Saturday, November 21, 2015

When I Sang With The Trees

For a Saturday in late November, the weather was extraordinary. And we took advantage of every minute.

We're doing some work on the house, so Tony and a friend spent eight hours sawing and digging and hacking and cutting and pouring and other assorted things that required sweat and dedication. My
husband is happiest when he is fixing something, so today was a very happy day.

We took a big pile of stuff to the recycling center and made two trips to the Goodwill store - donations only. We got a Christmas tree, which stands unadorned but upright in the living room, in which all the furniture was rearranged. Again.

(In my opinion, failing to rearrange furniture at least three times a year is a missed opportunity for a renewed mind.)

There was a massive pile of wood to burn, so the boys and I took turns minding an intense fire. At one point, when everyone was gone, I stood alone, pitchfork in hand, tossing in twisted pieces of lumber and watching the flames dance. I found myself transfixed by the way the smoke rolled and twisted, only to be engulfed and pushed back by flames.

I thought about God.

Last night we watched a documentary I'd heard referenced in a podcast about God. It was the kind of thing I'd generally dismiss pretty easily - unfortunately, I find myself rather cynical these days about media portrayals of folks seeking (and finding) enlightenment and truth, Christian or otherwise. Seems to me the lure of a dollar causes many spiritual experiences - followed by necessary books and movies and talk shows - but, again, that's the cynic in me. Or a discerning spirit. Or a bit of both.

But something about the podcast discussion made me take note, and when I had a little time last night, I pulled up the film on Netflix.

It was an interesting journey, one that told of 'spiritual eyes' and an emotional, mental and physical awakening that appeared to be legitimate....but it was really out there. The guy suddenly began to experience the spiritual realm in very tangible ways, and it totally rocked his world. He didn't want it. He fought it. His loved ones walked with him but he struggled, frustrated, to explain it.

In the end, he found a way to embrace what was happening to him, and he seemed to be at peace and full of joy.

The cynic in me is still unconvinced, but the film made me think. I know many of my friends would take offense at the direction the film eventually heads, which - while dovetailing nicely with some traditional Christian beliefs - diverges sharply in its understanding of God and the legitimacy of all spiritual paths.

But here's the thing; the residual effects of the film and its presentation of the intense and focused pursuit of truth and trust bubbled up in me this afternoon. Tending the fire on a beautiful autumn afternoon, I looked up and found myself drawn to praise the Creator in a way I'd never experienced before. I prayed and I sang and felt like I was dancing with the trees and the sky, and isn't that the weirdest sentence I've ever written?

I think it is.

But it's the truth; I felt deeply connected, and physically engaged, and drawn into the heart of God.

That sky - no filter, just blue...
I offered praise and thanks and glory, and I asked for help and comfort and understanding. I had a
very real sense that the evil that is terrorizing the world in these days is known by God, and seen as vile and abhorrent. And I felt the assurance that this evil would not prevail.

In a week underscored by deep anxiety and no small amount of fear at what the world and our country will face in days to come, this encounter was encouraging and deeply moving.

I embraced it, and I found myself full of peace and joy, and comforted by Presence.

It was weird, and different, but welcome. Left me scratching my head, but deeply convinced.

And then I looked up at the sky again, and a jet plane was striving for the heavens, its white vapor trail dissecting the sky. Straining up, up, higher and higher.

What a thing that was, for that moment.

I am convinced. And I realize that our persuasions are often what we make of them, but when they lead to what is good and right and true, I find it well with my soul. If I encounter God in the trees of the field and that encounter lines up with what I know to be true of the character of God as seen in his interaction with people over centuries and the truth I understand in scripture, I welcome all that I can learn from it. Even if it is slightly weird.

God is real, and God is for His people.

And that is a good thing for all of us.


Monday, November 16, 2015

The Dark, And Another Sleepless Night

I slipped into the bedroom to find my slippers, careful not to wake my sleeping husband. Not careful enough; I kicked the cardboard box on the floor, and he stirred.

I need to make that return to Macys...

The box, a reminder of my long list of things that need doing. My creeping around in a dark bedroom, a reminder of these sleepless nights that have seized me in recent months. Hormones, or stress, or simply brain overload; whatever it is, it keeps me awake at the most inopportune - and surprising - times.

