Sunday, October 24, 2010

You Don't Own Me

This is one of those blog posts that I’m really afraid to post, because I’m afraid of how it will be received. But then, for me to not post it out of fear would go against the whole point.

This summer I saw a movie that a lot of other people saw. It was a movie called Inception. I'm not giving away spoilers, but one of the characters in the movie struggles with and is held captive by something in his head, and the result is that he nearly loses everything. One of the major things I walked out of that movie with was the simple thought “what am I owned by?” And that question is the starting point of this post.

I have been very involved in various fan cultures for years now. That has had some good things come from it, and also some very, very hard things. One of the hard things has been that I have felt so much pressure so often to like certain bands and songs, to act a certain way at shows, and to be a certain person when it came to music in general. Recently, after years of this pressure, I cracked. In my desperate scramble to be the person I believed people in the music community wanted me to be, I lost myself. And so I stopped reading or posting in the fan communities I’d been involved in. For over a month, I didn’t listen to Skillet anymore, or Thousand Foot Krutch, or Flyleaf, or Disciple, or Relient K, or RED. Every time I tried, I hated myself because my head was screaming with everyone else’s opinions of the songs and the way they talked about the bands and the way I was supposed to feel about it.

As a note of clarification, this is not something I blame on my friends. I have met some pretty amazing people through music. Actually, all of the friends I have made over the past two years have been through music. The problem I’m addressing here is a mindset in me that caused me to react in the wrong way.

So it was a little weird to be going to a Thousand Foot Krutch and Disciple show, this past Friday. I hadn’t listened to either in nearly two months, even though there was a time when I would listen to both every day. We listened to their songs on the way to Dallas, and I found that I still remembered all the words. At least I could sing along at the show.

We got there after some fun times on the tight one way streets of downtown Dallas and stood in line, waiting for the doors to open. I was enjoying talking with my siblings and my friend who were there with me. I was texting with my good friend Liz. Then I got a text from twitter.

On a whim, before the show I’d synced the twitter accounts for all the bands I would be seeing that night to my phone. I usually don’t get anything from twitter to my phone, because I don’t have unlimited texting, but for whatever reason that night I thought it could be fun in case the bands said anything about the show as it progressed. Disciple had posted on their twitter that they really needed someone to work merch.

At first I wasn’t going to say yes because I was afraid I wouldn’t do a good job, but the hesitation was brief. I realized that if there was anything that could make the night go well, it would be serving... this was a once in a lifetime opportunity to give back, even in a small way, to a band that had made a huge impact on my life for the past few years. So I responded that I could volunteer, and was told to go to the merch table as soon as I got in.

It was so weird and random that I didn't tell my siblings about it for several minutes after the exchange. I had no idea how to feel about it. Usually I have weeks of warning before doing merch. This time I had 15 minutes.

When doors open, I went and found Amanda (who runs their merch and is married to Andrew, one of the guitarists). I got trained in about 2 minutes as people were already coming in and buying things. Then it was just jumping in and helping where I could.

It was insane, but it was amazingly fun. Amanda is possibly one of the nicest people I have met in my life, and that made it even better. I got to talk to dozens of people as they came up to buy stuff. Because it was a club show, merch was just at the back of the room, so I had a great view of the stage as Ivoryline played. After that, Amanda came back to the table and told me she would watch it so I could go out on the floor for Disciple.

I hurried out and found a spot that was as close to the stage as possible while still leaving a good escape route so I could get back to the table when Disciple finished up. And then the music started.

This blog post can’t really deal with everything that happened then. As it is, I am not mentioning some of the most major issues I was carrying, because this blog isn’t the place for them. But there are a few definite things that need to be said.

While Disciple played Worth the Pain, I closed my eyes and in the midst of the crowd I sank to my knees on the hard, grimy concrete. The crowd pressed all around me. I couldn’t see the stage. I could only hear the music, the words drifting over and around me. And as I talked to God, ignoring everyone else around me, it started to occur to me that I was letting myself be owned by some very odd things.

