Sunday, November 29, 2015

Tis The Season 2015


I either love it or hate it. I've posted before about the challenges of the Christmas season in my line of work. There are lots of extra songs to sing, a big Christmas Eve service to plan, and tons of extra things to do - from parties and other events to shopping and wrapping and all that - so much busy-ness! It's not just me, I know - it lands on all of us who celebrate this holiday.

This year, I really want to love Christmas, so I'm trying to get ahead. I feel good about our plan for Christmas Eve at PCC, and I've gotten a head start on gifts. And I decided to put the tree up early this year.

The boys went out and got one last weekend, and we put it up, unadorned. When all the kids were home for Thanksgiving, we set aside some time on Friday to decorate it.

There's a certain procedure that ALWAYS has to be followed for Brawley / Stoddard tree decorating:

  1.  Harry Connick's iconic 2003 album Harry For the Holidays - nothing else will do. When the drums kick in and the first notes of "Frosty the Snowman" start blaring in the horn section, we know it's Christmas.
  2. Everybody pulls their specific ornaments out of the old, duct-taped container and places them somewhere on the tree.
  3. I go behind them and rearrange the ornaments so things are balanced.
  4. One of the old gingerbread ornaments that Sharie Rengers helped the kids make bites the dust (Sharie, after 12 years, there's only one left...)
  5. Somebody breaks a glass bulb.
  6. There's a huge fight over whose turn it is to put the star on the top.
  7. We watch Elf.
  8. Family photo - all the kids, in front of the tree.
  9. I get emotional. 
This year, we added a new item - keep the dog from eating the ornaments. 

It was a great evening and I found myself almost amused by how seriously the kids take the tradition and the ornaments. At one point, one of them said, "I just love how our tree has all these old, meaningful, handmade ornaments..." at the same time I was thinking I wish we had a beautiful tree with gorgeous, shiny ornaments instead of all these old preschool macaroni frames and popsicle-stick Rudolphs....


They're right, of course. What matters, and why it matters, is that each ornament represents something. In most cases, each one is specific to a kid. They remember the year everybody got shiny new fancy ornaments; I'd been at Pier One, and I found crowns, and drummers and beautiful, colorful glass and metal balls - one for each kid, picked specially for them. They remember. They say so, and they laugh about it.
The new guy

As we finished, I heard one of the girls say, Hey!!! WHAT'S THIS? They pulled at a little stuffed owl / snowman sort of thing.

I got that last year. It's new.

There was no reply; nothing but a look of disdain and the clear implication that "The New Thing" didn't really belong. 

But it does. It's part of my memory-making now, one of several ornaments I bought and shared with special friends and loved ones last Christmas. I hope they're placing little owl / snowman things on their trees, among their memorable ornaments, and making their own traditions.

Time goes so fast - it slips and swirls around me in ways I didn't really expect. The tendrils of traditions and memories wrap around my legs every time we revisit one of those things we do every year; Thanksgiving "thankful" around the table at the end of the meal, decorating the tree, celebrating birthdays, singing carols. Every year, I sense the swirl growing higher and higher, building upon all the years that have made this life, this family, this sense of belonging and being part of a blood-connected tribe. I guess, eventually, you get swallowed up by all the memories that make up a life well-lived. And I guess that's not necessarily a bad way to go.

I say, "I love my family" easily, and it's so true. But the depth and breadth of that love is often only fully realized after they've all left to go back to school or their new homes, and I can rest quietly in the darkness and look at the memories that hang on our Christmas tree.

That love is deep, and it is wide, and I have proof.

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: Pastor 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 Pastor 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 Pastor 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.

Pastor 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 Pastor 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.

Pastor 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, 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 Pastor 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. 

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Door Holder: My Dad

My eldest daughter sent a text this morning, with an audio file attached.

Practice run for Katie's wedding - still learning it!

I listened while driving down Route 60, the autumn colors poking through the morning sunshine and cool air circulating through the open windows of the Mazda. Acoustic guitar, gently strumming; my son-in-law's voice...

