Friday, December 14, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey Review in Brief

Here is my bullet-point review of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. It should be noted that this is after only one viewing, and I’m sure it will take another dozen to fully form my opinions on a lot of it.

The Awesome:

- The Elves. They were absolutely brilliantly done. This movie made them more accessible without detracting from their nobility-- we see them eating, playing music, smiling. I love the other side we get to see of Elrond, and Galadriel was absolutely perfectly portrayed. And the small glimpse we get of Thranduil and the wood elves beautifully conveyed their beautiful-but-perilous nature, as well as giving them a look that is elvish but distinct from Lorien and Rivendell elves.

- Martin Freeman is Bilbo in a way I have very rarely seen on screen. He captured the heart of the character beautifully.

- The rendering of Thorin is fantastic-- they managed to really draw his motivations to the fore, making him a very dynamic and more relatable character.

- The way they drew on Middle Earth history (via the LotR appendices, The Silmarillion, and Unfinished Tales) is absolutely fantastic. It does slow the movie down a bit at the beginning, but it effectively builds the backdrop. Slowing the movies down into three gave them time to explore more history than the LotR trilogy did, and they do so with tremendous accuracy and respect for detail.

- This movie gives an opportunity to explore Dwarvish culture. The glimpses we get of Erebor and even the interactions between the questing company gives us some fascinating glimpses into the world of dwarves, and they explore while remaining remarkably true to the spirit of Tolkien’s work.

- We get to see Frodo again. It might be slightly gimmicky to provide an interlude that shows Frodo and Bilbo interacting on the morning of the day where their story in Fellowship of the Ring starts, but even if it is a little contrived, I love it so much that I don’t care. Frodo is very much in character as the Hobbit he was before his own quest, which is bittersweet.

- The White Council was portrayed with both class and accuracy. The dynamic between Elrond, Galadriel, Gandalf, and Saruman is really intriguing, and clear without being simplistic even for those with very little knowledge of the characters’ histories. I was intensely grateful that they stayed true to Saruman’s character in particular instead of falling prey to the over-obvious foreshadow option.

- Despite the massive amount of Dwarves in the questing party, they are all kept relatively distinct and given personalities. I love how well they captured Balin in particular.

- The wizards. I like that they included Radagast, and despite the slight oddity of the mushroom references and pipe weed, overall I thought that they provided a valid take on his character. I also love how Gandalf says he “never quite could remember their names” of the blue wizards, who Tolkien also remained oddly silent about-- it was a fun nod to an element of Middle Earth lore.

- Figwit. I really, really appreciate that Jackson and co dropped in a reference that only rabid fans digging through internet forums and chat rooms a decade ago would really pick up on. It was done well, inserting him recast as an actual Rivendell elf mentioned in Fellowship of the Ring without any self-congratulatory references to his past role.

- Almost all of the deviations from Tolkien’s work are very purposeful and justified. I am a big fan of the idea that you have to keep in mind that movies and books are different mediums requiring different methods. I felt that Jackson stayed more true to the spirit of Tolkien’s work here than even in his original trilogy, and even where there are deviations, they (usually) feel in line with the world of Middle Earth and are easily explained by the shift from 80-year-old literature to contemporary film.

- By the end, Bilbo provides a heartfelt quality of trying to do the right thing without seeming oppressively didactic. Rather than inserting elements of a philosophy that was not there, the movie drew themes that were more subtle in the book into the foreground throughout.

The In-between:

- This story is less sophisticated. Which is completely expected and understandable given that the narrative was originally fashioned for children, but it means looking at it through a slightly different lens than the Lord of the Rings movies. It’s less layered and more shiny.

- I have mixed feelings about the use of Orkish, particularly given that Tolkien never developed that language. It feels more or less genuine, but also unnecessary. The Elvish, on the other hand, was beautifully placed and phrased.

- On a similar note, I was intrigued by the re-imagining of the goblins. We see Misty Mountains goblins in the Mines of Moria in Fellowship of the Ring, but the filmmakers opted to completely re-imagine them this time around.

The Less Awesome

- The entire side story regarding Azog the Pale Orc. I understand the need to drive the story by drawing on a more immediate antagonist while Smaug is still far away, but I think it could have been done in a better way-- that entire side plot felt like a contrived story element they plugged in for the sake of injecting urgency and drama. The deviation from Tolkien canon doesn’t bother me as much as the narrative sloppiness. The character is based on information found in the appendices, but turned into a sort of reverse Moby Dick revenge side plot.

- At times the humor was overly cheap for my taste. I recognize that The Hobbit is intended to be more lighthearted, but lighthearted does not necessarily require reduction. I was mildly disappointed in that aspect (examples: Bilbo being used as a troll handkerchief, the entire sequence with the Great Goblin).

