It Shouldn’t be this way…

I’m sure many of you can relate to my situation this past Spring.  Many of us were in lockdown and simply trying to find something to keep us motivated and focused.  I had plenty of music to keep me busy, and since I had just graduated from the songwriting mentorship, I had seven new songs that practically begged to be arranged, produced and performed.  Being new to the whole recording thing, I spent the rest of the Spring trying to find my sound.  My Spire, my twenty-year-old Roland FP-3, and headphones were my companions as I acquainted myself with a new skill— that of recording engineer and producer.  Let’s just say, I think I’ll stick with singing and songwriting, but I’m getting there in terms of competence in this new creative realm.

As much as I loved my piano, my FP-3 was showing its age.  Its sampled piano sound was far from modern and any time I wanted some strings to create depth in the background, I only had two choices for tones.  The rhythms and beats were limiting, and I found myself pulling out my tiny Yamaha keyboard just to find a rhythm pattern that suited a particular song. 

“You need a new piano,” my mom commented one day, and although the thought excited me, the reality was overwhelming.  I didn’t even know what was on the market, and I knew I would need to do my homework if getting a new piano was in my future.  So in between practicing, arranging, and recording, I watched hours of YouTube videos and immersed myself in online reviews.  By the middle of August, I had centered my research on two stage pianos, but I wanted to play them first to make my final decision.  I knew how they sounded online, but nothing compares to moving your fingers over the keys and judging their weight and escapement. 

I had a medical appointment scheduled for a day in the middle of August in Woodbury, Minnesota, so I reached out to a music store close to the facility and asked if they had my top two piano choices available in their store to play and see them in person.  Since going into lockdown in mid-March, I hadn’t been far from home or done any shopping beyond my local grocery store, so to journey 35 minutes from home was kind of a big deal.  When I called the store, I was informed they only had one of my two choices, and they didn’t anticipate having the other in stock any time soon.  I knew chances were slim that I would get to play the other piano in person, so I simply set my sights on the one they had available. 

On the day of my appointment, my parents and I entered the music store— a well-known nationwide franchise, where I had purchased my FP-3 nearly twenty years earlier.  I had high expectations— expectations that were quickly dashed.  The piano was there and all set up, but it wasn’t plugged in.  Once they found a power cord, I thought I would be able to play to my heart’s content, but no.  There was no pedal, and every piano player knows how essential a damper pedal is to the whole playing experience.  They found me a pedal, but by the time it was connected, the polarity was all messed up— meaning that when I pressed the pedal down, it did the exact opposite and the notes only sustained when I lifted my foot from the pedal. 

I was pretty frustrated at this point since I was unable to truly experience the sound and potential of the instrument.  But I could feel the keys beneath my fingers and that was enough for me to make the decision.  I told the salesman that I wanted to purchase, and so the salesman and my dad made their way throughout the store gathering up a stand, speakers, pedal, and the other accessories I would need.  I was expecting that I would have to order the piano and have it shipped to me, so I was surprised when the salesman offered us the display model.  “You can take it home with you today,” he told us.

My dad was happy with this development.  He would be able to help me set up the piano at home then and I wouldn’t have to struggle through the set-up process days later when he wouldn’t be there with me.  We were just about to ring up my purchases when my parents realized that something didn’t look right with the piano.  Once they had brought it into the main room, up by the cash registers, the harsh, fluorescent light revealed deep scratches and grooves into the metal body of the instrument.  I was not making an investment in something so valuable when it was damaged from the beginning.  We made the salesman aware of the situation, and he offered the possibility of taking ten percent off the order.  “No,” I said.  “Absolutely not.  I want it new, straight from the box.” So I left the store that day with all of the accessories and no piano.  My new Roland stage piano would be shipped to me, and I would just have to wait. 

Two days later, the phone rang at home.  It was a store in Middleton, Wisconsin, a part of the music store franchise I had visited a few days before in Minnesota.  They informed me that the store in Minnesota had sourced my order to their location and they were getting ready to ship me their display model.  Was that okay?  Um… no!  Again, I make it clear, I want this piano new, no blemishes, no scrapes and scratches, in the box, untouched.  The salesman in Middleton said he understood, and he offered to check to see if any other stores in their system had a new model in the box, ready to ship.  He told me I would have an answer the next day.

The next morning, I got the good news that my piano was being shipped from a store near Fort Worth, Texas.  It would arrive via UPS three days later.  I was nervous about the condition of the piano, hoping and praying that it would arrive safely without damage.  I had been talking to my cousin, and he offered to help me unbox the piano when it arrived.  He knew how nervous I was about the whole thing, and he was prepared to look everything over to make sure there were no issues.  Then he planned to help me set it up. 

When UPS came to the door, I asked the gentleman to carry the large box into the living room.  Then I texted Justin to let him know it was go-time.  Fifteen minutes later, the tape was cut away and the box gaped open to reveal my piano.  “Does it look okay?” I remember asking, my voice probably squeaking with nervousness. 

“Um… yeah, I think so,” Justin replies as he lifts one end of the piano out of the box.  Then I hear a grumble of frustration.  “Cassie, you’re not going to like this…”

“What is it?”  Again, there was probably that nervous squeak in my voice. 

He takes my hand and guides it to the upper portion of the keyboard.  The top five or six keys are smashed down, stuck in place, and they don’t release when you touch them.  Not only that, but there is a piece of the exterior that is missing on the end of the piano.  Justin searches all over the box, looking for the broken piece, but it is nowhere to be found. 

I slump down to the floor and start laughing hysterically. 

“What’s so funny?  Why are you laughing?” he askes me, probably thinking that I’ve officially gone cray-cray.

“If I don’t laugh, I’ll cry,” I say, wiping a few tears away even as I say this.  “What do we do now?”

The next few hours were spent returning the defective piano to the Oakdale, Minnesota store.  Thanks to Justin and his truck, we were able to take it to the store and leave it there.  I was told my purchase would be refunded through an even exchange.  A new piano would be shipped to me from their warehouse.  I should have known better.  How would they be able to ship a piano from their warehouse, when just three days earlier they were having to source my order from individual stores?  Did they suddenly have new stock?

Somehow, I wasn’t surprised when I received an email the next morning.  “We’re sorry.  Your order has been cancelled,” the first line read.  I barely held in my frustration as I called customer service.  I didn’t even bother calling any of the three stores I had done business with over the past three days.  I was so done with this franchise, and when they asked me if I was interested in a different piano, I flat-out declined.  I made it clear I wanted a refund, and I was promised that would happen in three-seven days. 

If you know me well, you know that I don’t cry unless I’m really angry.  Well, I was there.  I allowed myself a good cry once I got off the phone, but I couldn’t wallow in despair much longer.  My senior pastor and administrative assistant needed me to call into the office, and I had to update Justin and my dad on the process of the piano buying fiasco.  I was glad I had work to keep me busy that day because I was one step away from crying at any moment.

Throughout the day, I texted with my dad and youngest sister.  They encouraged me to reach out to a local, small music store.  I knew what I wanted, and even if they didn’t have my piano in stock, maybe they would be a dealer and they could order it for me.  I really didn’t want to go through having a piano shipped to me again, so I thanked my family for the idea and decided it was just too soon to think about ordering from somewhere else and going through the process all over again.  But my sister, in particular, was insistent.  She even suggested she could call a music store near her to see if they could order a piano for me. 

