A face from my past

This weekend I sang in a seasonal concert, along with hundreds of other choir members. Always fills my heart to hear so many voices united together.

As I rushed to find my place with fellow choir members, I saw a beautiful smiling face from my past. She looked right at me, smiled big, and said, “Well, hello!”

It took only a moment to place her face in the right spot in my memory.

Mrs. Ford.

She was the ever patient voice teacher who took my feeble voice and shaped it into the most beautiful thing I never thought I was capable of producing. I entered her voice studio timid, a little scared, and lacking lots of confidence in my vocal ability. I also lacked a lot of knowledge about classical music and didn't particularly enjoy singing it.

I can't imagine I was easy to work with.

After a couple years of lessons, I performed a recital. Months after my recital, I received a recording. I put the disc in, not intending to listen to the whole thing. I hate hearing myself, and figured I'd listen to a few measures just to reminisce.

Then I heard myself sing. I couldn't believe what I heard. The tone was beautiful, the sound full, and the voice couldn't be mine.

That woman never gave up on me and the end product was pretty cool. I know she probably got frustrated with me along the way, but her beautiful smile rarely faltered. She pushed through every single lesson where I wanted to give up. She made me keep going. She not only taught me how to sing, she taught me to love beautiful music. After studying with her, I began to truly understand the beauty that is Bach and Beethoven.

I couldn't believe that over ten years later, she still remembered me. After all the students she has taught, she remembered my face.

Her husband jokingly asked her if I could sing. I replied, “Thanks to her, I can.”

Mrs. Ford just smiled big in response and said, “She has a lovely voice.”

That made my week.


Giving grace to the guy behind the microphone

I led worship for one of my church’s contemporary services almost ten years ago. I was fresh out of college with my church music degree clutched tightly in my fist, and I was ready to serve God with it. I found myself thrust into a worship leader position at a new-ish service. All the other people in leadership were burnt out and stepped down. There was no one else willing to step up and it looked like the service might not make it. I stepped up and offered my help, although I didn’t know what the heck I was doing.

Along with the leadership, much of the band had left as well. I found myself left with a guitarist, drummer, and a faithful sound guy who years later would become my husband. With that bare-boned group, we kept pushing through and eventually built a worship band back up.

I loved it. I grew so close to that group. They were so encouraging to me as I fumbled through and learned as I went. I would have stayed in that position too, had it not been for the volunteer position with the African Children’s Choir that came up. I followed God’s will and stepped down from the worship leader position, leaving it in the capable hands of a sweet friend who took that band where I never could.

Fast forward five years, and I was back from the African Children’s Choir, changes happened at church, and I was struggling with where to fit in. Along with that is all the baggage from my worship journey. I found that I stood in the back of the church, throwing stones and complaining about all the little things I didn’t like.

One night, I was feeling nostalgic and actually getting into the worship at church. I thought, “I miss that. I miss leading worship.”

Literally two days later the volunteer worship leader asked if I would consider taking over. I prayed about it, and said yes.

I took the position and was scared to death. It had been years since I had done this. It was uncomfortable and awkward, and I struggled to fit in with the group. And yet I still knew that I was supposed to be there.

All the discomfort in standing up there on stage in front of everyone kept me humble. I found that I was less likely to throw stones at other worship leaders because I remembered all the tough stuff that went along with it. Worship leading is tough.

I led for a year and a half. I loved the musicians I played with. I trusted them and I felt safe. I found that leading worship helped keep my cynicism in check.

However, I soon felt the need to step down.

Choosing songs and holding rehearsals was exhausting. I discovered that leading worship was just one more thing on my to do list. I was draining myself and discovered that my heart wasn’t really in it. This is not a good place to be.

I still don’t feel led to step back into worship leading. But I’m thankful for the reminder of how hard worship leading is, and how I always need to offer  grace to the one behind the microphone.


All we know to do

Years ago, when I was still on tour with the African Children’s Choir, I got a little overwhelmed by the responsibility before me. Parent twenty-four children and help them become responsible adults. Make their voices sound good. Represent the organization and share about God everywhere you go.

It got to be a little much, and I wasn’t the only one overwhelmed.

We were staying at a church, all together as a group, camping out in the sanctuary in sleeping bags. I wandered into a small classroom where two other chaperones were, kneeling down by a couple chairs. I hesitated, not wanting to interrupt their holy moment, but they looked up, smiled, and invited me in without a word.