When I think of you and the first time we met 
And I heard the sound of your sweet, gentle voice...

And then my daughter joined in, and I was instantly with them, in the living room of their little home in Fayetteville, the acoustics bouncing off the high ceilings. My heart clenched, truly, in some powerful connection of music and metaphor and DNA; and then I did what, to me, is the only thing you can do in a moment like that.

I found the third part and I sang along.

I don't know how many people are like this - but we have a certain tribe, those of us who hear two-part harmony and are absolutely, utterly compelled to fill in the blank. It is inherently natural to me - it always happens, and I see it happen with my kids, and I know that this is a things deeply rooted in our souls.

My dad taught me this; or, at the very least, he held that particular door open for me to understand how to find that hollow spot and fill it.

Clyde Case did a lot of things in his life that trickled down to his only daughter. Growing up surrounding by farmland and two boy cousins - a year older and a year younger than me - I learned, early on, that there was nothing a boy could do that I could not. Baseball; football; dirt bikes; cutting Christmas trees; I kept up because I was told that I could, and I was given every opportunity. My dad instilled in me this notion that I could do and be anything that I put my mind to do.

He was the life of the party, my dad; the oldest of four sons, the most irreverent and silly. A leader. Charismatic. And a walking contradiction - the millworker's son, a Marine who worked his way out of the mill and into the white-collared office, into a sales job that took him to the land of cowboys and endless horizons and great success in the business world - who also could rebuild the engine of a '67 Mustang and sing Waylon Jennings songs at the top of his lungs.

My dad knew how to work a room, and I remember watching him do so and realizing that there was something in us that was a lot alike; I had that leader gene in me, and so I knew that in many ways I was going to be a lot like him.

And I am.

So there is a massive imprint on my life of my father, and his own life and his choices and character and the way in which he wielded his unique skills and instincts. Of course the impact of his life on mine is larger than one blog post.

But there is this thing, that is most prevalent in my life - that thing that put me in tears this morning as I drove down the highway singing harmony with the blood of my blood and her husband. My dad played music constantly for us; every time we were in the car, we listened to Beach Boys and Waylon and Wille and Merle and the Eagles and Linda Ronstadt. There were no cell phones then, and we all needed something to do in the car - so there was music. Eight-tracks, and then cassettes, worn thin because Dad would play them repeatedly while traveling, making a living across miles and miles of Texas. We sang, and we traded parts; sitting beside or behind my dad, I learned to fill in the blanks.

We did it on Sundays, too; standing side by side in the cool of the Methodist church, we'd lean into the wooden pew in front of us and sing the hymns, alternating parts. I could read music - he could not - but his ear could find the parts as well as I could, and we would cover the alto, tenor, and bass lines, over all four verses. I'm not sure what theology I ever learned from the Methodist hymnal - or if those moments were even close to being worshipful - but I sure learned how to sing parts.  

I remember singing with him at other times, too; for a church talent show one year, "It's Hard to Be Humble", in harmony. Anne Murray's "Cold I Have This Dance", and songs from Godspell. We learned "Operator" by the Manhattan Transfer with my brother, and we thrilled my grandmother with our rendition in church one day.

I learned this deep, soul-certain thing from my dad - this ability to live in the music and find a place to fit; to settle into the joy of vocal harmony that seemed to somehow connect us to the past, to something unnamed and just slightly hidden behind the current century. There was always a taste of the past in our singing, I think. My dad held that door open for me and pulled me through, running from room to room and helping me find my place - a place of comfort, a claim on what I could call mine.

There is a larger metaphor there, one that applies to the bigger picture. There is a willingness in me to forge ahead, to believe that there is a place for me in most things I encounter in life; and so I have - although still often wrapped in the cellophane of insecurity - a boldness in me that I trace back to my dad. I can be in charge; I can figure this out, I can find solutions and lead the way.

I can find the third.

That is an integral part of who I am. I think of my dad every time I look for the missing harmony part, grateful for the pulse and melody that lives in his DNA, that he placed in mine. And I continue to look for the places to find that missing part in the world around me - be it musical or ministry.