Finally, I decided to call my local store, a family-owned business about 20 miles from my home.  I had been in their store before, and they rarely had pianos on display.  There just wasn’t enough room in there, so I was pretty sure they wouldn’t have my piano available for purchase.  But I wanted to set this to rest, and maybe, prove my baby sister wrong. 😊  When the store owner answered my call, I briefly told her that I had tried out this piano while out and about one day and that I had quite the experience trying to purchase and get it safely home.  “Oh, Cassie,” she says to me.  “Why didn’t you just call me first.  I have one sitting in the box right next to me.  Would you like to purchase it?”

An itsy-bitsy flutter of hope started to rise up inside of me, manifesting itself in my rapid heartbeat.  Oh, how I wanted that piano!  But I had gotten my hopes up, only to have them dashed cruelly, and I was fragile and distrustful.  I asked her if I could think about it over the weekend and get back to her.  I talked to my parents later that day, and they were quick to recognize that this connection seemed like it was meant to be all along.  We didn’t know why I had to take such a prolonged detour to be led to the right place, but it was clear that I was going to get my piano from my hometown store in River Falls, Wisconsin. 

Three days later, the store owner herself delivered the piano to my house and was gracious to help me set it up.  My first text was to my cousin Justin, thanking him for his help and support during the long and drawn-out process.  “Now play away!” he texted back. 

I set out to do just that— play away— and right away I was pretty disappointed.  The piano didn’t sound remotely like it had in all of the YouTube videos I had watched over the past few months.  What was going on?  It was tinny and thin sounding, so I began to play with the settings for reverb and EQ.  That seemed to help a little, but I still wasn’t satisfied.  A little research through YouTube and some Roland piano forums gave some insight into other tips and tricks.  It was also suggested that the quality of the speakers or amp connected to the piano could also impact the sound, so knowing that my speakers were likely to blame, I set out to craft the perfect sound that would work with my set-up. 

Its not perfect, but I think I’ve got a piano sound that works for me now.  I used “Eastcoast Studio” as my template and brought in EQ and reverb until I could play through a few songs without my critical ear derailing my practice time.  I’ve got so much to learn and a beautiful piano to enhance my creativity.  It didn’t come without some major challenge, but for some reason, I had to endure the delays and defects to get where I am today.  It shouldn’t have been that way, but maybe the winding road that led toward my hometown music store was the ultimate destination?  Sometimes delays and detours don’t make any sense.  Why would buying a piano— something that should be so good… a means for me to create, worship, and write songs to honor my Creator— be riddled with such challenge and difficulty?  Maybe it was the enemy trying to frustrate the process.  Maybe it was me getting in the way.  Maybe, just maybe, it was God’s way of working in my circumstance, teaching me about patience.  Even when the piano was finally here, I still had to craft my piano sound.  My entitled mindset was thinking that I shouldn’t have to take the time to make the piano work for me like that.  It should have been ready for me in the first moment I set my fingers on the keys!  But in light of these circumstances, I could wait a few days more to draw that enhanced sound out from the piano.  It was worth the wait. 

God showed me infinite mercy as I cried and rebelled in the waiting.  Looking back, I know he was faithful to show me the way, to draw close as I meticulously craft my sound so I can make music again.  The process is ongoing and I’m not done learning.  I’ll do my best to let Him take the baton and lead me forward.  My music is incomplete and meaningless without Him.    

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.

Bittersweet Blessings

I haven’t written here in two months. I have been silent on the blog for extended periods before, but this absence from posting seems really significant for some reason. Maybe it’s because of our current circumstances. I had a feeling one of two scenarios would play out for me as we navigated these uncharted waters: either I would be writing and sharing frequently during this journey or I would say next to nothing. Well, it’s interesting that a third scenario actually emerged; I have something to say, but I don’t know how to say it.

A few nights ago, a Facebook friend did a livestream and her vulnerability gave me courage to move forward with posting here. My friend is a seasoned musician, someone I have followed in their musical journey since I was in junior high. Her songs and passion for songwriting fueled my own love of songwriting, and it was inspiring to watch from the sidelines as another piano-playing girl lived out her dream on the stage. I nearly had a fan-girl moment when in September, 2014 my songwriting mentor from afar became my Facebook friend. We have remained in contact ever since, and it has been a blessing, just as her impromptu livestreamed concert was a blessing. In between songs, my friend shared that she had felt somewhat guilty for not doing a live concert sooner during quarantine; she said it just hadn’t felt right to add her own livestream into the plethora of bands and musicians also offering their songs online during this time. It wasn’t until that morning that she felt it was finally time to share from her heart and sing for an audience.

Like I mentioned earlier, her vulnerability and honesty gave me the courage to finally write something today. My thoughts aren’t organized though, so I don’t know how well this will read. But all I can say is that this season has been filled with blessings. As my title implies, they are bittersweet blessings though, because if it weren’t for this very challenging and trying season in our lives, we wouldn’t be able to recognize the blessings right in front of us.

I started to recognize these bittersweet blessings on March 20, nearly two months ago when I stepped onto an empty stage and sat down at the piano. The stage, the piano, the sense of routine were all welcome that morning, but the changes were staggering. I was getting ready to lead worship at church, but it wasn’t Sunday; it was Friday. The sanctuary should have been filled with people, but when I turned my head to take it in, there were only five faces. My visual impairment didn’t allow me to see their faces clearly, but I knew they were there because I could hear their voices. In the quiet moment leading into our recorded service, I focused on one voice in the silent room as Justin counted down to when we would be rolling: “Five, four, three…” Then I started playing. That’s when I realized I could barely hear anything. Yes, there were only five voices singing with me, but that wasn’t the only reason I couldn’t hear well; I had an ear infection, and it felt so isolating to sing and play when my voice was the only thing I had to anchor me in the music.

But as the service continued, I did my best to focus on the things that hadn’t changed— the things that were constant even in the midst of a worship service recorded during a pandemic. God was still present; His presence was so thick in our sanctuary that morning. The songs I led proclaimed His sovereignty in the midst of a world searching for peace and hope. I simply sang and worshipped, and now and then, I could hear our pastor’s wife singing with me from the front row. There were only six of us in the room, but we were recording a service to be viewed by our entire congregation; so even though it felt empty and foreign, I had a job to do and that was to lead God’s people into worship.

Optimistically, I thought this recorded worship service mentality would only last a few weeks; then we would get back to “normal.” But two months later we are still here. As I drove home yesterday after doing our eighth recorded service, I marveled at the change of seasons. When this all started, it was the middle of March. There was still some snow on the ground and it was pretty cold. I was battling my mold allergies, and the ear infection was miserable. I spent about four weeks in an allergy-induced fog. I led worship for our recorded services and was fully engaged when I needed to be, but in the quiet moments at home, it was really hard to concentrate and stay motivated. I had just exited the nine-week course in songwriting, so I had virtually gone from a steady work flow to a far less hectic schedule.

Little by little, I began to bounce back. By mid-April I was feeling a lot better, and while everyone else sneezed and wheezed through pollen allergies, I was ready to hit the ground running… only there really wasn’t anywhere to run. So I buckled down and basically went crazy with creating music. I didn’t write anything, but I arranged and pulled new songs to lead at church. An old friend from church asked me to sing at her wedding, and I began to contemplate what a wedding in quarantine would look like. Before long, I learned that I would be recording my songs for the ceremony and sending them in; I wouldn’t even be present at the wedding, and that was such a strange reality to consider.

And then came “The Blessing,” quite literally. Some of you, or rather, most of you are probably familiar with the recently released worship anthem co-written by Cody Carnes and Kari Jobe (also Steven Furtick and Chris Brown). Pastor Tim was planning on continuing his sermon series from 1 Peter and he moved into chapter 3 this week. He wanted to focus on believers extending a blessing to others, even being willing to bless those who are harder to love. That’s when he suggested I lead “The Blessing.”

