Do you ever think about the first time Mozart touched the keys, Mark Twain picked up a pen, or Michael Phelps jumped in the water? Do you ever wonder what it was like to hear Sinatra sing his first note, watch Picasso paint his first portrait, or to see Jordan dribble his first ball? I don't know about you, but I would guess none of these moments were particularly noteworthy, spectacular, or awesome. They were probably not especially inspiring to those who witnessed them. Yet, they were necessary beginnings, and without them, the world would lack some of its most classic music, impressive records, and masterful works of art.

I have been meaning to start writing a blog since I moved to Sydney over eight months ago. Over and over I have put it off. However, tonight at Team Night (the rehearsal/worship night for our creative team at church( my friend Paul suggested that I write a blog. I decided I had finally run out of good excuses—especially the one I have most recently been clinging to:

“Where do I start?“ 

Now, I am in no way comparing myself to any of the formerly mentioned greats—I am, however, suggesting that humble beginnings are probably much more common than glamorous ones, but that should never be an excuse for not starting something new.

This month at church, we are doing a series called, “Sunday Night at the Movies.” This past Sunday, Robert Fergusson preached on the 2013 Ben Stiller film, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.  Every time Robert Fergusson preaches I end up with tears in my eyes—this night was no different.

Robert's first point was, “Be Decisive.”  He did not discourage dreaming, but he did discourage living in the dream world: “Our dreams can fuel our actions,” he said, “but we have to make a choice.”  This year, I have constantly tried to set goals for myself, and I have put many of them into action, but there are so many times I have dreams or ideas that I never see come into fruition because I do not make a choice. (So here's to another dream that I am choosing to put into action with this blog.)

Robert's second point validated the biggest lesson I have been learning here at Hillsong this year: “Be Present.” Living in the moment has been one of the most difficult things for me here, away from home for the first time (and not just down the road: 9,364 miles away). I realized here, no matter where I am, this has been a struggle for me. It is so easy to live behind my phone: choosing the best Instagram filter, facebook status, or snap chat story. If not my phone, it has been my beloved Nikon D300—trying to capture the best shot instead of simply enjoying the moment. Robert encouraged us to live lens‑less lives and to swap photos for memories. This truly hit home. As an aspiring photographer, I do not think that taking pictures is a bad thing, and I am not planning to give up this art form that I enjoy, but it was a reminder that I very often miss out on the simple beauty of my Sydney ocean views, simply because I want to try to capture the perfect shot (which will never do the scenery justice anyway).

His final two points, “Be Faithful” and “Be honest,” truly resonated with me.  Now that I have made a choice to begin something new, I must be continually faithful, or I have made no difference at all. And throughout the entire process, if I choose to live in my daydream I am never truly honest with myself or with God.

Robert's message was simple yet poignant, and did not allow for excuses.  I was reminded (as I have been many times this year and over my life) that if I truly want to see change, I have to be decisive, be present, be faithful, and be honest; and that through it all, I must allow God to use me—being receptive to His plan. Ephesians 2:8‑10 reminds us that we can do nothing apart from God: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (NIV).  I simply accomplish goals in my own strength, I may get a lot done, but I will never be truly fulfilled.

As I continue to foster my dreams into realities, I never want to take for granted the fact that I can do nothing in my own strength—my past burn‑out is my key reminder of this fact.  But by remaining faithful, and using what is in my hand to fulfill what is in my heart, (as Pastor Brian Huston so often reminds us) I may never break a world record, write a New York Times best seller, or compose a world renowned piece of music, but I will have daily been aware of the “works which God prepared in advance for us,” and in doing so, I will do the things I have always dreamed of: not how I had necessarily imagined, but better.

While there are plenty of tools and helpful tips for writing songs, most are only guidelines. There is no “one formula” for writing songs. Songwriting professor Pat Pattison (Berklee College of Music) says, “The concept of unity, of everything working together to communicate one main point, is the only possible rule of songwriting. Other than that rule, all we have is a whole belt of tools.” Here are seven of those tools.

