December 1, 2006
Seizing the Moment
 Treasuring Your Gifts--
And the Opportunities
God Gives You to Use Them
    
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I remember where I was when I first heard Eva Cassidy’s “Fields of Gold.” I can tell you the exact location, the date and the time within minutes. Evie and I had just enjoyed a wonderful dinner at my mom’s home in Chevy Chase on Christmas evening, 1996. We were driving back to Damascus, on Connecticut Avenue. We were one of probably a handful of listeners tuned in to a university jazz station on our car radio.

As we approached the Randolph Road intersection near Aspen Hill, at about 10:00 p.m., Cassidy’s recording began to play unannounced. I nearly drove off the road. Who was this singer? And where did this song come from?

Although only a first-take live production, sung to the backdrop of two guitars slightly out of tune with each other, it remains the most hauntingly beautiful recording I’ve ever heard. To this day, it’s hard to stay dry-eyed, even just replaying it in my mind.

Evie set out the next week to find the CD containing that track. The large chains didn’t have it, but a local store had a small supply, and we felt fortunate to get a copy for ourselves, plus several for friends. I was stunned to find that Cassidy was a local singer. I had never heard of her, nor had any of my musician friends.

The CD itself was a homegrown production, recorded live at Blues Alley, a small D.C. club, and released by a very small record company in Rockville, near my home. The recording itself was rough-hewn, with flaws left in and no studio trickery. The band on it is good, but not unusual.

Yet I can only describe Cassidy’s singing as preternatural. It draws you in and invades you like the book in Never Ending Story.

Even so, I knew that this CD--Cassidy’s only solo album--had little chance of success outside the Washington area. Female singers face an uphill battle to begin with, and those performing only cover songs on low-budget recordings seldom get airplay. But . . . there’s always the future.

Cassidy was so unknown, that it took some weeks before I finally connected with what “the future” meant in her case. The song that had captivated me that Christmas evening, I sadly discovered, had been part of a posthumous tribute to Cassidy, who had died of melanoma the month before at 33.

I knew now that her music had no chance of ever gaining the acclaim it deserved. Records don’t arouse popular interest without extensive promotional performing by the artist and huge financial investment; and radio stations don’t pay attention to deceased singers who never had the backing of a major record company. Predictably, her Blues Alley CD went out of print within a year.

Fast forward now to 2001. The Washington Post notes in an article on March 23: “Eva Cassidy, the Washington songbird who couldn’t land a record contract during her lifetime, currently has the no. 1 album in England.”*

What happened in these intervening years defies every principle of marketing and commercial success known to humankind, and it defies the most optimistic imagination. Several small labels released compilations of live and studio recordings of Cassidy’s. One of these, Songbird, took hold in Great Britain, after a radio station aired a single selection, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” then was inundated by calls from listeners wanting to know who the singer was. Word of mouth took over, as one listener--astounded as I was on that memorable Christmas evening--told another of their love for Cassidy’s music. Without marketing and promotion, without fanfare, Songbird sold over one million copies in Great Britain in late 2000 and early 2001.

I noted with amazement then that four of the five top-selling albums on Amazon in the United Kingdom were Cassidy’s; a re-released edition of her Live at Blues Alley was No. 2. And Songbird was the top selling CD among the vast selections on America’s Amazon.com; her music had taken substantial hold in the United States as well.

“Fields of Gold” had even captured the attention of its composer, Sting, who called it “a beautiful rendition. I’ve rarely heard a voice of such purity.”*

It’s now November 2006. Since this month marks the tenth anniversary of Eva Cassidy’s death, it seems fitting to reissue this article that I first published in May 2001. Her popularity has continued to grow strongly during this time, and the lessons we learn from her life experience are timeless. The success of Cassidy’s music is the most inspiring example I have witnessed in my own lifetime of talent, pure and simple, triumphing over all the odds in the marketplace. The Post aptly notes, “Cassidy, herself, would have been as shocked as anyone at this turn of events.”

The Tenacity Factor

I see Eva Cassidy’s case as a highly dramatic and extreme example of a dynamic that we each experience in our own lives, if we don’t allow ourselves to lose heart too easily. God gives to each of us the ability to do certain things well. He grants us gifts, through which we are able to help others greatly. We find immense personal fulfillment in making use of them as well. He also leads us in establishing dreams and goals based on our gifts, that keep our life moving in constructive directions.

The gifts we possess personally vary greatly from one of us to another, and cover the whole range of human talent--from homemaking to the ability to perform brain surgery. Yet we each enjoy a unique mix of talent that perfectly reflects God’s intention for our own life and his distinctive image within us. We are far and away most helpful to others--and most fulfilled--to the degree that we’re employing this potential, and letting it define our major choices and goals.

If we’re honest, though, most of us will admit that we feel underappreciated much of the time when it comes to our gifts and dreams. Our discouragement stems as much as anything from not receiving enough positive feedback--compliments, affirmation and assurance that what we’re doing makes a difference. Just this week a friend who is developing an important new ministry wrote me, “I am pledged to perfection--or at least some level of quality that is higher than most seem to demand--and sick about how hard I’m working with little to no credit or reward.” Call that a very human expression, if you will; but we’ve all been there often.

