Thursday, December 31, 2009

Lights on the Horizon

I initially wrote this as a personal reflection, but decided it was worth sharing.

Another decade is ending. The minutes slip away, leaving us with their faint echoes-- memories, mistakes, gentle joy and searing pain. Sometimes we are agonizingly aware of time, as it runs out for a person or a moment we love. Sometimes we let it slide by, effortless, meaningless, tasteless as water running over our tongues.

I am 18. I am writing this on my iPod with chilled fingers, standing on a cold hilltop, overlooking downtown Nashville shining like a nest of fireflies. It's been a long way since this decade began. I was only 8. I was imaginitive, reclusive, violent, creative, angry, and I hated school. When I see another decade begin, I will be 28. Done with college, probably no longer at home. And I have to believe I will be farther along this road-- that I will love my God more, love people more, and be more ready to accept this strange, awkward, confusing creation of God that I call "myself."

The past ten years-- the past year, even-- has held some dark, broken, empty chapters. But I have seen God's grace and God's love move in huge ways. I have been brought into a messy, bleeding, laughing, screaming, beautiful life. And I am so very blessed.

If God could take the child of ten years ago and bring me here, I'm going to believe that He has no intention of abandoning what He's begun. If God could take the brokenness of a year ago and mend some wounds and kindle new fires in my flickering soul, I will believe He can do so in this coming year. God doesn't give up on our stories-- not ever. He's into happy endings and nightmares fading and shattered things made new. As I face the dark times of a new chapter, I will hold to that. It's not over.

I can't wait to see the epic that God will write for my life and the lives of those I love. I will stand here, songs ringing in my ears, lights glowing on the horizon, and I will welcome the sunshine and the rain. Hello 2010.

- Elraen -

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Best of 2009

It's time for a bit of a more light-hearted, personal post.

I have a habit of being very much a "the glass is half-empty" kind of person. So, now that it's the end of another year, I decided it would be better to come up with a list of awesome things about 2009. It's going to be in groups of 9. I originally intended to do groups of 10, but then I realized that if I did 9 everything would be coordinated with the year, and that was too cool to pass up.

So here we go!

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The 9 Best [Or Most Memorable] Events of 2009:
1. The 2009 CleanPlace Moot
2. The Skillet/Red/Disciple/Decyfer Down concert at Sixflags in April
3. Hanging out with good friends Rivus and RT in May
4. The Barlow Girl concert in October
5. The Ferns's visit in October
6. Talking to my friend "Draug" late at night over coffee
7. To Write Love On Her Arms' live webcast of Heavy and Light in January
8. Meeting and talking to Trevor of Thousand Foot Krutch
9. Traveling all over California for two weeks in July

The 9 Favorite Albums of 2009:
1. Awake by Skillet
2. Welcome to the Masquerade by Thousand Foot Krutch
3. Hello Hurricane by Switchfoot
4. Forget and Not Slow Down by Relient K
5. Innocence and Instinct by Red
6. Memento Mori by Flyleaf
7. Now is Not Forever by B. Reith
8. Dear Diary by FM Static
9. Confessions by Red

The 9 Best Places I Visited in 2009:
1. The beach in SoCal
2. Bear Trap Ranch, Colorado
3. Yosemite, California
4. Lookout Mountain, Georgia
5. Greenwood Cemetery in Marshall, TX
6. Porterville, California
7. Colorado Springs
8. That one Starbucks in California... then that other one here in town... and the other one in Colorado...
9. Any place that was not Kansas

The 9 Best Things About School in 2009:
1. Biblical Literature class and my awesome Bible professor
2. Draug
3. The Library
4. Free coffee at the library
5. Having my own mailbox
6. Getting to see so many epic concerts right on campus and getting student ticket discounts
7. The day it snowed while we were outside during Digital Literature class
8. Free Dr. Pepper at campus events
9. People who say hello to me in the hallways and remember my name

9 Awesome People I Met for the First Time in 2009:
1. Joy
2. Anywhere
3. Daeriel
4. Bree
5. Balto
6. Mylla
7. Celeris
8. Meldawen
9. pirateoftherings

The 9 Songs that were the Most Special to Me in 2009:
1. The Last Night by Skillet
2. Look Away by Thousand Foot Krutch
3. Therapy by Relient K
4. Never Surrender by Skillet
5. Beautiful Ending by BarlowGirl
6. Fully Alive by Flyleaf
7. Hello Hurricane by Switchfoot
8. Some Will Seek Forgiveness, Others Escape by Underoath
9. Take it All Away by Red

My 9 Personal Favorite Blog Posts I Wrote in 2009:

9 Good Books I Read in 2009:
1. Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson
2. The Well of Ascension by Brandon Sanderson
3. Hero of Age by Brandon Sanderson
4. I Never Promised You a Rose Garden by Hannah Green
5. Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller
6. Do Hard Things by Alex and Brett Harris
7. The Silmarillion by Tolkien (4th read-through)
8. Thr3e by Ted Dekker
9. The Pursuit of God by A.W. Tozer
[Actually, I think these are the only books I read in 2009, except the Bible and textbooks...]

9 Miscellaneous Things I Learned in 2009:
1. Sometimes we have to be willing to ask someone to come to us
2. Despite 1, it is one of the most beautiful things ever when someone comes to us without being asked
3. Traveling is awesome when I rest in the beauty of places and people rather than the fear of uncertainty and change
4. It's never better to be numb
5. It is possible to be too close at a concert-- like, when the lead singer's sweat is dripping all over you and you're scrambling to avoid a concussion from his rapidly descending headbang
6. I am allowed to smile
7. I am capable of being extremely loud, but it's alright that I'm usually quiet
8. Someone who can actually listen with a spirit of self-forgetful love is to be admired more than almost anyone else
9. Prayer is incredibly powerful. When His children cry out, God listens. Always.

And now that I've given you 9 lists of 9, here's a final list: 10 things I very much want to get done in 2010.

10 Things To Do in 2010:
1. Learn to drive (!!!)
2. Learn how to use photoshop
3. Go to less concerts and work more so I can save to buy a car
4. See Switchfoot in concert (I know, this somewhat contradicts 3...)
5. Learn to play guitar
6. See as many of my amazing friends as possible
7. Be a better, more accessible older sister to my siblings
8. Learn to love with Jesus's love, not my own (mine will run out pretty fast. His never will. You'd think this would be an easy thing to learn...)
9. Get to know more people at school
10. Let go of the fear of failure

I hope you all have happy times and beautiful places and good friends to look back on too, even if it sometimes takes some effort to remember. Early happy New Years!

- Elraen -

Wednesday, December 23, 2009


Since Christmas Day will hardly afford much time for blogging, I'm giving you all my Christmas blog today. Hopefully you won't mind it being two days early.

It seems that a lot of people go through a phase (a phase sometimes lasting most of their life) where they are very jaded with Christmas. The sound, the light, and the stress become nothing but noise that seems far too loud and too annoying. And of course there is the endless complaint that Christmas has become too commercialized (which is a very valid complaint). More importantly, I've observed countless people who dread Christmas simply because it means being trapped with family for typically several days. Unfortunately those who we should love most (purely through closeness of proximity and the amount of opportunities we have to love) are often the ones who hurt us the most, and who we in turn are least loving towards. Christmas becomes nothing more than a day where all the stress, all the tension, and all the frustration of family life are thrown together in a relentless march of "festivity."