Tonight, I was sure I'd sleep. The alarm buzzed this morning at 5:30AM and we were up and out the door by 6:45. It was a long day of leading, juggling my Campus Pastor hat with my Musician Hat, interspersed with Wife and Mom and Human Being; Sundays are nothing if not an entertaining mix of roles for me. A long day, but a good day. Home at 7PM after a stop at the store for milk, I found that my 16-year old had made breakfast for dinner. He's mastered the family recipe for 'breakfast goulash', and it was spot on tonight.

So, I didn't have to cook. I putzed around and relaxed and headed for bed, early.


It's 1:25AM as I write, so you can see how that went.

I read for a while, and I got up eventually and did some work. The house was quiet, settling around me, and I remembered my husband stepping outside after dinner. 'It's getting cold', he said. 'Really cold.'

I found myself compelled to go outside.

Last month, my friend and I drove to the University of Richmond to hear Barbara Brown Taylor speak. An author, pastor, theologian, deep thinker - Taylor's books are some of my favorites. Her most recent work, Learning to Walk in the Dark, is on my bedside table - one of those books that I read in short bursts, because it offers such rich, thick substance that I can only digest paragraphs at a time.

(Unlike, say, John Grisham's latest, which I devoured in about four hours straight.)

The book details her experience in the dark - not only the metaphor and its deep spiritual application - but also the literal dark. As in walking outside in the yard, in the dark. At night. Taylor's writing is exquisite, mesmerizing. And, as a good writer will, she provoked action in me. I've started to pay more attention, to not assume that the dark is something to be hurried through. I try to meander a bit more when I walk the dog at night.

It is not an easy thing.

So, tonight - with the darkness of sleep evading my mind - I banged through my bedroom to fetch my slippers. I slid my bare feet into the soft, warmth; I grabbed my thick white hotel robe off the hook in the closet. I wrapped up and I stepped outside.

Into the dark.

My eyes went up, first. Funny; stepping out into the dark, my first instinct was to look up. I did, and I quickly found the Big Dipper, or maybe it was the little one - honestly, I have no clue as to how to tell the difference. It seems that perhaps that was something I used to know, but tonight, not so much. I stared at the stars, bright and clear. I heard the silence - that is, the lack of movement. The stillness, really; the shapes of the treetops and the outline of the shed, and the host of heaven in the stars above.

It was still and smooth, this quiet. I stood still on the deck - not willing to walk out into the dark in my robe and slippers at 1AM, but observing from a safe spot on the deck - and I looked up, again. I thought of those stars, and how they appear on the other side of the world, the same stars hanging over Beirut and Paris and Syria as time spins them to the opposite side of daylight. For a moment, some sort of infinity slipped into my soul but I could not grasp it, that the stars are the same over there, where there is such fear and carnage and death and loss. For one moment, there in the dark, it was so close to me; the grief of a mother who has lost her son, the wailing of a husband whose wife is gone, the empty space where a family once lived. In the veiled shadows there was a certainty, a familiarity that evades my consciousness in the busy bustling that fills the daylight. We are all connected.

Today in church we opened the services with a reminder that we are to love our enemies. We quoted Jesus, who said 'love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you'. I stood in front of our gathering and said we have to remember this - that there is another way. We have to remember to pray.

And so we did. Sincerely.

But later, I read the comments of a friend on social media, who wrote this brutal movement is not going away....they are more than willing to sacrifice their lives in order to kill as many innocent men, women and children, and finally, there in the dark, under the same stars that hang over everyone, all over the world, fear whispers. And I sense that everything is changing.

I am naive, I know. I am eternally optimistic and perhaps I keep my head in the sand too often. I believe the best - to the point of irrationality. There is truth, I am sure, to the value of innocence and empathy. The call to pray for our enemies has lasting value. It matters.

But in the dark, some things become more evident.

I stood on the deck for a while, listening to the stillness, until I recognized that all was not as it seemed. Far off in the distance, dogs barked incessantly. Others joined, creating a circle of sound whose source point I could not establish. It was faint, background white noise.

There were cracks and creaks in the woods. I heard the leaves rustling, the sound of an animal moving through the night.

Sounds and movements that I could not see; they were happening underneath the star-filled sky, and where I had stood for long moments thinking existentially about the vastness of the universe and the stars that shone on everyone, suddenly I heard things right in front of me that I could not see, and I was uneasy.

The darkness is, I think, worth exploring. But it is not altogether safe, not without the confidence that what I cannot see, but only hear and sense, will do no harm.

