That may as well be the subtitle of Addie Zierman’s memoir, When We Were on Fire, out tomorrow from Convergent Books.
I’ve never met Addie, except via blogland, but we were born in the same year (albeit in different regions of the country) and we spent our teenage years immersed in the same strange, insular, oddly intense subculture of Christianity. We both went to small Christian colleges where we met the men we married, and we have both spent a large part of our post-college years trying to hang onto our faith while having to unlearn a lot of things we thought we knew.
To celebrate her book’s publication, Addie has invited fellow bloggers to share their experiences with the evangelical subculture and the subsequent impact on their – our – faith.
The evangelical subculture, with its rah-rah zeal and catchy T-shirts and tidy, well-reasoned arguments in favor of faith, left me with some baggage, for sure. There wasn’t much room in it for doubts or questions, for the messier, blurrier side of faith or relationships. But for a few years, that didn’t matter, because it provided me with what all teenagers need: a safe place.
I grew up in a tightly knit, loving, Christian family and I had a group of close friends at school, most of whom went to church with their parents but sort of rolled their eyes at my Jesus-freak-ness. But at youth group and the Bible studies I attended, my devotion was normal, even encouraged. I could hang out with other kids who loved Jesus as much as I did, who were trying to figure out how to be good and faithful people as they navigated the halls of high school. And for six years, those other Jesus-freak teenagers were my people.
I sang with the worship band and led prayers at youth group. I worked diligently through the homework questions before Teen CBS each week. I had a black WWJD bracelet and a whole drawerful of Christian-themed T-shirts. (I still have a couple of them somewhere.)
When I was a sophomore in high school, a handsome senior (whom I later dated) asked me to sing with the praise band at a new lunchtime club called the Fellowship of Christian Musicians. The audience was mostly our fellow band nerds, and they mostly came for the free food and the fun of singing songs with goofy motions. There was never any preaching or theological debate at FCM; it was simply a loud, friendly, loosely connected community, fueled by trays of Bagel Bites and taquitos pulled warm from the oven by a few dedicated parents.
And here is what it took me a long time to understand: that was enough.
I grew up in a denomination that prizes words, specifically the words of the Bible (usually interpreted a certain way) and the words of respected theologians. It also prizes testimony, the retelling of one’s own faith story, even one as quiet and nondramatic as mine. Salvation, according to a lot of its pastors, depends on a specific set of words (the Sinner’s Prayer). Baptism (adult baptism, by immersion) is accompanied by a public “confession of faith.” Rhetorical arguments for faith – even when one is literally preaching to the choir – are encouraged.
As a lifelong bookworm, I felt right at home among all those words. But I sometimes became uneasy when participating in a faith activity that didn’t involve preaching or praying, that lacked a neat rhetorical way of tying it all together.
On a September day during my senior year of high school, I learned, along with the rest of the country, about the planes that crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and into a field in Pennsylvania. Because it was a Tuesday, I headed to Bible study with my parents and sister that night, craving the comfort of normalcy and community (and freshly baked chocolate-chip cookies) after a day of strained expressions from my teachers and friends, and increasingly horrifying news coverage.
After eating dinner, I slipped into a metal folding chair next to my friend Adam, who looked as exhausted as I felt. One of our leaders got up on stage for the weekly welcome and greeting, which was somber, matching the tone of the room. As the worship band began to play, Adam reached over and slipped his hand into mine. We sat, silent, not even singing, in the darkened room, as Russ and the band played songs of quiet comfort. For almost the first time in my life, I had no words – only mute grief, and the solid presence of a community around me.
And here is what I began to understand that night: it was enough.
I am a long way from those Jesus-freak days, far from those lunchtimes when I led the FCM crowd in yet another rendition of “Sanctuary” or “Peace Like a River.” I still know all the words to those songs and many others; after years of repetition, they have made their way deep into my bones. But the words, then used so often to argue and convince and persuade, have settled into something quieter and gentler now: a background hum, steady as the blood pumping through my veins. They are no longer rhetorical weapons, polished and honed to perfection. Instead, they are part of my makeup, like my mother’s green eyes and the freckles on my nose.
These days, I am less interested in the old rhetoric of “saving souls” than I am in living a steady, quiet life of grace and peace. I refuse to be drawn into battles where people use “the sword of the Spirit” to stab each other. I have my beliefs, and they are deeply held, but I am not interested in arguing with anyone about them.
Instead, I want relationship, community. I want to offer my own presence and take comfort in the presence of other people, through times of joy and grief and through the long, everyday stretches in between.
And here is what I began learning in the evangelical subculture, and have continued to learn long after I left it: presence and community, even in the absence of so many words, are enough.
I’d love to hear about your own experiences with faith in the comments, and I’d encourage you to pick up Addie’s book – it is sensitive, honest, well-crafted and beautifully told.
(I received a free copy of When We Were on Fire in exchange for an honest review, but all opinions, experiences, etc., are my own.)
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