At first, I resisted. The song is all over the Internet, and in the past two months, the YouTube videos and covers have piled up; I didn’t feel the need to add my voice to the sea of renditions already out there. Besides, how does one girl at the piano sing a song well when there is such energy and vitality in the harmonies and the interplay between multiple musicians? I was feeling under-qualified and quite a bit intimidated.

But I didn’t want to disappoint my Pastor, and more importantly, I wanted to be obedient to the Holy Spirit if “The Blessing” was a tool He wanted to utilize in our worship service. So I sat at the piano and tried. I had to arrange the key to fit my voice, and even then, it just felt lacking without the harmonies. I got the piano part down rather effectively, putting a little pad sound behind the chords to provide some ambiance. I managed to get it recorded and loaded into my Spire (my awesome recording equipment). Then I left my piano and went into the other room. I have a little corner designated for recording, and I set up there for the next few hours, laying down the lead vocals and all of those harmonies that had been begging to find a place in the song. By the end of the day, I had a rough demo for my take on “The Blessing” and a means to help me move forward with leading worship later that week.

Friday morning as we recorded our weekly service, I played and sang “The Blessing.” It was certainly odd singing it in a nearly empty sanctuary, but unlike two months ago, I could actually hear a little more and engage with my surroundings. The five others in the room were singing with me, and it was a sweet moment— a blessing in itself. But I felt unsettled. As I drove home in the beautiful Spring afternoon, my offering of worship felt incomplete; the blessing wasn’t yet fulfilled. Many church members wouldn’t tune in to our service until Sunday morning, so it would be two days yet before I would know if “The Blessing” would connect with the congregation.

Now as I write this on Saturday, the day after our recording, I still don’t know if the song will resonate with our people. I’m not expecting it to latch on quickly and be an anthem that our people can sing along with easily. If anything, it can be a song that can simply minister to their hearts. It has already been a way for me to pray for my team members and the people I haven’t seen for two months. The benediction and blessing in the lyrics have given me a way to extend love through song through the screen. It seems inadequate in many ways but fitting too. This song that I was so reluctant to sing in the beginning has now been a blessing to me in so many unexpected ways.

I plan to share my recorded demo on Facebook once our recorded service has had time to reach our congregation. I am praying that the words I sing and the notes I play can bring an assurance of God’s heart for His people. While I wait, pray, sing, play, and ride my trike through this time of bittersweet blessing, I will give thanks and praise Him for His faithfulness. Amen…

Nine Weeks and New Songs

Nine weeks ago, I signed into a Zoom call to interact with six strangers. I had enrolled in Worship Songwriter Mentorship with Krissy Nordhoff, and although I was excited for the opportunity, I was really nervous. Although I have been writing songs since I was seventeen years old, I have rarely pursued my songwriting craft with such intention. After releasing my album in 2018, I gave myself permission to rest a bit from the creative process of writing and recording. I focused my energy on leading worship, memorizing and crafting arrangements, and just simply taking time to reflect and unwind.

But when I learned about WSM, something resonated deeply with me and I couldn’t quite put it into words. All I knew is that if my friend John were still alive, he would practically be begging me to enroll. In the seven years John and I knew each other, John was not only my dear friend but also my songwriting cheerleader. Whenever I made excuses as to why I wasn’t writing or expressed that I felt inferior as a songwriter, he would simply say, “You’re a songwriter; go write a song.”

Well, after graduating and completing this course, I am amazed and filled with gratitude to be able to say that I completed seven full songs and was able to engage with other writers throughout this journey. Today, I wanted to tell you a little about my experiences so you might be able to rejoice with me and celebrate God’s faithfulness.

Week 1: I was introduced to my small group members: our leader Amanda and course-mates Karen, Lara, Mac, Matt, and Suzanne. We learned about Psalming, which is basically singing a Psalm off the page instead of just simply reading it. I composed a Psalming of Psalm 13, which I called “Good to me.” I shared it on Facebook with my small group and my Facebook friends. I also shared it in worship one Sunday morning and received great feedback on my composition.

Week 2: This was a hard week. A dear loved one was really sick and I was really worried about this person’s health. I was trying to do a Psalming, but I was feeling uninspired. I asked God to help me complete my assignment, because I truly didn’t have the energy or focus to do it on my own. I opened up my Bible to Psalm 25, and it was like God conveyed to me unwaveringly that I needed His hope and strength. I wrote “My Hope” in less than an hour, but it took a full day before my ideas and the structure were fleshed out to make the song complete.

Week 3: There was a snow storm in Wisconsin and I spent a rare Sunday morning at home instead of attending worship at my church. But I wasn’t alone that morning, because I spent two-and-a-half hours on Facebook Messenger call with my course-mate Lara. We had been assigned to co-write a song, and we made the best of our seven-hour time difference to make this happen. Something interesting to note is that Lara is from Germany; she speaks English fluently, so we had no problem communicating verbally. I was grateful that Lara didn’t press me to do a video call. Being on video is challenging to someone who is visually impaired because I can’t really see who I’m talking to and I have no idea if the camera is lined up properly so the other person can see me. In the end, I didn’t have to worry about that because our phone call was really effective. We crafted “I Need You,” and just two weeks later, my OneVoice girls and I were able to introduce it to our congregation.

Week 4: I wrote a Biblical truth song, focusing on the idea of connecting with God through solitude, in community, and in mission. I called it “Quiet Place.” It is a modern-day hymn with three stanzas, and the first stanza is repeated at the end of the song, so in all, the melody repeats four times (four stanzas). My course-mates and some of my early listeners called it the “Lullaby Hymn” because of its peaceful and reflective content. But yet, it’s a call-to-action song, so it’s definitely something special, and I don’t think I would have written this song if it weren’t for the course.

Week 5: I wrote “Meet us here,” a song exhibiting space and contrast. I was inspired to write the song while standing in a crazy, busy bowling alley. I was anxious that day, and the crowded building certainly wasn’t helping to bring calm. I knew that I had to take a breath and step back for a moment in order to find perspective. What resulted is a song that calls the listener to set aside the hustle and chaos of life and simply meet God with open hands and willing heart.

Week 6: I wrote a warrior song. This song was challenging because I wasn’t inspired in the way I thought I should be working through the assignment. I was actually worried I wouldn’t have anything to say. Then, as I was preparing for our Ash Wednesday service, I began to consider the idea of being refined. Our Ash Wednesday service further cemented these ideas on my heart, so I went home and wrote “Again and Again.” It’s a song that speaks of God’s faithfulness and provision even in the midst of being held to God’s refiner’s flame.

Week 7: We were tasked with re-writing a song or editing something we had created during the course. I had completed two Psalmings earlier in the course, one from Psalm 40 and the other from Psalm 62, and the similarities in theme and melodic structure led me to explore what it might look like to combine these two Psalm-songs and create one new song. Interestingly, I ended up calling it “New Song,” because the chorus is based on Psalm 40:3: “He has given me a new song to sing, a hymn of praise to our God. Many will see what he has done and be amazed. They will put their trust in the Lord.” I couldn’t think of a better song to mark my last week in this course. God had been so faithful to inspire so many new songs, giving me probably the most fruitful time as a songwriter. I wrote “New Song” to celebrate His goodness and kindness.

