26 March 2017

What Worship Is Not

I've been pondering and railing against modern 'worship culture' for years now. Longtime readers of this blog are very familiar with this. I often blame it on lackluster musicianship, overwhelming same-ness in the arrangements (across the board), repetitive and inane lyrics, the overproduced fakeness of the entire culture that apparently only I and a handful of others seem to feel.

The other day, though, I was listening to a song in this genre (for research purposes only), and suddenly I realised why people will say certain songs are 'anointed' or 'so worshipful' -- they're the songs which, for whatever reason (which remains shrouded in mystery even to a person who is very seriously considering making a career out of nonverbal physical demonstrations of emotion), incite them to kneel and/or raise their hands. And suddenly it dawned on me that maybe these people think that is worship -- that physical pose they take while this music is playing. It's a tableau dance, and it doesn't arise out of a spirit of worship, it IS worship. Suddenly the overwhelming aura of fakeness that this entire movement is drowning in made sense.

People, I think we're missing something.

Worship is NOT a certain series of physical movements. It is NOT the act of closing the eyes and swaying. It is NOT the act of kneeling. It is NOT the groans and grimaces. It is NOT the raised hands. It is NOT the sound of the keyboard and the amped up acoustic guitar. It is NOT the light show. Yes, all of these things can be the MANIFESTATION of our worship (or the 'consequences,' if you prefer), but -- and please do not miss this distinction -- worship is not the physical act.

Worship is a heart attitude. I'm not going to go in-depth on this here, but you can find any number of (doctrinally sound) theologians who say this. The physical trappings/outward expressions of worship are a representation, a reflection (to put it another way) of what is going on in your heart -- but they are not worship itself.

Basically -- don't call your weird cultish tableau dance worship. It's not. You can worship in any posture, singing/playing in any genre. But don't shame the ones who aren't 'led' to join our weird cultish folk dance.

19 March 2017

Stress and Self-Injury

I read something the other day about how self-injury takes many different forms. Obviously there's things like hitting or cutting oneself, starving oneself -- but the article also mentioned people who constantly push themselves to the limit, the people who stay up late for no real reason, the people who will exercise to the point of utter physical exhaustion.

These are all me.

I took eight courses -- a maxed-out course load -- for two consecutive college semesters. The first one left me extremely bitter and I wound up emotionally dead. By the end of the second one (which was this past semester) I was suicidal because I could no longer withstand the mental pressure in the corner I had backed myself into. But even then my perfectionism with relentless. I stayed awake for 65 straight hours at the tail end of that second maxed-out semester writing papers and editing them mercilessly (though given the amount of sleep deprivation I was working under, there was no way I could possibly have been editing very well). And through that hellish 65 hours -- during which even the director of my program started commanding me to go to sleep because he could tell that I wasn't -- the question that kept screaming through my head was, You idiot, why do you do this to yourself?

Going farther back: I've always been a night owl -- since I was two months old, according to legend -- but I was about fourteen when I started consistently staying up past midnight. Usually I was reading, writing, or listening to music. Even now when I stay up late that's usually what I'm doing on some level. But why? All of these things could have waited till morning in most (if not all) cases.

This past summer I discovered another outlet for my self-hatred: dance. I would practice tap dance for one half-hour, every day, with zero breaks. If I took a break longer than one minute, I would have to practice for another five. It was merciless, but I had nowhere else to vent my anger and hopelessness so I turned it on myself. If I couldn't execute a step perfectly, I would do it over and over again, shaming and guilting myself until I did it. I would get to the end of that intense half-hour practice and literally collapse, half-dead from lack of oxygen. More often than not I was in tears, from exhaustion, frustration, and from the harsh words I would tell myself to prod myself to keep going. Looking back, that was probably not healthy. I was still mourning three deaths, two divorces, a cancer diagnosis, and a wholesale family split. I was still so bitter at God that I was telling other people not to bother praying because it didn't work anyway. I was working a physically demanding full-time job (which honestly was the least stressful part of my life). I was still physically recovering from the sleeping-four-hours-a-night-eating-one-meal-a-day life that I had been living through my previous semester of college (the first of the two overloaded back-to-back semesters).

