It has been a long while since I have posted anything here. I have been busy completing three years toward my B.A. in English and my senior year is underway. My current class (Creative Writing) has finally given me the space to take off the tight harness of academic writing rules, and it feels SO GOOD!! After reading my first assignment, Mom and Daddy gave it their thumbs up and suggested I make it a blog post, so here it is. It is my story and their story. It's a little longer than my usual posts, but as with everything I have ever posted here, I pray it encourages you to run "up the sunbeam to the sun" (C. S. Lewis).
"Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ." 1 Corinthians 11:1 NIV
I sat above them on the stairs. Looking down through the window-like openings in the partition between the living room and the stairway, I listened to the basketball players, football players, baseball players, wrestlers, track athletes, both the lettermen and the also-rans, girlfriends and boyfriends, and non-athlete students who were welcome even though this was a Fellowship of Christian Athletes meeting. I knew to be quiet and still, but I was not hiding; they all knew I was there, and I was welcome, too. It was admittedly a school night, but this one night of the week I was allowed to stay up past bedtime–it was FCA night at Coach Allen’s house and I was Coach Allen’s little girl. It was 1967.
As my attention wandered around the scene below me, I saw my mother comfortably among the students, seated on the floor ladylike with her knees to one side. She had positioned herself on the edge of the group closest to the kitchen so she would be able to dash out to serve snacks and pop afterward. I wondered how she would get safely across the more than 70 pairs of shoes, and all the coats, hats, scarves, and gloves that told of the cold Iowa winter blustering just outside the kitchen door. A few kids sat in the chairs around the room, and everyone else sat on the floor, packed in close, spilling into every space they could find. Our big old homey farmhouse felt cozily small on FCA night, and I felt safely out of the melee in my perch on the stairs. Near the center of the crowd, Daddy sat on a high-backed dining room chair leaning forward toward his eager audience, elbows on his wide-spread knees and notes in hand like he was about to call a play that would win the championship at the buzzer.
I could still hear the final soaring notes of former pop star Ray Hildebrand singing “He’s Everything to Me” and the click of the stereo turntable directly beneath me as it turned off. Daddy often liked to start or end the meeting with a song that would either set the scene for what he wanted to share or that would drive his point home. Daddy’s focus was always Jesus, his framework was always athletics as an illustration for life, and his purpose was always love. And Mom, though she would readily enter into the discussion, mostly listened and silently prayed for those young student-athletes who were hearing the Gospel message in a way some of them had never heard before.
For four years, this scene played itself out over and over in my house, and for four years, I listened and observed the ways lives were changed by meeting Jesus. When Daddy started holding FCA meetings, I had just started Kindergarten and had not even had my fifth birthday. The closest I came to being an athlete was when I was the mascot for the cheerleaders and practiced all the cheers with the big girls. At that age and with such small experience, my ability to comprehend was limited, but I couldn’t get enough of what happened at FCA. I guess whatever was beyond me just sailed over my head, but what I could understand, I drank in with great, thirsty gulps like I had never had water before. I was like the little boy in the red #18 jersey watching the athletes huddled on the practice field in the famous FCA image that I had not yet seen for the first time.
During the summer of 1971, my family lifted away from our deep roots in Iowa and our even deeper roots in America and the sphere of influence my parents had established there. After countless tearful goodbyes from friends and family, we moved to a little corner of heaven in the mountains of British Columbia, Canada. In September, when Daddy was getting started at his new high school where he would teach Social Studies and coach football and basketball, he also started what was the only FCA Huddle in Canada. I think there were four kids that came the first week. The numbers were not important, but as word spread with each week that followed, it grew until it drew a consistent 20 to 50 high school athletes and students. There were still athletes from the usual sports, but now there were a significant number of hockey players, ice skaters, and skiers in the mix. I remained the interested child in the too-big jersey looking, listening, and learning.
The next summer, my parents bought a place with a cherry orchard and room for horses. Within a few weeks, I had the horse I had dreamed of having as long as I could remember. I started taking riding lessons and got involved with the local riding club. I rode in my first horse show when I was ten years old. It would be my competitions on horseback through elementary school, junior high, and high school that would give me the experience of actually being an athlete. Now when I went to FCA meetings, though I was still a child and did not verbally participate yet, I could mentally consider the questions Daddy posed about what it meant to be a Christian athlete. I was finally starting to grow into that red #18!