- The CGI feels a little rushed in places, which is more disappointing than it otherwise would be given that this movie is from the same creators who had a major role in defining modern special effects to begin with. Some of the perspective work also felt a little bit shoddy-- the overall standards did not seem as high as in the LotR trilogy, despite having more resources and significantly more advanced technology this time around. Again, I probably wouldn't think anything of it were it any movie besides this one.

The moment the credits rolled, I wanted the movie to go back to the beginning so I could watch it all over again. The revisit to Middle Earth was vibrant, well-balanced, and faithful to the original while updating some narrative elements for a new generation of fans. Even at 2 hours and 45 minutes it felt too short, and the movie never lost my focus. I will most certainly be watching it many more times in the months and years to come.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Favorite 10 Albums of 2012

Every year has its soundtrack. These were the albums that contributed to mine this year.

Top 10 Albums of 2012

1. The Fray: Scars and Stories
Favorite tracks: “Heartbeat,” “Rainy Zurich,” “Be Still”
I’ve liked The Fray’s last two albums, but I feel like this is the album where they truly came into their own. The lyrics are about living life-- when it feels like flying and when it rubs you raw, love and faith and trying to move forward. There is a perfect layer of guitars to counterweight Isaac Slade’s fragile, almost weightless voice. This has had consistent plays throughout the year, but was the soundtrack specifically to my spring.

2. David Crowder*Band: Give Us Rest
Favorite tracks: “O Great God, Give Us Rest,” “Let Me Feel You Shine,” “Sometimes,” “Oh, My God I’m Coming Home”
I’m going to be honest, I was a little biased against this album purely because the mainstream CCM community was excited about it. Fortunately, I gave it a shot anyway. This is an album that largely needs to be taken as a whole-- an experience, a religious mass, a journey. It is reverent and rich and layered, a spectacular end to the career of a band that changed the way the Christian community worships.

3. Thousand Foot Krutch: The End Is Where We Begin
Favorite tracks: “Be Somebody,” “Courtesy Call,” “Fly On the Wall”
This album provides a beautiful blend of TFK’s strong points, from the rapcore that established their career over a decade ago to the symphonic rock sound that buoyed 2009’s Welcome to the Masquerade. Although there are a lot of relatively substance-less rock anthems, they are balanced by themes of change, of identity, of overcoming apathy, even of worship. This is an album that carries a little of the explosive energy of Thousand Foot Krutch’s live show into my headphones.

4. Capital Lights: Rhythm N Moves
Favorite tracks: “Rhythm N’ Moves,” “Caroline,” “Newport”
This is a bit of a departure for this list, but it has been a consistent favorite since its summer release. I was a fan of Capital Lights’ debut, and thus devastated by the disbandment that shortly followed-- and thrilled when they reunited to hit the studio again. This is a rare case of clean dance music that actually provokes some thought while still providing some killer beats. Their tongue-in-cheek writing style and infectious hooks make this album memorable.

5. The Classic Crime: Phoenix
Favorite tracks: “Beautiful Darkside,” “Heaven and Hell,” “Let Me Die,” “What I’d Give Up”
I was a kickstarter backer for this one, and I certainly didn’t regret it. Independence allowed The Classic Crime to fully dig into their rich potential, coloring their tunes with dark-edged lyrics and a punk-influenced rock vibe that feels more mature and dynamic than any of their previous releases.

6. Project 86: Wait for the Siren
Favorite tracks: “Fall, Goliath, Fall,” “Off the Grid,” “Blood Moon”
This is one of the few releases I’ve heard in the past five years that has legitimately heavy guitars-- “skull crushing” might be a more apt descriptor. The instrumentation is strong in more areas than just guitar work though, including pipes and a dulcimer to add a haunting thread to the songs. Project 86 mastermind Andrew Schwab didn’t hold off on the lyrics either, using words to weave an epic with an almost narrative feeling to it. This is one of the very few albums I have ever reviewed that I legitimately could not find flaws with.

7. Anberlin: Vital
Favorite tracks: “Self-Starter,” “Little Tyrants,” “Modern Age,” “God, Drugs & Sex”
I’ve been following Anberlin since their masterpiece Cities, but like many fans, none of their more recent releases had connected to me in anywhere near the same way. Although this isn’t quite Cities-level, it’s the first one that could be compared in the past 6 years. Anberlin brought back the more brooding, hard-edged guitar sound of Never Take Friendship Personal and Cities while blending in the more atmospheric, electronic elements of Dark is the Way, Light is a Place. This is truly a masterpiece, experimental but grounded, poetic but raw.

