The Last Thing I Wanted to Do

rain-122691_960_720

It rattles softly at the window like the fingers of a child as I sit on the edge of the tub to tie my shoes. It comes down the glass in crooked paths to stir my heart absurdly as it always has, and dear God in Heaven, the sound of it on the roof, on the taut black silk of the umbrella, on the catalpa leaves, dimpling the glassy surface of the peepering pond. It is the rain, and it tastes of silver; it is the rain, and it smells of christening. The rain is falling on the morning of my first day, and everything is wet with it: wet earth, wet fur, the smell of the grass when it is wet, the smell of the wet pavements of the city and the sound of tires on the wet streets, the wet hair and face of a woman doing errands in the rain. Wherever my feet take me now, it will be to something wet, something new, that I have never seen before.

-Frederick Buechner, The Alphabet of Grace

It was a cold, rainy morning and going to church was the last thing I wanted to do.

It’s going to be so crowded . . . the message will be watered down . . . you’re just going to have to watch a bunch of baptisms of people you don’t even know. I mean . . . baptisms on Easter? How cliché can you get?

It was Easter Sunday, 2009, in Seattle. I had only been attending the church for a month, and I had already decided the Easter baptism service was going to be over-produced and emotionally manipulative. All I wanted to do was drink my coffee in my robe and watch a Friends marathon.

Yet I felt a prompting, and my feet led me up the hill to church.

My dragging feet (and curled hair and carefully applied make-up because, Easter) made me late, so I sat high up in the balcony. I floated through the service, halfway listening to the message, halfway worshiping in my heart.

But then a soft-spoken guy in a black t-shirt walked up to the microphone. He shared he had grown up Catholic and was baptized as an infant. That he had begun to think very differently about faith when he was in high school. And how, as an adult, his faith had become just that—his faith. It was a personal thing that he didn’t talk about with anyone. He thought it was enough to have this conversation with God on his own. But without the support of a community, he found himself making decisions that were leading him away from God and that ultimately caused him great sadness.

My heart began to pound. I could hardly breathe. He was giving voice to a piece of my own story.

His face radiated with beauty and ease as he spoke about the promise God had given him through Jesus—that it was through Jesus’ strength and sacrifice, through his goodness and love—that he was redeemed and made new each and every day. With a huge smile, he walked to the baptismal pool and made a public commitment of faith.

After the baptisms, our pastor announced we’d be entering into a time of prayer and worship. I bowed my head, feeling heavy and sad as a stream of dark memories came flooding through my mind. I brushed a few tears from my cheek.

Yet cutting through the barrage of my iniquities and my litany of confessions was a surreal sense of peace.

I began to feel like maybe it was time to actually let go.

The pastor was still talking. “We’re going to do something different today. We’re going to keep the baptisms going. If any of you feel the Spirit moving in your heart, you are welcome to come up here.” My head jerked up.

What?

“As you are praying, remember that you are dealing with an audience of One. It’s not about where you are.”

You are wearing your Easter dress, Erin, don’t be silly.

“It’s not about what you’re wearing — in fact, we have towels and sweatpants for you here backstage.”

Of course they have sweatpants for you. They’re hawking mass-produced Christianity, here, Erin. What a production.

“It’s not about the production, or the people, or the day. It’s about you and Jesus.”

I looked down at my dress, spotted with tears.

The feet I stood on felt like lead. My body trembled as I made my way down the stairs, through the hallway, down the aisle, and to the front of the stage. The man in front of me turned and offered a smile. “Nervous?”

Incredibly.

Somehow I made my way up the steps and into the pool. And when the pastor turned to me and asked if I was ready to fully put my trust in Jesus, my answer came immediately and with power: YES.

When I resurfaced from the water, I couldn’t stop smiling. Joy radiated through my body.

I was wet, bedraggled, with mascara running down my face.

I had never felt more beautiful.

Originally appeared on All In

 

Advertisements

Faith in the Dark

 

Faith in the Dark“One last drink?” His gray eyes twinkled in the low light.  We were standing on a tree-lined path, shadows from the street lamp cast about us. I should have known to turn back—never trust a stranger friend; no one knows how it will end—but the summer air was warm and he was witty and kind. I felt safe walking beside him into the darkness.

His living room walls were lined with well-worn books. The built-in bookshelves were curved and painted white to match the rest of the apartment; I was comforted by their embrace. He gestured for me to take a seat on the leather couch, and as he left the room, I smiled. On the coffee table sat a thick, abridged copy of the OED.