Find Inspiration: One of the things that keeps aspiring songwriters from writing is not knowing what to say. Free‑writing (the practice of writing non‑stop on a particular topic for a set amount of time using as many sensory words as possible) is an idea‑generating exercise. Another helpful daily drill is reading a poem or two before bed. Dove award‑winning songwriter Michael Farren says, “Step one is to look at the people around you and ask yourself what they need to be singing.” There are plenty of topics to write about—chose one.

Start With the Chorus: Since the chorus is the most important part of a song, it is beneficial to write it first. If a songwriter has a great idea for a song and she pours all of her inspiration into the first verse, that may end up being the strongest part—taking away form the chorus. Beginning with the chorus helps the song's focus. According to songwriting professor Raymond Badham (Hillsong International Leadership College), “If you finished a song and don’t know the title, you should re‑write the chorus.” In other words, the chorus should contain a strong line (or “hook”) that is the central theme of the song.

Add Music/Melody: Music is one of the most important parts of a song. Thematically, the music and the lyrics must match, and the melody should be in sync with the cadence of the lyrics. Writers can try several different chord progressions and melody lines until one feels right. The chorus melody and music should “lift” in comparison to the verse.

Write the Verses and Bridge: Verses should support and naturally lead to the chorus. If the chorus is a beautiful painting, the verses must be the frame. If a song contains a bridge, its goal should be to gain a new perspective on the chorus.

Record it: One of the biggest mistakes songwriters make is not recording their songs immediately. When writing a song, many have thought, I will remember that tomorrow—but they almost never do. Having a simple recording on a phone or laptop will do—no fancy production is required. This initial recording is simply for the writer to remember and work on the song later.

Sleep on it: Independent songwriter and worship leader Devin Davis says, “I always know if I have a keeper if I still like it the next day.” It can be helpful to put a song down and work on it later. A songwriter may find that he likes his song more after letting it sit, or he may decide to get rid of that idea. Either way, allowing a song to “rest” is helpful.

Co‑write: One of the best ways to become a better songwriter is to write with others. Though this can be intimidating, nothing will help a songwriter more than co‑writing. Co‑writing is vulnerable—it is best to write with a trusted person. It is important to be gracious with co-‑writers. It’s okay to compromise and explore others' ideas, while not being afraid to share.

In the end, songwriting is more of a dedication than an art. Sure, there is an element of inspiration and creativity, but the best way to write better songs is not to be born with more talent, but to write every day. Set a goal to write a song a month, a week, or even a day. Quantity will eventually turn into quality.

For many young people (myself included) there is an enormous amount of pressure that inherently comes with high school graduation. Virtually everyone wants to know what are you doing next? and if there is only a vague idea (or in my case, no idea at all) plenty of uncomfortable conversations ensue. It amazes me how many people advise students to follow their heart, reach for the stars, and chase their dreams, only to (in the same breath( remind students to be practical and to always have a “back up plan.”

The frustration with conventionality mixed with the desire to “do something” after high school, led me to consider a gap year abroad. I love the small-town in Indiana where I'm from; however, I knew I needed to get away in order to grow. After thought, consideration, and prayer, I decided to apply to Hillsong College in Sydney, Australia. I was accepted, and I enrolled for their ten month program. I had no idea what I was in for.

I could probably just as easily write “Five reasons no one should consider a year abroad.” Within my year: I broke my brand new Macbook Pro in a country that could not fix it; my borrowed PC got a virus that wiped it of its apps; I worked in an incredibly stressful restaurant that often left me in tears after my shift; I became ill with whooping cough for about three months; I fell more deeply in love with my long‑distance boyfriend, but he discovered different dreams and broke my heart three days after my return home; I was bitten on my foot by some giant ant, and I cried in the pharmacy when I did not know the names of the foreign medicine; Australia carbonates all lemonade and does not know what milkshakes are; and I had to say “goodbye” to everything and everyone I have ever known.

But the incredible part? After all of that, I would not change a single thing about my experience.

