Real Musicians

From the Academy Award winning documentary 20 Feet From Stardom, a quote from Sting:

Real musicians – there’s a spiritual component to what they do. It’s got nothing to do with worldly success. The music is much more an inner journey. Any other success is just cream on the cake.

There’s this idea that you can go on American Idol and suddenly become a star, but you may bypass the spiritual work that you have to do to get there. And if you bypass that then your success will be wafer thin.

Songs for the End of Life

Most of my patients like hymns, and I often play what I call the Big 3:  “The Old Rugged Cross,” “In the Garden,” and “How Great Thou Art”. “Amazing Grace” isn’t part of the Big 3 because it’s in a class entirely by itself. It is by far my most requested song. “Jesus Loves Me” gets an honorable mention. There are other hymns I like to incorporate, lesser known than the Big 3, but still familiar: “Softly and Tenderly,” “Just a Closer Walk With Thee,” “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” and “Sweet Hour of Prayer,” among many others.

When the patient has reached the very end of life, with literally hours or minutes left, and every breath calculated and delicate, these songs take on an almost unfathomable new meaning. Songs that might have been sung hundreds of times in church or at camp or revivals are now so potent when being sung to a loved one taking his or her last breaths. Consider these lyrics:

from The Old Rugged Cross:

To the Old Rugged Cross, I will ever be true
It’s shame and reproach gladly bear
Then He’ll call me someday to my home far away
Where His glory forever I’ll share

from Softly and Tenderly:

Come home, come home
Ye who are weary come home
Earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling
Calling, oh sinner, come home

from How Great Thou Art:

When Christ shall come, with shout of acclamation
And take me home, what joy shall fill my heart
Then I will bow with humble adoration
And there proclaim, “My God, how great Thou art.”

Anytime there are lyrics that talk about home it really hits you how relevant the song is. It’s a powerful message, so powerful that I have to be careful with these words. If the family or the patient isn’t ready or hasn’t accepted that death is coming, I could do real damage. I’ve been in situations where I held back from singing songs with these lyrics because I didn’t know what the reaction would be. It’s at times like those I have to rely on my intuition and empathy to make the right choices.

When I can sense that the patient is ready and the family has accepted the circumstances, I feel comfortable and led to sing these songs. I also like to sing a song called “Going Home.” The lyrics are simple, poetic, and usually comforting for the family.

Going Home

Going home, going home
I’m jus’ going home
Quiet like, some still day
I’m jus’ going home

It’s not far, just close by
Through an open door
Work all done, cares laid by
Going to fear no more

Mama’s there ‘specting me
Papa’s waiting, too
Lots of folk gathered there
All the friends I knew

Nothing lost, all’s gain
No more fret nor pain
No more stumbling on the way
No more longing for the day
Going to roam no more

Morning star lights the way
Restless dream all done
Shadows gone, break of day
Real life yes begun

There’s no break, aint no end
Jus’ a livin’ on
Wide awake with a smile
Going on and on
I’m a’goin home.

The other night my boyfriend and I were talking about heaven and all the descriptions it’s been given. I mentioned how I feel heaven is too glorious, too substantial to be up in the clouds like it’s always imagined. He said he likes to think of it how Tolkien described “the West” at the end of the Lord of the Rings trilogy:

“And the ship went out into the High Sea and passed into the West, until at last on a night of rain Frodo smelled a sweet fragrance on the air and heard the sound of singing that came over the water…the grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise.”

I’ve occasionally used the song “Into the West,” from the LOTR movies, in my sessions, when I’ve felt it’s been appropriate. The imagery paints a beautiful picture and can be comforting for the patients.

Into the West

Lay down
Your sweet and weary head
Night is falling
You’ve come to journey’s end
Sleep now
And dream of the ones who came before
They are calling
From across the distant shore

Why do you weep?
What are these tears upon your face?
Soon you will see
All of your fears will pass away
Safe in my arms
You’re only sleeping

What can you see
On the horizon?
Why do the white gulls call?
Across the sea
A pale moon rises
The ships have come to carry you home

And all will turn
To silver glass
A light on the water
All souls pass

Hope fades
Into the world of night
Through shadows falling
Out of memory and time
Don’t say: We have come now to the end
White shores are calling
You and I will meet again

And you’ll be here in my arms
Just sleeping

What can you see
On the horizon?
Why do the white gulls call?
Across the sea
A pale moon rises
The ships have come to carry you home

And all will turn
To silver glass
A light on the water
Grey ships pass
Into the West

Finally, not a song (yet), but I came across a poem that is often used in hospice care and at funerals. I was probably drawn to it because it reminded me of the Tolkien words. The poem is called “Gone From My Sight” by Henry Van Dyke.

