When I Was on Fire
I fell in love with Addie Zierman's writing because we come from many of the same places. At a time when I was beginning to parse the healthy from the harmful in my own church history, she was writing about the beauty and the brokenness, bringing it all into the light.
Addie is releasing a book next week, a gorgeous, sad, haunting and hopeful book which I stayed up reading until 2am. (Come back Friday for a review!). To celebrate, she is curating a synchroblog of stories from the evangelical '90's on October 15th. This post is my contribution. If you have a story, this might be the time to write it (all the details here). If not, thank you for listening to ours. I'm learning that I need to engage with my heritage, no matter what it looks like, in order to move forward in newness of life.
I used to retreat to a corner of the room during worship. The lights were off, or dimmed. As a freshman in high school, sometimes I would put my face in my hands as if I were deeply moved, possibly crying.
Sometimes, I did cry.
I always hoped that someone would come find me, slip into the seat next to me, or sit down beside me on the floor, maybe put an arm around my shoulders. That kind youth leader, perceptive friend or cute drummer would ask if they could pray for me. I would nod wordlessly.
They would pray words of power, joy and hope over me. They would pray intimately, knowing God and I well, speaking to us as friends, as dear ones.
This did not ever happen.
Still, I gravitated to corners, balconies and hallways. I would sit and listen to my peers singing songs about reading the Bible and praying, songs about Jesus, the one way, which was always accompanied by jumping and a raised pointer finger extended toward the sky at the chorus.
When I sat alone, I could imagine that God and I had our own little club, something I found much more difficult surrounded by rest of the youth group, and their little clubs.
I had heard that "when you are on fire for God, people will come to watch you burn" and I was counting on it.
The first time I remember being pressured to dress a certain way, was at Awana. In those days, when I was in Guards, we wore button-down shirts in a somber gray with '80's red accents. We were only allowed free expression from the waist down.
The cool girls, you know, the ones who were good at game time, (all of that running around in colored circles and throwing dodge balls at one another) all wore khaki carpenter pants.
I'd always walked to the beat of my own drum when it came to fashion. I was fond of A-line skirts in wool plaid, knee socks, mary janes, and cardigans. (As I read this sentence, I realize that I am describing a large portion of my modern day wardrobe). I was strong in my opinions, as I am now, but those girls would whisper to each other, share rides and snacks. They had private jokes and were always talking about their weekend plans, together.
I wanted what they had.
So I convinced my mother to buy me some khaki carpenter pants. It breaks my heart, even now, when I think about it. The Lord was good to us, but we didn't have money for keeping up with the Jones' (Awana edition).
The next week, I wore those horrendous pants with pride, hoping that they might be my ticket to the inner circle. To belonging. One of those girls noticed the tag on the waistband and gestured to her own. "Mine are Levis" she said. Mine were not good enough.
After a wash or two, those pants became gray. In a month or so, those girls moved on to khaki cargoes. I stopped wearing the carpenter pants. I didn't buy cargoes.
There is a boy in my story, of course. I met him at camp. He became friends with my crush at the time, the drummer on the worship team. They were always together at camp, so much so that they were referred to as one unit, their names squished together.
I'd pined away after the drummer for a good year, listening to him for hours over the phone when he broke up with his girlfriend, lingering near the drum set as he tore down, hoping for a smile and a chat, occasionally getting up the courage to sit next to him. Finally, at camp, I gave up.
The new boy was nice to me, and he played the guitar. He was taller than the drummer and he got up early, even at camp, and read his Bible on the deck of the cafeteria before anyone else was up. After camp was over, I left my youth group and started going to his.
He seemed happy to see me, introducing me around before disappearing until group was over. He did not leave without inviting me to come and feed the homeless with him that Saturday morning.
I rose at 5:30am, nervous beyond reason, and stepped into the outfit I'd laid out the night before, after much deliberation. I wanted to be cute, but the boy had warned me not to look too fashionable or attractive. I needed to remember my surroundings.
I was assigned pancake duty with him, and I relaxed a little as we laughed, flipping pancakes and singing worships songs. I felt secure in my job. I had a place.