It's a grand thing, really, to look back and point to the power of influence and see the proof bubbling up in your everyday life. I'm so grateful for my dad, and the way he opened that door for me.

I love my dad.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Door Holder: Nancy Beach

I first visited Willow Creek Community Church around 15 years ago. My brother, Eric, was leading worship there, and when we visited Chicago in August of 1999, the timing couldn't have been better. The Leadership Summit was in session, and I had my first glimpse of a group of leaders and a movement that would profoundly impact my life in ways I could not have imagined during that hot August, clutching a three-month old David in my arms.

To be honest, I snuck into the Summit that year. I didn't see a lot of it; I remember meeting Matt Redman during a sound check, playing piano a bit while the band jammed. I was in awe of the church and the excitement pulsing through the halls.

I returned to Chicago a few years later, a new resident of Ohio and a volunteer at Fellowship Bible Church. I attended the Arts Conference, a now-defunct yearly meeting designed to encourage and equip artists in the church. I heard Bill Hybels speak life and vision to artists. I saw incredible workshops with inspiring leaders. I experienced powerful dramas and brilliant music. I met some cool people.

And I heard Nancy Beach.
Photo credit: Mark Beeson

Nancy was the leader of the Arts Ministry at Willow Creek. Part of the church since its beginning, she had grown up and into an influential role as a speaker, teaching pastor and leader. She appeared to be the creative, artistic partner to the senior pastor's pragmatic, level-headed persona; but she stood in a unique place of influence and empowerment that was hers alone.

I was drawn to her teaching, her understanding of her influence, and her calm, settled presence on the teaching platform. Her passion for artists and a matching vision for how the local church could and should nurture their souls as they leveraged their offerings - it was contagious.

Ironically, she wrote a beautiful post about folks who held the door open for her just a week before I started this series. Another influence, well-timed.

I heard Nancy teach at the Arts Conference several times. She hosted and shared messages at the Global Leadership Summit until she left her position at Willow Creek and moved into other venues. She wrote a book that opened my eyes to the restoration available to me as a woman, gifted in areas of leadership, coming out of a patriarchal, complementarian religious system.

And a few years into my work at PCC, I had an opportunity to connect personally with Nancy. I can't remember exactly how it happened - possibly through networking at the Arts Conference - but we calendared a phone appointment. She made herself available to me for a few questions about leading and managing the growth we were experiencing at PCC on our arts team.

I knew very little about anything I was doing that went beyond playing the piano and leading worship; my education and background were in teaching. I knew nothing about management and leading a team of adult volunteers.

But I knew Jesus, and I knew the depth of my passion. The pump was primed. I asked Nancy a few questions about building our teams and taking our musicians and artists to the next level - for their sakes, and for the mission of our church. She spoke into several different areas, but she made one comment that drilled deep into my heart. I asked just how to empower people, how to help them become great leaders. I have never forgotten her words.

You have to be willing to let them fail.

For a woman who flirted with codependency, had control issues and struggled with perfectionism, this was a hard concept. But - because of all those descriptors I just mentioned - it was my blind spot, and it was absolutely essential that I learn to do just that - something that seemed antithecal to what I believed leadership (and "good Christianity") to be about. It was not about failure, per se; it was about my willingness to let somebody fail.

She's a wise woman, that Nancy Beach. She held the door open for me as a woman leader, through her example, her writing, her teaching. Her influence, though her work, was powerful. But in that brief conversation - one I doubt she even remembers - she grabbed the doorknob and coaxed me through with one simple statement, into a place that challenged me to deal with my own junk in order to honor the leadership influence given to me.

It changed me.

From the beginning of my work at PCC, I told my boss / senior pastor, "I want to be your Nancy Beach." Her influence was that great; my aspirations and vocational drive grew out of my admiration and respect for her leadership. Thankful for her continued influence through writing and coaching, I'm still nurturing those aspirations and passion to be better.

