“I know how to tell the difference between a slur and a tie!” my young piano student declared, moments after learning what ties are for the first time.
Skeptically, I asked, “You do? How?”
“A slur is always higher than a tie,” pointing to his music. (For those who care, his piece had slurs in the treble clef and ties in the bass clef.)
“Well, it’s like that here,”—I tried to be gentle—”but sometimes a tie is higher.”
“Ok! Well,” he continued confidently, “a slur is always longer than a tie.”
I pulled out a music book sitting beside me, again showing him he had more to learn about slurs and ties.
He wanted so much to keep trying to prove he knew what he didn’t actually know. But if I had let him keep going, the time would’ve run out on his 30-minute lesson before he could learn the difference between a slur and a tie.
“I’ve seen a lot more slurs than you,” I said, “and I’ve seen a lot more ties than you. So let me show you how you can tell the difference between the two.”
How often do we think we’ve figured out faith and God after we’ve learned or experienced some things? Our minds naturally try to sort new information into categories and patterns, but when we reduce things to patterns or formulas, we miss out on the infinite more. We stop seeking, studying, experiencing, pushing forward, digging deeper. We get satisfied—proud even—with our small picture of God. We think we’re wise and mature when really we’re just stuck in an existence void of awe and wonder.
We often live out our faith on auto-pilot and neglect to leave space for the years to pour into us more learning and experience, for the wisdom of others to refine us, and for God Himself to reveal to us a bigger picture of who He is and what He can do.
Sometimes the way God works is like simple arithmetic. Sometimes the way He works is like the Fibonacci sequence, opening us up to a world of wonder. And sometimes His ways are too abstract or messy or wild for us to reduce to a formula any human can fully comprehend or imagine.
All the while, God is daily beckoning us to sit with Him and humbly listen. “I’ve seen more than you, and there’s still more for you to see. Let me show you.”
It took me a long time to decide my goals for this year. For me, year goals are important. I’m the type of person who’s constantly working on improving myself—I’m a 1 on the Enneagram—but having times of reset helps me evaluate my progress and recalibrate. So months before this new year, I spent a lot of time dreaming and asking God for direction.
In an episode of The Office, the Dunder Mifflin employees were watching Andy perform in a musical. As Michael Scott was muttering something at the start of the performance, Darryl said, “Shh. If we don’t listen to the overture, we won’t recognize the musical themes when they come back later.” That’s what this post is: an overture for this year. You’ll see these themes in my writing. And hopefully, as this year progresses, those who do life with me will see these themes become more and more woven into the fabric of my life.
My Goals for 2019
1. Love well.
I want my life to be marked by love.
I want to love God well. I want to love my husband well. I want to push myself beyond my introvert tendencies and love my friends well over cups of coffee. I want to love my students and the people I minister to well, going beyond requirements and pouring my heart into their lives.
2. Cultivate a prophetic ear.
I want to cultivate a prophetic ear so I can have a prophetic voice. I don’t mean I want to stand on a street corner with a sign warning of the end of the world. I want to be a voice that speaks life and hope and change into my culture and generation. And this starts with something simple: less noise and more prayer.
3. Spend money meaningfully.
I’ve got three subgoals for this one:
Live on a budget.
Slow/ethical fashion. (I know that’s not a complete sentence, but I’m still trying to figure this one out and this is going to be a year of learning.)
This one scares me because I had this goal last year and didn’t come close to achieving it. And when I realized it wasn’t going to happen, I was filled with guilt. But the end of this year, my book proposal doesn’t have to be completely finished, but I want to make significant progress towards being done.
5. Grow into the performer I want to be.
I want to keep refining my craft, to be a more secure performer, to have a stronger vision for what I want each piece to be, and to push my artistry and ask more of the music.
6. Love what I see in the mirror.
My perfectionism makes it tough to look at myself in the mirror. This year, I want to cultivate healthy rhythms of exercise and rest. But more than that, I want to look in the mirror and see beauty regardless of my weight, hair, or makeup.