Reading the aforementioned article made me realise just how much of the behaviour that mystifies even me comes from a place of self-injury, a place of trying to prove myself, to get attention. I'm trying to either earn love and acceptance from somebody -- anybody -- or destroy myself trying. If I destroy myself, if I drive myself so far down that I end up dead, maybe then somebody will feel sorry for me. Maybe then somebody at my far-too-early funeral will finally clue in and say, 'We were too hard on her. We should have made sure she knew we loved her.'

See, very early on in my life I hit on something that inspirational viral stories on Facebook would later exploit -- if you slog through adversity and still make something of yourself, people will love you. In fact, this is the only way to get people to even notice your existence. So my generation overloads themselves beyond reason, beyond sanity, so that they can 'brag' about the long hours and the hard work they've put into something -- because surviving intolerable levels of stress or hardship is the only way to get anybody's attention anymore, and you can only get love and acceptance if you have some tiny piece of someone's attention. What I would do was emphasize the bad things in my life when talking to people so that they would be more in awe of the insurmountable odds I was facing. This, of course, may (sometimes) inspire admiration but does not (ever) inspire friendships. People saw me as a complainer, and I suppose that's a legitimate claim. But instead of changing my self-destructive habits, I burrowed further into them. And I found myself getting angry that they were not putting me (visibly) at death's door as quickly as I wanted somebody -- anybody -- to notice me and really truly show that they cared about me.

07 March 2017

Stage Fright for Writers

I’m a writer. I sculpt words like clay. Words spill from my pen/fingers almost effortlessly, at least most of the time. I am almost physically incapable of writing a ‘short email’ -- they’re usually a minimum of two pages long, despite my best efforts. Words are my currency. Words are my lifeblood. Whether blogs, Facebook, emails, novels, short stories, notes, ideas... I am writing almost from the moment I get up to the moment I go to bed.

Why then, when I sit down to write an academic paper -- even on a topic I’m interested in and have all the sources for -- do the words die on my fingertips? Why then is my writing voice suddenly silenced and I couldn’t think of the simplest of sentences if my life depended upon it? Why then does the topic suddenly inflate to such gargantuan proportions that mere words can no longer begin to encompass it?

04 March 2017

Music Day - Why Should The Devil Have All The Good Music?

Title pretty much says it all.

I was first introduced to this sentiment at about age four through one of my dad's mixtapes which contained Chris Christian's knockoff of this week's song, and that's kind of been my rallying cry (both as a fan and as an artist) ever since. Why do Christians have to settle for a subpar subculture? Why does the music we make have to be seventeen times blander than than 'regular' music? What makes us so 'special,' so sensitive? Are our stomachs so weak we can't handle quality songwriting/musicianship? (Of course, one usually answers with the argument 'that's what the labels want' -- but I'm asking this of the labels themselves.) Why must Christian music -- or any kind of art done by Christians for that matter -- be the vegan-friendly, gluten-free, low-fat, caffeine-free alternative to music?

I digress. But you can see even in that mini-rant how profoundly this song has shaped my life, even through the indirect channel of Chris Christian's reference.

As for the original, it too was a rallying cry for a previous generation of artists who were Christians. It was also a bit of an apologia from the father of Christian rock to his brothers and sisters in the Lord who would rather pretend he didn't exist. However, I suspect none of them ever heard the message, given that it was couched in a swinging '50s rock arrangement. And even if they had tried to listen to it, they no doubt would have turned it off after hearing 'They say to cut my hair / They're driving me insane / I grew it out long to make room for my brain...'

Full of verve and sass and musical bounce. This was music that was unashamed of itself. That's rare in Christian music, kids. Observe and enjoy.

Title: Why Should The Devil Have All The Good Music?
Artist: Larry Norman
Album: Only Visiting This Planet
Year: 1972
iTunes here; YouTube here.

19 February 2017

Singing and Dancing

Written 31 January 2017, 11.19pm.

