Sunday, February 19, 2012

And Even Now

I stood near the stage, just beside the barrier separating sidestage from the concert attendees. I cradled my borrowed Cannon camera, looking up at the 18,000 people rising in tiers all around me like a tsunami, rippling restlessly. Cameras flashed high above me, thousands of tiny supernovas touching off a lightning storm in the arena atmosphere. The stage glowed with a fierce intensity as one of Christian music’s biggest bands shot songs like canon fire into the dark.

I smoothed my media pass. I had spent the past two hours in my familiar territory, the world between stage and audience. Photography can be a demanding endeavor in these moments-- you run, half-hunched, to capture a moment you’re about to miss on the other side of the stage. Drop to your knees, focus, hold down for a quick burst to capture several frames. Up and out to the end of the walkway, catch the lead singer reaching to brush the fingertips of fans. Weave to the back of the section for a wide-angled shot. And of course avoid security guards, dodge fans, all while adjusting ISO and aperture in a steady stream of constant attention to detail.

I love this job (if “job” it could be called). I thrive there. I come away feeling alive. This time had been harder than usual though-- communication frustrations with security, organization challenges, hours of waiting for clearance I already had. This was only after a full day at college, going to class and work and checking off the endless to-do list.

The songs that night were a comfort for me, but challenging. I had heard God’s voice like a hurricane in the sound, pressing me, breaking me, erasing the callouses enough to let in hope. Hope right now is hard. It means facing a future.

I am ever a child of in-betweens. I’m currently preparing to jump from the edge of everything I’ve ever known with nothing more than faith that I’ll have a place to land. It’s a terribly lonely thing to look at everything around you, the place you’ve been for 19 of your 20 years alive, and know it’s almost gone. It’s even worse to know that there is really no other more definite option anymore. It feels at times like I am staring into this vast unknown with a heart very much alone. A thousand voices have told me where to go, what to do, how I should do it-- a hundred hearts aching for a piece of mine. There are infinite chances for failure. I am here on the edge, in the in-between. God is about to grow something new, something beautiful, and I believe that. But it’s going to mean losing a lot of things. That is a lonely reality. And as I stood there, stranded between being the overachieving college kid and the rock concert photographer and the 20-something with no clue where I’m going, still fighting and searching and wondering who I am, facing the enormity of the hope for what might be and the fullness of what will never be... it was very lonely.

I looked over then, past the clutter of sidestage, to see a friend walking towards me. He had been on stage earlier that night, and I knew he must be worn from the energy of his performance, from the thousand things he has to keep track of, from the eyes of thousands watching him. But he came to give me a hug and to stand by me, there beside the bass amps and the VIP section and curious security guards.

For 25 minutes we stood there. We talked a little bit, and we sang along with the music, but for the most part he stood there, and I stood there. I knew he didn’t need me to say anything unless I wanted to. He didn’t have any reason to be there-- he could have chosen better places to stand and watch. He knows me well enough that I feel he has every right to pass by without a second glance. But for that space of time he chose to stand by me. Not asking anything. Not telling me to move, that I needed to rearrange my actions. He was just there.

In this deluge of color and sound that is my life, in the midst of 18,000 other stories and voices, peace came with the quiet footsteps of grace. In that seemingly simple action of a friend I heard a reminder, a Voice stilling my heartbeat with a whisper: “I am with you. And even now, I am with you here.”

My world of uncertainty and this sick ache to serve, to be enough, the fighting to understand who I am and to get past everything I regret-- it all stopped. Amidst the chaos, the thousand voices crying to me suddenly silenced in a deep peace. God took that moment and crafted His message, imprinting it in the crevices of this cracked heart. I hope and pray I never underestimate the value of simply choosing to stand beside someone, because I know I will certainly never lose my sense of complete awe when someone chooses to stand beside me. Our God uses friends to remind us sometimes, though He certainly doesn’t need to. Maybe these moments are like the supernova flashes in the dark, setting the picture with startling clarity. There I had the reminder, the promise, diffused and echoed: even now, I am not alone. Even now, He sends those who will still stand beside me, and even if He does not, He Himself takes my hand on the other side of this death and calls gently “come and live.”

