Friday, November 18, 2011

Songs of Strength: Wisconsin 2011

“I want you to listen to me.”

I looked up. It was late January, early 2011. I was standing in a dark and grimy venue after a show, wearing the worn out skin of midnight. I tried to meet the eyes of the lead singer of one of my favorite bands as he gently said “the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

I didn’t cry then, but I would for hours afterwards, curled up shaking in my room. I was in middle of one of the darkest stretches of my life, and he was the only person who saw through my pride enough to speak light into it. He said a lot of things to me that night that I would carry with me, even when things grew darker. After that night I wrote (there is a blog post you may remember) and I thought and I was changed. And I would finally admit that I could call Kevin Young a friend.

I have a lot of friends, a lot of beautiful, brave, wonderful beating hearts who choose to let me share the ride with them. That’s why my plane was touching down on the chilly blacktop of the Milwaukee airport at 8:30 p.m. on a November Thursday a few weeks ago-- I was there to see a friend. We’d walked through countless battles together, seen the world break, seen God put broken lives back together. And Liz and I had never met. The internet is odd like that. I had felt like God told me it was time to change that, that my long stated promise to go see Skillet and Disciple with her was finally ready to be fulfilled. This was a chance I wouldn’t have missed for the world.

I got to spent time with other friends right away, friends I’ve known for three and a half years. Cara and Joelle were there with Liz to greet me at the airport, and even within the first ten minutes what surprised me most was simply how at home I felt.

The first full day was spent in adventures. Liz, Joelle, and I picked up our friend Jen to head to the venue (with a detour to Build-a-Bear on the way and almost a detour to follow Family Force 5’s tour bus-- it was tempting). We got there and were welcomed onto a tour bus as if the whole thing was a family reunion. When it was time for the show, thanks to Trent we all had access backstage, and thanks to Joelle and Scotty I was handed a photography pass.

I will never forget that night, dashing back and forth in the photography pit with Joelle, so close that I felt ice spray across my skin when Skillet’s cryo rigs went off. I will remember so vividly standing beside Liz and singing out words of truth to shine in the dark, the songs breaking over us like the sparks of fireworks on a clear winter night. Sharing those moments with her was indescribably beautiful.

I was not expecting to be as strongly impacted by the music as I was, after so many times seeing these bands live, but the reality is that some truths will always break down walls. I think one of the moments I remember most vividly is Skillet’s song “Savior,” how raw and real it felt that night: “Everything’s going to crash and break, but I know what you got, what you want, what you need. I’m going to be your Savior...”

I will always, always treasure memories of time on the bus after the show, crowded in with two full bands and my group of friends. We laughed, and it reminded me that laughter is OK. Even if I am a college senior with three jobs and a reputation of responsibility to maintain. Sometimes, when there are friends and songs and everything feels safe, I begin to understand that it’s alright to stop. Stop trying to be perfect. Stop trying to fill the right role. Simply to be, and to know it is enough.

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A long night of driving and honest conversation followed, then a few hours of sleep to recharge us for doing it all over again. Liz, Jen, and I sat outside the bus and then on the bus, laughing despite the chaos of our spontaneous decision to go to a second concert. I was stressed at first, unsure how things would work out, but my worry was quickly proved groundless. Kevin looked out for us, and before long we were watching Disciple play an acoustic afternoon set.

After the events of the day before, I was unusually vulnerable. I was turning over some new ideas in my head, some challenges to things I’d been clinging to for a very, very long time. I knew what Disciple would play beforehand, so I should have been able to brace myself. But the reality is that even before they had finished introducing their song “After the World,” I was hunched over sobbing.

God has worked on me a lot, these past few months. The refining process has at times been almost unbearable (it’s never fun to see how selfish, bitter, unfaithful, and arrogant I really am), but it’s been necessary. The reality is that I have been struggling with terrible doubt, in everything I once so ardently believed in. I remember where it started. It started sometime this last winter, in the midst of what I perceived as an avalanche of failure, where I began to believe that redemption doesn’t work. I began to believe that love does not change anything, that my love is worthless. Instead of the steady voice of hope that used to pulse under my skin, I got a new voice: guilt. Guilt dictated every action, every moment. And no matter how much of my soul I sold into slavery to guilt, I couldn’t get better. I was still the same broken child straining under the weight of the world, the self-imposed burden splintering my shoulders.

When Kevin introduced “After the World” and then the band began to play it, this song that I have heard almost every day for three and a half years, something in me that I’ve been trying to force to a breaking point finally cracked. It was like I was beginning to realize, after the events of the day before, that the things I once thought mattered didn’t matter at all. “Please, God,” I begged, as I have hundreds of times this year. “Just let me know if You love me. Please, please, let me know.”

And I was answered. I understood in that moment, as the words of the song flooded every hollow in the room, that God wasn’t just sending me half-heard whispers, as I had been thinking for all this time; He was practically screaming at me, so loud, but with the gentleness of a Father. Oh, Mary. I have seen everything. I have heard everything. And I love you, child.

