For as long as I can remember, my parents have fought tooth and nail to get me to sing in church. When we stopped going to church four years ago, I would hear the same thing during occasional online services or while attending Christian concerts. For some reason, I had no desire to sing out. I simply mouthed the words, even if I liked the song. This drove my parents—particularly my mom—out of their minds.
Lest you take me for a Scrooge or a grouch, I like music, and I always have. My favorite time of year is that day when the last fall tablecloth is packed away and the first Christmas carol is inadvertently hummed. But it is only recently that there has been a shift in the way I listen to and engage in music.
In 2020, as another issue recalls, I took an internship at a local radio talk station. This station did not play music, but one of my tasks was to become familiar with the other local stations. Most of these did not interest me, so once I learned the basic lay of the land, I spent most of my workdays listening to one of the two primary Christian music stations as I went about my day.
Listening to uplifting Christian music began to be the basis of my moods Whenever I spent long periods without listening to music, my moods noticeably declined. But when I did listen to music, which was most of the time, I developed the ability to recognize songs from short clips, and identify artists even by listening to songs that I had never heard before.
The most defining shift, however, in my musical life, occurred in the summer of 2022. The story of the Summer Institute shall be told elsewhere, but here I must break into it in order to share a taste of the way God worked in me through it.
On the first night of camp, as with every morning and night that week, we gathered for a worship session. For some reason, however, this worship session was different from any concert or church service I had ever been to. I was more drawn into the experience. I had no reservations about singing out loud or clapping along with the livelier beats. More importantly, I felt, for the first time, a sense of worship.
This went on every morning and evening afterward for the rest of the week. But there was one other thing that changed regarding the way I responded to music.
That Sunday when I had first arrived at the Summer Institute, we gathered in the auditorium for the opening orientation with our parents at what appeared to be a big dance party. There was music playing—not disco or pop, but upbeat Christian music—and everyone was dancing and jumping in front of their seats. This concerned me immediately because I did not want to stand out as a social dud, but at the same time, I was not comfortable dancing in the fashion that high school and college students seemed to enjoy so much. I was therefore very glad to see that as we entered, the music was over and everyone was invited to sit down. That evening, well after all of our parents had finally left, I heard rumors of a karaoke night which was part of that week’s activities. Then, either that night or the next morning, a young man named Josh asked me if I would join a group that he was trying to gather and sing “The Misty Mountains” as one of the dwarves from The Hobbit.
I have no idea why I said yes without any hesitation, but I do remember that it was the next morning, Monday, because I distinctly remember the events of that night.
My roommate was a tall, blond 18-year-old named Jacob. He seemed rather quiet and reserved at first, at least to me. He was such a combination of the easygoing person and the imposingly silent person that trying to understand him drove me crazy.
But that evening, Jacob shattered the picture I had finally been creating of him. After dinner and our evening worship and Bible study, we were all gathered for a dance competition between four teams that had been created among the hundred-plus students. After the competition ended, we had over an hour to dance to the music that would be played until curfew.
This was, of course, the moment at which I receded to the edges of the room, joining the considerable number of people who opted not to join the circle of teenage dancers. But at one point, I saw my roommate in that circle, practically stealing the show. And in my intrigued curiosity, I ventured just a bit too close to the edge of the ever-changing circle.
No matter what I can say about Jacob, I cannot say that he didn’t like me. The moment he caught a glimpse of me, his face lit up with delight. Not waiting for me to come into the circle, he made his way through it and closed in on me like a falcon, announcing that I was to join him in the dance.
I might have frozen for a second. Not only did I not want to dance in this fashion, but I also didn’t even know how. This wasn’t a slow dance. My mom had shown me the basics of slow dancing. But this was the dancing of high school parties and college pop culture, and I had never even tried to learn it. Therefore, I resisted. Jacob kept urging me for a few moments, but he ultimately understood that I was a hopeless case, and so resumed his place in the circle.
That night in our room, Jacob showed me how simple it was to dance that kind of dance. Basically, the entire spectrum of “party dancing”, as I called it, boiled down to a very simple set of moves—back and forth, and staying with the rhythm.
Over the next several days, I was suddenly comfortable joining my new friends in their dances, and I even created a group of kids to give a partially choreographed performance to TobyMac’s “Feel It”.
That week, I found two things: the heart of worship, and the courage to step into unfamiliar social territory. And finally, the karaoke number was a total triumph. In short, among the many things that God did for me through and during the Summer Institute, He gave me the chance to know, for the first time in my life, what it felt like to be a normal kid my age.