The thing with being primarily a dancer in a musical theatre program that emphasizes singing SO heavily is that you're kind of caught between two worlds. On one hand, dance is my first -- and biggest -- love. It is the one thing I have found that can keep me alive when my entire life is falling apart around me.

On the other hand, I want to be a good singer so I can get better roles at this school. At this school, weak singers get lesser roles (if any) and that's all there is to it. I, of course, am one of the weakest singers in the program. But -- singing is not my love and my joy. After all, how can someone enjoy something they're so mediocre at? I don't exactly enjoy watching people flounder and struggle to find something, anything nice to say about my vocal performances.

If I'm honest, I feel singing is a necessary evil if I want to be a performer. Right now I'm just fighting to get my singing to a passable level. I know I should be having fun with it and enjoying it, but if I'm honest, I often dread practicing voice. If it happens to go well once I get going, then I kind of enjoy it, but the bad days far outweigh the good and I feel like I'm going absolutely nowhere.

I'm torn between wanting to focus on my voice -- my weakest point -- and strengthen it, or on dance -- my strength and love -- and attain higher levels of true excellence.

I should love to sing. So many people do, whether or not they're good at it. Why don't I? Can I ever be any good at it if I don't love doing it -- or at least sort-of enjoy it? But how can you love something that you're not that great at? Will joy come with time and practice, or will it never come at all?

15 February 2017

The Weight of the World on a Living Heart

5 February 2017, 1.27pm.

The world sucks.

That may seem pessimistic, but from a relational standpoint, it's true. (I'm leaving aside for the moment the 'we're moving in the right direction/working for a better future' argument. That may be true, but for this post I'm focusing on the here and now.)

How common is this view, generally, I wonder? Take the aforementioned hope-for-the-future argument out of the equation for a moment and think about how you feel about the world as it stands right now. How good is it right now, at this moment?

As for me, I feel this so intensely that often my heart physically feels heavy under the weight of all the sadness and pain and loneliness in this world -- even just in North America or even in the building I live in. I don't personally know even a fraction of how much pain lives here, but I feel it, sometimes to the point where I physically cannot stand under the weight of it.

Am I the only one?

Does anyone else feel this collective groaning of humanity? Does anyone else carry the pain of many in one tiny helpless heart?

Or do I get to be the special one -- again?

27 January 2017

Music Day - Crushing Hand

"God is in the business of throwing us curve balls, because His aim is to form the image of Christ in us.  He will do it by whatever means it takes. When I fear this process, it is because I don't really believe that He loves me. After some thirty-two years of being a Christian, I am only beginning to see just how much He does. His hand can crush, yet He chooses to lay it gently upon us."
        ~ Terry Scott Taylor, 2002 (Full interview here.)

Over the past year I have written and not posted more than I have written and actually published. There are many posts in my drafts folder full of frustration and anger and pain -- my personal writings even more so. I've begun to forget how much you readers actually know of the past two years and how much was written but never published here.

Suffice to say the last two years were horrendous. Death on every side, divorce on every side, woundedness, broken-heartedness, and just plain old life. By April 2015, I had completely given up on God, although the aforementioned things would continue well into the year 2016. I believed God existed, but I absolutely did not believe He gave one single crap about me or my breaking heart. And I believed this -- doggedly, relentlessly -- for two years (although I believed it in some milder form or another much longer than that).

At the very end of last semester I had a conversation with the director of my program -- ostensibly about singing, but very quickly it turned into the spiritual, and how frustrated I was with God. How I felt He hated me or at the very least had turned His back on me.

"Why do you think He doesn't care about you?" he asked.

Suddenly the answer I kept giving to that question -- 'just look at the past two years, do you think it matters to God if my heart lives or dies?' -- seemed inadequate. Lacking an alternative answer, I spread my hands and shrugged.

"He wouldn't care about everyone else and not you," he said. "You're not that special." (Possibly the strangest word of encouragement I've ever received.) He continued, "Kate, I guarantee He cares about you." He went on to talk about how he's seen God's hand in his own life, despite his own difficult circumstances at times. I hung on to every word. Maybe something here would connect. Maybe this thing I so badly wanted to believe and couldn't would finally make sense.