But I'm no Nancy Beach; I'm just the best version of me that I can be. That calling became uniquely personal; I own it, and I get to live it.

Nancy set a great example. I'm glad she opened that door, for me and so many other women in leadership. May God bless her continued influence.

(And I sure wish she'd return to the Leadership Summit....)

Monday, October 12, 2015

Door Holder: Pauline Elizabeth Delong Case

The most important woman in my life, other than my mom and my daughters.

The most important blood relative, other than my parents and my brother.

My grandmother.

Now, that's a rather stern picture of Pauline Elizabeth Delong Case. Truth be told, I can't say I ever remember her looking like that. I'm sure she had her moments, and undoubtedly my granddad got a few of those looks.

But the deeply embedded resonance of my grandmother - 'Gommer', as we called her - is joy.

Laughter, always. Encouragement and laughter; Gomer was the kind of person you just wanted to be around.

I did, anyway. Growing up close to family, the only girl in a gaggle of boy cousins, she was home base for me. My refuge. She loved me, unconditionally - she proved it with Oreos in cookie jars and a door that was always open.

We lived just up the road, until I was 13. My aunt and uncle and two cousins lived in between us; Gom's house was a quick coast on my bike down the hill. Close enough for me to hear her car crunch the gravel as she turned into her driveway at 11:20 at night, finishing her shift at Polk Center where she cared for those who were institutionalized due to mental health issues. I would stay up late, reading under the covers with a flashlight, waiting for my grandma to cruise through the Pennsylvania night air.

There was something unique and wonderful about growing up so tightly knit. I wonder, now, how all the adults felt about it - but as a child, I thought it was wonderful.

We'd hang out on Gom's porch, watching the neighbors come home, talking about anything and everything. There was always a pot of coffee on and she was always good for conversation.

Gom and Uncle Dave

I think that's what I remember most; that there was never a time when Gommer wasn't present. She never shooed anyone away. She never had a book she'd rather read, never needed 'alone time'. I do recall that she loved watching 'Wheel of Fortune' most weeknights and 'Hee Haw' on the weekends, and in her later years she loved 'Ellen'.

She'd sing, "One day at a tiimmmmeee, sweet Jesus..."

'Because He Lives' touched her deeply; we'd sing in harmony.

She would scratch my back, somehow knowing that it was my love language.

She said, "Bethie, you're my favorite granddaughter", and she said the word like "fav - or - RIGHT", which I always found precious and slightly peculiar.

I was her favorite granddaughter. I was deeply loved by her, and I never doubted it. That's a rare thing, I know; to be absolutely sure of an unconditional love. It drenched me, in my early years; and after Lonnie and I moved to Ohio and we could make the two-hour trip to see her, I tasted and saw that love in action with my kids.

Gom and I, with Sarah, Haley (my cousin's eldest), and Shannon
I miss her terribly. One of the deepest regrets of my life is that I failed to grasp the seriousness of her illness when she developed cancer. It was immaturity, denial - an unwillingness to accept the notion that this vibrant woman who was absolutely necessary to my life could get sick

It seemed improbable. Impossible.

But she did get sick. One of my most powerful, later memories of her is on a visit to the hospital, when she was first diagnosed. We made small talk for a while, and then she took my hand.

"Gommer's sick," she said. "Gommer's really sick."

She held the door for me in untold ways, as a strong woman whose influence on my life is immeasurable. She was a safe place as I grew up, the stereotypical grandparent who indulged me and wiped my tears when my parents did their job and disciplined me. She showed me unconditional love that never, ever wavered.

She wrote me letters throughout all my life, her wild cursive telling tales of going to town and fixing dinner, updates on my granddad and the dachshund, Rocco. She opened the way for a grand, glorious love that asked nothing in return. She loved me, just because I was her granddaughter.

(Her favor-right).

She cracked the door open for me when she fell ill, but I didn't know how to walk through it. I couldn't cope. Instead of spending every single possible moment with her, I stayed at home and tried to pretend it wasn't happening.

