Switchfoot’s Native Tongue tour stopped in Nashville on a rainy night in February. It was close enough to the beginning of the tour that everyone was a little giddy; after all, a year earlier, the future of Switchfoot had seemed deeply uncertain as they entered a hiatus. Now we had a brand new album and a chance to see them at the Ryman Auditorium, one of the most revered venues in the country. Every fan in line seemed to feel the gift of that reality.
I was feeling it in a deeply personal way as I slung a couple cameras around my neck and settled in to take some pictures. I had just begun a new round of medical testing and specialists, necessitated by growing concerns about my health. Two years of neurological problems had become partial blindness episodes, occasional partial paralysis, and the near constant present of lighting bolt webs of pain. I was filling out medical paperwork asking me questions like whether I had life insurance or a will. At 27 years old, these are not questions you’re prepared to be answering.
With those kinds of maybes hanging over my head, it seemed both impossible and yet earth-shatteringly necessary to engage the experience Switchfoot was presenting to us that night in Nashville. There is something about their music that strips reality down to its core, that reminds you who you are, reminds you what the world could be.
The night began the same way their new album does, with “Let it Happen” exploding into the room with its aching confession: “Let it happen, let it happen / I don’t hold what the future holds / But I know You’re my future.”
As Switchfoot intentionally interspersed songs new and old, “Voices” juxtaposed with “Meant to Live,” “Stars” making an appearances as well as “Dig New Streams,” it became increasingly clear that Native Tongue fits comfortably in their broader discography– it may be the band’s identity distilled into its purest form yet.
We live in a reality of breaking down, of loss, where the wildfires of this world can leave you wondering if there is any true beauty left. We live in a world of refugees, of untimely deaths, of fractured relationships– of uncomfortably staring disease in the face. Switchfoot has never denied that. The truth of it caught like a lump in my throat as I sang along with an acoustic rendition of “The Shadow Proves the Sunshine,” one of my favorite songs of all time. There is a pain that can get inside your bones.
But, their songs suggest, maybe there’s still something more. Look to the unity created in a room full of strangers singing and dancing to “Float” as a disco ball scatters flecks of light across their faces. Look to the wonder of Jerome Fontamillas celebrating his newly announced cancer free status. Look to the spontaneously cobbled together rendition of “Saltwater Heart” at the request of an audience member. There’s a truth beneath the decay. “I won’t let you go,” Jon Foreman sang, aligning his voice with the heart of the Maker. It was as if all the goodness of the world embraced the room to echo the same.
We climbed through the highs and lows of the songs with the band, with the audience, each note a stepping stone. To participate in a Switchfoot performance can be transformative; this one certainly was. I remembered that love, hope, grace, are all still the truest things– and I remembered it because they had taken on the trappings of lyric and melody, made real in the room. These are the stories redemption tells.
The main set culminated in “Dare You to Move,” a song that has chased me (and so many others) through well over a decade of life. I’ve heard it sung in deserted parking lots, unplugged in a tiny church, in open fields. That night, I heard it piercing into the valley of my own life as a divine invitation. Through my sickness, through the actual dread of death hanging around my spirit, the piercing words called me: “maybe redemption has stories to tell, maybe forgiveness is right where you fell. Where can you run to escape from yourself? Where you gonna go? Salvation is here.”
The encore ended with the same song Switchfoot always uses as a closer, another touchstone for the heart of who Switchfoot is: “Where I Belong.” The world of goodness and beauty that Switchfoot’s music seeks to uncover, to dig out of the heartache, is one we all collectively leaned into with the piercing longing of “Where I Belong.”
“And on that final day I die
I want to hold my head up high
I want to tell you that I tried
To live it like a song.
And when I reach the other side
I want to look you in the eye
And know that I’ve arrived
In a world where I belong.”
In the face of all the worst the world can throw at us, the temptation is to be motionless. When the death at work in our relationships and minds and our very breath and bones weighs down our spirits, it can pin us to the ground. Fear whispers that we’ll stay there, that all our actions are entropy, that maybe there is not even a better world to hope for.
A few times over the years I have been enjoying and covering music, I have attended concerts that felt more like a revelation. This one felt that way to me. It was light colliding with that deathly weight in my bones. It was the invitation I needed, the one that has chased me since I was just a kid, the hope that I believe will pursue me til the end of my days: “I dare you to move.”
I now know that my condition is not life-threatening. I do, however, have a chronic, degenerative neurological disease that doctors are still working to diagnose, a disease that will likely leave me with these symptoms steadily worsening for the rest of my life.
None of us know how many days we have left. I have been made keenly aware of that, and aware also that I could lose more physical functionality at any time. The witness of Switchfoot reminds me what matters in light of that kind of urgency. “I don’t hold what the future holds, but I know You’re my future.”