Also, I want to dress like an adult…because I’m 37 years old and don’t need to wear Hello Kitty and three separate patterns. It’s time to limit my outfits to one cutesy thing at a time. Again, progress.
7. Donate healthy hair.
When I was diagnosed with lupus, I lost about half my hair. Because of scarring on my scalp, the doctors weren’t sure how much of it would grow back. The long, healthy hair that falls on my back is part of my testimony. It is an Ebenezer reminding me that God has brought me this far. But a few months ago, I realized that I can’t just let my hair grow out forever. So this year, I’m paying it forward.
8. Make the library in our house a place where I want to be.
This is my decluttering goal.
9. Read/listen to 100 books.
How will I do this? I’m an avid reader, but my husband introduced me to a game changer: Hoopla. An app where I can borrow audiobooks for free? Yes, please!
10. Do at least one fun thing every month.
The fact that I made this a goal this year is already a sign of growth. This goal may sound frivolous, but my struggle to intentionally take time to have fun has worn on my mind, emotions, and even my body. And to be perfectly honest, this is the goal I’m scared of the most.
A quick note about goals: As this year began, I didn’t expect sudden change. If I would’ve done that, I would have already felt like a failure and given up. I’m approaching this year looking for progress, not perfection. So if you’ve started this new year feeling like you’ve already messed up your New Year’s resolutions and goals, that’s okay! The year’s not over!
Update (December 17, 2019): It has been one year since I wrote this blog post. It has also been one year since my last cortisone injections! Hallelujah! (Insert shouting and happy dancing here.) As I look back and read the words I typed a year ago, a different set of challenges weighs on my heart. But these words are still true: “God is with me. And today, when my mind is full of questions, that’s all I need to know.”
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
Yesterday in church, I found myself swept away by a song that spoke of the God’s goodness and repeatedly declared,
I didn’t know that I was preaching truths into my soul I would need to hold onto the next day.
People ask me, “How are your hands?” more often than, “How are you?” Lupus has been unkind to my joints, adding difficulty to my life as a pianist. Every few months, I get multiple cortisone injections in order to continue to use my hands and play the piano. For those of you who are wondering, yes, the injections hurt. But the relief they bring and the music they allow me to produce are enough to keep me coming back for more.
Today, I visited the hand surgeon for my routine injections—one in each thumb and index finger. Four in total. “Do you think they’re working?” he asked. Then he answered his own question: “Well, of course they’re working. You wouldn’t be back here to subject yourself to this if they weren’t working.”
And then he spoke of the best way to proceed, expressing concern about the danger of repeated injections for so long. I told him, “The rheumatologist doubled my dosage of Plaquenil last Friday, and hopefully that’ll help me to not need shots as frequently.”
“Then, let’s see,” he replied. “Let’s see how things go with the new dose of Plaquenil, and then when”—not if—“you come back, let’s do an MRI and consider surgery.”
This isn’t the first time we’ve discussed surgery. In past visits I’ve barraged the poor doctor with a multitude of questions:
Will surgery affect my piano playing? (Possibly.)
If I get surgery, is it possible I will need surgery again? (Yes.)
What is the likelihood that surgery will be effective in my case? (It’s hard to say.)
The prospect of surgery has never sounded attractive to me. But as the doctor spoke today, the prospect of continuing as I have been looked equally unattractive. No option comes with a guarantee; and no option is without dangerous risks.
This is where I’m at. A place where I have no idea what the best way to move forward is. A place of unknown. A place where the mind easily imagines worst case scenarios.
So today I’m facing my worry with quiet trust. I’ve prayed short prayers—anything longer than a few words will bring me to tears. It’s not that I’m afraid of tears and emotion. I’m sure I’ll be ready to cry ugly tears tomorrow. But today, I want to process. To let the words of the doctor sink in. More importantly, to let the words I sang yesterday sink in.
You’re never gonna let,
Never gonna let me down.
You’re never gonna let,
Never gonna let me down…
After all, what’s the point of singing words like this on Sunday if I can’t continue to sing them as I face the darkness on Monday?