When it did happen - when my dad called and said, She's gone...Gommer's gone, my heart cracked in two. Processing the loss and grief and ugly reality that death meant forever taught me painful lessons. I'd never lost someone so close, and I discovered the difficult, deliberate truth that you can't hide from death. 

I didn't walk through that door with her, but when my dear friend Bob Pino neared the end of his life, I remembered the lesson I'd learned from Gommer. So I stayed. I didn't look away. And when Bob walked into eternity, I think he probably found my grandmother and let her know that I'd learned my lesson. 

She taught me well. I miss her, but I'll see her again. 

My heart longs for that day. 

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Door Holders: Tony Stoddard

"You're running a little behind on this door holder thing..."

My mom, a few days ago.

She's right; I've been busy, and choosing to do other things. But I have more people to tell you about, so here's the next one in the series.

This guy.

I could probably fill a book with all the ways that he has changed my life. It could get all cheesy up in here. But to focus on how he has held the door open for me in a very specific way, let me tell you about what we did today.

We spontaneously decided to close the music store today. Apologizing for any inconvenience, we realized that it had been about six weeks since Tony had a single day off. He's been going non-stop, seven days a week - working the store Monday through Saturday, and serving at church pretty much every Sunday. He never stops, always busy will some sort of project, along with work and home maintenance stuff.

So today was the day. We decided to work together, and so we did; together, we moved a big pile of dirt to fill in the sides of a newly-poured concrete slab (skateboarding son is quite happy). We cleared out a bunch of stuff in the yard. We did about 80% of a needed repair on a broken outdoor lamp. We hacked weeds and moved lawnmowers and hauled gravel and all sorts of stuff.

Tony's one of those guys who knows stuff. You know the kind; if something breaks, they know how to fix it. If you're building something, he knows how it should be done. We laugh, sometimes; he says I'm not good with the relational stuff. I need you to help me with that. And it's true; and I do. But pretty much everything else in the world? 

He knows.

Water stops working? Ceiling fan too noisy? Roof leaks? Car falling apart? Pipes sluggish? Printer dead? Video camera stuck?

The man can do anything. Anything.

So today, as we worked together, I helped him do some of those things, and - like he always does - he held the door open for me, patiently and graciously, and showed me the right way.

We moved load after load of dirt, added some gravel and then he said, Let's tamp this down. You get in the Suburban....

And he coached me, like the guy guiding the planes at the airport, and I drove back and forth and back and forth until we got those narrow rows of dirt put into place.

We worked on the yard lamp, taking it apart bolt by bolt and figuring out the problem. Before we unscrewed the bottom cap, he pulled out his pen knife. You need a witness mark...see here? Notch it here and here so we know how to put it back together.

We mixed epoxy and I help the lamp while he glued; he talked about the process the entire way, making sure I knew exactly what he was doing.

I thought about him all afternoon, about the things that he's taught me to do. One of our best dates was the night we installed a water filter under my old house.

Right now, he's down in the basement; sounds like he's teaching himself to play the violin. 

Tony is a rare breed of man these days. A friend told me that when my son David was hanging at her house with a couple other kids, they needed to do some work. The other boys gave a half-hearted effort; David grabbed the tools, jumped in and did it. She praised him, and he said something like, "You live with learn things..."

If you're fortunate enough to be around him for any length of time, he'll teach you. He'll be patient and kind and gracious, and at times you'll wish he would just hurry up and quit over-explaining, but he's going to take his time and teach you. 

Tony is the best kind of door holder, because what you'll learn from him sticks forever, and it will serve you well, all the days of your life.

He's been the best for me. 

Last night after a church gathering, I gave him a hug as we prepared to load up our separate gear in our separate cars and head home. One of our friends watched him as he walked away.

"You're a lucky woman, Beth."

Don't I know it.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Door Holders: Donna Ferrere

This is me.

Fourth grade. Probably nine years old.

I needed a door holder in the fourth grade.

