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.

Compassion in Action

Recently, I have felt increasingly drawn to one thing— making sure others know how much they are loved and valued. For most of the winter, I stayed inside, relatively alone and isolated. I went to work, lead worship, and followed through on my commitments, but I didn’t engage a lot with the outside world. When a person spends a great deal of time alone, it can be easy to become pretty frustrated with the company. I was anxious and irritable, and I didn’t appreciate my attitude and behaviors. I was so glad when Spring came and I could begin to become independent again.

It was in engaging with community again that I began to feel a greater compassion for those around me. Compassion is something that has never come easy for me, so it was encouraging to see the attitude shift take place. I began to initiate interaction with others. I found myself praying more often and more frequently. I found that certain circumstances had me in tears pretty quickly. There were so many people around me who needed more than I could give: a friend who had yet to embrace faith, another who was battling depression, another who had just left a toxic relationship, another battling through health challenges and family-related concerns, another struggling with finances… The list seemed endless, and as I began to sink in the sea of overwhelm, all I could do was pray.

I was all in— jumping out in faith to embrace the challenges that came with the struggles listed above. Nothing about this phase has been easy, because as I wrote earlier, compassion has never really been a focus for me. Sure, I care about others, but living independently and working through my own challenges medically and through disability has made me very selfish and one-dimensional. I am not proud of the times when I have thought of someone else through the lens of my disability and thought: “If I can work through my challenges and come out on the other side, why can’t you fix/change/figure out your (insert issue/problem/challenge)?

Hey, I told you I wasn’t proud of my attitude. I am fully aware that I am not perfect, and somehow, God still loves me and pursues me. He has carried me through many of the challenges I have faced throughout my life, and I wouldn’t be where I am today if not for His grace and mercy. So why can’t I extend even a small piece of the mercy and grace to those God places in my path?

That’s why this Spring has been so refreshing and eye-opening. I still struggle to offer compassion in many cases, but I’m trying to recognize the value in everyone and give every connection a decent effort. As I have explored compassion in my community, music has been a constant companion, and one song that has been making its presence known is Cory Asbury’s “Reckless Love.”

Now, I’m sure many of you are familiar with this song. It’s been on the radio for more than a year now, and has been recognized as a top song on many charts and worship leader resources. And although the song resonated with me from the beginning, I was reluctant to bring it as an anthem to my local congregation. It wasn’t until a church member posted a comment about it on my Facebook page that I began to consider the possibility of introducing it to our faith community.

Since that comment was made on Facebook, I can count on my hand the number of times we have played “Reckless Love” at church. It’s kind of been intimidating, if I’m honest. The song isn’t easy to sing; the range is all over the place. It’s also lyrically heavy. I have always been conscious when utilizing the song to place it at a specific point in our service. I want the congregation to be attentive and focused on what the song articulates, because I don’t think we can be reminded enough of just how much God loves us.

Just last week, I began to plan for worship, but this worship planning wasn’t typical. I had not been scheduled to play, so I was filling in for another accompanist. The song selections came together quickly, but I was stuck with where to place each anthem in the service. It had been requested to lead “Reckless Love,” and although I wanted to agree to that request, I struggled with how to use the song. If done during prelude, would the congregation truly engage with it? We couldn’t use it during the offering because there would be a video shown. That left us with the beginning or end of worship to play the song.

I was so close to dropping it from the service entirely, but something nagged at me. I felt a pressing need to not just include “Reckless Love,” but make it a focus in our worship. I considered it no accident that I spent time later in the week working through Psalm 23, drawn into the imagery of the Good Shepherd, green pastures, and still waters. But something else struck me in this familiar passage. In the final verse: “surely your goodness and mercy will follow me,” I realized something. My Bible translation had not used the word “follow.” I had glossed over the words, not really realizing that the text had read: “surely your goodness and unfailing love will pursue me.”

Wait! Pursue me? Those weren’t the words I had read as a child! After digging a little deeper, I learned the Hebrew translation for “follow” meant just that— to pursue, to hunt or to chase down. Before I knew it, I was at the piano, singing “Reckless Love” with tears streaming down my face. This is what I had been living into this Spring: not only recognizing that God loved and pursued me, but that He was also actively loving and pursuing all of my friends with their struggles and challenges. I didn’t have to carry their burdens alone, because the Good shepherd would leave the ninety-nine sheep if one was lost, just to bring that one to safety.

So with a pressing need to communicate this monumental truth, I did something out of my comfort zone on Sunday morning. Instead of just singing, I shared from my heart: about Psalm 23, about God’s unfailing love, about His longing to be in relationship with each one of us, about His reckless pursuit. And then we sang. I know each one of us on the team tried not to cry as we led in song, for we felt the lyrics and message so profoundly.

And do you know what’s awesome? If your eyes are open to the Savior’s unfailing love, you will begin to see compassion and loving relationships all around you.

In the twenty-four hours after our Sunday worship, I witnessed so much kindness and compassion, I was scheduled to see the doctor at 11:30 on Monday morning, so I patiently waited for my driver. He was on time and efficiently completed his work, but he wasn’t very talkative. That was fine, because I was pretty anxious about the day’s events, so I was stuck in my head most of the time anyway. I have never enjoyed going to the doctor; in fact, my anxiety over medical appointments could probably fill another blog post, and I don’t think you want to be bothered with the details. I was also worried about getting into the clinic by myself since this was the first time I had gone to this particular doctor alone. My driver dropped me off at the door and told me another provider was scheduled for the return trip and that I should call for a pick-up when my appointment was done.

In the end, I had no cause for worry. A receptionist at the clinic saw my cane, and instead of sending for an escort, she came around the desk and walked me to the correct waiting room. After a routine testing and consultation with the doctor, they were processing my prescriptions when a computer error occurred.

“I don’t mean to rush anyone,” I said. “But while we wait for the computer, would it be all right if I call my transportation provider so they can be on their way here since we’re almost finished?”

“Sure, that’s fine,” my doctor said. “Good idea.”

