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Singing Your Song

Singing Your Song

~~~Written By Amy Wilson

 

The first time I met Bill, I stood on the steps of a stately white home taking deep breaths to calm my racing heart before pushing the doorbell. What could I possibly offer a highly successful, well-connected man suffering from a rare neurological condition? Facts from journal articles and textbooks bounced around in my thoughts as I waited for someone to answer the door. 

 

What Can Music Do?

As a board-certified music therapist (MT-BC), I have seen how music from a person’s young adult years can provide orientation to the present moment in spite of Alzheimer’s or stroke (Gomez & Gomez, 2017). Intense pleasure responses to music can excite pathways in the brain involved in motivation (Zatorre & Salimpoor, 2013; Stegemöller, 2014). Preferred music can focus and sustain attention resulting in lower pain perception and increased relaxation (Bradt et al., 2021; Hirokiwa & Ohira, 2003; Lee, 2016)

But Bill did not need theories or statistics. He needed me to see him as a whole person through the music he loved. Over the course of many weeks as he received hospice care, I learned his favorite Irish tunes and sang Sinatra classics like, “New York, New York,” as Bob’s wife held his hand and recalled trips they had enjoyed together.

Amal spoke softly, thanking me for the smallest of kindnesses. I met him while working in behavioral health. His features remained calm and his voice low and steady. He recognized his situation and problems as he worked through the evils of a childhood in the Sudan. One afternoon I noticed how his body relaxed as I improvised music on the keyboard, so I continued playing as he and the other group members sat quietly with closed eyes. As he slowly emerged, Amal said the music brought him to a place of peace.

 

A Connection To God

Then there was Hannah, who two minutes into an assessment said, “I don’t want to answer any more of your #@$%* questions!” I received her message clearly. A week later, she was in my group requesting “This Little Light” and writing a beautiful song about finding strength in God and prayer. Initially I thought she was mocking the exercise. But as I was leaving that day, she stopped me and said, “When I came here, I was really high on drugs. I’m doing better now, and I really enjoyed your music group. Thank you.”

One morning, I led a group on the behavioral health unit in activities to encourage spiritual wellness. I had no idea how people would respond, and fully expected them to tell me this was stupid or to simply walk out. After many years as a worship leader and hospice music therapist, I know the power music holds for our faith and connection to God. But I did not know how people suffering from acute psychiatric symptoms would receive spiritual support. 

I created a group session that was patient-led and allowed them to choose spiritual or gospel songs they found meaningful. There were eight men in the group, including several who exhibited disorganized thoughts and behaviors, often speaking in disjointed words that were hardly understandable. These men chose songs like “What a Wonderful World,” singing every word clearly. Near the end of the group, a young man I had not yet met requested “Amazing Grace.” 

I  never sing this song without a request, as it can hold strong memories of funerals and loss. I asked everyone present if they wanted to sing it, and they all affirmed the choice. These men sang “Amazing Grace” with more conviction than I have ever seen in 20 years of worship leading. I have become very good at “bracketing” my own feelings when working, but this caught me off guard, especially “I once was lost, but now I’m found.” No matter their past or future, in that moment these men were clearly connecting with God and with one another.

When I first started working in behavioral health, it seemed to hold no similarities to hospice work. Now I think that in a spiritual sense, these two environments have much in common. The people I meet are often facing the most intense period of physical, emotional, psychological, and relational hardship they have ever endured. Perhaps because of their desperation, many of the people receiving care are open to God and recognize their deep need for him. With the simple offering of an acoustic guitar and my voice, I can share the light of Christ through music that reaches the soul.

 

A Source Of Healing

1 Samuel 16 tells the story of Saul in one of his darkest seasons. This story first captivated me as a middle schooler. How could it be that of all things, music is prescribed to ease Saul’s torment? Saul’s servants seem confident that beautiful music will relieve his suffering (I Samuel 16:16). Indeed, when David is found and plays his instrument for the king, Saul is “refreshed.” What exactly was the nature of Saul’s torment? Did he perhaps have a form of mental illness, or was the suffering entirely spiritual? A few details interest me. The healing Saul received did not occur in isolation, but in the context of a caring relationship. The illness or spiritual suffering was not a one-time event, but recurred. David played the lyre skillfully. He practiced his craft over time and the work of his hands was used to comfort. And the people of this ancient time expected music would provide the “cure.” Maybe they understood more fully how music reaches the whole person’s mind, body, and soul than we do in our modern thinking.

As a music therapist, I have the honor and privilege to know patients by their music. Songs connect us and build lasting memories. I witness restoration in the places where beauty meets brokenness. After studying music as a performer and music therapist for most of my life, I am increasingly amazed by this gift God has given us. Music can calm an infant, begin a teenage romance, inspire a team, tear down walls, unify a nation, share ideas, tell stories, and allow us to worship the Lord of All. May we give thanks for this good gift and use it to “build one another up” (1 Thessalonians 5:11).

Amy Wilson, MA, MT-BC is a board certified music therapist who regularly leads worship at our Leawood Campus. Amy and her family have attended Christ Community since 2012. She is currently a doctoral student at the University of Kansas and works in behavioral health. 