I wrote about it first here, after I got back from San Antonio last summer. Now I recognize that it was trauma I experienced that year. I think that's where I began to cry in the morning, telling my mom I didn't want to go to school. I couldn't articulate why, exactly; how does a nine-year old talk about betrayal and that gnawing realization that someone has the power to slam doors in your face and determine the course of your interaction with society? Albeit a small society of fourth-graders.... Still, it matters.

It was a difficult year, and I turned to the adult in the room for help. She rose to the occasion, as I recall.

Donna Ferrere was her name. She taught the entire fourth grade at our little country elementary school. I remember her short haircut, warm smile and a love of reading that she passed on to me. I think I found a deeper solace in books that year, and I know that I came to understand just how powerful the encouragement and support of one person could be. I think Donna Ferrere was the one reason I endured fourth grade; in fact, I triumphed, if you consider straight A's, and scholastic achievements and a passionate love of books a win.

I do.

I'm forever grateful for this teacher. She held the door open for me to believe in myself and to stand against devastating social pressures; I believe she propped the passageway open long enough for me to recover and walk through under my own power.  She believed in me. It made a powerful difference.

Again, I'd love to know what my mom remembers about that year; perspective is everything. But Donna Ferrere will always be a champion to me.

PS A note about my groovy fourth-grade style; how about those Lennon glasses? And the shirt - I remember that blend of polyester and cotton so well! It was a body suit, and no - I'm not kidding - it snapped in the crotch and stayed perpetually tucked in. My mom, a master seamstress and extraordinarily creative, sewed it for me. 

So cool.


Saturday, October 3, 2015

Door Holders: Diane Cornelison

In his book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Patrick Lencioni says that most everybody is fairly good at having conversations - even about conflict - that give you an honest 90%. It's in that 'last ten percent', Lencioni says, where reality happens, trust is built and organizational health begins.

My workplace has adopted this concept and "having a last ten percent conversation" is a common axiom for all of us. It's an important step towards relational health and functionality.

After I heard this teaching, I realized that someone else had taught me the value of sharing the last ten percent many years ago. I didn't realize the importance at the time, but Lencioni helped me connect the dots. It added to my great appreciation for my friend Diane Cornelison.
Celebrating Christmas in 1999

Diane and I met because our husbands at the time were both pursuing an education in ministry. They were on different tracks, coming from very different experiences. But Diane and I were both in the throes of raising kids; we each had three girls, and we each added a son to the family only months apart. We lived a few blocks away from one another in a small, conservative town in central Texas.

I was always in awe of Diane. She and her husband, Dennis, were disciplined. They were creative. They could built entire houses out of scavenged wood. They up cycled like crazy, way before it was cool. Diane planted an herb garden and brewed tea that we would share on her Victorian couch, surrounded by beautiful antiques and glassware. She let me nap in the living room when needed. She organized her kids - and mine - to clean, to do chores without complaining, to keep things tidy.

She loved Jesus, and she loved the church - although the church we attended at the time did not demonstrate their love in return. I witnessed hurtful things done to them in the name of righteousness, but she and Dennis shrugged it off and kept pursuing Jesus as per their calling, with no bitterness or rancor. 

I was always slightly intimidated by Diane, as she seemed to have it all together in ways I did not. Diane organized everything in life; I lost things on a daily basis. She homeschooled her kids and managed it with aplomb and order; I could barely keep my kids clothed. 
Diane organized a baby shower
when I was pregnant with Sydni.

We were very different, and yet she was a good, good friend to me, in ways that I failed to fully appreciate at the time. Diane understood recovery, and she understood people and faith in a way that I didn't quite comprehend at that stage of my life. She demonstrated hospitality in the deepest, most holistic sense of the word. 

These days, I'd give just about anything to have her living a stone's throw away again. I'd walk across those railroad tracks to see her every day if I could.

During those few years in Joshua, Texas, we shared a lot of things- time, meals, joys and sorrows - and kids. Also, stuff. Clothes, dishes, toys. 

And a stroller.