In Christian circles, we constantly talk about Jesus being a gift, about the purpose of Christmas being to celebrate His birth, and so on. But it's hard to find the "so what?" in that. What does this mean for us? What does the birth of a Jewish baby two thousand years ago mean to someone who's struggling with family and finances and stress today? Last Christmas was the first one that an idea really hit me: the concept behind Christmas is the concept of rescue. It's about a gift, yes, but that's too abstract. I want to dig deeper than this. The birth of Jesus was the act of God reaching down and touching the face of the earth in a tangible, physical way, a way that would result in redemption. And Jesus was no ordinary rescuer. He entered the darkness of our world without aid, without fanfare, without news networks and the internet to herald His daring deed. He stepped into a place of danger and pain as an infant, small, vulnerable, dependent on human parents He had created in the first place.

I've heard the analogy before that this would be like a human becoming a cockroach in order to save all the other cockroaches. Considering my loathing of cockroaches, this is a rather stirring analogy for me. But if we are to look at it more seriously, what God did is even more bizarre. He created us, and then watched humanity tear itself apart. He watched us hate, kill, murder, destroy, curse His name, and then wallow in the misery of our own emptiness. And in middle of all that, Jesus joined us. He left perfect light to walk in a world so greatly and terribly broken.

This is the greatest rescue story of all time, because Jesus didn't just enter the darkness. He defeated it, and in doing so left us the promise of redemption, the promise that our broken homes and broken hearts and broken souls could be made new. Christmas is the beginning of Easter. Christmas is the start of the rescue, the first lines on the page of the greatest love letter ever written.

Maybe this is why I'm so obsessed with Christmas lights: it's the idea of lights growing in the darkness, of something bright where there would normally be bareness and emptiness. And that is Christmas.

So what?

If we are rescued, then Christmas should come with a spirit of thankfulness and joy. It should come with a realization that we are more loved than we could imagine, that we are broken beings who find redemption in our Jesus. It should come with a question about what we believe about living and why we believe it.

And beyond that, there's an application that I've become more and more aware of this Christmas. If we are to look on Christ as the perfect example, then maybe we are meant to be rescuers as well. I'll admit to having borrowed that idea-- it comes from the quote that could basically be called my personal life mission statement.

We are only asked to love, to offer hope to the many hopeless. We don't get to choose all the endings, but we are asked to play the rescuers. We won't solve all mysteries and our hearts will certainly break in such a vulnerable life, but it is the best way. We were made to be lovers bold in broken places, pouring ourselves out again and again until we're called home.
- Jamie Tworkowski

That suggests something a little frightening. It suggests that Christmas should remind us to act as rescuers. And that means that instead of accepting the frustrating aspects of Christmas and trying to distance ourselves from the stressful situations, we are to dive into the middle-- to love. Instead of being frustrated with family members, we are to love them, to sacrifice for them, to give not just physical gifts, but to give of ourselves. It's what God did for us. It's the hope we are called to fight for.

I don't know where this Christmas finds you, or if my thoughts are meaningful to you or if they totally miss the mark. Regardless, I hope that you remember, right now, that you are rescued. And I hope that with time that drives you to strive to be a rescuer.

I am so grateful for all of you, and if you're reading this, I want you to know that there is an incredibly high chance that I've prayed for you over the past few weeks. May the 25th be truly blessed for you and for your family. Let's celebrate being rescued.

God bless!
- Elraen, the Wandering Star-

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Friday, December 11, 2009

I Will Sing

As 2009 nears its inevitable end, I have found myself looking back over threads and themes and events. A common thread woven throughout is that of music, and so I decided to post some reflections on the subject. It seems like with each passing day music gets more important and integral to the way I live. I've gone to ten concerts this year, more than tripling the amount I've been to in my whole life. I've bought many more albums. I did some calculations last night, and realized that I've spent about $600 on music this year total, which is rather a lot for a college student (though, to be fair, I've paid the school more than twice that much this year and have given at least that much money again to other necessary expenses-- living is an expensive business). Even though I often find myself digging through my drawers and the bottom of my backpack to find enough quarters to be able to buy a song from iTunes, even though I've missed homework time and been sore for days due to concerts, even though I could have flown to Colorado or California and back twice with that amount of money... it's been worth it.

Music is how God speaks to me more strongly than through anything else (see The Joys Of Our Hearts). Songs can sing truth into my life when all the other doors are shut and the lights go off. I think this is because songs have a habit of being honest. We say things in songs that we can't or don't know how to say in any other way.

An interesting side effect of this is that professional musicians are often some of the most real and honest people I've ever met. This year I have been able to talk to a lot of bands who others would give a lot to meet. I've met Christian rock heavy-weights like Red and chatted with Thousand Foot Krutch. I've talked to musicians who have defined the Christian music genre, such as Newsboys and Audio Adrenaline and Jars of Clay. I've talked to Superchic[k] about my heritage and BarlowGirl about my hair. I've chatted with DecembeRadio about the music industry, been teased by B. Reith about the way I said my name, and joked with VOTA about how tall I am. Ironically enough, I still haven't met my favorite band, but I've worked their merch table and hung out with their violin and cello player. I've learned a few things through these conversations, and not just about the music industry. I've learned that musicians are people who are trying to get through life just like the rest of us, and often the songs are as much to help them find their way as they are to help others.

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Any time someone takes the stage in front of a few thousand people, they have the opportunity to speak for change and for hope. I think sometimes we confuse this extra influence they may have for the people themselves somehow being bigger and better, but that's really not the case.

Another thing I've seen this year is that music, like anything else, can be taken and twisted. It's natural that something as beautiful and powerful as music would be an automatic target for darkness to pervert. I saw a secular rock band perform for the first time, and it made me ache inside. Between the profanity and the alcohol and the dark words, I saw a terrible, empty cry for help. And it was then that I really truly understood how important it is for there to be Christians prominent in the music industry. For Christians to shut themselves away in their own genres and their own labels and their own tours would be to give darkness an open door to control the rock music scene. People like John of Skillet and Trevor of TFK have no interest in letting that happen. They are fighting the crippling world of secular rock with words of light and of life.

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All this to say that music is an incredibly powerful thing. I don't care what genre your music is, it's powerful, because it has the power to move and to mean something on a level so far beyond skin-deep. Whether it's classical or blues or jazz or country or soundtracks or rock and roll, it has strength and beauty. It has an irresistible way of moving our souls, whether positively or negatively.

That said, this year I have also learned the power of silence. There are times when we can use the music to hide, when it's just adding to the noise (to quote Switchfoot). In a world that is busy and loud and blinding and never slows down, we sometimes need to seek silence. There have been a few times when I've gone and switched off everything and found a place away from my laptop, my iPod, even my piano, and simply surrendered my silence to God so that His voice could come in clear. I have never regretted doing that. What I do regret is not doing it more often.