Every time I run, this relentless Voice chases me, this promise that has echoed for two thousand years, this truth that stills hurricanes to peace and demands hope: “behold, I am with you.”

He is with us.

- Elraen -

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Confessions of a Christian Music Fan

It was a hot Kentucky afternoon, and the spacious canopy of a white vinyl tent was only a fragile barrier between us and the unforgiving skies. Maybe the heat was part of why some festival-goers chose to shelter in the tent that my friend Joy and I had started fondly referring to as “the hipster tent.” We were sitting on ground that was by this point more dirt than anything else. I could feel the few remaining strands of coarse grass against my sunburned legs as I leaned back against a support pole and listened to a skinny, unassuming artist standing with his acoustic guitar on the barely-raised stage.

“This is a song I wrote to a pastor,” he said, the slightly mischievous tone that often colors his words brighter than usual. “A pastor of a specific church, that has some ideas...”

Derek Webb’s small circle of fans started laughing, mostly in anticipation. Derek never said any names, but within the first few lines of the song it was obvious who he was singing about. The song is a rather wry piece poking very pointedly at a particular church’s reaction to homosexuals. It’s subversive in the best way-- we can laugh at it, but at the same time it has an edge, a slightly uncomfortable taste that pushes us to reconsider how we view people, what it means to love.

The day before I’d seen a band that would probably have sent most Derek Webb fans running for cover in the nearest fair trade coffeehouse. Building 429 put on a fantastic show, full of slick production, shimmering lyric videos, and a showmanship that filled every inch of the main stage they occupied. Jason Roy owned the stage with a style reminiscent of a sanitized Bono. His powerhouse voice rolled out over the waves of smooth guitar tone while hundreds of people screamed along, hands raised, eagerly cheering to affirm the bands’ well-crafted gospel statements. It was like a megachurch meeting on a gravel field.

Welcome to the dichotomy.

As someone who has spent the last few years of my life traveling to multiple states, chasing tours, catching festivals, volunteering to do merch for half a dozen or so bands, reading legal documents and news stories related to music, writing for a major Christian music website, photographing shows, and listening to several hundred Christian bands... I see a lot of contrasts. Christian music has become almost impossible to define. I think we can all agree that Casting Crowns falls neatly in that category, but what about Underoath? They play clubs where people throw beer cups at the stage, where some audience members end the evening wearing significantly less clothing than they started with... and yet they sing things that are true. Do they get the stamp of approval?

And what about the prodigals? Derek Webb is one of them, a disillusioned child of the CCM industry who found his beginnings in the clear-cut Christian band Caedmon’s Call. Kevin Max is another-- we all like to talk about his role in the groundbreaking DC Talk, but when someone in the CCM press alludes to his recent indie career, graphic novel authorship, or his odd habit of wearing pink feather boas, we act almost like we’re embarrassed.

Amidst all of this, there is a whole group of artists in the category of Christian music who spend their entire career trying to avoid being counted as such. They feel like the term limits them, or that it’s unfair, or that it means something they don’t want to be a part of, or that it doesn’t mean anything at all. And I can understand this. I give all of this introduction because the term “Christian music” is one that has to be used slightly loosely.

I ride the line between mainstream CCM culture and crossover bands who flinch uncomfortably if you throw out the phrase “Christian rock.” I have seen both Casting Crowns and Underoath, in case you wondered, and everyone in between. I’ve sold merch to families in churches and I’ve come out of bar shows smelling like the beer someone spilled all over the floor. I’ve heard good music in both places, and in both settings I’ve seen the gospel come alive in surprising ways. I try hard not to sell my allegiance to a certain subset of this already complex subculture, to keep learning without compromising my values.