I am not owned by what bands I’m a fan of. I am not owned by music. I am not owned by the opinions of any other person. I am not owned by the person I have been. I am not owned by my school or my degree. These are not the things that define me. They are all things that are going to pass away, things that won’t last forever. They didn’t create me, so why would I trust them to tell me who I am?

Some day there will be no more CDs, no more iPods, no more shows, no more Skillet or Switchfoot or Disciple or TFK, no more drama, no more twitter, no more facebook. The layers of darkness will be peeled back, and the guns and blades and bottles will shatter. I won’t have paychecks or papers to write then, and I won’t be thinking about bands.

The only thing in the world that will matter then will be the fact that I am loved unconditionally by God, and that I love Him in return.

That’s it. That is the only thing in this whole world that’s going to last. And if that is the case, then why in the world would I think that all that other stuff matters? It’s all going to burn away. The message of the music will remain, but the music itself will not, at least not as I hear it now. The music only has as much value as God breathes into it anyway. And the bottom line is that even if all these bands I love had never been formed, and even if I had never connected in the relationships I have, and even if I had never written a poem or a story or taken a photograph... God would still be the same God. He is not defined by something as insignificant as human opinion. We can’t define Him, but His love can define us. And I am so prone to forget that.

I went back to the merch table after Disciple finished playing. My eyes were tear stained and my hair was messy from headbanging, but I felt peaceful. And that in itself was a miracle. It was enough that I could totally enjoy TFK’s set as I watched from behind the merch table. Another volunteer had joined me by now, and I had a wonderful time chatting with her and enjoying the music with her.

After the bands got off the stage, there was the usual extreme flurry of activity as people hurried to buy merch. It was particularly fast because the bands were running a very tight schedule. TFK started signing in the corner. Initially Disciple wasn’t going to sign, but they ended up doing a very informal signing outside. Amanda had already gone to get something signed for me, but I asked if I could run quickly to say hi to the guys. She very graciously said yes.

I ran (literally) outside and waited for a few minutes. Then when I got a chance I stepped up and said hi to the guys. They were all incredibly kind, as always, and they made me smile. I chatted with them for a few minutes before running back inside. TFK was done signing for other people then, so I got to go and get something signed and talk to them for a few minutes before going to help Amanda pack up Disciple’s merch.

Here’s the weird thing: I actually talked to the guys. I am usually awful at talking to bands (see my last post for a great example... though admittedly, that was a special case). Maybe it’s because I’d met both of these bands before. Maybe it’s because I had the automatic connection due to the fact that they knew I was working the tables. But I think the greatest factor was that I didn’t feel anymore like what I said and did would somehow forever own me. It was amazing to get to talk to Kevin, Micah, Israel, Andrew, Trent, Ty, Joel, Steve, and Trevor, and they were incredibly kind and accepting of me, which meant so much. But even if they hadn't been kind, it would have been alright... I am owned by something so much greater. And that was something I learned that night-- not necessarily because of the music, but because of Someone else singing through it, bringing words to life.

And the aftermath of this has been interesting. I can listen to the bands I love again... it’s been so amazing to finally be able to enjoy Skillet again. But it’s almost like I’m hearing it all for the first time. I look at bands differently now, and for the first time I don't feel like I'm somehow unworthy to talk to bands. I honestly can’t say anymore that I have a favorite band... instead, there are truths (the truth of love, of hope, of redemption) that I love. I seek to live those truths, whether that means hearing them in songs at a show, or hearing them in the quiet moments by myself in some back corner of the library where I work, or echoing them when I take a moment to love someone who most people would walk past. All these moments are equally valuable. And all this isn't about loving music less-- it's about loving the God who makes it beautiful more.