I've seen music change lives in incredibly powerful ways. I've seen it bring life out of dying souls. It awes me, at times, that God would give us such an incredible gift... and then so often we misuse it. We worship the scene instead of the Spirit behind the songs, we focus on the stage rather than the human impact. But when we can get past that, when we dive into the heart of music, we are faced with brilliant, clear-cut truths that seem hard to reach anywhere else. If I were to stand on a hill top and yell "this is the last night you'll spend alone, I'll wrap you in my arms and I won't let go. I'm everything you need me to be," I would get a lot of odd stares and it would be meaningless. But when the words to my favorite song, The Last Night, are sung, they've saved lives. The amount of stories I've heard about that song saving and changing people is almost unbelievable. I think part of it is that music has an odd ability to detach itself from the musician and connect to the listener, to bleed passion over the edges of normal human interaction. As I said before, things can be said in music that can't be said anywhere else. Music is a channel for communication. I don't know any other setting where you can stand beside 4,000 people screaming "no, you'll never be alone," and no one thinks it's weird or awkward.

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Perhaps this blog is, in a sense, an explanation as to why I am so in love with music. As I said in Passion is Contagious, I am addicted to passion. I am also addicted to honesty, and to people connecting and moving together out of love. These things all combine in music. Also, music is something that cannot ever be taken away from us. Friends come and go, but songs stay the same. Situations change, teenagers grow into adults and move to new places, jobs ends and new ones begin, and still there is music. And it goes beyond that. Over the past several thousand years, technology has changed, styles have changed, religions have changed, wars have torn nations and homes and people apart, ideas and beliefs have crumbled under the weight of human failure... and music has survived. If you take my computer and my iPod and my concerts, I will play piano. If you take away my piano, I will sing until the very breath from my lungs is stolen by the silence of death.

"Yes, I will die one day- of this I am certain. But I'm not dead yet! No, tonight there is breath in my lungs- pushing, pulsing, yearning to break free... I will dream, for dreams are the seeds of what may be. I will wonder, for without wonder, how could life be wonderful? And I will sing.

Yes, until my pending death I will sing. In the face of indifference, I will sing. In the face of adversity, I will sing. I will sing about the pain. I will sing about the mystery. I will sing of the hope, the cage, the bullet, the winter, the dreamer. I will sing of all of these." - Jon Foreman

And in the face of all of this I find it necessary to ask myself: what songs am I singing? What songs am I allowing to be sung into my life? Am I clinging to songs of honesty and truth-- not songs that deny pain, but songs that show that hurt can be defeated by light? Or am I clinging to songs that lie to me about love, about people, about life, about hope? It's a question worth asking, for someone who spends a lot of time listening to music. Also, am I letting the music move me to turn around and speak truth and light into the lives of others? Because in the end, if it doesn't move me to hope and to love, then it's just adding to the noise.

I've asked God many, many times about how He wants to use my love for music, about why He's blessed me through so many conversations with professional musicians and so many concerts. I can understand and see music's short-term effects of encouraging me and teaching me and reminding me of His presence, but I can't see the long-term yet. God typically just answers "wait and see," like a parent planning some remarkable adventure and responding to a child's eager questions. So I will wait on His answers and His timing... and in the meantime, I will listen, and I will play piano, and I will let it move me to love.

I don't usually do this, but I'm going to ask for your input, since I know a lot of people read my blog now and I honestly want to hear answers. Has there been a moment when a song moved you? If you play an instrument, what's more meaningful-- playing music or listening to it? Do you agree or disagree with my assessment of the effect music can have on people? Do you think I'm completely insane for being so obsessed with Skillet? Alright, so maybe that last question wasn't serious, and I'm not sure I really want to hear the answers to that one. But feel free to give me your input on a few or all of the rest.

Thanks for sharing in my thoughts. I hope today finds you well.
- Elraen -

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Innocent Again

I've tried starting this blog three times. The words aren't coming as easily as they usually do, so I apologize if it sounds clumsy.

Yesterday we got some very brief snow flurries, lasting for about 45 minutes. It didn't stick, and it didn't get heavy, but it was snow, and that was enough. We had to have Digital Literature class outside that day (I love how God puts things together like that). As we all walked, watching tiny pieces of white drift against the glowing scarlet of the Bradford Pear trees' leaves, snow caught in our scarves and brushing our faces, I allowed myself to be lost in its beauty. Snow has that effect on me. It always has, from the time I was a young child. I can clearly remember every time in my life that I've seen snow.

It is, for me, a piece of something supernatural. Its beauty, its purity, its peace, are like tiny pieces of the joy we were meant to live with. It's hard to even explain it with words, because words are earthly, and snow isn't for me. It never has been. It is, like rainbows and the sun when it's raining, a sign of God's faithfulness and His beauty. And it is awe-inspiring.

Aside from that, it pushed me to step beyond walls for a while. I can't say that I forgot about paperwork, and paychecks, and long hours at work, and finals, and grades, and responsibilities. I was still getting what I needed to done, and I had an awareness of it. But as snow caught in my eyelashes and melted on my warm skin, I felt innocent again. I felt that unhindered joy of a little girl seeing something magical.

I'm the same way with Christmas lights. I spent nearly three hours putting lights on our tree this week, because we have a complex and thorough way to put lights on that makes the whole tree glow from the inside out. I can still remember when my mother used to do the lights at night, and I would get up the next morning to find the tree glittering and shining. Several times it made me cry it was so beautiful. This year, even though it was me making the magic happen, and even though by the end my hands were scratched and my shoulders ached, I keep going back and looking at the lights. They're still beautiful. To say they make me happy would fall short. The lights are more like joy, more like hope. Not because of a holiday, or tradition. But because the constancy of the light, the way it glows in the dark, the way it transforms a shabby plastic tree and a worn living room, is something beautiful. Light can make ugly things beautiful again, can remind us of what it is to hope.

Sometimes I think I try too hard. I think I try too hard to make things work, to say the right things, to earn enough money, to maintain a high GPA, to mend things outside of my control. I think there's value in being innocent again. Some might call it being sentimental. Others might call it immature. I would call it joy. And I think God meant it that way. There are times to be mature, times to take on the weight of responsibility and consequence. Even the act of loving can be a heavy burden to bear. But He also meant for us to live, to accept the joy He so faithfully offers. I think He wanted us to love the starlight, the snow, the light in the dark, sunrises and sunsets and smiles and rainbows. I think it's even alright to enjoy nights at Starbucks with good coffee and good company. If you're reading this, I hope you have things like that too-- small things that are beautiful and feel like hope. More than that, I hope you know you're allowed to hold onto them and to let the light shine through weariness and hurt and frustration.

Joy is never too far away. God reminded me yesterday.

- Elraen -

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Before it Can Get Better...

[Warning: An absurdly long blog is about to hit your computer. You might want to run now.]

It's hard for me to know how to start this, but even harder for me to know how to finish it. So the best I can do is dive in and start with just giving details about the experience of working the merch table at a Skillet show, since so many people have asked me about it.