I’m not praising God out of naiveté. I can sing to God, “You’re never gonna let me down,” because I’ve been through the unknown and darkness so many times already and He’s never stopped being good or left me to fend for myself. He’s always been with me. He’s always brought me through.
God is with me. And today, when my mind is full of questions, that’s all I need to know.
“‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
This past week, I was invited to speak at a monthly luncheon at Drury University where I’m a piano professor. In front of students, the university president’s wife, the school chaplain, and the dean who hired me, I stood up, took a deep breath, and shared my story…
Thank you so much for giving me the opportunity to be part of something special that our university has to offer and for allowing me to share my story with you today.
Before I begin, I want to let you know that I’m 36 years old and I have a decade’s worth of experience teaching in higher education. I am not—as most freshmen believe upon seeing me the first time—their classmate. I tell you this so you’ll know that as I speak to you today, I’m not speaking from my youth; I’m speaking as one who has experienced life, had my ideals come crashing down, and come through on the other side to know that amid the darkness, there is good to be found in the world and that God truly is who He says He is.
Six years ago, I got a Master’s degree in piano performance—a huge feat considering I had been diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome and tendonitis in both hands and wrists before I started the program. I was also a music professor at a college and I was performing across the country. I felt like my career as a pianist was beginning to take off. On top of that, my husband and I have felt a call to one day move to Japan to start a church, and everything was happening right on schedule.
But then everything changed.
I first realized something was wrong when I was preparing for a recital and noticed my hands were stiff. “Maybe I’m practicing too much. Maybe I’m stressed,” I thought.
On July 8, 2012, I wrote in my journal:
“My shoulder keeps slipping out of place and the joints in my hands are swelling. I was planning on taking a break from the pain medications [I’ve been taking for carpal tunnel and tendonitis] this summer, but instead I’m taking more pain pills that I’ve ever taken in my whole life just to function. I have some important performances coming up this month. It will take a miracle for my hands to endure the physical requirements of my pieces and make it through from start to finish. At any moment, my hands could stop, ending my music career forever. I go into every performance with a strong awareness that this could be my last one and it will happen only because God will make it happen.”
A few weeks later, on July 25, I wrote:
“Faith isn’t a surface belief but a knowing that God is doing something. I know that God keeps His promises. I know He is my healer. I know He has not sentenced me to a life of arthritis. I know He holds my future in His hands and His plans for me are good.”
Looking back, this entry makes me want to cringe. At the time, I thought these were faith-filled words, but now I see that my faith had a lot of growing to do. I still believe God is my healer, that He holds my future in His hands, and that His plans for me are good. But the prolonged, excruciating pain made me take another look at what the Bible says and reevaluate my definition of faith. Is faith just believing for miracles or can faith be bigger and deeper than that?
Over time, the stiffness turned into pain and spread all over my body to the point that I couldn’t move on my own. My husband, Daniel, had to lift my body out of bed and walk me one step at a time through my morning routine. I couldn’t even squeeze toothpaste onto my toothbrush.
It took every ounce of my strength to make it through each day.
On September 5, 2012, I wrote:
“It’s not that I’m not trusting God to take care of me and my future. I feel secure in Him. I don’t find myself doubting Him. I am full of hope and peace. But it’s the PAIN. The pain is just so much. And the new medicine the doctor gave me makes me feel worse. It makes me feel like I don’t have full control of my mind, like I’m not completely me.”
Keep in mind that I was teaching a full load at the college and this was still the beginning of the school year. On top of that, one of the professors in my department had unexpectedly passed away a couple weeks before the school year began. So not only was I a professor to these students; I was also a counselor to them as I navigated my own grief. And it was crucial that each day I came to work, I was fully present.
And that’s why a couple days later, I wrote:
“I had to make a difficult choice this morning: function in my hands and body or function in my mind. I didn’t take any pain meds last night because it was making me sleepy, dizzy, nauseous, and unable to think clearly. This morning, I woke up in extreme pain. I needed help getting out of bed, turning on the sink, getting in the shower…I didn’t know what to do. I chose to have my mind today. I am in so much pain.”
