Saturday, October 22, 2011

Redemption Has Stories to Tell

For most of this year, this blog has held thoughts, but few stories. But tonight I have a story for you... maybe more than one.

Last weekend, I had the chance to go see one of my very favorite bands. Twice, actually. The first time, they were at my school. Early afternoon, my friend Joy arrived, and we set off for the performance center together.

Despite the fact that Switchfoot has held a steady position in my top five bands for years now, I had only seen them once before, a year ago at a tiny show in Tyler that impacted me deeply. So when we got to watch soundcheck with the rest of the fanclub, it was with a beautiful feeling of awe. We sat to listen to them play Souvenirs and Afterlife for soundcheck, and I closed my eyes and felt the bass pulsing through the wood handles on the chairs. I closed my eyes and soaked it in.

Afterwards, we got a brief chance to talk to the guys. You might remember my story of meeting them a year ago, how I said a grand total of one sentence the entire time. This time I had things to say. Even in talking to Jon Foreman, who I have an extremely deep respect for, I wasn’t afraid this time. I had them sign my favorite hoodie, the one I wear almost every day, the one that carries memories stitched in the cloth.

That evening I worked merch, behind the table with one of the most chill, kind guys I’ve ever done merch for. I hadn’t worked merch in close to a year now, so it felt so much like coming home. We helped hundreds of eager fans. I answered questions about the band. I made a few people smile, but many more of them made me smile.

And when the lulls came, we got to go in for the music. First it was during Anberlin, another of my very favorite bands. At my university’s performance center, there are two sets of somewhat soundproofed doors separating the massive auditorium from the lobby. Past the doors are two long tunnels that curve beneath the second orchestra before spilling you out facing the stage. Every time I work merch it is the same. I shove the doors open. Immediately the music hits me like a wave. No matter how much I brace myself for the impact, it still sends shivers rushing over my skin. I run down the tunnel, seeing stage lights flicker at the end. It’s like diving into the ocean, deeper and deeper into the overpowering pulse of the waves.

And it was beautiful. I am prone to forget. I take a lot of roles in the music world now, wear many different faces, and I always carry the fear of failure in each. Photographer, writer/reviewer, merch volunteer, dedicated fan. These are names I wear. These are labels I struggle with at times, trying to learn to fit the job descriptions more fully. It’s terribly uncomfortable trying to slide into a partial skin never meant to be a complete shelter. So that night I let go of the skin, of the shells I hide inside until my soul dwindles to a sullen spark. Instead, I did the best job I could as myself... as someone who loves the music, who sees the music as a vessel for unimaginable beauty. And that freed me. I stood near the stage, singing along, every word familiar as it left my throat.

After the concert, many of us gathered around Switchfoot’s bus, as is tradition. Jon came and told us to meet him out front. After a few location changes, we gathered on the stairs facing the front of my campus. Jon came with his guitar, standing on a low brick wall, all of us gathered on the grass. He played and we sang, sending melodies into the face of midnight. And it was easy to believe then that sometimes life is terribly beautiful.

There was a day to recover before the next time. On a Monday morning I left work early and Joy left class early and we piled into a car with my sister Mercy and our friend Caleb to set off for Dallas. We reached the venue early, and soon Joy and I were in for another soundcheck and meet and greet. This time the group was small.

I had brought a Starbucks cup for the guys to sign, something I had planned a year ago. It prompted conversation, more places for memories. We had time to talk to each of the five guys, who remembered Joy and I from two nights earlier, despite how many faces they see every day.

When we talked to Jon, he asked us what they should play that night. I have never made a request of a band before, partly due to my almost painfully sharp desire to be respectful-- I never want to be “that one fan” who is eternally convinced that they know the setlist the band should be playing. But since he asked, after discussing the setlist for a few minutes, I mentioned a song called The Shadow Proves the Sunshine. We talked about it for a minute, and I faced again the complete impossibility of telling someone how a song they have captured can in turn capture me. He listened with so much kindness. He said they couldn’t play it that night, but they would try to soon.

