July 6, 2016

Odyssey of Light Series: Part 3

Odyssey of Light Blog Series

Part 3: The Vortex Complex (Or, "Who Really Let The Dogs Out") 

This is part 3 in a five-part series, in which I finally tell the truth about myself, my music, and my identity in Christ. I should probably be clear as I get more into my story: just because I mention somebody does not mean that they endorse me OR my “deviant” lifestyle. I mention them by name in an effort to be honest to you, the reader. That is all.

In case you’re wondering, Dan Smith is the one who let the dogs out.

He’s the pastor of Momentum Church in Cleveland, which I’m pretty sure is still being taught out of a movie theater. During 2004, he created a parody of some well-known rap song called Baby Got Book, which hit YouTube and everybody loved it. He followed that up with an entire album of parodies, spurned on by his Masters of Storytelling. And yes, that’s a real degree.

He was also our week-long speaker and minister during Summer in the Son 2005. Oh, you say, now it makes sense, Emily. Be patient. There are some of you who know this part. And for the rest of you, I left you on an unfair cliffhanger last time, so now we catch you up to speed.

There were two sermons a day during SITS, and one sermon on Sunday to kick it off, and Dan Smith did all of them. On the night of Sunday, June 26, 2005, he skipped up to the stage, introduced himself (probably with Baby Got Book), prayed, and then asked the question that would change my life:

“How many of y’all have been to Cedar Point?”

Keep in mind this was a regional crowd of teenagers, and the appropriate response was to lose your mind. After all, this was Cedar Point he was talking about, the best amusement park in the world. I had heard a lot about it growing up as kids would travel to the shore of Lake Erie to conquer the coolest roller coasters. The park had made local, state, and national news only two years earlier for breaking the 400-foot roller coaster height barrier.

People loved Cedar Point’s roller coasters. And that’s exactly why I made a face at this question. I had never been to Cedar Point, and I had no intention of EVER going there. I hated roller coasters.

Well, hate’s a strong word, particularly for those of you who didn’t know me back then (read: the majority of you), so let me explain. My first visit to an amusement park was at regional powerhouse Kings Island in 1992. I was four. Dad put me on the kiddie coaster, I was mortified, and I spent the rest of the visit on the carousel, clinging to Dino while spinning in safe circles. While Dad put up with me, Mom was off in Rivertown, riding the Beast, upon at this point I asked, “Is she going to come back?” Because when your regional amusement park has a roller coaster called the Beast, let’s be honest, it’s a valid question. Years and experience and being dragged back to Kings Island a lot led me to tolerate coasters, but I’d still would have rather ridden the Scrambler.

So. Dan Smith. Cedar Point. Five hundred screaming and enthusiastic kids and me, sitting on the end row, about ready to pass out.

He waited for the crowd to calm down, talking about how cool the park was, then continued in words I will remember always. “Life is like a roller coaster.” (“You puke a lot?” seventeen year old me thought.) “No, you know how the biggest rides are always designed to scare you? Life is like that. So, we get on the roller coaster not sure what’s going to happen, because roller coasters are designed to make you nervous. They strap you in and put those huge restraints over your head, then they send you up the lift hill.

“So you’re leaning over the edge and you’re looking at this roller coaster with all these loops and corkscrews and elements that you can’t even name, and you’ve got this pit in your stomach. You think --no, you KNOW -- that you are not safe on this thing. Meanwhile you’ve got Jesus strapped in next to you, kicking his feet. “Isn’t this going to be great?” He says. And you turn to Him and you go, “Um, no? I’d much rather be safe on the ground right now! Why am I up here again? Stop this ride! I want to get off!” And Jesus looks at you with that grin in his eyes and he goes, “It’s gonna be fine. Trust me.” So you go over the lift hill and you spin and you race through the course and at the end Jesus smiles and says “I told you so.””

He then followed it up with another similar story about facing fears regarding cliff diving, and then backed up his tales with Scripture. But his point was clear: God doesn’t promise that things won’t be scary. He simply promises that He will be there, through it all, and that you will come out the other side all right. Now, one’s definition of “okay” may vary, but God guarantees that those who love Him will find their way to heaven, where all is made right.

I took the sermon at face value and shoved it back into my mind somewhere. Two days later, the David Crowder Band concert happened. I arrived back in Ohio with a reminder of the light in my eyes and an Olympic fire in my heart. For the next couple of weeks, I worked on college applications, dumped my boyfriend, and wondered just what I was going to do with the rest of my life. I was still working on creative endeavors for Studio LRPLI -- or at least I said I was.

In order for someone’s life to be changed, they must be removed from their previous path. And then they must be set on a new path.

Or something like that. Taken October 2014.
My dad announced that his work had special tickets to (then Paramount’s) Kings Island for July 17th, also good to get us in the day before. There would be a huge picnic on the 17th, and all of the families were invited. So it was that we all loaded up in our minivan and we drove the three hours to Kings Island, getting slightly lost on the way.

Throughout this post I’ll have photos of Kings Island that I have taken over the years. None of them are from this visit, but they should give you a good idea of the park, for those of you who wouldn’t dare ever set foot in the Midwest. (And I don’t blame you.)

