Wind-blown, out of the Abyss Survival

One awesome phone call brought it all screaming back to me— the fear, the doubt, the grief, the uncertainty… and above all else, the immense gratitude.  “Wait, what?” you might be asking.  “An awesome, meaning good?… phone call brought up all of those emotions?”  As hard as it might be to believe this, it’s true!


I was in the middle of a tedious Zoom meeting when my cell phone rang.  I ignored the call because it wasn’t from someone in my contacts, but then my landline rang right next to me, displaying the same number in the caller ID.  With a bit of hesitancy, I decided to answer the call, my guard up because of so many unwanted, robocalls over time.  I was surprised and elated to hear a welcome voice on the other end of the call, that of my retina surgeon.  It had been over a year since I had been in his office, and obviously, because of COVID-19, my upcoming appointments have been put on hold.  He called to ask about my well-being and to go over some developments with my case.  I hung up from the call, practically brimming with thankfulness.


Almost three years ago, I was confronted with a frightening reality: the very real possibility that I could lose the remaining vision contained to my left eye as a result of retinal tears.  I had always said with a bit of confidence that if I lost my remaining vision someday, I would be prepared to some degree since I was already partially blind anyway.  But when there was an immediate threat to my vision, my confidence and bravado were gone within a blink of my blurred, light-sensitive eye.  I was a mess of fear and worry, and I found myself clinging to a fifty percent chance that the surgeons could save my vision.  I prayed that God would grant me a miracle.


Healing from the surgery was a long and tedious process.  It was a long time before we could say with certainty that my vision was clearing and that the retina was intact.  My rare eye disorder, a birth defect of the cornea, often prevented a clear view of the back of my eye, so there were many ultrasounds in the months following my operation.  Now, almost three years later, my doctor has declared the operation a success, and I am beyond grateful that I am able to type this to you today while still able to squint at the computer screen.  It isn’t as comfortable for me to write now as it was before my surgery, but I take breaks when I need to, and I make the most of days when my dry eye isn’t bothering me or there isn’t a headache present.


Lately, I have found it strangely fitting that I have correlated the events surrounding my retina surgery with our current reality in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.  In June of 2017, just three months before my impending surgery, a tree on my property split and came crashing to the ground.  This actually happened twice over the course of a few weeks, and both times, I was completely unaware it had happened.  Once, I was sleeping the deep sleep of an exhausted workaholic, and the second time, I was away from home.  You would think that something so significant: the crash landing of tree branches would cause some alarm, but I was oblivious.  The same was true as the pandemic crashed onto the scene in March, 2020.  I can remember standing outside my pastor’s office when he uttered the strange words: “So I’m going to need you to be flexible here.  We may need to record some stuff for services.  I don’t know what to tell you specifically… just be ready.”


I walked away from the conversation, thinking, “Okay, yeah, so there’s this virus threatening the U.S., but shutting down church and recording services?  No, that can’t happen, right?”  Well, boy, was I surprised when a week later I found myself at the piano in a nearly empty sanctuary, recording our first virtual service.  I knew the pandemic was upon us, but I ignored the signs, just like I had tuned out the sound of the tree falling outside my house.


We had landed ourselves in a deep cavern of unknown, which felt a whole lot like the days following my surgery.  I remember blogging about those days of panic and doubt, even up to two years after my surgery.  Even though my healing had been progressing, I was terrified my retina would detach again, and my symptoms would return.  I was living in gratitude that my vision was back, but I wasn’t embracing that gratitude and living like it had won over my fear.  In many ways, I was standing in the valley, too afraid to welcome in the light of day and the beauty of vision because at any moment it might disappear.