I recently finished reading a book titled Body Piercing Saved My Life by secular rock journalist Andrew Beaujon. It was a fascinating read. Beaujon details the Christian music industry from the perspective of an “outsider,” someone who spent time researching and attending distinctly Christian concerts and events even though he didn’t share the same faith (his foray into GMA week was particularly courageous). It was in places very true, in places very untrue, but thought-provoking throughout. He levels a lot of well-grounded criticism at the market. And honestly, a lot of the criticism he offers has been vocalized more and more in the past few years by Christian artists themselves.

After all the shows I’ve attended these past few years, I can honestly say that a lot of the criticism of the jaded and disillusioned carries truth. I’ve seen ministry warped into marketing. I’ve seen prejudice wear a mask of love. I’ve seen some pretty awful business practices and heard some honestly bad music. Due to my natural pessimism, it often feels so much easier to throw my hat into the ring with the cynics.

But I can’t do that. I can’t ignore the criticism since there is some truth in it, and I don’t want to ignore anyone who has valid concerns. But what I do find slightly uncomfortable and even distasteful at times is the attitude of the critics. Many of them claim that middle-of-the-road CCM artists are total hypocrites who are not practicing the love they sing about but are instead wrapping an easily marketed message in a package of poor art. But these cynics themselves are showing a lack of love to the ones they are criticizing for not loving, thus undermining their argument. The whole thing becomes an endless game of finger-pointing and subjectivity and trying to judge others’ motives. No, cynicism is not the easy way out. The picture is more complex than that.

A few months back, Michael Gungor posted a blog that had the Christian community inside-out for a few weeks due to its very blunt critiques of the Christian music industry and Christian art in general (read it here). After the debate had been going for a while, he posted on his twitter “I am not interested in church bashing, or even industry bashing, for that matter. But I am interested in reform.”

I liked his blog post. I didn’t fully agree with it, but I thought it was well-written and brought up some valid points, and in general I like things that force us to think. I wanted to push a little bit beyond what he said though, trying to understand his attitude, to see where he found balance. “The question then becomes where the line is drawn between destruction and reform,” I replied. “the distinction can be so hard to clarify.”

Michael answered: “I think that reform destroys the bad things, and "destruction" destroys good things.”

It was a good answer. I like it because I am very interested in reform in the Christian art world, but I am extremely wary of destruction. I would rather be maybe overly moderate in my criticism and allow some weeds to grow instead of leveling everything and running the risk of choking out something worthwhile.

Because you see, beneath all the jaded criticism, the battles over phraseology, the jokes about the Jesus-per-minute requirements on Christian radio... there’s something else happening. This is something that the cynics often politely leave in obscurity, something that the book I recently read left out entirely: lives are being changed.

And not just by the really high quality artists who are making musical advances and preaching truth in new ways. Lives are being changed by even the artists who are more likely to be looked down on by elitists-- artists that I have looked down on before. And these are not small changes either. I’m talking about wells in Africa, starving children fed, education provided, the criminal tragedy of sex trafficking addressed, thousands learning about Christ. I’m talking about suicides averted and families healed and addicts finally finding the strength to go to rehab, about the beautiful girls with scarred wrists raising their hands unashamed for the first time in their lives, the bitter boys who’ve already seen way too much finding out that there really is a reason to come out fighting for another round. And I’m not talking about this in an abstract sense. I’m referring to stories and movements and scenes I’ve actually heard and witnessed.

I’ve seen artists praying over fans, staying out for hours to give hugs, taking pictures even when they know that the middleschool fangirl probably doesn’t even own their CD. I’ve watched artists give away merch for no good reason, and I’ve seen them stop and graciously engage a fan even outside of venues, where it interrupts the flow of their ordinary life. I’ve been on the receiving end of this kindness countless times. I can remember the lead singer of a band running up to me carrying a cup of coffee, grinning and saying “I made this for you!” Much of the merch I own was given to me, some of it by bands who could barely pay for gas. Once the bass player for a band I haven’t even met sent me a poster because he was sorry I couldn’t make his show.