The lessons I learned, relationships I built, and memories I made were completely invaluable. The joy and growth I experienced far outweigh the annoyances, pain, and even the heartbreak I encountered. And in reality, a year is much smaller than it seemed to my nineteen‑year‑old self buying a one way ticket to the other side of the world. Two years ago today I boarded a plane for a year in Sydney, Australia. Now back in my homeland, I emphatically encourage students to consider a year abroad. Here are a few of the innumerable reasons:

An Open Mind is shaped abroad: I am so thankful for parents who did not shelter me or simply push their worldview onto me. They did raise me in the way of the Lord (which I am beyond grateful for) but they allowed me to be my own person and express my own thoughts. However, it is more than just upbringing that frames a worldview: culture, experiences, and friends influence it greatly. Parents do influence the way their children think, very often in positive ways, but also in negative ones. I do not know of anything that exposes and re‑shapes a worldview like spending time abroad. I was deeply challenged in my beliefs, values, opinions, and even thought‑patterns by my new environment. I realized how much of my thinking was influenced by my culture, and this was revealed to me in the workplace, at school, and with my housemates (Norwegian, Australian, and African‑Canadian). After my year abroad, my values are more deeply rooted, but my heart is far more open and accepting of others (though I always thought of myself as an open minded, accepting person before my year).

There is something special about your heart being in more than one place: my Pastor's wife recently passed away after battling cancer, and at her funeral, my Pastor shared his wife's memorable thought: “Shared love is not diluted love.” This beautiful thought reminded me of my own experience. Being immersed into a knew culture where everything was foreign, I fell in love fast. I knew no one, so personal relationships were built quickly. At the same time, I realized how deeply I cared for and loved the people who were 10,000 miles away from me. I grew to love them in a deeper way than I ever could have while by their side. I learned not to take relationships for granted: especially when my romantic love was no longer reciprocated by the person I loved most. I also learned that in Norway, the word “love” is reserved for only a spouse, so in our house, we used the translated Norwegian phrase, “Jeg er glad i deg,” (I'm glad in you). Those personal words of affection replaced the flippant, over-used “I love...” given to anything from a family member to a pizza! And indeed, I had no idea how glad I could be—even in the midst of heartbreak—for my beloved people all over the world.

You learn about you: One of the little things I learned about myself while abroad is that I'm actually a morning person. I also developed a deep love of sushi (and trying new food in general). It was amazing to discover even the smallest things about myself that I would have never known if I had stayed in my comfort zone. Studying abroad also revealed things I am less passionate about than I had thought: studying Songwriting in Australia I found that though I do have a deep love of music, I am more passionate about the “writing” part than the “song” bit. Finally, I learned that though I have a passion to travel, and an even greater desire to see the world now, I am incredibly “American,” and there is truly no place like home.

Confidence is Gained: I am definitely a much more confident person after my year abroad. In the first few months, it was a shock every time I had to make a decision: I had no one to ask. My parents were 10,000 miles away and probably sleeping, and my housemates did not care. I experienced freedom like never before, with all of its joys and sorrows. I was responsible for all of my actions: there was absolutely no one to blame for my mistakes but myself, and let me tell you, I made plenty of them. Ultimately, I learned confidence after being humbled over and over again. I learned that no one wins a comparing game, and I learned to stand up for myself and for others.

You will not likely regret it: I have personally never met anyone regretful of their time abroad, but I have met many people who lament never studying abroad. There is so much pressure to “get going with life,” and a year (or even a semester) can seem so daunting. In reality, it is really not that long at all. So what if you graduate later than your peers—your experience will be totally worth it. For those who do have a plan, a year abroad can grow passions—rooting them deeper. Others may find, however, that they have passions they would have never dreamed.

Recently, I have been having conversations with friends and family about what it means to be a Christian. I remember during one of my first few weeks at Hillsong, in one of our theology classes, we were asked the question, “if heaven did not exist, would you still be a Christian?”  Of course, this question poses a lot of theological problems—such as Jesus would then be a liar—but simply looking at that question at surface level is challenging and thought provoking.

