As 2001 drew to a close, I found myself experiencing a rebirth of sorts, finally feeling plugged into a church, and really making friends who I could talk to about important, personal matters. I joined a Neighborhood Sedaqah Group (Evergreen’s term for a weekly Bible Study) in Pasadena and finally felt like part of a community.
In with the New:
Out with the Old:
Nicole C. Mullen
Two of the people I got to know best in the Sedaqah Group I’d just joined were Winnie and Lovelyn, who I went on a hike with on December 1, to Sturtevant Falls, north of Arcadia. They would both become key confidants during the next few years as my life began to change quite radically.
Where in the world is this?
1) “Sadie Hawkins Dance”, Relient K (The Anatomy of the Tongue in Cheek, 2001)
This one pretty much became my favorite Relient song the first time I heard in, during their opening set for the Supertones back in March. Even if it was just about a cheesy high school dance, I loved the whole “Girls ask the guys” thing. What guy wouldn’t want a “girl so stunning” to saunter up out of nowhere and ask him out? Well, due to conversations with some of the new friends I’d made at Evergreen who had a little more of a traditional mindset concerning gender roles, I was realizing that some guys did feel a bit intimidated by women who they construed as “man-chasers”. I didn’t get that. I still don’t totally get it. But I do understand that when a woman’s doing all the pursuing and the man’s doing none, the woman can get rather frustrated with that. Some say it’s a woman’s desire to be pursued romantically. But shoot, I think it’s the desire of most people who want to be romantically involved. I want to pursue, but I love it when a girl has the guts to pursue me, too. I didn’t know it yet, but in the coming months, I would get to experience both.
2) “Something About You”, Corrinne May (Corrinne May, 2001)
Corrinne May was a local indie artist, originally from Singapore, with her eye on a pop singing career as filtered through more of a coffeehouse acoustic style. I first found out about her when Ken Fong, the head pastor at Evergreen, recommended a concert of hers in Hermosa Beach to the church’s Single Adult Fellowship that existed at the time. I was the only one from the group who actually made it down there that evening, but I brought Khat with me, and we were treated to an extremely intimate show in a small bar, just Corrinne and her bass player Todd, the two of them harmonizing beautifully against the backdrop of a lone guitar or piano and the bass. It was the kind of music that expressed basic sentiments of love and loss in simple yet thoughtful words, with melodies that every now and then would hit those unexpected, delicious chords that just made it feel so unfair to not have a special someone there to wrap my arms around! This song was the one she opened with, and it left the greatest impression on me – an intentionally gushy pop song about seeing something in a member of the opposite sex that drives you wild, and just wanting to go for broke and tell them absolutely everything about them that makes you feel so strongly. This was the girl’s side of the story from “Sadie Hawkins Dance”, the thought process that she’d go through leading up to her approaching me, heart all a flutter and asking me to the proverbial dance.
3) “Pre-Ex-Girlfriend”, Five Iron Frenzy (Electric Boogaloo, 2001)
Somewhere near Christmas, it started to dawn on me that I was beginning to fall for one of my new female colleagues that I had become acquainted with at Evergreen. It actually surprised me that I was ready to genuinely have feelings for someone again mere months after the breakup… I kind of thought it’d be longer before I was clear of all of the messed-up feelings that the breakup had left me with. Still, as joyous and giddy as it was to experience those first sparks of attraction again, I knew it was a longshot. A person can often seem so perfect when you first fall for them, and part of you knows you’re setting yourself up for likely rejection. This song is kind of about that, in a tongue-in-cheek manner – you meet someone who seems ideal, and think that because she seems so perfect, there must be something horribly wrong that you’re not seeing, and you might as well step up and get yourself rejected and get on with it.
4) “Satellite”, P.O.D. (Satellite, 2001)
Sometimes I enjoy when members of a band generally known for being hard and abrasive prove that they can actually sing along together in glorious unison. I was quite surprised to hear something so melodic and yet still fairly crunchy from P.O.D. People called them sellouts for going pop, but you know what, they were close to being one of my favorite bands that year.
5) “Holy Moment”, Superchic[k] (Acquire the Fire: Unshakeable, 2001)
Superchic[k] always struck me as more of an intentionally goofy band, who got a little more conversational when they mellowed out, so it quite surprised me that they could pull off a cover of a reverent worship song by Matt Redman, and infuse it with their own extreme style of energy without making it sound superficial. I was becoming more and more drawn to stylized covers of worship songs that injected a little personality into an otherwise straightforward song – I was just barely knowledgeable enough on my acoustic guitar to clumsily lead worship for the Bible Study that I had become part of, and I wanted to experiment and get people singing worship songs that were personal favorites of mine, but that I had never heard in church.