8. Disciple: O God Save Us All
Favorite tracks: “Once And For All,” “O God Save Us All,” “Draw the Line”
This album was very highly anticipated for me to the point where I was afraid of being let down-- but I wasn’t. This is a beautiful blending of their harder sound and their skill with symphonic ballads, showcasing their skill in diverse formats. The lyrics are the strongest songwriting I’ve heard yet on a Disciple record, bridging themes of the Christian life from beginning to end. The album beautifully captures Disciple’s identity and mission as a band, and achieves some serious rock and roll in the process.

9. Flyleaf: New Horizon
Favorite tracks:  “Fire Fire,” “Bury Your Heart,” “Broken Wings”
The last Flyleaf album really had to grow on me, but this one I liked from the first listen. Beyond being the band’s most musically textured work to date, it is also the most thematically dynamic, exploring both struggle and victory with both urgency and thoughtfulness. Lead vocalist Lacey Sturm’s announcement about stepping down coincided with the record’s release, making it even more meaningful for fans. This is an album that has promise to endure.

10. Paper Route: The Peace of Wild Things
Favorite tracks: “Glass Heart Hymn,” “Letting You Let Go,” “Rabbit Holes”
Although the indie sound of Paper Route’s Absence was enough to earn them an underground following, the most accessible sound of Peace of the Wild Things is launching them into a more visible spotlight. Although this could easily be just another indie-and-electronic influenced alt rock release, Paper Route really poured their hearts into this album-- heartache, spirituality, healing, and despair are all explored with the flashlight provided by the band’s intensely purposeful instrumentation. This album is breathtaking, raw, and worth every single word of critical acclaim.

Runners Up Who Were Also Awesome But Won't Fit On the List:
World We View - Nine Lashes
Lights of Distant Cities - Bebo Norman
Mean What You Say - Sent By Ravens
Beneath the Scars - 12 Stones
Murdered Love - P.O.D.
Resuscitate - Remedy Drive
The Struggle - Tenth Avenue North
Life Will Write the Words - The Rocket Summer
The Midsummer Station - Owl City

(Feel free to comment with your own favorites-- I’m sure I’ve overlooked some with my list, and I’m always up for hearing more good tunes!)

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Just A Story: Lord of the Rings

When I was 13 years old, in the deepest throes of my Lord of the Rings fandom days, my family gathered for a reunion in Tennessee. The final movie installment, Return of the King, had released the winter before, and despite being on a 12-year-old’s budget with a 12-year-old’s transportation challenges, I’d managed to scrape together enough allowance to see the movie in theaters 6 times. Now I was eagerly awaiting the DVD release, constantly adding to my memorabilia collection, and wearing a One Ring on a chain around my neck (as I did for at least five years of my life).

During that reunion, I remember a morning where I escaped the hubbub of family breakfast to sit at a table by the lake, watching the morning waves wash the rocks over and over again, imagining it was the sea. My great aunt came out to join me, and she noticed the ring on my chain. I told her about how much I loved the stories, and she listened with a kind of attention adults rarely gave me. When I finished, she sat back and looked at me for a moment. “Mary, what do you think the greatest lesson you’ve learned from those stories is?”

I paused, struggling to put into words the weight of what I drew from that narrative, the fantasy that was more real to me than anything else I’d ever known. “I think it’s that you have to keep going, you have to keep doing the right thing-- even if sometimes you can’t see any hope that you’re going to make it through.”

It’s 2012 now, over eight years since that conversation, over a decade since I first picked up the books or went to see Fellowship of the Ring in the theater. I’ve worked half a dozen jobs, gone to college and earned my B.A., owned my first car, gotten engaged. And yet there is a part of me that is still that kid who dedicated hours to writing poetry in elvish, who put up nearly 300 Lord of the Rings pictures and posters in a hallway. That is not all I am now-- my life is bigger, and my heart holds more. But there will always be a part of me that is still tethered there.

There are very few stories that are “just” a story. We take these stories, these narratives, and they become part of our own story-- and in that way they are incredibly, piercingly real. Lord of the Rings has shaped me in a way very few other stories could. It informed my hobbies, pushed me to make friends with incredible people all over the world, taught me a deeper appreciation for myth and literature, and strengthened and shaped my faith. And it’s not just my story-- that is the beautiful thing. It’s a story I share with everyone else who claims it as a favorite, who has left a piece of themselves in Middle Earth. We might all live it in different ways, for different reasons, and it means different things to different people, but it belongs to all of us equally.

For me the story has become my story because of that simple lesson I could already put into words when I was 13, a truth that became increasingly adamant to me as I grew up and learned that the “real world” was so much darker and harder than even Lord of the Rings could have prepared me for. We all have our journeys through Mordor. We all have our rings to carry, our burdens like chains around our necks, threatening to wear us away to nothing. And in the moments of my life when I can see absolutely no practical reason to believe there is anything on the other side of the dark, when the idea of a return journey after everything that has happened seems impossible-- I remember this story that I claimed as a 10-year-old. You keep going. Even if you don’t get to know how it ends. Even if all the odds are against you. Even if it seems like you’ve lost everything, that the whole world is crumbling. Samwise Gamgee gives the reason well: we hold on because “there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo. And it’s worth fighting for.” And sometimes, against all the odds... you reach the end of the fight and find that everything sad comes untrue.

