I wasn’t confused about much when I was 16, really just three things: God, myself, and other people. The first was the most important—my church, my youth group, and my Christian school were clear on this. The point of a holy life was to have a close, personal relationship with Jesus. Understanding the self mattered less. As long as your thoughts were pure, no one cared what other feelings lurked inside. Paying too much attention to feelings was kind of girly anyway. The third thing, other people, was tricky, because they kept complicating everything else.
For me, this complication kept focusing on Helen, a girl in my youth group. I thought she might feel the same way, judging by the way we exchanged glances and smirked about teachers and youth pastors and praise songs that kept repeating the word “desire.” I wasn’t sure how she felt, though. We didn’t talk about these things. We had started to do something much better.
First there was the kiss in the pool, where we were splashing and joking in her backyard one night and then suddenly for a few seconds we were embracing in the blue glow of the underwater lights. Then just as quickly we were splashing each other again and she tried to dunk me, probably because her parents might look out the window at any time. And now she let me put my arm around her, here on the open road, away from the gaze of parents and teachers, even if our youth group still had chaperones. We were on a coach bus heading south from Chicago, toward a four-day youth rally in Knoxville, Tennessee. All year we had worked to raise money, holding car washes, hosting a spaghetti dinner, and selling candied nuts at Christmas. Now we’d find out if the annual rally was worth the hype from upperclassmen. You got two kinds of descriptions, depending on who you asked. Sometimes it was all about “powerful” worship and getting on fire for Jesus. But then Helen’s friend’s sister told us, “It’s supposed to be this big spiritual thing, but it’s all about hooking up. Don’t go with your boyfriend or girlfriend. You’ll break up.”
We rode all night, Helen burrowing in her hoodie and sleeping, and me too excited to sleep. In the morning we disembarked in the July heat, sunlight already glaring off the sidewalk. A woman with a clipboard checked us in. Why were we so sleepy, she wanted to know. Weren’t we excited to be here? I had to look away from the radiance of her morning cheer. Helen caught my eye and smirked. The woman handed out little maps and warned us the campus was big.
“Here’s your dorm, and way over here’s the cafeteria, and down here is the arena where the nighttime rallies are,” she said. “That’s almost a mile so give yourself plenty of time. Grooters & Beal are playing all week, so you’ll want to be in time for the music.” I squinted and nodded. I hadn’t given much thought to where Knoxville was—the South? Appalachia? I had a typical teenage gaze that focused only on people within a few years of my age. Everything else was background blur.
The convention planners understood this phenomenon, and every element of the program was dialed in to register at our frequency. I’d already heard about the basketball tournament, whitewater rafting trip, and nightly karaoke. I thumbed through the booklet of morning sessions. Many advertised “inspirational,” “quirky” or “powerful” testimonies. Most were on what you’d call “teen faith issues”. Several promised to answer whether secular music was permissible for Christian youth. Inevitably, one session on dating was titled “How Far is Too Far?” I’m sure it was jam-packed. I’m sure a session on “How to Get Farther” would have been even more popular. I told my little joke to my friend Derek, who laughed. We found our way to the dorm to unpack.
“Are you going to hook up with Helen or what?” he wanted to know. “You better decide before you get distracted.”
He tilted his head toward the window and the busy sidewalk below — a parade of soft cotton tank tops and tanned legs. I didn’t expect to get distracted in the way Derek meant. I found Helen plenty thrilling, partially for tank top-related reasons, and partially because, as much as anyone, with her I could at least kind of be myself, whatever that meant. I didn’t know how to whisper sweet nothings on the bus, but she didn’t either, and neither of us minded. In safer settings, we had fun. She shot me a glance while the clipboard woman was talking and I knew we’d laugh about it later.
The first genuine, non-sarcastic fun happened at the evening rally in the campus arena. Grooters & Beal was a praise-rock band from Holland, Michigan, who understood the power of volume, stage lights, and sing-along choruses. They had learned devotional yearning from Michael W. Smith and punchy power chords from Bon Jovi. I had written off this kind of contemporary Christian music, but I’d never heard it played this loud, in a stadium this big, with thousands of other excited kids. I’d only been to a few real concerts, and this was as exciting as any of them.
“That bass player can play,” Derek yelled into my ear.
I knew what he meant. You could feel it in your chest.
“Feed the fire, Lord, be my one desire,” Grooters sang, and we soon learned to sing along. “Fan the flames in my heart.”
Those evening rallies became the highlight of each day. After dinner, sun-worn and giddy, we trekked through the lingering heat to hear a preacher or inspirational speaker followed by soaring devotional anthems. There were even goofy motions to some songs, and I was surprised to find myself not rolling my eyes but participating. I didn’t feel self-conscious. A crowd of peers can do that.
“Light a spark, lead me on through the dark,” we sang. “And feed the fire in my heart.”
The only morning session I remember was a faith-and-music thing where a speaker surprised me by sneering the word “Aerosmith.” His voice carried so much revulsion it sounded like the aging hard-rock band had personally seduced his daughter. Aerosmith was a guilty pleasure for me. I knew they hadn’t been cool since the 70s. I knew their guitar solos mostly sounded the same. I knew “Pump” and “Get a Grip” and “Big Ones” were silly. I didn’t care—I loved them. To be honest, I was mostly taken with Steven Tyler, the serpentine frontman who screamed, yawped, caressed his microphone stand, and dressed in leopard-skin shirts and got away with it. He was confident, outspoken, uninhibited—the things I wanted to be.
Earlier that year Aerosmith had released a single with these lines:
There’s a hole in my soul that’s been killing me forever.
It’s a place where a garden never grows.
I misheard the last part as “a place where a girl can never go.” To me, it sounded like unintentional prayer. It sounded like this vocal atheist was primed for a conversion.