Week 8: We met together in our Zoom call to celebrate the completion of the course. We were encouraged to play our re-written song live, but because of time constraints, we were not required to share. I opted not to share my song initially. I had been using my desktop computer during our Zoom calls over the past eight weeks, and I don’t have a webcam on that computer. I also couldn’t get close enough to play my piano while logged on to my desktop. So even though I prayerfully considered setting up my phone or tablet and figuring out a way to be on camera, I eventually decided to enjoy our last call and listen to my course-mates play live. But about halfway through our meeting, our small group leader essentially quoted the lyrics to “New Song,” and my course-mate Matt typed into the chat that I should sing it. I expressed my situation and reluctance to play live but that if there was time remaining I would try to make it work. So with trembling hands and having no idea how to sign into Zoom on my phone, I logged off my desktop and signed in on my phone. Although I couldn’t see anything, I took a leap of faith and just went with it. I didn’t know it at the time, but about halfway through my song, Krissy Nordhoff logged onto the call, and she heard me playing and singing. She was so kind and generous in her comments on my song following my performance, and I was blessed to be able to share my song, not only with her, but my course-mates. Did it make me uncomfortable? Yes. But was it worth it? Yes! I didn’t realize that I needed that sense of completion to bring the course to a close. There was something about playing live that day that put everything into perspective. On our first day of class, I never would have imagined doing something like that. God truly worked in my heart throughout this course, for I am not the same girl who logged onto our call nine weeks ago.

In closing, I would like to share my Story of Thankfulness Reflection that I wrote during week 8 of the course. I am beyond grateful and humbled that I was able to be a part of this journey.

Story of Thankfulness

“He has given me a new song to sing, a hymn of praise to our God. Many will see what he has done and be amazed. They will put their trust in the Lord.” (Psalm 40:3)

This verse from Psalm 40 essentially gives voice to my heart of gratitude. Nine weeks ago, I signed into a Zoom call with trembling hands and heart beating wildly with nervousness. I had enrolled in Worship Songwriter Mentorship back in December when I was making purchases on Cyber Monday. My head told me that it was time to pursue my songwriting with this endeavor, but my heart was overwhelmed with uncertainty.

In the brief time that I knew about WSM, I knew it was something I wanted to explore, but a few things held me back; finances were tight and I wasn’t sure I was willing to fully invest my time into such an intensive experience. I have often said that I don’t like the messiness of songwriting. Since I play by ear and memorize during the songwriting process, it is time-consuming and sometimes not very fruitful, especially when a great deal of my time is dedicated to learning and memorizing songs to lead in worship. Often, songwriting gets shoved to the back burner because I just don’t have the energy to process and make the effort.

Once I committed to WSM, I knew I had to follow through. From my first Psalming attempt with Psalm 5, which I never shared with anyone to my final assignment, “New Song,” I gave this process my all. There were days when the creativity wasn’t flowing and I wanted to give up, but I kept going because there were more creative days than there were days when I struggled. In all, I wrote seven full songs, and in looking back at the songs I’ve written since I was seventeen, this has been my most fruitful songwriting period in my entire life. I am overwhelmed with gratitude for the ways in which God has worked in my songwriting and my personal relationship with Him. It’s remarkable how strongly you can retain the Word of God when you are memorizing and singing it every day. I am so grateful that I now know about the process of Psalming, for it has given my songwriting new life and purpose.

Now nine weeks have passed, and although I battled some fear and insecurity while taking the course, I can definitely say I am not the same girl who logged onto that call on January 15. I took the leap and played “New Song” during our final session, and when the course started, I never would have imagined doing that unless it was required in order to graduate. I don’t perform live very often unless you count leading worship, so being on camera was something foreign to me. But I wanted to sing that day for two reasons: 1)_I was so grateful for the opportunity and doors God had opened over the past nine weeks and 2) for my friend John.

Ten years ago, I met John in a small church in Arvada, Colorado, and it was music that brought us together. John always encouraged me to write music because I was a songwriter. When I tried to give excuses like, “John, I don’t have time to write songs with all of the memorizing and new music to learn for church” or “I don’t have anything new to say,” he would simply say once again, “You’re a songwriter. Go write a song.”

In 2017, John passed away unexpectedly, and I feel a profound void every day I go about making music without him here. In 2018, I released my album “The Dawn,” and I dedicated it to his memory. When I learned about this mentorship, I knew immediately that this was something that John would want me to do. In fact, if he were still alive today, I would have sent him all of my recorded demos and song ideas so he could listen and critique them. When I printed my certificate of completion at work today, I had to wipe away a tear because in that moment I wanted to call him and say, “Hey, John, guess what? I wrote seven songs.” I think he would say, “Good! It’s about time!”

God has given me a new song, or rather, several songs through this process, and I am truly amazed at what He has done.

Faith in the Midst of an Uncertain Future

I write to you today with a heart overwhelmed with both gratitude and heaviness. Just last week, I completed an incredible nine-week journey in songwriting mentorship. Mere days later, our country and world have been inundated with devastating news of spreading disease, creating widespread anxiety. This past week has caused me to vacillate from one emotion to another; I am relieved and feel great accomplishment from completing my songwriting course, but the state of our world has left my heart broken and heavy for all of us. On a physical level, I have also been battling seasonal allergies that have left me congested and frustrated with ongoing symptoms. I am both excited and exhausted. This past week has been like anything I have ever experienced before, and I’m sure the same is true for you.

The next few weeks are filled with so much unknown. Many of us are now working and completing schoolwork online. Stores, businesses, and churches are shutting down. I am a worship leader unsure of what this next Sunday will look like musically through corporate worship. Will I be serving with a team? Will our services host fewer attendees? Will we be recording and offering our time of worship to our parishioners online?

On Saturday, I posted the following to my Facebook page, and I hope it will encourage you today if you are feeling anxious and fearful during these uncertain times.

Friends, please pray with me today and tomorrow as our country observes a National Day of Prayer. These times are certainly unlike anything we may have experienced before, but one thing we must remember is that God is in control! He is greater than our fear, and any anxiety we may face comes from the enemy. The devil wants us to live in fear, to separate ourselves from the faith communities that unite us. I know for sure that there is one easy way to release the stronghold of the enemy: praise and worship and prayer. I have always said that the devil is allergic to praise and worship, so sing that fear away in the name of Jesus!

Yes, use your discretion and practice good hygiene, but please, release your fear and anxiety to the one who has given us love and power in His strength!

“For God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline.” 2 Timothy 1:7 NLT
I wanted to go ahead today with my original plan, and that was to finally update you on my journey throughout the past nine weeks. Once this is posted, I will move forward with that. In sharing my experiences, it is my hope to focus on something positive instead of all of the anxiety now looming over many of us.
Friends, if there is any way I can be praying for you during this very challenging time, please don’t hesitate to share any prayer requests and prayers with me. I promise to lift up each request to our God who is in control of all things. He is faithful. Trust in Him.

Top Songs of 2019

At the close of 2018, I offered up a list of the songs that had impacted me throughout the year. I would like to do the same at the close of this year. The following songs have played a significant role in my life over the course of the past year. Some were used for corporate worship, while others ministered to me on a personal level. Where they are available, I have included YouTube links for the songs so you might be able to listen to them. Please consider supporting these artists by purchasing their albums or downloading their songs.