So while sitting in the doctor’s office, I made the call, only to find out that my return trip had already been booked for 12:30. My appointment had gone so well and efficiently that I would have 45 minutes to wait.

My doctor heard my end of the conversation. “12:30?” she said. “Not for another 45 minutes. That’s crazy. You’ve got to be hungry since its lunch time and all, plus the headache.” She had known about my headache from the beginning of my appointment. “It’s a good thing we have a coffee shop off the lobby. You can wait there and you’ll be able to be close when your driver pulls up. Here, I’ll get one of the nurses to walk you there and get you settled.”

“Oh, that’s okay,” I responded. “I’m sure I can find my way out to the lobby and if I need to I can ask someone to walk me to the coffee shop.”

“Oh, it’s no problem,” my doctor said. “Come on, follow me.”

We walked out into the main department, only to find there were no nurses in sight.

“Well, it looks like I’ll be taking you to the coffee shop,” she said. “We’re short a nurse today, and things have been crazy.”

“Really, its okay,” I tried to interject, but she wouldn’t listen.

“It’s no trouble,” she said. “I don’t have anything scheduled for another twenty minutes, and besides, I can’t just leave you. I would feel terrible all day long if I had the ability to help and did nothing. And believe me,” she said a bit more quietly. “If I didn’t have that meeting, I would be grabbing lunch and coffee too.”

Once I was settled at the coffee shop, I got my mocha and Panini to-go and sat outside the main entrance, waiting for my driver. That’s when I realized I didn’t know what vehicle I was looking for; I didn’t even have the name of a person— just the company’s promise that they would send someone. Even though my sandwich and coffee had dulled my headache somewhat, the anxiety set my head to pounding again. I hoped I wouldn’t be waiting all afternoon for someone— anyone— to take me home.

At exactly 12:30 a van pulled into the drop-off zone and a female voice called out the window. “Are you waiting for me?”

“Um… I don’t know,” I admitted.

“What’s your name?”

I gave her my last name and she called back with the name of my hometown destination. I sighed with relief and made my way over to the waiting vehicle. I couldn’t help but think about Psalm 23 then. I had not been forgotten, and although this woman was not the Good Shepherd or God, for that matter, she knew me by name and had come back for me. Upon talking with her on the hour drive to my home, I got to know more about this beautiful soul. She was more than a taxi driver, for she truly loved her job and her clients. She talked about driving a woman to the hospital to have surgery, only to learn that the company didn’t have the right location on file. As a result, the driver was faced with the reality of dropping her client off at the wrong address— to a clinic that wasn’t even open for the day. She called into the office and relayed the situation. “I’m not leaving her here. It’s the wrong address,” she said. “I need permission to bring her home or we need to find the right clinic. I’m not leaving her here.”

She was putting her job on the line, refusing to simply abide by the rules. Her compassionate heart truly resonated with the client, and I felt so grateful that this woman— this taxi driver— had gone above and beyond the call of duty to make sure her client would be okay. It was similar in nature to what my doctor had done for me just moments earlier. She was a busy physician. She had no obligation to take a patient to the coffee shop. But she had done so anyway, and that spoke volumes to me.

After four hours at work that afternoon, I closed out my day in the most amazing way. I got to watch as beautiful women embraced someone in their community, offering up financial gifts and tokens of appreciation. The generous gifting was welcomed with humble tears and fumbling words of gratitude. It was grace. It was mercy. It was reckless love. These women reflected Christ as they gave and as they served another in love. It was true compassion in action, and I was so blessed to be able to witness it— to know that if we are willing to engage with those around us, there are endless possibilities.

So thank you to those who are living in Christ’s love and putting that into action. Thank you for reminding me that sometimes God uses others to communicate his love and mercy. Thank You, God, for recklessly loving me and pursuing me, even when I don’t deserve it.

Remain in My Love

FRC Stained Glass

I was finishing up my album late last summer. We were almost there, but we had encountered a few challenges along the way. I was overwhelmed with the details, and when the mastering didn’t come together as we had planned, I nearly crumbled under the pressure. I was afraid we wouldn’t meet the deadline, and I had a horrible feeling that all of our work would be for nothing.

Who is this “we” I speak of? Well, I certainly didn’t release my album all by myself. I had an incredible team behind me: producer, engineer, bass player, percussionists, violinist, back-up vocalists, cover artist, and many others I’m sure I’m forgetting. In particular, my producer and engineer had been with me every step of the way. He wouldn’t let me settle for second-best. He told me I was paying too much money to get mediocre results. When I was too tired and stressed to call the distributor one more time, he got online and chatted with customer service until everything was resolved. He told me he “had my back,” and that made me smile. I needed the assurance that I wasn’t alone in the struggle. Nate wouldn’t let me down, and he had proven his trustworthiness over the year we had spent in recording and post-production. We were a team; there were two of us, and if we needed help, we had many others we could count on to come to our aid.

A few weeks ago, I heard a sermon based on John 15. Before I go into detail about the message, I thought I would share the pastor’s opening illustration. He told about a woman who had worked for her employer for over a decade. She was dedicated and never seemed to tire of whatever tasks she was given. When everyone else went home for the day, exhausted and tired, this woman seemed like she could work for several more hours. When the woman submitted her resignation because she was ready to retire, her boss sadly accepted the reality and planned a party to celebrate this woman’s contribution to the company. On the day of the party, everyone in the office was surprised to see two women, identical twins, enter the room. It quickly became obvious that the twins had been sharing the job and paycheck for over a decade. There had been two of them, doing the work of one.

In his message on the vine and branches in John 15, the pastor spoke about the branches (us as believers) remaining in the Vine. The Vine is Christ, and God the Father is the Gardener. God prunes and cuts away the parts of our branch that will not bear fruit in order that we may begin to make a difference in the Kingdom. If we remain in the Vine and submit to His loving pruning, others will begin to see the evidence of His love within us based on the fruit from our branches. But if a person does not remain in the Vine, he or she will be cut off and the fruit will wither and die.

