When You Miss the Darkness

dark church
Photo by n3wjack on Flickr’s creative commons

Is it strange that I miss the darkness that sucker-punched my soul?

This was four years ago. I was living overseas, six months split between two continents, saturated in Christian community that was young and fiery and expectant. I was young and fearful and depressed, but this was my chance. This could be my cure.

One day, we left our drafty English manor with its roast dinners and familiar faces and small groups for the Midlands, for Coventry, for Evangelism Week.

During the day, we threw ourselves into creative evangelism and indirect evangelism and woo-woo evangelism. At night, friends and strangers slept beside me on the carpeted church sanctuary floor, but I couldn’t sleep.

Do I really believe what I’m trying to get everyone else to believe?

The door was opened, and oh what blew in! I lay on my half of the air mattress and tried to keep my breathing steady and my body silent. For the first time ever, I was seriously considering walking away from Christianity. And my soul gaped and gasped and trembled as it realized what all that would mean. This wasn’t a drill.

At the time, I would’ve given anything to close that door.

Now, I want to open it again.

The darkness was wild and terrifying and bleak, but it also blew away illusions and assumptions and meaningless hypotheticals, at least for a time. I learned how to be honest with myself and others, how to be awake to my own soul. What I learned in the dark, I carried with me into the light. The darkness was fierce, but so was the light, and I wonder if they needed each other.

Today, I’m so tired. The darkness is not a sucker punch to my gut anymore, but rather weights on my chest that keep getting heavier and making it harder to breath.

Every so often, something breaks through the fog. Every so often, a Lenten hymn or a line in the Creed will catch in my throat, catch on something inside me, and I won’t feel quite so tired that evening. But all too soon, I’m drifting off again, and it’s getting harder and harder for anything to rouse me.

The loop starts again, that cynical loop, whenever anyone bumps the “Play” button. But by now I’m bored by the sound of my own voice. I’m dragging, dragging, dragging, and experience tells me that nothing will happen unless I can somehow make it happen. Someone asks me if it’s faith or fear that keeps me here, and I don’t know, it’s all tangled together. I’m too tired to try anymore.

This is not the darkness that blows open doors and knocks me flat, for good or ill. Rather, this is the darkness of closed doors and stale air. Maybe one day I will find good in this too, but I can’t help but think that the door needs to open again, whatever may lie behind it now, even if it scares me. Even if I die a sort of death in the process.

Who knows what the morning will bring, or the evening.

 

This post is a part of Addie Zierman’s synchroblog to celebrate the release of her new book, Night Driving: A Story of Faith in the Dark. Read other entries here.

The Spiritual Practice of Reading Sarah Bessey {a book review & giveaway}

faith isn't certaintyI read the last half of Sarah Bessey’s newest book, Out of Sorts: Making Peace with an Evolving Faith, while lounging in my messy bed in my messy room. It seemed fitting.

You see, she starts her book with the analogy of a rummage sale — of laying out everything we’ve believed and inherited and carried with us, and deciding what should stay and what should go. So is what needs to happen when we reach that “out of sorts” place. And it doesn’t just happen once.

Through her writing, Sarah has been a constant companion of mine for more than two years. I’ve fallen in love with what she writes and how she writes it. And most importantly, I trust her.

Whether it’s a book or a service or a meme, it doesn’t take much for something Christian to put me on my guard. I am overly critical and overly sensitive and overly scarred, so it’s no surprise that I fold my arms across my chest more often than not, the words catching on something or bouncing off or just scratching the surface.

Not so with Sarah’s words.

Out of Sorts is, in part, her own story. It’s a tale of “happy-clappy churches” and “getting religion,” of unanswered questions and ill-fitting places, of Jesus and burnout and sorrow and hope. But woven into and over and around it are deep, thought-provoking explorations of the issues themselves that most often unravel us: the Bible, the Church, signs and wonders, and suffering, to name a few.

Sarah’s book isn’t the first I’ve read to honestly (and excellently) explore the hard questions. Some spiritual memoirs throb with the very real pain of loneliness, lies, and wounds from those who meant well … and those who didn’t. Others dig deep into my skin, putting a finger on the very nerve of my own spiritual angst. Out of Sorts does both of these things, while also — one might say first and foremost — being a book of relentless hope.

