If you have ever read this blog, you know that faith isn’t a simple issue for me. It’s a messy, tangled, loaded question.
Feel like that, too? Allow me to recommend Addie Zierman again. This time her book is out. And you need to read it if you understand the messiness I’m talking about. Also cool? If you click on this picture you can see a bunch of other people telling their stories about when they were on fire.
It’s really neat. I really wanted to play along. I’m nowhere near the kind of writer that the rest of these folks are, but this topic means a bunch to me.
It’s also a kind of letter. To the people I scorched when I was on fire. An apology, maybe.
Fire is so violent when you dump water on it. It hisses, steams, and sends sparks everywhere. That’s the way it was. When doubts started to quench the flame of our faith we were loud and angry. We fought back. It still sputtered, still died, but not before it consumed everything it could.
We never would have imagined that would include so much of all of us.
It was the first summer we were all driving, and we spent an inordinate amount of time at Mardel, listening to the elevator hymns and picking up books from the discount rack. Reading titles and summaries, thumbing pages, debating the merits of one or another. We bought the devotionals and the missionary autobiographies and cracked them like a whip, herding everything we did into this mold of what it looked like to be ‘sold out’. We went off to camp after camp, and came back full of exciting, world changing ideas. We all had a favorite worship band, and a speaker we would have followed anywhere. We laid relationships we didn’t have yet and things we hadn’t gotten yet on the altar before we could even hold them in our hands, the fire lit and already licking at their edges. We mortgaged the future like it didn’t matter (and we would later wrench it out of God’s hands, burning ourselves a bit and swearing we never meant a word of it). We turned our faces away from the garish lights of adolescence and felt ourselves settle into rhythms that felt adult, mature.
We spent our junior year laying on our backs on the fifteenth hole at midnight. Laughing and staggering around while we screamed and talked about how big God was. And we drove down the dark, unlit country roads listening to Christian radio and planning our lives outside the confines of our little town on the edge of a little city in the middle of America. I remember the way the stars were, more than anything. They were bright, and the sky was dark, and they were far away and close all at the same time. Like in the Lion King, we could almost believe they were watching us. We prayed in voices that were small, but the air and the sky and God were all so big that it made us feel brave and powerful and invincible We wanted more emotion, more sacrifice. We wanted to prove that we loved Jesus in a big, obvious, exciting way. We wanted to be seen. It didn’t matter if we never fit in anywhere else, in this moment we were a part of all we ever needed.
It ended. Things do that. There were three of us, and I remember when she started to ask hard questions. We were angry and certain of the truth. We hit her with a barrages of clichés and verses…assumed she must be the problem. We blamed sin, we blamed her, we tried to make sure that God didn’t hear the questions. Tried to make Him think we had the answers. We hissed like doused fire and created steam and smoke to screen the hurt. In the chaotic transitions of graduation, friendships splintered and broke. We pretended not to care. Pretended not to see it. Pretended God was all we needed. It was like we were afraid the doubt was contagious. It was terrifying to realize that not all fires burn forever. I haven’t really talked to her in years.
It was getting better. We were deepening into something sustainable again, something real. We were rooted deeply in things that cannot be consumed. Until fragility began to well up in us again. I never thought I would see you falter.
But it happened. It broke slowly at first, then all at once. I remember sitting at the coffee shop where everyone went to talk about big things. It was nighttime, and the sky had the reddish glow of the city. I didn’t see a single star, and you told me frankly that God felt fake. It entered my mind, as the sky was so void, that maybe no one was watching us after all. The thought rang out like an alarm, and I quickly squashed it. I didn’t fight you, because I couldn’t bear to lose you. I didn’t want the time we’d had to mean nothing. But I felt like I had to somehow defend something. Like listening was somehow treason, like it would pass the disease on to me. So I cried and shouted about how hurt I was. It never occurred to me that you were hurting. That you didn’t need that guilt on top of everything else. I am so sorry. My fire was weaker already. I guess I thought if it burned fiercely in that moment it might somehow stay lit. But it dulled into barely glowing embers that glow white hot from where the fire has been, but don’t seem to be doing anything anymore. It burned by itself, and everything felt cold around me.
And so it was that when my own fire went out I saw the rain coming dimly from far away. I knew what it looked like. Somewhere in the haze of a thousand goodbyes and moving home I just stopped, and it was a relief. I had nothing left inside of me to burn. Just emptiness. The doubts caught up, and the weak flames barely made a sound as they faded into nothing. The depression swallowed it, and I was met with an ugly surprise.
Everything that had fed the fire was missing. Everything was consumed. I hated all my books, all my music…myself. I had no idea what it meant to exist as a person whose faith was on life support. I reached for the things that used to sustain me and found nothing but scorched bridges. It was lonely. It was cold. It was dark.
But you were there. What do we do, in the land where every dream we ever had was all knotted up in the desire to be crazy for God? Can we sustain the brashness when we stop feeling brave? I don’t know.
But the faith comes back to us gently. And after the way I’ve burned you, we edge around it. We talk about everything else, and leave those sentences trailing into the ether. Wondering if it’s a betrayal to believe again. But what’s left, as scattered as it is, glows a little in the blackness and we can almost see the end of it.
I came back, broken and stumbling and slurring my words, to a God who was my last option. Like Peter wondering if there was anywhere else to go. I was standing there with a burned out lantern, when I saw Him standing there, like a father who has been up all night waiting for his daughter to come home safely.
We were on fire. It wasn’t entirely wrong. It stretched us and moved us and showed us what the ground looks like from a long way up. But it burned like a firecracker: brash and bright brief. And we’d given up so much of ourselves that there was nothing to burn away. It couldn’t keep us warm. But we discovered that the darkness isn’t any better. We need the sparks. We need a fire.
Like a light we can put up on a lampstand. Like a candle that trails a sweet scent around the room, that burns quietly but insistently long after the fireworks have faded from the sky. We were on fire, and we burned out, and we were left with the few unshakable pieces of ourselves…with a candle burning bravely in the corner.
The things that remained were surprising. The Chronicles of Narnia. A few old Rich Mullins CDs that feel strangely like a Mumford record. An album of pictures signed by my first mentor, who I still miss when I drive down a dirt road. This friendship. The path at the park where we used to feel God so close I’d swear I saw Him. I set them on the shelf next to a Shane Claiborne book, A CD by The Killers, a journal full of foul words and frustrations, and a picture of a little girl on a swing. And this book, this one that seems more than anything to embody the way the boundaries have fallen for me. The shame and healing and pain and awe and wonder… It’s all here inside of me, unshakable in the hands of the one is making all things new.
Not everything burns away.