In the days leading up to the show, I spent a lot of time with God, just praying, reading His word, singing to Him, and just talking. I hadn't done that in far, far too long. I tend to forget how much healing there is simply in the process of interacting with Him. The opportunity to work at a Skillet show was a special one for me. When I had first been presented with the chance, I prayed about it for a long while before accepting it. Basically in the end I went for it because I wanted to be able to serve them. I believe in what they're doing, and I've seen their music work beauty and change in my own life and the lives of so many others, and I wanted to be able to give back, if only in a small way. So I prayed for the heart of a servant, and for God to be my strength to serve.

My brother volunteered to help with unloading and set-up (and take down), so he was at the venue for most of the morning and early afternoon. While he was gone I messaged a little with Jonathan Chu, Skillet's violin player, over twitter. He told me that the merch tables were set up in the hall that night, so I would get to see all of Skillet's show, even if I had to be at the table. I was really excited about that.

There was a huge mess with transportation, which I won't go into just now, but suffice it to say that although it challenged me, God worked it all out in the end. My brother, sister, and I arrived at the venue, and my sister went to stand in line while my brother and I went to find where I was supposed to be (no one gave me any information regarding that... it was a little unnerving). We wandered around back to where the tour buses were (my brother had a pass already, so we could go just about wherever we wanted), and found a crew member. My brother asked where we needed to be, and he directed us to the right door. Once we got in, I asked another crew member where I needed to be, and he basically said "ummm... we need to talk to Scotty" and ran off (Scotty being Skillet's tour manager). So I waited, telling myself that if I didn't view myself as being out of place, I wouldn't feel out of place. So I focused on looking at the equipment. My brother went to help tape down a bunch of wires.

Eventually Scotty sent Tate out (Tate is Skillet's cello player and is also in charge of all the merch). A few of the other volunteers arrived at this point as well. Tate introduced himself to us. I found out later that none of the other volunteers but me realized he was Skillet's cello player, which made me laugh, although admittedly he looks rather different in normal clothes with a hat and glasses on. Two of the girls asked to work at Hawk Nelson's table, and I requested Skillet's table. Tate chose two other students from my University to work Skillet's table with me, and sent the others to Decyfer Down and The Letter Black's tables to await training.

Tate showed the other volunteers around and explained the whole system to us. Part of the way through a few other volunteers arrived, so he had to catch them up as well. Then he left us his cell number in case of trouble and took off.

I was trying not to be intimidated by using the credit card machine (I use a cash register every day at work, so working with money doesn't scare me, but credit cards terrify me). Aside from that felt pretty sure I could handle everything. My brother was done helping, and now was just waiting around. I had to go and get my identification, which they'd never gotten to me earlier. Then I waited at the table.

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The question and answer session happened on the stage, on the other side of the room from me. It was fun to listen in. Listening to them talk always makes me laugh. I sent my brother in to get pictures. He was enjoying it too. I didn't want to leave the merch table, because the other volunteers had, and someone needed to stay with the merch and the money. Chu came out of the catering room and sat quietly in a chair, eating dinner. I kind of wanted to go and say hello, but I was too afraid, and once again, I had to stay with the table.

As soon as the question and answer session ended, there was a mad dash to the merch tables. The first time we tried to use the credit card machine, it froze up, so one of us had to text Tate. That was really unnerving, but after that everything went more or less smoothly, even once all the general admission ticket holders got in and lined up at the merch tables. I love being able to help people in general, and it's getting a little easier. It occurred to me how odd it was that I was able to just chat and interact and be friendly to like a thousand people. I never would have dreamed I could do something like that a few years ago.

The stream of people was pretty steady for a long while. My brother was nice and brought me a water bottle because I was really thirsty, but I didn't have time to even take a drink from it for at least another ten minutes. People continued to buy stuff throughout The Letter Black's set, so I didn't pay much attention to it, though it was just on the other side of the room. It was really hard to hear what people were asking for over the music. I got very good at reading lips and facial expressions.

People kept coming through the first break, and then into Decyfer Down's set. Finally it slowed down enough that I could run down and get a few pictures. I had wifi, so I could update my twitter from my iPod as well. During Decyfer Down's set, my friend Joelle from Panheads Online came by the table to say hello and buy some things before going backstage. I felt kind of ridiculous because it was so hard to hear anything so we both had to be yelling to be heard.

We had another stretch with more people between Decyfer Down and Hawk Nelson. I mostly stayed at the table during Hawk Nelson's set or twittered people on my iPod, since I'm not terribly interested in them, but I did get a few pictures and videos. It was the first time the flood of people really slowed down. It was also about this point I started to feel strangely lost, and like I didn't really belong. It was a weird feeling, and one I didn't understand at the time. I can't really say I understand it any more now, except that there was a serious cognitive dissonance going on. More on that later.

The break between Hawk Nelson and Skillet flew by, yet again. Set changes go a lot faster when you're working merch. When Skillet started, absolutely everyone left the tables, including myself. I ran down to the front for their opening song, Whispers in the Dark. It was like diving deep underwater after being in full sunlight for hours-- the immersion was complete. And it was then that I understood why it was that I was feeling so lost and out of place. In the past, I've listened to Skillet's music and claimed what they sing about as my own. I've heard and believed the theme of God's unconditional love for me, His promise that I wasn't alone. And there, as I listened to my heroes sing "no, you'll never be alone, when darkness comes I'll light the night with stars" I realized I didn't believe it for myself anymore. Hence the cognitive dissonance. It's what I tell other people, but it's not mine anymore.

Better Than Drugs followed, then It's Not Me It's You. After that I ran up to the merch table to ask the others if I needed to stay. They said no one was buying anything then anyway, and they intended to just stay at the table, so I could go back to the front. I thanked them and ran back in time for The Older I Get, Comatose, and Hero.

John added something unexpected to his usual speech about power ballads before Yours to Hold. He covered part of Flyleaf's song All Around Me. He'd never done that before. That was exciting. After Yours to Hold was The Last Night, my very favorite song. I don't think it's ever going to lose any of its power for me.

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Those Nights followed, and then Awake and Alive, Savior, and Monster. On those last two songs I headbanged enough to guarantee a sore neck for the next few days. After that Skillet went off stage, as traditional, to wait to be called back for their encore. I decided now would be the time to go back to the merch table. I stood there again to deal with the first few people as Skillet played their encore of My Obsession and Rebirthing.

The after-concert buying crowd was much smaller, thankfully. I had to tell a lot of people that Skillet wasn't signing, which made them rather unhappy. But overall it was fun. Throughout the night I had a lot of people come up and say they remembered me from past Skillet shows, and they were impressed by my headbanging. I even met the mom and her kids who stood beside me at my first Skillet show. By the time the crowd died down a large chunk of our volunteers had left. One other guy and I were still left when Tate came back, and we started helping him count everything and put it away. I was tired enough that I was just praying for a clear mind so I didn't mis-count.

We were working on this when I saw Chu walking over, still in his stage clothes. He looked up and called over to me "I think I've been tweeting with you!" I confirmed this, so he came over and we chatted for a while about past Skillet shows and other random things. He was incredibly nice. I was too afraid to ask him for a picture, but honestly, I'd rather talk to someone than take a picture with them. After a while he left to stop distracting me from helping Tate. That was by far the best part of the whole evening. If Chu hadn't done that, I would have left feeling like a failure. I felt rather isolated for most of the evening, so the fact that he would come to seek me out to talk to me was unbelievable. He didn't even know me. He had no obligation to do that. He had to be tired. But he came to talk to me, without me asking. It still absolutely blows me away when anyone actually talks to me on purpose. There's no place in my head for that.

