When I was on fire (and wanted to shine)

when we were on fire synchroblog

This post is part of Addie Zierman’s synchroblog in honor of her just-published book, When We Were on Fire

I was proud. I was strong. Never before had the fire of faith shone so brightly in my eyes as it did that chilly morning in November. I was calm. I was confident. I was four years old.

We were walking, my mother and I, through the rainy, crowded streets of Golder’s Green, the Orthodox Jewish community thirty minutes away from our home in London. She led me by the hand as I skipped over puddles in my Mary Janes. Weaving in and out of market stands, Mom searched for fresh produce as I thought of ways to occupy myself. I don’t remember why, but that morning I was particularly happy. Maybe it was the promise of McDonald’s and the yellow plastic train booth. Or maybe it was the idea to play Cinderella in Mommy’s old dresses when we went home. Maybe it was even just the crinkly-eyed grins that the elderly yarmulke-wearing gentlemen kept nodding my way. Whatever the reason, I was skipping with joy. And when I was joyful, a song was usually not far behind. Taking a deep breath, and throwing back my head to the sky, I just burst:

This little light of mine! I’m gonna let it shine!
This little light of mine! I’m gonna let it shine!
Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine!

Those elderly yarmulke-wearing gentlemen just kept on grinning.

When I think about that morning I wonder what happened to that wide-eyed innocence, that all-trusting faith that gripped me so strongly as a little girl. When I was told Jesus loved me, I believed it, and wanted to tell the world about it. I felt it. I would wake up early in the morning, lie in my bed, and sing to my ceiling songs I made up about angels and heaven and love for humanity until the tears came to my eyes. Granted, tears also came to my eyes when I sang about fairies and unicorns, but in my childlike innocence, I trusted there was a difference: I hoped that unicorns were real; I knew God was. I don’t remember the exact day I asked Jesus into my heart, but I do remember that, as a four-year-old, I imagined him knocking on the door to a cozy little cottage. And I imagined opening up the door, allowing him to enter. I’m pretty sure Jesus had a broom and some rags – after all, he was there to help me clean the place up. I remember feeling excited about this turn of events – but also nervous. And more than a little confused. But my mom was very excited for me, and very proud. So I was, too.

Hide it under a bushel –no! I’m gonna let it shine!
Hide it under a bushel –no! I’m gonna let it shine!

I should mention that I didn’t grow up in a strictly Evangelical home. As one college professor put it, I’m a “hybrid,” my faith a mixture of my paternal family’s Catholic roots and my maternal family’s Methodist tradition. While the invitation to my little cottage heart was likely encouraged by Sunday School teachers at the non-denominational church we attended when I was a pre-schooler in England, I learned how to pray with rosary beads around the same time I was learning the Lord’s Prayer, and later, after moving back to Texas at age six, attended catechism, made my first confession, took my first communion, and went to Catholic Camp. Yet in Texas many of my parents’ friends were lifelong Baptists or missionary kids, and it was in these relationships I began to explore what it meant to “really follow Jesus.”

When I was eleven, these friends brought us to a megachurch in North Dallas, where I experienced my first live concert – Michael W. Smith. Before the show began, we were treated to a performance by a man who re-enacted Jesus’ death on the cross. For a full fifteen minutes I watched this man stand in front of a huge wooden cross, pretending to be beaten and nailed. I was petrified. God had allowed this to happen to Jesus, his son? Because of me? And my sin? The subsequent altar call left me terrified. Had I really asked Jesus to be Lord of my life? How could I, when I had no idea this is what he had undergone because of my sinfulness? I suddenly felt the urgent need to tell someone – anyone, but mostly someone at this megachurch – that I had indeed asked Jesus into my heart, but that I was still confused as to what that meant – and whether I was actually saved. I filled out one of the guest cards in the pew where I sat, fervently checking the “I want more information about salvation” box. I never spoke to anyone there about my questions (I later learned my astonished mother fielded that call, assuring the guest outreach volunteer that her eleven-year-old daughter had filled out the card and we were fine, thankyouverymuch), but that night ushered in something new: a fear that I was not secure in God’s grace.

Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine!

At a Christian summer camp when I was twelve, a missionary kid told me that I couldn’t be sure I was saved or my family was saved – because we were Catholic. I tried to explain to her my Jesus-in-the-cottage experience, but she knew from Bible Quiz I knew nothing of scripture other than hazy recollections from Sunday School, and she was determined to get me to commit my life once and for all. “You’re not saved from hell, you know, unless you really understand what you’re saying when you tell Jesus you’ll follow him. And neither are your relatives. Satan’s trying to trick you.” Her words brought back a memory from catechism, the day my teacher told me, eight years old, that my mother wouldn’t ever make it to heaven because she hadn’t converted to Catholicism when she married my dad.

Fervent, fearful, I approached my camp counselor, relayed my conversation with my newfound MK friend, and asked her if it was indeed possible that my dad wouldn’t get to spend eternity with God, just because he was Catholic. I waited for her to tell me that this was all nonsense – Catholicism wouldn’t keep my dad out of heaven any more than it would keep him in it. But that didn’t happen. Rather than actually answer my question, my counselor told me not to worry about my family, but to instead worry about my own salvation. She suggested I go out into the woods for some quiet time and talk to God about it; telling him again I wanted Jesus in my heart – you know, just in case it hadn’t really “taken” the first time (I don’t think these are the words she actually used. But it’s what I heard). So I went out into the wilderness and had my first ugly cry with Jesus. I told him I didn’t know what the heck any of these people were talking about, or what the heck he wanted me to do, but I was tired of trying so hard to do the right thing only to be told I was totally and completely wrong.

The fire in my heart that day was a slow burning ember that warmed and comforted my soul. For the first time since I was that little girl singing from my heart, I knew I wasn’t alone.

Won’t let Satan –poof!- it out! I’m gonna let it shine!
Won’t let Satan –poof!- it out! I’m gonna let it shine!

That was the summer of 1994, and it was the perfect time to jump on the Christianity bandwagon. The Newsboys became my new favorite band. I replaced Sweet Valley High books for the Christy Miller series. My best friend and I made up choreography to the Newsboys’ “Shine,” donned Blossom-style hats and dress-and-legging combos, and tried out for the middle school talent show. I hung a poster of Michael W. Smith on my wall, right next to Josh Hartnett and Rider Strong from Boy Meets World. Another well-meaning camp counselor told me all about how she Kissed Dating Goodbye, and while I wasn’t sure that’s how I wanted to do things, I did ask my parents to buy me a promise ring from James Avery (I already had a rad ichthus bracelet), and I wore it on my ring finger, pledging to God and to myself that I would stay “pure” until marriage. After a transatlantic move before my freshman year of high school, I kept pretty quiet about my faith, except at Young Life or with close friends. But at home, in my room, Jennifer Knapp, Jars of Clay, and the Supertones kept me company. Robin Jones Gunn and Nicholas Sparks provided me with romantic fantasies I ate up like candy. At seventeen I went back to camp and (at what I still believe was the prodding of the Holy Spirit) sang a song by Jennifer Knapp for the camp talent show (I won a package of sweet tarts). I couldn’t wait to get to college and meet my guitar-playing, khaki-wearing Todd.

Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine!

Rather than bring me my Todd*, college brought me Kierkegaard and Derrida; Flannery O’Connor and Frederick Buechner; and dates with guys who were disillusioned with their faith. My roommate quickly tired of me surreptitiously playing Ginny Owens and Bebo Norman, so I listened to U2 on repeat, shouting to the night sky (and, I imagine, God himself) that I still hadn’t found what I was looking for. I learned to relish words like doubt, anger, journey, and grace. Service trips and “reverse” mission trips to the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua sent my faith into a tail spin as I tried for the first time in my (very sheltered) life to process how God could allow such suffering in the world. The religion department of my liberal arts college was practically devoid of Christians; we talked theology and Christology, living off the high of casting shadows on the pre-packaged faith the evangelistic crew spewed forth at Campus Outreach meetings. I was exasperated. I’m a fallible human being! Who am I to decide who’s going to heaven and who’s not? Claiming ignorance, I climbed up my ivory tower and sat there looking down at everyone “on fire” for Jesus. But I still went to Thursday night worship every once in a while, and still asked my friends at Bible study to pray for me.