Afterwards it was time for hours in line with new and old friends. It’s incredible, how many beautiful, broken, shining people you meet at rock shows. I was there as a photographer, but I didn’t want to separate myself, even when we got into the venue. There were good conversations. Even once I was in the photography pit, a place I never would have dreamed I would be able to go, I walked along the barrier talking.

And then for the music. Even in the mad dash of the first three songs, scrambling through the photography pit, learning the ins and outs of a beautiful camera loaned to me by a very kind friend, trying to capture the songs, I found myself singing. I couldn’t help myself.

After I left the photo pit, I stood near the front on the side, cradling two cameras. Switchfoot played one of my favorites, Thrive, for the very first time that night. And then I heard them begin playing an older song, We Are One Tonight. Jon climbed off the stage, slipping to lose himself in the crowd, as he often does. I know their habits well enough to know what they were doing with the song. They almost always play it as a medley. And sure enough, soon they slipped into a different chorus, and from deep in the chaos of the crowd I heard words saturating the thick air:

“We are crooked souls trying to stay up straight, dry eyes in the pouring rain where the shadow proves the sunshine. Two scared little runaways, hold fast to the break of daylight where the shadow proves the sunshine.”

A lot has happened in the year since I last saw Switchfoot play that full song live. There has been so much beauty and so much heartache. I would venture to say that this past year has held most of the deepest hurts and the most indescribable joys of my life, and it has been very, very hard. There have been deaths and friendships lost and dreams buried and shades of doubt threatening to drain the light from the sun. And so to come back, to find that the songs are still beautiful, still true, and still reaching...

Many of you have heard me quote Thrive over the past year, since Jon first played it at aftershows. There is a beautiful line there: “I come alive when I hear You singing, but lately I haven’t been hearing a thing.” I claimed that as my reality before these shows. I begged God simply to let me hear Him singing again, to grant even echoes of His true song. And it was in that moment, as Jon walked by me in the crowd, singing one of my favorite songs, that I heard again. I heard redemption singing in the incredible kindness of a band who barely knew me, in the gift of the pictures and the provision of a camera, in the conversations with friends, in these songs that the guys poured every drop of their souls into. The best music happens when the musicians boldly climb on stage and bleed. Switchfoot is good at this. They breathe hope from the deepest places of their lungs.

And so several minutes later when a sold-out crowd sang the lines of a song that continues to follow me through these long college years, I could believe it again, let the truth own me: “maybe redemption has stories to tell, maybe forgiveness is right where you fell. Where can you run to escape from yourself? Where are you going to go? Salvation is here.

Rain often comes on the days that mean the most to me, and tonight the rain found us and poured over the venue’s worn-out roof. We stood in the foyer talking with new friends until they closed the venue down. Then one of our new friends allowed four dripping almost-strangers to ride with him so that we didn’t have to walk the several blocks to our car.

Some of you reading this know me well, some of you barely know me at all. For those of you who don’t know much of my story: I have spent significant seasons of my life battling depression, a fight that has been crippling at times. It does not own me now, despite the most severe relapse in years swallowing the first half of this year, but the reality is that I can count the number of times that I have been honestly happy without being held back by a sense of guilt on one hand. This past weekend was one of them. And I could attribute it to many things. I could say it was the band, these songs that mean so much to me, that I sing to myself over and over again. I could say it was my friends, Joy, Mercy, Caleb, Emma, and William, these people who shared the beauty of the evening with me, who contributed more than they’ll ever know. I could say it was getting to talk to Switchfoot, I could say it was simply being away from school. But the reality is that all of that was simply a vehicle for carrying a deeper gladness.

It is the joy that comes from understanding beauty is still a possibility in middle of the deepening cold. It is the peace that comes from seeing that I am hopelessly flawed and yet my God is still good. It is the hope that comes from finally admitting I don’t have answers, and sometimes that’s alright-- sometimes simply knowing that redemption is real and that it knows my name is enough.

