church, but I didn’t say anything.  There was a certain tension between the two adults in the car, and I knew it was all on me.  He didn’t say anything to me until we were moments from pulling into the church parking lot: “Cassie, Cassie… when will you ever learn?” he said finally.  I didn’t look at him, but I imagine in that moment that he was shaking his head in bewilderment.

He had just rescued me from the deluge outside, but I felt no relief in that.  Instead, I felt like a failure.  Not only had I failed at acting out my independence, but I had also failed at graciously accepting help from someone who appeared to genuinely care about me.  I had tried so hard only to come up short.

In that moment, I felt so alone, but it turns out that I wasn’t the only one to battle through a storm and be in need of rescue.  In Matthew 14, Jesus goes off by himself to pray while his disciples set out on the lake.  The wind comes up during the course of the night, and the boat is tossed here and there among the waves.  It is close to dawn when the disciples see someone walking on the lake toward them.  At first they think it is a ghost, until Jesus reveals his identity.

Wanting to be sure it is Jesus, Peter calls out to him and asks if he might walk out to meet him.  Jesus says “Come,” and Peter steps out on the water.  But when he sees the wind and the waves, he falters and begins to sink.  He cries out to Jesus to save Him, and Jesus does just that.  But in addition to saving him, Jesus makes this a teaching opportunity, almost chastising Peter for doubting and possessing little faith.

Now obviously, Peter and I faced very different circumstances.  But what we had in common resonates deeply with me.  In a bold move, Peter takes a leap of faith and comes to Jesus on the lake, but when he begins to fear all that is happening around him, he begins to sink in defeat.  I’m sure he felt great disappointment, wondering what Jesus would think of him.  I’m sure he was very aware of his failures in that moment.

I was also afraid to fail, but unlike Peter, my determination to continue down the road without accepting any help was the moment when I began to sink.  In my stubborn independence, I had shut others out, and as a result, I felt I had no other choice but to make something happen on my own.  Besides, I spent so much time asking for rides and requesting help from people that I just wanted to accomplish something on my own.

I didn’t want to appear needy.  I didn’t want to bother anyone.  I didn’t want to appear weak.  I didn’t want to fail.  Although my pastor didn’t chastise me for having little faith, he did take the opportunity, as Jesus had, to speak some truth into my life.

“When will you ever learn?”  This question seemed to say to me: “So are you tired of fighting on your own?  Do you have to have everything figured out before you set out?  Are you beyond accepting the help of others?”

Ouch!  Now, of course, he didn’t actually say any of this, and I’m fairly certain he didn’t imply it either.  But in thinking about that rainy day on the streets of my hometown, I came to recognize a key reason why I couldn’t seem to reach out to others for help.

It all came down to my compensation mechanism.  I have talked about this in other posts, so bear with me if I seem to be repeating myself here.  I don’t like to be on the receiving end of assistance very often, but the truth is, I often need to be on the receiving end just because of my circumstances.  As a result, I try to compensate by doing as much on my own as possible, and that includes walking to and from work.  It almost causes a physical pain within me when I realize that I have to ask for help because I have reached my last resort.  It isn’t that I do not value help from others; it’s just that I long to step out my own.

But on that rainy day, I came to realize that I can’t change my circumstances.  Just because I couldn’t get to work on my own didn’t mean I was a failure.  That afternoon taught me that I couldn’t do everything in my own power.  I may not have had the same experience as Peter on that lake, but nevertheless, we were both afraid to fail.

And it was then that I realized that this was an exercise in faith.  It increased in me a semblance of gratitude toward the people who were willing to support me and even rescue me on days when I was too stubborn to reach out.  It also reminded me that I needed to be dependent on God to bring me through.  I was crazy to think that I could accomplish everything on my own.  And finally, the experience of that afternoon taught me that I couldn’t let my fear of failure— this being needy— to control my next steps forward.  I might not have been walking on water, but the constant shifting of my circumstances sure felt like rolling waves and winds.  In the midst of the storm, I was reminded that I didn’t have to endure on my own.  I had friends who cared and a Savior who was ready to rescue me no matter how far I wandered.

Tuning the Piano

I have played the piano since my elementary school days.  I was taught by a sweet older lady who was patient with my unconventional style of learning.  You see, I am not able to see written music unless the page is enlarged, which creates a cumbersome set of flopping sheets cascading down from the piano.  It was impossible to keep turning pages just to read a few measures at a time, so my instructor came up with a bit of a plan.  She started with the basics.  “This is middle C; if you play the E above it, along with the G, you will make the C chord.”  She then took me through chord inversions (ways to play the C chord in different formations so that C, E, and G could resonate in different ways depending on a particular song that I might be playing).

Obviously, one cannot get by with just one chord, for there can be no song, so my instructor showed me two more chords: F and G with the same instructions for inversion.  At that point, I could play three chords, affording me the opportunity to begin to play by ear.  I found I could play a simple version of “Jesus Loves me” along with a few other hymns, and it was just the start I needed.

As I progressed into middle school, I offered to help my mother with the music at evening church services.  She would play the congregational hymns while I would play my simple arrangements for prelude and offertories.  I made plenty of mistakes, but it was a way for me to gain confidence in playing in front of a live audience.  I knew my strength was definitely in my singing voice, but I also knew that playing piano would be a part of my future, and I was determined to work to improve my skill level.

