“I’ll have a Bellini and the chocolate s’mores cheesecake, please,” she said, and the waiter zoomed off into the dark-lit crowd. I don’t think there was any music playing in the restaurant; if there was, we couldn’t hear it. Dark wooded walls and marble-tiled floors encased us in a bit of French exquisiteness in the middle of our busy Tuesday night lives.
“So you ARE going to Conference now?” she continued.
I nodded, and we started talking about where last year’s Conference had met us in life.
60,000 college-aged students filling up the Georgia Dome with one anthem, one pulse.
“It’s neat because I was at Conference 2013, back in the Dome, and so it’s interesting to go back over the past four years and see what time has done from Dome to Dome.”
I told her I had been at the Dome back in 2013, too. She talked about how, that year, she’d been in a co-ed room where they fought over the roll-away-bed until three in the morning; I told her about the way I exploded into inconsolable tears in the middle of the CNN center amongst 20,000 other students because my cousin had been mean to me and the 32 flights of stairs I had to climb at one in the morning to get back to my hotel room.
Passion Conference 2013 at the Georgia Dome met a wide-eyed seventeen year old version of myself that was far too loud and overly-excited about anything. I’d done it right, played by the rules, waited until I was a senior in high school to finally buy my ticket and attend. I was staying on the thirty-second floor of the Westin in Downtown Atlanta, in a room with my cousin, my boyfriend’s little sister, and a girl I could hardly stand to be around at the time. Sam and Drew and Austin were staying a room down. In the next three days, I would have a meltdown when my boyfriend showed up for our lunch break in the CNN Center and ended up flirting with my cousin and humiliating me, would stand in the nose bleeds with the kids I’d grown up with and worship Jesus with them for the first time, and end up getting lost in Atlanta alone with the girl I’d pegged as another typical attention-starved new kid. Those first three days of 2013 changed my year, my walk, my prayer life, and the way I thought about God.
2013 looked like graduating from high school, starting college, getting a fresh start, breaking up with my boyfriend of two years after he’d unraveled me into a whisper, and learning to run to the city. It was the year of the boy with blue eyes, getting my dream job with So Worth Loving, interning for Hannah Brencher, and tattoos. It was the year of cutting way too much of my hair off and starting a blog and falling in love for the first time with a boy I thought I’d always wanted. It was the year of cancer, the year I stood up for myself and got knocked out, the year of fast cars and my first broken heart. It was the cusp of a downward spiral. It was me trying to figure out what to do with my life.
2014 was the year Passion Conference moved to Phillips Arena, and I pitched a fit about the prices. Boycotting the whole thing, I started that year out in Florida with my mom at the To Write Love on Her Arms Heavy and Light Tour. That was the year of snow storms and trying to save myself before I got too sad; it was the year of family and Enos and weekends spent on 10th street with a boy I’d always known. It was the year of psych wards and California and turning 18. It was a year that would define a hard season, a year that would touch me cruelly. That was the year I fell in love with a boy who knocked the wind out of me when he left. That was the year when I was a junior in college, and I found myself telling my advisor that I’d made a mistake and needed to take a break to rethink what I wanted to do. That was the year I lost my mind. That was the year that darkness won.
2015 was the year of purple hair. It was the year of full circles and learning that sometimes God gives us things back just to remind us why He took them away in the first place so that we’ll stop pointing the finger at Him. It was the year I broke a boy’s heart while I was trying to make mine feel better, the year of music festivals, the year of secrets. It was the year of If You Find This Email and it was the year of depression. It was the year of no longer liking myself and being kept up at night by my own ghost. It was the year my cousin left and my uncle died. It was the year the storm clouds started to break, and I felt called into ministry when God started yelling from the top shelf I’d put Him on. It was the year I got a job with a church. It was the year of bruised knuckles. It was the year I met Greg. It was the prodigal year.
In 2016, I finally went back to conference, but not without a fight. 2016 started in a house full of people I barely knew on New Year’s Eve at a birthday party for someone I didn’t even know yet. It started with a free ticket to Conference because some friends I’d only known for two weeks wanted to see my life be dazzled by God again, even if I was too stubborn to want that myself. And, well— 2016 dazzled me.
You know that feeling just after it rains when the pavement is still hot and smokey, and there’s still humidity in the air so you still feel kind of gross but not exactly like a wet rat? That was me this time last year.
Of course, I didn’t say all of this in that little French cafe on a Tuesday night. But you better believe that I walked through the past four years my whole drive home.
And I see God when I look back. I see the mess and the ache and the revival and the new. And I see God.
Four years ago, I was a girl with an immature faith that chased God in shallow waters. Now I sit with Him; now I don’t move without Him, and when I do, it’s from victory to victory. Maybe it was four years of doing away with the parts of me that wouldn’t fit His will, but now I’ve been rebuilt and restored.
Now in three days, I’ll be back in the Dome. With Greg and my sweet little sister. I’ve got open hands. There’s more victories to chase.