If we’re at all normal, too, we receive criticism regarding our gifts and aspirations that sometimes is plainly unfair. It takes very little in the way of negative feedback to discourage us. One unkind remark stays with us and affects us more than twenty compliments.

We can be unfairly self-critical as well. Cassidy had such a low opinion of her own work, that she almost nixed the release of her live album, which led to the eventual surge of public interest in her material. Had she succeeded in squelching its production, many people--a multitude far greater than she remotely thought possible--would have been denied the benefit of her music. Cassidy had a hairsplitting decision to make in this case, and fortunately decided to swallow hard and allow the release of this recording, with all its imperfections.

We each face many hairsplitting decisions, where our temptation is strong, out of discouragement, to stop using a gift or discontinue pursuing a dream. Of course, when we cave into disappointment in such cases, our perception that we’re unappreciated and our efforts unneeded always becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, for we stop doing the things that bring positive feedback. We make our own bed.

Yet when, as an act of faith, we’re able to rise above discouragement and continue the pursuit of a gift or dream, we find that in time acclaim does come. We receive the positive feedback we’ve longed for, and discover that our work is benefiting others significantly. This recognition can take longer to result than we wish, and almost always comes in different ways than we expect. But it does come--if we stay faithful to our gifts and dreams. There simply seems to be a law of human life that this is true.

I’m not implying that any of our endeavors will necessarily reap the surreal success that Cassidy’s music has. And life doesn’t offer any guarantees. Still, we benefit from a principle of life--a tendency--that with high likelihood operates to our benefit when we give it time. In time, we experience results that are highly gratifying to us, and that leave us immensely glad we didn’t give up.

What this boils down to for each of us is the need to operate at a high level of faith as we seek to develop our gifts and work toward our dreams. It’s vital to stay focused on the long-term results of our efforts. This means many, many times when we need “to feel the discouragement and do it anyway.” And do it not with grim resignation, but with the conviction that God is working behind the scenes in countless ways for our benefit as we stay on course. We need to be strongly convinced that over time he rewards such tenacity by turning our “mourning into dancing” (Ps 32:22), and by using our efforts to meet critical needs of others.

Compelling Biblical Examples

Two similar incidents in the Gospels offer encouragement to any of us who feel underappreciated with respect to our gifts. They also give us inspiration to take the steps of faith so necessary to nurture our gifts and move toward our dreams.

In one, a woman described as “a sinner” enters a Pharisee’s home where Jesus is dining. She “brought an alabaster flask of ointment, and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hair of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment” (Lk 7:37-38 RSV).

The other incident also takes place at a dinner Jesus is attending. Mary, the sister of Lazarus and Martha, “took a pound of costly ointment of pure nard and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair; and the house was filled with the fragrance of the ointment” (Jn 12:3 RSV).

Both of these women did something supremely creative, in light of who they were, as an act of devotion to Jesus. And both aroused the contempt of others for what they did.

The Pharisee in the first incident assumed the woman’s bad reputation disqualified her from doing anything notable, and viewed her act as audacious. The men at the dinner Mary attended believed she had wasted highly expensive perfume that could have been sold to help the poor.

It’s interesting to speculate why the woman in the first incident was crying. Was she overcome with gratitude to Jesus? Moved by sheer joy in doing something creative that benefited him? Or was she hurt--dismayed that the Pharisee disdained her gracious act--and unable to hold it in? Since Luke is silent on the point, and emotions are complex, I’m inclined to think all of these factors were involved.

We each experience tears at times when we personally give our gifts and dreams the attention they deserve, and for a similar variety of reasons. The elation that comes from doing something creative that deeply reflects who we are can do it. So can the perception that our work is benefiting others, or is likely to do so. And, of course, criticism can do it too, as can the lack of positive feedback when we need it. Tears are part of the package when we take our dreams and gifts as seriously as we should. If we don’t experience them on occasion, we’re probably being too easy on ourselves.

Whether or not tears reflected hurt in this woman’s case, she almost certainly felt the Pharisee’s disdain before she proceeded with her act of kindness. Mary, too, given her highly intuitive nature, probably felt the contempt of the men in that room before she emptied the bottle of perfume on Jesus’ feet. It’s to the credit of them both that they didn’t let their fears of criticism dissuade them from following their convictions. They symbolize for us those times when we need to take steps of faith to reap the gifts God has given us, in spite of anxiety about how others may react.

Most encouraging is Jesus’ response to these women. He praised them each effusively. He went as far as to tell the woman in the Pharisee’s home, “your faith has saved you” (Lk 7:50). The implication for us personally is deeply inspiring to think about. When, out of devotion to Christ and compassion for others, we take those scary steps that best reflect our creative nature, we are operating most authentically in the realm of faith. And it’s faith that is unspeakably constructive and healing, in its impact on our own life and the lives of others.

In Mary’s case, Jesus informed those present, “wherever this gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her” (Mt 26:13). It is stunning to realize how accurate Jesus’ prediction has turned out to be. For twenty centuries untold people have taken inspiration from her act of faith, as we are doing at this moment. Here is one of Scripture’s most compelling examples of how the long-range impact of a step of faith can vastly exceed one’s wildest imagination.