He returned with two open bottles of beer and sat next to me, not too close. We chatted easily, comparing notes on favorite writers. He grabbed a book from one of the sturdy shelves and handed it to me.

“It’s a coming of age story.” I held the book in my hands, smoothing the faded cover. “Take it,” he grinned. “Borrow from my library.”

When he sat again, his long legs were just inches from mine. “Do you not like that kind of beer? You haven’t touched it.”

I glanced down at the bottle. “Just taking a breather.”

“I wish you had told me,” he said lightly. “I wouldn’t have opened it if I had known.”

I put the cool glass to my lips and took a few gulps. Warm. Dark.

There was a shift in his energy as he stood suddenly, moving past the lamp to the right of the couch, receding into the shadows beyond the bookshelves. I looked after him, and in the darkness, could see the faint outline of a bed.

It was dark when he raped me.

*

It’s strange and somewhat beautiful how our brains protect us from having to deal with trauma before we’re ready. I didn’t realize I was a rape survivor until two years ago, six years after I followed him down that tree-lined path, so romantic in the dim light of the street lamps. Until then I had categorized the event in my mind as something I had brought upon myself, a mistake, a terrible night that I should have been able to prevent. I should have been able to read the signs that something was about to go horribly wrong.

I had messed up.

So I asked for God’s forgiveness. Over and over and over again. It wasn’t the first time I had made a mistake with a man—I should have known better. I felt ashamed and broken.

I asked God to help me forgive this man who had so easily fooled me into believing he was someone special, a kindred soul.

I cried and I begged and I pleaded and received no relief, no restoration. So many tear-stained journal pages, so many prayers groaned out from the depths of my wasted heart, and nothing. No answer.

Fearful. Anxious. Uncertain. The faith that had held me through so many other difficult times suddenly seemed so thin.

And then one day, a few months after my counselor first said the word “rape,” a whisper came from somewhere deep inside me: maybe you need to forgive God.

A startling thought, but maybe it was true. Maybe this sick anxiety I felt about the world and my place in it had less to do with my own missteps and more to do with the fact that I felt unprotected and afraid.

Because truly: where was God that night?

*

Up until the night I was raped, I had felt God’s unwavering protection on my life. I felt it deep in my bones. It didn’t matter how low I found myself, I was convinced of his presence and his providence. The right worship song, the right Bible verse, the right amount of sunlight sparkling on the water, and I’d feel goosebumps prickling my skin, the cool rush of confidence that He is near.

When my father’s job moved us overseas before my freshman year of high school—and I was convinced my life was over—God was near.

When high school romance led to betrayal and binders full of bad poetry, God was near.

When I started college an ocean away from my family and could not remember who I was or wanted to be, God was near.

When the plane crashed into the twin towers and everything I thought I knew about my home country and my faith was thrown into question, God was near.

When I watched our family’s home go up in flames, God was near.

And on other nights, with other men, after drinks and too much flirtation, God was near.

In it, and afterwards, I would praise him and thank him for his unwavering protection.

I felt so blessed.

I never felt alone.

*

Once, as she led me through a guided prayer intended to offer healing, someone I love very dearly asked if I could go back to that dark room that night and imagine God there with me.

Where was God that night? 

As the tears streamed down my cheeks, I tried. But the image of Jesus, sitting on a chair in the corner of the room as the unthinkable occurred was too tragic. The only image I could conjure was a false Jesus: blonde, blue-eyed, sitting with a calm smile and folded hands.

It wasn’t right. That’s not the Jesus I had come to know.

I knew what I was supposed to say – he was there with me, he didn’t abandon me, he was there the whole time – but I couldn’t.

I just wept.

*

My son, an adventurous 18 month old, has been fighting for his independence since the day we met. Active, curious, he wanted to crawl before he could sit up. When he first started practicing his pull-ups on the living room coffee table the summer before he turned one, he fell often and with great frustration.

I’m not quite sure what possessed me to reprimand the floor that hit his diapered bum as he came toppling down that first time and looked to me with sad, anxious eyes. I guess I wanted him to understand I recognized his pain but also to make light of it somehow.

So instead of saying, “Oh, sweetie, good try. It’s okay. Get up. Try again,” I widened my eyes, shook my finger at the hardwood floor beneath him and said, “No, no, no, floor! Don’t you hurt my Jakey!”

He looked at me, confused at first. And then through teary eyes, he offered a smile.

From that day on, it became an inside joke between us. “No, no, no, table!” “No, no, no, block!” “No, no, no, Elmo!”

