Sunday, January 24, 2010

After it gets worse...

Last night I had an amazing opportunity. I got to go and work at a concert for the second time. This time it was at a Red, Pillar, The Wedding, and Me in Motion concert, at my University.

I hadn't been to a concert in two months and three days, which is a long break, for me. But I hadn't wanted to go to any concerts. The last concert I'd been to had been the Skillet show in November, when I worked merch. And that show had left some deep scars across my outlook on concerts. I think most of us have had an experience when we went into something expecting it to be incredible, but ended up running into a lot of roadblocks and getting lost in a lot of ditches we had never foreseen. Such was the last Skillet show for me. I don't mean that I hated it or was completely miserable, but the point is that I walked out of those doors feeling like a failure, and I hadn't managed to shake that feeling. It completely stole my delight. I didn't want to go to concerts, and even as I planned for the few concerts I'll be going to this year, I did so more as a matter of habit than anything else. I wasn't looking forward to them. I was... scared. Scared that I'd somehow fail again, and once again be forced to come face-to-face with how inadequate and twisted I am. So as I got ready to work the show last night, I was incredibly nervous. Eventually, shortly before I left, I sat down and prayed about it for a while. I didn't know if it would turn out terribly or well, but I did know that I couldn't do it on my own.

When I got there, I felt immediately welcomed. My good friend and her new husband were there to volunteer as well, and even the volunteers I didn't know were great people who I got along with. This time I was so familiar with the venue that it wasn't at all disorienting. We all stood around and chatted for a while before Pillar's lead singer, Rob, came out to show my friends how to work their table (and Rob's kids are absolutely adorable, by the way. They were there for quite a bit of it). Red had a guy to work their table for them, as did The Wedding, so the other merch volunteer and I headed over to Me in Motion's table. Their bass player came out before too long to show us what he wanted done.

Tim is one of the most gentle, soft-spoken rockers I have ever met. He went through everything on their table quickly and clearly, thanking us many times for volunteering to help out. Then he headed off to soundcheck with the rest of his band. We had a while to just stand around and wait for doors to open, as the clamor of soundcheck drifted into the lobby. When the doors did open, I quickly figured out that the pace would be much slower than when I worked for Skillet. Because we were working for the opening band, we were much less overwhelmed. I was incredibly grateful for that.

Me in Motion started their set on time, so the lobby cleared out. I did go into the auditorium for their song Losers, which has always been my favorite by them. Something interesting happened, as I walked into the tunnel leading from the lobby to our huge auditorium. As I felt the sound waves wash over me, I fell in love again. I just started laughing with the total delight of being lost in the music all over again. It didn't matter if I was a merch worker or a concert goer. It was the music, and the message in the music, and the souls that made it and the souls it touched. I stood over to the side, bobbing my head along and grinning. And I knew that the night would be wonderful.

After that, there was a brief break before The Wedding went on. I didn't watch The Wedding at all. Their set seemed to fly by really fast, so before long Me in Motion was out at their table for the intermission. They signed some things, but they had quite a few lulls where I got to just talk to them and get to know them. Talking to them was one of the most fun things about the night.

When Pillar started, I ran back into the auditorium. A pit had formed at the front, so I went in and found my way up close to the stage (as I somehow always do). For a split second I was afraid I had forgotten how to do things. I hadn't headbanged since the November concert-- I hadn't wanted to anymore. But those fears were quickly washed away as Pillar kicked us off with Fire on The Inside.

Pillar was one of the earlier Christian rock bands I started listening to, sometime in 2007, so they hold a special place in my heart. They have a more laid-back stage presence than Thousand Foot Krutch or Skillet, but they have a steady energy that comes with many years of playing shows. They played most of my favorites by them as well, including the amazing single Secrets and Regrets from their new album, Confessions. They finished off the night with Frontline, the song that really made me fall in love with them, years ago. Towards the end of the song I found my way out and back to the merch table, ears ringing, legs sore from jumping, but smiling.

Through this next intermission, Me in Motion came to their table to hang out again. My co-merch-worker went in to wait for Red's set, so I had the table to myself. Whenever I needed help, Tim would jump in and help me out. When Red started up, the lobby cleared out again.

Seth, Me in Motion's lead singer, offered to make me coffee. Considering I was tired and hadn't eaten dinner and hey, coffee's good anytime, I accepted his offer. So Seth hurried off backstage. A few minutes later he triumphantly returned with a cup of coffee and some creamer and sugar. Yes, he is quite possibly the sweetest lead singer ever.