~~~~~

Names and details have been changed to protect confidentiality.

For more information about music therapy, please visit musictherapy.org

RELATED RESOURCES: 
For additional information listen to theFormed.life podcast (links below)
Episode 19: Exploring the Profound Impact of Music Therapy with Amy Wilson or Episode 20: A Body of Praise with W. David O. Taylor. Taylor highlights the significance of the physical body in our worship of God. 

 

CITATIONS:

Bradt, J., Dileo, C., Myers-Coffman, K., & Biondo, J. (2021). Music interventions for improving psychological and physical outcomes in people with cancer. The Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 10(10), CD006911.

Gomez, G. M., & Gomez, G. J. (2017). Music therapy and Alzheimer’s Disease: Cognitive, psychological, and behavioral effects. Neurologia, 32(5): 300-308.

Hirokiwa, E., & Ohira, H. (2003). The effects of music listening after a stressful task on immune functions, neuroendocrine responses, and emotional states in college students. Journal of Music Therapy, 40(3), 189-211. 

Lee, J. H. (2016). The effects of music on pain: A meta-analysis. Journal of Music Therapy, 53(4), 430-477.

Stegemöller, E. L. (2014). Exploring a Neuroplasticity Model for Music Therapy. Journal of Music Therapy, 51(3), 211-227.

Zatorre, R. & Salimpoor, V. (2013). From perception to pleasure: music and its neural substrates. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences – PNAS 110(2), p. 10430-10437 

 

Experimenting with the Disciplines

Experimenting with the Disciplines

by Tyler Sadlo

In Dallas Willard’s masterpiece, The Spirit of the Disciplines, he encourages the reader to approach “those activities that have had a wide and profitable use among disciples of Christ…in a prayerful, experimental way” (my emphasis added). Experimental? That was a word I hadn’t heard applied to the disciplines before. So, about two years ago, with that encouragement in mind, I decided to engage in the discipline of fasting. What follows here are reflections on my “experiment.” I hope they offer practical encouragement that shows the fits and starts of experimentation, but also the unexpected fruits. The spiritual disciplines need not be dry. Rather, they can be an entry point into the vibrancy of life with God.

I didn’t know what I wanted out of fasting when I began, but I knew that it was a discipline I could do without a lot of startup cost, and at the time I wanted to get started on what was within reach. I had two things in mind when I began: 1) I did not want to disrupt family dinnertime (this conclusion was reached through previous trial and error), and 2) I was compelled by Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline to fast for 24 hours each week over an extended period of time. Ultimately, that extended period added up to 20 consecutive months of weekly fasting (with maybe 1 or 2 “skipped” weeks).

 

An instructive journey

It began as most practices likely do: it was difficult not to eat; I was extremely low on energy; I made mistakes when ending the fast and sometimes hurt my stomach or my mouth (yes, the process of chewing food was actually painful). I’d like to say that I quickly learned from this, but it was an ongoing struggle to keep my post-fast meals light. Over time, my energy on fasting days increased, but the path was not linear. More than a year in there were still times when I had very little energy in the afternoon. But without question, I gradually became more skilled in the practice.