Tonight, I do not have that confidence.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

31 Days: My Mom

She opened the door to life for me, quite literally.

Through every season, she has encouraged me. I never once heard her say, You can't do that. Anything I set my mind to, she supported.

An early feminist - a quiet one, whose thoughts went more to simple justice and common-sense equality rather than bra-burning - my mom set an example for me that created wide open spaces for my future. Not one for protests or productions, mom simply went about living life as a strong, independent female.

This apple didn't fall far from that tree.

Her strength and willingness to do for others are her best characteristics, and I'd like to emulate both. But in the spirit of this series, to speak of my mom as a door holder means can be boiled down to one simple, one-syllable word.


The irony is intentional. It is, in living "grace, every day", that I most hope to honor my mother. And it is the best, most valuable gift she offers me (other than that whole she-gave-birth-to-me thing - also important).

My mom always speaks up for the underdog, the refugee. She is not afraid to push back against racism when she sees it. She leans to the left, but not because she blindly follows political parties - because the parts of being a 'liberal' that mean something to her always, always, always include compassion for the poor and those who were born into unfortunate circumstances.

My mom has an exquisite creative talent, expressed through working with fabric and stitches. When
Everyone waits for one of Mom's quilts....
my family examines our creative streak, we inevitably land on the extravagant, extroverted musical talent of my dad and his family. But this gift of color and shape and pattern - one that comes with a tangible result, quilted with love to drape your wedding bed or wrap your sleeping baby - this is the grace of my mother, quiet and unassuming.

My mom gives; she is generous to a fault. This quitting, this seamstress work that she does effortlessly? She refuses, always, to take payment of any sort. She determined that she creates and serves for free, or she will not do it all.

My mom serves, offering her time to her church and her community - yet not without balancing her own recognized need for quiet and recovery.

My mom saves - she is a wise steward, one who tithes faithfully and spends wisely.

When my kids were born, my mom slipped into the role of grandmother with aplomb. She has set the bar for me, in this area yet-to-be-explored. Constantly, consistently, she gave. Lavishly - gifts were showered, vacations and trips were arranged. My kids have been blessed with the tremendous outpouring of selfless service by the woman they know as 'Grandma' - the one who is paving the way for me to live that next season of my life, whenever it will happen.

Peggy Case and I are very different people; I have the mix of the brash, loud force that was my father and her creative, caring streak. The seasoning that shaped my personality and character was much different than what formed her. But because of her tremendous influence on my life - because what mother does not have the most powerful impact on her child? - I can literally say that any good thing that I am comes not from me, but from my Creator God.

And from my mom.

My brother - also shaped and formed by Peggy Case - sent me a text the other day,

We have really come to appreciate the way you parent your kids. We are fans. 

My heart swelled ten times its normal size in my chest. That's the kind of affirmation that carries weight; it settles into a place of great value, where I have invested my most potent energy and love. My role as a mother defines me; it formed me and refined me and gives me an underlying, constant, ever-thrumming joy in this life. And while my mother will be quick - too quick - to tell you that she fell short as a parent (don't we all?), when I consider the legacy of love in our bloodline, I think it's fairly easy to prove that she did a lot of things right. That affirmation from my brother lands right on my mothers' doorstep.

Mom held the door open for me to receive grace, every time I returned home having squandered her trust, broken her heart, disappointed her or given her another reason to worry. My mom literally opened the door of her home to take me in - along with five young kids - when I had nowhere else to go. She has propped open the door financially - whether it be with gifts or needed support. She has never, ever wavered in her belief that I was worthy of her love.

And in these days, in this uncharted territory of age and illness taking its toll on my dad, my mom continues to hold open the door of witness and testimony. It's not always pretty, but it's always true, and in this I know that the woman who gave me birth will continue to light darkened doorways for me.

At the time I need it most, I will always be able to find my mom's example.

It is fitting to end this series singing the praise of Peggy Case; she's the one who gave me the means to the melody.

Grateful, always, every day - and full of grace.

I love you, mom.

Friday, October 30, 2015

31 Days: Brian Hughes

I'm running out of #31days days; it's close to the end. There are a couple of door-holder posts that I've known I had to write ever since I began this project.

In a perfect segue to the last few pieces about influential pastors and godly men, I'll offer up a few words about a unique individual; one I thank God for, because without his influence, inspiration and guidance, I'm not really which direction the middle season of my would have gone.

