It was a story I had carried in my heart for nearly ten years, a tale taken from my direct experience as a teenager.  I began to scribble scenes in tiny little notebooks that went with me everywhere; I even sneaked a few feverishly written paragraphs during Applied Math class.  (How about we keep that incriminating knowledge just to the blog followers?  I wouldn’t want to get in trouble almost 15 years laterJ).  But in all seriousness, I eat, slept, went to school, and participated in music rehearsals with the story ever-present in my mind.  There were many scenes I had yet to script on paper, and those unwritten pages screamed to be created.  I would fall asleep with my characters foremost in my thoughts, and it was almost as if a movie was being acted out.  I could see the characters— their physical appearance, the interior of their house, the car they drove, the activities they participated in; it was all so vivid.

But then college happened.  My days were filled with seemingly endless homework assignments, group projects, and choir rehearsals. Sometimes, I squeezed in a little writing on Sundays, but it was frustrating not to be able to create.  I found that my characters were no longer as vivid and the storyline had begun to get fuzzy.

Then as my college days came to an end, I had the opportunity to write a novella for one of my final English major requirements.  For a fleeting moment, my thoughts centered on my teenage-influenced story, but deep down, I knew it wasn’t the right course of action.  So I started over and went in a completely different direction— crafting a work of historical fiction based on true events in 1899 New Richmond, Wisconsin.  It was fulfilling, motivating, and exhilarating… almost to the point where I forgot about my first book.

Fast forward about two years later.  Beyond the Fury and St. Croix Chronicles had both been released, and I was facing an empty space in my schedule.  So I decided to organize my storage unit, and that’s when I found them— the tiny notebooks with my hurried scribble— all containing the bits of story that I had long since shoved aside.

I was hooked once more and ready to jump in with both feet.  I committed to making it my project for 2010, and I got started by reading through each notebook, taking notes, and finally crafting an outline.  Then I set to work, utilizing that outline as I began to write.  For the most part, I followed the outline, but sometimes it was necessary to deviate a little bit— or a lot.

The writing was going so well that I had the book done well before my prescribed deadline, and I handed the completed creation over to my editor.  It took nearly six months for us to weigh our options in terms of publication, but in the end, we made the decision to go with the company that had released my first two books.  I was excited and so ready!  After ten long years, this book was finally going to press.

But then, a pretty major flaw within the climax of the plot was brought to my attention, and I was crushed.  The scene in question utilized copyrighted song lyrics, and I didn’t have the time or money to seek out permission for the rights.  So what was I going to do?  I tossed and turned seemingly all night long as I considered my options.  My stomach knotted with anxiety.  That scene was so pivotal; the entire storyline hinged on this one conversation between the two main characters.  How could I possible re-write it?  Could I just re-write that scene, or would I have to re-work the entire plot?  My outline gave me very little guidance; in my eyes, the book was complete thanks to that scene, and I wasn’t willing to let it go.

But in the end, I had no other options.  Up against a March 31 deadline in the middle of February, I knew it was either now or never.  So the next morning, I sat down at the computer to see what could be done.  In the end, it wasn’t too difficult; only about ten pages of text had to be re-worked or completely re-written.  My stomach still clenched with anxiety and I wasn’t sure if the scene would be as powerful as it once was; but if I wanted the book to be released, I had to let go of my preconceived plans.

I thought of this pivotal point in my writing career as I was out on my tricycle the other day.  I was coming home from the Farmer’s Market, and other than a few last-minute details to iron out for the upcoming Sunday worship service, I didn’t have anything pressing on my schedule.  I was eager to get home, curl up with a book and a cup of coffee, and enjoy the cool breeze coming in through the open patio door.  But something about that plan didn’t seem quite right.  And this was strange because it was no different than any other Saturday.  The day before the Sabbath was always flexible for me— time for me to clean the house, go out with friends, catch up on practicing, and yes, curling up with that book and coffee.  So what was wrong with that plan for this Saturday in question?