It was never just a story.

“Though here at journey’s end I lie
In darkness buried deep,
Beyond all towers strong and high,
Beyond all mountains steep,
Above all shadows rides the Sun
And Stars forever dwell:
I will not say the day is done,
Nor bid the stars farewell.”
- Return of the King

- Elraen -

Friday, November 9, 2012

Chasing Beauty

Our hearts can be ugly places.

The fight against bitterness, anger, despair, lust, pride, and fear leaves us torn, more like a warzone than the lighthouses our hearts were meant to be-- more like the reactionary sea than the smooth depths of the sky. I think we lose ourselves sometimes in that fight, in that ever-busy attempt to escape the clutter we have collected or the stains that have been painted on us by an equally busy world. Maybe getting lost in introspection, in obsessive self-examination and despair at what we find, is a trademark of the artist. Maybe it is a mark more widespread than that. Regardless, I find myself there often.

This year I learned I had two options: I could let the stone of my heart soften and learn how to soak in grace, or I could let it go completely cold and die. So I seek to soften my heart, even when it means bleeding. And a part of that has been an increasing fight to see beauty, to recognize it.

I learned something a long time ago in the worst days of depression: when you wake up in the morning too crippled to get out of bed, name one thing in life that is beautiful, one thing that gives you cause for hope. It’s harder than it sounds, when you’re in the thick of it and everything inside is a wasteland. It’s a discipline I had to train myself into. Many days, the only thing I could think of to name was my converse, but that was enough. It was one beautiful thing that pulled me outside myself and gave me a taste of gratitude.

We need to remember that there are beautiful things. We need to see them and name them. Maybe because it pulls us outside of ourselves, maybe because the existence of beautiful things gives us hope for our own hearts, so wayward, so reckless, yet slowly being shaped, molded-- made beautiful. I think this is why I am a photographer. I started photography my freshman year of college, in a time when I desperately needed to believe there were still beautiful things in the world. I would go on long walks with my camera over the campus that I hated, forcing myself to stop at details, to capture them, to see beauty.

That has been more important than ever before these past few months. Instagram has become a tool for capturing it, for forcing my eyes to see. Sometimes I write lists of things I saw that day that were beautiful, lists that to other eyes might look strange-- things like the way a favorite singer’s voice climbs to perfectly fill out a high note, the contrast of houses raised high on a ridge against a pale sky, watching two strangers talk like friends on facebook, hearing a brief sentence from someone that shows their heart is brave even in the midst of pain, seeing someone laugh in the tired ordinary of a grocery store. These are beautiful things. I write them down, I let them pull me outside myself. I walk out the door to work at 6:45 early in the morning, see the sun rising all red-gold with the splendor of autumn leaves, and I open my hands and say thank you.

Because for me, that is the necessary response, the part that seals it. I do not belong to the aesthetic school of thought that praises beauty for beauty’s sake. I hear in it an echo of this Grace that pours through the cracks, floods the warzone, fills out the shadows. I hear God echoing through my world, and I say thank you. These beautiful things are not deserved or necessary, but they still show up in my life in a riot of color and song. Gratitude is often the most effective way to pull myself beyond the snare of the shadows.

Some days I don’t have a spark in me left to start a fire, to warm the cold, to clear the cobwebs of a world spinning in the dark. But if I can open my eyes to see one thing-- one beautiful thing in this whole world of contrast-- then there is hope. Grace is still here. Redemption still has stories to tell.

- Elraen -

P.S. I don't often recommend books, but I would highly recommend Ann Voskamp's One Thousand Gifts. That book shaped and solidified much of my view on gratitude and grace.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Stickers and Stars

Something I learned about myself long ago (that may be true for many of you as well) is that I like to surround myself with reminders.

One of the most defining characteristics of my walls when I lived at home was that I wallpapered everything in posters. Mostly movie posters to begin with, but later band posters, TWLOHA posters, pictures of friends, poems, song lyrics. I’ve been known to start on the ceiling when I ran out of wall.

Most of my other possessions get similar treatment. My old laptop was covered in stickers, and my new one has already begun to acquire its colorful skin. My guitar has escaped, but the chipboard case has not. Even the bumper of my ornery car has been begrudgingly bequeathed with some color.

I think I do this because I need to remember. I need to remember that there are people, there are things, that are beautiful-- even when my emotions and frustrations and weary human heart would speak otherwise. I need to remember to love people, to be grateful for gifts, to let myself be loved.

Sometimes the reminders are not just pictures. Sometimes the reminders come in the form of days, of moments, of events that poke holes gently in the everyday dark. I had a day like that recently.