6) “Show Me Your Glory”, Third Day (Come Together, 2001)
This was back when I still appreciated most of Third Day’s “worship songs” – even the computerized fluttering or whatever it was at the beginning of this song didn’t make me think “sellout” at that point. I enjoyed learning this one, because for the most part it was easy to follow, but there was that quick (for a beginner, anyway) G-D-A chord change that was really good practice for me. You gotta start with the basics and work your way up, so while I may now find a lot of three or four-chord worship songs to be boring, they’re easy to learn, so that helps budding new worship leaders to get going quickly.
7) “Heaven”, The Benjamin Gate (Untitled, 2001)
This song describes an ordinary and mundane world coming to life as a person is transformed spiritually. That was me as 2001 drew to a close – the pressure and frustration were finally letting up, and I was rediscovering the kind of person I really wanted to be. I was happiest as fall became winter, normally the time of year when I’m most depressed – it was as the song described, “Like the sun coming up on a pitch cold night.”
8) “We’re Nothing Without You”, The Juliana Theory (Emotion Is Dead, 2000)
I’ll confess that I still don’t know what this one is about. But I was listening to Emotion Is Dead so much that nearly every track stood out to me, especially this weird, spacy one, with its moody acoustic guitar picking, crashing drums, and eerie “ooh-eeh-ooh-ooh”s. Maybe it was about a man who felt angry with God and wanted to do something rebellious, or maybe it was God urging man that he would be nothing apart from God. It’s kind of an ambiguous tune.
9) “My Sacrifice”, Creed (Weathered, 2001)
OK, so the first single from the new Creed album was pretty much a compromise between “Higher” and “With Arms Wide Open”. I learned to love it all the same. It was about reuniting with someone after a long absence due to your own selfish pursuits. For me, that had more of a spiritual implication – I was now in a season where I cared more about my spiritual health than I had back when I had a girlfriend, so it was like I had purged myself of that unhealthy relationship in order to… I don’t know, have closer communion with God or something. Not to make it sound so noble – as I’ve pointed out before, the thing I had to give up wasn’t exactly something that I handed over voluntarily.
10) “Alien”, Delirious? (Audio: Lessonover?, 2001)
Delirious? might have been channeling a little too much Radiohead for their own good here, but I really related to what they were saying here. It’s a song that describes a land of mercy and forgiveness as one that is completely alien. “Why does the sun shine on my guilty face?” Why was there this weird sense of finding redemption when I felt that all I had done for most of the year 2001 was get my hands dirty with hedonism and hatred and bitterness? How would I manage to accept and internalize this uncomfortable grace that I had stumbled into?
11) “You Are My Hope”, Skillet (Alien Youth, 2001)
I was quite happy when I finally got the chords for this one down – Skillet seemed to have one back-to-basics (though beefed up with keyboards and rocking energy) worship song on each album, and while the song I really wanted to tackle was “Thirst Is Taking Over”, this was a decent place to start. Like pretty much any song that vaguely referred to hope amidst tragedy, this one became a 9/11-themed anthem for some listeners, but for me it was just a solid song that applied to any situation. I played it the first time that I led worship solo for Crossroads, and there were only about 5 people there that day, but it was a thrill to actually be able to teach people a song, and to hear the girls echo back “My hope” and “My strength” during the chorus, exactly the way Korey did on the CD. Maybe I had a knack for this worship leading thing after all!
12) “Isn’t It Love”, Andrew Peterson (Clear to Venus, 2001)
A faster-paced song (one of the few!) by Mr. Peterson and his makeshift band that amused me and Khat with its tale of lost luggage that became a metaphor for a person who felt like a total lost cause finding redemption. This was another good song to practice quick chord changes, and since I couldn’t do D and G back and forth that quickly, I started to appreciate the value of the capo, which turned it into a much easier transition back and forth between C and F. Now I was starting to understand the simple math behind the music.
