Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Fully Alive

One of my heroes and role models, Jamie Tworkowski, said the following about birthdays on the TWLOHA blog:

“At the heart of it is the opportunity to tell someone "I'm glad that you were born", which is also to say "I'm glad that you're alive." Those are powerful statements. The world would be a different better place if we lived that way, if we said and showed those things, more than once a year.”

Those words are what made me look at my birthday this year in a different light. Not as a day to mark everything I've lost in the last year, as it had been before, but a way of allowing myself to be reminded that just the fact that I'm alive has meaning.

I guess this birthday was a little more special than the ones before also because I never expected to reach it. Two years ago, if you had said I would make it to be 18, finishing up my freshman year of college, set to be on the Dean's List for the second semester in a row, and working my second “real” job, I would have assumed you had the wrong person. Growing up I always said I wanted to die when I was 16 or 17. I couldn't bear the thought of living with myself for any longer than that. When I was 16, I was very much certain I wanted to die when I was 16. But God had other ideas.

I used to do a lot of asking God “why.” I've seen a lot of friendships crash and break. The story of any human's life is an epic journey, and as on any journey, companions get lost along the way. I've never accepted change easily, and I've definitely never been able to accept losing things. It's still hard, but I don't ask God why anymore. It has been made known to me over and over again that He really does know better than I do – even when I can't see it.

I am told so often that I seem older than I am. I didn't tell anyone at school how old I was until a month or two ago. When people started finding out I was only 17, they were stunned. I was told over and over again that the assumption had been made that I was older than my brother (who is now 20). In fact, the assumption has also been made multiple times over the past few years that I'm older than my older sister (who will be 23 in a month). This used to confuse me. I think I understand it a little better now; I seem older than other people my age not because I'm in any way smarter or “better” than them. I've just lived a little more.

And it wasn't my choice either. I can't take credit for anything I am right now (except for all the ugly pieces, which are most definitely mine). In a sense my life ended almost two years ago, the summer I was 16 – everything else has been, is, and will be, God's. Every single day I wake up breathing because of Him. Without Him there would be nothing.

I wonder some days – most days, actually – how often people realize how much God has done in the past 22 months of my life. When I help patrons at the library, smile at them and tell them to have a good day, sometimes I stop for a moment and have to remind myself “I'm actually saying this. And it's not even scary.” And every time I do that is another victory for God, another sign of His power and grace.

I have distinct memories of a party, almost exactly two years ago, 7 days after my 16th birthday. I remember it because I was standing in a group of about 6 people, and I had to go off alone because I was starting to hyperventilate. That was my typical reaction to being in a group of more than 2 or 3 people. People at school say I need to hang out with people more. They only say that because they don't know who I was or how much God has done with that.

I think people have this funny impression a lot of the time that I'm strong. I find that hilarious. The fact is that I am very human – excruciatingly so. If I appear strong, it's only because I've learned to understand that I hopelessly and completely weak... and that was the first step to allowing God to become my strength. I like to pray and ask God to give me strength, but even more often, I like to pray and ask Him to be my strength.

I guess what I'm trying to say is not about me, but about Him. If nothing else, my life is a picture of brokenness made beautiful through the intense grace and unconditional love of Christ. I emphasize love a lot – if you've been around me or seen pictures of me over the past year, you may have noticed that I almost always have “love” written over my left wrist. I do that for two reasons. One is to remind me that love has claimed me, and love has saved me, and in that love I am secure, safe, and at rest. The other is to remind me to let that same love be the guide in every interaction, every relationship, that I have.

I don't know exactly what I want to do with my life – I just know that whatever it is, it will involve loving people. And it's funny, because I've found people often mean two totally different things when they say “I love people.” They either mean they get high on people, that friendships are where they find meaning and security... or that they pour themselves into others, not because of how it makes them feel, but because of what it is to others. I strive for something closer to the second.