We're gonna conquer the world! Or at least Coney Mall! Taken by Jacob Mauch, April 2008.
In case you’ve never been, I will attempt to keep this short. (I say attempt because most of you know I could rant about roller coasters for hours.) Kings Island is a regional park much like any Six Flags you’ve been to. It’s not as big as Walt Disney World or as celebrated as Cedar Point, but it draws a very sizeable crowd. The park is best known for its observation tower shaped like a ⅓ replica of the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

The biggest and baddest roller coaster (even today) is the wooden Beast coaster, which is pretty much what you think it is. In fact, Kings Island was once known for an entire family of Beast coasters. The smallest was the Beastie junior coaster my dad put me on when I was 4. Then there was the Beast, and then the “Son of Beast” was bigger and taller than the Beast, and the first wooden roller coaster to include a loop.  

Jake and I in front of the Racer, some point in 2008.
I was dreading going to Kings Island, but I was okay with wooden coasters. I could hang on as long as there was something on either side of me and below me. I had even been on the Beast once or twice. I figured that my mother and sister would drag me on the Son of Beast, which I agreed to do as there was only one weird loop to deal with. I could grin and bear it for five seconds, right?

We divided up into two groups. Mom and Steph went to go ride all of the roller coasters, while Dad, Luke and I would stick to smaller things. Seven year old Luke figured out he liked the Beastie, which was fine with me until my dad got sick of it. I vividly remember riding some boat ride that went about the speed of snail and being bored out of my skull.

We met up for lunch near Coney Mall, the area themed to a carnival boardwalk. This was where all of my favorite rides were: the Monster, the Scrambler, the swing ride. If it stayed close to the ground and didn’t turn you upside down, I was game. I hated being upside down. Dad had taken me on an upside down ride when I was in fourth grade. Are you seeing a theme here?

But nobody seemed interested in flat rides. Dad and Luke were going back to what was then Hanna-Barbera Land to probably go ride some snoozefest. Meanwhile, Mom and Steph were headed toward THIS THING:

Aaaaaaaaaaaand panic. Picture taken April 2008.
You see what I see? No barriers on either side. Upside-down parts (it goes upside down six times). Big and scary and looks about ready to kill you. This is the Vortex, a roller coaster I had managed to avoid at all and any visits of Kings Island. It sat right across from the racing wooden coaster that I loved. I saw this Vortex all the time and always told my family no way in a million years would you ever get me on that thing. But Mom and Steph were headed toward it and Dad and Luke were going to go spin in slow circles and I was in the middle, thinking, “Can’t I just go ride the Scrambler? I mean, I am 17. I’m practically an adult. I can go by myself.”

And then I remembered the sermon.

Dan Smith says life is like a roller coaster. You’ve trusted God up until now, and the voices in your head are gone. God’s always got you. He wouldn’t take you places that you can’t handle. I looked back at Dad and Luke, then back at the Vortex, and I gulped. “Well, if I die,” I muttered under my breath, “at least I know I’m going to heaven, right?”

Taken October 2014.
So I followed Mom and Steph to Vortex’s queue line. I felt about ready to bolt the entire time, forcing myself forward every time the line moved. We finally got to our train, and Mom and Steph sat in front of me. I took the left seat, the seat to my right empty, pulling the over the shoulder restraints down and trapping myself in. We went up the lift hill, and I imagined the sermon in my head to keep me busy. Meanwhile you’ve got Jesus strapped in next to you, kicking his feet. “Isn’t this going to be great?” He says. And you turn to Him and you go, “Um, no? I’d much rather be safe on the ground right now! Why am I up here again? Stop this ride! I want to get off!”

God, I thought to myself, please help me make it through this thing in one piece.

We went over the hill and down. Not too bad. I spoke too soon. Oh, wait, here come the loops! I braced myself as much as I could, held on tight, and prayed straight into the first break run. Oh. That wasn’t too bad. We then went into two corkscrews, out and around and upside down. I’m pretty sure at this point I screamed more curse words than my mom had ever heard me utter before. When we reached the final brake run, I let out a major sigh of relief. That wasn’t so bad!

I looked over at the empty seat next to me, and I imagined Jesus giving me two thumbs up. And it made me smile.

Over the years, I would come to tell this story about how God made his point clear to me through roller coasters. But the story always stopped there, with no mention of what really happened at Summer in the Son or what would happen later in August. The “Vortex Complex” is a cornerstone of a bigger story, one that I’ve been glad to actually share with people.

What people always (correctly) infer afterward is that I became obsessed with roller coasters. I rode every coaster I could in Kings Island, and every time I did, I reminded myself of how God saves me, every single day. And if I just trust in Him, He will make my loopy and crazy path clear to me, and He will walk along with me the entire way, paving it with light. When I got home, I learned even more about the roller coasters, watched videos, and learned about roller coaster history. The Studio LRPLI-sized hole God had left inside of me was now filled with loops and corkscrews. I didn’t know what this new path would hold, but every roller coaster at Kings Island -- heck, every roller coaster period -- could be a reminder of God’s love for me.

So when my youth group said that they were going to Cedar Point in August, I said, “Sign me up!” with a smile on my face. If I hadn’t heard that sermon from Dan Smith, I would have never ridden the Vortex. And if I had never ridden the Vortex, then I would have never decided to go to Cedar Point for the first time.