Not that it would have been awful; I trust God too much for that. But when I look around at everything in my comings and goings, and most importantly at the path that opened up to me in ministry, there is one person who has held more personal and professional doors than anybody else in my life.

We fight, a lot. We fuss at each other. He makes me cry, sometimes - and he says he enjoys it, but secretly I know it breaks his heart. He can't stand it if I'm mad at him, although sometimes he gets so mad at me that his blood pressure rises and his face gets all puffy.

He's the first person who ever heard my whole story - the entire, sordid, lousy truth from beginning to end - and, continuing the thread of grace first extended by Pastor Jamie Rasmussen - said, God can use that.

He's the first person who witnessed my jacked-up, emotionally charged outbursts and had the guts to say, You're not being rational. 

Which we still joke about today; I get to say it to him, sometimes. Thank God for paybacks.

(insert wink face emoji)

He took a risk when he invited me to be part of what God was doing in the mission at PCC. He knew my scars and the ugly part of all that I'd done, and yet he invited me - me! - to be part of his church staff. I've never gotten over it - to this day, I remember him looking me in the eye over cheese sticks at Rosa's in Powhatan, saying, You're the kind of person Jesus died for. You'e the kind of person we're trying to reach. Come work alongside me.

I know now that he practiced on me what he does when he feels God nudging him to make "A Big Ask"; he waited for the right time, and he leaned in and cast vision and tossed in the God card about 'making a difference for eternity' and he asked me to work for him and I took the bait and off we went. I know how it works and yet never once have I felt manipulated or coerced or cornered.

It was the most potent decision I ever made.

He took a risk, and he told me once, You're more than just a piano player, you know...

And with every passing year I explored more and more of my gifts and there were times he didn't know what to do with me. I'd fall apart and he'd patiently - though not without some measure of frustration - wait for me to pull myself together, give me a pep talk and remind me that what we do matters.

He has been my counselor, my coach and my confidant. I've trusted him with things I couldn't say out loud in other settings. He has encouraged me to believe more about myself than I ever imagined.

He's my boss, but he calls me 'boss'. He knows what makes me tick because I'm so much like him that it's ridiculous.

He's taught me that a good friendship with a decent man can be life-giving; along with his wife and my husband, we've made some great memories celebrating and traveling and raising our families.

A decade into this work partnership, I look at Brian Hughes and know that my life bears the imprint of God's call because Brian was willing to see more in me than I saw in myself. It was a risk that could have backfired; it certainly has come with no small amount of stress and strain. But this pastor took the time to see what could be in the mess of a broken, single mom - and he put his money on grace. Brian held the door open - but he did more than that.

He walked through it with me.

And time and time again, with every new venture that arises out of the mission of PCC, we link arms and walk - or run madly - through door after door, often times unable to see beyond the threshold; but willing to walk all the same, trusting in the One who called us.

Brian was the friend and counselor who sat with me as I processed the divorce from my kids' dad. He watched me come undone and begin the long process of becoming real again. He spoke into my healing with powerful, grace filled words of truth.

When I began to talk about the man who is now my husband, he listened carefully and pushed me to consider the heart of the matter; the role of grace and love and restoration. And on the day I married again, Brian stood in a place that not many would have been willing to stand; he put himself between us and helped put words to the new covenant that called Tony and I to join our lives together. He was willing to stand for us, and with us - and all of the kids as well.

And he cried more than either of us did on that day.

There's something about a man who will not only hold open doors, but walk into the mystery with you as a friend and co-laborer; something that is rare indeed. I'm grateful for his presence in my life - past, present, and whatever is to come.

In the future, we'll continue to hold doors - for the folks who need it most. Including each other.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

31 Days: Jamie Rasmussen

Ironically, I'm writing today from Northeast Ohio - and the experience I'll relate began and ended here in this community.

I met Jamie Rasmussen for the first time at Punderson State Park, at a luncheon designed to introduce him as a our future pastor. At the time, I was a staff wife; we were invited to tag along to meet this candidate.

The candidate became the new pastor, and Jamie and his family moved to the community and began to transition a church into the digital, contemporary age. Under his leadership, I transitioned as well; I moved from a full-time stay-at-home mom to a part-time worship leader. It was a season in which all of my gifts came together, and I got to be part of the incredible growth, energy and excitement that can happen when a healthy church gets a boost from a sharp, charismatic, focused leader ready to follow God.