I don't love people in the sense that I go to social gatherings because I enjoy it, or that I hang out with people all the time – that's definitely a part of what I consider to be loving people, but it's more like a side effect than anything else. If you want me to go to a party or even just out for coffee, I'll probably be hesitant (unless I know for certain it will be an encouragement to you in some way). If you want to have a three hour IM conversation talking about pain and frustration and despair, bring it. No one was meant to face the darkness alone. If God can shine through me even just a tiny, broken reflection of His love and His light and His hope, then in that moment my entire being is fulfilled.

That is why I am alive, why I am turning 18 today, why I'm even writing this blog entry: I was made to be loved and to love with my entire being.

I don't do things by halves. If I care about anything at all, I will either love or hate with a consuming passion. I spend a lot of my life striving to move, to really live, to deny apathy its hold.

I have to quote To Write Love On Her Arms again here, because it really encompasses everything I believe in. These next lines summarize my purpose, my identity in Christ, the reason I'm breathing, better than I ever could:

We often ask God to show up. We pray prayers of rescue. Perhaps God would ask us to be that rescue, to be His body, to move for things that matter. He is not invisible when we come alive. I might be simple but more and more, I believe God works in love, speaks in love, is revealed in our love.


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.”

If you understand nothing else about me, about the story God is working in my life, or even about why I write these blog entries, I want you to understand that. I have failed so many times. I have been lost, I have been broken, I have been frustrated and alone. Fortunately, God's grace finds me where I am over and over again. Sometimes we have to understand just how dark the night is before we can see the beauty of the starlight.

This blog entry is for you, whoever you are, wherever it finds you. It is, in some crazy way, trying to say something that God has been saying for thousands of years: “I love you. Don't you dare give up.”

- Elraen, the Wandering Star -

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Joys of Our Hearts: My Skillet Blog Post

How often does anyone get to go to a concert where four bands play for over 3 hours, and said person knows every single song played all night?  More than that, what if two of the bands that played were this person's very favorite bands, and what if the songs played were the songs that had been the soundtrack, the theme song, and major shaping elements of the last two years of this person's life and their walk with God?

I always knew I was going to write a blog about this, from the time I was pretty certain I was going. But now it's come down to it, I don't know how. I'll try anyway, as I've promised so many people I would.

It's funny, God never works quite in the ways we expect Him to. Even when I go into a situation expecting Him to change me through it, He never does so in the way I would have predicted or asked. It's a good thing I'm not the one in charge of my life. I don't have nearly as good ideas as He does.

As some background: I heard that Skillet would be playing at Sixflags Over Texas in Arlington back in I think November. I was sure there was no way I could go. Over the next few months as the "Panhead" (Skillet fan) community realized they were booking a tour, I stalked the dates and locations, only to find that there was no show that was closer. I was so sure I couldn't make it.

But I tried anyway. I talked to friends, and made plans and back-up plans and even more plans in case the back-up plans failed. I saved up money all semester, refusing to let myself get anything unless I had a good reason for it (gifts and school stuff). I researched. I talked to my mother. I bought tickets at least a month in advance.

But I still didn't believe it would work out.

College for me has been about learning that everything I ever want to do, everything I ever want to be, is a bunch of worthless trash. Every single time, without fail, that I think something's going to be alright, it turns to ashes under my fingers and I'm left picking up the pieces of another failure. College has been about learning that I'm lost in the chaos of a world I have absolutely no control over. So though I kept telling people "I'm going to see Skillet, Red, Disciple, and Decyfer Down play," I was more trying to convince myself rather than to convince them.

I ended up going with my brother and a friend who I've really wanted to get to know better for some time. We headed out for Sixflags at 7:15 a.m. on Saturday morning. We listened to Red most of the way there, getting through both albums. I was nervous about a ticket issue that had come up. I wouldn't be able to know if we would actually be able to get in until we got to the gate.

But when we went to the booth at the gate and Maranar talked to the lady and got the tickets for himself and our friend K, I was stunned to the point of feeling numb. I couldn't believe it had worked. That just wasn't right. Something was going to go wrong.

We went on the newest ride on the park first. I hadn't been on a roller coaster in nearly 6 years, and in that time I have become more different than words can express. I was sure I wouldn't like them anymore. But as we flew along the track, my hair whipping around my face in the wind, I just started laughing - not a nervous giggle, but a laugh of sheer happiness and exhilaration. I suddenly remembered how much I love the feeling of flying.

