Keep Watch and Pray

The hours were long as we sat at the bedside.  It had been a meaningful time spent with family, but even so, we were all gathered for one purpose.  A dear one in our midst was nearing his final days on earth.  It had been a journey of six years as we walked through the changes that came with failing health and altered circumstances.  It had all been leading up to these moments… waiting for the end.

Most of the time, there were several of us gathered around, and it was comforting.  In the times when I thought of keeping vigil alone, however, I felt a strange kind of anxiety.   There was something about sitting there in silence that made me feel uncomfortable… as if I should say something, do something, anything… So I only visited when there were others around… until one sacred Sunday afternoon.

I tiptoed into the bedroom to the sounds of labored breathing and an almost reverent silence.  Instantly, my eyes filled with tears.  These were the peaceful moments I had been missing up until that point… moments when I could have been reveling in the joyous solitude of the all-too-soon home-going of our loved one.  I was almost afraid to break the silence, for it was so beautiful.

But then I opened my hymnbook and began to sing… “Praise to the Lord,” “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” “God is so Good,” “How Great Thou art,” Great is Thy Faithfulness.”  At times, tears cascaded down my face, but I sang on… my quiet songs blending with his straining breath.

Moments later, family members began to stream into the room and we were no longer alone in our worship vigil; the moment was broken, but the waiting and watching continued.  We talked quietly around our loved one, and I wondered what he must be feeling in that moment.  Was it hard for him to breathe?  Was he in pain?  Did he know he would soon leave this world?  What could I do to help ease his pain and fears in those final hours?  But there were no answers.

As the days passed and we reached Maundy Thursday, I listened intently as our pastor shared a message about Jesus and His disciples praying in the Garden of Gethsemane.  Jesus asked His disciples to “keep watch” with Him as His soul was overwhelmed with “sorrow to the point of death.”  He expressed his emotions to the disciples at that point, but I don’t think they truly grasped what would soon take place.  After all, He had told them of his death and resurrection three times already, and still they didn’t seem to understand.  In that last evening in the Garden, Jesus knew He would soon suffer and die for the many sins of this world.  The load He carried must have felt unbearable, and in those final hours, he asked His friends to keep watch with Him… only they succumbed to sleep.

The Pastor asked us in all honesty if we would have committed to keeping watch with Jesus.  He admitted that he would have quickly said “yes,” that he would have lasted with Jesus until the bitter end.  But he knew that in all actuality, he would have succumbed to slumber just like the disciples had done.

As I listened to my pastor’s humble confession, my thoughts shifted to the ongoing vigil at my loved one’s bedside.  Those hours of watching and waiting had been difficult, and I knew there were others, like myself, who had struggled to remain there in the long hours.  We could see his struggle for breath, and although we were emotionally entwined in this process, we couldn’t physically identify with Him.  We could only watch and pray that the final hours would be blessedly brief and free of pain and suffering.

Good Friday morning, I awoke well before dawn.  I had committed to pray for an hour to contribute to our church’s 84-hour prayer vigil leading up to Easter Sunday morning.  Over the years, I have always held Good Friday morning sacred.  I can recall many Good Friday mornings, sitting beside my father in a church pew as we prayed together in the moments before sunrise.  I wanted to keep that tradition, so with coffee in hand, I prayed and read Scripture until sunrise.

In the quiet of my sunroom/ office, the phone rang just as the sun broke over the horizon.  Our loved one had passed away and was now with Jesus.  The tears came instantly, but not merely in grief; these were tears of bittersweet joy.  It was truly a good, Good Friday.  He was now home with His Savior who had sacrificed everything in order that my loved one might have eternal life.  The long night of sorrow had come to an end, and with the dawn came the promise of new life.


Punctuated with Finality

I love to write!  I would write all day long if I could; it fills my heart with such joy.  I like to write everything: novels, poetry, songs, blogs….  I even love the idea of writing; grammar and sentence structure are exciting to me!  Do you think I am crazy?  I suppose no one will ever fully understand why the written word is my first love.  Only I can know the joy of writing and what it means to me.

I don’t know if you noticed, but in the above paragraph, I tried to use every form of punctuation I could think of to incorporate into the text.  I have a point to my ramblings, and interestingly, it really doesn’t have anything to do with my love of writing; however, it has everything to do with what writing has inspired in my life.

When I was getting ready to publish my first book, I found out just how challenging the editing process was going to be.  I was at odds with my editor sometimes; I was fairly certain she was against my use of the semi-colon.  I argued that my use of the punctuation mark was literary in nature.  Why end a sentence with a period when you can prolong the thought process with two sentences seemingly combined into one?