And that was why I was sitting on the steps backstage beside Liz and Jen crying like a scared little kid who has finally felt their Father’s arms wrap around them after a long nightmare. These places where I have poured myself out until I broke-- God saw those. These places where I have screamed truth into the deafening silence until my lungs went numb-- God heard me. These places where I have worked myself into a weariness of the soul that clings like a dull ache-- God felt that. They were not wasted. I was sitting beside a living picture of redemption in my friend Liz, I was seeing His love in the incredible kindness of so many friends. And for the first time in nearly a year, I was beginning to hear Him again, hear Him say I love you. And I knew then that as long as I can hear Him say He loves me, it will be enough. Every moment of doubt and fear and pain will be worthwhile for even one fraction of a moment where I hear His voice and know I still belong to Him.

I will love you after the rain falls down, I will love you after the sun goes out. I’ll have My eyes on you after the world is no more.

That night Liz, Jen, and I stood beside the stage, sometimes joined by Kevin. I was fighting with what I’d heard, trying to decide if I could accept it. I remember the words in Skillet’s songs cutting deep for the second night in a row: “I hate living without You, dead wrong to ever doubt You.” And I remember deciding that I would step out and take the hand of hope, even if it still seemed shaky to me.

That night we laughed a lot. It was like an alternate reality after the blur of life in college. I will never forget the kindness of friends, that whole weekend. Liz eternally providing for me, singing with me, laughing with me, sharing with me. Jen’s calming presence and share in our adventures. Joelle’s conversations and help with the photography pass and the way she reminds me that it’s alright to enjoy things. Brian and Lindsey letting me crash in their house in the first place, letting me drink their coffee and get to know their beautiful children. Andrew getting me a Monster when Liz told him I was running out of energy. Trent setting up backstage passes and throwing red vines at us on the bus. Israel giving advice on bypassing security (who would have thought “we’re with the band” really works?). Amanda’s hugs and constant smile, no matter how much she had to do. All of the We As Human guys for taking our presence in stride and getting to know us. Jonathan for taking time out of his schedule and standing in the freezing cold to catch up. Kevin, who spent an entire weekend looking out for us, talking with us, and giving selflessly when he had a thousand other things to balance.

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The next morning we went to church. I got to see Cara and Joelle again, got to meet my friend Heidi. The church there is unbelievable. If we had more churches like that, our world would be a very, very different place. I went in and was quickly completely blown away by what God was doing. At first I felt like an observer, able to see the beauty but not break through the wall and be part of it. That very quickly got turned inside out.

This is one of those moments that can’t be fully hammered into correct boxes and packaged on a blog. Suffice it to say that God took every barrier still remaining in me after the day before and absolutely shattered it. No more defenses then, nothing left but the raw reality of who He is and what He has done and how deep His grace is. He radically changed something in me, and I felt the faith and joy that I’d been fighting to know come flooding back into me, too much to contain. I knew almost right away that I would never be the same person again. I would go home, but I would be different. I was overwhelmed. I was joyful.

If I had to attempt listing everything I took away from the weekend, it would be too much for words. It’s been hard to write even these words because I want to respect people who read it. I want to honor my friends in bands (who, in case you wondered, really are real people, and I would very much like to respect them as such-- I could write a novel on that alone). I have chosen everything I share here with the hope of honesty.

The reality is that everything that entire weekend reminded me who God is. I saw Him living in the kindness of friends, I heard Him breathing in the songs. I saw hope in places I once thought were hopeless.

And I was reminded that I am seen. The places where I have been broken were not wasted, there is still grace for these terrible failures, and love is still so very, very much alive. And it was like my heartbeat was restarted. I began to fully feel things for the first time in a long while. This is what things earlier this year were leading up to-- so many things. Even in the times of the worst heartache, God was working. I was never forgotten.

And this is the beginning, not the end. This is where I can finally find the freedom to step out and know that God is who He says He is, to let Him have full Lordship over my life again. This is where I can begin to learn that failure does not define me, and indeed God redefines failure.

There are things to come, even for this blog. There are some stories that I feel are finally going to need to come to light. I am not afraid of what doors He might open. I have been reminded again what it is to see God’s beauty so fully, to feel His love so deeply, that I forget to care about anything else.

The words that Kevin spoke in January echo back through my mind over and over, and I finally feel I can claim them as my own-- “the joy of the Lord is your strength.” Certainly, I’ve tried every other method of strength I could find in myself, and it has fallen short. But now I find the place where I am made alive every time I start to die, this strength that absolutely cannot come from myself and yet has become so deeply embedded into who I am... His joy is my strength.

As so many have said, this is where we begin to live... when we reach the end of everything we are and find that He is still there, and He is enough.

Be blessed today. Know that you are seen, you are heard, and you are loved.
- Elraen -

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