It didn't -- not immediately. I don't know that it ever will completely. But the conversation as a whole -- and my own inability to satisfactorily answer his gentle questions about my position -- percolated in my mind over Christmas break. What if I was holding onto an unnecessary amount of bitterness? What if -- maybe -- God still did notice I existed?

The thought chipped away at me. I opened my angry mind a tiny crack to a possibility that I hadn't allowed myself to entertain in a very long time. What if -- maybe -- God didn't hate me?

This is where I am now. There's still a ways to go -- I'm still not entirely convinced He loves me, but the fact that I'm questioning the idea that He hates me is much closer to the idea that He cares about me than I have been at any point since December 2014.

To trust this silent God still seems like insanity. He is so unpredictable and He is so withdrawn and He is so, so quiet. But people, artists even, who have gone before me into this blind trust of the same Being -- people like Terry Taylor or like my program director -- continue to commit their fragile human hearts to Him decade after decade. Is it enough for me to trust their long-term experience of Him as ultimately good and loving and follow their example?

I do not yet have the courage to sing every line of this song and mean it. But I appreciate the sentiment -- and I can identify with the struggle in it.

Title: Crushing Hand
Artist: Lost Dogs
Album: Nazarene Crying Towel
Year: 2003
iTunes here; YouTube here.

You know my name, wound me
You know my frame, heal me
You lay Your crushing hand
Your mighty hand
On me gently

Do what You must and save me
I'm in the dust, now raise me
Lord, I believe, help my unbelief...

Acoustic guitar with heartfelt poetry and the harmonies of Terry Scott Taylor and Derri Daugherty (of The Choir). What's not to like?

20 January 2017

Socialising In A Dark Silent Room

There's something I've been wondering about for a while now, and my hope is that you, dear readers, can explain it to me:

How is watching films a social activity?

I'm serious. It makes no sense. You all gather in a dark room and stare at an inanimate object for two hours while yelling at each other if anyone dares breathe a word. How in the world is this socialising? You don't even LOOK at each other, never mind interact. And forget meaningful conversation -- if you ask a question it's usually in a whisper and accompanied with a hushed apology, plus an annoyed 'just watch!' from either the questionee or the other people you're 'socialising' with.

I don't know about you, but when I'm with a group of friends and they say, "let's watch a movie!' my heart immediately sinks because that's when I realise they would rather watch a story they already know by heart than interact with me and share their own story or learn mine -- even after I took time out of my day to be with them. And it's even worse when the first film finishes and everyone says 'let's watch another!' because then it's not even a case of watch-and-discuss, it's a case of the-lives-of-these-fictional-characters-are-more-important-to-me-than-your-life. Films are a way of ignoring someone in a socially acceptable fashion and pretending you have a great friendship. But you're not only wasting your own time, you're wasting theirs.

My parents' generation didn't watch films. They 'had coffee.' They would invite people over, sit down at the kitchen table with some baked goods, and drink tea or coffee as each guest preferred. And they talked. Long into the night I remember my parents forging and strengthening friendships at their kitchen table and at the kitchen tables of their friends. It takes just as long as a film, but it's SO much richer. By the time you're done 'coffee,' you know the other person's joys and struggles, hopes and dreams, things that make them tick and things they're good at. And you've formed an alliance. Now you're in each other's corners, so to speak, and if that person needs help, you're not only more likely to notice, you're more likely to know how to actually help.

This is how we build community. When was last time you actually bonded with someone by ignoring their existence?

I'm not saying we should completely stop watching films together. I have a friend I watch Doctor Who with whenever we can, but after the episode is over there's usually a good long chat, not just 'well, that was fun. See you later!' In moderation, films can be a good kickstarter for a conversation that leads to friendship. But don't gyp yourself out of that conversation. That's the important part. The film is preamble. The conversation is what builds and sustains a relationship -- any relationship.