This passage is one I can relate to quite well. I have one plant in my house that I have managed to keep alive for three years. It is usually green and leafy, and occasionally it will flower. It hasn’t flowered in nearly six months now, and I am getting discouraged. Surely, I must be doing something wrong. So recently, my household assistant cut off some of the dying and yellowed branches, and I am hopeful now that this will start a process of growth.

I am also hoping and praying for growth in another area of my life. I have been praying for a dear friend for a long time, and the days and months have blended into years. My friend is kind, generous, dynamic, and gifted— incredible qualities that drew me in from the day we met, but there is something missing. That missing element is connection to the Savior. My friend has been supportive of my faith and ministry, but yet, has not entered into relationship with the Lord despite everything I have shared and conveyed over the years.

I am not a charismatic evangelist; I don’t often witness by preaching and sharing outright. I am more of a friendship evangelist. I would feel much more comfortable talking over a cup of coffee without the pressure to share the Gospel. If a friend can see by the way I communicate that I love the Lord and one day asks about the hope that is in my heart, I would be overjoyed to tell my story of faith.

Typically, I have been satisfied with this approach. Throughout my life thus far, I have been placed in many situations where I was able to share my faith. Often, I wasn’t able to share my testimony or directly speak of my salvation, but I made many life-long friends, many of whom are still not professing believers. I pray for these friends frequently, hoping that God has been able to use me as an instrument to communicate His love. I know I cannot save someone in my own power; I might just be the one to plant or water the seed. Perhaps someone will come along later to harvest what has been planted as the Holy Spirit convicts a friend to accept the gift of eternal life.

But when it comes to the dear friend I mentioned earlier, I feel a strange sense of urgency. As I explained, I have known this person for many years, and we have had several deep and intentional conversations, but matters of faith have always created a roadblock. Recently, I have felt a renewed stirring to pray for this person because I am sensing something is changing. I am restless and unsettled, my thoughts constantly wandering to this one person. The burden is great and it is heavy. In my own strength, I have carried it alone for all of these years. Yes, I’ve prayed; I’ve tried to leave it in God’s hands, but it’s been difficult to relinquish control.

Recently, I shared an evening with a sister in the Lord, and I talked about what was on my heart. That opened the door to two more sisters in Christ coming alongside of me to offer support and encouragement. I know they are praying for me, and even more importantly, for my friend too. I realized that like the twin sisters in the story I recounted above, I am not alone in this journey. I have a team surrounding me, similar to the dedicated souls who supported my album production.

But greater than my sisters in Christ, I also have Christ, my Vine, to cling to as I wait and pray— as I intercede for my dear friend. I don’t have to save this person in my own strength. For some reason I have been planted here in this time and place to play a part in this life-saving endeavor. But it remains to be seen the impact I will have in the end result. I only pray I don’t have to wait much longer. There are two of us— Christ and me— and my sisters who will carry me and pray with me.

I was surrounded by some of my sisters in Christ at a recent cardio/drumstick class at church when something incredible happened. I was dancing in the back row when we began a routine to Blanca’s “What if.” Just then, the sun came blazing through the stained glass window at the front of the sanctuary. The image depicted on the glass is of Jesus, knocking on a door, and even though I couldn’t see the details from the back of the room, I knew what the sun had illuminated just then. Call it coincidence. Call it a God-wink. Maybe I was just hyper-sensitive to the need in my heart. But I got the distinct assurance then that God had everything under control. Even then, perhaps, he was knocking on the door of my friend’s heart with the invitation to eternal life. He was working, even as I fumbled forward, trying to do the saving on my own. Oh, how I longed for God to use me, to be an instrument in this work, but I didn’t need to carry the burden alone.

As I danced, I basked in the glow of the setting sun, knowing He was front and center, leading and guiding me forward. I let the words from Blanca’s song wash over me, and I marveled at the peace that came over me. I was probably grinning like a fool but I didn’t care who was looking; I had my eyes glued to my Savior.

“I know You’re holding me up
I know Your love is enough
I know the power in Your name
Can do anything
And I know You’re making me strong
I know You were here all along
I know I’m right where You want me.”

There are two of us: me and God— and together, we are going to pursue the one who needs His love. As God does His work, I will do my best to reflect Him and bear the fruit he has brought to life in me: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22). I will remain in the Vine and remain in His love.

Chasing Rainbows

 

Rainbow

It was early last summer when my father and I stood in the garage and watched the rain come down. He had been grilling our dinner when it started pouring, but he managed to get the grill just inside the door to avoid the deluge. I had just joined him in the garage to check on his progress. My mother and I had been getting everything else ready in the kitchen, and we figured our main course would be ready soon.

Neither of us said anything as we took in the brief rain storm. A rumble of thunder overhead took me by surprise because it had seemed like the rain was letting up. In fact, it looked like the sun was about to peek out.

So that day, just outside the garage, I kept searching for the rainbow, even though I knew it was possible that there wasn’t enough sunlight to cast upon the fading raindrops. But then as I continued to squint, I saw a faint line of color. “Is that…?”

I had barely spoken when my dad replied: “Yeah, there’s something there. It’s a rainbow, getting brighter.”

I stepped further out of the garage, not caring that I was getting dripped on by the drizzling rain. My mom came out of the house then and asked what we were doing. I don’t know if my dad answered her, because I was focused on that rainbow, drinking in the beauty and thanking God that I could see it.

Eventually, we all went inside to eat, but it wasn’t before I watched the rainbow fade from the sky. I waited until the sun was warm on my dark hair and the dark clouds were barely visible on the eastern horizon.

I thought about this moment last week when it rained for the first time this year. The abundance of snow that we had on the ground rapidly began to melt as a result of the added moisture and the warm temperatures. It made me think of Noah in the Bible and how God had shown His promise of faithfulness after the flood had receded from the earth. As water ponded and flowed in a small stream around my house, I longed for the beauty of a rainbow. But instead, the sky was dreary with no hint of sunlight, and the snow banks were gray and muddy. I couldn’t help but compare the scenery to my recent circumstances.