About a year ago, our pastor preached from the book of Genesis and reminded us all of the story of Joseph.  When Joseph’s brothers threw him into the cistern, they meant him harm, yet the cistern was not the end for Joseph.  When slave traders lifted him from the abyss, he was carried off to Egypt, where he had to adapt to a new life.  He was now living and forced to work in a foreign land.  I’m sure he wanted to give up a time or two; after all, he was dealt disappointment after disappointment: abandonment by his family, wrongful imprisonment, and haunted by dreams that probably seemed like a mockery when he considered his reality.  How could God bring good out of the abyss?


I have found myself asking that question, first with my retina detachment and now with COVID-19.  A few weeks ago, I wrote about bittersweet blessings, and I still consider these past few months to be characterized in this way.  It hasn’t been easy, but there has been goodness sprinkled in amongst the challenges.  I know many are struggling right now as a result of illness, loss of employment, or battling through the frustrations of social distancing.  I can understand these realities, although I am grateful to be employed and relatively healthy.  I miss a dear one who is currently housed in a long-term care facility; I miss her so acutely, that sometimes it hurts to breathe when I consider the separation.  I pray for her and her fellow residents daily, but it doesn’t bring her any closer.


Bittersweet blessings are harder to perceive because you truly have to look for them.  Joseph could have easily given up in Egypt, but he kept moving forward because the Lord was with him.  Several times in the book of Genesis, this was made known: “The Lord was with Joseph.”  Potiphar’s house thrived, the dreams that God interpreted came true, and Pharaoh appointed Joseph to serve at his right hand.  The kingdom began to thrive, and Joseph carried the land through the impending seven years of famine that followed the seven years of plenty.  What his brothers meant for harm became something infinitely good.  Joseph just had to look up and be lifted out from the abyss.  In writing of Joseph’s experience in Egypt, author Max Lucado has this to say: “Survival in Egypt begins with a yes to God’s call on your life.”


What goodness can I say “yes” to as I embrace the call on my life in order to survive this modern-day Egypt of COVID-19?  I believe it begins with a simple willingness to get up every morning and sing and write the songs He has given me— to lead the people of FRC and anyone else watching— into worship through song each Sunday morning.  It means memorizing verse after verse of hymns so I can lead with confidence.  It means persevering through not one, but two services each Sunday until we move out of phase one.  It means leading alone because right now it’s too risky to have multiple musicians on the platform.


If this doesn’t sound “good” to you just yet, hang with me for a moment or two more.  Despite the isolation and extra hours of work, I am content, because this is my task right now.  I have enjoyed the challenge of leaning into new realities as a worship leader.  I have tried out new songs that I might not have explored if I weren’t forced to lead alone.  I wouldn’t be memorizing so intently if I had the other musicians singing with me because ordinarily I would fall back on their voices if I missed a lyric here or there.  This season of COVID-19 has sharpened my focus— taken it off of my own comforts and helped me to consider the bigger picture.


I still admit to feeling some fear in the midst of the unknown.  Often, I can be found wearing a mask and intentionally limiting the people I bring into my home.  I don’t want to get sick, and I don’t want to unintentionally infect someone in the event I might be asymptomatic.  But even as the twinge of fear tries to take hold, I have done my best to embrace the beautiful moments:


  • Hearing the sweet sound of 30-some voices muffled behind masks at worship
  • Face masks that my mom made for me, one of which has Green Bay Packer print on it
  • Finding simple amenities like soap and toilet paper when they are in short supply
  • The gift of a 90-day free trial of Amazon Music that I thoroughly enjoyed
  • Learning and falling in love with songs like “Safe and Secure” by Matt Crosson, “Living Hope,” and “The Blessing”
  • Creating music on my Spire
  • Stumbling across a small group through the RCA and unexpectedly feeling like I might somehow fit into such a diverse group
  • Live Facebook concerts from some of my music mentors like Tenth Avenue North, Ginny Owens, Natalie Grant and Cheri Keaggy
  • Online conferences through the RCA, Crown and Worship Leader
  • For a few weeks, being able to experience true weekends since we pre-recorded our services on Fridays: sleeping a bit longer on Sunday mornings, waffles for breakfast, and watching my dad’s church online
  • Meeting my three-month-old nephew for the first time and getting to hold him for the briefest of moments
  • Having a girls’ day with my best friends, having our nails painted and enjoying a meal together even though we had to maintain social distancing
  • Deliveries for online orders when I couldn’t just drive to get what I needed
  • Neighbors and my domestic assistant who look out for me and offer support
  • Renting a movie that I wanted to see for a long time
  • Being able to ride my trike to and from work and walk to and from the grocery store— pretty much the highlights of my week.