I learned early on that fasting was a considerable disruption to my schedule. I had to reshuffle priorities in order to make it work. But this was one of the great, hidden benefits of fasting: I was taking steps to build my life around the practices of Jesus rather than fitting some of them into my life where it was convenient. For example, my lunch hour on fasting days was free so I could walk, pray, and read. This eventually became the most appealing part of fasting, and the anchor that kept me coming back week after week. Nowhere else in my schedule was time set aside for extended prayer, which meant that fasting was helping create space to engage in another spiritual discipline. That benefit was unexpected, but I don’t think it was a coincidence.

I recall a conversation perhaps nine months into the practice when I tried to explain its benefits to some friends. I was very clear that I could not apply a direct relationship between fasting and any outcomes in character formation or the like. Usually there’s some direct connection between fasting and self-control that’s touted, but I did not experience it that way. I experienced being forced to slow down, both physically and mentally, and I enjoyed the freed-up time that was meant to be dedicated to one-on-one time with the Lord.

 

A change in the journey

Eventually, though, things started to lose their savor. For example, instead of replacing breakfast preparation with meditation and reading, I slept in. I had seen real progress toward becoming a more thoughtful husband, a more patient father, and someone who experiences God’s presence without interruption, but I had been focused on this specific discipline for so long that I had started hoping it would be a silver bullet for these benefits, benefits that one discipline was never meant to provide.

Multiple times in the months that followed, I contemplated pausing my weekly practice of fasting. The reason was simple: it was becoming stale. I was not waking up to take advantage of the mornings. I was running errands instead of praying and reading. I was not experiencing the transcendence that had sometimes accompanied fasting days in prior months. But could I really just stop? Staleness felt more like an excuse than a valid reason. I began to wonder if any reason could rise to the level of “valid,” or if they would all seem like excuses. It was important for me to realize that this language and thinking had a flavor of legalism and guilt, and I certainly didn’t want fasting to be built on that.

Enter Dallas Willard and his encouragement to approach the disciplines experimentally. He adds to that a reminder that what “prevent[s] them from becoming a new bondage…is [the] love of Jesus.” The disciplines are for no more and no less than moving us into deeper union with God. 

Which is why, about two months ago, I decided to pivot. I chose to skip just one meal a week, leaning into the draw of fasting that still resonates deeply: lunchtime prayer and reading. I affirm the value of fasting, and I honestly wish I could recapture some of the feeling (the transcendence, the feeling that I was moving closer to God, the eagerness to use the freed-up time) that I had before. For now, though, I’m hoping to remove some of the drudgery and legalism from the practice, and maybe re-sensitize myself to its benefits. 

I’ll conclude with a quote from Kurt Vonnegut’s novel, Breakfast of Champions, that crystalizes my mindset: “I don’t want to throw away any sacred things.” I look forward to continuing to engage in this and other practices in experimental, adventurous ways that grow both my obedience to God and my relational closeness to him and other people. I want to retain what brings me closer to God, and I will throw over my shoulder that which does not.

The Power of Community

The Power of Community

Written by : Debbie Perry

 

Several years ago, I wrote a blog about the power of surrender I was experiencing through a recent journey with leukemia, followed by our shared experience of quarantine due to the pandemic. As I look back on that time, I remember praying that if the words of my heart could be an encouragement to even one person, then all that I had been through would not be wasted. I believed God intended to make something beautiful from the ashes of my painful journey then, and I believe it still. So at the urging of the Holy Spirit and the encouragement of a close friend, I am again sharing how God is still writing my story in new and unexpected ways. 

I was recently reminded of the importance of community in my life. And more than that, I was reminded that my presence might be a gift to others. I say this not as an arrogant comment, but to encourage the hearts of others. You see, after attending Christ Community in person for 16 years, I have spent over three years watching online. Through my battle with leukemia, stem cell transplant, pandemic quarantine, and now a depressed immune system, I have been so grateful for a church that has made it possible to witness strong biblical teaching of the gospel and beautiful worship online. 