And it’s not just the bands. It’s true that there is a lot of behavior I’ve seen at Christian concerts, particularly when I work merchandise, that I would be ashamed to repeat. But there have also been stories I’ve heard and been part of that are indescribably beautiful. I’ve seen people sharing food with other fans they barely know or giving hugs to people from totally different backgrounds and lifestyles. I’ve loaned my cell phone to strangers and given up my place in line and formed friendships.

Here is what it comes down to: the Christian music scene, like any scene, is made up of humans. Humans of all races, all backgrounds, hiding or expressing every struggle and vice under the sun. There are terrible things that happen. There are things too breathtakingly beautiful for words.

Sometimes people ask how I can stay involved with something that I know to be cracked, how I handle hearing music that I know perfectly well is sometimes below broader artistic conventions, how I can listen to an artist without wondering if they’re preaching love through the lips of a hypocrite. I think that’s looking at the wrong thing though. My allegiance is not to the system, or even to the counter-system. My ultimate allegiance is to a God who continues to use Christian music, in all its forms and mutations, as one of the most powerful forces for truth in this generation. Beneath the politics, the conventions, the arrogance, the mistakes, and the over-used chord progressions... redemption is still singing louder than the static. And as long as there are musicians seeking, in their own finite, human way, to sing about truth, I’m going to be standing with them. I don’t care if I don’t like their music or if it doesn’t connect to me personally-- chances are it’s connecting to someone, and my support of the band is helping them reach that someone. This was never about my personal taste or the ever-shifting demands of music critics.

So whether it’s the polished up tunes of Building 429 or the subversive sarcasm of Derek Webb, I am privileged and proud to sing along. I fully intend to keep scrubbing through the industry’s dirt, whether it be in the form of apathy and failure or hypocrisy and closed-minded pride, in order to find the shine always pulsing just beneath the surface.

And so at the end of the day, I find myself defending Christian music, defending those who are honestly seeking to write songs that move us and mean something. Maybe I’m biased. Maybe a part of this is because once upon a time, there was a 17-year-old homeschooled kid with a terrible haircut and no concept of what an electric guitar really was... a kid who stood in front of a stage at a rock show, crying because she finally understood she wasn’t alone in her faith or in her questions. And for that lonely teenager just a few months into her Christian faith and a few months out of crippling depression, the truths sung through the filter of the Christian music machine meant everything.

- Elraen -

(Note: It should be mentioned that I’m writing this post as someone who also listens to a wide range of mainstream music and honestly enjoys some of it and finds value there, though it’s not where my focus lies. It should also be mentioned that I purposely skirted two of the biggest issues in this conversation-- the idea of standards and quality in art and the validity of the sacred/secular distinction. Those are issues too big for me to address in this blog post and, quite honestly, it’s not something I feel I need to address yet.)

Saturday, February 4, 2012

The Harder Love

I have been made painfully aware of an addiction these past few months, an addiction that crawled in quiet and made a home in my life before I even knew its name. I’m still trying to learn how to evict the unwanted vice, but at the least I have named it now. I call it Entitlement.

I talk a lot about love, or at least I used to, before I figured out how little I really knew. This post has been heavy on my heart for a long while, and I feel it needs to be written-- maybe mostly for my own sake.

I find it interesting how I can begin to abuse the term “love.” I call a lot of things love that really are not love at all. I have noticed that what is often labeled love is actually control, or a need for validation. I say I love friends, but I can feel cheated and abandoned when they don’t answer texts fast enough, when they pay more attention to another friend, when they go through a time when they really don’t feel like talking. I say I love my family, but make cynical comments or isolate myself. And when I was younger and fell in love, so often what that looked like was an obsessive compulsion to drink deep every bit of affection and attention the other person had to offer, to want things they never had to give. These things are not really love, yet I have lived all of them at some point, and it haunts me.

