Be the Song
I think it’s about time I write about my relationship with the guitar, and with music in general, but especially with my personal connection with acoustic guitar and singing.
Jason Upton, a worship leader I greatly respect, tweeted about an artist named Foy Vance. I’ve never had the privilege of hearing about him before today, and when listening to this version of his song, “Be the Song,” I don’t even really need to understand the words. I can just feel his emotions, and I’m moved to creativity.
I play guitar like he does. I don’t mean with the same musical skill, but with the same body language. He is sitting, hunched over his instrument. That’s my favorite posture. He almost sounds like he’s crying. I get like that, especially since I stopped leading worship back in November of 2011, back when I really stopped playing guitar on a regular basis. But the most telling point? His eyes are closed, almost for the entire time.
Closing my eyes while playing gives me bravery. It’s like a musical slumber, or a meditative prayer, and it helps me to avoid the audience and enter into my sweet spot.
When you’re the worship leader of a church, you can’t really avoid the audience. That, in many ways, is counter-intuitive. I remember my pastor at the time telling me, “Make sure you don’t leave the audience behind.” But I didn’t want the responsibility of bringing everyone up to that level. If they didn’t want to go with me, then they didn’t have to. But I was going into that secret, sweet space, and I’d be damned if anyone was going to stop me.
My favorite part of leading worship was that secret, sweet space. I would begin strumming, I would close my eyes, and I would listen to myself sing. And the trance would come over me. I would feel light while feeling heavy. I would see images. I would hear non-spoken words. For lack of a better term, it was prophetic, but not a futuristic prophetic notion. It would be a sense of something very, very important going on in that moment, and it was deeper than anything I could perceive with my five senses.
I can compare it to when my baby boy moves inside me. He startles me, he makes me aware, he brings me into the second where a world is being created. It’s something I can’t control. Leading worship was like my baby’s movement.
The worst part of leading worship was the fact that I had to stop. I had to set the guitar down and interact with the outside world. I would open my eyes and feel off balance. I wonder if it will be like the emerging of my baby boy to bright lights, cold air, and strange hands touching him. I couldn’t stay in that womb. I had to talk to people.
To be honest, I rarely did talk to people. I’d run into the back room, often escaping through the back door into the parking lot. I’d bring grading with me (yes, grading to church), and I’d find a quiet corner in which to read essays. I wanted to be busy. I didn’t want to talk human language. I wanted to remain in the warmth of that space, and I knew that no one else could understand it. I was alone while being a public figure in that small church.
When I’d pack up my guitar and drive home, at some point in the drive back, I would always cry. I’d drive back to my studio apartment, lug the guitar up a steep flight of stairs, and I’d feel utterly alone. I had just given birth, and no one was there to hold me.
When I met my husband in August of 2011, I shared these discomforts with him, and we worked together to help me step away from feeling so uncomfortable. Letting go of being the worship leader was part of that. It was one of the hardest and best decisions I’ve ever made. And no one understood it. My sister cried, thinking I had abandoned my calling. She didn’t understand. My former pastor tried to get me to stay, and then he asked for the guitar back that he had given me. He didn’t understand. Well-intended church folks would ask me when I was returning to the stage, and a knife would turn in my chest.
When you deliver a baby every week, and you watch the baby squirm under the bright lights and cry at the unfamiliar noises, and you realize the baby is no longer inside of you, and you look around and see that no one else is there with you, something has to change.
Sure, my introverted nature has a lot to do with this. I am not ingratiating. I can be good in situations where ingratiating behavior is warranted, but it requires a level of pretend. I cannot pretend when it comes to leading worship. Like I said earlier, if you don’t want to enter into the ocean with me, then you can stay on the shore and take care of yourself. (This is why I could never teach K-12, by the way. College kids can be thrown into the water, learning to sink or swim, without my conscience going wonky.)
I also found this article a few months ago (that I wish were better written; I’m almost embarrassed to link it here) that talks about the creative’s brain and how it is different from the brains of others:
According to neuroscientist and author of The Creative Brain, Nancy Andreasen, less creative types tend to adapt quite quickly to situations and surroundings based on what they have been told by authoritative figures, while those with creative minds experience things quite differently:
“This flexibility permits them to perceive things in a fresh and novel way, which is an important basis for creativity. But it also means that their inner world is complex, ambiguous, and filled with shades of gray rather than black and white. It is a world filled with many questions and few easy answers. While less creative people quickly respond to situations based on what they have been told by people in authority — parents, teachers, pastors, rabbis, or priests — the creative person lives in a more fluid and nebulous world.”
We experience the world with a different viewpoint: we question, ponder, and analyze. This can, unfortunately, lead to feelings of isolation, social alienation, or depression because we are different, and maybe because we feel we are strange or weird. What might seem a ‘normal’ environment…can be stressful and introverted in our complicated approach to society.
Leading worship stressed me out. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it did. It was why I was so spent after a Sunday of private-life glory and public-life hell.
I tried to lead worship a few months ago for a small home group. I found the space to be there, still warm and secret. I assumed the posture, and I began. The few people in the room disappeared. It was like taking a long drink after being outside without water for hours.
But then the amniotic fluid burst: one of the loud, extroverted members of the group cut in and took over. He took over my song, my prayer, my baby. I was sitting very deep inside a simple rift, rocking back and forth, feeling the rhythm of the notes and the currents of the new air I was breathing. Then the umbilical chord was snapped.
I hadn’t really played guitar since stepping down from my former church (the break was so overwhelming to me that I had to leave that congregation). So here I was, trying again, and it just didn’t work.
So no, I don’t think I’m a worship leader. I think I’m a woman who loves worship. I am a woman who doesn’t just want to perform a song; I want to live the song, to be the song.
And maybe I will sing again. And maybe I will play again. It will probably just be for my husband and my baby. It will probably just be for myself. If it is ever for the public, it will be in the posture of Mr. Vance: eyes closed, gripping the guitar as my life vest, pretending no one is there and everyone is there with me.