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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