We argued over the use of the semi-colon as we worked through each sentence.  I won some of the battles but I definitely didn’t win the war.  By the time my book went to print, several of my semi-colons were dead and gone along with a few of my characters.  There was a certain finality in sending in that final manuscript draft.  I could no longer make any changes.  The story was set in stone, and any grammatical errors that existed would simply have to remain in place.  I was relieved to see the process come to an end but nervous at the same time.

Recently, I thought about that pivotal moment in my writing career.  A similar scenario played out when I released all three of my books.  As I sent each one to the publisher, I would come to the dizzying realization that there was no turning back.  The book was going to print and it was final.  Period.

Sometimes, the situations we face in life can mirror punctuation marks.  Sometimes, a season will come to an abrupt and dramatic end— as if to be finalized with an exclamation mark.  Other times, a comma may be in place— a brief pause as you take the time to contemplate your next steps in life’s journey.  Other times, the period comes into play.  A job, a relationship, or some other activity comes to an end and you are left to consider the next sentence or phase of your life.  And then maybe the semi-colon comes in; perhaps one phase of life bleeds into another.

This symbolic semi-colon existed for me as I wrote all of my books.  At the same time, I was writing and performing my music, volunteering at my church, obtaining my Masters’ degree, and participating in a voluntary internship.  All of these commitments co-existed for me, and oftentimes my tasks would blend together in a strange kind of multi-tasking.  In terms of writing and grammar, it would probably read like one long, run-on sentence.

But then I traveled to Nashville, and that’s when it happened.  The sentence came to an end with a period— at least where one of my endeavors was concerned.  Although I would continue to sing and write music, my time of seeking out performance opportunities and concerts had come to an end.  There was no exclamation mark in place here, because when God spoke to my heart, it was a gentle realization.  It was just over.  Period.

I continued in many of my endeavors, but like my time in Nashville, I found I couldn’t sustain everything.  My voluntary internship ended like this— the dash creating a sudden shift.  I wasn’t expecting to walk out the door, but I did, and although the change was sudden, I didn’t regret my decision.  Then I graduated with my Masters degree, and that definitely held an exclamation mark!  I had managed to endure two long years of intense study, and it all resulted in being hired as Worship and Music Director at FRC!  It was an exciting time in my life!

For every phase in my life, a symbolic punctuation mark has excited.  But in my current phase, I’m not quite sure what is taking place.  In one sense I feel as if I am on pause, the comma dictating my suddenly quiet existence.  There isn’t a lot on my horizon though, so then I wonder if it is more than a comma’s pause— more of an ellipses of sorts.  In some ways, it’s like I’m waiting on the edge for whatever is on the other side of those three little dots…. what might be coming….

When I left camp, my intellectual side (my head) wanted a clean break.  A clear stopping point (the period) was definitely needed here.  But my emotions (my heart) wanted to install the semi-colon or ellipses.  I still valued the relationships I had developed, and I couldn’t see myself just leaving without a clear plan for continuing to make an investment in this area.  But in a way, I knew that I had to find a compromise between the head and the heart.  My time at camp had come to an end, but my friendships could carry me into the future as long as I kept myself distant from what was taking place at camp.

At some point, I want to be able to look back and consider my conclusion at camp a clear exclamation point— a resounding positive expression of the time and effort I put into making YLF all it could be even within my limited experience.  But right now, it looks a lot like this; it’s a lot like two sentences, joined by my beloved semi-colon.  I have gone on my way, but a piece of my heart still remains with the organization I still love dearly.  It’s hard to say when I will take the time to edit and replace that semi-colon with a period or exclamation point, but some day I will know with certainty how the story will end.


Until then, stay tuned…

“Should I Stay or Should I Go Now?”: Part 1

It’s not just a lyric from a popular song; for me, it’s a question I’ve asked myself often over the years.  It seemed that when I graduated college, the questions came more often and were more numerous.  There was the obvious decision regarding what career I should pursue and whether or not I should release my books and CDs.  I considered where I should live and where I would call home.  Once those initial decisions were made, I thought the questions would cease, but it wasn’t long before I was presented with more options.

I reached a crossroads in 2008.  I had felt that my books and music were not successful to the degree that I had hoped, and I sought out other alternatives.  Nothing proved to bring my career to the level of its hoped-for potential, and as a result, I fell into a time of deep depression.  When you reach a point where you have exhausted all of your options, a sense of hopelessness can often result and I was there.

My only true solace was in my times of prayer with God.  There were many late-night episodes of emotional communication with the Father, and although my relationship with Him was deep and personal, my sense of accomplishment and purpose was sorely lacking.  I longed to embrace Christian community and find a level of accountability from friends within the church, but “church” was a sore subject for me at that time.

I had always loved the church where I had grown up.  But in 2008, our church was vacant, meaning there were people attending, but there was no pastor.  The services were long and lackluster.  People came to worship, but there seemed there was no joy, no passion, and no purpose.  In a way, it mirrored my own personal state of affairs; I couldn’t make myself participate in that.