With a weakened immune system, I have been encouraged to avoid large groups of people, and to keep my circles of exposure small. I feel that there is a fine line and a lot of gray area between the wisdom of protecting myself from illness and letting the fear of getting sick keep me at a distance from others. I don’t share this to be complacent, I share it with an empathetic heart for others who find themselves in a similar situation. I have been contentedly watching online with 60 or more Leawood campus congregants every Sunday for much longer than I ever expected. Every Sunday I am reminded there are many of us dealing with health issues or other circumstances that keep us worshiping at a distance. And while we may enjoy the convenience of watching in our pajamas and welcoming God into our living rooms on Sunday mornings, we may also experience similar feelings of fear, loneliness, or guilt as we miss worshiping in a community with others. I truly feel as though God has used this time away to draw me closer to him, but recently I have been longing for more.

I recently attended the Ash Wednesday service at the Leawood Campus. I was not planning to attend since I just finished a bout with an upper respiratory virus, but I really wanted to attend since I knew it would be a smaller group than a Sunday service. Once again I felt as though I were in a game of Double Dutch. You may know that playground game, two jump ropes swinging as you wait for a time when you can jump in. But the timing sometimes just seems off so you just wait a little longer until the timing feels more right for you to take the leap. That is how I felt. Should I wait a little longer or jump back in while the group seemed smaller? Is now the right time? Well, as God often does, he made things a little more clear when I woke up that morning. He gently spoke to me through my morning devotional from Genesis. Genesis 2:7 says, “the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.”  This passage was not new for me, but I saw something new this time. From the wisdom of my devotional writer I was reminded that out of all the ingredients in the world, God chose dust to breathe life into mankind. Dust does not signify an end. It is often what must be present for new to begin. Was God showing me that he intended to use the ashes of Ash Wednesday to breathe life into me? Ashes are like dust, right? I couldn’t stop thinking about it and so I decided I wasn’t going to question it, God had my attention. I was jumping back in.

In obedience to the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and after many moments of second guessing, I grabbed my mask and arrived in the church lobby to attend a service in person for the first time in three and a half years. I distanced myself as I greeted new and old friends, but it did not take long for me to realize how much I had  missed seeing, and being seen by my church family. It felt good to see the smiles and surprised looks on friends’ faces to see me in person. I knew I had missed others, but never thought that maybe I had also been missed by them. 

As I entered the service, I grabbed a chair and sat with only one close friend away from the larger congregation in the back of the room. Looking at the church community that I love in front of me felt more comforting than I ever could have imagined. I was at a distance, but among them. The music began and I could not seem to hold back tears. It was the same music that I experience in my living room on Sunday mornings, but why did it seem so much more powerful in these moments? And then it hit me, I was back in community with others, as God intended. I have underestimated my need for worshiping in a community. We were never intended to do this life on our own, to worship alone. He created us to need each other’s presence to grow and thrive. 

It was a powerful night that led to deep reflection in my own heart about what God is up to in my story. He revealed some places that I have forgotten to surrender to him. Places where I am trying to figure out my “new normal” on my own. Places where I was longing, but not listening. I see now that while it has been a necessity to stay at a distance for a season, it is not meant to last forever. While I still need to be wise for my health and may have moments where I am fearful or unsure when to jump in more permanently, I am so grateful God directed me to notice a glimpse of what I have been missing being away from a loving church community. 

I want to offer encouragement for anyone in a similar season of missing a church community in your life; I hope you know that your church community is also missing you. Praying for you. Longing for your return. Whether you are already part of Christ Community or seeking to find a new church home, I hope you know that you will be as much a blessing to us as we might be to you. Whether you are feeling led to jump back in this week or months from now, I pray that God is already revealing big and small ways that he wants to use the dust of your current or previous circumstances to strengthen you, and knit you back into a loving community where others are waiting to welcome you in. I hope we can see each other there soon!

 

Cultivating a Regular Habit of Forgiveness

Cultivating a Regular Habit of Forgiveness

Written by Ashtyn Fair

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross wisely said, The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle…and have found their way out of the depths…Beautiful people do not just happen. The path to beauty or Christlikeness requires rhythms of regular forgiveness. Jesus is our example and his presence is necessary for forgiveness. The imperfection of humankind and accumulated hurts over the span of a lifetime necessitates the continual need for forgiveness. Without it, the transmission of unhealed hurts is inevitable. The deep work of forgiveness will bear joy and peace in those who have courage to pursue it. As people of God seek to be transformed through struggle, the ongoing spiritual practice of forgiveness must be central to our Christian life.