We kneeled in silence for awhile, lost in overwhelming thoughts. Then someone started praying. Wisdom. Guidance. Patience. Help. The other chaperone prayed. I prayed.

Then we ran out of words.

So someone started singing.

At first, I just listened with a lump in my throat. I tried to sing along and found that I could not. I put my head in my hands and let the melodies wash over me.

After a few minutes, my voice returned and I sang along, even bringing a few songs to our private little worship session.

We sang for what seemed like an hour, but was probably only ten to fifteen minutes. When we had no more melodies left, we sat in silence for a few more minutes. Then we rose to our feet, hugged each other, and walked out of that room strengthened.

Music is good when we run out of words to say, when we feel so empty we don’t know what to bring. Even a short, simple melody can do so much. I believe that during those twenty minutes of worship, God was glorified, and we were given the strength we needed to face that day.

Sometimes when we’re struggling, music gives words to our struggles. When we desperately need God, but don’t have the right words, those worship melodies can be all we know to do.


Finding God on the asphalt

What’s been your weirdest moment of worship?

Mine was lying in the middle of the street in the Australian outback at 9 p.m.

I was on tour with the African Children’s Choir, and had lucked out enough to score a spot on the Australia team (it’s a rough life, I know.) We toured literally in the middle of nowhere, to a town called Winton. I walked the entire diameter of the town in 20 minutes. If you walked 1 minute outside of town, you’d be smack dab in the middle of the outback.

There was very little traffic, even during rush hour, if they had that sort of thing. So, after bedtime, when all our little African babies were tucked safely in bed, we wandered to the outskirts of town and looked up at a huge sky. Then plopped ourselves onto the middle of the road, laid back on the asphalt, and propped our head in our hands.

Looking up, one of my friends wondered out loud, “I wonder where the Northern Star is?” Immediately after uttering it, we all burst out laughing, We kept forgetting we were in the Southern Hemisphere.

We talked a bit after that, and then fell silent as we fell in awe of the vast sky above us. It was truly amazing. And beautiful.

I sense God the most, hear Him the loudest when I am in nature. His creation never ceases to inspire me, and that night, lying underneath a gigantic Australian sky, I really felt Him. I took a big breath in, and relished in the fact that God was near, with me, and wasn’t going anywhere. I silently thanked Him for all the gifts and blessings He had given me. Without a note of music, without a word, I worshipped. I got up off that street, wiping bits of asphalt off my back, and felt a little more whole.

I didn’t expect to find God in the middle of the street, and yet, there He was.

Your turn. What’s your weirdest moment of worship?

Real worship doesn’t happen on a stage

The following is a memory from the summer of 1999.

Standing in the middle of a large crowd, I am eager to see the next band, though I am getting a bit tired. Bouncing around in the summer heat to all my favorite bands zapped most of my energy. I am beyond excited to be back at Creation, but it’s getting late, and it has been a long week.

I stifle a yawn and muster up all my energy for the final concert of the night. As the band takes the stage, bright lights bounce across the trees surrounding us and loud booming guitars rattle our eardrums.  People begin jumping as the energy from the band courses through their veins. They become unaware of the people around them, and soon little me is being run into and almost shoved over, without any sort of apology. Strangers are screaming in my ears. I huddle close to my group of friends, but still get jostled here and there. Water comes from nowhere, and pegs us in the face. We jolt from the shock, and one of my friends lets out a loud, “HEY!” but it falls silent amidst all the noise surrounding us.

And this is a CHRISTIAN concert?

I walk away from the show disappointed. While I enjoyed the music, the atmosphere was less than inviting. I can’t shake the feeling that the people I had just been around had not been very Christ-like. We are returning to our campsite when we walk past the crosses on the hill.

“Hey guys,” I motion to the crosses. “I’d like to go see them.”

A man had built 13 crosses in memory of the Columbine high school shootings. These crosses had traveled around the country to different Christian concerts and events. They were made of simple wood, and were built to remember each teacher and student that had been killed that day. Originally, there had been 15. The two extra were for the killers, an extraordinary symbol of forgiveness by the man who had created the crosses. However, after controversy and complaint, those two had been removed.

After climbing up the hill we encounter a silent crowd. We fall in line and wait our turn to see each cross. As we approach each one, I notice each person’s name, a short biography, a picture, and writing in different colors and handwriting. They are covered in Bible verses, messages, and prayers. There are crosses and necklaces strapped to each one. Teddy bears lay at the foot of some.