13) “Fall Down”, Jennifer Knapp (The Way I Am, 2001)
Though I was definitely healing as I moved forward with a new outlook on life, a new community of friends and so forth, I was still haunted by demons from my past, and things I wished I hadn’t done. “Past regrets and long laments, they find me somehow”. As usual, Jennifer Knapp was singing about stuff I could totally relate to. I had to admit that I couldn’t erase those things in my past – I wanted so badly to forget and just act like that was somebody else’s life. All that I could do was “fall down”, ask for mercy, ask for it to somehow be brought around and have an unexpected positive effect on me now. It gave me perspective and a lot of wisdom about what not to do in the next relationship – that was definitely a consolation.
14) “I Remember”, Stabbing Westward (Stabbing Westward, 2001)
During a visit to his apartment somewhere near Long Beach in late October, my brother loaned me Stabbing Westward’s self-titled album (which turned out to be their last), and he told me that I’d probably really get into it because of the lyrics. I wasn’t sure if it would just be more of the teenage angst, nu-metal-type stuff that he was pretty heavily into, and there was this weird goth-looking girl on the cover and I wasn’t sure what to make of the whole thing, but I found that the group had a surprising pop sensibility, and as much as they got derided for writing straightforward breakup ballads like this one, it totally did the trick for me. I was absolutely devastated by this song, to the point of tears, the first few times I heard it. Lines like “Now I can’t even recognize the girl I swore that someday I would marry” hit way too close to home. But listening to it was a good purging of emotion; it helped me to acknowledge that there were memories of good times in that relationship and I had to realize that despite some of those moments of feeling so deeply in love, like things were guaranteed to last forever, none of that stuff meant that it actually would. This is the risk everyone takes when they get really attached to someone romantically – you might be later left alone, remembering some of your best times with that person, wanting to reach out and grab onto those memories and relive them, and then being faced with intense anguish as you realize that’s all gone forever. But then there’s a part of you that eventually moves past it and realizes, “Hey, this hurts less now than it did the day we broke up. I still remember this stuff and I don’t regret the good times we had, but we both changed and we don’t really recognize each other any more; it’s ultimately better that we went our separate ways.”
15) “God Is God”, Steven Curtis Chapman (Declaration, 2001)
A little dose of wisdom to cap off some of the reliving and reminiscing and regretting that was going on here. Just because I’m in pain doesn’t mean that I’ve somehow wandered away from God’s plan for me. God’s much bigger than me and He’s the one in charge; “I can only see a part of the picture He’s painting.” It’s not like nobody in Christian music had ever made such a plain-as-day observation that “God is God and I am not” before, but the way Steven stated it really rung true, as if he’d been through some gut-wrenching experiences of his own and had to wrestle with tough questions that he couldn’t answer within four-minute songs. In the past, I had hoped to find songs with neat little catch phrases that would neatly sum up an answer to my pain. Now I was more comforted by the fact that I didn’t have to find an answer in order to heal. What I was going through then actually makes a good deal more sense to me now, but at the time it was more important for me to be able to say, “God, I don’t understand the point of this at all, but I still trust You.” So many CCM songs talk about our buddy God and act like God’s so small and so much like us that we can predict the way He’s gonna work, and every now and then, you kind of need that slap in the face, that booming voice that reminds us of that weird paradox – close intimacy with a divine being, and yet we can never hope to approach or understand the scope of His power within our lifetimes. We have to step back and acknowledge that we’re just no that smart and we need to let God do His thing. Asking questions about why this all has to happen is fine (though you may not always get an answer); questioning whether God knows what He’s doing is not.
Khat and I went on a road trip over Thanksgiving weekend, to visit my friends Lina and Sandra in Berkeley, and her friend Abhik in San Jose. It was a bit of a whirlwind, since we left on Friday morning and came back late Saturday night, but she made an excellent traveling companion, as we both shared music with each other during the long drive (her preferences tending towards country music and soft rock from the 70’s and 80’s). While walking around Berkeley, we discovered Amoeba Music, one of the most massive used CD stores in the country, and we immediately felt at home. This picture is a shot of the store’s interior that I found on the Internet.
Where in the world is this?
1) “Parabol/Parabola”, Tool (Lateralus, 2001)
The math geek in me liked the titles of these fraternal twin songs; the exploratory music geek in me liked the damp, grey, murky tone of the first and the triumphant guitar heroics of the second, as well as the way one swelled up and suddenly became the other. Once again I was discovering something in Tool’s weirdly religious language that matched what I believe even though I knew they wanted nothing to do with Christianity: “We are eternal; all this pain is an illusion.” It was a “mantra”, so to speak, that helped me to move on. There was a real sense of rebirth in this song – it felt amazing to get totally absorbed in it.