And September 17:
“The pain is getting worse. Me and Daniel are growing more exhausted. My muscles are disappearing. The doctors still have no answers. But God is sustaining me.”
As I look back, it’s crazy to me that I was able to continue teaching. There’s no way I could have done it if God hadn’t been sustaining me day by day.
It was during this time when I truly understood the words of 2 Corinthians 12:9.
“My grace is sufficient for you,
for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
All the while, I went to numerous doctors, and they did test after test and had no answers. Weeks of waiting turned into months, and the pain was too much for me. My hair started falling out until half of it was gone. And I began to wonder, “Am I dying?”
There was one time when I was laying in bed, and I asked Daniel to come to my side so I could tell him my dying wish: “Promise me that if something happens to me, you’ll still go to Japan.”
This was a scary time. I was scared of what the doctors would say. I was scared for my future. I was scared that I might be dying.
Even though I was in horrific pain, this was a beautiful time in my relationship with God. I was acutely aware of my dependence on Him. And because every movement was excruciating, I spent a lot of time lying in bed and praying to God. Early on, I couldn’t understand why God would allow me to suffer for so long (at least, what seemed long to me at the time), but I needed the wait so God could transform my heart. Looking back, I can see clearly how God was being good and wise in allowing me to wait.
Instead of allowing me to have the diagnosis the moment I wanted it, God waited until the moment I was ready to hear it.
On October 3, 2012, I wrote:
“Still no relief from the pain. I am very dependent on Daniel for a lot of basic things. I have lost almost 20 pounds since the end of July. I am exhausted. I saw 2 doctors today. They are close to having a diagnosis. Right now I’m waiting for test results…[and] I don’t like some of the words the doctors are saying. But I’m too tired to be stubborn.”
Then I wrote in capital letters:
“GOD IS BIGGER THAN ANY DIAGNOSIS.”
I wasn’t afraid anymore of death or bad news. I had hope because I had God.
Several days later, on October 8, I wrote:
“Still in pain. But God has given me a tremendous peace. I feel His presence and the support of His people. When I look around, I can still see God’s goodness in my life. In the midst of extraordinary pain, He has given me extraordinary strength.”
The very next day, the doctor called to tell me that I have lupus, an autoimmune disease where the immune system can’t tell the difference between a good cell and a bad cell, so it attacks anything and everything. That phone call changed my life. The months of waiting for answers were so hard, but because God waited until the perfect moment to let me have them, that phone call did not fill me with despair, but with worship. And as soon as I got off the phone, I cried happy tears and said, “Thank You, God!” I was so relieved that I finally had answers, and I could finally move forward.
That day in my journal, I wrote down a verse from Scripture:
“Because the Lord is at my right hand,
I will not be shaken.”
That same day, my husband came home with a couple of trays of food from a friend with a card. On the card was written the same verse.
The past 6 years have been hard. Too often, if something is hard, we equate that with it being bad. Hard doesn’t always mean bad. Sometimes hard is bad, but sometimes hard is just hard.
I still wake up in pain every morning and I have to take medication every day just to function and survive. Every few months, I get cortisone injections in my hands so I can continue to use them and to play the piano. In October, I’ll perform a third piano recital here as a faculty member of Drury. It would be so easy to say, “This is too hard. I quit.” And to be honest, on my hardest days, that’s what’s going on in my head. But every practice session and performance is a victory and a declaration of what God has done in my life. And you know what? If the day ever comes when my hands are no longer able to play the piano, that will be hard, but God will still be good and my life will still be abundant.
The reality is my life is hard, but my life isn’t bad. Even with lupus, my life is good and God continues to be good. And with all of the struggles and obstacles I’ve faced the past six years, I can confidently say, “Because the Lord is at my right hand, I will not be shaken.”
So here’s what I want you to take away from my story:
I want you to know that whatever you’re going through—no matter how dark, or hopeless, or difficult—God is bigger. He’s bigger than your circumstances, bigger than your dreams, bigger than your fears. He’s even bigger than your failures. There’s nothing and no one that is beyond what God can handle or redeem.