Ultimately, truth is the focus. It’s the truth in the music that I need to love, not the music itself (which, while wonderful, is hollow if it is devoid of truth). My relationships are beautiful because (and only if) they echo truth. The things I learn are only valuable if they echo truth.

In the words of Jon Foreman, “Maybe truth is not something that I can possess. Maybe truth is something which possesses me."

And everything else? The opinions, the statistics, the standards, the countless ghosts of mistakes I’ve made? Kevin Young sings these words about all that... “go ahead, you’re never going to take me. You can bend, but you’re never going to break me. I was yours, I’m not yours anymore-- you don’t own me.”

Yes... I am owned by the truth of redemption. And in light of that, I can let go of everything else. May that truth be real in my life. May others see it shine.

- Elraen -

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Friday, October 15, 2010

I Dare You

This is possibly the hardest blog post I have ever written. And also possibly the longest, even after serious trimming.

Here’s some lovely, raw honesty to start us out: until the past two months, I had been living out my faith backwards. The moot this year was what started the change, and it was cemented at a Tenth Avenue North concert I went to a few weeks ago, and then through a conversation with a friend. Basically, I had my priorities mixed up, which is sort of silly, because Jesus told us outright what our first priority is: love God with all that you are. The second most important (which is similar) is to love people. Loving people is a natural result of loving God. However, I’d been living it backwards. I had gotten it into my head that if I didn’t love people first, my love would not be accepted by God, and He certainly wouldn’t love me. In my desperation to do, to serve, I was missing the entire motivation and the most important purpose for what I was doing in the first place.

Over the past two months, God has kind of wrecked me. He’s broken down walls and dismantled my silly, human systems that had become nothing more than chains. It’s been glorious and tragic and beautiful and painful and hopeful... much like all the best songs are.

But it’s meant looking at things in my life in a new way. And it’s meant going over some bumps in the process.

On Saturday, October 9, my dear friend Joy drove up to my house. We got into her truck together and set off down the highway, chasing songs. We picked up her friend Heather and then went to a small club in one of the busiest areas of Tyler. Joy and I are both part of Switchfoot’s official fanclub, which meant we had early access to watch them soundcheck and then to meet the guys. Later we would also be admitted into the venue to claim our spots first.

We were late, but fortunately everything at the venue was running a little late too, so we didn’t miss it. The fanclub members were given wristbands and then let into the venue. Switchfoot played Bullet Soul for our small group. They usually soundcheck longer, but The Almost didn’t have any of their stuff set up yet, so Switchfoot had to stop and let them set the stage.

We all moved into a back area for an informal meet and greet. Tim walked in first, a coffee cup in hand. The other guys came in one by one, and they all scattered to different areas of the room to start talking to people.

Joy, Heather, and I all stood in a corner, watching. I had been incredibly nervous leading up to this point in time, and it got worse once we were actually there. I was shaking uncontrollably.

Chad was the first one to come over to us in the corner and talk to us. I think I said maybe one word. Tim was the next one who came over to talk to us. Joy and Heather had him sign their hoodies. I wasn’t going to say anything at all, but Tim saw that I had a camera with me and asked if I wanted a picture, which I most definitely did.

Usually, after I talk to the first few people at an event like this, it gets easier. This time that wasn’t the case. Even as we met them and right afterwards, I was analyzing the event. It’s always been hard for me to talk to bands, just like it’s hard for me to talk to anyone I haven’t met before (and even most people I have met before). But why is it the bands that have written things that mean the most to me are hardest to talk to?