 

Jesus: Our Companion & Example

Jesus is both our example for practicing forgiveness and our companion on the journey. From the very beginning, God practices forgiveness toward his people with a relational vision of renewal (Genesis 3:16, 6:13, 8:21-22, 12). We do not forgive others by our strength alone. Throughout Scripture it is evident that offering forgiveness and mercy is one way we reflect God’s image to the world.  David Montgomery states in his book Forgiveness in the Old Testament, that the “sacrificial system foreshadows the vicarious suffering and atonement of Christ.” In the gospels Jesus atones for the sins of the world through his death on the cross and resurrection from the dead. In Christ’s perfection, he atones for the sins of his children in a single historical event and mysteriously, as he lives within us by the Holy Spirit, absorbs our hurt in real time which continually requires his forgiveness. Keas Keasler states in his lecture, The Art of Forgiveness: On the cross we see God doing visibly and cosmically what every human being must do to forgive someone.” With this in mind, forgiveness is more than an action of the will—it is an ongoing journey.

In Colossians 3:12-13, Paul describes Jesus’ disciples clothed in compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, then instructs us to forgive one another. As disciples of Jesus we are to remain soft-hearted. The ongoing practice of forgiveness is the pathway to these soft-hearted and thick-skinned virtues Paul describes. The path of forgiveness is meant to be walked out in Christ. We cannot be any closer to God than we already are; instead, there is a deepening of our own awareness of intimacy and union in Christ that is our truest reality. Union with Christ has a profound impact on the practice of forgiveness. Christ in us takes the hit and can miraculously create something life-giving. Whether the blow is simple or complex, Jesus within us receives it, transforms it, and resurrects to new life. All that is unnatural must be practiced regularly, forgiveness being perhaps the most unnatural of all.

 

Your Responsibility to Forgive & the Generational Impact of Unforgiveness

Wounds become scars when we accompany Jesus as a companion in the process of forgiveness. “Any pain or tension that we do not transform we will transmit.” is a quote from Ronald Rolheiser, a Catholic priest, theologian and author. Experience, research, and neuroscience agree. Because no one is exempt from resentment and bitterness, it is essential for believers to engage forgiveness for the present health of relationships. Forgiveness walks at a slow pace, and it may take many laps until one can wholeheartedly forgive and be free.

It is common to be told to forgive based on logic, such as, “Jesus forgave you all your sins, now you can forgive others.” While this statement is true, it can ignore the many complexities of forgiving another person and sound simplistic. The trouble with, and ineffectiveness of engaging forgiveness as a one-time cognitive choice or act of the will, is that it spiritually bypasses what happened, the felt hurt, and the lasting effects. Spiritual bypassing, or avoidance and repression of hurt, is alarmingly found in churches and often masked as spiritual maturity. Spiritual bypassing is a poison perpetrated by Christian’s who have forgotten that lament is deep in the Church’s historical roots. Avoidance and repression of trauma lead to anger and bitterness that is then fed to children, impacting their spiritual formation and development. Neuropsychiatrist Dan Siegel explains, “the predictor of healthy childhood attachment [is] whether the parents have a clear and coherent story about their lives and the traumas they have experienced.” Any wounding or unforgiveness that has not experienced Jesus’ touch will hinder the parent’s ability to create healthy and loving relationships with their children. Because past relational hurt that is unhealed and unforgiven naturally influences present relational dynamics and attachments, there is a weightiness to mastering the art of forgiveness, whether you are a parent or not.

 

The Process & Fruit of Forgiveness

With Christ as the model and companion in the process of forgiveness and understanding that any hurt not transformed will be transmitted, we need to know how to forgive and what fruit it should produce in our lives. Desmond and Mpho Tutu give us one way forward in their fourfold path toward forgiveness: telling the story, naming the hurt, granting forgiveness, and renewing or releasing the relationship. The one seeking to forgive must be specific when telling the story because the details are important—one can not forgive vague offenses. Here it is important to struggle, wrestle with God, and thoroughly lament the effects of the event and experience. Tutu explains the effects of engaging lament, “you discover that your pain is part of the great, eternal tapestry of human loss and heartbreak. You realize…that others have experienced and survived…and that you too can survive and know joy and happiness again.” At this point in the journey it may be helpful to ask Jesus what his heart is toward the one you are needing to forgive. Here you may recognize the common humanity between you and your transgressor, moving toward forgiveness and renewal or release in the relationship.