I want you to know that God is who He says He is. He is good, He loves you, and He is with You. What we experience in this world doesn’t change that. When we suffer, it becomes more difficult to believe those things. So do the work of theology. That’s not something that’s reserved for “theologians” and pastors; it’s something we are all called to do as Jesus followers. Over and over in Scripture, we are beckoned to know God, not just about Him, but to know Him personally and deeply. So dig into His Word and wrestle with your doubts, questions, and preconceived ideas through study, prayer, and even community. That’s what I was doing as I wrote in my journal. I was wrestling. And as I did that, God gave me what I needed to be able to face my difficult circumstances with hope and peace.
I want you to know that you don’t have to be afraid of the waiting or the silence. Just because we can’t see or hear God doesn’t mean He’s not there. There are things that God can do in the waiting and silence that are more powerful and more beautiful than we can imagine in the moment. So amidst the waiting and silence, cling to God. And when it feels impossible to cling to Him, allow Him to cling to You.
And I want you to know that it’s okay to pray ugly prayers. When I was waiting for a diagnosis, I prayed a lot of ugly prayers. They weren’t always the most reverent or refined. They were raw, and gut wrenching, and tear-soaked. And most importantly, they were honest. We are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. God wants all of us; not just the pretty, put-together parts of us. The same Jesus who cried in the Garden of Gethsemane, pleading to the Father so intensely that He sweat drops of blood—this same Jesus is not offended or shocked by our ugly prayers. In fact, he’s able to empathize with us and understand our pain. And because it’s in our ugly prayers when we’re most honest with God, those are the moments when He’s most able to speak into our hearts.
I’d like to close with a verse you’ve heard me read a couple times already, but this time from the New Living Translation. Whatever you’re going through today, let this be your anthem:
I’m a bibliophile. I live in a house that is overflowing with books. One of my favorite genres? Theology. Aside from the Bible, wanna guess what my first theology book ever was? Not some masterpiece by Augustine, Bonhoeffer, or even C. S. Lewis.
My very first theology book was Wee Sing Bible Songs…complete with a cassette tape. I acquired this priceless gem around the first grade. I had never heard of the word “theology,” yet deep theological truths were sinking deep into my heart as I sang along with the cassette tape that played over and over and over again in my parents’ car.
Jesus loves me, this I know for the Bible tells me so. Little ones, to Him belong. They are weak, but He is strong. Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes Jesus loves me…
God is so good. God is so good. God is so good, He’s so good to me…
I’ve got peace like a river. I’ve got peace like a river. I’ve got peace like a river in my soul…I’ve got joy like a fountain. I’ve got joy like a fountain…
The songs we sing matter. I don’t remember any sermons from the first decade of my life, but the songs I sang are still imprinted in my memory.
In the months that led up to my lupus diagnosis, my body was frail. I couldn’t keep down food and lost about 20 pounds in two and a half months. (If you don’t know me, I’m 4′ 10″, so those 20 pounds were significant.) I couldn’t get out of bed or squeeze a tube of toothpaste on my own. Simple things like walking and playing the piano were excruciating. This is when I truly began to understand: They are weak, but He is strong. Yes, Jesus loves me…
At first, I was hopeful that it wasn’t anything serious, and even if it was, certainly God would heal me soon. But as time went on with my health getting worse and no answers from the doctors, I felt like my time in this world might be coming to a close. And one evening, I asked my husband sit beside me as I lay in bed. Through tears, I let him know I loved him and told him my dying wish. I was sad at the thought of leaving him behind so young, but I was no longer afraid of death or what the future may hold. I had peace. I’ve got peace like a river. I’ve got peace like a river…
I remember wanting to read my Bible, but my fingers were too weak to hold such a bulky book. So I spent a lot of time lying in bed, alone with my thoughts. Nothing to distract me from the tender voice of God. I still cherish those moments. Yes, they were excruciating, but God’s presence was so sweet. I prayed with rawness and honesty; I didn’t have the energy to offer dignified prayers. And as I silently poured out my heart, God wrapped me in His loving arms. God is so good. God is so good. God is so good, He’s so good to me…
Someone once told me that there’s something about suffering that changes a person; suffering refines us. It is suffering that has taught me the depth and richness of the words I sang as a girl. And as chronic illness brings pain and challenges to daily life, these songs keep my mind fixed on the God who is strong and good, who loves me, and who fills my soul with peace and joy.