I have learned that these places often fall under the name of entitlement. If, for example, I feel I have a need for my friends to know me a certain way, to talk to me at certain times, to act as I have decided they should-- this is me feeling I am entitled to something. I become so blinded by what I think I need that I couldn’t see what I do have, what I am offered. Granted, there are certain base-level expectations we should have. For example, I generally expect that if we’re hanging out, you’re not going to raid my room and replace my Skillet merch collection with Taylor Swift memorabilia-- some things are just basic, reasonable expectations necessary for healthy relationships. I’m trying to discuss here an entitlement that ultimately places all of the focus on ourselves.

And this is the reality I have found: when I feel entitled to something, when I am eternally expecting others to provide for me in ways they were not meant to, I become restless, bitter, disillusioned, and lonely. It’s when I lay down my pride, my sense of entitlement, and instead seek to take in everything I have and to truly express gratitude for it, that suddenly I’m able to recognize how much my needs are provided for. Peace is born in the place where entitlement dies.

That can be the absolute hardest thing to live practically. It means reaching into lives that are broken and being willing to love, even without any return or even a promise that my love will be able to heal anything. I am not entitled to what I would consider to be a satisfying ending to every relationship. I am not entitled to the role of hero, and I am certainly not entitled to safety.

I am not arguing for an attitude of masochism, constantly stating that you don’t need anyone, severing all relationships that are beautiful-- that is pride, and in fact the opposite of what I’m trying to say. My point is that when we let go of this attitude of demand, most of our relationships are more likely to be beautiful regardless of the circumstances they create. We gain freedom to enjoy what we are given without always looking over our shoulders, wondering what everyone else has that we don’t. We get to choose to seek joy in the deepest love possible... regardless of what we lose.

I have a very, very patient boyfriend named Jordan. He was one of my best friends throughout highschool, and at that point I cared about him in a very different way than he cared about me. Because of this, I had to learn some very, very hard lessons about how to not expect anything more than what he was offering. I remember vividly the first time I understood this, when I was in Nashville for New Years with my family a few years ago. We met up with Jordan and his dad for just about two hours to get dinner at a Panera across from our hotel. For those two hours we talked and we laughed and I tried my hardest to soak in every second, knowing I might not see him again for a very long time.

After they left, I sat in a hotel room alone and cried for two hours. I missed him terribly, I had no idea if I’d see him again any time soon, and the worst part was that I knew that he didn’t miss me anywhere near as much. Later, standing on a hilltop near midnight, watching city lights burn bright, I began to understand for the first time. It wasn’t about what I was losing, what I might never have, about the terrible ache of a wish unfulfilled-- it was about the fact that I’d had those two hours, those conversations, those moments. They had been given to me like a gift, so undeserved. I knew then that I wanted to love in such a way that two hours would be enough, that I could enjoy even those short moments with a beautiful sense of receiving a gift-- even if I never got to see him again, even if he never did miss me, I still had those two hours. I would love enough to let go.

This is a part of what I’ve had to learn all over again, years later. I look at my friendships and realize how much they are marred by my pride, and it’s incredibly humbling. My expectations seek control, forever fearing that they’ll be contradicted. I build and destruct until I have formed the loneliest empire, a world where I am eternally afraid of what I do not know.

I am learning to live open handed, to feel entitled to nothing more than what God is granting, for this moment, at this time. I am learning surrender in surprising places, and I am learning that when I unclench my fists, joy falls to fill the hollows of my hands. This is the harder love, the love that surrenders to whatever is offered, whatever is given. This is a work in progress. This is worth the journey.

- Elraen -

Oh Lord, how long will I be haunted by the fear that I believe?
My hands like locks on cages of these dreams I can’t set free.
But if I let these dreams die, if I lay down all my wounded pride--
if I let these dreams die, will I find
that letting go lets me come alive?
- Tenth Avenue North