The rest of the rides throughout the day were the same. I used to scream on roller coasters. Now I wasn't screaming - I was too happy. I only thought about school once the entire day. I was too happy to think about school.

For our last ride of the day, we re-rode the same ride we went on to start off the day. This time we went through the single-rider line, where they basically stick you with a random group of strangers who happened to have a seat or two left in their car - think of it like standby on airplanes. So all three of us ended up in different cars. K was on the first one, I was on the second, and Mar was on the third.

When I got off, I ran down the exit stairs to find K. She was standing at the bottom, just grinning. She handed me three slips of paper. They were three tickets to the front section of the concert that evening.

I managed to stammer out "...how?" She explained that a stranger she was sitting beside in her car had extra tickets he was getting rid of, and just gave them to her. These tickets were way better than even what I had before, and I had had a much better ticket than K and Mar did. Much excitement ensued. I just couldn't believe it.

After dinner we went and found the amphitheater and sat down. When we actually got to our seats, they really were amazing. K said she thought it was proof that God likes giving us the joys of our hearts - just because He loves us. I have to agree. In fact, that's really a part of the theme of that entire day for me.

Decyfer Down opened up the night. I saw them last year on the Comatose 2008 tour, when they were opening for Skillet. This time I actually knew all the songs they played. They've replaced their lead singer in the past year, so the general feel of the band was different, but it was still good. They still seem to be trying to figure out their sound and their presence as a band, but I think they have potential.

The next band that came up was Disciple (though the lead singer had actually already been playing with Decyfer Down). I've been listening to them for roughly a year, and have two of their CDs. They're absolutely amazing. Kevin, the lead singer, is incredibly passionate. They just about set the stage on fire, they were so lively and energetic. It was raining on and off now, but no one cared. We were so into the music. They opened with their popular "Game On," followed by "Whisper So Loud," "3 2 1," and "Romance Me." The most memorable moment came when the guitarist climbed up on a stage block and back-flipped off, with his guitar. The crowd went wild.
One thing that seriously impressed me is that these guys sound just as good live as in the studio. So many bands lose a lot of their power (particularly in the area of vocals) once they actually are out on stage and having to sing multiple songs in a row while walking/jumping/headbanging, but Disciple's performance was nearly flawless. They've been playing shows for most of my life, so they've had plenty of practice.

However, after "Romance Me," ScottyRock (Skillet's tour manager) came out and whispered something to Kevin. I was immediately nervous. The announcer who worked for Sixflags came out and announced that the show was temporarily postponed until the weather cleared up, and we all had to leave the amphitheater right away.

We started pouring out, onto the bridge area outside. It wasn't raining at the moment, but about ten minutes after we started leaving, it started pouring cold rain. K and Mar had jackets, but I didn't. I hunched over the bridge rail, letting the cold rain fall on my back as crowds of people walked by behind me.

I felt the beginnings of bitter disappointment. I was imagining out writing this blog entry with the title "Why I'm a Pessimist," or something along those lines. We didn't know if we'd get to go back in or not. We didn't know anything. We just knew we had to stand out there, without shelter, in the rain.

I started doing what I've found I tend to do whenever I get really, really stressed: I start singing worship songs. I stood there in the rain, in a sea of thousands of strangers, just singing softly to God. And as I did so, suddenly I realized that I was alright. Even if I didn't see my two favorite bands, it would be OK. God would be allowing it. This was all a part of His plan, whether I could see it or not. He does not depend on things like concerts, or churches, or specific people - God can move in anything, even cold, empty hours spent in the rain. That was really the first big milestone of that evening.

After nearly an hour, they told us we could come back. We poured back in (Maranar and I estimated that there were around 4,000 people there). A crew was busy cleaning up the stage and drying things off. Our seats were covered in water, so we didn't sit back down.

And it was right then that I realized how glad I was we'd had the hour out in the rain. Now what was about to happen wasn't something I was entitled to; it wasn't something I had planned and thus received. It was purely and completely a gift from God, and everything that happened would be just a lot of noise and flashing lights otherwise. Sometimes we have to stand through the rain in order to understand what it is to be wrapped in the beauty of God's presence.