2) “Carried Away”, Tait (Empty, 2001)
A fun, rambunctious kiss-off to Satan himself that Michael wrote with his dc Talk buddies Kevin and Toby. It was my way of defiantly saying, “I no longer believe the lie that the broken relationship I fell out of this year makes me a worthless and unlovable person. You can’t keep me tied down with that lie any more.”
3) “Her Game”, Kevin Max (Stereotype Be, 2001)
There was still a bit of vindictiveness on my part, as much as I hate to admit it, that contributed to my love of this song. It’s about a girl who plays games with your heart and intentionally plots to manipulate you into being a helpless and co-dependent person. Sharon didn’t do that. I felt at the time like she did, but she really didn’t. However, it was still true that I allowed myself to be manipulated by my own fears of the relationship, and I turned into a person that I really didn’t like in the process. A lot of my friends could see right through it when it was happening, but most of them were too nice to say anything and try to snap me out of it.
4) “My December”, Linkin Park (One Step Closer Single, 2001)
This one was my brother’s favorite song for a while. It’s definitely more intimate and beautiful (in a haunting way) than what you’d normally expect from LP. It seemed appropriate for the first holiday season since 1997 that I’d be spending without a “special someone”. That looked like it would be a tough adjustment, but it was conveniently offset by the sense of community I was beginning to feel with people from Sedaqah Group and XRoads. I had a lot of “extended family” to celebrate Christmas with. I could live without having a girlfriend around during the holidays, if only just this one time. I was no longer in that place of being so desperate that I’d “give it all away to have someone to come home to”.
5) “In Two (The Lament)”, Jennifer Knapp (The Way I Am, 2001)
A surprisingly vulnerable song, written from a woman’s perspective about the power that she knows she has to break a man in two, and her guilt over intentionally using it when she could have accepted a truce and put a fight on hold until time allowed cooler heads to prevail. Sometimes we know how much damage we’re doing to a person, but we’re so mad that we feel justified in breaking them so that they’ll learn never to get us that upset ever again. It really sucks to look back on a fight like that and realize that you were the bad guy.
6) “Last Beautiful Girl”, Matchbox Twenty (Mad Season, 2000)
“The one that you wrecked won’t take you back if you were the last beautiful girl in the world”. Man, even if you didn’t know me, you’d be able to tell from tracks 3-6 on this CD that somebody had broken my heart. This song was me sorting through my bitterness again – it was the radio single at the time and it fit my life too perfectly. (Not that she wanted me back – but who doesn’t fantasize about an ex wanting them back, putting you in the position to be strong and reject them?)
7) “This Is Your Life”, The Juliana Theory (Emotion Is Dead, 2000)
This song sounded so sweet with its soft piano and gentle programming, but it was really another entry in my list of “songs to purge my bitterness to”. This one basically looks back at a breakup and asserts that a girl chose what she thought was best for his life without considering his. The guy maintains that the only thing that really made their differences irreconcilable was that “You gave up, baby”. I felt like a good three years of my life had been yanked out from under me, and I’d never get them back (never mind that I was wasting more time thinking nasty thoughts about how much had supposedly been stolen from me). But relationships are something that two people choose to engage in, and there’s no point going on when you’ve tried and tried and at least one of you isn’t happy. You are individuals who can make your own choices, even if it devastates the other person – it’s better than giving in and getting married and then not being able to leave without it being a much bigger mess. I thought about time that I felt had been wasted, but I wasn’t yet aware of how much time she had actually saved me by ending it when she did. If we had continued on past 2001, I wouldn’t have met my future wife when I did, and who knows, I could still be looking for the right person today.
8) “For the Moments I Feel Faint”, Relient K (The Anatomy of the Tongue in Cheek, 2001)
A surprisingly sensitive acoustic praise song from a pop-punk band that I had previously thought was all about witty puns and high school wisecracks. I loved how honest it was about feeling completely frustrated and unable to overcome one’s own sins and doubts and pessimism, and to have all of that answered by the realization that our insufficiencies are exactly how God demonstrates His strength. “I think I can’t, but I think You can.”