Good times.

But hard times, too, for me. For reasons I've explored before on this blog, there was a darkness in my soul, difficulties in a marriage based on shifting sands and fallow fields, and a lack of wisdom to find help or healing.

Everything blew up.

/ / / /

I remember sitting in Jamie's office, exploring the idea that God has a perfect plan for everyone in life. I'd been taught - or caught - that teaching in years past, and it solidified in my soul. Except at that point in my life, it had fossilized; calcified into a paralyzing crisis of faith. Things weren't going according to God's perfect plan, and I had no earthly idea what to do with that. Rolled up into my issues of perfectionism and a tendency to put on a happy face and lie to save my skin, I was mired in the quicksand of a faith that simply didn't work - and a complete inability to discern what to do next.

Jamie patiently and carefully showed me the error of my interpretation, and he helped cracked open the door for a necessary deconstruction of my faith. Unfortunately, parts of what I was learning were too little, too late; did I mention that everything blew up?

It did. I made some terrible decisions.

But Jamie taught me well; it was under his instruction that I began to understand that life-changing power of Romans 8.28:

For we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, 
to those who are called according to his purpose. (NASB)

Or, as it reads so beautifully in The Voice translation:

We are confident that God is able to orchestrate everything to work towards something good and beautiful when we love Him and accept His invitation to live according to His plan. 

Oh, how I needed this to be true. Thanks be to God and His people, I discovered the depth and breadth of this beautiful mercy.

Jamie Rasmussen didn't just teach this; he lived it, and he help his church to live it, as well. In the midst of a mess, in the barrage of baggage, in the stink of sin, there was still grace.

Everyone who shouted, You should have known better! was right; I should have.

I did.

But oh, the things we end up doing that we know we shouldn't; these things still happen, every day, don't they? To you, and to me. And so what are we left to do?

Unclench our fists. Humbly admit our faults. Walk in the way of truth. Offer mercy; welcome kindness. And let yourself be changed.

I learned this from a pastor who truly carved out a way that was right, who went before me and all the people and said, Here is where we can extend grace.

I am eternally grateful and forever changed for the man who will always be my pastor, Jamie Rasmussen - who held the door for far longer than he should have, who propped it open and promised me that God wold lead me through in good time.

Which he did.

I'm so grateful.

A few years ago, I wrote in more detail about Jamie and Fellowship Bible Church in this post. It's one of my favorite things I've ever written; I still cry every time I re-read it.

I'm crying now...gratefully.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Door Holder: Michael Easley

After college graduation I spent a few years in the Dominican Republic, teaching music and sorting through some complicated relationships. I came back to the states about every four months, and on one of those trips home I was feeling the full weight of my inadequacy and inertia.

Things were not good. I knew it, and for the first time in my life, I wasn't really sure how to fix it.

I went to see my high school mentor, (Jeff Berta, of yesterday's Door Holder post) and he sent me to a counselor - who just happened to be a pastor. I drove to Grand Prairie Bible Church and met Michael Easley for the first time.

Clutching my Norman Vincent Peale book (The Power of Positive Thinking), fueled by my recent reading of M. Scott Peck's The Road Less Traveled, and empowered by a few years of reading Psychology Today, I went to my first counseling session ready for therapy.

I wasn't quite ready for what I encountered.

I sketched out my problems, talked about my issues and where I was stuck; made sure that Mr. Easley understood the depth of my self-awareness (*ahem) and then sat back to await his direction.

He asked me a question, this "counselor that just happened to be a pastor" - one that caught me off guard.

Is Jesus the center of your life?

I was stunned, and taken aback. This was not what I expected. I stumbled over an answer, one that indicated my committed upbringing in the Methodist church, my confirmation and extensive participation in Young Methodists Fellowship, the choir, the services. (Well, at least through high church attendance during college and beyond was limited to holidays, but as far as I knew, that was okay...)

He listened carefully, nodded at the right times, and was completely, totally unimpressed.

That's not exactly what I was asking. Is Jesus Christ the center of your life?

At this point, I became slightly uncomfortable. I squirmed a little. I remember offering this weak insight into my religious commitment - that I never worked before noon on a Sunday, so that I could attend church services (again, during high school - regardless of the fact that I was now 24 years old...) Heck, I told him - I had even preached on Youth Sunday, when I was a senior!