God doesn’t stop being who He is just because life becomes hard. Darkness and suffering don’t negate God; they provide the canvas to make His light and goodness more visible.
So let’s make “yet” part of our anthem:
Though what I’m going through is hard, yet God is still good.
Though my heart is heavy and I don’t know how I’m going to make it, yet I will live with joy because God is my hope and my strength.
Though God seems distant and His silence is drowning the sound of my prayers, yet He is near, He hears my cries, and He’s working in ways my eyes cannot see.
Though my life is hard and messy, yet I will keep praising God, holding onto Him, and trusting in Him because He is still an amazing God who loves me and is able to accomplish infinitely more than I ask or think.
“Yet” is the kind of word where the tension between theology and real life thrives. It does not deny the reality of what we’re going through, but it chooses to focus on a bigger reality that our human eyes cannot always see. This word changes our perspective, taking our gaze off ourselves and lifting our eyes to the Almighty God who holds all things together and has the power to redeem people and situations.
Me and a friend from college were having coffee together. Our conversation meandered through the topics of life updates, marriage, ministry, and how awkward it is to be in our thirties. Somewhere in our meanderings, we found ourselves discussing painful seasons of our lives and the angryhonest conversations we’ve had with God. This is when she recited a line from a song: “The Lord knows the way through the wilderness…”
“Wait! Were we in that class together?!” Yes, we were. The class was called—please don’t make fun of me—”Pastor’s Wife and Ministry.” I know. It sounds absolutely ridiculous. But there were things we learned in that class that carried us through some of the hardest seasons of our lives. The main thing that stayed with us is a song the professor made us sing at the start of every class. (I know this is getting cheesy, but stay with me. I promise it’s gonna get better!) This would be a good time to mention that I’m a pianist, and for some reason, this class met in the choir room. So our sweet professor would say, “Esther, come to the piano,” and together we would sing,
The Lord knows the way through the wilderness,
and all I have to do is follow.
The Lord knows the way through the wilderness,
and all I have to do is follow.
Strength for today is mine all the way
and all that I need for tomorrow.
The Lord knows the way through the wilderness,
and all I have to do is follow.
The professor was (and still is) an amazing woman. Her name is Marcia Lednicky, but everybody calls her Sister Lednicky—not “Sister” like a nun, but like the way that old school people in some churches call each other “Brother So-and-So” or “Sister So-and-So.” She was the wife of our college president, and before being the First Lady of Central Bible College, she and her husband had a dynamic ministry that brought them all over the world. Now that they’re retired, their lives don’t look that much different; they’re still traveling the world and ministering together.
The best things we learned in class came from the wealth of stories Sister Lednicky shared with us. The ones that left the biggest impression on me were about her daughter who died when she was a little girl. (She even told us some of the nasty things people said to her at the height of her grief.) She’s no stranger to pain and heartache. So when she started every class with this song, she was purposefully searing the words into our minds. The Lord knows the way through the wilderness, and all I have to do is follow.
“One day,” she would say, “you’re gonna go through a really hard season in your life, and you’ll be crying over the sink while you wash the dishes, and you’re gonna be singin’ this song! The Lord know the way through the wilderness…” Every single young lady in that class laughed. We thought she was being silly. But I think that over the years, every single one of us did exactly what she said we would do. I’ve had numerous “The Lord knows that way through the wilderness” crying sessions. Some while doing dishes. A few in the car. At least once while kneeling on my bathroom floor.
There’s something about singing our theology that has a way of speaking deep into our souls in ways that words alone cannot.
Sometimes our heavy hearts need words of encouragement, but some emotions are too profound for words. Music goes deeper; it can speak in ways preachers can’t. So sing your theology. Sing it loud for the world to hear. Sing it even louder for your heart to hear.