After that it was a matter of getting everything packed up. Tate let the other volunteer and I choose whatever shirt we wanted, since we'd helped. I was really grateful for that, since I hadn't had any time to actually buy anything, and I'd really wanted the tour shirt. We finally wrapped things up, and I went to find my brother, who'd been helping take the stage set-up down. We went out together (my sister had gone home with a friend earlier) and climbed into his car. We shared stories as we drove to Wal-mart, where we picked up chocolate and Dr. Pepper before heading home. It was midnight. I'd been at the venue for about 8 hours. I ate something quickly before sleeping.

The most interesting part of this to me is the aftermath. At the Skillet show, I was forced to come face to face with my own mindset, and it wasn't a fun experience. In fact, it made me pretty miserable, and it made me feel completely inadequate, insecure, and very, very alone. For the first few days I was frustrated and confused. It was the oddest thing in the world to go to a Skillet concert and come away feeling more worthless instead of less, but that was the case this time. I've picked through those hours over and over again, trying to think of things I'd done wrong, trying to tell myself that I hadn't actually served the band in any way, I hadn't actually meant anything. Over today, after spending a lot more time reading the Bible and listening to worship music, I've forced myself to a conclusion. I did what I could to serve the band. I did the best I could, and I didn't hold back even though I was afraid. Whether or not I was happy doesn't matter. Whether or not I enjoyed it doesn't matter. What mattered was being able to give pieces of my time and myself to the people who are the reason I am who I am, even though they've never met me, even though they don't know who I am. What I did was worth something. What's left to me now is to make the best of here and now, without dragging myself down with "should have." And honestly, I can't even think of any rational reason to be mad at myself over the Skillet show, which is incredibly annoying. It's so much easier when I can blame myself for everything.

Regardless, the whole experience helped to force me to stay awake, to keep living, even when it means bleeding. I find myself going back to what John has said about the cover of Skillet's newest album, Awake-- the idea of waking up after being in a coma for a long time, afraid to take off the bandages and see what you look like. That's been this semester for me, after the moot in August woke me up. One thing I heard very clearly from God while I was listening to Skillet play was sometimes it has to get worse before it can get better. But I also heard the promise of I'll be there, if only you'll be brave enough to want Me.

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I'm leaving huge chunks of thought out of this blog post, partly for length reasons, partly because I'm still not very good at being completely honest. Most of the reason I'm writing this is because so many people have asked me "how did it go," and that's not been something I could answer. This post, in all its length, is my answer. I apologize for it. Usually the things I try to write on this blog are meant to encourage, inspire, or at least provoke thought. I don't know if this post has done any of that. It's probably convoluted and confusing (as it is in my head), or just plain self-centered. But here it is, in its gory detail.

I'm so glad God's not finished with me yet. I have a long way to go.

- Elraen -

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Breaking Waves

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Sometimes I lose the plot. I feel like I'm hopelessly lost underwater, as though I can't figure out which way is up. I know that there's a song somewhere inside of me but I just can't remember what it is. I want my life to be the poetry of the Poet himself, I want to sing- to be a melody intertwined with The Melody Himself. But sometimes I'm hopelessly lost, broken, spent. I fall in love with the ones and things that take life and love away from me. I need The Song Himself to sing through me. I need The Word Himself to speak into me. - Jon Foreman

I remember with startling clarity my first few hours in the ocean. I tell the story often, which has helped to cement it in my memory.

While in California, my brother, sister, and I camped on the beach. My uncle gave us all boogie boards to try doing some boarding on a beach near our campsite. He gave us some verbal instructions and then sent us off.

The beach had very coarse sand and a lot of rocks. As we waded into the waves, we felt their strength. The water shoved at us one moment and then pulled, threatening to bring us to our knees. The rhythm seemed confusing, senseless, unstable. But we moved in to face it.

We quickly got separated, and eventually my brother just gave up altogether. There was no sandbar to stand on to brace for waves. The waves were incredibly rough. One moment I would be standing firm, the water chest high, and the next I couldn't seem to find the ground anywhere as the water became impossibly deep.

I soon learned what people mean when they talk about waves breaking. The deep, blue-green swells of water would form a white-crested wave and then start crumbling in on themselves. That was breaking. I found out that the worst possible place to be was right in front of a wave when it broke, because then you got caught in its whirl-wind frenzy. Water swept over you, tumbled you around, and sky and water and sand became nothing but a salty blur. I would come up coughing sea water, the salt burning my lips and my eyes. It was worst if I let go of my board. Because my wrist was strapped to it, when I let go and a wave hit, the wave would catch the board and I would be dragged along behind, underwater. Over and over again I was pounded against sand and rocks.

So I began to swim out deep, away from the rocks. Even moving was a fight. Waves broke over me again and again, battering my exhausted lungs, shoving me back. Eventually I got out far from the shore, past the point where most waves broke. Now I could just drift over the tops of the unbroken waves, the pulses of water carrying me. I had no idea how far below the ground was. I could see my sister sitting on the shore, far away. I lay on the board, just breathing. The sky melted down to the hazy blue horizon.

I turned around, swimming to try to ride the waves again. Again I faced the terrible fury, let them batter me, and at moments feared that I'd never reach the shore. Eventually I felt sand underneath me again. I crawled onto the beach. Blood streaked my arms and my legs, and bruises were forming. I sat beside my sister, and we watched the reckless waves pounding the beach. We talked a little, but not much. We were too tired.

And then I said I was going out to face the waves again. We stood up and walked back to the water.

I had this odd idea in my head that it meant something, that I was facing the waves. I wasn't backing down, even though I had not yet rode a single wave. I would keep trying. The saltwater stung my cuts, washing away the blood. I threw myself into the waves again.

Half an hour later, I was exhausted and even more battered. I still had not caught any waves. I spent the night listening to the sea, standing alone by the rocks with Skillet playing on my iPod. Darkened waves caught the moonlight, strands of silver dancing in the foam. I could hear the crash and roar of the waves even above my music. The next day we went to another beach. I went out yet again. I kept trying. The waves were gentler here, the sun was brighter, and the sand was softer. My uncle helped us this time, and finally each of us caught a few waves. I felt what it was to ride the top of a wave, foam licking my arms, flying along towards the sand as the sky rushed by. And it was exhilarating.

But oddly, I don't remember that as well. What I remember is the hours spent being battered by the violent waves, just to eventually fly for a total of maybe ten seconds.

Later my sister and I went out to the rough beach again, without our boards. We went to the water and let it carry us, let it dance with us. We didn't fight it this time. Even when the waves broke over us, we didn't resist. Though it meant being underwater, this time I couldn't be dragged along by a board.

When I said goodbye to the ocean, I did so with a sense of sadness and also respect. Its calm and its rage were somehow beautiful, as were the cloudy mornings when it looked gray-green and weeping, and the moonlit nights where the reflections on the waves looked like millions of stars netted in the dark water.