9) “Brian Wilson (live)”, Barenaked Ladies (Rock Spectacle, 1996)
Terri was also among the first handful of friends I made in Sedaqah Group – she was co-facilitating with Winnie at the time. She had an ear for music – everything from Gospel choirs to good old quirky pop-rock, and being Canadian, she had a soft spot for the Barenaked Ladies. I mentioned to her that they were a band that ‘d heard a lot from due to friends in college and their mainstream radio singles, and one of these days I was going to check them out for myself. She took the initiative to give me the BNL’s greatest hits disc for Christmas, which was pretty much the most awesome place I could have started. It’s one of those CDs where, despite how much of a hodgepodge of different song styles there are, I love pretty much every song – even this live version that I thought was a weird fit at first. (I now realize it’s far better than the album version from Gordon.)
10) “Brave”, Out of the Grey (6.1, 2001)
I’m one of those people who is always very tentative before making any big decisions, always afraid that once he sees what’s around the corner, he’ll want to change his mind. At times that’s wise, but most of the time, it keeps me from really living life. This song kind of hit me with the realization that if I’m honestly pursuing things that I know God wants for me, then I shouldn’t have to worry about whether they’re going to blow up in my face – I may well fail, but I’ll have nothing to regret if I was acting on just principles. I’ll just learn from whatever happened. Having a new year on the horizon sort of gave me that new lease on life – that incentive to just go forward and try to get to know and love the people around me at Evergreen, and not worry about who might think I was weird, or who thought I didn’t fit in because I was white in a predominantly Asian-American church (which I later realized was quickly diversifying, so it’s not like my being there was weird in any way to everyone else). There were much deeper things that we had in common than those superficial differences anyway. I used to want everybody to like me, but something changed at that point in my life – I decided to just be true to the quirky person God made me to be and not worry so much about who would get it and who wouldn’t.
11) “Smile”, Steve (Falling Down, 2001)
This kind of pairs up with “Brave” nicely – it expresses a desire to not let God down, perhaps even a little fear about not knowing if we’ll make missteps and being hesitant to move as a result. If our aim is truly just to make God smile, then I think failure is not something that we should have to fear. God knows our intentions. We can step forward boldly.
12) “LiAnne”, Kepano Green (Waiting for Daylight, 2000)
This one was a good follow-up to “Smile” because it talked about a beautiful woman who had passed on before her time, who put smiles on the faces of the people she influenced just by playing her instrument and being her expressive, worshipful self. I loved that it despite being a eulogy, it had such an irresistibly sunny melody that was even a bit jazzy here and there. I’d have never heard of this indie acoustic duo if not for Lovelyn and Winnie recommending them to me.
13) “Thinking About Forever”, P.O.D. (Satellite, 2001)
A sensitive, R&B-influenced ballad is about the last thing we’d have expected from P.O.D., and sure, some cried “sellout”, but this is such a beautiful and personal song about Sonny’s mother that I really don’t care if the style is slightly more commercial than razor-throated hardcore rock. He wanted to dedicate a song to his late mother and thank her for pretty much teaching him everything she knows, and say he wished that she could be here to see him raising his own daughter and all that – I can’t fault him for any of it. Anyway, the rest of the band was no slouch here – Marcos’s latin-flavored acoustic guitar solo was absolutely breathtaking, something that I could get Khat to appreciate despite P.O.D. being nowhere near her style. I hadn’t suffered any personal losses in the family or anything, but I was definitely trying to set my mind on higher ambitions as I wrapped up the last mix CD of 2001, getting past the bitterness and thinking about what was really important and what brought me joy.
14) “Drop in the Ocean”, Michelle Branch (The Spirit Room, 2001)
A very unusual and heavenly track appeared at the end of Michelle Branch’s first ocean, building like the slow swell of a gentle tide and then bursting forth into an almost danceable, storm-like frenzy. “Nothing has been as beautiful as when I saw Heaven’s skies in your eyes.” It could have just been a love song, but it bordered on worshipful.
15) “Call on Jesus”, Nicole C. Mullen (Talk About It, 2001)
Nicole went more straight up R&B with a little bit of Gospel on her second album, and this was one of those bring-the-house-down ballads that I couldn’t resist. It might sound cliché, but I was finding more of myself in Christ at the end of that year, despite spending much of it refusing to really seek Him. I’m not one of those people who thinks that you can pray for absolutely anything and get it – obviously the business about moving mountains is metaphorical, and there are some mountains that God would rather help you climb over than move out of your way. But I was certainly seeing more of those mountains in my life start to move – or at least look less formidable than they once did – than I had at the beginning of the year when I felt like my future was set and I’d better just accept the not-quite-satisfying path that it was on. I had really been rescued that year, and I wanted to finish reflecting on 2001 by simply giving thanks and saying, “I’m not ashamed of the name of Jesus any more.”