I could say so much more about the good right now, but then you might be reading for longer than you have time to engage, so with that I am going to sign off.  Do me a favor, friends.  Don’t let the unexpected wind gusts take you down.  Look up from the abyss and embrace the beauty of bittersweet blessings.


Challenge Accepted!

Yesterday felt a little bit like the first day of school. Now, just to be clear, I haven’t been enrolled in formal education since 2011, although I have taken a few classes and web-based trainings since. But after attending K-12th grade and then moving through college and grad school, the feeling of the first day of school is all-too-familiar. Quite often, there was the nearly sleepless night before the big day. There was frequent checking of my alarm. I couldn’t oversleep because then I would miss the bus or be late. The nervous flutters were present along with pressing questions: What would my classes be like? Would the homework be hard? Would I have a good connection with my teachers? Would I make any new friends? It was the unknown of what waited on the horizon that characterized that first-day-of-school feeling.

Yesterday wasn’t the first day of school, but some of the emotions and nervous jitters were definitely present. We were re-opening our church in a limited capacity after being closed down for nearly three months due to the COVID-19 pandemic. We had been pre-recording our services and releasing them to our website and YouTube, so the church was definitely still up and running, but we didn’t have the usual level of activity in our building. On a typical service recording day, it would just be me, the associate pastor, the senior pastor, the administrative assistant, and our audio/visual tech. We maintained social distancing and limited in-person contact. In fact, I mainly worked from home and only came into the office on the days we recorded.

But yesterday, we entered a new phase of ministry, and I think my nerves mirrored the way I felt when I first started leading worship in 2009. I knew there would be people in the pews, but I had no idea if I would be able to hear them singing behind their masks. We would be doing two services instead of just one, and that was also something to consider. It would be an early call time for sound check and a long morning. I had all the protocol and the schedule in front of me, but there was so much unknown until I would actually experience this first day of phase one re-opening. I was nervous but I was up for the challenge.

In many ways, the past three months had prepared me and the rest of our staff for this new reality. I think I can say that none of us had ever walked through anything like it before. We were in uncharted territory. There were no instructional manuals entitled “How to Lead a Congregation through a Worldwide Pandemic.” We had to figure things out as we went along. There were a lot of prayers, tears, and hopeful hearts as we led into the week of March 16 up until June 7. We delved into technology. We asked difficult questions and sometimes had to settle for not having the answers. We prayerfully pursued guidance from the Holy Spirit. I spent hours at the piano, intentionally selecting music for our services. Our staff, particularly Pastor Tim, examined the Scriptures and studied intently in order to share the Word with our congregation.

Although there was nothing routine about our circumstances, we began to build a schedule and a semblance of routine anyway. Fridays began to feel like Sundays, because that is when we recorded our services. Weekly phone calls quite often took the place of in-office meetings. Emails replaced network file sharing. We were only together on Fridays, but in some ways, our communication and connectedness was stronger than it had ever been before. I smile at the memory of one service recording in early April. It was snowing and blowing outside, but we had just recorded our Palm Sunday service and there was an element of festivity in the air. The staff and our pastor’s wife sat in various pews throughout the nearly empty sanctuary and planned out how we would proceed through Holy Week. There was joking, fun, and camaraderie. There was nothing normal about our socially distant staff meeting, but if the past few weeks had taught us anything, it was a welcome moment in the midst of the unknown.