The day before, my sister had called and we talked for awhile. She asked how I was doing, and when I said “fine,” she pressed a little deeper. “I’ve been reading your Facebook posts,” she said. “Your loneliness, your ankle, all those challenges— you’re okay now?”

“Well, yeah, I guess,” I said. “It’s still rough. I can’t really go anywhere on my own yet. The ice is finally melting, but now there’s water everywhere. And my ankle is still not healed. I’m just taking it a day at a time.”

Immediately, I found wisdom in my own words. Yes, it had been rough, but it was totally okay to take things day-by-day. It reminded me of the early days after my retina detachment. The depression had been significant during that time, but there had also been some sweet moments too. I was able to spend time with my parents, my sisters, and my nieces and nephews. My mom and I cooked and baked together. We made the best of our trips to Mayo Clinic by stopping at Trader Joe’s and finding tea we both enjoyed. We would spend our evenings, sipping tea by the fireplace and simply being together. When I think of the fall of 2017, fear and depression are definitely a part of that season but there was also a calm and security too. It was a time for healing and growth.

I knew if I examined my current season with fresh eyes, I could find the blessings in the difficulty. It wasn’t long before I began to formulate a mental list of positives that had come from the recent winter months: the fitness class, learning to do my hair, embracing new technology, making music with my OneVoice girls, and watching Hallmark movies. Friends helped me get groceries, drove me to work, and made sure I got to my appointments when I couldn’t leave my house due to the weather. Other friends were just a call away if I needed a distraction or words of encouragement. Even though there were moments I felt limited and closed up inside my house, I was never left lacking; God was faithful and took care of me, even as the smoke alarms malfunctioned, a hoped-for opportunity was cancelled, and my ankle still radiated pain.

I knew I could find beauty in the challenges if I was willing to look on the bright side. It made me think of the little sun-catcher prisms my grandma had hanging in her windows when I was young. I would sit on the floor and purposefully follow the little rainbows of light as they moved across the floor and walls of the living room. Maybe this is why I’ve always liked rainbows and searching for the sunlight because it has been a part of my life since the beginning. It made me smile when I went to visit my grandma in the care facility recently, and I saw the little rainbows moving across her bed. Someone had found her prisms and had put them in the window. I had thought that maybe the sun-catchers had been put into storage or lost somehow when she had moved out of her house. But they were there in the window, and it was like everything was right in the world. I never knew how much I had missed those little sun-made rainbows until I glimpsed them again after their absence.

Rainbows don’t always last for long… they are fleeting, and sometimes they appear and then fade moments after the rain. But if it weren’t for the rain (the tough stuff in life), we wouldn’t be actively looking for blessings along the way. Even though life has its challenges, grief, and heartache, God is still faithful. Sometimes we need the darkness of our circumstances to find the blessings in the sunlight. The rainbow is the bridge between the pain and beauty. But sometimes you have to be looking intentionally to see the promises up ahead. You might be tempted to escape the rain just as soon as possible; I know I have that perspective for sure! It’s no fun to stand in the drizzle, nor is it enjoyable to endure life’s challenges. But if you can find perspective in the midst of the storm, perhaps you can catch a glimpse of color and light. Don’t hold back; go chase that rainbow.