And then there’s the beauty. The gift of Sarah’s writing — in Out of Sorts as well as elsewhere — isn’t just in what she writes, but also in how she writes it. It is pictures and poetry and music wrapped up in prose. It is grace and peace. It is an invitation, and not just to those on the margins who are questioning everything. This book is for all who hunger and thirst, whether they be on the outside looking in, or the inside looking out, or somewhere in between.

If you are like me, though, you may sometimes wonder how anyone can really love Jesus. You may look into the eyes of the flesh-and-blood people standing before you, the ones who have your heart, and find that the invisible Divine is so hard to know and understand, let alone love. But if there’s one person I believe loves Jesus as much as she says she does, it’s Sarah Bessey. Her words give me hope that maybe, someday, I will too.

*****

Out of Sorts makes its way into the world on November 3 — that’s tomorrow! You can order it on Amazon here, or wherever you buy books. I received an advance copy of this book in order to review it, and I would like to give away that copy to one of you! To be entered in the giveaway, simply post a comment below (making sure to include your email address so I can contact you), and I will randomly choose one winner on Friday, November 6, to receive this book. U.S. and Canadian addresses only.

Sarah Bessey writes from Abbotsford, British Columbia, where she lives with her husband and four tinies. Her first book, Jesus Feminist, is also excellent. You can find out more about Sarah Bessey on her website.

Explore, recover delight, wrestle with the story

Streaked with Grace

hands that sow
Photo by Molly Stoddard on Flickr’s creative commons.

I don’t mean to dip my fingertips into the wine along with the bread, but in that dimly lit basement, it sometimes happens. And I’m always glad when it does.

Within seconds I’ve chewed and swallowed, but my fingers are still streaked with light purple. It feels like a measure of grace, like my skin has mingled with something holy, like that holiness is moving down my hands and up my arms and into all of me.

We are speaking and listening together, standing and sitting together, breathing in and breathing out, and I look at the hands that held the bread and still carry signs of their participation in the Presence.

A week ago, I was distracted and looking around the room, I was feeling alone and desperate to change that, I was tired. And then six words planted themselves in me: I will take care of you.

This is why I keep going back.

The rest of the week may drift into monotony and shadow, relationship moving into elusiveness once again, but in these moments I can almost see.

To Be a Part of the Mystery

Communion
“Communion.” Artwork by Ruth Catherine Meharg, inspired by Rachel Held Evans’ book “Searching for Sunday.”

In a few days, I will be offering to others something that is not mine. I won’t be able to take credit for a single taste, for the mystery that’s among us, for any trembling hands or averted eyes, and I don’t want to. The body of Christ, broken for you, my friend, for you, my neighbor, for you who are hungry. The blood of Christ, shed for you.

I tell people I’ve found a church in Denver, but most of them don’t understand how big of a deal this is for me. They don’t know the backstory of doubts and church-weariness and all the sharp points that started poking out of my skin two or three years ago. This church I’ve found now, rich in liturgy, gentle in spirit, a meeting of the old and the new, is a gift in my rocky faith story.

I’ve inhaled that same sweet air in the written word too, in those men and women who write blogs and books that remind me that I am not alone in the questions I ask, in the injustices I see, in what I’m frustrated and passionate about.

One of those writers is Rachel Held Evans, whose third book, Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church, came out yesterday. Her book takes us on a journey through the seven sacraments (Communion, Baptism, Confession, Holy Orders, Confirmation, Anointing of the Sick, and Marriage) that carries us into the Bible, into church past and church present. At times, I felt like I was reading a series of interconnected and yet unique essays. One moment, I would be nodding at an oh-so-familiar description of doubt, and the next I would be catching my breath at the enumeration of the many ways throughout its history that the church has descended into darkness. Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy.

When Rachel would revisit Bible stories, she would do so in such a rich, sensory way, attuned to the history and humanity of it all, that it felt familiar in the best way. My favorite of these, I think, was a chapter that wended its through parables of seeds and wheat, through kneading and baking, and brought us to the Last Supper.

I learned more about Rachel’s story through this book, and I also learned about how the early church celebrated communion, how the Orthodox church celebrates weddings, and how church as it’s meant to be is present in AlcoCover of "Searching for Sunday"holics Anonymous and the Gay Christian Network.