For the first time in my life, I contemplated leaving my home church.  I wasn’t about to revoke or transfer my membership, but I considered the possibility of worshipping elsewhere in addition to attending my home church.  So on Sunday mornings, I faithfully shuffled my way into my home church, but on Sunday evenings I attended worship with my grandparents at a church down the road.  It was at my grandparents’ church that I connected with the pastor, participated in special music, and got involved with some of the church’s ministry opportunities.  The pastor was gracious to me and encouraged my love for music.  I didn’t know it then, but he planted the smallest mustard seed-sized spark that would later develop into a full-fledged passion for worship ministry.  He further grew that passion by saying that if the church had the money, they might consider hiring someone like me to help with the music elements in their services.

Up until that point, I had never thought about a career in worship ministry.  I had thought that by pursuing a record deal and then independently releasing my CD, I would be fulfilling a role in music ministry.  But as I found out, it was a very empty role.  It was gratifying to hear from someone in the audience when a song spoke to their heart, but those comments were few and far between.  Besides, it was difficult for me to pursue my music when transportation was such a struggle.  This idea to pursue music within a church, especially a local church, was intriguing.  I wouldn’t need to travel.  Could this be the answer to my prayers, I wondered?

To make a long story short, I talked with the pastor and together (along with my parents and a few other trusted mentors) we decided to consider some Masters’ degree programs.  My father was particularly supportive during this stage in my life.  I can still hear him saying, “Well, you have always loved the church… not just your local congregation but the greater Church.  I could see this working for you.”

But the question remained: What would I study?  Should I pursue worship ministry even though I had no idea if that was my calling?  Was it more of an interest at that point, or was that mustard seed-sized spark beginning to flourish?

I got my answer over about a year-and-a-half time span.  I succumbed to prolonged allergies that nearly took my voice and breath.  I questioned God’s calling and my purpose in life even more.  I traveled to Nashville and competed for the possibility of a record contract, and when I returned home, I considered an independent record contract that later fell through.  Nothing seemed to be working out, but school was a constant, and I continued to plug away at my Masters’ program.

In the spring of 2011, it was like I had one last hurrah.  I published my third book— something that had been on my heart for a long time— and I was afraid that if I didn’t put it out there then, I never would.  I graduated with my degree, and finally had a chance to breathe.  I considered my next steps then.  Was it time to start applying for jobs?  I was free to put my name out to churches, and I had the credentials musically and otherwise to do so.  But something was holding me back.

My home church was starting to turn a corner.  A new pastor had arrived in 2009, and slowly but surely, improvement was taking place.  I was still attending Sunday morning services out of obligation, especially since my grandparents’ church had eliminated their Sunday evening activities.  For only a brief moment I considered just going to Sunday morning worship with my grandmother, but again, something stopped me.

It was almost as if I wanted a reason to stay with my home church. I just couldn’t put my finger on exactly why I felt this way.  Even as I started applying for jobs and actually interviewing for them, my heart was not in the process of moving forward.  Deep down, I didn’t want to leave.  It wasn’t just leaving the church that bothered me.  I didn’t want to move.  The thought of packing up my belongings, leaving my family and friends, and starting over again was not something I wanted to contemplate.  I never actually prayed the prayer out loud, but I think I got to the point where I simply hoped I could stay.

But reality told me that this wouldn’t be possible.  It was time to go.  If I wanted to move forward, I had to move on.  I couldn’t hold on to the comforts of home forever.  There have only been two times in my life where I audibly heard God speak to my heart, and one of those times was in Nashville.  I had just finished a competition piece when I heard Him say: “I have called you to this but not here.”  I perceived that those words had something to do with my new-found consideration of worship ministry.  Part of me had gone ahead with the competition just to confirm what I already knew to be true.  Writing and performing my own music would always be my gift, but it would not be a permanent gig.  I was pretty sure I was called to worship ministry.

So there I was in the spring of 2011 with a new dream in my heart and once more no prospects were on the table.  I was tired of interviewing and never really finding that right niche.  There had to be something out there for me, but it wasn’t manifesting itself.

Then I got a phone call from my pastor— not the pastor of my grandparents’ church but my church’s pastor.  I had gotten to know him a bit over the years and had even volunteered some of my time to the music department.  My involvement at the church had been spotty though.  There were already two worship teams and a handful of really talented accompanists.  It wasn’t in my nature to lodge myself in the middle of all of that and try to get involved.  I knew I needed a church and ministry where I could feel useful and successful.

But anyway, I digress.  So my pastor called, and that one call changed the trajectory of my life as I knew it.  Stay tuned to next week’s post for continuation of this very real tale.  Should I stay or should I go now?  You’ll find out! 🙂