Today I’m linking up with my fellow bloggers in a synchroblog over at Addie Zierman’s site in honor of her book, When We Were on Fire, being released today. I confess that I haven’t read anything of the book other than the parts available online, but I’m looking forward to having the chance to read the whole thing. Be sure to check out the other posts linked on her site today, and keep checking back because more will be added through the week.
I don’t remember the phrase “on fire” being used much in my teen years. I didn’t grow up evangelical; I was a transplant from a Unitarian Universalist church. I probably wouldn’t have ended up with the evangelical set if it hadn’t been for the fact that one Sunday in my UU teen class we were asked what other religions we’d been exposed to. My dad is Jewish and I’d been to my friend’s Presbyterian youth group, so I said, “Judaism and Christianity.” That was the wrong answer; I was immediately pressured to avoid “organized religion.” Needless to say, my rebellious teenage self immediately concluded that the “persecution” I’d already heard about must be real and therefore returning to the Presbyterian church must be the right thing to do. (Never mind that I could easily have decided to become Jewish, but I don’t think my dad’s family had the same sense that persecution = being more right than everyone else.)
There wasn’t much talk about being on fire, really. There were rules–many of them, on every topic from clothes to books to music to sex. It wasn’t about being passionate about our faith, it was about avoiding the appearance of evil and being “in the world but not of the world.” We may not have used those exact words, “on fire,” even if we did sing Pass It On accompanied by our youth leaders on guitar. But there were two things I knew I had to do: Reject my family and obey the Rules. If I did that, it would be a sure sign that I was full-on for God.
Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple. And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:25-27)
We stood in the bathroom on the ground floor of the church, my three closest church friends and I. We were just freshening up during hang-out time at youth group. Before we left, I said, “Wait. I have to tell you something.” My heart was pounding.
They listened as I explained to them about my sister. “She’s gay,” I said. They didn’t seem to know how to respond to that. Finally, one of them said it must be so hard for me. She felt sorry for me. She would pray for me. My friends told me not to worry; if I prayed earnestly and kept working on her, she would become a Christian and reject the “gay lifestyle.”
I did that for a long time, until I finally gave up the pretense that there was any truth to it at all.
I was forbidden to tell my grandparents that I was a Christian. It made me feel righteous, this secret, like I was being silenced. Persecuted. Just like they said I would be. I didn’t mind the not telling. But it did make me fear for their eternal souls.
When my grandfather died, I sobbed–not for missing him (I barely knew him) but because I’d never gotten to tell him about Jesus.
I never truly understood my mother and her journey of faith. I wish I’d asked her. I wish I’d known the right questions. I know she grew up in a precursor to the “on fire” 80s and 90s. I always believed that she must never have been a real, true Christian or she wouldn’t have left the faith. Even years after she reconnected with her Christian roots, I wasn’t sure what she actually believed. I was told I was the most spiritually mature person in my family of origin. It fueled my distrust of them.
I gave up secular music (I didn’t burn my tapes) and Girl Scout meetings (I wish I’d stayed) and books that weren’t Christian (I read a lot of Frank Peretti). I wrote in my journal that I was dirty whenever I thought about anything sexual or (God forbid) touched myself. I rejected the boy who liked me just for me because I was terrified of liking him back and all the intense feelings that brought. I made sure I stayed away from the wrong influences. I went to a Christian college to be away from the worldly influences of my family and my high school peers. I needed to be completely immersed in Godly culture. I think some of my professors (and probably a few of my classmates) felt sorry for my narrow-mindedness. I wish I’d been able to explain (to myself and to them) that it was only surface-deep.
Somewhere along the way, the flame of my self-righteousness burned out. I’d never been any good at evangelism outside the church. Oh, I could give a gospel message to a group of twelve- and thirteen-year-olds. I could deliver a two-week lesson unit to a group of young campers. I could give a public testimony in hopes that someone who didn’t know Jesus might be listening and choose to be born again. But talking to friends and co-workers about God? Nope.
I thought that meant I was broken. I hadn’t been able to reach my own family, and I couldn’t talk about Jesus with my non-Christian acquaintances. I wasn’t trying hard enough. I wasn’t on fire enough.
And then I realized I’d never wanted that kind of fire anyway.
I nearly lost my faith entirely. By the time I left evangelical culture (not evangelical Christianity, really), my heart was in shreds. I wasn’t sure if I believed in God anymore, or if I ever even had. I finally saw the damage being done in the name of Jesus. I was sliced open, raw, bleeding.
Even so, there was something left in the wake of the fire.
I can’t be angry about my experiences without acknowledging the good that came from them. I can reject the hate and the strange subculture and the list of rules. I can reject the notion that it’s my responsibility to save the whole world. But I won’t reject all of it, because then I would have to reject the people, too. It would erase the youth leader who drove me home week after week and never pressured me about my faith; we just talked about life (and she was the only one–ever, in all those years–who never told me to reject my sister). It would erase the youth leader who introduced me to great literature and never once told me to stop reading books by non-Christians. It would erase the two pastors who held us in love when my mother died. It would erase the young men and women who have tenderly cared for my children in church, at camp, and in our home. It would erase my ties to my Christian college, including my orchestra and the conductor who gently offers prayer for us when tension fuels our mistakes.
It would erase my own marriage, a relationship which began when I was still at least on the fringes of being on fire.
The problem with fire is that it gives the appearance of being a living thing–it breathes, it grows. But it isn’t alive, and ultimately, it consumes everything before it burns itself out. That’s not the kind of faith I want, and it’s not the kind of faith I want my children to have.
Better is a seed. There’s a reason Jesus doesn’t use fire as a metaphor for faith. He uses seeds–more than once. Instead of a pseudo-life, a seed is the infant of a living, growing thing. Unlike fire, which requires nothing but consumables in order to burn, a seed needs to be nurtured. Active, not passive. Something we must do carefully and gently over time. Not a mad rush to throw more on the fire to keep in burning but a long, slow process of food and water.
I’m still nurturing that seed. I’m not even sure what kind of tree it is yet. All I know is that it isn’t burning–it’s growing.