The film can be paused. It will always be there. But your friends, your family -- they will not. Trust me on this. Tonight could be the last time your paths cross. Don't spend all of it ignoring and shushing them in the name of 'hanging out.' The day will come when you would give anything to hear their voice again, to see their face again -- but it will be gone. Don't shush that voice or hide that face in a dark room while you still have it with you.

16 January 2017

Day 16 - National Choreography Month

Well, so far I have accomplished exactly one full dance this month. It's not even anything off the choreography-in-progress list -- this was a totally new piece, start to finish. It was one of those that you end up kind of sneaking up on, you know? I had a practice session planned at the local studio over the weekend, so while waiting I listened to the song, just for fun. By the time I had to leave for the studio, I had the whole thing figured out except the second verse, which I worked out during practice. The whole thing start-to-finish took me maybe two hours. It's been a long while since a dance came to me that fast.

Today I was in the studio again. (It's really quite a luxury to have easy access to a dance studio for my personal use rather than just for classes. I love it.) I still didn't create anything new, really, but I got rehearsal footage of a few dances I created over 2016 (Rift, Shades Of Green And Red, and Big Dreams), plus I tried a new thing -- improv. I've never really done improv, for two reasons: 1. lack of space, 2. lack of desire/courage. I don't know if I'm going to actually commit to finishing that improvised piece this month, but the song (DA's infectious The Man That Can't Be Mentioned) is just so much fun to dance to so I thought I would give it a try. I feel like I'm not mentally ready to commit to choreographing that piece. It needs to percolate a bit first. I've been doing this long enough now that I can sense when something is ready to be choreographed and when it needs to stay in incubation until further notice.

Haven't touched any of the pieces that were on my works-in-progress-to-finish list though. Maybe tomorrow... I hope to spend a lot more time in the practice studio this semester.

15 January 2017

Ramblings on Artists, Depth, and Loneliness

9 January 2017, 9.21pm.

I've been pondering (so what else is new?): I think I'm starting to get an idea of why so many artists commit suicide or get addicted to any number of things.

It's lonely. But not just in that there-are-no-people-around or I'm-always-on-tour-away-from-my-family way. It goes deeper than that. I'm noticing increasingly that people in general don't think deeply -- but I do, and that one difference puts a disconnect between us. I guess I always sort of knew that in the back of my mind... and the fact that since I was a child people have remarked on my (sometimes) acute observations and how 'smart' I am should have tipped me off. 'Smart,' I have learned, is code for 'thinks about deep things.' This, in turn, is code for 'she's weird -- don't hang around her.' Even as a kid I was lonely. I thought it was just because I lived out in the middle of nowhere.

I'm realising, though, that there's this deep-seated loneliness that almost defies explanation. I myself didn't even realise it was there until this school year, though I've certainly felt it all my life. It's this longing to connect, on a soul-to-soul level, to someone, anyone, who thinks about deep things too. Someone who understands why it's important to feel, why we need music and dance and paintings and beauty and stories, what it's like for your heart and soul to ache and not know why. Someone who can see -- at least sometimes -- through my eyes and understand the hollowness that never quite goes away, even when I'm happy and content. This is probably why I have such an obsession with Daniel Amos, David Meece, and Prodigal -- because they saw it too. They feel it too. There are at least three other figures who have ever existed who get it. They can take the words out of my mouth -- and sometimes that is solace enough.

If this is the mind of the typical artist -- if this depth and these feelings are what makes the artist an artist -- no wonder so many of them die young. No wonder so many are addicted to anything that numbs the mind, that turns off these feelings that sometimes seem to hold us hostage whose existence nobody is willing to acknowledge. And suicide -- well, that's the ultimate 'off' switch. But is it really better to live without feeling? It would be easier, yes... but is it really better? This is the question we face more often than we feel we are allowed to admit.

This whole thing is even trickier as an artist with depression. Where does one end and the other begin? What level of deep-seated melancholy is 'normal' and when should I start to get concerned? Am I doomed to spend the rest of my life always seeing the ends of things clearly enough that I can never truly enjoy the beginnings and the middles?