“Head above Water” Avril Lavigne: this was probably my favorite routine at One Focus Fitness

“Into Faith I go” Pat Barrett: this was a challenge to play and sing in addition to the challenge put forward in the lyrics. When I performed it this summer, I was challenged personally and musically. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HwwLruXb8Bg

“Known” Tauren Wells https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xckDgX8xNfg

“Reason” Unspoken https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n3vTmjcv1fk

“Satisfied” Jordan Feliz https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=48wb6L_MzHU

“Shattered” Blanca https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x2Z0HA39lZU

“Up Again” Dan Bremness https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SBmk45iNkxY

“Warrior” Hannah Kerr https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yQpKSpgrwQE

“What if” Blanca https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZbVYIZ4nkX8

“Your Love Defends me” Hannah Kerr https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X58UYv1ZdRc

How I do what I do

Sunday, October 13 marks Disability Awareness Sunday in my church denomination, the Reformed Church in America (RCA). Since 2013, I have been volunteering through a ministry called Disability Concerns, which is also a part of the RCA. Typically, when Disability Awareness Sunday appears on my calendar each year, I seek to educate and remind my congregation about matters relating to people with disabilities and encouraging welcome in our house of worship. I plan to recognize Disability Awareness Sunday in some capacity sometime this October within the context of Sunday morning worship, but I wanted to go one step further and utilize the space in this blog to also create some awareness.

After a few recent conversations with friends and co-workers, it has been brought to my attention that perhaps I have not shared my entire “disability story.” What I mean by this is simply that I don’t often make a pointed effort to connect my vocation as a worship leader with the nature of my visual impairment. I have come to realize that my visual impairment is so common and typical for me that I have a hard time feeling as if it is anything less than normal. But the truth is, the way I live, work, and create music is all impacted by the presence of my disability.

The ladies in OneVoice and the Praise Team who serve beside me each week are truly remarkable, servant-hearted musicians. They have adapted to my unique way of leading worship and have excelled in singing and crafting arrangements in a way that I can only describe as being in sync. Almost from the beginning when I was first hired, I hardly had to explain my methods; we simply found a way to make music together that didn’t rely on sheet music and chord charts. We simply sang and “figured it out.” Practice and intentional focus on building community as a group helped us to evolve into something that just clicked. Almost eight years later, I am marveling at God’s goodness in bringing these ladies into our worship and music department. I truly get to work with the best of the best, and I’m not just saying that! I have truly been blessed.

Sometimes, I get questions from congregation members on how I am able to lead the team without any music in front of me. The fast and easy way to answer that question is that I simply memorize. Really, I have no choice but to memorize because no matter what method I try to utilize, I still wouldn’t be able to see the music on the music rack. I only have vision in my left eye, so my field of vision is very narrow. When I was young, we had music enlarged by the copy machine, and although it helped somewhat to be able to see the music, the pages were flopping all over the place, they had to be taped to piece them together, and I was turning pages constantly. Most often, I would listen to my piano teacher play a song and simply try to replicate it. At home when I would practice, my mom would often call out to me, “You’re playing it wrong!” I knew I was playing it wrong because I just couldn’t remember how the song was suppose to go. I would try to read the music to find my place, but frustration would take hold and I would just give up on practicing.

Eventually, my piano teacher gave me the basics on playing chords and playing “by heart.” I started writing music in third grade because as my piano teacher would often remind me, “If you write a song, you’ll never play it wrong because you wrote it that way.” In time, I would gradually move to playing simple renditions of hymns and praise songs— anthems that I could pick up easily and didn’t have too many difficult chord progressions. When I was in high school, my mother and I would share Sunday evening services; she would accompany the congregational hymns on the organ and I would play for the prelude or during the offertory.

When I started leading worship in 2009, I only knew how to play a few songs. I would play the basic chords in my left hand and embellish a little with my right hand. I would “fake” it, so to speak, because I wasn’t really playing full accompaniment or anything close to what would be visible on sheet music. I carried the congregational worship with my singing and played minimally on the piano. “Here I am to Worship” and “My Jesus, I Love Thee” were some of my first songs.

Now, ten years later, my way of playing piano is still the same. I have increased my repertoire considerably, and I keep track of what songs I know how to play with a list in Microsoft Word. After each song title, I make sure I include what key(s) I typically play the songs. When I’m working on learning a new song, I first listen to it over and over, eventually determining what key I should play it in. Sometimes, I play the original artist recording on my phone or tablet and play along with it on the piano simultaneously. This helps me hear if I am on-point with the chord progression and if I can add anything on the piano that I hadn’t noticed before when just listening. Then I simply keep listening and playing until the song is memorized and I can play and sing it fairly confidently.

Once I have crafted an arrangement and have it memorized, I record a blank practice video. Since I don’t have a tripod or fancy recording equipment, I place my camera face-down on a surface near the piano and press “record.” I play and sing the song— sometimes having to do multiple takes because of mistakes or interference (the phone rings, doorbell, or other background noise). Once the video is recorded, I upload it to Facebook as an OPV (OneVoice Practice Video). My team members can listen to these videos and become familiar with my arrangements so that our practice times are not taken up with me teaching the songs. Those who sing harmonies can practice their part by singing along with my video. This proves helpful when I have to change the key of a song so it is easier to sing for a female vocalist. If I play a Chris Tomlin song, the melody line and harmonies will often be in a different range than the original artist recording. It’s important that I have a way to demonstrate my arrangement, not only so my singers know what to do but so that I can remember how I arranged the song. I have often used my own videos to jog my memory when we haven’t sung a song in a long while and I need a refresher.

Everything is in my head. Occasionally, I will glance at a print-out or ask Google to show me song lyrics, but most everything is logged in my memory bank. I have often joked that just like computers and phones can have external hard-drives for more memory space, I need that too. If there would ever be a way to add any memory to my cluttered brain, that would be brilliant!

Sometimes, mental fatigue can set in when I’ve led worship for several weeks in a row. It’s not just physical fatigue. It goes beyond getting up early to lead worship on a Sunday morning. It goes beyond sleepless nights when I can’t shut my mind down because I’m thinking about the Sunday morning just over the horizon. It goes beyond sound check and the service itself. It all centers in the week of preparation leading up to a service: crafting arrangements, listening to the songs, memorizing them, recording, leading practices, and then finally bringing everything together on a Sunday morning. Although the work is rewarding, it’s very taxing mentally.

I have often said that if I were not visually impaired, most of this preparation time wouldn’t be a factor. If I could see better, perhaps I could rely on sheet music and chord charts. I wouldn’t have to memorize all of the music unless I wanted to. My practice time wouldn’t be as extensive and maybe I would be able to introduce new music without as much preparation.

But the truth is, I can’t think about what could have been if I didn’t have my visual impairment. My reality is that I am a visually impaired worship leader and musician, and I need to work with what I have been given. Although playing piano is not my strength, I know I can sing well, and I make sure I am a good steward of my voice by memorizing lyrics and singing with as much passion as I can put forward. Yes, I may have to put in extra hours of work that a sighted person might find tedious and unnecessary. But although the work is challenging and sometimes difficult, I truly believe it has made me a stronger musician.

Since the music is all in my head, it doesn’t take long to recall a song we have played in the past and bring it back into use; yes, I need to practice and recall it to mind again, but it isn’t as difficult as starting from the beginning with memorizing and crafting the arrangement. Once a song is ingrained in my memory, it frees me up to focus on transitions and communicating with my team. Sometimes, I get lost in my piano playing and forget to cue the singers in, but for the most part, the memorizing helps me stay focused.