There are many reasons why I love this book, but the main one is that it has given me another place, another conversation, where I can breathe a little easier, where I can be myself and yet have hope in this journey at the same time.

Church isn’t some community you join or some place you arrive. Church is what happens when someone taps you on the shoulder and whispers in your ear, “Pay attention, this is holy ground; God is here.”

This Sunday, it’s my house church’s turn to set up the chairs, to welcome people, to pray with them, and to hold out the elements of bread and wine as we all remember together. My doubts are still there, but the weariness is lighter, the cynical daggers are blunter, and I’m hanging on. If there’s one thing I know, it’s that this church is a place of peace and welcome, a place that resonates with my soul, and it’s worth it to be a small part of this mystery.

Day 16: Was I Ever on Fire?

When We Were On Fire synchroblogMy hands are covering my face. Or they were before I removed them to type these words.

I don’t know where to begin this story of my life in a first-generation Christian family. There is too much, and there is too little. How can I bring it all together into a coherent whole?

Honestly, I don’t like thinking about my childhood. The bad memories overshadow the good ones. Memories of hiding and oh-so-much-guilt and shattered innocence and the ugly mess of my own angry words stick around as the good ones grow dim.

But those aren’t the stories I want to tell you, not now.

This is the story of how I played the perfect little Christian girl, and how, ultimately, that didn’t work.

I memorized the Bible verses, I did all the Sunday school and Awana assignments, I was the “smart, quiet one.” At home, I shouted, I refused, I glared with my fiery firstborn eyes. At church, I was good.

“Your knowledge of the Word always showed in your sharing in class,” my 6th grade Sunday school teacher wrote in the front inside cover of What the Bible is All About (the King James Version, of course) — a prize for my diligent performance.

I “prayed the prayer” at age 3 or 4, but I don’t remember it. I was baptized young and became a church member young. It was what you did. Baptism was supposed to precede communion, I knew, so I always looked down my nose at the unsubmerged kids who helped themselves to the holy bread squares.

I wrote letters to my unsaved grandparents full of Bible verses and the plan of salvation and matter-of-fact statements that they should become Christians and go to church.

My mom had grown up smack-dab in the middle of pain and brokenness, and her modus operandi in parenting was “shelter them!”

So my sister and I wore our matching jean jumpers to our non-denominational-but-basically-Baptist church, around which our social lives were centered. We were homeschooled. We sang, “Stop! And let me tell you, what the Lord has done for me!” until we were sick of it, we listened to Adventures in Odyssey on the radio most afternoons but never got sick of it, and we were not allowed to watch Pokémon or read Harry Potter or listen to ‘N Sync. But that was okay because we believed our parents when they said those things were bad.

In high school, I left my isolated homeschooling life in the woods and transitioned to a Christian school.

Again, I distinguished myself as the “smart, quiet one”; again I tried to please everyone; again I wore a mask.

It was worse this time, though. When I was younger, I sometimes slipped up and sulked at camp or insisted on my own way during a piano lesson. But in high school, I got better and better at adding mildness to my list of accomplishments. I was the “nice, smart, quiet girl.”

Life rolled along, and I rolled with it. I was living a fully inherited faith with a fully intact mask.

When the full weight of this hit me my freshman year of college, I felt like a failure. I had never “made my faith my own.” My testimony wasn’t victorious. I couldn’t think of any real spiritual turning points.

Insecurity had always been my faithful companion, but college was the worst. I never despised or compared or isolated myself as much as I did then. I was sure that if people knew the “real me,” they would reject me. I couldn’t open up, I couldn’t take off the mask, and I was depressed. I wasn’t the person I wanted to be, and I was starting to believe I never would be.

And today?

I have hope again. I took off my mask, and nobody ran away. I asked hard questions, and I didn’t shock anyone. But even if I had shocked or they had run, that wouldn’t have changed my identity as a person of worth. I’m finally learning who I am, and I finally like myself. But God … he seems so much more confusing and uncertain than he used to, and so does, well, everything.

I want to be on fire, I want to “taste and see,” but I won’t fake it again. I won’t be the perfect little Christian girl again.

The journey continues. I am here, and I am me, and right now, that is enough.

This is day 16 of 31 Days in the Word … and this is also a synchroblog to celebrate the release of Addie Zierman’s memoir, When We Were On Fire. Click here and scroll down to read the stories of others’ faith journeys.