I roadtripped to see some of my very favorite bands with some dear friends. For a night I was surrounded by the songs, after so many months of so much silence. For a night I was surrounded by friends, after months in a place where only a handful of people know my name. For a night I felt like I still have a place in this world to stand. I didn’t need that night, in the strict sense of the word-- God is present in the silence, in the loneliness, in the instability, and there have been many blessings in the midst of all of it. And yet, sometimes I am so very grateful that He gently reminds me...

reminds me that there are so many beautiful people I get to know...

reminds me that there are somehow, strangely, people who want to know me...

reminds me that songs still tell true stories, and I sometimes get to hear them...

reminds me that we’re allowed to find joy in things as simple as some solid rock and roll...

reminds me that God still speaks truth through the words and actions of the most unexpected friends...

reminds me that there is still hope beyond what I can see for myself.

Those are the moments I stick to the walls of my heart to remember. Those are the moments I hold close, letting their quiet glow remind me that there is such a thing as a sunrise. Those are the moments that remind me of who I am, of what I love, of the One who loves me.

So in the darkness we look for stars-- the inconsistent yet constant pinpricks of light tearing through the dark to let the shine bleed through. I am still seeking the stars. I hope you’ll watch with me tonight.

- Elraen -

(Thanks to Stac, Sarah Atkins, and Lainie for some of the pictures in this post)

Monday, September 10, 2012


The seasons here in Colorado are much more distinct than in Texas.

I’ve seen summer come and go, heat waves invisible in dry air, bright yellow flowers raising their heads from the sea of coarse grass and cactus. The mountains stood brown and bare in their broad shouldered splendor, setting themselves against the line of the horizon. I walked the paths near my current home almost every day, squinting against the harshness of the sunlight even as I looked up at the depths of a sky so deep you could drown in it.


Autumn is coming now. I’ve been tasting it for a little while now in the way the air feels right before twilight. The golds of sunset seem richer, darker, liquid light pouring over the white skins of the aspens. The nights bleed chill blue fingers through the windowpanes. I wake up to heavy sunrises shining through the turning leaves. They tell me there will be color here, the trees breathing their final breaths laced in red and gold.

I’ve been here in winter once before, and I know what to expect. It snows here, changing this earth until it looks nothing like the browns and greens of an East Texas winter. The contrast is sharp, white snow lining black asphalt shining darkly in the streetlights. Branches struggle to leave their outlines against the heartless sky. Car windows carry ice. They tell me I’m going to need to find a jacket.

I’ve seen Colorado in many varied times of day through my walks as well-- watching my old friend Pike’s Peak in the distance shift from the sharp, clear outline of direct morning sunlight to the hazy, silhouetted shadow of itself at sunset.

There is a kind of raw beauty in each season at each hour of the day. I name it raw mostly because it is unshaped in our perception-- I can choose to pass the details with unseeing eyes, or I can choose to see it and let my heart’s posture shape it into something beautiful to me. I have spent a lot of time simply writing, writing down reasons why the world still holds the beautiful.

The concept of seeing our lives in terms of seasons is a cliche, but perhaps not a bad one. I am in a season now. The person I am now, the life I live in now, will not last. It had a distinct beginning, and it will have a distinct end. A year from now I will live a different season completely.

I am, as previously stated many times, an incurable pessimist. On the hot days this summer I often only felt the heat and glared at the sun instead of recognizing the way it so clearly defined the yellow and purple flowers I met on my way. On hazy days now, my first instinct is often to internally complain that I can’t see the mountains as clearly as I’d like. Similarly, there are a lot of things in my life right now that I can look at and simply dismiss as ugly-- my goal becomes to move on, seeing as little as possible, whispering to myself that it will all be over soon.

And yet... there is a part of me that understands that all this raw potential, all this loss and learning and heartache and change and friendship and fear and surrender and forgetting and faith, can be viewed through a different lens. It is a harsh season maybe, a season of a lot of contrasts and little relief-- but I have always said I found contrasts, blacks and whites, beautiful.

And so I find beauty in the season. In the fact that I get to sleep in 3 days a week and have hours every day where I can sing along with my music uninterrupted. In the fact that I can dye my hair blue if I choose, since no employer will set the limits of my appearance. Even in the fact that the things I have had to leave behind have taught me gratitude for the things I have now been given.

I also find beauty in the change, in that sense that the air is waking up, some new color is quivering beneath the surface of every leaf. I am changing. I will be changed. This is a season, but it is not a long one. The tension is to find beauty here while understanding also the beauty that is found even in its very transience. New beginnings are beautiful things also.

So in this season of wandering I will understand again the temporary nature of any sojourn. I will relearn the language of grace that sees the potential and realization of redemption in every moment. I will choose to see the sunrises as well as the midnight stars-- there is light in both. And as I wait for the change, I will allow myself to learn this time that that is beautiful also...