Telling myself that “they’re just normal people” doesn’t help. I know that. That actually makes it worse, because that means that I have at best two minutes to connect with a person who has hopes, fears, dreams, passions, ambitions, and struggles, just like me. And to make it more complicated, I already know a lot about many of the band members I meet-- I know pieces of their story. But they know nothing about me, except that I cared enough to show up that day. How do you connect with someone in just a few minutes? How do you tell Jon, Tim, Chad, Drew, and Jerome that these tunes that they wrote from where they were became an important part of where I was? In two minutes, how do you tell them about the awful, terrible first semester of college where some mornings the only way you had the courage to go to school at all was by turning Stars up way too loud and dancing in the kitchen with a mug of coffee in one hand? How do you tell them about being stranded in an airport, 17 years old and alone, 700 miles from home, and finding the strength to just keep walking because Dare You to Move started playing on the airport’s speakers? How do you tell them about letting their songs play every night on a battered iPod in an effort to chase away the nightmares?

And more than that, the fact that they had given me something that became a part of my life, but I had given nothing to them, made me feel absolutely and completely vulnerable. This goes back to what I said at the beginning of this post. For a long time, the only way I knew how to handle relationships was through the lens of what I had to do and how I had to act and what I had to give and the constant, endless battle to meet everyone’s expectations of the person I should be. But these guys had no expectations. They were totally willing to give me their time and their songs and their smiles. And I had nothing. And it was absolutely and completely terrifying.

I was so certain that they were just going to talk to others and ignore me entirely, and I was OK with that. But they didn’t. I never had to ask to get a picture with any of the guys-- they all asked me. I think I only said one complete sentence while we were talking to any of them. Even when I was with Jon, who I had met before, I couldn’t speak. I could only smile and say thank you.

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After the meet and greet, we went in search of coffee. I was still shaking. I downed the coffee in like 60 seconds flat. I was thinking and re-thinking and over thinking the experience of meeting the Switchfoot guys. And above all, I was angry at myself for being quiet. I kept telling myself that that I must have looked ridiculous, that I had been the only person in that room too afraid to talk, that all of my friends would never act like that... and it went on.

A local act started us off. As it was time for The Almost’s set, the area at the front got more and more crowded. I grabbed onto the barrier and held on. They played a really great set-- you may remember that they were in my list of top 5 bands to see live. Their lead singer, Aaron, is a hero of mine. He is amazingly loud and energetic and blunt on stage. It was awesome to finally get to see him perform. But we were all waiting for Switchfoot.

To see Switchfoot at all in a small venue was an incredible privilege. I don’t know how it happened, but somehow Joy, Heather, and I all ended up with spots at the very front, pressed against the barrier, holding on, with a surging sea of people pressing in tight behind us.

And then came the music.

I’m not sure I have ever spent so much of a concert with my eyes closed. And it was simply because it was so beautiful it hurt, and I wanted to fall into it, regardless of everyone else around me. And I have never been at a concert where I sang so much. I sang until my voice cracked, and still I sang, hoarse, unafraid then, because the songs were so very brave.

One famous thing about Switchfoot shows is that Jon is incredibly good at connecting to the audience. He reaches out to them in every way possible. One thing he often does is to literally reach out and take peoples’ hands while singing. Early on, Jon came over to my side of the stage and reached out and took my hand. He held it while he sang.

This is not about me being singled out-- that action was normal for Jon. But for me it was more an image that was forever cemented in my head. There in the song and in the contrasting light and dark and in the sweaty, singing, pulsing crowd, Jon simply reached out and took my hand. And it was a moment of connection, a moment that was more than any words that could have been spoken.

And as the setlist continued, complete with almost all of the Switchfoot songs that have meant the most to me, I sang and I cried and I wondered who I was and why in the world I was invited into something so beautiful.

The encore came quietly at first, with their song Twenty Four (a song that has been special to me since I heard Jon play it live when I saw him do a solo show in April). And then Jon played the simple opening chords to Dare You to Move.

Something in me shattered, then. And it was a brokenness that was beautiful. Because as I heard them play one of my favorite songs, a song that has been my cry and my encouragement and often my only reason for waking up, I heard other things singing through it, through the haze of my insecurities and the wall created by the lies I had believed. Do you really think this is all, Mary? Do you really think that I’m going to leave you here and give up on you? This is just the beginning. Move. I dare you.