I had scars on my arms and legs from that first afternoon for weeks afterwards, and I looked at them and remembered the experience. It's come to mind strongly over the past few weeks as waves of a different sort come in, breaking over me, threatening to pull me under.

See, we are often told stories about people persevering and being rewarded. What we are told less about is stories of people who persevere with no reward, with no hope of getting to the other side. We don't know what to do with those stories. They don't seem right.

I fought the waves for a few hours. And I did gain a few seconds of flying at the end. Were those moments of actually riding the waves worth it? No. They weren't. But the fight in itself was.

This may sound crazy, and it may not make sense. But what I remember, what is most important to me in retrospect, is that I kept going. I was bleeding and bruised and exhausted and choking on bitter salt water, and I kept going. I took a few moments out, to breathe and to feel the calm. But I always went back to the waves again and took another beating. And eventually I learned to rest in the waves, to dance with them. I never really got good at riding waves. But I learned to love them. I fought until I found peace.

I'm not going to go too far with this metaphor. But I am going to suggest that sometimes life isn't so much about being above the waves. It's about learning how to rest even when they're breaking on top of you. And we may get bloody, and we may get bruised, but there is a strange beauty simply in the process of holding on.

And fortunately, we have the benefit of knowing that the ground is always there, even when we can't feel it pressing against us. Even when the waves pull us away, turn us around until we lose our sense of direction, the sand will always be waiting for us to touch down again. God's like that. He just doesn't leave. He is the one certainty in the midst of the waves, and He's not about to fall out from under us.

May I always remember that.

Every thing I have I count as loss, everything I have is stripped away. Before I started building, I counted up these costs: there's nothing left for you to take away. Hello hurricane, you're not enough. Hello hurricane, you can't silence my love. - Switchfoot

- Elraen -

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Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Selfishness vs. Sacrifice

As you're probably aware if you've been paying any attention to my facebook, on Monday night I went to a Relient K concert. This is not going to be one of my usual concert blogs though. It wasn't a normal concert experience, so perhaps that is fitting.

Relient K was the first band I was really a fan of. I started listening to them at the suggestion of a good friend, and though at the time the concept of listening to anything with electric guitars was scary, I fell in love with their quirky lyrics and bouncy songs. The first album I ever owned from any band was Relient K's "The Anatomy of the Tongue in Cheek," which I bought a few months before my 16th birthday. Relient K was the soundtrack for my last few years of highschool. I've followed all the band members's blogs for three years, bought over 8 hours of their music (every album they've ever done and multiple EPs), and now of course I stalk them all on twitter. Though Skillet has been my favorite band for a while now, Relient K will always hold a special place in my heart.

All this to say, seeing them live was a long-held ambition. When I heard they were coming to Dallas again, I started planning a way to get there. I planned for well over a month. We went through a ridiculous ordeal with tickets that lasted for three weeks, due to tickets being lost in the mail. We had to drive for nearly three hours to get to the venue, and I planned it so we arrived 4 hours early. We were the very first ones in line. We spent nearly 3 hours sitting on the hard cement, waiting. We picked up our tickets at will call. When the doors opened, we went in and rushed to get to our spot in the standing room only venue. We got the best spot in the house: dead center, very front, against the guard rail. Another hour and a half of waiting followed, during which we didn't dare to move from our spot because we knew we'd lose it.

Barcelona and Copeland opened, and though they were good, I was really just waiting for Relient K. But also, particularly during Copeland, I started to feel uneasy. There were two highschool girls standing behind me who were there for Relient K. I knew they had to be having trouble seeing the stage (my brother and I are not exactly short). I also could tell that they were beyond ecstatic to be seeing Relient K live. Suddenly the thought occured to me: let them have your spot.

I tried reasoning my way out of it. What? No! That would be nice and all, but I paid so much to be here, and I've waited for so many years, and we drove so far, and sat outside the venue for so long, not to mention the thing with the tickets! I deserve to be here.

But the thought persisted. Think how much it would mean to them. You go around talking about love. Do you actually believe in it?

Yeah, I believe in it, but I deserve to have this! I mean, it's not really that big of a deal, right?

I kept trying to ignore it, but I couldn't. I guess one thing about love is that it's not rational. Did I deserve to be there, in the best place I could possibly be, seeing this band? Maybe. But does love work on the concept of what is deserved? Jesus didn't think so.

I prayed about it, and I knew I was being asked to offer these random girls I didn't know my spot. And I said yes.

After Copeland's set I turned around to talk to the girls and asked them if they could see alright. They shrugged and said it was OK. I asked if they would like it better if I let them go to the front. I haven't seen faces absolutely light up like that in a long time.

"That would absolutely make my entire life if you let us," one of them said.

I smiled. "OK then, you definitely can."

They asked if there were any songs I particularly wanted to be at the front for, so I pulled the setlist from my pocket (it never hurts to do your research beforehand). We looked over it together, and determined that after Relient K played Let it All Out (about halfway into the set) I'd let them go to the front.

"I'm so happy right now, I kind of want to give you a hug," one of the girls said somewhat hesitantly.

I laughed. "Feel free." I ended up hugging both of them before getting back into position for Relient K's set to start.

And so I got to be at the very front for half a set from one of my favorite bands, as they played incredibly special songs like Be My Escape, Forward Motion, Therapy, Mood Rings, Which to Bury, and of course Let it All Out. Then I turned around, smiled, and switched positions with them. The way they absolutely glowed through the rest of the set made my position farther back so, so worth it.

Now, I'm saying this at the risk of making it sound like I've got everything figured out. Please don't take it that way. I'm not going to lie: I had to overcome a lot of selfishness and a lot of pride in order to let these girls have my spot, because I am a selfish person. I'm so selfish it scares me. But the point I want to make is that sometimes love is in the little things. Also, love is about sacrifice. It's about losing yourself in loving someone else.

And it doesn't always feel good. I'm reminded of the time, my first semester of college, when I was invited by someone at school to go to a Switchfoot and Red concert, and turned it down because my sister's birthday party was the same day. I cried about it for literally about two days straight, because that was the only time my first year that anyone at school invited me to do anything with them. But I knew that it was important to my sister that I be there for her birthday celebration, and so I gave it up. And no, it didn't feel good. It hurt. But God never asks us to make these sacrifices alone. In fact, the only reason we even have the strength to make them at all is because of His love expressed through us, even though we are broken and selfish beings.

Don't be afraid to sacrifice, even for strangers. That is love. That is what Christ did when He stretched out His arms and died for broken people who didn't deserve it.

I'm still figuring this out. I'm still trying to overcome my selfish sense of entitlement. The most I can do is to share these thoughts and hope they make you think too.

- Elraen -

PS - Relient K was amazing. I was grinning like an idiot their whole set, when I wasn't crying. God is so amazing.

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Sunday, October 4, 2009

Passion is Contagious

The story of my life often comes down simply to the struggle between my addiction to passion and my addiction to apathy. And I don't think I'm alone in that.