For the better part of a year, I looked up at him with awe as he talked about how he was "really focusing on his faith." I wrote in my journal that just being around him made me want to dress modestly. I'm not sure he noticed when I stopped attending that group.
I was working for a local supermarket, walking the aisles, when I came across them. She was wearing a white dress, he was in a suit, they had been to a wedding. I remember thinking that it was a bold move to wear a white dress to someone else's wedding.
I greeted them, as my job mandated, and we talked for just a moment. They were friendly, the store was slow, and I was lonely.
When I offered them help out with their purchases, they agreed. We walked to the parking lot and talked. She told me that the Holy Spirit had prompted her to speak with me. She invited me to their youth group and gave me her phone number and a hug.
I went, hoping that these were my people, that it was here that I belonged. I had called her and we had come together in her little car. She was the belle of the ball, and I was her sidekick.
That couple broke up soon after I arrived and I went over to her house afterwards, knowing, from books, not experience, that a person needed to talk after a breakup. She told me that God had told her boyfriend to break up with her, not a hint of bitterness in her voice. I'll never forget the look on her face as she relayed what he'd told a friend. "Obviously, I'm doing this for God, have you seen that girl? She's gorgeous."
I became concerned when certain Bible stories weren't preached the way I remembered. I left quietly. The ex-boyfriend, one of the leaders in the group, came in to the grocery store, buying soda and hamburger patties for one of the endless parking lot barbecues. He asked me why I wasn't coming anymore. When I told him, he yelled at me in the middle of the parking lot as I stood in my unflattering uniform and sensible shoes, tears in my eyes.
Freshman year, I took voice lessons from our worship leader's wife in exchange for babysitting. She was the first person to tell me that I had a pretty voice. She told me that I was an alto, and that I shouldn't try to sound like the sopranos. She gave me hope.
At the beginning of the year, I auditioned for the youth group worship team and made the cut. I had a book full of songs, I had to come early to practice and set up, I was part of the elite group who led everyone else into intimacy with God.
The team leader was young, only a high school junior. He was disorganized, his idea of a schedule was first-come first-served. This did not work out well.
For a few weeks, all of the singers would show up at once. We would all sing, or we would graciously allow one of the others to have her moment. I never knew if I would be in front of everyone, or at my post in my corner.
One week, I was late. I'd had a doctor's appointment and had to have a tetanus shot. It was not a good day. I'd brought my dinner with me, since I hadn't had time to eat. A tupperware of macaroni and cheese.
The leader took me into a room, away from the others. He told me that my voice was distracting, that I had been late, that I couldn't be on the worship team anymore. I began to cry passionately, because my arm hurt and my heart was breaking. The team didn't need me. The team didn't want me. He prayed loudly while I sobbed, asking God to do great things in our youth group. Later, he brought me my macaroni and cheese.
My voice teacher was livid when she heard. Her husband, the worship pastor, told me that I could sing on his team, that my voice wasn't distracting. Though I believed him, since he'd heard it echoing through his house so often, it was a long time before I would sing in front of anyone again.
“Therefore, behold, I will allure her, Bring her into the wilderness And speak kindly to her. Then I will give her her vineyards from there, And the valley of Achor as a door of hope. And she will sing there as in the days of her youth, As in the day when she came up from the land of Egypt."
I have written about some of my wildernesses before. The first one was just after all of this. I had forgotten who I was, caught up in trying to belong, and I was so lonely. Instead of allowing me to retreat to a forgotten corner of the room, the Lord drew me out the door so that He could begin to heal me.
I had come too close to the fire and it sizzled against my flesh, searing my vocal cords. I had covered myself in kerosene and run toward the blaze.
Like Addie's, my story isn't over, but it is part of me. I am me because of these things. It is good to pull them into the light.
I wrote a bit about being a Jesus Girl as part of my Single Minded Mondays series not long ago. You can read it here, if you like.
Whether you have a story to tell, or not, I hope you'll read some of the others over at Addie's on the 15th.