I wish I could change my mind. But I still feel the shame, I’m praying to leave the past behind. Oh, you’ve been holding on to the bitter burning-- forgive yourself and let the seasons turn.
- Jon Foreman

- Elraen -

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Even If

A single question was presented during a performance by one of my favorite bands-- a question that someone suffering had heard from God. It’s a question that absolutely wrecked me this summer, because it captured in a single phrase what I’d wrestled with. For a long time now, more and more earnestly, this is the question I have heard from God:

“Would you still trust Me even if I never told you why?”

That is the crux that is eventually reached in every major chapter of my journey as a follower of Christ. It’s one of the questions that led to me first accepting Christ, and it’s the question that has driven me deeper into Him over and over again-- when I let it.

I think we (by which I mean especially I) have a tendency to drastically cheapen our faith. We pray and we trust and we claim the title Christian so long as it doesn’t cost us anything. It’s easy to believe in God when He makes sense to us.

And that is why I often find the tragedies in life to be their own kind of grace-- they ask the question, over and over again, challenging me to answer it even in the dark: would you still trust Him even if He never told you why you lost that friendship? Would you still trust Him even if He never told you why you lost that job? Would you still trust Him even if He never told you why you had to abandon those dreams, those things you hoped for? Would you still trust Him even if He never told you why there is so much suffering that your hands can’t heal? Would you still trust Him even if He never told you why He won’t heal you right now?

I am finding more and more that my faith finds its roots at that crossroads, at that moment where I stand in a world that has ceased to make sense, where maybe even God seems dreadfully silent, and yet I choose to open broken hands and say “yes. I trust that You are who You say You are, even if You choose not to tell me why.”

And that is the answer that I pray to bring my heart more and more in line with, even in the dusky hours where I can’t yet tell if it’s another night falling or the moment just before dawn. There is peace there, and there I plant my flag.

I will still trust Him.

“This solemn truth I will depend on: that You could never even think of failing.”
- Disciple

- Elraen -

Friday, August 24, 2012

For Nights My Heart Turns Back

I had a moment the other morning.

I was standing in front of the cleaning cabinet at my new job (a part time cleaning job that really barely counts, but it’s income, and I’m not rejecting that at this point). The cabinet was about as disorderly as you can imagine-- bottles on their sides, used latex gloves piled around old keys, trash bags in a heap. And I burst into tears.

It wasn’t necessarily because it was a mess. I can handle that-- put it in order, organize it. Learn to use what is available to me efficiently and effectively. I’ve been doing this since I was a child. It was more because I remembered 12 years of working under my dad, and I knew there was no way in this world that his supplies had ever been or ever would be in that state. And suddenly I was desperately homesick.

I haven’t blogged much about this adventure, but most of you know the basic outline: God told me to go to Colorado when I graduated, so I did. I threw a few bags into my battered old car and set off for a summer of sleeping on a friend’s futon, praying every night in the semi-dark and asking God if I heard Him right.

There are good things here. I am surrounded by some of my closest friends. I am healthier than I have been in five years, due to getting 8+ hours of sleep every single night, eating three meals a day, and walking or hiking between 4 and 6 miles over the Colorado hills at every opportunity. I am rediscovering the creative part of me that 4 years at an engineering school almost crushed.

But at the same time, some days everything in me aches for the familiar-- for the way my 11-year-old brother screamed my name and ran to hug me when I got home from class every single day. For the hours of working with my dad, being able to trust that no job was too awful for us to endure together. For the sharp warmth of the cheap coffee in my library. For the professors who each had a greeting for me when I passed them on the sidewalk. For the structure of a schedule and a system I knew by heart. Even for the slow-spoken southern drawls encountered in Wal-mart.

In those moments where my world seems to be nothing but that ache for the things I will never know in the same way again, I have considered turning back a million times. I’ve run over and over in my head ways to get back to Texas, to just be there-- being unemployed and restless in the familiarity would feel a bit less lonely. But somewhere in me I know that wouldn’t be best. There is a fight to be faced here.

I’m not even fully sure what the fight is yet, but I know it has to do with defining myself by a name much greater than the things I’m familiar with. I know it has to do with recognizing truth that transcends socially constructed concepts of success. I know it will involve fully taking hold of gratitude for what is and hope for what will be. In other words, it’s going to have a lot to do with grace... which means I won’t be the one to win it for myself. The Author of grace, the One who promises He has already overcome the world... He will take the victory in these battles to come.

But for these nights, I have a surety to cling to of things that are beautiful, that shine even in shadow-- I have friends who love me more than I will ever deserve. I have a beautiful family who, despite all my failings, loves me and accepts me still. I have been gifted with music that keeps my heart beating in rhythm with truth. I have hope burning like an adamant star caught on my hand-- before long, I will be married. And I have a Rescuer who calls the weary to Himself, who holds rest in His hands...

Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.

There is grace even here. There is more grace to come.

Peace to fellow wanderers tonight.
- Elraen -

Monday, July 30, 2012

Charis: Four Years

I have observed increasingly over the past few months that a lot of my friends are confused about a sudden shift in my behavior and outlook regarding my school and my four years there. They have every right to be confused; I think in a way it still confuses me. I had always planned on writing a blog post to wrap up college, but what this post has become is miles away from what I once thought it would be.

My years in college were hard. There was a time when I kept trying to force a post that detailed why, justifying and laying out my martyrdom in bold black pen strokes to somehow make me feel my complaint was properly heard. But that has come to seem incredibly unimportant, even childish.

I went into college as an incredibly young Christian still recovering from a deep soul-sickness, and I was carrying a lot with me. It took years to feel I had permission not to blame myself for the struggle. The bottom line is that sometimes life is hard. Some things are supposed to be challenging. I don’t regret the sorrow anymore, or even the causes I had for it. The only thing I ever find myself regretting now is this: it never even occurred to me that I could have asked for help.

For four years I wrestled and struggled to pour out every drop of who I was just to barely maintain a lifestyle I hated. Perfectionism is far too dispassionate a word to describe the reality of the demon that kept me awake for days on end. If it had been a matter of academic perfection, I could have overcome that-- there comes a point where you can let go of grades (particularly when your degree does not particularly matter to you) and simply enjoy the process of learning and exploring. But for me the point of perfectionism that haunted me was more than that. It was looking at the impossible demands that faced me outside of school every day, finding myself failing, and in the burned-out aftermath trying to convince God (and myself) that He hadn’t made a mistake when He saved me.

In those early years, I maintained enough of a pretense of self-reliant independence and ability (even to myself) that I think people were either intimidated or else didn’t particularly think I was worth noticing. Though I never would have voiced it this way, I had this perception in my head that to reach the elusive goal of “good enough” required meeting a set of standards. But perfection is still a traitor, even if the betrayal comes with the sweet kiss of success. I could reach places of achievement I had once seen as being the goal, and still I wasn’t satisfied. Something I didn’t recognize until much later was that what I often perceived as falling irredeemable short, others saw as climbing impressively high. This disparity may be why so few people worried about me, in the first years. When there’s a college kid who’s working 30+ hours a week, taking a full class load, has never once been late or absent, and routinely makes 100s on assignments and tests, no one is going to think too hard about it if she shows up to class for weeks on end with black cloth bound tight around her wrists.

I still remember a friend’s words to me when we said goodbye after time spent in Colorado in 2010, words that marked a turn in the way college went for me: “You are going to thrive this year.” He stated it like a fact, so determined that I had to believe him.

His words proved to be true for the next two years, though in ways I didn’t expect. Junior year was the year that I began to watch my perception of perfection be dismantled. I saw the structures of validation I had built crumble, and in the hurricane that darkened my sun to black, I learned what it is to sing in the dark. Some terrible things happened that year. Some beautiful things happened that year. I lost friendships, I lost a family member, I was faced with my own failure... I was befriended by the lead singer of a band who offered me more kindness than I had imagined possible, I had friends who provided a haven even at my school, and the boy I had been in love with since I was 15 fell in love with me.

The final year of college began to take the songs I had learned in the dark and to burnish them until they shone. I lived a thousand blessings I will never forget... running around backstage at rock shows with a camera, late night drives and way too much coffee with people I love, flying halfway across the country to spend two days singing along with favorite songs with dear friends, coffee shops in Nashville. But by the time graduation was nearing, there was a regret that was eating me alive. All my complaints about the unanswered suffering still stood in my heart, smouldering, the bitter smoke choking lungs that were finally trying to breathe. I was frustrated because I was nearing the end of the night and I still couldn’t understand why it ever fell to begin with. I was bitter because of the thousand things that (in my perception) every other college kid had and I never would have. I was lost in the sense that somehow I had still missed the mark, even in accepting the inevitability of my failure-- there was a piece still missing. The only kind of legacy I would leave, the only marker for those four awful years of struggle, were some grades and honors no one would care about a few months down the road.

I always assumed, in the final two years where I started actually recognizing what needed to happen, that the final event necessary for me to find an identity outside of my own achievement would be a failure so spectacular and undeniable that I would have no other option left. I was wrong, although my failure was a part of it. In the end, what broke me was grace.