Sometimes I meet people or see musicians perform who I just connect to in a specific way, who I begin to admire and to hold a very high respect for. At first it was something indefinable. I just knew that I really liked Bryan of VOTA in a way I didn't like the other bands who played at the Newsboys show. I knew I liked Kevin of Disciple so much that his music took on a whole new meaning after seeing him perform. I knew that after just seeing a few quotes from Jon Foreman of Switchfoot, he became one of my heroes. I knew that there was a reason why I really fell in love with Skillet after seeing them live for the first time. Eventually it hit me. What meant so much to me was passion. Every single one of those people I connected to was incredibly, intensely passionate about the message they had to share, about living for what they believed in.

We live in a world that loves standing still. Movement scares us, because there's always the chance that things will go off track, that we'll fall or run into something or lose our way or end up getting separated from everyone we know. Standing still is just easier. But is it really living if we don't go anywhere? Apathy may protect us (see Relient K: emotional attachment is really not a threat when I'm really not concerned), but it also bars us from the most beautiful things in life.

Sometimes I wonder how often most Christians think about the fact that their faith is a life and death matter, in the most literal way possible. Christianity isn't an attitude, or a face we can assume, or a set of religious behaviors, or rules, even though we so often belittle it into being no more than these things (one reason why I almost never use the word “Christian” to describe myself; it's been defaced). Christianity is life, in stark contrast to the death those without Christ experience. Not only are we given this incredible gift of life, but the price to give us this was death-- the death of the one person who didn't deserve it. In return, He asks for something simple and yet incredible. He wants us, a surrender, a sacrifice of self.

It is such a crime to reduce this to nothing more than a label, than going to church on Sundays and trying to be an OK person. It's even worse to infect it with apathy.

If we've been given this rebirth, and we've been given one shot at shining in the darkness of this world, you'd think we'd make the best of it. But it's not easy to feel, it's not easy to believe. Because in the end living for something means dying to everything else. It's easier not to take those steps at all.

After both walking some dark and broken roads and floating in indescribable light and beauty, I've learned that pain is not the thing we should fear the most. We should not fear joy either, even if we know it might end at any moment. What we should fear most is to be numb, the void of emptiness. To be numb, to not feel at all, is to stand still.

I watched a trailer for Switchfoot's new album today. Jon Foreman said some things about the process behind writing the album, about the conclusion they reached after frustrations. “They didn't feel like the type of songs you wanted to die singing. And for Hello Hurricane that became the prerequisite for the song. If you're not crying, why are you singing it? If you don't believe it with every ounce of you, then there's no point in singing it.” What if we lived like that? What if we moved for things that mattered, even when it hurt?

Lacey Sturm of Flyleaf said it this way: “If you're waking up living for something you won't die for, why are you living for it?” If we claim the gift offered by Christ, what we are claiming is a rescue from death, being carried into a brilliant new life. Are we going to throw that away by standing on the edge-- not dead, but not willing to really live either?

One day when coming up with text that would go in my profile on a forum, I was looking at my avatar for inspiration. It was a picture of John Cooper on stage. I randomly typed the phrase “Passion is Contagious.” It stuck. Because honestly, passion shines. I want to be the kind of person who is so alive, so passionate for Christ, so willing to live and to die for love and for hope that the people around me see His light shining bright in the darkness. Jesus died for us. The least we can do in return is to live for Him.

I want to live for love.
- Elraen -

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Welcome to the Masquerade

Thousand Foot Krutch released a new album on September 8. I've been listening to TFK for nearly a year now, and have come to really enjoy their music, so I bought the new album. It's one of my favorite albums of all time. The album is titled Welcome to the Masquerade. The common theme woven in and out of a lot of the songs is that of masks, of the things we hide behind, the things we try to hide, and what would happen if we took the time to be honest and to listen to each other.

I didn't think about it much, honestly, until Chapel at my school on this past Friday (a week and a half after the album's release). The Christian Ministry majors were doing their chapel, as they do every semester, and the theme they chose to dramatize was that of masks. The second they all walked out on stage wearing bright masquerade masks, I thought back to TFK's album.

What followed was an incredible time of the students talking about what masks they wear, and literally taking the masks off and just being honest as a thousand students and staff listened. I mention honesty a lot. To me, the chapel was absolutely beautiful.

This had me thinking back to the Newsboys concert in March, and VOTA's song, Honestly. I re-watched the video and listened to what Bryan Oleson had to say (watch here). And I started to find it odd how this theme kept coming back.

Skip ahead 24 hours. I was getting ready for the Creation Fest Tour show at my University. I had bought a VIP ticket, which would get me access to a meet and greet with some of the bands. I was going to be meeting Thousand Foot Krutch, who had written this album that was so strongly on my heart right then. In particular, they had written one song that impacted me indescribably strongly. There is probably only one other song I've ever heard that could claim to impact me more strongly, in fact. I was thinking how weird it would be to talk to the guy who'd written this song. I was wondering if I should say anything about it to him. I was wondering if I should say anything at all, how to act like myself in just the few brief minutes I'd have, how to not be too obnoxious.

Then the thought hit me. Just be honest. I frowned What? What's that supposed to mean? But I didn't find an answer. I was still unsure and uncertain as I walked over to the auditorium.

As we waited in the reception room for the bands to walk in, I was third in line. I talked to the people around me (a mom and her daughter standing behind me had been at the Skillet concert in April, and we remembered each other, which was kind of cool). Chick-fil-a brought in a bunch of free food for us, but I didn't want to eat. I just waited. I felt shaky and kind of sick, and I was praying.

When TFK, Jars of Clay, and Mark and Will of Audio Adrenaline actually walked in, it took me a few seconds to process it. A girl and her dad in front of me went forward to talk to TFK, and I hung back. The words echoed in my head again. Just be honest.

The girl and her father moved on, but I was too afraid to take a step towards them. But Trevor stepped up to me and shook my hand and said "hey!" And I felt better. I asked them to sign my CD, and Trevor signed the cover and then passed it down. He asked me my name, and said he hoped I'd enjoy the show. And then came a moment of startling, incredible clarity, the kind of moment that comes down hard and beautiful and afterwards lives in a dream state in the realm of memory. Suddenly I was telling Trevor about how much this song meant to me, about how beautiful it was, about how I'd needed to hear that song for a long, long time.

Perhaps this is paragraph going to sound weird to most people. But he listened to me, and honestly accepted what I was saying, and told me it was awesome that it meant so much to me, and he was so glad. And I believed him. And it was incredible to me, because he listened to me. This lead singer of a rock band who had met me 30 seconds ago cared enough to listen to me and accept my honesty, to do something that not one of the 2000 students at my school have done in the past year and a half. He totally didn't shrug me off. I expected him to say "oh, cool" and then ignore me and move on to the next person. But he didn't. He held my eye contact and talked to me until I chose to move on to let the person behind me move forward. He probably won't remember what I said for more than a few days, if that. But he listened.

So often the reason I don't talk about the things in my head or in my heart is because I get met with people shrugging it off, or telling me "it'll be alright. You'll be fine." But what if I won't be? What if I can't even see that far ahead at that time? What if I need to be allowed just to bleed? And I know I'm one of millions who feels this way; there's no special, unique pain here. What would happen in a world where we listened, where we accepted honesty, where we were willing to love complete strangers by the simple act of listening? How many hearts would heal if they were allowed to face hurt instead of being told that that hurt shouldn't exist?