I didn’t miss that anxiety that struck my four-year-old heart when I feverishly worried which friends wouldn’t be in heaven with me when we died. What I did miss was the steadfast resolve and purpose that remained unquestioned in my mind when I fearlessly sang that song in Golder’s Green. How much easier life would be if things were indeed black and white, good and evil, right and wrong!

And even still, in quiet moments, I still felt that gentle nudge, still heard that quiet voice that I knew even as a child: I knew I wasn’t alone, that I was loved and known by a holy, good, and perfect God. And that in the face of his bigness, I was indeed very small. In that smallness, with my limited capacity for understanding, perhaps all I could do was continue to seek and to knock. And trust that, in his goodness, he had a plan bigger than me or my efforts.

Let it shine ‘til Jesus comes! I’m gonna let it shine!
Let it shine ‘til Jesus comes! I’m gonna let it shine!

Much has happened in my life and in my heart in the decade since college. For now, it’s enough to say that I’m thankful for the ways God has not only stuck by me, but also remained a dynamic force in my life – no matter what I thought about him along the way. No matter who I was trying to impress. No matter what fearful motives were driving my words and actions.

Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.

Faith. Oh yeah, that’s right. Like a child. And I tell myself it’s okay to wake up early in the morning, lie in bed and sing to the ceiling like I’m sometimes inclined to do. I probably won’t ever burst into song in the middle of the farmer’s market, but sometimes I wonder if that would really be so bad.

*College actually did bring me my Todd; we just didn’t start dating for another 10 years. I first met my husband at a Young Life interest meeting. He was wearing khakis. He wore leather bracelets. He plays guitar.

This post is a re-working of an essay originally published on www.rightnow.org in June, 2002.

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7 thoughts on “When I was on fire (and wanted to shine)

  1. This is my favorite part of synchroblogs – finding new blogs to love. I love your writing style. I’ve just skimmed your other posts and want to come back and sit for awhile. We just moved too and half my books are still in boxes. 🙂

    • Thanks so much for stopping by – and for your kind words! I have to say that the feeling is mutual – I read about 5 lines of your blog and have already decided we need to be friends. 🙂 Can’t wait to read the rest!

  2. In true Christianese “I’m just gonna echo Caris’ words right now…” LOVED this. Especially your romantic footnote 🙂 This is my first synchroblog (only been blogging a couple of months) and I am positively devouring every. single. story. And leaving comments on the extra special ones. I’m going to check out more of your posts RIGHT NOW. x
    Bree.

    http://failingjoyfully.com/

    • Thank you, Bree! I love your post, too (and “failing joyfully” is SUCH a beautiful image to me). So thankful to have this conversation started…and to find a like-minded community 🙂

  3. Christy Miller AND Rider Strong references? Clearly we are kindred. Love these words friend — and yes, so much fear about salvation for so many of us. Certainly that couldn’t have been what they were trying to communicate…but they always did.

    Love where you arrived also: “In that smallness, with my limited capacity for understanding, perhaps all I could do was continue to seek and to knock. ” Beautiful. Thanks so much for sharing.

    • Addie! Thanks so much for your kind and encouraging words. I am in the middle of reading “When We Were On Fire” right now, and I’m having a hard time putting it down. Talk about kindred. I had never heard the phrase “sunflower girl” until this morning and its definition resonated with me in a most haunting, revelatory way (I don’t want to blame Christy Miller for this, but perhaps she played a small part). The way you tell your story with honesty, clarity, and – what seems to me perhaps the hardest part of this kind of writing – a great measure of kindness for your younger self, is refreshing and inspiring. Thank you, thank you for sharing.

  4. Pingback: Faith in the Dark | truthfully told

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