A Christian on the path toward forgiveness will inadvertently grow in trusting Jesus. Lasting forgiveness is impossible without drawing strength from God’s Spirit within you. In this relational reliance, the birthing of profound peace and joy may be found. Peace because you are free from resentment, and joy because you have engaged and honored your grief, releasing the weight of it. If joy and peace are fruits of the Spirit that are born through the process of forgiveness, then Christians would do well to make a regular practice of it. Not only for the monumental relational fallouts, the incidents that may take years to unravel, but also for the small things that pile up over time and look like resentment, cynicism, or disappointment.

Jesus commands us to love our enemies. An unforgiving heart can not do so. We witness to unbelievers as we pursue forgiveness when hate or appearing indifferent would be more natural. As disciples of Jesus we must be proactive in forgiveness, practicing it regularly because Jesus has not only embodied forgiveness and has forgiven us greatly, but promises to be our companion (Christ in us) on the journey. Rolheiser states, “As we age, we can begin to trim down our spiritual vocabulary, and eventually we can get it down to three words: Forgive, forgive, forgive!

 
Additional Resources
Keasler, Keas. “The Art of Forgiveness.” Residency. Lecture presented at the Residency, September 29th, 2022.

Montgomery, David. “Forgiveness in the Old Testament.” Contemporary Christianity. 2013. 

Tutu, Desmond and Mpho Tutu. The Book of Forgiveness. New York: Harper Collins, 2015.

 

 
Memorial Day

Memorial Day

Written by:  Amy Franz

Ahhh, the end of May! What a joyous time! School is over. Summer weather has arrived. Days at the park and warm evenings are heralded by Memorial Day weekend. Picnics and pool parties dressed up in red, white, and blue.

As a child, my Memorial Day weekends included all this and a trip to the Leavenworth National Cemetery. The hour drive was like traveling back in time. We’d drive past the ranch that had bison out to pasture on the prairie. Bumping along brick roads in Leavenworth with its historic downtown buildings from a bygone era.

Just outside of town is the cemetery. I do not ever remember being afraid of this vast place, I only remember feeling a soft sadness. The grounds were peaceful. Expanses of freshly mowed grass, white headstones in neat rows gleaming in the sun, marked with small flags fluttering for every one of the fallen. My dad drove slowly through, pausing here and there as my mom quietly named each of the wars: the World Wars, Viet Nam, the Civil War, and a specially designated section for the renowned Buffalo Soldiers in the oldest part of the cemetery. We were quiet and reverent in the car, looking at so many graves they seemed to be uncountable. How could there be that many soldiers, mostly men, buried here? This is what history looks like. History that demands dignity and respect.

Leaving the cemetery, we drove past the Veterans Home. Men sat out on the lawn, each one alone. I didn’t understand their aloneness. Dad said that for some, the war stays even though it has ended. This was a place to help with all the different kinds of healing. We’d travel on to the military base, which was completely open to the public back then. The historic homes of officers were decorated with red, white, and blue bunting hanging from windows and porch railings. Here there was not only history but the present; men and women in uniform attending their duties even on the weekend.

Now, so many decades later, Memorial Day is so much more personal. As the wife of a Navy veteran with 20 years of service, I know the fallen. My husband and I remember where we were when we heard the news of each one. Those he served with, whose families we barbequed with. Our hearts break again each Memorial Day. For a long moment, we are quiet, feeling what was lost not just to us.

In the year 2000, Congress passed a law for a National Moment of Remembrance at 3:00 PM local time on Memorial Day to pause for a duration of one minute to remember those who have died in military service to the United States. It was passed in the hopes that Memorial Day would be remembered for more than “the day the pool opens.”

This year will you pause for that moment? A prayer could be offered, a minute of silence held for reflection, a hymn sung, or a poem or Scripture read. Then, yes, we can return to families and fun. Yes, to making new memories and feeling the warm sun on your face. Yes, to enjoying the extra freedoms summer brings!