I moved on to Jars of Clay. Ironically, I didn't actually know if it was Jars of Clay or This Beautiful Republic until after I'd talked to them briefly and got their autographs. Then I talked to Mark and Will of Audio A. They were so incredibly friendly and ready to just chat and have fun, and then they asked the person behind me in line to take a picture of me with them. It was awesome.

After that I left the meet and greet room, getting some tea on my way out to try to calm down. I was still trying to process it. I was a little disappointed that B. Reith hadn't been there, because I really wanted to meet him. I was guessing he'd be at his merch table after the show though, so I could catch him then.

I picked up a TFK shirt at their merch table, and then fought my way through the press of people to get into the auditorium and find my seat in the third row. It was a good seat, though it can be awkward to sit by total strangers. I had to climb over the laps of four guys every single time I got in or out of my seat. They were really nice about it, but that didn't mean I liked it.

FM Static kicked off the show. FM Static is Trevor and Steve of TFK's side project. They were mostly playing music from their new album, Dear Diary, but they also played the old classic Definitely Maybe, and Trevor threw in a wild card by singing Bleeding Love by Leona Lewis as a worship song.

After that there was a quick set change before B. Reith came on. I was very highly anticipating him. It may seem odd that I would like a hip hop artist, considering usually I hate hip hop. But B. Reith incorporates piano and acoustic guitar and real singing into his songs. The guy is insanely talented. In addition to that, he is just incredibly real and honest and open. He's the kind of guy who'll stop randomly mid song to wave and say hello to people walking into the auditorium, or who will forget the words of a song and announce as much, or who stares in awe and excitement at his own music video coming up on the stage screens. He is infectiously happy, and infectiously unafraid. They only gave him a 4-song set, which was ridiculously short, but I enjoyed every moment.

Audio Unplugged led us in worship (ending in an altar call) after that. I wasn't sure what to expect, but after the first song or two it was just incredibly obvious that God's presence was strong there as 2,000 people worshiped together. It was beautiful, so much more so because it's a rare opportunity for me. At the end we had several people give their lives to Christ. Very, very unforgettable.

There was a brief intermission then, so I went out to meet with my sister and a few friends who were there out in the lobby. They were talking, and I didn't want to be rude and leave, but I also wanted to get back to my seat. I waited, hoping they'd want to go back soon. No such luck. Then I heard the first few strains of TFK's Welcome to the Masquerade. All decorum aside, I dashed out of the lobby, ran down the aisle and practically threw myself past the four guys to get to my seat right as Trevor started singing.

They followed the opener up with Move. The energy levels exploded. I felt kind of silly headbanging, because I was the only one in my area doing so. The feeling continued as Bring Me to Life started. I saw a few of my friends staring to form a mosh pit right by the stage.

If there is a mosh pit, there is a 99.9% chance I'm going to be in it (and by mosh pit I do not mean literally moshing, which I am against; I mean tight packed crowd jumping and headbanging together right by the stage). So for the last time I got past the guys, ran down by the stage and leaned against it, just a few feet from Trevor. A few minutes later my sister joined me, as did the friends we'd been talking to earlier.

I hadn't been able to just let go and rock like that except at the two Skillet concerts I've been to. It was incredible. During Fire it Up, Trevor came over and pointed the mic first straight at my sister and then at me to sing. Which may or may not have something to do with the fact that we were already screaming the song at the top of our lungs, even though it's a brand new song that not a lot of people knew.

By the time TFK finished I was sweaty, bruised, and on a major adrenaline high. I had time to get water before going back for Jars of Clay. I decided that I wasn't going to bother with climbing over the guys to get to my seat. I just stayed right by the stage, camera in hand. Jars of Clay's set was much less energetic, as is to be expected. To my delight they played all my favorite songs (meaning all the ones I actually know). I was incredibly impressed by how well their vocals held out live. Most of the people in the room were there for Jars of Clay, which meant they had tons of people singing along.

After their set was over, I was rather tired. But when I walked out into the lobby to get some merch and wait for bands, I got a fresh flood of adrenaline. I bought all the music B. Reith currently has released, and then had him sign the EP. He was so incredibly nice and friendly. My sister and I got pictures with him. I was glad I finally got to meet him. My sister went through TFK's line, but right before she went through, an employee told Trevor not to agree to any pictures until after almost everyone had left. So he told Telpe they'd be doing pictures later.

So we waited in the lobby as everyone left. It was nearly 11:30 by now. Once TFK started doing a few pictures, we went over to wait for our chance. But once the group in front of us finished, TFK started walking away.

Telpe was brave. She got Trevor's attention and asked if we could get pictures. He was like "oh yeah sure, let's do it!" So then he literally ran after the rest of the band and called "hey guys, come back to do one last picture!"

Actually, they let us get two, so Telpe and I both got individual shots. They were in a rush, but I got to thank Trevor for the show, and he said he hoped he'd see me at another one. And then Telpe and I walked home, excited and completely happy.

Now, this all ties back together. In chapel on Friday I realized something, as I sat in the dark watching students on stage talk about honesty and masks. I finally understand why music means so much to me, especially concerts. It's because music is honest. Music says things that we are afraid to say aloud, that we don't know how to express. At concerts we throw down the walls, we throw down the masks, we throw down pretending. Pain is allowed to be real. Hurt is allowed to cry aloud. But more importantly, hope is allowed to shine, love is allowed to embrace, and truth is allowed to conquer lies.

This is why I love concerts so much. This is why I'm so unafraid to scream aloud words about hope, and love, and life. The honesty is so beautifully breathtaking that it steals away all my pretensions.

This is also why I have for so long been unwilling to sit with people I know during concerts. I don't want them seeing me cry. I don't want them seeing me sing, the expressions on my face as I worship. I am afraid, as selfish, insecure, and silly as it is. But that's another exciting thing. I was with people I knew during TFK's set last night, and it was OK. Maybe it's a sign that I'm learning something, that God is bringing me into new places I've never been before.

So the challenge I pose to you tonight is this: what mask do you wear? Do you hide behind an internet persona, behind facebook or twitter or forums? Do you hide behind your schoolwork? Do you hide behind your social life, behind the laughter that isn't always real? Behind your own fear and insecurity? God wants the masks gone. He already knows what's down there, and He loves you anyway. What else could you possibly need? I'm daring to suggest that it's OK to be honest about struggling, to be honest about not always being alright. It's human. It's how we heal.

And when was the last time you asked someone how are you and meant it? I think we're all at fault in this, because we feel we're too busy, or because we're so drowned in our own issues that we can't see clearly enough to listen to someone else. But if we would do that, if we would simply listen, lives would be changed.

The masquerade may seem beautiful on the surface, but anyone who's seen beneath the masks can tell you that it's definitely not. Breaking away from it takes courage, because it often hurts. Fortunately God has enough strength to go around. And I'm so glad that, in my case, He gives me that strength through music, through nights under bright stage lights with my open hands in the air.

Out of the fire, rise from the ashes
Reject your doubt and release the passion...
I’m not ashamed, I’m not afraid, I’m not ok:
Welcome to the masquerade.

- Elraen -