We’re reminded that when we personally take such steps, we open ourselves to God’s greater possibilities, which in time abundantly override those moments of discouragement that tempt us to put our gifts on the shelf. Staying faithful to our gifts and dreams is the key. And farsighted in judging their effectiveness.

We learn this lesson from Eva Cassidy as well. During her lifetime she had not the faintest hint that her music would eventually arouse the explosion of international interest that it has. She simply gave her heart to her music, doing the best job she could, laying it as a gift at the feet of others--and I suspect at the Lord’s, since many of her songs reflect a spiritual side and Christian convictions. Her example is invigorating to think about whenever we’re inclined to focus too greatly on frustrations of the moment.

An Essential Paradigm Shift

As I was in the process of writing this article, People Magazine published a feature on Cassidy.* I was struck by a statement of former Beatles promoter Tony Bramwell: “You remember when you first heard Eva.” I felt a little less like I was waxing overemotional in confessing how the memory of that moment, frozen in time, still affects me.

Then there is the recollection of Cassidy’s bassist, Chris Biondo. A few weeks before her death, friends organized a tribute concert for her at Washington’s Bayou nightclub. Cassidy, walker-assisted, hobbled on stage, joked about her condition, then sang, “What a Wonderful World.” “There was not one dry eye in the house,” Biondo remembers.

Recalling that event brings home what is perhaps the most important reminder Cassidy’s experience offers us--that life is not infinite, and choices do not present themselves forever. We need to be about the business of harvesting our gifts and dreams while we have the opportunity, and cherishing the time God gives us to do so. We waste so much time spinning our wheels, ruminating over disappointment--with people, with ourselves, with God, with life and with doors that fail to open as we wish.

Yet when we are able to shift our focus from discouragement to the immediate pleasure of using our gifts, and to the long-term benefits of staying faithful to our dreams, the effect upon our well-being and productivity, and the benefit we bring to others, is indescribable.

The truth is, we cannot afford the luxury of ruminating, certainly not as a lifestyle. Not if we’re going to realize our highest potential for Christ, and open ourselves fully to his best provision for us. The good news is, we can break the tendency to brood over disappointment--even radically alter the way we respond to it.

When life deals us a substantial blow, to be sure, we need to allow ourselves time to mourn and recuperate. Grief is important in major losses.

So much of our grieving, though, takes place over minor losses--the small victories not won--the compliment not received, the criticism too freely given, the break in daily life that didn’t occur. We can’t turn our emotions off like a spigot in these cases, and prevent ourselves from feeling any hurt. But we can choose not to nurture the hurt feelings. And we can choose to turn our attention back to doing those things we do well and to pursuing those dreams that are most important to us. When we make this shift, we’re far happier in the present, and we set in motion a pattern that over time brings even substantial improvement to situations that are frustrating us.

If ruminating over small losses eats up much of your energy, why not resolve to change the pattern. Make a commitment--to God and to yourself--that from this point forward you will accentuate the positive when you experience disappointment. Resolve that, when people or circumstances fail to respond as you wish, you’ll not dwell on hurt feelings, but turn your attention back to your goals. If there’s a lesson to be learned from the disappointment, you’ll learn it, but won’t browbeat yourself for making a mistake. If no obvious lesson is evident, you’ll not brood over the incident, but will keep your life in motion.

Make this a serious resolution, and one you embrace as you begin 2007. Take some time to express it to God, and ask earnestly for his help in carrying it out. Resolutions like this can make a major difference, especially when we recall them often and continue to remind ourselves of the benefits of keeping them.

Draw on all the help God gives you to keep your life on track as you move forward. Put yourself in the most encouraging work and social environments possible. As fully as you can, avoid negative people; seek to be around those who are supportive and who see your life dynamically. Expose yourself to teachers who encourage you to be who you are in Christ, and to books that do the same. Most important, draw on the Lord’s encouragement through worship and prayer; ask him for the grace to treasure the opportunities life offers you for using your gifts, and even to laugh at the situations that are frustrating.

Let me add one further note, which seems especially appropriate for this particular article. Music is also one of the remarkable means God uses to encourage us, restore our heart, stimulate us, and help us focus on what is important. We don’t have to look beyond Scripture for countless examples (2 Ki 3:15). Find what sort of music helps you most; take time to enjoy it, and allow God to refresh you through it.

If perchance, you’d like to look to Eva Cassidy’s music for such help, I would of course highly recommend it. And you shouldn’t have trouble now finding her recordings in a record store near you.

Just one word of caution.

Listen at your own risk.


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For first-time listening to Eva Cassidy's music, Songbird is a good place to start--with pop and gospel selections. Live at Blues Alley and Eva by Heart are also excellent. These are the three I'd most highly recommend. Time After Time is more rough-hewn, with an out-take flavor, but includes warm selections; The Other Side features earlier material recorded with Washington's Chuck Brown. Many other CDs of her material have been released in recent years, but some dig too deep into unfinished and less-inspiring studio material that Cassidy herself would never have wished published. The several I've mentioned here, though, will not disappoint.
      
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