A note here about "rock stars:" life on the road is grueling. You drive through the night, get to a venue in the morning, get everything set up, make sure your roadies and your volunteers know what they're doing, soundcheck, get ready to play a show. Play songs, either for 20 minutes or over an hour (depending on if you're opening or headlining), go out and take pictures and sign things for a few thousand people. Take everything down, get back in the van. Repeat this process, often four or five days in a row in four or five different states. Strange places and unfamiliar people every single day. I would argue that, in some ways, the military isn't even that difficult, because at least you have the constancy of your companions. Which brings me to the point: life on the road seems to either make or break people, much like the military. As I've met and hung out with musicians, I've noticed that they are usually either tired and quiet and worn thin, or tired and warm and glowing with smiles and grace for everyone they meet. Yes, the tired is pretty much an absolute. You can't live that way and not be tired. But it has been amazing to meet these Christian bands who are so incredibly passionate about what they do that even months and years spent in a van won't hold them back. Secular rock stars turn to drugs and drinking to survive the loneliness of their lives, but Christian rockers can either turn to God, or give up. And those that turn to God end up being people who are fun to be around, simply because they have learned how to pour into people's lives with so much love and so much grace and so much honesty. For this reason, I value every moment that I get to spend with musicians. Maybe some of their patient endurance will rub off on me someday.

As Red's set went on, I heard them start up Pieces. I asked one of the ushers to watch my table for me while I went in. Pieces was the first Red song I heard, back in April of 2007, and it had an absolutely tremendous impact on me at the time. I'll admit to having basically cried my way through the whole song, but it was incredible to get to see it done live for the first time. After that I went out and watched the table again.

When the concert ended, the signing process began. My co-merch-worker had to leave early, so once again, I had the table on my own. It was busiest then, but I didn't mind. Eventually, Tim told me that he would watch the table so I could go and talk to the other bands, as the signing lines died down. I thanked him, and got a picture with Seth, Tim, and Dexter before heading out.

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I went and got to talk to Pillar and get a picture with them, and then I went and talked to Red and got a picture with them (though I'd already met them in October, for those of you who remember).

Image and video hosting by TinyPic

Image and video hosting by TinyPic

After that I went back and helped Tim take down and pack up the merch stand. Two of my friends joined me to help carry, and Me in Motion's road manager came to direct us. We hauled all the boxes back to the loading ramp. It was a little surreal to be walking backstage, past different band members and their managers, but at the same time it felt right. Finally it was time for me to head off, as there wasn't much else I could do to help.

I have very rarely felt as accepted and at home as I did that night, and I think it's because I have never felt quite so in love with music. As I sat on my bed this morning and strummed away on my guitar in my amateur, childish way, it was tempting to believe that what I was doing was somehow a mockery of "real" musicians-- as if I am somehow incomplete. But I don't believe that is the truth. After last night, I find myself remembering that God gives us passions for a reason. Whatever you love most, whatever you desire most, whatever deep longing you feel that seems too beautiful to be real... don't hide from it, so long as it's not harmful. God implants these things into our hearts so that when our hearts beat for Him, our passions will move for Him as well. We are creatures of beauty and of talent, gifted by an infinitely skilled Creator. We are fearfully and wonderfully made.

I've said this many times before, but after last night it bears repeating: I don't know what in the world God's doing with the whole music thing. I don't know why He's given me so many doorways to see into the music scene, why He speaks to me so clearly through music. But I do know that I want every key on my piano, every string on my guitar, every note I sing, to be given to God-- because He put them inside me in the first place. He gave me the music, and I want to give it back, whether I'm working merch or out in the audience or playing guitar alone in my room.

If you've read through this whole thing: thank you for sharing in my thoughts and my life. God bless!

- Elraen -

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Hear Me

Before diving into a new year for this blog, I should wrap up business from last year. There was a recurring theme last semester that I kept considering writing a blog on, and never knew how, so I kept holding back. But then I remembered that I never know how to write a blog. They just happen, if I sit down and ask for words.

Last semester I had a Computer Science teacher who was new to my University. He scared me at first, but I came to respect him. I tend to have incredibly awkward relationships with professors, so even the fact that he always made an effort to talk to me individually won him my trust. At my University, we almost always have devotionals and prayer to start off each class. I normally don't remember the devotions. Right now, I remember maybe three or four from all my other classes since I started college. But not so with Computer Science. I remember at least a dozen of the devotions that this professor gave. Maybe partly because they were so stripped down, so honest, so raw. Maybe because he mostly abandoned the Christian terminology and cliches that only ever serve to lose me. I don't know for certain, but I know that his words had a huge impact on me.

And one theme he brought up a lot was that of prayer. He stressed over and over again how we should pray when working on all our homework, and that we should then take that with us into whatever workplace we go to after college. You'd think this would be pretty simple stuff that everyone would do. Unfortunately, that's not the case. Most of the other students I've talked to don't do this, or if they do, they don't really take it seriously or expect it to work.

