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What My Old Lyrics Taught Me: On Authenticity, Shame, & Growing Up in Church

Music is my home, something I was made to live in. But I’ve faced rejection, limitations, discouragement, and over time I allowed those things to bury my passion. It still lived, but I wouldn’t listen to its outcry for my attention; I pretended it was small and didn’t matter too much to me. But it always did.

About a month ago, I began listening to an artist whose music was more genuine, passionate, and soul-meeting than I’d experienced in such a long time. I’d forgotten that music could be a vessel for such powerful things. It blew on the flames inside me; my passion was no longer trapped in muffled cries, and instead it roared at me until I would look it in the face once more. I then wrote and played and sang like I’d been released from a cell and given permission to love my calling again. Somehow, I had fallen into the trap of viewing my purpose as a burden I must bear, instead of a gift I get to treasure.piano werkin

Now I’ve moved into a difficult place of not being able to do everything I would like to do in my music. My resources and abilities are so very limited right now. I’ve responded to this situation in various ways already, many of them painful and unhealthy. But there’s one way that’s been bringing a lot of closure and healing to me: I’ve been reading through notebooks of my old lyrics. And I’ve been discovering some big things in the process.

1) I can do it.

I began writing my own music when I was eleven. Which means, yes, there are some absolutely terrible, cringey pieces that embarrass me just by existing. But there are a lot more potential-carrying verses than I thought there would be. For a young girl with no one helping her, I could write. I expressed myself well. Based on the kind of music I listened to at the time, I wasn’t too far off from what I wanted to be making. I see an anointing in the girl who wrote those songs. I’m trying to remind myself that she’s me, and that anointings don’t go away. Despite what I often believe, I am capable of being a music-maker.

 

2) Shame has been a giant presence and loud voice in my life. 

For a large portion of my life, I never felt I was doing enough, was pure enough, or was passionate enough about the Lord. My music from those times expressed that shame; I didn’t intend to express shame in my verses, but, unbeknownst to me, it wove itself into each one.

Discovering this in my old music unearthed some anger in me toward the Christian youth culture I grew up in. I love the people that led me in youth group, and I’m not bitter toward them; I know we’re all just doing our best, and I still carry many good things they did for me. But the things unintentionally ingrained in me? To be honest, they’re still infuriating sometimes.

I was taught that my friends’ salvations were dependent upon my boldness; that I had to be on fire, with a wildly passionate missional lifestyle, for my faith to be valid; that I had to perform well for the Lord, or else He would be disappointed in me. All of these things were said outright at some point in my experience, but they permeated teachings I received all the time. And it all said the same thing to my soul– “You are not good enough for God to love you the way you are.”

I didn’t know that humans cannot save others humans; that my only job has always been to love everyone. I didn’t know that feelings sometimes need to be told the truth; that burning passion is not necessary for whole-hearted work, and sometimes we do what we don’t want to do because we know it’s right and good. I didn’t know that God wanted me, as I was, no matter how well I was or wasn’t doing.

Why didn’t any youth ministry make it a point to teach me that?

Why did they lead with the need to evangelize, when I didn’t know the fullness of the gospel in my own soul first? Why didn’t they teach me about my belovedness, about who I was? Why didn’t they recognize that I didn’t need solutions as much as I needed people to walk with me through my dark places?

[This isn’t completely related, and I’ve considered cutting it out of this post countless times, but I think it’s important to put it out in the open: no one in my church was able to recognize depression in me, during the more than two years I lived in it. Whenever I tried to vocalize anything about what was happening inside me, I just ended up being confused by the faith-isms they gave me with sympathetic expressions on their faces. I became convinced that it was my fault I was suffering. A leader once approached me and asked me to help another student who expressed numb sadness like I had once done, because it was assumed I’d found a way through it; the leader didn’t know what to do when I replied I was still in it and had no solution to give them.]

I’m a little angry, yes. But anger is a secondary emotion; mostly, I am sad. I’m sad because we’re so unpracticed in dealing with rawness and the incomplete things in our own souls and the souls of others, when it is something so vital to being a healthy person. And I’m sad because younger Tessa was given one-size-fits-all advice and pats on the head, instead of something real.

 

3) Music was always my taste of what was real.

I expressed things I didn’t even understand or recognize in my life, but somehow knew when I began writing my verses. I could say what I most genuinely meant there. I could discover what I meant there. And I could find healing in the process. No other place was like that.

It’s still true for me. He always meets me intimately in my music. It’s still the place I find the most safety and comfort and hope.

NF has this line in his song appropriately entitled “Real:” “You gave me music as medicine.” I feel that so deeply.

 

4) Because shame wouldn’t let me have compassion on myself, I didn’t know how to give it to others.

I treated so many of my friends as projects in my mind; I expected perfection from them. If they “failed” in some way, I saw it as my fault. These are lies that grew from what I believed about my own unworthiness, and the perfection I demanded from myself. It was surprising to see just how many songs I’d written about people I knew who were “lost,” and how firm I was in my judgements of them. For a while, it was pretty much all I wrote about.

I wish I could go back to every person I’ve ever condemned (some verbally, I’m sorry to say). I wish I could tell them that they are holy, one hundred percent holy, because it was His gift to them. I wish I could tell them He already fully loves and welcomes them, as they are. And I wish I could tell them that I have my own vices… that I am not better than them in any way, never have been and never will be.

I was so wrong. I know I was a different person back then, that I can’t be angry at younger Tessa because she was doing the best she could. But I wouldn’t blame anyone else if they chose not to forgive me. I am so sorry for the damage I might have caused in people I just wanted to love.

Hurting people hurt people. I didn’t know I could be such a clear example of this, but I know it now. And wow am I grateful that He’s teaching me how to be kind, to myself and to others.

 

5) I was genuinely, madly in love with Jesus.

One of the greatest things I felt shame about was my relationship with Him. I lived daily life with a sharp ache inside because I didn’t think I was loving Him well, or that I was worthy to be with Him. It is so wild to read my old verses now and see that I’d dedicated songs to Him, writing His name at the bottom of each page, with a heart drawn next to it in complete sincerity.

The love I had for Him seeps through every word I penned. I was enamored. I loved Him with the deepest passion I’ve ever known. I hope I’ve only in grown in that, but it was wildly evident in me when I was a teenager; I wouldn’t shut up about Him.

Despite how she felt, teenage Tessa was in such a good place with Jesus. Yes, she had flaws and made mistakes; she still does as a grown up. But she didn’t need to fear a lack of love for Him inside her. She was dripping of it.

And she didn’t need to fear a lack of love for her inside Him, either.

I know these thoughts are messy. But I’m sharing them because I’m learning messy is okay because it’s what’s real. We don’t need to struggle make our words relatable to everyone; we just need to come from a place of vulnerable, awkward, scary authenticity. After all, people can only relate to things that are actually real. Some of the most life-speaking songs in my life have been ones that were unique and probably not relatable for everyone. They sat with me in my mess and my darkness; they told me I wasn’t the only one, and that it was okay to be unkempt inside… showed me there’s beauty in unknown, deep waters because that’s where the answers are hiding, ready to be sought out.

Reading my old verses has further convinced me just how important it is that I keep writing new ones, keep recording what’s in me, keep being fully real. I needed it. I still do.

And there are others who need what I find just as much as I do.

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