I don’t consider it a coincidence that I purchased recording equipment just before the start of this pandemic. I never knew that this Spring would find me recording music for weddings and worship services, when I thought I would mainly be recording demos for songs I wrote during my songwriting class. It was a crash course in music production, and I was far from prepared for the workload in front of me. But if you know me at all, it won’t surprise you when I confess that I like a good challenge. If I have time and the necessary resources to really explore something, I quite often jump in with two feet. But I need hands-on orientation, or the challenge becomes more of a frustration. My mother can attest to the moments of frustration and overwhelm in my late teen years as I began to consider moving out on my own. She was a busy mother of four, and there were certain tasks she couldn’t just demonstrate for me while I watched. I needed to do the work, hands-on with strong verbal instructions. She didn’t have the patience to deal with my stubborn independence, so when I turned eighteen, I was sent to an independent living school for the visually impaired.

Even now, I look back at some of the skills and perspective I gained from my time at the independent living school, and I’m grateful for the training I received. Although sometimes it might be easy to give up and walk away from a challenge, it doesn’t result in any movement forward. Sometimes, if you want to get somewhere or learn something, you have to stick with it for the long-haul, much like our experience in leading worship through COVID-19.

It was while I was recording one day that this all came together— the challenge, the struggle, and the choice to either give up or press into it. I had just finished the piano and lead vocal parts for a practice demo, and it was time to add the vocal harmonies. Everything went really smoothly, and it wasn’t long before I had exported my completed recording to my computer. I listened to the track critically as it was being finalized. There was a little glitch near the end, but I was willing to let it go because it wasn’t worth tweaking one of the harmonies just to smooth over such a brief patch. After all, it wasn’t like I was going to release the song professionally.

I was surprised that I wasn’t more inclined to go back and fix that little spot in the back-up vocals. My perfectionism had taken a backseat, and that wasn’t normal for me. But I should have known this passive perspective wouldn’t last for long. I was making dinner while listening to the finished track on my phone, and I found myself cringing at the one trouble spot in the harmony line. For some reason, it was really pronounced and obvious on my tinny phone speaker. I got out my headphones and listened to the spot that way, and although I could hear the dissonance, it wasn’t so obvious. But as soon as I listened without the headphones, I was cringing all over again. Now it was driving me crazy and I had to get to the bottom of it.

So I set my equipment up again and meticulously listened to each line of the track: first the piano, then the lead vocal, and then each harmony. I listened for a wrong note or if something was flat or sharp. Then I found it when listening to the highest harmony part. It clashed with the lowest harmony part, and there were times when both voices should have lined up in octaves. But the pitches were not matching, and it was so obvious to me when the parts were isolated from the other track lines. I knew what I needed to do: record both the lowest and highest harmony lines again. I groaned when I thought of the work ahead of me, but I knew the music would be incomplete without the fine-tuning and extra effort. So I focused in and got it done. The relief and accomplishment that came with the finished product was well worth the challenge and struggle.

I felt similar emotions yesterday as we met for in-person worship for the first time in nearly three months. The hard work and intentionality had been worth all of the effort that had been expended. At our first service, I nearly gave in to tears when I heard nearly 20 voices raised with mine in corporate worship. It was even more noticeable at the second service when there were more than thirty of us in the room. It had been so long since I had led worship with a live crowd present. There was so much more to consider beyond the music— hand sanitizer, face masks, social distancing, and the added precautions and restrictions in the building— but the music and the preaching of the Word were constants in the ever-evolving season of COVID-19.

It will probably be a long time before we can all worship together at one time in the same room, but yesterday was a start— a first day of school of sorts as we continue to navigate these uncharted waters. We have a long way to go and I’m sure there will be many more challenges on the horizon, but I am willing to move forward, even if it means digging in and isolating one factor at a time. Its meticulous work but well worth it in the end.