As we walk by each cross, I notice that no one is shoving by anyone else to get a better look. In fact, if someone is peering to see better, the person in front of them kindly steps out of the way to allow them more space. People are holding flashlights up so that others can read the messages in the pitch-black night.

Then the singing starts.

I don’t know how it starts. I don’t know who starts it. It seems as if the crowd just starts in unison, all softly singing together.  As we walk and solemnly stand at the foot of each cross, we sing praise songs and hymns in unison.  Tears are shed. Prayers are prayed.

We worship.

Soon, it is time for the crosses to continue on to their next destination. They are gently pulled out of the ground and passed across the crowd to be loaded onto a truck. Again; no pushing, no fighting. The crowd works together to get them onto the truck.

As we watch,we stop and listen to the singing. After a few moments, we wipe our eyes and walk to the edge of the hill. We perch on top of the hill and enjoy the quiet of the night.  I think about how the concert was not worship. The quiet, special time spent with hundreds of stranger friends was.

Do you have a memory of worship that happened off stage?

Auntie Ruth

Auntie Ruth is the type of person who makes you feel like you are the most important person in the world. I first met her in 2004, when I traveled to Uganda to begin my journey with the African Children’s Choir. She is one of those truly selfless people that you’re so thankful are still in this wor

Auntie Ruth gave up her bedroom so three clueless Americans could have a comfortable, private place to sleep. Her bed was a simple mattress covered in mosquito netting. She called it her princess bed.

When I walked into that house on my first day in Africa, exhausted, overwhelmed, and wide-eyed, Auntie Ruth welcomed me with open arms. I instantly felt at home and at peace.

When I returned to Uganda three years later, I wasn’t sure if she would remember me. Lots of westerners grace the door of that house. I was prepared to reintroduce myself. Before I could set my bag down, she flew across the room and enveloped me in a huge hug.

Oh, my auntie has returned!”

Auntie Ruth lives and works at the training facility in Makindye, Uganda, on the outskirts of Kampala. The two-story house comfortably sleeps about 30 people. When children are chosen to tour with the African Children’s Choir, they come to that house for several months to prepare. The children are housed, fed, and taught there. The main room serves as a schoolroom, rehearsal space, and dining hall. The space is well used.

Auntie Ruth prepares food for everyone in the training facility. She makes the best Chapati in Uganda. Chapati is a grilled flatbread that is common in several African countries. It soon became my favorite Ugandan delicacy, and I waited in anticipation when I smelled her cooking it.

She cooks outdoors, over open flames in big iron pots. Each meal takes several hours to prepare. No one in that house ever goes hungry, and those kids eat A LOT. She insists that each visitor take a heaping portion, even if you insist that you’re not that hungry. She even saves the good meat for you. Auntie Ruth makes sure you are well cared for while you are in her home.

I wondered why she would go to bed by 8:00 p.m. most nights, if not earlier. She told me that she awoke at 3:00 a.m. each morning. She had to start on breakfast by at least 5:00. I asked her what she did with those two hours before breakfast preparation.

Auntie Ruth gave me one of her sweet smiles and said, “I pray.”

Two hours in prayer. I cannot fathom spending this kind of time praying. I get antsy after just a few minutes of prayer time, and this humble, beautiful African woman spent two whole hours each day with her Lord and Savior. It explains why she is ever joyful, always smiling, and so able to put other’s needs above her own.

This is the kind of faith I long for. Her simple trust in Jesus continues to inspire and haunt me.

Is there an “Auntie Ruth” if your life?

African Children’s Choir

In my worship journey, I’ve been recalling some specific moments of worship. Here’s one.

After a long, frightful plane ride across the ocean by myself, I land in the foreign land of Uganda. I get through customs; which seems surprisingly easy; claim my large bags, and meet the kind strangers that take me to where I am going. I am tired. I am scared. I am excited.

We arrive at the small house where I will begin my journey with the African Children’s Choir. Twenty-four adorable children race out of the house and zealously greet me. A handful of chaperones follow, offering warm hugs and help with my luggage. I am offered a small snack; a hard-boiled egg and a small banana. Understanding that I am tired and overwhelmed, they escort me upstairs to the room I will share with two others. With no running water at the moment, I have no option of the bath I so desperately want. I hoist myself up into the top bunk (being the last to arrive, I got whatever was left) to try and get a little bit of rest. This proves difficult, as it is about 10:00 in the morning and the sun is streaming through the window, right in my face. I content myself with simply lying down (being horizontal feels glorious), taking some deep breaths and convincing myself that I am in Africa. I put my headphones on and slip in one of my favorite CDs to help calm my nerves a little. As I lie there, another sound begins to drown out the music on my CD. I hit pause, slip the earphones off my ears and listen.