In an instant I knew why I was so restless.  I had just concluded four sessions of StrengthsFinder coaching, and in my final session, I set a goal.  I won’t go into detail about the nature of this goal, but I will say that it has a lot to do with relationship development.  I will admit that relationships are difficult for me for three main reasons: 1) I am pretty guarded in the connections I make, 2) I thrive on achieving and busyness, so I don’t often take the time to reach out, and 3) I don’t want to develop a connection, only to find that I have become a burden to this individual based on what I might need from them (rides, help around the house, etc).

But that Saturday morning, the goal was crystal clear and I knew what I needed to do.  The only problem, however, was that I still wanted to go home to that book and cup of coffee.  It was quiet, safe, and controlled at home.  In terms of crafting an outline, that’s how the story was supposed to go: no surprises, no copyright issues, and a perfect ending.  But as my tires crunched over the rock that had recently been laid to patch the road, I found myself turning into a nearby driveway instead of continuing straight home.

I parked, knocked on a door, and was welcomed in.  An hour later, I had managed to enjoy coffee after all, for the one who had invited me inside had laid out coffee and raisin bread to add to our impromptu visit.  In the end, I got home later than expected, and my day didn’t materialize in the way I had anticipated, but the change-up was worth it.  Relationships can be challenging, but they can be rewarding too.  Imagine if I hadn’t stopped along the road that day?  I would have followed my preconceived plan and missed out on something meaningful.

Sometimes, you just have to set aside the outline and figure it out as you go along.  Often, the unscripted moments are the ones that end up making it into the final draft.  Years later, I’m sure I will look back on a time such as this and be grateful that I took that chance.  After all, I have a feeling that the Saturday morning visit in question was what God had planned to me all along, and I don’t want to question his sovereign plan.  In terms of my life story, He is the writer, and nothing surprises Him.  I may not be able to see Him at work in every circumstance, but He holds the pen, and it is my job to let Him create.  It’s time to trust Him; He’s got this.

Second Nature

Occasionally, as I’m sure is true for everyone, I simply cannot sleep.  I toss and turn, and my mind is swirling with the thoughts of the day just past.  I cannot seem to shut down.  I try to pray, but often, my thoughts and communication with God become jumbled and my mind wanders off again and again.  After nights like this, I find myself waking up the next morning full of anxiety and so far from being at peace.  I instantly correlate my state of mind and heart with what transpired the night before— or rather, what did not transpire.  I am riddled with guilt.  Why was it so hard to manage just a few minutes in communication with my Father?

One day, I confessed to my administrative assistant that my prayer life was struggling.  She didn’t condemn me, but instead, reached out with a simple suggestion.  She told me that whenever she struggles to fall asleep, she begins to recite the Lord’s Prayer— slowly and methodically, concentrating on each word and phrase as they come to mind and pass from her lips.  She admitted that the prayer takes so much focus and dedication that sometimes she doesn’t remember reaching the end of the prayer, for she surrenders to sleep.

Grateful for this insight, I committed to trying her technique.  I figured I didn’t have anything to lose.  My only fear, however, was that I wouldn’t concentrate on the words of the prayer.  I had memorized the Lord’s Prayer as a child, and I could say it on autopilot.  I hoped the prayer would be a tangible way for me to communicate with God and not just something to say out of obligation.

I’ll confess, it wasn’t easy in the beginning, but night after night, I found that my mind and heart became more at peace.  My mind still wandered from time to time, but it was a good way for me to find discipline in my prayer life.  I committed to lifting up personal prayer requests as well, and quite often, I interceded for my own needs.  My prayers did not come naturally; it definitely took some effort to speak my supplications out loud or consider them in my mind, but I was trying.  I’ll be honest; it wasn’t hard to get frustrated with my halting progress.  I desired a stronger connection with my God, and I also longed for peaceful slumber.  But God was working in my heart, and even though I didn’t want to wait any longer, I had to resign myself to a more prolonged process.

At times, I felt supremely guilty for this apparent lacking when it came to prayer in my life.  I’ll admit that I envied those who exuded an attitude of prayer— those who had no problem praying aloud and their prayers seemed to flow without any prodding or rehearsal.  In the back of my mind, I reminded myself that Intercession had not been a high ranking on my spiritual gifts inventory, but I felt that was no excuse.  I was feeling pretty disappointed in myself.

Until I read something that titled my world on its axis.