This question led me to look at the Sacraments differently (no matter if there are two, seven, or even more). I have, in the past, had trouble with baptism for instance. It seemed to me that if it were “required” for salvation, there is something that must be done to “earn” salvation—which seems directly in opposition to what I believed about my faith. For many years, I decided not to be baptized because, “I could be a Christian without it.” I finally (almost begrudgingly) resolved to be baptized a few years ago, because I came to the conclusion that if Jesus said to do something I wanted do it even if I did not understand it.

After being asked this question, however, I had to do some serious self‑examination. Does being a christian simply mean you get to go to heaven when you die?

Of course not, but then, what does it mean? During my year at Hillsong, and now back at home, I have been exploring that very question. I have had conversations with people who say, “I can be a Christian without going to church.”  In the past, I simply agreed with those people (a little confused and saddened by this thought) but my theology of baptism was quite the same. What I began to learn, however, is that we as Christians are not simply waiting for heaven. Or at least, we should not be. Through my classes I began to understand that we are a part of a Kingdom that is Now...and not yet.  We do not have to simply wait for heaven, because it is a part of our mandate to bring heaven to earth.

Growing up, one of my favorite hymns was the Albert E. Brumley gospel song, “I'll Fly Away.” (Which many from my generation are now familiar with thanks to the incredible film Oh Brother Where Art Thou?( Though its lyrics are quite comforting to sing at funerals, I have found recently that its message is a bit unhelpful:

Some glad morning when this life is o'er,
I'll fly away;
To a home on God's celestial shore,
I'll fly away 
I'll fly away, Oh Glory
I'll fly away; (in the morning)
When I die, Hallelujah, by and by,
I'll fly away

Some friends of mine refer to it as the “give up and die song.”  Looking at Christianity through this lens, the Christian's focus is a bright, celestial destination somewhere beyond the clouds where we leave the prison bars of the physical world. That makes me sad, not hopeful. I am not condemning this song. However, I am glad that it does not shape my entire theology (as no song should). I want to live a life of hope on Earth, and I think that is what Jesus wanted for His Church.

Jesus did not want His Bride to simply wait on His return—so many of His parables illustrate this point. He wanted His Bride to live in His Kingdom now. That is why He died on the cross: enabling us to live as Kingdom builders amidst a fallen world. As I was considering these questions, I was reminded of a Ravi Zacharias sermon I recently heard:

Some of you have probably heard me mention the simple conversation between Jesus and the one who was questioning him, trying to pit him against Caesar. And he looked at Jesus and he said, “Is it alright to pay taxes to Caesar?” (Mark 12:14‑17)...Jesus, so brilliant in his response, he says, “Give me a coin.” And he took the coin and he says, “Whose image do you see on this?” The man says, “Caesar.” Jesus says, “Give to Caesar that which is Caesar's, and give to God that which is God's.” The disingenuousness of the questioner is noticed in the fact that he did not come back with a second question. He should have said, “What belongs to God?” And Jesus would have said, “Whose image is on you?”

I think that in this poignant illustration lies the answer to my question. Christianity simply comes down to whose image is on you. This takes away so much of the pressure of the “Christian stuff we're supposed to do.” If Christianity is all about giving ourselves to God today, then of course fellowship is important, baptism is required, and obeying the laws of the land is essential. We are meant to bring harmony and heaven to earth. We are meant to push back the calamity of the Fall in Jesus Name. We are meant to daily identify with Christ's sacrifice. Not because we have to in order to get to heaven, but because we want to live in the joy and peace that His Kingdom offers.

Okay...so it's actually just an ode to Mo, but she told me I should write about Yummi Bunni, and it's usually wise to keep one's roommate happy.

So far in my adventures at Taylor University, I have met a plethora of inspirational, fun, encouraging, life‑changing people. But I don't think I have met a single person (nor do I expect to meet anyone) quite like my roommate, Mo.