Stumbling Forward

Early in January, I made the bold proclamation that I would be running free in 2019. Even with tendonitis in my ankle, I was motivated to leave behind my complacency and venture out into productivity. Well, I can definitely say it has not been an easy journey. We have encountered some bumps along the way, not to mention a fair share of anxiety.
Early in February, I was faced with some unwelcome obstacles at home. As a result, I was very anxious and didn’t sleep very well. In addition, the weather made it nearly impossible to leave the house. One week, the temperature didn’t climb above zero for several days. Local schools were cancelled due to the dangerously low wind chills. Then came the snow; inch after inch piled up. We would barely dig out from a storm only to be slammed with more snow two days later.
I was feeling boxed-in at home. A friend drove me to the store before the arctic blast so I could stock up on food and other necessities, but it didn’t take long before my meals lacked appeal. I was able to work from home, but I missed walking back and forth from the office. My only diversion was my daily shuffle to the mailbox. It was remarkable I could even find the mailbox in the drifted snowbanks at the end of the driveway.
One day, when my anxiety was at its peak, I was granted an opportunity to leave the house. It wasn’t good timing, because although I was eager to venture outside, I wasn’t in a good headspace. I tried to hide it, but I’m sure others were able to tell I was struggling. I am one of those people who wears their heart on their sleeve, and it’s impossible to hide behind emotion. A good friend and team member sought me out in the crowd that day and we started talking. I failed miserably as I pretended everything was okay. It wasn’t long before tears were streaming down my face, and I confessed that I had been battling through loneliness and anxiety.
Almost immediately, I realized I had found a compassionate confidant— someone who had witnessed anxiety in her own family and could relate to my struggle. As our conversation concluded, my friend extended an invitation. “You should come to class,” she said.
The class she referred to was a fitness and exercise session, held every Monday evening at the church. Attendees would dance and move to routines, many of which included the use of drumsticks. I had always been intrigued by my friend’s class but had never attended; I had assumed that I would not be able to keep up in such an environment. I was not in the best shape, and visually, I knew I would not be able to follow the instructor. But my friend encouraged me to attend class the next day and just give it a try. She said I didn’t have to return if it was beyond my ability.
Surprisingly, I was excited for the next day. I had my doubts that I would be able to keep up with the class, but I was willing to try anything. I think I would have agreed to anything at that point just to get me out of the house. But guess what? Monday morning dawned with the promise of accumulating ice and snow. Schools were cancelled, and my friend had to make the decision to cancel class as well. I had been so excited to try, and then snow once again derailed my plans.
Nearly a week later, friends from out of town informed me they were coming for a visit. Again, I was excited. We planned to order pizza and watch movies Saturday evening and then my friends would join me at church on Sunday. One friend made it to my house safely, but the other met with some difficulty. After a three-and-a-half-hour drive, he checked in to his hotel room only to come down with the stomach flu. Sadly, we spent the evening without him, but we still had an enjoyable time together, just the two of us. We ordered pizza, made oatmeal chocolate chip cookies, and watched movies.
At one point, I complained about my long hair and how difficult it was getting to manage it. That’s when my friend found a hair tie and told me I should pull it back. “I don’t know how,” I admitted somewhat sheepishly. Yeah, I know; what woman makes it to her mid-thirties without knowing how to make a ponytail? Well, apparently, I am that woman.
My friend was incredibly patient with me— talking through the steps and even occasionally pulling or tugging to get my hair in place. My first attempts were pretty pathetic. My arms hurt from being curled behind my head for such a long time. But finally, I made a passable ponytail, and we settled in to enjoy the rest of the evening.
The next morning, I awoke early so my friend could French braid my hair. You wouldn’t believe how many people came up to me at church that day and remarked about the new look. “Trust me,” I said often that morning. “My hair will never look like this again. There is no way I can replicate it.”
The next day, the house was quiet after the busy weekend. But I was determined to not get sucked back into the loneliness. It was Monday, and I was finally going to the fitness class! But the last thing I wanted was to battle my long hair. So I stood in my bathroom, a hair tie curled around my fingers, and twisted my hair into a pony tail. It took six attempts before I was satisfied, but I finally had a ponytail!
I went to class feeling confidant and ready, but I had no idea what to expect. It took me awhile to catch on; I found it was easier to follow the routines with drumsticks. The sticks were neon green and stood out as the other women moved their arms and tapped their sticks together. It was harder to figure out how to use my feet, but I managed to sway from side to side and click my drumsticks to the beat. I’m sure I didn’t get the same cardio workout as the other women, but it was certainly challenging. The more I thought about it, I realized it was both a physical and mental exercise for me. I was constantly moving my head so I could look at the others around me. Then I would look down to make sure my feet were in the right position. It took a great deal of concentration as I worked to follow along with only my left eye to compensate for all of the action. By the time the other women were stretching out on the floor at the end of class, I felt completely and wonderfully spent.
My friend, the instructor, played the song “I am not Alone” as performed by Kari Jobe, and tears spilled from my eyes as I sat on the floor. This song has been an emotional trigger for me over the past seventeen months or so in my recovery after my retinal detachment. In that moment, all of the anxiety and loneliness rose to the surface, and I felt God’s presence beside me as I cried. I was certainly not alone. I was surrounded by women who had welcomed me into their midst without questioning my level of physical strength and ability. I felt included and motivated— encouraged to be myself and to just try.
As I rose to my feet and moved to put my drumsticks away, my fingers rubbed against each other, and I looked down to find a blister. I didn’t think it had anything to do with the drumsticks or the workout, so I ignored it and went home. But the next day as I was attempting another ponytail before rehearsal, I came to a realization. Over the past few days as I had fumbled through multiple ponytail attempts, I had been gripping the hair tie between my fingers so tightly that I felt pain there. Then the blister made sense.
hair memeI had been trying so hard that the physical evidence on my finger was a nagging reminder of my accomplishments. It would have been easy for me in that moment to get discouraged— to tell myself that a ponytail shouldn’t be that difficult to make and I was failing miserably— but I recognized the negativity immediately. I couldn’t control the fact that my visual impairment had impacted my ability to learn the skill of doing my hair or following an exercise routine. I could only do my best and maintain a positive outlook on my circumstances, because truly, that was all I could control in the midst of my circumstances.
After my second week in class, I came home to a painful twinge in my ankle and a hair tie that had been stretched to its limits, thanks to my many attempts to do my hair. I was tired, but once again, I felt connected, included, and motivated. I think it’s going to be a long journey to recovery. I need to stay off of my ankle long enough to let it heal. I will need to keep doing my hair so that eventually it will become second nature. I will keep dancing and moving, even if my routine doesn’t match that of the other women. I will work through the coming days of winter loneliness, because Spring and Daylight Saving time is just around the corner. Longer, brighter, and warmer days are on the horizon, and I will keep stumbling forward one step at a time.

Running Free

To say that the beginning of 2019 has taken me by surprise would be an understatement. I am in completely new territory.

Let me explain.

Typically, I dread January’s arrival. I bask in everything December represents. I thrive in the busyness of rehearsals. I give my attention to every last detail. I sit in the glow of the Christmas lights in the evenings, but even thought it might look like I am relaxing, it is quite the opposite. I am listening to music, memorizing new material, and arranging set-lists in my head. Christmas music is beautiful, but it is difficult to play for a play-by-ear pianist. When it is December, I am running around like crazy— literally— and the wheels in my mind are turning too. I hardly ever shut down.

I’m sure other musicians, pastors, and church employees can relate to this. December is arguably the busiest time on the church calendar, with a close second maybe going to the time of Lent and Easter. When a busy season like Advent concludes, there is an immediate let-down for me. All of the songs I learned and memorized in December don’t really lend themselves to being utilized in January. I can’t just carry over into the new year with my musical momentum. Everything kind of comes to a halt.

I confess to experiencing a bit of situational depression in January. Yes, I’m working and I have a job to do, but the workload is a bit lighter and less challenging. It provides me ample time to focus on things that I let slide during December, but quite often, I’m not in a good headspace to focus on anything too important. I am usually distracted, lonely, and a bit off-track because I’ve lost some of December’s determination.

Last year, I cried when I packed away the Christmas decorations. I had embraced every beautiful moment of Christmas, 2017. I loved looking at the lights and singing songs of joy. My heart was full because my vision was healing after retina surgery, and I was excited for my upcoming album release in 2018. I had studio time scheduled for January, so I thought I would transition pretty easily from the busyness of December to an equally busy January, but the tears still came…

But as you might expect, my situational depression couldn’t last long when I had so much on the horizon. Before I knew it, I was recording, spending lots of money, and getting very little sleep. My body doesn’t respond well to stress and anxiety, but even so, I reveled in being productive. I only had two significant moments of panic and anxiety, but I was proud of myself for seeking out help when I needed it throughout the course of the year.