It started with a group of Bible and Christian Ministry majors. Despite my complete lack of social standing and my silence that so many people have told me is intimidating, it was like there was some kind of unconscious, unanimous decision to adopt me. Those guys gave me something more valuable than they will ever know-- they gave me a place to feel safe at my school, for the very first time. Day after day, I stumbled into Doctrines or Greek class (my favorites-- those classes kept my heart alive). Often I was running on 2 hours of sleep, sick and exhausted. Sometimes I hadn’t eaten all day and knew I wouldn’t get to until late that night. Usually I was already on my fourth or fifth cup of coffee. I was hardly the kind of lively addition to the room that people value. But somehow, after three and a half years where I often went days or weeks at a time without having a conversation with anyone at school, those guys thought I was worth talking to. Even though I was so completely undeserving, they seemed to decide that I mattered. And that began to change me.

In the midst of that ever-intensifying clash of regret and blessing, my last month of college was characterized by things that brought me a lot of heartache, pushing me to weariness and ultimately desperation. When I finally reached a place of need deeper than I had ever known, for the first time in my college career I swallowed my pride, went to one of the professors I respected most, and told him I needed help. He offered me something unexpected.

He didn’t provide an option to work to get where I needed to be or a way to get back up to the standard I thought I should meet. Instead, he offered me grace-- complete forgiveness in the face of my desperate need.

I panicked, at first. I wondered how I would make it up to him, how I would prove I was worthy of what he was offering me, how on earth I could ever recover the strength I was supposed to have. And then in a terrible stillness I realized I couldn’t. There was nothing left to work at, nothing left to do but to accept the quiet freedom of grace.

I went home that day, a week and a half before my college graduation, two days after my 21st birthday, and curled up in my bed and cried for hours. Somehow, in the very place where I had completely failed, I had been called enough.

That catalyzed the change. I had been waiting for so long to get the blessings everyone else had, the ones I wanted, the ones I thought I deserved, while all along God had been giving me a much different set of blessings-- the blessings that I needed. And that is a stern grace, the kind of grace that demands you drink deep in surrender and die to everything you thought your story was supposed to be. I needed to learn to thrive in the face of suffering, to be willing to give up what I wanted, to see some of my worst fears become my deepest failures and to learn that Love still held me in the aftermath.

When I started to see this, the endless aching complaints were uprooted by an intense gratitude. I am grateful for how I was carried through the storm, but also grateful for the effects of the storm itself, this hurricane that changed everything I thought I knew about myself. Even for the wounds that I have yet to see the reason for, I am grateful. I am learning more and more the freedom that comes with recklessly abandoning the pursuit of my own understanding. I don’t have all the answers. God never said He would give them to us-- He said He’d give us Himself. And at the end of the four years that I so often called the worst experience of my life, the Person I found in answer to my question is more loving and gracious than I had ever dared dream.

I had so many conversations I will never forget in those last few weeks of school, after grace gave me the freedom to be honest. And at the very end, as I sat in the commencement ceremonies surrounded by others who had all fought their own battles and been granted their own grace to be there, everything quieted and I simply asked God “did I do OK?”

And as I ducked the brim of that ridiculous square hat to hide my face, I could hear His voice gently whispering “well done.”

And that too was grace, this radical, counter-intuitive movement that shakes us to our core, that states that when we are the most aware of our need we have the most potential to be whole. At the end of the four years I took my efforts, so pitifully inadequate, and I handed the mess to God and let Him take it. There His grace filled all the holes, shaping insufficiencies and triumphs into something beautiful.

They say that college is to some extent about self-discovery, about learning who we are.  If there is anything I will take away from those four years, any picture of myself to remember, it is this: I am more needy than I had ever imagined it possible to be... I am offered more grace than I had ever imagined existed. That grace has named me and it brings me to life again and again, calling me out of the nightmares and into the gentle fading in of the dawn.

- Elraen -

P.S. - There are so many people I could thank for walking with me through this, for being living pictures of love and grace even when I barely believed it still existed. My family, who ultimately became my friends. My CleanPlace family, especially those who came to Texas and shared my room and my life even when I barely had a few hours to give them in return, and the mooters who made me a little more myself every summer. My “boardie” friends, both Skillet and Disciple, especially those who shared Wisconsin with me in November. The friends from before college who went through it with me, providing long walks and longer conversations.The faculty in the Bible, English, and History departments, particularly the professor who put up with me for nine classes and taught a 17-year-old infant Christian more about following Christ than I had learned in a lifetime growing up in the church. The library staff, student workers, and patrons, who made all the long hours and early mornings worthwhile. The many band guys who took time out of busy schedules to look out for me. The incredible staff of NewReleaseTuesday who consistently encouraged me, made me laugh, and taught me that I really did have something to offer and a place where I could serve. The A-Uers who still follow my facebook posts even when most of us haven’t been on the forum in years.

I hope to keep in touch with all of you as much as possible even as my life changes so quickly and so radically. The diploma I earned in some ways belongs to all of you much more than it does to me-- thank you.