Maureen and I weren't “bosom buddies” right away. I love meeting new people, and I was excited to have hundreds of new people in my life, but for some reason, I was incredibly nervous about my ensuing relationship with my random roommate. As an extrovert (I was over 80% extrovert over introvert on my Myers‑Briggs) quieter‑types intimidate me, and if you know me well, you know that one of my flaws is insecurity. Right away, I assumed Maureen—my beautiful, independent roommate who seemed hard to read—did not like me at all. However, I sometimes rush quickly into relationships, and though my affections are genuine, they can come off as shallow. Mo's depth and thought with which she enters relationships impressed me. She cares about people deeply, and I began to experience this deep care as we became close friends.

On our very first morning together, we sat up in bed (no alarm mind you) at 6:00a.m. We looked at each other, both a little surprised, and got out of bed. Perfect, she's a morning person, I thought. We began to notice other things we had in common, and I was increasingly happy with my cohabitation situation.

We're both left‑handed, we're both passionate about food, we both like music, we both appreciate sports, we're both tidy, we both like to randomly break into dance, among many other similarities.

But Mo is not like me in a lot of ways too—and I think it is the things we don't have in common that make us pretty great together (well, I think I have the better end of the roommate deal).

Maureen is strong. She takes what she is given and she powers through. She does not give up, and she's one of the hardest-working people I have ever met. Mo is bold. She is not afraid to stand up for what she believes—even if it is not the popular opinion. Mo doesn't mind if people don't like her—not in an insensitive way, but in a self‑confident way that I think most people could use a dose of. Mo is faithful and loyal. She is a terrific friend who values quality time. Mo is funny. She laughs without inhibition. Actually, her laugh is probably one of my favorite things about her—it is infectious and hilarious.

Oh, and she loves cats. I'm a dog person, myself, but it's good to keep things balanced.

Maureen McGauran has taught me to be a better advocate—both of myself and of others. Her example has helped me embrace and love myself better; and I definitely attribute some of my insecurity‑shedding to her. Her drive helps motivate and keep me on task. She also puts up with a lot (including my insistent and pervasive attempts to annoy her—but I promise it's in love). Letting people be themselves, she allows people to make their own mistakes and champions and encourages them when they succeed. Actually, Maureen encourages me every day: “you can do it, I believe in you,” is my cheerleader of a roommate's most famous phrase.

I have been praying for my roommate since before I met her, and being placed with Mo is a testimony of the Lord's faithfulness. She is incredibly observant, and notices when something is wrong—a quality I'm striving for. She gives me space when I need it, but she's always ready to have a good time.

 

This week, I am most thankful for Mo because she introduced me to the most life-changing, confectionary delight: the Yummi Bunni. (That's not actually why I'm most thankful for you Mo, but I had to incorporate it somehow.) It is basically an ice‑cream sandwich where the “bread” of the sandwich is a donut. I know, right⁈

So, wherever you are in the world, you should probably get to Ft. Wayne, Indiana to get yourself one of these. And find a friend like Mo. You won't regret either decision.

Last week I had a reunion with some of my Hillsong College buddies. I missed them heaps, and it was a blessing to see them and catch up after a year apart. We laughed, cried, prayed, ate good food, listened to good music, and reflected on 2016. For some of us, it was the hardest year of our lives; for others of us, it was a year full of more happiness than ever before. I think we all agreed (no matter our experience this year) 2016 was blessed because of our journeys with the LORD and the lessons HE taught us.

One of the things we did during our few days together was watch the 2016 Tiaka Waititi film Hunt for the Wilderpeople. (In my opinion) This movie is a must‑see for anyone with a sense of humour, and I will probably be quoting it excessively over the next few weeks.

I was working on some blogging over breakfast one morning while we were together, and my friend Will decided to steal my lap top and write a Hunt for the Wilderpeople inspired haiku, and (with his permission) I decided to make it this week's blog post. Enjoy. And please go watch that film. It will change your life.

Rise and shine get up
Drink all the coffee you want
Make sure you drink heaps
—This is my haiku about drinking coffee.  It's called, “Drinking Coffee.”

One of my Professional Writing professors says that you always have to have a take-away-value: some reason for people to actually read your work. So, this post has two take‑away‑values. 1. Everyone should watch that movie. Seriously. 2. Spend some time with people who fill you up this Holiday season. It could be your family, old highschool palls, or the friends you met on the other side of the world last year. But no matter who they may be, get with people who inspire you, make you laugh, pray for you, and encourage you to be a better human being.