About the same time, I also started to grow into my other great love: music. Music was already important to me, but when my grandfather gave me the guitar he had bought for himself for $16.00 in 1933, I started to want to do more than listen. I started the first of many guitar lessons, and singing lessons would follow. When I had only just started learning to play guitar, my family took a group of high school athletes from our FCA group to an FCA Conference at Southern Oregon State University in Ashland, Oregon. To my great delight, none other than Ray Hildebrand was leading the singing for the week! I had my guitar with me, but I hadn’t even learned how to tune it by myself yet, so Daddy went with me to give me the courage to ask Ray to tune it for me, which he graciously did. I was completely star struck! I watched with fascination all that week as Ray effortlessly and powerfully moved an auditorium packed with young men through music, and I wanted to do what I saw him do.
After years of only playing recorded music to enhance our weekly FCA meetings, when I was in junior high, Daddy asked a talented young singer/songwriter from our church if he would provide some live music each week. His name was Gordie Duncan, and he agreed to come. With the steel-stringed acoustic guitar he’d named Oliver (the best guitar I ever played), he played and sang meaningful songs by secular artists like Loggins & Messina, Bread, and Noel Paul Stookey. He also performed songs from the fledgling Christian Music world by Larry Norman, Randy Stonehill, Steve Camp, Petra, and our friend, Ray Hildebrand. We loved all these, and we loved his original songs, too. Once again, I saw what music could do to human hearts and hoped that someday I could know what it felt like to move people with music the way he did. No longer content to watch from the sidelines, I began to dream of getting into the game. I wanted a real jersey and a real sphere of influence where I could tell people about Jesus.
Gordie was the most skilled guitarist I had ever heard, and I asked him if he would teach me. He did, and he sent me to his vocal coach to get over my fear of singing solo. When I wanted to know more about songwriting, he burned into my mind his guiding principle to “paint pictures with your words” (personal communication, 1979). I learned all his originals and all the other songs he did at FCA, I worked on my singing, I wrote more than I ever had, and I began to sing in church whenever they would have me. I picked up every crumb of influence Gordie dropped, and I prepared for the unknown day and time when preparation would meet opportunity.
I had no way to anticipate the way the first of my opportunities would come.
One bitterly cold Tuesday night in January, Daddy walked into the living room where I was playing a song called “Foxglove” on my guitar, and he wore an expression I had never seen on his face before.
“Well, guys, that was a very heavy phone call,” he began.
My mind raced to my great grandmother and my grandparents back in Iowa, hoping, praying they were alright.
Daddy struggled for words to tell us what he didn’t want to know himself and continued, “The plane that went down in Okanagan Lake yesterday was not able to be recovered, and Gordie was on it. He’s gone.”
Mom, who had been standing next to the stereo holding my three-year-old brother, abruptly dropped to her knees with the thundering shock of the knowledge. I felt it, too, but I couldn’t seem to move for the longest time. I sat frozen in place, experiencing grief for the first time in my too-young-for-this life. Devastated teenage girl or not, I could not figure out how to cry.
The next day, I stayed home from school. Not knowing what else to do, I turned to music. For what seemed like all day and all night, my guitar held my hands while I sob-sang every single song Gordie had taught me. That is the day I stumbled into what has become my now well-worn saying: The only way through is through.
Sometime before the next meeting, Daddy asked me if I would pick up where Gordie left off and do the music for FCA. When the star player goes down and the coach calls your number, you have to be ready—a lifetime of being a coach’s daughter and countless hours of FCA instruction had taught me that. I was hurting and terrified, but I was ready. That week and every remaining week of my senior year, on a steel-stringed acoustic guitar Gordie had helped me pick out, a guitar I had named Abraham, I did the music for FCA. The set list was different from week to week except for one song that Gordie always closed with; it was appropriately called “Parting Thought” and I always closed with it, too:
Here's a song
Sung with you in mind
Maybe it will make you
Think about Him one more time
And if you can
Please try to understand
Jesus is yours for the asking (Lyrics by Bob Hartman of Petra, 1974)
I never became a household name, never approached anything like fame as either an athlete or as a musician. But I did sing on the same stage Ray Hildebrand had sung on the year he tuned my guitar. The group of athletes that filled that same auditorium gave me a standing ovation when I sang a song I had written for them inviting them to know Jesus like I did. I did a lot more singing and playing after high school, and it was all perfect preparation for working in the Christian Music industry as I did for five years after Bible college. Beyond that, it was vital preparation to be the mother of two musicians, one of whom plans to make music his life and who is far more talented than I ever was. The little girl who watched eternities altered from her spot on the stairs finally got in the game. The influence so many people along the way have had on me continues to influence people as I touch others who touch others who touch others. Keep watching, #18! You’re going to be a starter before you know it, and then there’ll be someone watching you!
Unruh, A. (2008, November 6). Influence #18 [Watercolor Illustration from 1960's photograph]. Retrieved from http://portfolio.fca.org/netpub/server.np?find&site=Influence&catalog=catalog&template=detail.np&field=itemid&op=matches&value=4647