2018 was crazy, and life was lived at a chaotic and frenetic pace. I didn’t spend much time on Facebook, nor did I watch very much TV. A team member’s young child recommended that I watch his new favorite movie, and I promised I would— when I found the time. I am happy that I have since watched that movie— twice— and he’s right; it’s good! But for most of the year, I didn’t see much of my family and friends. It kind of reminded me of the six years I directed Camp when I was constantly working and never sleeping.

After I released The Dawn in late September, I hit the road that same week to attend a conference for work. While in Michigan, I was able to share the album with new listeners and perform/ lead worship at various events. I wasn’t embracing the same hectic pace from earlier in the year, but I was still busy and very much fulfilled.

As October moved into November, I began to look toward Christmas. But it was weird; I wasn’t as excited or motivated as I typically would be at that time of year. I even delayed putting up my Christmas tree. News of a church member’s sudden death rocked our congregation, and as I sat in the glow of the Christmas tree, I cried. I also felt saddened and burdened for the family of a missing teen just an hour’s drive from my home. Would this child return home safely? Would a grandfather, aunts, uncles, and cousins spend Christmas without their sweet Jayme? And what about Jayme herself? Was she okay? Was she alive?

But December wasn’t a complete loss. Before long, I became immersed in the memorization, rehearsals, and preparations. By Christmas Eve, I was my typical self— jittery, nervous, and hyper-focused. It was hard to shut down after our Christmas Eve service. For the first time in a long while, I would be traveling to visit my family in Minnesota. My typically quiet, uneventful Christmas Eve in front of the Christmas tree and blazing fireplace would be replaced by a two-and-a-half-hour drive. But even in the car, I couldn’t relax.

December 25 dawned with the reality that it was Christmas (yay!), but I was exhausted with a pounding headache. I guess that’s what happens when you’re speeding along at 100 miles-an-hour and you suddenly come to a stop. There was something about being in Minnesota for Christmas that also helped put the breaks on my productivity. I was away from my normal routine, and I wouldn’t be returning to work until the 30th. I also would not be leading worship the Sunday after Christmas, which was also atypical for me.

When I returned home and settled in after church on the 30th, I fully expected the first inklings of January depression to arise. But surprisingly, I found I was okay. What wasn’t okay, however, was my ankle. I began to experience excruciating pain each morning when I stepped out of bed. I had been dealing with moderate ankle discomfort for a few months already, but I had been trying to ignore it. I had worked through an ankle injury last fall, and I figured I had just exacerbated it with my walking, biking, and tapping the piano pedal.

As I packed away the Christmas decorations on January 2nd, I kept myself further occupied by doing three loads of laundry and recording practice videos for my worship team. I didn’t cry; I was too busy running around the house, somehow knowing my ankle would probably pay later for the added stress. Once everything was packed away, I settled in my recliner to watch a TV show while sipping some nonalcoholic sparkling cider. I couldn’t believe it! I was actually relaxing without the nagging January heartache. Granted, nothing had changed. There still wasn’t much to do, my ankle was very much in pain, and sweet Jayme was still missing. My prayer in the coming days was that God would help me work through the quieter days of January and that I would find purpose.

I spent nearly a week immersed in peaceful, quiet rest. I wasn’t depressed, but I was now facing a completely different reality; I was complacent. My typical day consisted of reading, listening to music, watching some TV, and limited exercise on my stationary bike. I didn’t go anywhere other than the office. In fact, I was home for such a long stretch that my smart thermostat in my living room altered me that it hadn’t heard from my phone’s location in awhile. Yeah, it hadn’t heard from my phone because my phone never moved!

The only thing that wasn’t complacent was my ankle. It made its presence known in the morning and at various points throughout the day. I tried to ignore it, convincing myself that the pain would pass, just like the dark days of January. But then I read a post on Facebook that asked those who commented to share about their new year’s resolutions. I don’t typically set new year’s goals, but I felt the nudge to find some accountability, so I posted that I wanted to be better at working on things that I could change and have a better attitude about the challenges that came my way. I realized in that moment that I had the ability to change something and the pain radiating from my ankle was the catalyst.

Thanks to the connection from one of my team members, I soon had a chiropractor appointment booked for a few days later. After two treatments and some athletic tape, I can happily report that I am feeling better, but it got me thinking— good grief; what took me so long? I had the ability to seek out help and I held off for so long. I was unnecessarily miserable, and it was all because I was too complacent to make a move and do something about it.

I recognized there is a huge difference between my 100-mile-per-hour 2018 and my seemingly stalled 2019. I went from hyper-speed to practically no movement in a matter of weeks and it drastically altered my motivation. Instead of situational depression, I had become numb to everything around me… that is until severe pain broke me out of my complacency. I chose to do something about my discomfort, and I’m hoping that this will be a good starting place for the rest of 2019. I may not be recording an album this year, but I’m sure there’s plenty ahead to keep me busy. I need to get to it, but in order to get there, I need to be mobile. So here’s to quick healing, effective treatments, and no further injury.

When my friend dropped me off at home after my most recent treatment, I made the comment that I sometimes wished I could just take off running. Realistically, I amended this by pointing out that running was hardly possible since I would probably stumble over potholes on the road and have trouble breathing thanks to my asthma, but a girl could dream about running, right? My friend laughed and said, “No, you don’t want to run. Running is bad for your knees. How about you just stick to walking and your tricycle?”

Sure, okay… but in my mind, I’ll be running free!

P.S. Jayme Closs escaped her captor and was found alive on January 10. Praise God for His faithfulness. I celebrate her safe return and I pray that she will find healing and restoration as she moves forward.

Top Songs of 2018

At the close of 2017, 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.

