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A Foreigner Among My Own: estranged at a Christian music festival

This post originally went live on June 28, 2013. Enjoy!

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I know why I’m here. Sometimes it feels like I don’t, though. I don’t belong anymore. But we all knew that coming into it.

Out in the fields there, pulled tight like long plastic candy wrappers, are family sized tents. Inside those tents are sleeping bags, bibles, baby wipes, luggage, apples, water bottles. Boxes upon boxes of supplies from Wal-mart. Some tents are bigger, though. They house people who stand, talk, swirl coffee, and nod at each other and say Amen, and Brother a lot. They all speak the same language here.

Children with buzz-cuts, freckles, thick glasses and denim shorts sift their sandaled feet through the grass next to me. The boys wear baseball caps with familiar logos and t-shirts with words I’ve heard youth pastors title as sermons. The boys here talk about video games. The girls whisper and giggle. Some have unpierced ears and others have long socks bunched at their ankles and stuffed into their tennis shoes. They glance at me, then at the ground. They whisper again, taking hold of each other’s arms at the elbows, their purple scrunchies tight around their hair.

I am here. Here I am, I pray. But here is not where I am used to anymore. I watch the world before me. This is where I’ve come from. These were my people. I learned all I know from them. The things that matter. And they do, they really do. They still matter. Now, however, I am the man who has departed. Except, I never really left. I’ve always been around, I just decided to move into a tree house that hangs over the border of another world.

It is different being twenty-eight and looking back on my ten-to-fifteen year-old life. Back then I just wanted someone to give a shit about me. I didn’t care about money or eating healthy or skin tone or drugs or parties. Every kid wanted to be popular, so I did too. I did it because I craved my friends’ approval. I wore the shirts, the empty cross necklace, and denim shorts because my friends did. And because it was all I ever knew.

It was all I knew.

I listen to parents and adults talking to each other near my tent. They’re loud and open about what they think and feel. But they aren’t abrasive or rude. They’re just doing what they do and since the vast majority of people here are of the same mind they feel free.

At the LOVE NAIL TREE sales booth I get occasional questions from folks whose attention has been pricked. They’ll say, So, what is this? and Why is there a shirt that says ‘Time Will Tell’? and Why don’t your shirts say anything about Jesus? and Why is a man raping a woman on your shirt? Most recently we released a graphic called “Glass Half Full” with two friends clinking beer glasses together. This, not to my surprise, brought one concerned mother questioning my brother, who was working at the time.

“So, what is this?”

“The booth here, or…”

“No, this shirt. What is this?”

“Well, it says ‘Glass Half Full’ and it…”

“I can see that. You know, I don’t find this very uplifting.”

“Oh,” my brother said.

“Just two guys drinking beers is all I see. I don’t see anything uplifting about that.” She walked away.

God help us. Help us from your people, whom you love, whom you ask us to love. Help us to hold our tongues. Help us to offer silence instead of anger; unity instead of dissension. Instead of what we really want to say to an overly reactionary concentration of Christian culture, give us your mercy. But God, it can really feel like a load of crap sometimes.

There are 40,000 people here and I’ve only seen one person smoking. She looked like she was trying to hide behind a tree. I am tempted to find her, to bum a smoke and ask her about her tattoos. She’d understand my anxiety and would nod, and we’d both say, Well, what can we do about it, right? But we both know how much we can do. The tide is not slowly turning any longer. People are opening, progressing. Honesty is the new morality. The gospel is an organism that won’t die no matter how jaded we become with it. I predict a revival of the word “revival.”

I walk the premises. I smile and nod at people. I note the coffee stands, the funnel cake trucks, the fellow t-shirt vendors. I buy a cheeseburger and sit on a bench. There is mud underfoot because of the rain. I think about how I look at conservative Christian festivals. Tattoo guy with his long hair and beard. Kids stare, and I wave and smile. They watch me walk by, my hand falling back to my side. I am a some sort of circus act.

But they don’t know any better. They’ve lived here in rural Pennsylvania, or Virginia, or Ohio, or have grown up home schooled and overly churched. They listen to the Bible on tape for kids, and they watch Veggie Tales. They go to their church’s form of Boy Scouts and Brownies. I know because I grew up doing the same thing. We used to be taught to say terrible things like Them, and The Lost because they didn’t have what we had. We’d gather in tents and sing the same five songs, over and over, because we thought we had to. We should be compelled to, we’d hear. We are gathered here to seek your face, we’d sing. Calling out with our voices, untrained and out of key, our fingers stretched and pointed at the sky, these were the places we were taught what the presence of God felt and looked like. I always tried to look away when the spot light panned across my face because it hurt my eyes. 

Carl, David, and I make up the sales staff during the day. At night we each have a beer. We sip and talk about our day while cramped into a two-man tent. We joke and talk about funny interactions. We talk about strange thoughts, we talk about potential romances in our lives and we tell each other to be true to ourselves and who we know we’ve been made to be. We say, I know it sounds a certain way to say this, but if you know the life you’ve been asked to live then you need to lose her. And we will say, Yeah, I know it, man. Thanks.

Every morning the sound of a country worship band suddenly soars into the sky and ricochets along the hillsides. Cloudless, breezy, seventy-five degrees, and a man singing (like Weird Al) a song originally titled “Who Let the Dogs Out” as “Who Let the Devil Out”. I blink, I stare at my tent ceiling and I say, I am here. Here I am. But here is not where I know anymore. I used to speak this language, I was a member of this culture, but now I am a foreigner. I still believe in the same God, if not more so now than ever. But I do not relate with their lives. Nor they mine.

God, help us to find a place together.

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