Connecting with the congregation has always been harder for me than interacting with my team. My lack of peripheral vision has always prevented me from truly seeing out into the sanctuary. Recently, we switched the piano from one side of the stage to the other. The hope was that by having my sighted eye face toward the congregation, it might help me connect with the crowd. I was anticipating that I might be able to see the deacons taking the offering or individuals coming forward to pray or share announcements, but the reality was that the piano’s positioning didn’t help with this. But one good thing materialized from the moving of the piano; I am now able to access the entrance to the stage that doesn’t require me to walk up and down the stairs to the platform. I can take the stairs in the alcove, which is hidden from the sanctuary’s view; I can take my time and hold on to the railing without worrying about the rest of the team coming up behind me or others watching my halting progress.

I share all of this, not so you can extend sympathy for the challenges I face. I also don’t share this as a form of inspiration. I share this because I want to educate and make others aware; I am a worship leader who happens to be blind. Yes, challenges come with the territory, but it is my reality and I am doing my best to fulfill my job role and calling with these circumstances in place. I am grateful for my team members who just seem to “get it.” I so appreciate their willingness to make music with me even though it looks different than the average worship team structure and technique. I love what I do, and in many ways, I am grateful for my challenges because they push me to be a more competent and well-rounded musician.

Maybe I could benefit from more sleep and that extra memory boost, but I am striving on and making music because I can’t imagine life without creating, writing, and leading in worship. Thank you for reading and sharing in the description of my process.

Out of the Cistern

I love the season of Fall! The crisp and cool temperatures combined with the beautiful foliage make for a serene and beautiful time each year. Perhaps I am biased as well because September is the month of my birth, and by the time my birthday rolls around, the leaves are changing color and falling to the ground. I always looked to the Fall with anticipation… until everything changed.

In the Fall of 2017, it wasn’t just the leaves that were changing colors; it was my entire life that was on the cusp of change. I had just entered into an agreement to record my album and excitement was at an all-time high. I was in on a creative high; songs were spilling from my piano and pen with suddenness that stunned me. The season ahead looked promising, and I basked in the idea of all that was ahead.

On September 16, 2017, I was out grocery shopping with a friend when I saw a streaky, floating spot migrate across my line of vision. It looked like a narrow, dark, smoke-like intrusion and it immediately rattled me. In fact, I stopped in the Wal-Mart parking lot and simply froze. “What was that?” I think I said out loud. It happened a few hours later after I had returned home that evening as I prepared dinner in the kitchen. Again, I froze in my bright kitchen, knowing this second occurrence couldn’t be just my imagination.

Over the next ten days, I got really good at pushing all warning signs aside. I was deep into album planning, songwriting, arranging songs and coordinating practices for OneVoice, and preparing for a work trip. I saw the smoke-like floaters everywhere— against the pale yellow walls in my bathroom, against the sky as I biked to and from work, against the stark white of my computer screen and tablet. I saw shimmery spots in the dark too; every time I turned my head in the darkness of my bedroom, it looked like Christmas lights were twinkling in the corner of my sighted eye. On my work trip, things got worse; I began to squint against the sudden unbearable brightness. I was so light-sensitive in fact that I was always seeing spots as if I had been staring at a spotlight or toward the sun too long. Looking at the PowerPoint presentations was nearly impossible.

And then as the plane took off for home, I knew for sure that something was wrong. Everything became a blur, and the bottom corner of vision was completely gone with only a shadow left in its place. I found myself tilting my head to look past that shadow, but I still couldn’t focus because everything was a bright blur around me. The best way to describe it was that it was like looking at a neon-white blizzard in the middle of winter. Occasionally, some color would spring into my vision, but those colors were neon too.

When I landed at the airport, I knew I needed to make an appointment to be seen by my ophthalmologist, but we were heading into Sunday, and I had a job to do: leading worship at church. I played that morning on autopilot, trying to look away from the drummer because his turquoise-blue shirt looked like one of those highlighter markers I used in school when I was young.

By the time I managed to make an appointment, the fear was real. For two days, I tried to focus on work and follow-up from the conference I had attended. My musical creativity stalled as I waited for the inevitable bad news. There was no optimism whatsoever because I knew deep down that there was no ignoring my symptoms. Google seemed to imply that I had a retina detachment, but I didn’t want to believe it even though it was probably bad no matter the diagnosis. By the way, NEVER, and I mean, NEVER use Google to self-diagnose. What you read can be SCARY!

But on Tuesday, September 26, the doctors confirmed what I had been dreading. It looked like a retina detachment. I was immediately scheduled for surgery, and 24 hours later, I found myself in the operating room. I woke up in the late evening of September 27 to complete and utter darkness. My sighted eye was patched after the surgery, and since I am already blind in my right eye, I couldn’t see anything. It was disorienting and terrifying. True, my visual impairment has prepared me to navigate to some degree in a sighted world, but I wasn’t prepared for this!

The next three weeks or so were challenging to say the least. My vision was dark and murky at first. When they removed the patch that first day, I was nervous about what I would see, or rather, what I wouldn’t be able to see. In fact, I wouldn’t let the nurse remove my patch until my parents were beside me. I had been prepared for all scenarios, one of which was that the doctors had not been able to save my vision. But we were hopeful that they had been successful, and that I would at least be able to see light and color.

When the patch came off, the light was blinding! I immediately closed my eyes against the intrusion. But the nurse encouraged me to try again, and when I attempted to open my eyes once more, I saw the blurry but oh-so-welcome emblem on my mom’s shirt: the logo and green and gold of the Green Bay Packers.

That first blurry glimpse gave me hope, although at times my courage wavered. The antibiotic drops compromised my vision even more, and the other meds burned when they were administered. I stumbled around, my depth perception and balance severely impacted. I carried my cane everywhere— even at my parents’ house and at my own home. I spilled my food and knocked over the juice glass right beside me. I cried more than I probably have in all of my life. The doctors were hopeful for a steady recovery, but I was despairing because I wanted to see clearly sooner rather than later.

Now, I know I’m not the first to experience pain and suffering, nor will I be the last to endure such hardship. All around me, I have witnessed cancer, divorce, death, financial struggle, and so much more. In fact, I would go so far as to point out that I’m not the only person to have a disability and the challenges that come along with it. Disability doesn’t necessarily mean a life of suffering, but it certainly means adapting one’s life to accommodate altered circumstances. In the two years since my retina detachment, I have come to a deeper and wider view of God’s goodness in the midst of suffering, and lately, I can’t help but find comparison in the Biblical story of Joseph.

Joseph’s story is well-known to many, most likely thanks to the musical starring Donny Osmond. Every time I have watched this drama play out, I am gripped by the highs and lows, but especially the lows. If I close my eyes, I can still see Joseph standing in the jail cell, singing his heart out with the haunting sound of the children’s voices adding a feeling of absolute despair to the scene. “Bar all the windows and shut out the light,” is a lyric that I can’t get out of my head as “Close every Door” plays on… But not even the barred walls and darkness can completely shut out the light. The ending refrain speaks of promise, and candlelight is visible just outside the cell.

I wonder what Joseph must have been thinking and feeling when he was imprisoned— innocent of all wrong-doing. He had been betrayed and wrongfully accused, and yet, this wasn’t the first time he had been thrown in a pit. It all began when his brothers became envious of his dreams and favoritism, and they threw him into a cistern, only to lift him out of the pit later to sell him into slavery. In the jail cell—in the cistern— I’m sure he questioned God a time or two. Really, God, what now? What did I do to deserve this? What about my dreams? Sold into slavery at the age of seventeen, he became successful in Potiphar’s house, only to be cast out by Potiphar’s wife when he rejected her advances.