One of the most beautiful sounds I have ever heard drifts it’s way through the open window by my head. It takes me a moment to realize it is the choir of children I have come here to work with.

Later that night, I find out what the beautiful sound was. The children were in their devotional time. It is how they start and end every day. Standing in a big circle, five or six children will lead the group in praise and worship. Each child picks a praise song and leads it, and the group will sing along, clapping lively and dancing to the drumbeat. The children sing at the top of their lungs, clapping and laughing. As the praise songs come to an end, each of the five or six children then chooses a worship song to lead. Eyes closed, hands raised as high as they can go, these beautiful children will once again sing with all they have in their little bodies. They lift it all up to their God.

As I end my first day in Uganda, I watch in amazement as my true definition of worship begins to unfold before my eyes.

Question: Is there a particular memory of worship that sticks out in your memory?

Children’s Choirs

The director straightens my robe and the red tie around my neck. It’s choking me a little, and I fidget, trying in vain to loosen it. The other children are even wigglier, as I stand quietly and obediently, awaiting instruction. The frazzled choir director lines us up, pleading with us to stay still and in our places. She is mostly successful, as only the most rowdy children begin to move again. Although we are only vaguely aware of what we are about to do, we sense that it is important. And big.

We parade out of the back room and onto the stage. I can hear people clapping and “Awwwws” throughout the crowd. We line up in three rows and our director shuffles the stragglers back into place. She takes her place in front of the choir, and with a big grin on her face, reminds us with her big hand motions to keep our eyes on her. The piano plays the intro, and we launch into the song that we have rehearsed over and over for months.

Standing next to the lit up Christmas tree filled with white crocheted angel ornaments, we sing Away in a Manger in our sweet little off key voices. I am not scared standing in front of so many people. I feel safe nestled amongst all the other children. We sing loud, miss a few cues, smile our cute toothy grins, and the boy next to me waves to mom. The people applaud loudly when we finish.

Many of my early childhood memories are vague and fuzzy at best. Even this one is a tad fuzzy (after years of directing children’s choirs, I filled in a few details.) I do vividly remember standing in front of my Methodist congregation one December Sunday, no more than four or five. I remember those white robes and little red ties (I think they may have been made out of gift wrapping ribbon.) I can see the crocheted ornaments on the tree. For months, the song Away in a Manger was drilled into our heads until we were singing it in our sleep. To this day, when I hear that song, this memory niggles at the back of my brain.

Last year, my sister invited me to their church’s hanging of the greens, where the entire church participated in decorating the sanctuary for Christmas. My five year old nephew was singing with his choir. I was pleased to discover that he shared his debut performance song with me. The kids were absolutely adorable as they sang those sweet verses.

There is something about children’s choirs that is just precious. Having worked with children’s choirs over the years, I have a high respect for anyone that can wrangle those little guys together and get them to sing in unison. It can seem like an impossible feat.

What is it about children’s choirs that seems so special? For me, I think it’s because they’re so unassuming. Their presentation of musical talents is not all about them. They’re excited to perform and show off their hard work, but it’s not in a prideful way. With adult music ministry, sometimes it feels like a talent competition. It’s not like that with kids. They just want to sing. They don’t need to get caught up in church politics or worship styles.

When I stood up in front of that congregation so many years ago, I wasn’t thinking about impressing people. I wasn’t thinking about the style of worship. I had simply learned a song and was proud to share it with those who cared to hear it. And though I was barely beginning to understand this great God, I grasped in a small way that we were singing for a bigger purpose.

Christmas music

I am old enough to remember records being played in my house while growing up. Tapes made their appearance during my childhood, but in my household, records were played on our big family stereo. I remember every December, my parents would pull out the special box of Christmas music. I vaguely remember a cartoon-like snowman across the cover of one and maybe a nutcracker emblazoned across another. The album art may not be set in my memory, but the songs that played certainly were.

I love Christmas music. My husband is not fond of the fact that I could listen to it 24/7 once Thanksgiving is over, but I spare him and try to do it when he’s not around. I could probably sing you any and every Christmas song ever written. Even the obscure verses that most people don’t know. It’s a gift, really.