Gone From My Sight

I am standing upon the seashore. A ship, at my side,
spreads her white sails to the moving breeze and starts
for the blue ocean. She is an object of beauty and strength.
I stand and watch her until, at length, she hangs like a speck
of white cloud just where the sea and sky come to mingle with each other.

Then, someone at my side says, “There, she is gone”

Gone where?

Gone from my sight. That is all. She is just as large in mast,
hull and spar as she was when she left my side.
And, she is just as able to bear her load of living freight to her destined port.

Her diminished size is in me — not in her.
And, just at the moment when someone says, “There, she is gone,”
there are other eyes watching her coming, and other voices
ready to take up the glad shout, “Here she comes!”

And that is dying…


How can you quantify life?

I learned a lot about research in my music therapy education. Research steers science and medicine. It proves things, which results in change in practice and policy. It’s crucial in music therapy because it legitimizes what we do. There are two kinds of research studies: qualitative and quantitative. In the simplest definition, qualitative studies record natural behaviors, observations in narrative form, experiences, interviews, that sort of thing. Quantitative studies can be summed up in one word: numbers. Quantitative studies result in statistics, facts, and clean bar graphs. For obvious reasons, quantitative research garners faster acceptance and change than qualitative research.

It’s much harder to conduct quantitative research studies in music therapy than qualitative studies because of the nature of the work. Especially in my field – hospice. Thankfully, researchers have come up with scales that can measure what would be considered qualitative data, but it’s still looked at as subjective and soft data. I can’t easily produce numbers and percentages in my work, but I can tell you lots of stories that would make a case for what I do.


I spent a good part of my weekend watching the sessions from the IF Gathering that was held in Austin this weekend. It was just for women and all the speakers were women.

(Side note: What I loved the most was the complete omission of talking about how to be a godly woman, how we are different from men, what our role is…there was NONE of that. It was just about being a child of God and being obedient. I loved that. I am so tired of us putting gender before our faith in our identities. I’m not a woman who is a christian. I am a christian who happens to be a woman.)

One talk was about how we need to stop “measuring up.” We need to stop comparing ourselves to each other. The speaker said that if we judge another, we are usurping God. The talk began with the idea that the church has become an enterprise, or rather, a business. Businesses work with data. Businesses look at the bottom line. Businesses make transactions. Businesses don’t work for free.

We deal with numbers all the time, everywhere. Time, money, weather, miles, weight, spending, earning. I can get the 8 oz for 2.99 or I can save and get the 16 oz for 4.99. Numbers and measures are necessary for civilized life. Especially those two scoops of coffee grounds I put in my coffee maker each night for the next morning. Numbers guide businesses, weather patterns, sports, accomplishments. But are we using numbers in parts of life that we shouldn’t be? Are we trying to measure things that cannot be measured? Are we trying to quantify our lives?

I recently had a conversation with someone about common denominators. In a business, the common denominator is the product, the deliverable, the bottom line. In a church, the common denominator is Jesus. What is the common denominator in life? Survival? The American dream?  For whatever the common denominator is, that is what you serve. For me – someone who believes that God is the Creator – I consider Him to be the common denominator in life. We all come into this life the same way and we all die. What does this have to doing with numbers? We are all God’s, therefore we are all enough. We all measure the same.

So then, if we don’t compare and measure, how do we know if we’re doing a good job? Jesus. His life is the only one we can measure ours to. Nicky Gumbel, in an Alpha talk, used the analogy of a column, floor to ceiling, representing all of humanity, with the “bad” people at the very bottom and the “good” people at the top. Where would you put a serial killer? Where would you put Mother Teresa? Where would you put yourself? How do you measure up? Then, Nicky asked, where do you put Jesus? The answer? Jesus is not on the column. Jesus is the sky.

Jesus is love. How do you quantify love? Isn’t there a song in RENT about this? How do you quantify compassion, or humility, or obedience? When we try to quantify our lives using measures that are not designed for the human spirit we end up with skewed results that do not provide the answers we were looking for. In research terms this is called validity: Did the study actually answer the question that was asked? But when we use those results as a measurement for our lives we fall short. We are disappointed. We are hard on ourselves for not being better people.

Most things in this life that matter cannot be measured. Nor should they be. I just watched a documentary on a hospice program in a prison. Prisoners can volunteer with hospice and take care of their fellow inmates at the end of life. In an interview, the warden said, “You can provide skills and trades but then all you have is smarter criminals.” He said that the only thing that will change them is a change in morality. You can measure skills and trades through results, you cannot easily measure morality.