A glimmer of hope arrives on the horizon when Pharaoh’s baker and cupbearer are thrown into prison with Joseph, and Pharaoh’s servants eventually have dreams that need interpretation. In the end, Joseph rightfully interprets each of their dreams, and the cupbearer is restored to his position of honor while the baker is killed. Joseph had asked the baker and cupbearer to remember him in prison, but it would be two years before Pharaoh would have a dream as well and seek out interpretation. Finally, the cupbearer remembers Joseph and he is brought out of prison in order to meet with Pharaoh.

As the story goes, Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dream and he is eventually promoted to serve as governor over Egypt. Inevitably, his dreams come true, for his brothers in coming to buy grain in Egypt, bow down before him. There is a lot to consider as Joseph’s story draws to a close. I can only imagine the healing that had to take place in that family— the forgiveness that needed to be extended and then accepted, trust that needed to be established, and the restoration within pre-existing relationships and the hope visible in the birth of Joseph’s sons.

I was struck profoundly this week as I read the account of Joseph’s story in Genesis. For the past few months, our pastor has been walking us through the book of Genesis at our Sunday morning services. I was planning ahead for worship and music, and digging deep into the text when I realized something. After Joseph interpreted the dreams of the cupbearer and baker, he remained in prison for two years until Pharaoh called for him. Two years… wow… that was kind of ironic because…

It has been two years since my emergency retina surgery. It has been two years of healing and gradual visual improvement. It has been two years of fear and doubt. Every floater or flash of light has filled me with dread and terror, making me think that a detachment is happening all over again. My sighted eye has played tricks on me, drawing me into full-blown panic mode. I have spent most of the past two years simply afraid. I can’t stand to be in overly bright environments nor in the complete darkness. At night, there is always a light on somewhere in the house or at least the glow of the TV. Sunglasses have become my new best friend, although I am trying not to wear them as often now.

I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that I have spent the past two years imprisoned in fear. Yes, there have been some beautiful moments over the past 24 months. My album was released exactly a year to the day when I landed at home, knowing I would need to seek medical attention. I have received positive reports from the doctors and the assurance of clear ultrasounds. My work at the church, although halted briefly by my recovery, has resumed, and just like two years ago at this time, my creativity abounds. I have met some incredible people and created beautiful music with others. If it weren’t for the past two years, I wouldn’t have the experience to color my current situation. By no means do I want to go through any of that pain and suffering again, but I know somehow, some way, there was a purpose for it.

Again, I am not the first, nor am I the last to experience trials in this life. Just look at Joseph if you want an example. He was literally thrown into a cistern— into a jail cell— while some of us are experiencing pain, anger, deception, betrayal, grief, fear, feeling as if we’re beat up, alone, and left to die. Our pastor encouraged us to look for God in the midst of Joseph’s story, because if we know the ending, we know that the jail cell and cistern are not the end of his existence. That cistern was probably 30-40 feet deep, used to store rainwater, so this was not something Joseph could have gotten out of on his own. Imagine his momentary relief when his brothers lifted him out of the cistern, only to sell him into slavery. Could it get any worse for Joseph? As our Pastor said, sometimes when it rains, it pours. Joseph’s dreams were a long way from coming true as he waited in the cistern and later waited again in prison.

I didn’t realize it until now, but I’ve been waiting in the cistern too, but my imprisonment is of my own creation. The truth is, I can see and have seen the light at the end of the tunnel. My vision was restored— with some deficits, yes— but restored nonetheless. I should be celebrating God’s goodness and glorying in the beauty of color and light. But somehow, I’ve been afraid that it will all be stolen away. In trying to move forward with my life, I was actually stepping back into the prison cell. Little by little, I am finding freedom, learning to adapt to my circumstances and recognizing my panic and anxiety for what it is— the devil’s schemes to derail me. I have spent two years in the cistern, but it’s time to be lifted out.

“I called on your name, LORD,
from the depths of the pit.
You heard my plea: “Do not close your ears
to my cry for relief.”
You came near when I called you,
and you said, “Do not fear.”
You, Lord, took up my case;
you redeemed my life.” Lamentations 3:55-58

If you’re looking for a way out of your cistern today, read the whole chapter of Lamentations 3. A great deal of this passage inspired my album, The Dawn. Hold your head up, friends. I may not know your struggle, but if you are in the pit, know that God is lifting you and leading you to the light.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Welcome to Kansas City

Kansas CityI startled awake to a loud crack of thunder. I have always been a light sleeper, so it was no surprise that the storm had broken me out of my slumber. I shifted in bed, instantly uncomfortable with the severity of the weather outside my window. I have never liked storms. There is something about the disorienting brightness of the lightning and the deafening rolls of thunder that make me nervous, particularly if there is a tornado warning. No amount of looking out the window is going to tell a blind girl what is happening outside. I simply have to wait it out and hope it will just be a typical summer thunderstorm.

I sat up in bed and grabbed my cell phone, quickly bringing up my weather app so I could check the radar. Instantly, I focused on the narrow line of storms that was right on top of my location. My first inclination was to groan with anxiety and fatigue, but then a sudden peace came over me. It was then I remembered that I wasn’t alone in the house. My parents were right down the hall, and somehow I just knew that my dad was awake too in that moment. He is a light sleeper like me, and I had a feeling I wasn’t alone in my wakefulness. It had been like that since the time of my childhood. Even though storms made me nervous, as long as I knew my father was awake and close by, I was okay. Even though I was now a grown woman, this hadn’t changed.

I released a calming breath and rolled over in the bed. As the storm raged around me, I allowed myself to succumb to sleep. I found shelter in the knowledge that I wasn’t alone in the storm.

*****

Less than a week later, my anxiety had returned. I sat under a tent at the county fair, nervously waiting to be called to the stage. Over the past few weeks, I had meticulously practiced. Even after three years of vocal coaching, it was still a foreign concept for me to simply accompany someone. Singing has always been my easy go-to, a place of shelter and familiarity. But today, my mentee would be taking the stage to be judged in vocal performance. Although I was confident in her abilities, I was still nervous. I didn’t want to mess up the piano part and ruin her moment.

The day had not gone smoothly thus far. I was having a bad hair day, there had been a mishap in printing the materials that needed to be submitted with our entry, and we were all flustered and out-of-sorts. Then a close friend walked into the tent and I realized we would technically be competing against her daughter. I was intimidated and rattled, which was not a good way to start the day.

When we were called to the stage, everything that could go wrong did go wrong. We quickly realized there was no piano on the stage and the music stand and mic stand needed to be repositioned. The sound techs were quick to assist us, but the music stand didn’t want to behave. Finally, my mentee told me to just start playing. Hoping she was truly ready, I started to play, listening carefully for the cue for the vocal line… only no sound came from her mic when it came time for her to sing! Her mic wasn’t working!

I quickly turned to the judges and asked if we might be able to start again, Given approval, I began to play the opening notes again. The first lines of her vocal came over the mic loud and clear, but then I heard it— hesitancy and then words failed her. She had lost her place. Inwardly, I mouthed the words, knowing she couldn’t hear me and it would be of little help. Frantically, I prayed that she would be back on track, and to my relief, she found her place and began to sing once more.

But as the second verse began, I heard the same hesitancy, and she stumbled again. Once more, I prayed even as I kept playing. I wondered if I should have stopped and let her start again. But I quickly released that thought; we had started over once already, and this was out of my control. She finished the song, and I was proud of her resiliency. Her notes rang out, clear and confident, and if it weren’t for those early, fumbling moments, one would have thought she had delivered a solid performance.

But she and I knew the truth, and we were both crushed. Even so, she held her head high as she approached the judges. She was given positive feedback with only the briefest reference to the “something” that happened early on in her performance. The judges encouraged her to keep singing and commented on her professionalism in the midst of the mishap.