Red opened up the night with "Fight Inside." Headbanging with very wet hair may or may not have taken place. It rained a little bit more, but I didn't care. Red is K's favorite band, and my second favorite, so we both definitely had fun. They played a mix of songs from their two albums. They played "Let Go," the song of theirs that has impacted me most - that was the first song that night to make me cry. As I screamed along with it at the top of my lungs, I made a few decisions, which I really can't talk about yet. But it was a very freeing experience, in a lot of ways.

They also played my second favorite from their newest album, "Shadows." That was so much fun. They actually played more from Innocence and Instinct from End of Silence, which was fine with me.

They finished up with "Breathe Into Me." It was raining again, but with no thunder and lightning, so it was fine. At the finale, Mike Barnes ran out over one of the two walkways going out into the audience (the walkway the lead singers all used most often was right near me, as you can tell if you look at pictures), and climbed up one of the lattice work metal pillars. He was 20 or 30 feet up in the air, yelling down to us, in the rain. It was incredible. He climbed down, ran, and threw himself down. He slid most of the way down the walkway on the wet wood. It was incredible. I think they were having way too much fun.

The wait between Red and Skillet wasn't as bad as I might have thought. I watched them setting up Skillet's stuff, and was bouncing with excitement. I was really cold, because I was wet and had no jacket and when I wasn't jumping up and down and headbanging I could feel the wind much better. That was the worst part about waiting.

When all the lights went out, I sat there grinning in anticipation. I know their setlist backwards and forwards. Not only did I see them play on the Comatose 2008 tour, but I have the live DVD (which I was watching about twice a day for a while), and I've watched literally hundreds of YouTube videos, including whatever I could get my hands on from this new tour.

I listened to the count down, and to the electric violin and cello intro. I knew all the cues, so I saw exactly when Jen stepped up to her drumset, when Korey moved over to her keyboard as Ben stepped up with his guitar. Then the opening strains of "Comatose" played as John walked out on stage, and the huge adrenaline rush I've had every single time I've heard that song since first hearing it live a year ago came back.

I started singing along. Then I realized I was crying.

They played "Whispers in the Dark" second (as always). That's probably their most popular song. The audience absolutely exploded when the opening notes drifted into the rainy night. I have never been in an audience that energetic in my entire life. I've described it to a few friends like there was an electrical current running through us, uniting us. We had stood through the rain, through three other bands, and it was worth it to us. That meant something.

John loves playing in Texas - it's his favorite state to play in. So he always makes Texas jokes and comments on how we're one of the hardest rocking states in the U.S. I think I would have to agree with him.

One thing I said about Skillet the first time I saw them, when I didn't know nearly as much about the band as I do now, is that it seems like they're there to hang out with the audience, not to perform. I mean that in the best way possible. So often there's an invisible wall between the performers and the audience - one group is there for the other. One is more important. The other is expected to be respectful and silent. That's not the case with Skillet. John does whatever he can to make the audience take part in the show. He asks us questions, has us sing along, has us repeat things after him, finds ways to relate what he says to that specific audience and situation. The first Skillet show I went to, he led us all in singing happy birthday to someone in the audience. That's just the kind of person he is. He's not there to prove he can do anything better than we can. He's there to encourage us, to have fun with us, and maybe as a side effect rock our faces off.

I don't really know how to say much about what the rest of the experience was for me - in a sense it's almost too much to talk about still. God showed Himself to me in a very real way, and I felt more alive than I have in a very, very long time - in fact, I'm going to have to go with more alive than I ever have, because I felt alive in a new way. Most of you who know me know that my favorite Skillet song is "The Last Night." If I had to choose one song that has changed my life more than any other, it would be that song, no contest. I've heard it live before, but it meant more this year. It was like I saw my whole life laid out before me, a picture of brokenness made beautiful in God's love. I don't know how to say the rest of it, but maybe that gives you an idea.