It was like my heartbeat restarted. I can hear the Song again... and I am more than ready to sing along until my lungs cave in.

Blessings tonight. May you hear redemption’s song... may you sing along.
- Elraen -

P.S. - I owe endless thanks to Mercy for dealing with her older sister’s over-excited behavior, Caleb for the ridiculous conversations on the way home, Emma for the conversations and sharing her beautiful camera, William for navigating crazy downtown Dallas streets in the pouring rain in middle of the night, every stranger who high fived me, hugged me, and sang with me. Nights like these are never mine alone.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The True Song

Jon Foreman has written before about how his songs seem to be converging. He says that maybe eventually he’ll just be playing one long song, a song expressing whatever one thing all his songs now are trying to say.

That came back to me today after I had been turning a new concept over in my head. I love working in analogies, in pictures that are more than pictures. Maybe because I am an artist. My stories and poems and songs mean more than the words say.

I am in a doctrines class this semester, studying the most basic issues of the Christian faith. A consistent theme is that even within Christianity, there are many viewpoints, and many of them are equally defensible. Today the topic we discussed is one that has divided the church for centuries, and one of the reasons is because the core of both viewpoints can be supported as true, even though they seem to be in contrast with each other.

I have been thinking a lot about truth the past few months, fighting hard to find it. I have fought with a lot of doubts this year. It has been a crushing, humbling, and ultimately incredibly productive experience, because it has pushed me to pursue truth with a hunger I have never known before. A frustration I have run into countless times is this simple truth: every human being is fallible. To say that my intellect is an absolute standard for truth is very foolish, because that must mean that my neighbor’s intellect is also an absolute standard for truth (providing we are equally intelligent), and if we disagree, what then? Maybe a good way to say this is simply that if it were possible for humanity to determine absolute truth on their own, we would have done so by now.

So if humanity is ultimately fallible, then there can be no understanding of truth without influence from outside. Even then, the understanding will only be partial, because it has to filter through the dark curtain of our own ignorance and imperfection. No matter how bright the sunlight is, if a creature is born with a thick film over its eyes, it will not see the fullness of the sun.

And what this means is that I cannot ever hope to understand all there is to know about truth. I can understand parts of it, definitely, because in the Bible God has revealed to us everything we need to know (not everything that is because we cannot grasp everything, but everything we need). God in His mercy has chosen to show us who He is, and even though we are so imperfect, we recognize Him. Even the creature with partway blind eyes still knows what light is, even if it does not see its source or see how bright it really is.

So now for my analogy. I have terrible rhythm when I play the piano, and before I started playing guitar it was even worse. When learning a new piece, how I played it was dependent on how I wanted it played. I would turn quarter notes into half notes and slash whole notes in half indiscriminately, and even then no two quarter notes were held for the same amount of time. Time signatures became irrelevant. I just wanted to play. I was incapable of playing with metronomes, and I didn’t feel any need to learn.

In 2009, I performed on the piano for the first time in many years. Beforehand I was practicing, trying to put myself in sync with my friend Ruth’s violin so we could play together. My then close friend, Jordan, was (and is) much better on the piano than I will ever be. He listened to me fighting to get the rhythm right on the second verse of the piece we were playing, and eventually he came over and started helping me. He would tap the rhythm out on the piano or else hum it and I would struggle to match it, fighting to play in sync with him. Eventually we were called to lunch, and he sat beside me and tapped the rhythm on the table as we ate. Afterwards I went back and worked on it some more, forcing my fingers closer and closer to the right rhythm.

After that, my outlook on playing notes correctly changed considerably. There is a beautiful freedom within the rhythm of music. The more you learn the constraints, the more open and free it feels. I cannot explain this, but I know it to be true, for myself at least. I began changing the way I played songs, relearning old songs with the right rhythm. I am still terrible at it, but the point is that I started trying... chasing down the true rhythm of the song, fighting to get it closer to the original. Learning to play all the right notes within the constraint of the rhythm.