There was a final moment to end the night. As is tradition, the guys all came out together to thank us and wish us goodnight. They were starting to head off stage. Then Drew (who had been in front of me the whole time) turned around and hurried back to the edge of the stage by me. Everyone lifted their hands in the air in response. He sort of glanced at everyone else, then met my eyes, smiled, and high-fived me. Then he left the stage. It was a brilliant, random moment that I haven’t been able to talk about much since then because it doesn’t seem like it should have happened. But it was, again, a connection.

And things began to wind down. Joy, Heather, and I sat and talked together for a while, all of us still energetic, living on the aftershock. We went out and sat in the parking lot beside Switchfoot’s bus with a few other dedicated fans, waiting to see if Jon would come out. He did.

A fan had brought him a homemade banjo. Jon tuned it, and with all of us crowded around in the parking lot after midnight, he played and sang a song for us. It was one of those amazing, unreal moments. After that, a lot of people talked to him. I was too afraid to, and I didn’t want to bother him since I’d already met him before. I did get a picture of Joy with him though, which excited me, because I had been concerned that I hadn’t earlier.

It was much later still by the time Joy and I said goodbye to Heather and got back to my house. By that point, there were already a thousand thoughts floating around in my head, and I was over thinking again. I slept uneasily, and woke up finding myself questioning who I was again, still angry at myself for being so quiet.

And as the days went on, I stayed that way. I lay the joy aside and wrestled with the pain. I finally came to some conclusions. One of the major ones was that the reason why I was struggling with it so much was because I felt that by being quiet, I was not only failing Jon, Tim, Chad, Drew, and Jerome, but I was failing the expectations people have of who I should be. I thought of all the stories I’ve heard of my friends meeting bands, and none of them were like that at all. I was different. I was not the way I should have been.

I finally heard an answer to my thoughts when I was listening to On Fire (which has become one of my favorite songs ever) and vacuuming at the daycare I clean with my dad. I was thinking through it all, and thinking about how incomplete I am and how much I have to change before I can be like everyone else, and a simple, quiet thought broke through-- who told you you were less?

And then I cried all over the vacuum cleaner. Because what I heard in that simple statement meant the world to me. It was God saying who said that saying less words means that you and who you are is worth less? Who said that the people in that band thought less of you because you were shaking? Who said that you are worth less because you are taller than the others? That’s not what I think. You don’t see what I see in you.

And it was then that it occurred to me that I was missing the point. It wasn’t about what I had or hadn’t done. Wasn’t it just recently that I learned that there are constants greater than my own failures? It wasn’t about failure this time. It was about the simple moments of the guys asking me for a picture even when I was too scared to step forward and ask them. It was about Jon reaching forward to take my hand as he sang, and Drew randomly running back to high five me even though he totally didn’t have to. It was about the fact that no matter how I see myself and how much I mess it up and how dark and confusing and chaotic our painful, broken world is, there are always going to be people to reach out and take my hand in the middle of a song.

And in light of that, I am beginning to wonder if there are a lot of things I’ve had wrong. Am I more than what the world tells me I should be? Am I more than barely scraping by? Am I more than a 19-year-old kid who is too quiet all the time? Because if I am, then that means that I don’t need to live in constant fear of motion because I’m afraid that I won’t be moving the way everyone tells me to. It means that I am more than college and grades tell me I am. It means that scars are not the final moment, but the starting point. It means that where I am now is only the beginning, rather than the total of who I am. It means I have a reason to keep going, even when it’s dark. It means that I can burn bright, that I have another chance.

It means that the constant song I’ve heard since my freshman year is getting louder, not quieter... that there is a song of redemption and broken things made new calling out simple, beautiful, earth-shattering words: I dare you to move.

And so I will.

- Elraen -

Maybe redemption has stories to tell, maybe forgiveness is right where you fell. Where can you run to escape from yourself? Where you gonna go? Where you gonna go? Salvation is here.