Another thing here that proves what K had said earlier about God loving to give us the joys of our hearts: a while back I had on my facebook status that it was one of my life's goals to see Skillet with pyro. Guess what? They had pyro. The only show on the tour thus far that had had it, to the best of my knowledge. It was incredible. It was like God said "watch what I can do" and sat back and smiled.

Skillet always plays worship songs. Last year when I saw them, that was the part of the concert that affected me most. This year it was just as incredible. When they played "Angels Fall Down," it was like falling in love with God all over again. It was like seeing a picture of Him, of His beauty and holiness and majesty stretched out before me, painted with the colors of hope, love, and life.

I think it would be really, really hard for someone who doesn't understand my passion for music in general (and particularly Skillet) to understand why this concert meant so much. The best I can do is to say this: how does God speak to you? Through friends, through writing, through books, through walks in the silent morning or starlit night? Does He speak to you through hymns, or through praise choruses? However He chooses to speak to you, picture times when He has used that to show you a vivid, vibrant picture of who He is.

That is what He gave me, because He speaks to me most strongly through music. Not just Skillet - music in general, whether I'm playing it or listening to it, so long as it's focused on Him.

Sometimes I wonder if the band members of Skillet realize that they're changing lives, every single day. Not just mine - the lives of hundreds of others as well. And they're not changing lives because they've set world records in sports, or because they make a fashion statement, or because they've got the coolest cars and hang out with all the right people. They're just people living for Christ in whatever way they can, in a very real way. That has become rare. That has become something I want to strive for, every day of my life, in everything I do. This is one reason why I say John and Korey Cooper are two of the only human heroes I have ever had.

It's been half a week since I stumbled back into our house after the concert, at 2:00 a.m. My voice is still a little hoarse, and my neck still a little stiff, but the bruises on my legs from jumping against the seat in front of me are fading, and I can actually listen to music played that night without crying again. But in a sense I never want to really leave that night - not because it was a rock concert, but because it was a renewal of the life and the love I have found in Christ. If I could, I would live every single day of my life in that feeling of complete peace and joy that I felt when I first believed that Jesus loved me. The concert on Saturday brought me back to that feeling, so simple, yet strong enough to change the world.

May His peace be with you today. God bless.

- Elraen, the Wandering Star

Friday, April 10, 2009

Life through Death

I love the way that God works in contrasts, in paradoxes, in things that no one else would dream of using.

This weekend of course I'm referring to the concept of life through death.

One of my favorite scenes in Ted Dekker's Circle Trilogy is a scene in Red - the scene that made me like the entire series. The basic concept was that they dove into deep red water. At first they were in terrible, crushing pain, and they knew they were drowning.

And they drowned. And in doing so, they came alive. The pain was gone, and what remained was a beautiful freedom.

I read that scene and cried, because it wasn't just a story in a book. It was my story, and your story, and above all God's story.

It's so easy for us to wake up every morning oblivious to the beautiful story of love, of hope, of redemption, of beautiful brokenness that we are living in. I remember one day, years ago now, thinking about Boromir in Lord of the Rings (bear with me here, this is relevant). I remember thinking how it must have been for be Merry and Pippin, watching Boromir suffer in agony, pierced by arrows, and to then see him die, just so that they could live. I remember thinking it would be such an incredibly humbling, awe-inspiring thing to live on with the knowledge of that sacrifice.

Then suddenly I realized that I had lived through that. 

We are so stirred by stories of someone laying down their life for someone else - so many war movies use that concept. Maybe we are so moved by those stories because a part of us realizes, even subconsciously, that that is the story we are living in. 

I've never really been to an "Easter" service, like most churches hold on Easter Sunday. These past few days I've felt a little sad as I hear people talk about what their churches are doing. But I really don't think it matters that much, because in the end, what is all of that but a weak, pastel-colored echo of the deep, intense, beautiful, hopeful story of redemption - my redemption, through Christ?

I put together just a few thoughts on this.  This is not the kind of video I typically do, so I'm still learning this style, but hopefully it will encourage you or at least make you stop and think, if only for two minutes and four seconds.

God bless.  May His grace and His love be ever present on your mind this weekend.
- Elraen, the Wandering Star -