Diane let me borrow a stroller one spring. I used it and, in typical fashion, kind of lost track of it. It was just in the backyard - but I kept overlooking it. One day, Diane mentioned the stroller. I don't mind you borrowing it - but don't leave it outside, okay? It's getting rained on. It'll rust. It'll get ruined. Just don't leave it outside...

I heard her, and I took her seriously, but in a manner that still remains an often shameful part of my daily existence, I forgot. I got busy with other things, and I didn't prioritize her request, and some part of my mom's teaching to Take Care of Things That Belong to Other People fell completely out of my brain, and the stroller stayed in the yard.

Getting rained on.

Diane came over a few days later and said, Hey. I'm taking the stroller. I asked you not to leave it in the rain and you didn't and that really bugs me, that you didn't hear me and didn't take care of my stuff. 

She didn't yell. She didn't cry or make a scene. She just told me the truth, and she was a little upset, but she said her piece and that was it. 

And I was mortified.

In hindsight, it was a little thing; but I had big issues. I was compelled to be perfect at all things. I believed it was expected of me, to be perfect (it was part of the religion that was all around me, but that's a completely different story...) 

I thought I was supposed to be perfect, which is completely unreasonable and untenable, of course; so I had a lot of good coping mechanisms - one of which was to hide from the things in which I could not manage perfection. I was good at avoiding conflict.

Diane didn't go for that. She never shied away from the truth and she wasn't afraid to be honest. Diane called me on something I did wrong. She stated her case. It wasn't a big deal for her - she was much further along in her journey of acceptance than me! - and that was the end of it. We were still friends. She forgave me. It was nothing in the grand scheme of things, and our friendship seemed fine.

Diane and her family in 1999.
But it stung in me for weeks. Months.

I simply did not know how to cope with having failed a friend, even in this simple way. I didn't know what it was like to be found wanting, but forgiven. This notion of being vulnerable in front of someone, of having it all on the table, of the "secret" revealed - that I wasn't perfect - was devastating to me. (Ridiculous, I know. But still...)

The emperor had no clothes. I didn't know how to cope. 

But Diane did. 

This was my first true taste of grace. Blatant, in-your-face grace. 

Diane showed me how to be a friend, in the truest sense. Diane was the person who said all the right things - both the easy words and the harder ones - when I called to tell her about the collapse of my marriage to my kids' dad. And today, Diane is the one person that I long for, when I wish I could curl up on the couch with a cup of tea in front of a fire and talk, honestly, about everything. 

I am thankful that last October, we visited Texas and got to do just that.

Diane held the door open for me to experience grace and true friendship in a way that was new and necessary. I learned to trust her, because of that last ten percent stuff - along with everything else she offered. And because of that, the pump was primed for me to appreciate the value of trusting more friends along the way. She reset expectations for me when it came to friendship, and I'm better for it.

Thank you, Diane, for being a door holder for me. And a friend.

Diane and I, catching up, last October at her home in Texas.
So much love. 

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Door Holders: Millie Bark

I spent some time this morning with my friend Hope, a woman with a passion for people and worship and the church who has challenged herself to stretch musically, spiritually, and as a leader. She's growing, and it's a beautiful thing.

We talked today about how to create intimacy in smaller worship settings. Both veterans of some very special Wednesday night gatherings in the not-too-distant past, we worked on ways to be intentional about making space for singing that felt authentic and right. My experience helps me enter into that space easily and relatively quickly; Hope asked, How do you do that? How can I learn to do that?

/ / /

Yes. That's me. Sigh. 
Miss Scott was my 2nd grade teacher. At the annual school music program, I had a solo; "Bibbity-Bobbity-Boo".

But what really mattered that year was this: I met Mrs. Mildred Bark, and I began piano lessons.

I'd love my mom's commentary here, to find out her perspective on whether or not I practiced, on how much of a burden it was to drive me down into town every week to sit in Mrs. Bark's studio and play for her. I need my mom's memory to help here, because I don't remember much at all about my behavior that first year.