Do you know what struck me as the judges critiqued her? It was the reality of her song choice. I had been so proud when she had agreed to sing a worship song at the county fair, a beautiful tune by Vertical Worship called “Shelter.” I was excited for her to share her gift of music with those gathered in the tent that day, eager to see her Light for Jesus shine bright among the other performances. It was her voice, the song, and the message that resonated in the most powerful way that day. For even though her performance didn’t transpire like we had hoped, there was still an incredible peace and beauty that came from her music. I think we were all reminded that God is always our shelter, especially on bad hair days, in disorganized entry forms, and in forgotten lyrics. We can run to Him when the world is a chaotic mess around us. He welcomes our worship as we seek refuge in His love.

*****

I carried this song and message with me as I traveled for work a few weeks later. I was nervous because I had to cross the border into Canada, but in the end, the border crossing turned out to be the least stressful of all. Navigating airports has never been easy for me, but I managed the first leg of my journey with very little anxiety. I spent the night in Detroit with friends before I made my first border crossing. I was feeling a bit more confident until I got my first glimpse of the conference center and hotel.

Standing 22 stories high, the hotel was instantly intimidating. I quickly learned that the elevators were in high demand and that it would be nearly impossible for me to navigate the building without assistance. None of the elevators verbally announced the floor, nor was there any “beep” or “ding” to indicate when a floor was reached. My room was on the eighth floor, and I didn’t have a roommate. How was I going to make it through the next three days when the overwhelm was all-consuming?

My prayer was simple: Lord, walk with me. And step by step, minute by minute, I navigated through the next three days. God led me to a sweet woman named Miriam who became my place of safety for the remainder of the weekend. Armed with calm assurance, a power chair, and her service dog, Wendell, Miriam took charge. I never needed to worry about logistics when she was with me, and I could actually pull in a deep breath in the midst of the chaos. It was almost as if she could read my mind. One day at lunch, as the 700-some conference attendees swarmed around us, I got quiet. I was beyond overwhelmed, and I think Miriam could sense that. A moment later, she pushed her chair back from the table and announced that she was leaving early for the next session. She asked if I was ready to go with her. Um… yes, please!

But even with Miriam’s help and the knowledge that God was walking with me, I still stumbled under the anxiety. On the last morning, I felt sick, so I stayed in bed and missed the first session of the day. Ordinarily, being late and missing a session would have been unthinkable for me, but I was past caring. Even though I had no idea how I was going to get downstairs to the lobby, check out of my room, and find breakfast, I made my way to the elevators. I was now numb to the fear and overwhelm. Step by weary step, I walked through the morning routine, eventually meeting up with Miriam to attend the final workshop. But I was on autopilot now, and I was ready to be done. But it would be two days yet before I could fly home, so I knew I had to endure just a little while longer.

Once I crossed back into the U.S., much of my tension eased and I was able to relax with friends. I was grateful for those two days, for they proved to be a source of encouragement and sheltering grace. I basked in beautiful music, savored delicious food, and participated in soul-stirring conversation. I was finally able to sleep through the night without being awakened by nervous tension. As I navigated through the Detroit airport, I felt surprisingly calm in the hectic atmosphere. A kind airline representative walked with me through security and led me to my gate. I boarded the plane early with my white cane in hand and waited for take-off to Minneapolis.

Our flight was uneventful until we were about to land. That’s when the captain came over the intercom with this announcement: “Ladies and gentlemen, we are not able to land in Minneapolis due to bad weather, so we took a left-hand turn to Kansas City. We are sorry for the inconvenience.”

Wait! What? I sat up straight in my seat and glanced at the people beside me. Everywhere I turned, I heard the grumbling. This couldn’t be happening. Kansas City, why?

As we taxied down the runway, I powered up my phone and called home. I waited for someone to answer, each ring in my ear mingling with the murmur of voices all around me. Obviously, I wasn’t the only one making a call. I swallowed hard against the rising anxiety, and then I heard a familiar greeting. Almost instantly, I calmed when I heard that voice from home. The miles between Kansas City and Wisconsin seemed to disappear, and I basked in the feeling of safety.

I relayed what had happened, making sure it was understood that I had no idea when I would be home. My friends told me they were watching the weather, and it looked like the storms would pass quickly. That gave me reassurance that it wouldn’t be long before we could be on our way to Minneapolis. My friends promised to wait up for me and would be there when my shuttle would arrive in our home town.

Two-and-a-half hours later, we were finally taking off for Minneapolis, but that didn’t mean it was smooth sailing, or rather, autopilot from that point forward. Even after we landed in Minneapolis, we couldn’t deplane because there were so many other aircraft vying for position at the gate. As the other passengers finally began to make their way off the plane, I followed, only to be detained by a flight attendant. I was told that someone from the airport was on their way to escort me to ground transportation, so I needed to wait onboard until they arrived.

I was having none of that! Somehow, I managed to talk my way out of waiting on the plane. I had been onboard for more than six hours, and I was getting claustrophobic. I was tired, hungry, stressed, and still fairly anxious. I needed to make a connection with my shuttle, because there was no guarantee I would be able to get home that night.

My cell phone was dead, and I anxiously waited for it to power on at a charging station. I quickly messaged and called friends and family to update them on my situation, and then made sure I had a seat on the shuttle. There was a spot remaining on the 10:55 p.m. trip, and I was grateful. Every other seat was taken for the rest of the night.

Once onboard the shuttle, it was only an hour’s ride home, but it felt like the longest hour of my life. I just wanted to be home! If it weren’t for the air conditioning that was cranked to the max, maybe I would have been able to sleep. I tried to relax, knowing that home and safety were just minutes away. I meditated on the lyrics to “Shelter,” catching glimpses of God’s goodness and provision all along my journey. True, things hadn’t gone as planned. Yes, I was about as drained as the battery on my cell phone and I couldn’t decide if I was more hungry or frustrated. But God was with me, even in the chaos.

Being diverted to Kansas City was an inconvenience for sure, but I was protected from the inclement weather. My shuttle was delayed, but I had incredible friends who were willing to meet me well past midnight so I could make it home. I was hungry and thirsty, and those needs were met with ice cold water and a plate of pancakes at nearly 1:00 a.m. Sleep came swiftly once my head hit the pillow.

My trip was harrowing and stressful; it would have been easier just to stay home. My mentee could have given up and never performed again, but she sang “Shelter” in church a few weeks later and blessed all of us with her beautiful offering. I could have let that storm keep me awake as I tried to sleep, but knowing my dad was close by gave me the peace I needed to sleep without worry. The truth is, there are no clear answers as to why we have to walk through stormy and chaotic situations. We may never see resolution or understand God’s plan, but as the storm rages, we can be confident that He will never leave or forsake us. He is our shelter, our place of safety. In the center of His love, we can try again, because we can do all things through Him who gives us strength (Philippians 4:13).

“Welcome to Kansas City”— certainly not the words I wanted to hear, but they were a reality I needed to embrace. We all face situations outside of our control at some point in our lives. It isn’t easy for me to relinquish control, and that’s when anxiety arises. It is in times like these that I need to be reminded that God knows the way and He is my protector. He is my shelter. Instead of cowering in the face of the unknown, I can hold my head up high because I know the One who holds tomorrow. Life is unpredictable, messy, and chaotic, but if you listen closely, there is beautiful music too. “Welcome to Minneapolis” was certainly beautiful music to my ears! The song “Shelter” concludes with these words: “I am safe, I am safe.” Yes, I am safe, and I am home.