I told him about my Norman Vincent Peale book and my study, and the impact Khalil Gibran's The Prophet had on me.

He just stared.

And then he asked again.

Is Jesus the Lord of your life?

And I bumped up against a wall of pride and pretense, and my anger leaked through.

I'm a Christian. I'm not here for religious help. I'm here because I'm screwing up relationships and I can't figure out why I'm making some of the choices I'm making and I need some help. I have issues. I need therapy. I don't need to talk about Jesus - I need some life help.

And Michael Easley, this counselor who just happened to follow Jesus, said All the Norman Vincent Peale in the world is not going to help you if you don't settle this question. There's nothing that you'll do that can fix your issues, no amount of therapy that will work until you get real about this. Is Jesus Christ the Lord of your life?

I'd like to tell you that I fell to my knees, overwhelmed by the power of the Holy Spirit and this good preacher. It would be a beautiful Hallmark moment if I began to cry, realizing the depth of my sinfulness, and prayed the sinner's prayer right then and there. Wouldn't that be precious?

That's not what happened.

I was pissed - seriously aggravated, and very much offended by this guy's notion that a) I somehow wasn't a "real Christian" (especially after I essentially read him my resume of Good Christian Things I Had Done), and b) all these good self-help and spiritual books I was reading were ineffective.

I was pissed, and I made a moment or two of small talk, and then I left - angry. He never relented; he didn't try to make me feel better. As I walked out, he mentioned it again and said I'd need to figure that out before I could move forward.

Home, at my parents' house that night, I laid in my bed and considered this encounter with the counselor / pastor. He seemed convinced; I remained confused.

I thought through all that I had cobbled together to come up with some sort of "life plan"; a philosophy for living that included my passion for artistic expression, my love of reading, my Methodist upbringing, my desire to help people, my teaching degree, my career, my students; and my deep insecurity, my sexual boundaries, my relationship history, my fear, my ego, my efforts to prove that I wasn't really scared to death and clueless....

And in a small, quiet moment on the floor in my mom's sewing room in Grand Prairie, Texas, I whispered a prayer. Again, I'd like to describe a dramatic moment - but it was small and still, and not very exciting at all.

But it was enough. I was heard.

God, I've tried to figure this out on my own. I'm not doing a very good job.

If you are real, if you are who you say you are, I am willing to try following you. For real. 

I picked up the Bible and began to read - not the history or the poetry, but the biography. I read about Jesus.

I read John, and then I read it again. Back home in the DR, I read by the light of the oil hurricane lamps that were a constant in my little rental house, where the power went out every evening and the options for entertainment were limited.

I read John, and I started talking with a few folks who were into Jesus, and I saw that there might be a middle ground between a lax, easy-going church life and the craziness of the local evangelicals who were just trying to Get You Saved.

Jesus walked the middle ground, and the more I read about him and what he did and how he lived and who he hung out with and how he talked to people, the more my heart opened and my affection grew.

And I became a follower of Jesus.

I still needed help, and I wish I would have hung in there with the counselor / pastor and worked a little harder on my issues, under the umbrella of Jesus. I buried my junk under a new kind of religion, and eventually it all squirmed out from under my new Busy Christian Life and made itself known; which is to say that Jesus fixes everything, but sometimes you still gotta do some hard work yourself.

But in the end, I came face to face with a new understanding and appreciation of faith and trust. Michael Easley held that door open for me. He was firm, unyielding and solid; I tried to walk through a door of healing, but he was like a bouncer, refusing to let me in to anything that did not stand on the solid ground of a spiritual reality.

You can't fake getting healthy. Being a Christian in name only confuses your issues. He asked the right questions, didn't worry about being offended, and allowed me to find myself standing in front of an open door, one that required a decision and action.

I'm grateful for this man. I ran into him just a few years ago at a conference in Nashville, and he didn't really remember me - or our conversation. He has no idea...but for me, the entire trajectory of my life changed because of the door he opened - and blocked - creating an invitation that I could accept, to begin the most important journey of my life.
Michael Easley

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Door Holder: Jeff Berta

Some people are larger than life. Time and space bring perspective, but still; the imprint of a talented, forceful, room-filling person on a young life should not be underestimated.

Such was the role Jeff Berta played in my life. In any examination of influence, I can't overlook his presence and the way his teaching impacted me. I don't think it's any exaggeration to say that because I spent three years in his classroom, the entire course of my life and career were set.