But I do remember Mrs. Bark's house, a huge (to an 8-year old) mansion on Elk Street. She rented out rooms to exotic, interesting Young People; theater folks. College kids. The young, single man who was teaching music at the local high school. There was always a mysterious, enticing buzz behind the double doors that led to her kitchen and living area; drinks and cigarettes and loud laughter. Occasionally the sound of tears. I only ever went back there once.

Past the double-door entry way was a small table with a round bowl sitting on top. Both antiques, always clean; the weekly check was to be placed in the bowl. I'd wait in a chair outside her study, and when the student before me finished, Mrs. Bark would welcome me in. Her gravely, smoke-studded voice greeted me and I walked into a haze to sit at the small spinet that faced the wall.

She sat behind me, always, at a drop-front desk; her long black cigarette filter perched between two fingers. Mrs. Bark was always dressed well, always composed, always bejeweled. She would scrawl practice notes in my psychedelic spiral notebook in a fancy, authoritative cursive.

In hindsight now, I realize that she must have been an utterly fascinating woman. A widow, she'd been active in several musical pursuits in our little town. Her husband, the late Mr. Charles Bark, had also been in the arts. After his death she taught students like me, and she took in boarders, and she moved in some artistic circles of which I - a little country girl - was completely unaware. She was old, to my eyes - but as I remember now, she must have been a relatively young widow.

I would very much like to know her, now.

So Mrs. Bark got me started, sitting behind me for those 30-minute segments of musical education. And I can't remember a thing she did or said, but I remember the utter joy I discovered, my fingers finding a way to play "Baby Elephant Walk" and "Alley Cat". I remember dragging a John Denver songbook to her, a few years in, and being excited about picking out the chords to "Annie's Song". I remember when, at the age of 11, I nearly gave up because "Brian's Song" - and the key of A - nearly did me in, but Mrs. Bark and my mother pushed me through.

I don't know this other than to have heard my mom say it, but I believe it must be true: Mrs. Bark let me make it up as I went along. She let me improvise, play to the beat of my own drummer. I suppose there must have been some talent there, along with a disciplined mom who made sure I practiced, but undoubtedly, the way Mrs. Bark taught me as a beginning piano student unlocked the key to a deep understanding and passion for the language of music that has served me well.

Oh, so well.

/ / /

Today, after some conversation, Hope and I moved into the Big Room at the church. I sat at the baby grand piano and demonstrated some chords; the resolution of the suspension in the melodic intro of "Cornerstone". The open fifth of "I Am Set Free" that could lead to an easy key change for "Be Thou My Vision". The way a spoken word transition could slip freely into the space between changing keys; the common tones between C and E and how they could become a fulcrum for change.

I talked to Hope a little about how it works for me, playing and singing.

"It is like breathing. It is a language, and my fingers know it as well as they know the enunciation of spoken words. The template of key changes is like changing dialects or accents; this is English, familiar - and then up a half step, that's like French. And maybe now in 'E', that's is all the same meaning, just a different voice, and it means the same to me, save the different perspective. I just speak it, this language, and it is as simple as breathing in and breathing out. It just is."

I kept talking, in part just to hear myself talk, because I'd never really said such things out loud much. But I was thinking about Mrs. Bark already, about this post, well-aware that I needed to find some words.

So here they are: To play the piano, for me, is to give utterance to the deepest part of my soul - and yet it is, in some ways, no different than speaking a simple sentence of greeting. Or of love. Or of sadness, or joy. Maybe that is why the moments of 'worship' - of singing with a directed audience - are so powerful and potent for me. Imparting emotion, sharing thoughts, revealing truth - the piano is as much a tool as my voice.

Sometimes, it is my voice.

My fingers speak. They are my ability to communicate like anything else, whether it be my waving hands or my torrential words - or my fingers shaping a C9 chord.

And all this happened because somehow, Mrs. Bark unlocked that method of disclosure in that tiny, smoke-fllled room on Elk Street. She wasn't the last, but she was the first to open the door of this miracle of sonic language.

Mrs. Bark was a door holder for me, in a way that changed my life. 

And I am, daily, grateful.