Today’s post is a tricky one. I would love to preface it by saying, please, please read “To Current Pastors – From the Formerly ‘On Fire'” by Addie Zierman on her page, How To Talk Evangelical. It will explain so much of where I’m coming from. I don’t know how to provide a fancy click through link apart from this one: http://addiezierman.com/?p=2677. I was so deeply inspired by what she wrote about “on fire faith”, both in her blog and in her book, “When We Were On Fire”, even though I’ve yet to read the whole thing. She invited other bloggers to share their experiences as youth in the church. I can’t explain what it’s all about except that maybe sharing our stories will help us to do better with our youth. This link, http://addiezierman.com/?paged=3, is a roundup of all the stories that bloggers shared about their youth. Every single one broke my heart and made me long to share my own story. Maybe it’s not so much a story as it is a lament. I like that. A lament, for all that went so terribly wrong. I turned out okay, so I know that not all is lost. But reading these stories and excerpts from her book made me realize a few things about the “on fire” faith movement that is sweeping across youth groups and camps with overwhelming intensity. Keep reading if you’re curious about what these things were.
“We need to tell our stories through the mellowed lens of post youth monotony. We need to tell of how the fire tore into us, ravaging, stealing, consuming the pieces of stability that were simultaneously instilled in us by the leaders that knew very well how far there was to fall. But fall we did. As a scorching log doused in water falls from its former glory, so we did fall from great heights. At my peak, I knew that the only place to go was down. I felt the looming fear of a fire soon to burn out and asked myself, how can I feed this faith? Please, God, don’t let it burn out.
I think they tried so much harder than we give them credit for, to tell us that it wouldn’t be enough. We knew it would not be enough. A fire, though it warms our hands, is no mustard seed. I don’t know whose fault it is that we now must face the failure of a thousand flames burnt out, nor do I know how we can fix it all. All I know is that a few short years ago, it felt like we were born to burn. All I know is that now, I don’t want that kind of faith. It just is not enough anymore, to keep the doubts or the longing at bay. Another blogger wrote of her youth, “I attempted to become wild with fire by shoving myself tighter and tighter into a place no contamination could reach – not realizing that even the smallest flames, once contained, burn out.” (Shar Carlson, at Wild Introvert Rumpus). I would add to that notion that steering clear of contamination keeps the toughest of questions from surfacing. At twenty years old, I find myself asking if God is even real. I find myself wondering who decided in the very beginning to start playing the proverbial band for God. He is big enough to answer my questions. So why was I afraid to ask them at sixteen? Looking at my own experience, I know it was because I truly believed that asking would douse the flames. I truly believed that I would be taken off of my pedestal of self-righteousness, that these impurities would mean separation from God. They talked about doubting as though it should be avoided at all costs. But He is big enough. He is not afraid of my questions. What is so wrong with separation when the coming back together is so profoundly beautiful?
Do you know how many times I have said the salvation prayer, convinced that I didn’t do it right the first time? Do you know how often my inner voice tells me that I’m not raising my hands in worship the right way? You’re doing it wrong. The Holy Spirit won’t come until you pray just so. A dash of repentance and fear, a touch of confidence in the promise, and the perfect measure of humility. Recipe for salvation. One moment you’re out, the next you’ve made it in. The battered, doubting woman-child got lost when they told us the best way to burn. She got lost when she was made to believe that her salvation transformation had to fit the mold and measure up to the hype. I wish I could have told her to keep her feet on the ground more often. She needed someone to look her in the eyes and tell her how the road to grace is free and yet, a lifelong, aching, journey. It’s just too damn hard to be on fire all the time. It hurts. The fall will come and you’llbe left so deeply lonely, without so much as a seed of faith to see you through. Thankfully, I know how this story ended. He was there. He saw me through. he bled to see me through. But the repercussions still linger; they try to throw me up on that pedestal of self righteousness every Sunday morning and it kills me. She wouldn’t have cared what I had to say. All she knew was that fire was keeping her from drowning. The fire was saving their lives. How do we compete with that?
You know, I still cringe when I think about how a pastor once told us not to eat the bread or drink the wine unless we meant it. All those kids, so young and broken, being told to leave their baggage behind before they came before Jesus. “Don’t take communion unless you know the significance, the gravity, of what you’re doing.” Why did they say that? If you don’t believe in Jesus then, yes, perhaps communion isn’t for you. To leave out the unsure and the confused though? He DIED to meet me in my filth. Yes, He weeps for my brokenness but still, He wraps His arms around me, undeterred by the muck and the mire. He has never asked me to understand it all. They did. He asks me, no, He begs me, to just take the gift of His broken body. Take the bread. Take the cup. Receive grace. The rest will follow. But I was taught to distrust my thoughts and feelings, especially if they were doubtful. I was taught these things so often that when the communion trays make their way around the church, I feel guilty participating. My hands tremble because I wonder if I’m doing it right. On days when I wish I was at home from the moment the speaker opens his mouth, isn’t that when I most need a reminder of what Jesus did? But I can’t share in the reminder, lest I do it wrong.
I’m still trying, nearly every day, to shake these feelings of inferiority and wanting to belong. Not because I’m not inferior, but because what good do those feelings do? It feels like I’m falling from grace when really, grace never leaves. What has changed is me. Elora Nicole (another contributor) wrote, “When we least expect it, a tendril of flame licks at our hearts. But it’s never consuming. It won’t ever get that way again – there’s nothing left to burn.” She’s right, you know. At least for me. The faith is quiet now. It hurts less. I know that this God that we burned for is big enough to answer my questions. He designed faith as a mustard seed.
All these things I’ve said are true. The injustices are true. I will say this, though: when we were on fire, it was the closest I’ve ever been to childlike faith. It’s the closest I’ve been to all consuming love. It just didn’t last. I don’t know what to do about that fact. I remember looking on in awe as the flames licked up at the edges of his cold, cold heart, consuming with the fury of a vengeful God, all the things that made him so angry. God was there that day, when brother returned to brother, and forgiveness flowed freely. I was there. The King was there. The fire was all we knew so of course, Jesus met us there too. And it was good. In the end, it saved our lives. It was good.”