About a decade ago, we buckled our toddler into the car and drove three hours to Spirit West Coast, a weekend-long Christian festival featuring dozens of bands. The band I was most excited to see was Tree63. They were not the biggest name in the lineup, but their lyrics had captured my heart.
The other thing I was looking forward to was the atmosphere of worship. Thousands of people with one purpose — to worship God. It would be like a glimpse of heaven.
We arrived after dark on Friday night to a field full of tents. Not only was it difficult to set up a tent quietly in the dark, but there were no actual sites, so we just had to find the most open area possible. And the place was crammed with tents. We did the best we could and went to sleep.
In the morning, while we were still warm in our sleeping bags, the campers around us emerged and began cooking their breakfast. “What kind of people set their tent up in the middle of someone else’s group?” they grumbled. And grumbled. And grumbled.
My heart sank. I was so embarrassed to leave our tent. When I did, the group got quiet. One of them offered us food. We politely declined. By that time I had gone from being embarrassed for us to embarrassed for them. What if we hadn’t been Christians? What if they had been our introduction to Christ?
We made our way to the stage where Tree63 would play and listened to some other band and then a sermon that the crowd chatted through. Finally, singer John Ellis and the rest of the guys came on stage, and they rocked it. One thing made the concert uncomfortable, though. Ellis made a statement about the commercialism of the festival. I guess he thought we had better things to do with our money than to buy tee shirts with pictures of rich white guys with expensive haircuts and perfect teeth. (I might be adding my own gripes a bit here. John’s gripe was probably less about diversity and more about the focus not being on God.) Between the unfriendly campers, the sermon chatters, and the celebrity worship, I was sorry I had gone to the festival at all. A three hour trip with a toddler for this? So much for a glimpse of heaven.
Months or maybe years later, Tree63 came to our tiny Sonoma Marin fair in Petaluma. Our church youth group went, and so did I, slightly older toddler in tow. I lay in the grass, an exhausted parent letting the music wash over me. The band said that it had been an inconvenient gig to fly to, schedule-wise, but that they had felt strongly led by God to book it anyway. Who knows why God led them? But I thanked God, as this exhausted parent needed a blessing.
Not long after that, John Ellis left Christian music. I believe he was fed up with the culture of the industry. I don’t want to speak for him, because I only read one article, and it was a long time ago. But whatever his reason, I couldn’t blame him. He wanted to find a way to make a difference in the world — help bring about social justice.
I didn’t blame him, but I felt a great loss. No one’s lyrics resonated with me like Tree63’s. It was their album “The Answer to the Question” that I popped into the CD player in my car after visiting my dad in the hospital for what I was told would be the last time. “There’s always, only, been You. Bright shining as the suuuuuun,” I belted out, tears flowing. One of my earthly heroes was leaving me.
I know that John Ellis would not want me to call him my hero, so I’ll just say that I was sad at the thought of his never coming around on tour again. He might not be my hero, but he was someone I wanted to hear more from — someone I thought would understand my not wanting to call myself a writer of “Christian fiction.” Someone I thought would understand my sadness about Spirit West Coast not being a glimpse of heaven, and understand my deep discomfort at the realization that I might be someone else’s reason for not getting a glimpse of heaven.
God is surprising. Sometimes you watch a friend you prayed for not be healed, and sometimes you find out when you get home from the hospital that the cancer expert was wrong, and that your dad only has a terrible infection. Sometimes you can’t sleep at night and start thinking about Tree63 and you Google them and find out that they are back after eight years and putting out a new album.
Welcome back, guys. I hope God calls you to my little town again someday. I wouldn’t be surprised.