I am coming to feel like truth is very much like this. It is not a whole picture that I find and posses. It is an absolute so much bigger than myself that will possess me, and I will always be working to let it possess me more fully, to fit myself more completely within its constraints. I will always be fighting to live closer to the rhythm and melody of Truth.

It takes more than a lifetime. I will fumble sometimes, and my fingers will ache sometimes from the effort. But I will keep playing, keep falling deeper into the endless depths of the song. And of course at times I need the reminder that yes, I am learning how to better move my fingers in time with this rhythm, and I will be able to play so much stronger once I do, but I should never, ever lose sight of the inherent beauty of the Song. Even when I sing along imperfectly. Even when I don’t know all the notes. Even when I have forgotten entirely what the time signature is. The Song is still beautiful.

May I ever seek to sing the true song better... and may I delight in its beauty every step of the way.

- Elraen -

Tuesday, October 4, 2011


A theme I have been strongly reminded of lately is one that used to be part of the foundation of how I operated, and yet somehow disappeared over the past two years. The idea is that we are all terribly needy people.

Maybe sometimes it takes failure (or the ever-present threat of failure) to prove how greatly we are in need. From the moment we are born until the moment we die, we need things. We need food and sleep and shelter from day one until our frames our lifeless, our eyes asleep. On a less tangible level, we need love, we need something to hold on to. And if you’re Mary, you also need significant amounts of coffee and music.

And a symptom of need is often pain. It’s like the dizzying headaches I get when I don’t drink coffee, or the slow, steady ache when I haven’t been sleeping. There is a need (whether legitimate like the need for sleep or self-imposed like my need for coffee), and it is not being filled. We feel an emptiness. We feel an ache.

I think there is an inclination for many of us to see “I need” as an unforgivable sin. And definitely in some cases, it is wrong. Most would agree that a heroine addict’s withdrawals do not justify the lengths he will go to in order to get a hit, and most would even say that severe coffee addiction is probably unwise. Many of our needs are self-created, self-imposed. But I am beginning to understand that some needs are necessary. We’re supposed to have them. They are built into who we are.

I find it interesting that in the Biblical account, before the fall, before things break, Adam and Eve are not independent. They are actually more dependent on God then. They need Him, and they know that. But after the fall they hide... after they tried and failed to do anything outside of God (and indeed in opposition to Him).

C.S. Lewis says that we were created to need God, and that part of loving God is needing Him and recognizing that need (reference The Four Loves). God does not need us, but we desperately need Him. It is in that embrace of utter inadequacy and complete sufficiency that wholeness is possible. No more hollow places. No more aches.

I don’t like being dependent, and if we are honest, I think most of us would say the same. I did not realize how fiercely I guarded my independence until I started dating. There were times when I would be incredibly upset for no discernible reason, and then I would realize I was simply angry that for the first time in years I was doing something that by its very nature required another person. It was not entirely of my creation. For this relationship to exist, I had need of someone else. And that was a terrible (and absolutely necessary) blow to my pride.

And so I am almost beginning to enjoy, on some painful level, watching God dismantle the things I once thought I had achieved. There is a quiet peace in the breaking that happens when we realize how absolutely we need and how incapable we are of filling that need on our own. I am a terribly prideful person. I am finding that one of the best antidotes for pride is being confronted with how deeply, endlessly, and painfully I need God. It is a paradox that we feel our need for Him more the closer we get to Him. We often understand it least when we are most broken, in the coldest places farthest from His warmth.

The place where my faith begins is in the place where I notice that this world is broken. Cracks run through every moment and experience, flaws like darkening veins beneath white skin. If it is broken, outside of the state intended for it, there is a need for it to be put together again. This is where I live. I am terribly broken, and I am terribly in need of the Healer.

Come, Lord. You are welcome in this hollow of me. You are the endless fulfillment to my endless need.

- Elraen -