“Awakening” by Chris Tomlin https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ljr6lqu2-ec

“Daylight” by Remedy Drive https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OzyYii4ZXRw

“Faithful” by Chris Tomlin https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FJFlY0mwFks

“Hope has a Name” by River Valley Worship https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lZrdtaevu0Y

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

“Satisfied in You (Psalm 42)” by The Sing Team https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A7O7LQpQaoc

“Titanium” cover by Madilyn Bailey https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J7c9kRDgck8

“While I Wait” by Lincoln Brewster https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rb9M5vzUyZ0

Before we Say Goodbye: “The Lord’s Prayer” Song Story

The Summer of 2016 brought a great deal of unknown as I faced my first season without directing Camp. I wasn’t sure I was ready for the change, but God knew what I needed. He had been preparing my heart even as I had resigned from my position the previous September. I hadn’t wanted to go, but my mental and physical health demanded I take a step back and regain perspective. I also needed to refocus my attention on my work as a worship leader. My pastor was preparing to take a three-month sabbatical and I wanted to be present for my congregation and concentrate on my leadership role.
I wasn’t prepared for the leadership role that came upon me early that Summer, almost before my pastor’s sabbatical truly began. A good friend called me one day and proceeded to tell me about her aging mother-in-law. She was a resident of the local care facility, and my friend wondered if I might be willing to visit her now and then. She told me that her mother-in-law didn’t have a connection with a church, and she was hoping for a pastoral call of sorts. I quickly reminded my friend I was a worship leader and not a pastor, but my words didn’t seem to register. My friend was convinced I would be the perfect person to call on her mother-in-law and she was quick to set up the first visit.
To say I felt largely unqualified would be an understatement. I was overwhelmed at the reality that I would be this woman’s pastoral contact. Sure, I could handle some friendly conversation and a visit now and then, but I had never filled the shoes of a calling pastor. I had taken a training course to serve as a hospice volunteer, but that had been nearly ten years in the past. I brushed up on the curriculum even as I reminded myself that God would carry me through this. I was comforted that for the first few visits, my friend and her family would be present, and I wouldn’t be on my own completely. The family also didn’t set any core expectations. As long as I visited their loved one on occasion, they would be okay with the arrangement.
I learned a great deal from my interaction with this sweet, elderly woman. We had a lot in common and our interaction was fairly effortless. At the end of each visit, I would say goodbye and tell her I would return soon. Before I could make my exit, she would say to me, “Before we say goodbye, could we say the Lord’s Prayer?” I readily agreed, quickly being reminded of the difference between our denominational backgrounds; I would say “debts” and debtors” and she would say “trespasses.” Our first few attempts were fumbling, but we soon made it a regular occurrence to say the Lord’s Prayer before I would leave her room.
I envisioned myself calling on my elderly friend throughout the Summer and even into the Fall. But little did I know, much more would be required of me and far sooner than any of us expected. It was early August when I got the call that made my mouth go dry and my hands tremble. My friend called to say that her mother-in-law was unresponsive and asked if I would go see her as soon as possible. I didn’t delay— hurrying over to the Care Center on my tricycle. I was relieved to learn that my elderly friend had awakened and was talking again, but she was certainly weakened. I sat and talked with her, occasionally reading Scripture and praying.
Eventually, I sensed that it was time to go. I stood to my feet, told the woman I loved her, and backed away from the bed.
“Wait… before you go…” came her weak voice.
I knew what was coming and I choked on unexpected tears. “Yes,” I said. “Let’s say the Lord’s Prayer.” And so we prayed together one more time.
When I left the care facility a few moments later, my heart was heavy. I had evening plans and I needed to run through the music for the service the next day. I went through the motions of rehearsal and I went forward with my evening plans, but I was distracted. I was constantly praying for my friend and her family. I had told only a few others of my pastoral calling, so I carried the burden of my worries and fears alone.
I returned home late in the evening, knowing that I needed to sleep but unable to find a peaceful state of rest. I went into my home office to retrieve my hymnbook. I didn’t know what I was looking for until I stumbled upon the musical arrangement of “The Lord’s Prayer.” Immediately, I was swarmed with memories. I had sung the piece at several funerals over the years, often with piano accompaniment. The song had always been too intricate for me to replicate on the piano, so I had always enlisted the help of another accompanist. Over the past few years, I had managed to craft an acapella arrangement of the song so I could eliminate needing to ask for help on the piano.
With hymnbook and cell phone in hand, I knew what I needed to do. I turned off all of the lights in the house and made my way to the garage. I closed myself inside the empty space (my parents’ vehicle was not parked there). I placed my phone in the basket of my tricycle and hit record. Then without rehearsal or any prior run-through, I sang “The Lord’s Prayer.” It was raw, emotional, and a worshipful moment I will never forget.
I could have edited the recording; in fact, some editing was probably in order because the air conditioning was running in the background and it created a high-pitched hiss. But I knew I couldn’t sing it any better or differently, and I saved the track to my phone.
Over the next few days, I returned to the care facility. My friend was unresponsive once again, and as I sat by her bedside lost for words, I thought of something. I placed my cell phone on the bed next to her pillow and played my sung version of “The Lord’s Prayer.” It was all I could offer her as she slowly slipped away to meet her Savior.
When my friend left this life to join the Lord in eternity, her family asked me to officiate at her funeral service. I was honored to fulfill the request but terrified as well. I had never fulfilled such duties before, and I was overwhelmed with the reality. But the family was kind and considerate; they allowed me to journey with them in their time of loss, and I gave their loved one the best memorial I could as I relied on the strength of the Lord.
Never before had the words of the Lord’s Prayer resonated so clearly in my mind and heart. A co-worker had always said to me: “If ever you can’t sleep or don’t have the words to pray, just say the Lord’s Prayer.” The Lord taught us how to pray, after all, and what better example than to speak the words He provides for us in the Scriptures.
When it came time to record The Dawn, there was no question how the album would end. But there was a great deal to consider if we were going to record this anthem acapella. The producer told me that it might mean several takes in the studio without a clear, usable version. We both knew how challenging it would be to punch in and out to perfect the vocals when pitch and phrasing would have to be on point. There was no margin for error, and we needed the right settings in place on the microphone if we were going to make it happen.
On vocal day, I powered through the first ten songs. Some required multiple takes; some were a bit more straightforward. By the time we got to track eleven, I knew my voice was fatigued. For a moment, I debated scrapping the whole idea for “The Lord’s Prayer.” Only the producer and I would really know the difference— whether it was on the album or not. But then I thought of my sweet, elderly friend and her parting words: “Before we say goodbye…”
It was then I knew that I had to try. So I took a deep breath and gave it my best effort, just as I had done when I officiated at the funeral. Three takes later, we had a promising recording and vocal day was complete. It seemed fitting to conclude the recording process with the timeless message of “The Lord’s Prayer.” I truly believe it was the best way to commemorate a project rooted in God’s promises and His faithfulness through suffering. As the “Amen” is uttered at its conclusion, it brings closure to the entire album. From the first track of high praise to the final “Amen,” The Dawn is a prayer— a longing for hope and peace.
“For Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.”