The speaker at the IF Gathering said, “Grace is the only one-way love that ends the transactional business model.” Grace cannot be measured, nor should it be. Grace doesn’t expect anything back. That idea doesn’t fit in our capitalist business culture. Very seldom is something given without expecting a return. You can’t record that data. It doesn’t provide statistics.

Numbers are important, but numbers are quantitative. And human beings are not. We are applying quantitative measures to our lives, but our lives are full of qualitative data. Instead of comparing and measuring up to the next person, remember that we all have the same common denominator. And He is fighting for us. He just wants us to be. He wants us to take care of each other – in a way that can’t be measured, nor should it be. Conversations, prayers, meals, relationships. If we constantly try to quantify our lives we will be left behind with the measuring tape. Abide in Jesus and reach out your hand so that others can feel the love of Him through you. And expect nothing in return.

Obligatory inspirational end of the year blog post

Just kidding! I don’t have time for that crap, I have to go to work. I’m mostly relieved I got through another year (In a first world kind of way…you know, I didn’t have to worry about food or shelter on a daily basis…) 2013 wasn’t all sugar and sunshine and Instagram photos for me, how about you?

One thing that did help me get through the most transition-y year ever was the constancy of the blogs I read. May seem trite to some but these writers helped me a lot. I don’t have time to make a fancy list so I’ll just give you the writer who rocked my world the most – Richard Beck. He’s a psychologist and a professor as well as an author and doer of all kinds of other cool stuff like speaking and doing a prison ministry. This guy seriously knows what he’s talking about and he unpacks truth like a badass. Check him out at Experimental Theology. He writes every day.

He also wrote this book that changed me. Truth.

It’s dense – think C. S. Lewis – but worth reading each sentence twice.

Happy New Year! I’ve got a feeling 2014 will be a good one. Catch ya on the flip side.

Brennan Manning on Advent

I’m currently reading this book at night:


There is an entry every day from November 24 to January 7. Each chapter is written by a different author. The author for December 20 was Brennan Manning. And of course, it’s simply profound. That is, profound in such a simple way. I just want to share a tiny bit of it.

The title of the chapter is “Shipwrecked at the Stable.” Manning quotes Jose Ortega regarding the idea of who the shipwrecked are –

The man with the clear head is the man who frees himself from fantasy and looks life in the face, realizes that everything in it is problematic, and feels himself lost. And this is the simple truth – that to live is to feel oneself lost. Whoever accepts this has already begun to find himself, to be on firm ground. Instinctively, as do the shipwrecked, he will look around for something to which to cling, and that tragic, ruthless glance, absolutely sincere because it is a question of his salvation, will cause him to bring order to the chaos of his life. These are the only genuine ideas, the ideas of the shipwrecked.

With this context, marinate in Manning’s words this Christmas week:

The shipwrecked have stood at the still-point of a turning world and discovered that the human heart is made for Jesus Christ and cannot really be content with less. They cannot take seriously the demands that the world makes on them. During Advent they teach us that the more we try to tame and reduce desires, the more we deceive and distort ourselves. We are made for Christ and nothing less will ever satisfy us. As Paul writes in Colossians 1:16, ‘All things were created by him and for him.’ And further on, ‘There is only Christ: he is everything’ (3:11). It is only in Christ that the heart finds true joy in created things.

Merry Christmas, God with us.


I wrote this on Sunday night and then realized the time synchronicity would be off because it’s being published on Monday morning. But I’m too tired to change it all, so get in your Delorean and read this on Sunday night.

I’m sitting in a hotel room outside of Des Moines, Iowa. Tomorrow I start my new job as a hospice music therapist. I feel like one of those people who travels for work, with my carry-on and eating dinner in the hotel restaurant alone with a glass of wine (it was a stressful drive in the snow).

How in the world did I get here? So much has happened in the last two weeks I get worn out just thinking about it. Two weeks ago my internship ended very well – it was such an amazing and rewarding experience. The next day our family had Thanksgiving dinner. The next day I drove 8 hours to visit friends in Virginia and Maryland for a week. It was a great time of catching up, sitting around watching TV, and growing important relationships. The following Saturday I drove back to Ohio and 10 minutes after arriving, helped load a U-haul full of all my stuff. Sunday was spent resting and seeing “Frozen” with my mom. Monday I left at 6 am for Iowa, and got there 11 hours later. A couple hours later my parents arrived with the trailer and we unloaded everything into my new (nice!) apartment. The rest of the week was spent at my brother’s house in Nebraska, what will become my second haven after my apartment. Yesterday I drove back to my place and spent the rest of the day organizing my stuff and putting things away. I also put up my Christmas decorations, which made me feel a lot better. Today, I tried out a new church, unpacked some more, did laundry, and took off for the hotel. And here I am, watching HIMYM in a hotel room with 2 queen sized beds for little old me.