Sacred Christmas songs never get old and have always seemed worshipful. I don’t know if it’s the timeless melodies or the stories behind them. I think a lot has to do with those old records that my parents pulled out and dusted off every year. They were special, sacred, and saved for once a year. I have fond memories of the fuzzy, clicking tracks on the records as they played throughout the final month of the year. I remember being intrigued by songs like Old King Wenceslas and Good Christian Men Rejoice. (I also remember being surprised in middle school to discover that Sleigh Ride had words. For years, the only version I heard was the instrumental as my sister and I galloped across the living room on our imaginary horses.)

Whatever the reason, if I hear O Little Town of Bethlehem or O Holy Night, I feel at peace. The words have depth, mystery, and they pull me in every time (well, unless it’s Mariah Carey singing them. Then I can’t change the channel fast enough.)

During Christmas, I love to hear pipe organs and orchestras pounding out the melodies and chords of these familiar songs. I do love rock bands, but during Christmas, the classical music snob in me comes out. It feels more sacred and “holy” for some reason.

I love the story of Christmas and how it’s been captured by so many songwriters throughout the years. It’s priceless.

I suppose what I’m trying to say is that I’m thankful that something that has been so special to me for so many years is still special. I’ve become jaded about a lot, but I don’t feel overly cynical or judgmental when I hear Christmas songs. That’s really refreshing for me. They simply make me smile, and for that I’m grateful.

Question: Is there a special song (Christmas or not) that has remained special to you throughout the years?

Mountaintop experience

After a long, hot afternoon filled with anxious waiting, we are ready. We have our spot picked out on the big hill in front of the stage. Our blanket spread out on the grass is barely big enough to fit us all.

I spent two days stuffed in a car with college guys to get to Agape Farm somewhere in Pennsylvania for Creation Festival. We have been excited about this for weeks. This was all Travis’s idea, and Derek and I are glad he came up with it. Four days filled with Christian music is a little bit of heaven to my 19 year old brain.

The sun is setting and stage lights are going crazy. It’s time for music, and we leap to our feet. We dance and sway for hours to the music that echoes over the mountainside.

Travis, me, and Derek - summer of '98

The final show of the evening is Supertones, a ska band. I am not a huge fan of ska, but I’m having such a good time that I can’t imagine leaving yet. They begin their show with their usual up beat songs, filled with horns and catchy rhythms. We are all up and dancing on our blanket, partly to keep warm from the sudden temperature drop.

All of a sudden, the music stops and there is quiet as the lead singer walks out onto stage with acoustic guitar in hand. He begins to softly sing Shout to the Lord and invites us to join him. With my eyes closed tight, my hands tentatively reach up. He asks us to kneel with him. I drop to the dirt and can feel the wetness of the accumulating dew slowly seep through my jeans. With eyes still closed, he leads us in prayer. I feel something stirring inside me, and something like butterflies fills my stomach. Tears begin to prick my eyes. I give into them and soon full teardrops are falling down my cheek. Crying harder, my hands lift higher to the sky. This God that has been gradually inching closer to me feels closer than ever. I utter out a silent prayer of thanksgiving and awe.

Ah, the mountaintop experience. For me, my first one was literally almost on a mountaintop.

Sometimes I look back on little ol’ college me, and think, “Now naive and innocent I was… I didn’t have a clue.” And other times I look back and wish it could still be that simple. I wish I wasn’t as cynical as I am now, and I wish that the simplistic Christian music that now makes me roll my eyes still stirred my soul.

I have to remember that there are different seasons in my faith life. Back in the college days, I was a baby Christian. I needed the warm fuzzies and the mountaintop experiences. I needed to feel that closeness to God. That summer road trip was awesome, and I’m thankful that I had the experience. God spoke to me loudly that whole week.

Now, I’m (supposedly) a more mature Christian. While I know God will still offer moments of inspiration to me, I’m not going to have tons of mountaintop experiences anymore. Worship music may not make me drop to my knees like it used to. God’s going to reach out to me in other ways.

  • Trying experiences that build character and deepen my faith.
  • Showing me there is so much more depth to Him than I ever realized.
  • Giving me more opportunities to serve others.

I need to find other ways than kneeling in the dirt to reach out to Him. I’m still stumbling around trying to figure out what those ways are, but I know He’s patient with me. It’s all part of this faith thing.