 

It will not Let me Go: “Let the Music Linger” Song Story

February, 2017 began uneventfully. The middle of winter has never been my favorite time of year, and so as you might expect, I was longing for Spring. I was planning out The Dawn, but there was nothing pressing on the horizon. I was scheduled to play at a few funerals, so I was kept busy with music memorization and piecing together routine Sunday morning services. Everything was typical… pretty ordinary.
Until February 15…
I returned home from providing music at a funeral and went through the motions of practicing for the upcoming Sunday service. Then I made my way into the kitchen to prepare dinner. It was while I was waiting for my meal to finish cooking that I checked Facebook. And that’s when the world came to a devastating stand-still.
I was scrolling through friends’ posts when I saw something that stole my breath. There were several posts regarding my friend, John. I scrolled down his timeline, reading things like: “RIP,” “You will be missed,” “I love you…” The posts went on and on, and I began to shake. This couldn’t be real. But the more I read, the more I began to comprehend that it must be real. All of these people were mourning the loss of my dear friend, and I didn’t know anything.
What had happened? Had he been ill? Where was he when he died? These may not seem like questions a close friend would be asking, but the truth was, I didn’t know a lot about John’s activities. He was a concert organist, and quite often, he was traveling. Although we stayed connected through Facebook, email, texts, and phone calls, we didn’t see each other in person very frequently. He lived in New York, and I was in Wisconsin. Throughout our seven-year friendship, we had only been together in person on two occasions.
We may not have connected often, but when we interacted, it was meaningful and memorable. John was one of those people who made you feel like you were the most important person in the world. Music brought us together, and he was my cheerleader of sorts. When he learned I was a songwriter, he made it his mission to ask about my creative process.
“Have you written any songs lately?” he would ask early on in many of our conversations.
“No,” I would often respond. “I’ve been really busy.”
Sometimes, I would make other excuses: I hadn’t been inspired, it was too difficult, I didn’t have any ideas, etc. But John didn’t accept those excuses. “You’re a songwriter,” he would tell me. “Songwriters write songs. So go write something.”
I’ve said it before. Songwriting doesn’t come easily to me. I really have to be intentional to make it happen. In the seven years that I knew John, I only wrote a handful of songs, and you’ve probably guessed it by now, but the excuses continued. When I started leading worship at FRC, crafting arrangements and memorizing songs took priority, and songwriting was shoved to the back burner.
When I learned that John had passed away, I trembled at the reality. I had never made any contact with John’s family, so I had to rely on the posts from friends to piece everything together. It was weeks before I saw an obituary, and it wasn’t until I read the words “funeral” and “in memory,” that it began to sink in. It was hard to imagine that my songwriting cheerleader would no longer call me again and encourage me to create. The loss was staggering.
It was a week after reading those initial Facebook posts when I woke up in the middle of the night to a striking, haunting melody. The lyrics “Please, will you stay with me” were a constant refrain in my consciousness as well, and I found I couldn’t sleep any longer. Frustrated, I rolled over and willed my mind to calm so I could get some rest. I think I dozed off, but it wasn’t long before the melody and lyrics returned again. I recognized that this was probably a song that needed to be written, but I was tired and I longed to sleep. I told myself that there was no way I could forget a lyric that practically begged to be remembered: “Please, will you stay with me.” I rolled over again and tried to sleep.
At 7:00 a.m., I could no longer fight it. Sleep had eluded me, and the melody had etched itself so deeply into my heart that I didn’t need to record it to retain it. I stumbled into my home office and forced myself to put pen to paper. It was the typical songwriting process for me— messy and meticulous, but I stuck with it. Somehow, I knew this song was a gift, and John wasn’t far from my thoughts as I crafted the lyrics.
“Let the Music Linger” was unlike anything I had ever composed before. It was a song of longing— missing and loving someone deeply. It wasn’t a worship song, nor was it rooted in my typical lyrical style. In a way, it served to give me the encouragement to carry on, to write again, and sing— even as tears streamed down my face. It was startling to think that even in death, John had cheered me on to compose something so special that I longed for him to hear it.
In the coming months, I worked on the album at a feverish pace. “Let the Music Linger” was the fourth song we tackled in the studio, and it was set aside pretty early on so we could focus on the songs that needed more immediate attention. It wasn’t until August, 2018 that we started working on final mixes, and I heard “Let the Music Linger” in its completed state for the first time in months.
I was alone in my living room, multi-tasking because the Packers were playing pre-season football and I had an album to finalize. The TV was muted and my noise-cancelling headphones were in place. The song began to play, and I was transfixed. I was concentrating on the details: balance, volume, reverb, etc… But when I heard the organ enter as the final chorus began, I was reduced to tears. I sobbed for a long time. You see, I hadn’t grieved John’s passing in a healthy way for months. I had been so busy, so focused on the album, that I had forgotten how to embrace the music and the gift that this song had given me.
“Let the Music Linger” was a song that needed to be written. It wouldn’t let me go that first night in my bedroom, and as we finalized the album it still had a grip on me. As I dried my tears, I played the song again on repeat. I found myself smiling, and suddenly, I couldn’t contain my excitement. I had hope that the songs contained on the album would have an impact— that somehow my lyrics and lines could offer comfort and share God’s love from the depths of my own loss.
“Make the melody a memory. Let it never fade away. Let the music linger. Let it live. Let it stay.”