My writing motivation has been a little drained recently. I've spent a lot of time this semester questioning if I want to be a writer at all. I am taking a commercial fiction class this spring, and writing fiction is not one of my strengths. I've been writing flash fiction, historical fiction, drama, horror, suspense, and humor, and I've ended up with thousands of words in the trashcan and only a few on the page...a few that, after all the blood, sweat, and tears I am still not particularly proud of.

But that's just a part of being a creative. Being a creative is a lot less about actually being creative and a whole lot about being disciplined. And one of my disciplines was posting a blog post every week, and its been a few.

So tonight, I thought I'd share my first piece of flash fiction and remind myself that it's okay to fail, but it's not okay to stop trying.

(Also, my prof thought this story should be called “A Ring of Truth” but I like “A Trade” better. So for class, he wins, but otherwise, it's mine.)

A Trade

I heard footsteps. One was familiar: the soft “pat, pat” of my owner's slippers, but another that was louder but with a similar cadence. They came into the room, but I was still surprised at the bright light when they opened my box and I felt the sun's rays blind me—bouncing back and illuminating my box with a rainbow of color. The little pink dancer twirled above me as she had hundreds of times before, and I felt warmth run through me when my owner picked me up—it had been almost fifty years since I'd been worn. Her hands were softer now, colder too, and they shook a little as she handed me to her companion. As she placed me into a younger hand, I heard her say, “And I want you to have it now.”

My new owner was beautiful—I saw my sparkle's reflection in her eyes, and there was sadness there. I had seen the same glimmer before. She slipped me onto her index finger, and I thought it strange, but when I looked to my left, I could see a soft white mark two fingers down. I had not been the first band she had worn. A warm, salty tear that fell from her cheek jolting my memory, and in an instant, I recalled the last time I had felt that splash.

The warm, salt water had surprised me that time as well.

“You're different now, Thomas,”

I didn't know what was going on, but the voices that had once shared warmth and joy now had bitter distance between them.

“Just because I have to leave for awhile don't mean I ain't comin' back, Mary. I'll come back and use my GI bill to pay for that little white house you always wanted.”

“It's just not that simple, Thomas. You've changed. All you can think about is the war. You're already thinking about running off to who‑knows‑where in Europe again, and I'll be left here alone. I can't spend my whole life waiting, Thomas. What if you never come back at all?”

I felt a yank, and suddenly I was placed back in Thomas's hand. Last time I was there his hand was shaky and nervous, anticipating the question, excited. This time it was hard, reluctant to hold me.

I stayed in his pocket, along with a picture of Mary, for several weeks. I wondered if I might ever be worn again. Finally, he did pull me out. I expected to be home; maybe Mary would wear me again after all. But it was dark, except for the occasional explosion that shone bright in my reflection.

“I got this to trade,” I heard Thomas say.

“For a pack of cigs? Won’t you need that when you get home?” another voice asked.

Thomas replied calmly, sadly, “No.”

He slipped the photograph of Mary out of his pocket too—looking at it one last time before ripping it to pieces and letting it escape into the breeze. He traded me for cigarettes. I had finally felt valued, as though the sadness by which I was mined actually meant something. I was a symbol of love and faithfulness. But now, now I felt more like a symbol of disappointment. Maybe love was imaginary after all.

I began to feel the hopelessness of my origins all over again. People had died looking for me: people with no say over their lives, no choice in their work. Finally, all that had meant something, but once again, I was disappointed, disheartened.

My new owner took me home—he made it through the war, and I could only hope the same of Thomas. He gave me to his teenage daughter, who wore me proudly until a man gave her a new ring—a wedding band of her own. That was fifty years ago, and I had assumed the end of my story—until now.

My new owner looked at me with hope. She knew pain, but I began to believe I was a sign of future joy. When she looked at me, she no longer saw the mark on her empty finger, she saw my shining beauty, and she began to believe she had value too.