Jesus, I wanted to tell Steven Tyler. That’s the only thing that can fill the hole in your soul.
I knew it was stupid. What can I say? I rolled my eyes at well-intentioned church ladies, slouched through entire meals at home saying as little as possible to my family, and inside I harbored fantasies about washed-up rock stars coming to Jesus.
If you pressed me to say what I believed about Jesus, I don’t know what I would have said. A personal “relationship” with him was supposed to be at the core of my life. But he was more of an idea than a person, an abstraction that filled me with a vague anxiety that I was failing some test. Steven Tyler, on the other hand, I could picture clearly in his leopard skins and leather jeans. Now this youth pastor from wherever was dismissing one of my favorite bands without even saying why. He couldn’t imagine grace flowing through, or toward, my crass hero. I wasn’t interested in whatever else he had to say.
Helen and I kissed just beyond the lights of the karaoke stage on the second night. I could sort of sense this one coming, unlike the surprise in the pool. I still didn’t know if it would happen again, up until it did. We were watching karaoke in the muggy night and I was hoping and waiting for an opportunity. Finally she leaned over and said “Do you want to walk me back to the dorm?” Even I wasn’t too clueless for that hint. We left and found our own little shadow beneath the campus trees. The soft press of her lips was exhilarating, both for the culmination of weeks of wondering, and for the promise it held of future embraces. I casually assumed this promise was a done deal when I floated into a blissed-out sleep that night.
And I was still assuming when the phone woke me the next morning. It was Helen. “Hey. Do you guys want to come to breakfast with us?”
“Did you seriously have to call so early?” I said, still finding my bearings.
“Whoa, Mr. Cheerful,” she said.
Any number of apologies would have worked for me here. Anything to acknowledge that her considerate phone call didn’t deserve my rude remark. But apologies showed weakness, right? They brought you into the messy realm of feelings. Much simpler to insult the girl I’d been longing for.
“Whatever,” I said.
“All right then. Forget it.”
She went to breakfast without us and realized that hanging out with her girlfriends at convention was a lot of fun too. For the rest of the week we sort of coexisted on uncertain terms. We didn’t talk for a while, and there was so much entertainment buzzing around us that it was easy to forget we hadn’t moved past our little fight.
The last-night rally was meant to be a climax. Grooters & Beal led us in the praise anthems now familiar to us. We counted down to the revealing of next year’s convention location. Speakers blared “I Love L.A.,” a song I’d never heard before. Video screens flashed palm trees and the Hollywood sign. Actual screams swept across the crowd. I didn’t know if I’d be going next year and didn’t know if I liked Los Angeles. For the first time in the arena I wondered if I was as excited as everyone else was acting.
The band played slower, more reflective songs, and the mood shifted. Brian, the leader of the organization that ran the whole convention, spoke about the joy of being with young men and women all week. He spoke about the awesome privilege of seeing Jesus change hearts and lives. His voice grew quiet as he leaned out toward the sea of faces.
“I’ve got to tell you: Tomorrow morning you’ll be packing up and going back to a world that doesn’t care what you’ve experienced here. They don’t care.”
His voice grew even softer. “They don’t care.”
He told us what this would be like and how our faith would make a difference.
“You can be strong,” he said. “You can feed the fire.”
Finally, he invited us to leave our seats and move toward the stage. He wanted to offer a blessing, or a final chance to recommit ourselves to God, or a place to repent…or something.
My friends pressed forward, tears streaming down their faces. I moved forward to stay with the people I knew. Helen drifted a few yards ahead—a flash of blond hair disappearing into the crowd, the last I would see her that night. The dim corners of the arena emptied out as figures flowed toward the stage, arms raised. Music played slow and mournful. Everywhere I looked faces were blotchy and teary. I don’t know if they were experiencing shame, relief, or something else. I was too concerned with what I was feeling. Or, rather, wasn’t feeling. I wanted to be carried away in a cathartic wash of tears, but I wasn’t carried anywhere. Instead I felt stone dry.
At the end, Brian said there were adults backstage who could pray with us one-on-one. My youth group was going back to karaoke. Neither direction seemed right. I drifted with the crowd into the night, unsure of where to go. We came to the university running track, its field lights blazing. I set my sandals and t-shirt on a bleacher and felt the nubby rubber surface under my feet. Back at school I was a mediocre cross country runner, but I never ran without timing myself and measuring the distance. Here, I eased into a jog. The day’s heat lingered into the night, and by the second lap I was sweating. My mind returned to the rally. I was so eager to be swept away in the arena. Feeling some intense spiritual climax was supposed to be the whole reason for coming to these things. It made no sense, just like how everything with Helen fell apart before it got started. I wouldn’t have minded apologizing for being rude to her on the phone—pride wasn’t the issue—but something had stopped me.
My muscles loosened and my breathing settled into a rhythm. As I lost count of laps, I felt calm for the first time in days. I realized I was disappointed—disappointed and weary. That should have been obvious, but it wasn’t. Guys didn’t go out and name their feelings, even to themselves. Guys weren’t supposed to have feelings. It was shameful. Getting a spiritual high at a praise rally, sure, that was a noble condition. Steven Tyler rolling his hips on stage to demonstrate his desire, sure. But not getting all emotional when I couldn’t even say why. A life of faith required discipline, I thought. Determination. We were supposed to worship a savior who didn’t lose control.
The track’s nubby surface tickled underfoot. The faintest trace of a breeze swept across the infield, and I remembered there were mountains standing off in the distant dark. I was finally noticing things outside the clamor of my mind. As my legs pounded, I felt a deep sense of gratitude for that moment alone in the night. A sense of fullness came down and settled on my skin like the humid air.