Not gonna lie, I feel pretty alone. I’m trying to focus on all the positive stuff – a JOB, having my own kitchen, being close to my family in Nebraska. But this is hard. Really hard. I remember saying 2 years ago: all I ask is not to have to move to a new place all by myself again. … And now here I am. I guess God needs me in Iowa.

I never expected to end up here, that’s for sure! But, the people in my small town are nice, the cost of living is low, and I’m close to my dear family.

So, there’s my quick update! Hopefully I’ll get back to music therapy and Jesus posts soon!

Oh, and I technically graduate next Saturday. Yay student loan six month grace period!

- Sarah



A couple weeks ago I had a brief conversation with the executive director of the hospice I’m interning at. This is rare so I was very attentive to what he had to say. (Talk about top and bottom of the totem pole.) He was telling me how it’s hard to run a hospice with a business mindset because of the nature of the work, but yet, it is a business. The conversation started with me telling him I had one month left in my internship and him apologizing that they didn’t have a position for me. Money is tight and the bureaucracy of hospice care has gotten more strict. Everything has to be run efficiently and effectively.

He then went on a spiel about margin. “Mission equals margin,” he said. If you don’t have margin, you can’t move forward.

I had been thinking and reading about “margin” a lot lately [read this blog post], so that remark seemed very timely.  What is margin? In my mind, margin is space, allowance. Margin is breathing room. Margin also reminds me of that moment when you’re writing a paper and think you’re done, and then you remember you never set the margins at 1″ all around, and when you do, now your paper isn’t long enough.

Margin is something I rarely have in my life. Margin is something I want to strive for. I’m about to step into a new chapter (more details later) and I see it as a perfect opportunity to set margins. And live in them, for real, not in theory.


Financial margin. This is the one most people think of with margin. Or more realistically, how most of us cosmically FAIL at financial margin. You know what the facts say – we spend more than we make, we have tons of debt, we can’t keep a handle on our finances. I don’t know about you, but nothing gives me more anxiety than when I’m stressing out about money. NOTHING. It’s sad. I’m not going to tell you how to have financial margin in your life because 1) you’ve already been told 38 different ways and 2) I have no merit with this, I’m learning myself. But I will sum it up with this: Financial margin gives you peace of mind.

And you know, tithing is good. That’s all I will say on it. Give something to God.

Time margin. This relates to the blog post I linked up there. It’s amazing what we’ve all packed into a 24 hour day. Or how much we commit. I think we’re afraid of being left behind, so we are in “community” all the time. Which is okay. If you have margin. But aside from commitments, what about other places where time is crunched? Like getting ready in the morning, or getting ready for bed? Meals? What if you allowed yourself extra time for….nothing? For just in case? For breathing? Or prayer? Or just sitting there spaced out? It’s good for you. And it may also provide opportunities you didn’t see before because you were too busy being busy.

For the record, the Hootie and the Blowfish song successfully invaded my brain during this paragraph.

Emotional margin. Sometimes our emotionality is simply invaded by outside forces, I get that. My last three weeks have been unbelievably emotional and all over the spectrum. Luckily, I feel that I was able to cope (kinda) well because the two months prior were emotionally boring. Not much happened. Life was clockwork. I unknowingly created emotional margin. And I think there are practical (not easy, practical) ways you can give yourself emotional margin. Don’t start something new that you know will take a large amount of emotional energy if you’re already at capacity or if you’re getting away from something that also required emotional stamina. READ: Relationships. Again, a lot of this stuff is out of our control. –> All the more reason to give yourself emotional margin, so you have the capacity to take the hits when they come. And I’m not just talking about the bad/sad/mad stuff. This is true for the good parts too. Emotions happen when there is a change. And whether the change is good or bad, you will go through an emotional process that will most likely have some scary parts in it. If you don’t have margin, it could put you over the edge, whatever that may mean to you.

However, the most significant and crucial reason to have emotional margin is so you can be there when your loved ones need you. Which brings me to…

Relational margin. Simply, leave room in your life for new people. And don’t push out the “old” people. Be aware and be sensitive. Like Maya Angelou said all over Pinterest – “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Don’t overload yourself with relationships. Leave room for margin. Sit at home on Saturday night sometime, it’s really not that scary. Also, the grocery store is really empty then too.

Okay, I’ve written margin so many times now it looks weird, and it’s starting to make me think of margarine. Margin people! Margin your life :) It’s good for you.