I was reading through a worship leading magazine I subscribe to when I was struck with a realization.  The entire issue was dedicated to prayer, and I had to hold back a laugh when I considered the irony.  But then I sat, rooted to my chair as I contemplated this earth-shattering reality: to sing is to pray.

“What?!” I said out loud.  “What do you mean?”

But as I read through that issue on prayer, I became convinced of something oh, so true.  As I lead worship and as I sing, I am praying.  In fact, I have always felt greatly disturbed and jolted from my offering to Him when others applaud me in the church setting or at a performance.  When I hear the clapping and cheers, it transports me from His presence back to the reality of the stage and assembled crowd— and it’s a rude awakening to say the least.

Without understanding it, I had always prayed through song.  In fact, I was reminded of this recently when I went through StrengthFinders coaching.  My coach asked me if there was something that came naturally to me— almost without trying— and I had to say that it was singing, for sure.  I find myself singing all the time: as I make my bed and prepare myself for another day ahead, as I cook dinner, as I do the dishes, as I tidy my office, as I prepare for bed.  Most of the time, it is a hymn or worship song that springs from my heart.  As I sing, it brings light to a dreary day, peace in the midst of stress, and praise from a heart that is thankful.

The more I thought about it, I knew it was true.  My songs were prayers, and as I sang, I was praying.  And then I was struck with the concept of the Lord’s Prayer, but this time in a new light.  As the summer drew to a close, I walked alongside an elderly woman as she neared her final days on earth.  She had a particular fondness for reciting the Lord’s Prayer, and it encouraged me to see the prayer with new eyes.

One night, long after dark, I sat at home thinking of my dear friend, so close to embracing eternal life, and I was struck with inspiration.  I grabbed my hymnbook and phone and went out to the garage.  There, in the stillness of the night, I recorded the musical setting of “The Lord’s Prayer.”  There was no elaborate piano accompaniment— just my voice and the reverberating acoustics of the garage.  The simple musical rendering impacted me so greatly that chills passed over my arms.  It was one of the most powerful moments of personal worship time I had ever experienced.

The next day was Sunday, and all week I had felt a stirring in my heart as I prepared to lead worship.  I had told our team to expect the unexpected and to not be surprised if I changed an element in one of our sets of music.  Deep down, I felt the Spirit prompting me in a particular way, but I didn’t want to misinterpret that leading.  It was humbling to be moments from heading into worship and I didn’t have a plan in place.  I was scared out of my mind.  My hands were clammy and my heart was pounding double-time.  I wasn’t sure I had the courage to step into the unknown, but even so, I knew what I needed to do.

As worship began, our team played the song “Heart of Worship.”  As the song neared its conclusion, I felt the stirring again.  I couldn’t ignore it any longer, and before I could talk myself out of it, I began to sing acapella.  I closed my eyes, and I was back in my garage the night before.  The words of “The Lord’s Prayer” came as natural as the breath from my lungs.  For the first time, I truly felt that I was praying without any pretense or comparison.  It was just me and my Father God.  I laid all of my burdens at His feet and asked that His will would be done.  I pictured my elderly friend on the brink of eternity, and it was difficult to hold back the tears.  I imaged that if she were beside me that morning, she would be singing and praying right along with me.

It was an honor to officiate my friend’s memorial service mere days later.  I sang this simple version of “The Lord’s Prayer” to honor her memory that day as I concluded her eulogy, and it was a time of worship I will not soon forget.  I allowed myself to let go of all of my preconceived ideas where prayer was considered.  I marveled at the connection I had made with my Father— first in my garage, then during worship at church, and then at the memorial service— and all because a sweet, older woman and my administrative assistant helped to bring life where there was once struggle.

I still think it’s important to talk to God in prayer, and I’m not ignoring that draw to connect with His heart.  But I will never think of singing in the same way again, for to sing is to pray.  If that’s the case, then I’m praying without ceasing, for sure!  This prayer through song is second nature, something that requires very little thought.  It is an instant way for me to communicate with God, and now that I am aware of this reality, I’m going to be more conscious of it.  I get excited when I think of the expansion that is sure to come in my mind and heart when it comes to prayer.  I look forward to utilizing the gift of music that He has given me to give all honor and glory back to Him in return.