From a fairly early age, I was focused on music - all the time. Choir was my outlet of choice - although I hung with a few jazz band kids, I was a loud, passionate alto. I also had the distinct privilege of being one of the accompanists for our program. When I was fifteen - my sophomore year - Jeff Berta took the choral director job at our high school. He was new, young, aggressive and focused, determined to raise the level of excellence for us as individuals and as a program.

As I recall, it seems like we always fell short. We were a bunch of suburban kids listening to Journey and the Eagles, while he introduced John Rutter and Handel and did everything in his power to help us love it and appreciate it.
Jeff Berta, smack dab in the middle of our
high school choir...

I'm not sure we ever did, at least not to his satisfaction. 

But he never gave up. He was educated, classical and sophisticated - he knew what he was doing, and he pushed and pulled us to a place where at least we could try to execute at another level. I still remember pieces like Cantate Domino - six vocal sections, desperately struggling to keep up and count and read and stay in tune. He pushed us toward a level that we didn't even know existed.

He let us sing pop stuff, too; and musicals. Somehow, he stretched dollars and probably overspent budgets to let us mount huge productions like Guys and Dolls, Mame, The Mikado, Bye Bye Birdie and The Music Man. We had incredible costumes and backdrops and props and a fabulous taste of something so far beyond our high school appreciation that I'm not sure anybody really understood what was happening.

But he did.

Berta was a polarizing figure for some, but I was fiercely loyal. He was my director, and he lived and breathed music and excellence, and I would have done anything to support his program and his passion for excellence. It was by his side that I learned the art of accompanying; of sensing, out of the corner of my eye and the thrum of my heart, where and how he wanted to lead the choir. Subtle dynamic shifts, slight tempo adjustments; my favorite spot was always behind the piano as he conducted.

(There is a similar joy in my life these days, when I sit to the side while my current 'conductor' leads; partnered with Brian Hughes, there's nothing I appreciate more than the opportunity to 'make a moment' - me at the piano, him at the podium. It's a slightly different process, but still - an attempt to create something beautiful out of space and sound.It is not lost on me that I am recreating my high school experience somewhat...)

As a senior, I had three choral classes; as the official teacher's assistant for the Freshman Choir, I accompanied; and then, in the Spring, as he was overwhelmed with musical preparation, Berta let me teach the class. I taught parts and conducted rehearsals, and I know that he knew what he was doing. My course was set.

He took me with him to work in unfamiliar (to me) settings; accompanying a big-time Presbyterian church choir that was tackling Handel's Messiah, really challenging my skill level, along with other gigs. My world was broadened in ways that never would have happened, left to my own devices.

Later that spring, Berta set me up with an audition at Texas Tech University - his alma mater - where I eventually obtained a degree in Music Education, on a full scholarship.

He saw something in me, and he pushed and prodded until the very best of it rose to the top. I'm better for it, and thankful in countless ways.

As the best educators often are, he was a friend in times of need. I went crying to him over one of my most disappointing and difficult moments in high school, and he handled the situation with grace and appropriate encouragement. When my parents were ready to strangle my stubborn neck because I wanted to date a totally inappropriate individual, they leaned on Berta to knock some sense into me.

He knew his influence and handled it well. He was, in every sense, an excellent door holder for me - my career, my musical development, my education were all powerfully influenced because he poured his life into his students and his program with authenticity and passion.

But the underlying impact of Jeff Berta was truly realized a few years after I finished college. We kept in touch; he lived in the same neighborhood as my parents, and I'd stop by to see him and his wife Susie - an incredible woman in her own right - once or twice a year. A few years out of college, I found myself teaching music overseas, having a great adventure - but tangled up in a mess of relational, emotional and spiritual issues that had me paralyzed.

I went to see Berta.

He listened, and then he suggested that I go see a guy. 

He's a counselor, he said. He happens to be a pastor, but he's a counselor. He'll help.

And so I went to see the guy, and that's another door holder story; but suffice it to say that after opening doors for my education and my passion for music, Jeff Berta directed me to the person who would help me walk through the most important door of all.

And, in that process, I began to understand the motivation and foundation for everything I'd experienced as a student under the most influential teacher I've ever had.

I'm grateful for Jeff Berta. It was with him that I learned to love the "second chair" and the deep, rich joy of what will always be my favorite position - as The Accompanist. 

Berta and I in Texas in 2014. We've both grown up.