I didn't really expect it to work either, until I was already more than 3/4 of the way done with the semester. I had a huge paper due that I was going to have to present at my University's scholarly conference, and quite honestly, I was freaking out. Besides the fact that public speaking is a fate considerably worse than death, the paper had to be highly theoretical and analytical, and I had been given very little direction. I struggled and fought through the first three pages of a 6 - 8 page paper. I wasted precious days, until I had just a few left. Then one morning it randomly struck me that maybe this wasn't just a bad assignment. Maybe it was deeper than that. I thought back to my Computer Science professor, and I spent a while praying about it.

Less than 24 hours later, I had written another 5 pages on a paper that would later receive a very high grade, with little to no editing. By that point I was pretty much convinced that my Computer Science prof pretty much knew what he was talking about.

But school wasn't the only thing that I fought to pray about more, or the only area where the power of prayer was proved to me. Also in November, it came to my attention that I was somehow missing several hundred dollars. To say this hit hard would be a major understatement. I like to think I'm not terribly materialistic, but I try to work hard, and I have a lot of things to pay for. Suddenly I was faced with having no money for insurance and books and school fees. I worried about it a lot, for several weeks. I had no idea where to begin to fix it.

Eventually I mentioned it to my dear friend Liz and asked for prayer. Later that night, she responded and said she was praying, and that she believed very strongly that the money would be found. Around 5 minutes later, my mother checked an account she almost never uses, and found my money there. Beyond being an incredible blessing, it was also a moment of coming face-to-face with how big prayer can be.

The final thread to weave in is one that goes back farther. This summer, we found out we'd be going to Nashville for a family reunion in late December. I informed my good friend Rivus, who lives in Tennessee, in hopes that we could meet up. He told me that he'd be out of state then, so there was no way it would work. I gave up on the matter, labeling it as impossible.

In November, as I was seeing all these things about prayer, I was also feeling rather like my Christmas Break would be meaningless and lonely. Then I randomly felt nudged to pray that I would get to see Rivus while we were in Nashville. It seemed strange to pray for an impossibility, but the thought wouldn't leave, so I prayed about it. I continued to do so as the semester went on and ended, even though I still considered it to be impossible.

We found out that we'd be staying a day later than intended in Nashville, instead of going a day early. My older sister was flying straight from there to move to Africa, and the best available ticket was on December 31st (the day we originally planned to drive home).

Long story short, on Christmas Eve I talked to Rivus, and it turned out that he and his father would be coming down and driving through Nashville on their way home, on the 31st. And they would be hitting Nashville at about dinner time-- perfect for meeting up somewhere for an hour or two.

I was somewhat in awe. In a few days "impossible" had become "see you in a week." But God had a few other cool things He wanted to do even after that.

Turns out our hotel was literally just a few hundred yards from the highway Rivus and his dad would be on-- it was 2 or 3 miles after they'd normally turn onto another highway, but basically this meant they'd barely have to go out of their way at all to find us. In addition to that, in the corner between this highway and the street our hotel was facing was a Panera Bread. For the CleanPlacers reading, I don't need to explain why that's significant. For others, let me explain: Panera is the legendary home of countless CleanPlace gatherings, due to its awesome food and free wi-fi. I have spent many, many hours in a Panera in Colorado with dear friends. This was the final Artist's touch on the masterpiece.

We never could have met if my sister's plane ticket had been for just a day earlier, or if Rivus's drive had been just an hour or two longer or shorter. We would have had a lot less time together, except that the hotel was in the perfect place.

As I have said before, I absolutely love those moments when I say "I can't" and God smiles, sits back, and says "watch this."

I'm not sure where I ever got this idea that God only listens to certain requests, or that He only cares about what we have to say some of the time. More and more I've come to understand that He loves the sound of my voice. We have the Creator of the Universe as our own personal Councilor-- that is pretty epic, if you ask me. And the crazy thing is, He even cares about things like papers for conferences and lost money and meeting with friends in Nashville. Even though He doesn't always answer in the way we might want or as soon as we might expect, when His children cry out, God hears.

And it had nothing to do with praying in the "right way" or in the "right place." As a child, the church had me totally confused on prayer. It seemed like it was a list of things to check off. Was I in the right place? Was I praying for enough missionaries? Was I using the right words? How did I even address God anyway? I can't pretend to give a "right way," even now. But I do know that God's a lot less concerned with the words than He is with the attitude behind it and our openness to Him. I also have found out something incredible over the past few months: the closer we grow to God, and the more we come to know His character and the sound of His voice, the easier it is to know what and how to pray. On my best days, everything I pray for is something He's specifically laid on my heart and given me words for, not something I feel like I "should" talk to Him about. I hope and pray that I can grow into a place where most days are like that.

So, all of these rambling threads to say: don't be afraid to talk to Him. Even when all you can say is "I feel too distant to know how to talk to You right now." He listens. Always. And you'll be amazed by the way He answers. I know I am.

Happy January, and God bless!
- Elraen -