In 2011, I accepted the position of Worship and Music director at my church, and that’s when the dramatic shift took place.  I was still playing by ear and I knew basic key signatures and chord structures, but my mind was far from music theory.  Instead, I would play along with CDs or other recordings, trying to memorize the structure of a song.  Sometimes, the chord progression would move far too quickly, and I would have to give up on a song because I just couldn’t make my fingers play what I was hearing.  But I kept trying.  Little by little, playing by ear got easier for me.  I started to print out chord charts for other musicians on our teams, and even though I couldn’t read the notation while playing, I would often take the music home and memorize the patterns.  Then, when it came time to play through the song on the piano, I would be more confident in the song’s structure.  There were times that my fumbling over the keys was hardly beautiful; in fact, I often cringe to think of some of my early attempts to make music in front of my very forgiving congregation.  But as time moved forward, my musical skill was improved, thanks to hard work, dedication, and encouragement from others.

When I am leading worship at church, I almost always play the Steinway Grand piano.  I feel a certain attachment to the old instrument.  To my understanding, the piano was a gift to our congregation, but its placement in our sanctuary took some tender, loving care and restoration.  I am fairly certain that the instrument was poorly maintained.  Although the piano has the distinct appearance of a Steinway Grand, it definitely shows its age.  It goes out of tune quite often, and when it is in dire need of tuning, I can hardly stand it. We have a few other accompanists at our church, but I am usually the only one who plays the Grand.  On a number of occasions I have though about how easy it would be to navigate over to the digital keyboard when the Grand is out of tune.  But I have only followed through with this one time, and that was because I had to give a concert.  I can’t walk away from the “real” piano.  Its pitch may be out of tune, but it’s still a thing of beauty to me.

The same is true of the musicians who make up our worship teams, and I count myself foremost in this comparison.  When I filled the role of Worship and Music Director in 2011, I felt largely under-qualified.  I only knew a handful of hymns and praise songs, and I didn’t have the ability to see written music.  For a long time, I felt limited in my skill level and far from effective.  Much like an out-of-tune piano, I felt very much like I needed the refining of the tuning tool to bring me musically to the level where I could succeed.

Now, looking back, I realize that I am always in this tuning and refining process.  Even as I learn and grow, I am walking alongside fellow musicians who are all at different stages of musicality and faith journey.  The diversity of each individual and their experiences has shown me that no one is perfect.  Sometimes, we have our great days; the harmonies are dead center and our voices ring with clarity.  But on other days, we struggle to find our rhythm; we can’t find our place and the arrangement is chaotic.  No matter the state of our musicality, or lack thereof, it is perspective that is the most important element here.

Those who are closest to me know that I am a perfectionist, especially when it comes to music.  Ideally, I would love to have each worship leading experience or concert go completely as practiced.  But when you are working together as a team, the desired results are not always achieved.  Some team members come well-prepared to practice; either they know the music well or have taken the time during the week to familiarize themselves with the music.  But sometimes, those who are not as musically gifted may practice a great deal and still not have a good handle on the music when it is time to hit the stage.  This imbalance can result in team members that are not always in sync with one another.

But an imbalance can also occur when team members are at different levels personally and spiritually.  In my short time working as worship leader, I have interacted with team members from a variety of backgrounds: college students studying to become music teachers, teenagers, elementary students, middle-aged adults, young mothers, and the list goes on.  All of these individuals are volunteers.  I am the worship leader— paid to work in the office, be at practice, and facilitate worship on Sunday morning.  The volunteers are not paid— they are giving of their time and energy— outside of their normal activities— and participating in worship.  These individuals are going above and beyond the call of duty to aid in leading worship, and sometimes, the business of one’s schedule can lead to less available time to dedicate to worship ministry.  In addition, these volunteers are bringing their personal struggle into the equation— grief, heartache, stress, worry, doubt, and uncertainty.  There are also those who have been following Jesus a long time, new believers, and even some who are not sure where they stand in their faith journey.

The difference in personal dynamics can be challenging for a worship leader, and all of this effects the inner-workings and health of a worship department.  These dynamics may not have anything to do with musicality, but in the end, one basic element rings true.  Just as I learned to play piano in a way that would help me accomplish my goals, so also a worship team must come together in all of its varied dynamics to accomplish a purpose.

Some keys on a piano need three strings to be tuned together just to play one tone.  If those three strings are not tuned to ring as one unified pitch, then any other notes played in harmony will not be harmonious at all.  Instead, one will hear an out-of-tune piano— unpleasant and grating to a musician’s ear.

I am not perfect.  No worship team is perfect.  We all have to find a way to work together to find harmony, even though we come from different backgrounds and personal struggles.  It is an ongoing process.  Sometimes, like a piano, we get out of tune with each other.  It isn’t that we are having disagreements or not united in our purpose; it’s just that we need to find common ground in the midst of our varied circumstances.  It is wonderful when a team can stand on stage and play music together, one in heart and purpose to worship the Lord.  He is the One who can bring us all together— the One who can pluck the strings of our hearts so we can sing in perfect harmony.