What I didn’t realize then was how seriously he was taking all of this. Now, whenever my exuberant little boy stubs a toe or trips or bumps an elbow, he is looking for something or someone to blame. “No, no, no!” he declares and looks to me to join him in the refrain.

I guess I realized in that moment, as I watched him topple over, I wouldn’t always be able to catch him, no matter how close I might be. But I wanted him to know I felt the pain right along with him – that I didn’t think it was okay that he was hurting.

There have been times I have watched him from a distance as he runs so fast and far from me, caught up in the delight of the air and the sun and the freedom of being alive, and I know it is only moments before he stumbles and scrapes the palms of his hands. I know it, yet I can’t stop it. When I hear his wailing and I see his tears, my heart breaks and it is almost more than I can bear.

But the worst moment is when I reach him and he looks at me with fear and frustration and anger and it’s almost as if I can see the accusation in his tender brown eyes.

Why weren’t you there? Why didn’t you stop this from happening?

All I can do is open my arms to him, comfort him, and tend to his wounds.

And I can pray that as he grows in understanding, he’ll know the depths of my love for him, even when I’m nowhere in sight.

*

I can’t give a straight answer about where God was the night I followed my heart, full speed, down that concrete path in the lamplight. I can’t tell you his thoughts as my innocent trust in his provision was taken from me, my heart bruised, body battered.

I can’t tell you where God’s will ended and my will began. I can’t tell you if that matters.

But I can choose to believe his heart was breaking as he watched his daughter experience pain.

I can choose to believe he was near.

And I still choose to believe that his arms are open, ready to tend to my wounds and offer me the comfort of his love, both in the light of day and the darkness of night.

Even when I can’t feel it.

Night-Driving-Synchroblog

I just read Addie Zierman’s new memoir, Night Driving: A Story of Faith in the Dark, in less than 48 hours. Her honesty, vulnerability, and gorgeous writing have inspired me once again. In celebration of her book release, this post will be linked to her #NightDriving synchroblog. Visit her website for more info

 

 

 

 

 

 

How Do I Want to Show Up in the World?

IMG_5063-EFFECTSLast week I came back from a week at a summer camp for women. Talk about a situation ready to send you right back into your junior high insecurities: a bunch of women sleeping in the woods, swarmed by mosquitoes, constantly sweating in the moist North Carolina air. We shared our cabins with mice. We shared our showers with spiders. We logged fewer hours sleeping than I normally do at home with my teething baby.

It was the kind of environment just uncomfortable enough to let others see glimpses of your heart.

My heart? It was insecure. Lonely. Needy. Afraid. Longing for my own bed and my husband’s reassuring arms.

This was the first time I’d been away from my 10-month old son for more than 24 hours. I’d already been gone for two days and I had five more to go. Without his tiny body hugged to mine, I hardly knew who I was. What would I talk about? The exhaustion I embody and the extra pounds I carry seem more acceptable somehow when I am carrying him in front of my soft belly. Without him I felt exposed.

I was bombarded by self-doubt the minute I drove up to camp: Will anyone want to sit with me at dinner? Will I make friends? Will I be fun enough? Will people think I’m boring and wonder why I’m even here?

All my giftings that made me excited to be a camp counselor—my capacity for compassion, my ability to listen, my leaning toward grace—were darkened with shadow. All I could think about was how quiet I can be, how slow I am to make friends, how I will always choose quiet time over an afternoon of lawn games. In short: I began to wonder why I was even there.

Thankfully, the women attending camp were big-hearted women seeking joy and love and truth, women who speak and live with grace. Women who desire to show up fearlessly, exactly as they are, leaning into the beauty of who they were created to be. Each woman I spoke with radiated warmth and gratitude. Each woman had a ready smile.

As I journaled on our first morning there, I realized the problem wasn’t with camp, it was with me. These feelings of inadequacy weren’t bubbling up only because it was the first time I was away from my son or because I was losing sleep to the song of the cicadas. My feelings of unease were very familiar: I spend so much time and energy wondering and worrying about what other people think, about which parts of myself I should show them to make them feel more comfortable, that I hardly remember the design of creation. I hardly remember I am made in God’s image, reflecting his glory in a unique blend of the many facets of his character.

Rather than wasting time and energy focusing on how I fall short or fail, I wanted to lean in towards the person God created me to be.

So I challenged myself to ruminate on the following:

How do I want to show up in the world? How do I want to be remembered?

From that moment on, each time I began to feel the pinch of doubt or the rush of fear, I stopped, took a breath and asked myself how I wanted to show up in the moment. Would I let destructive patterns of self-protection keep me from engaging with others? Or would I trust that God had equipped me with all I would need?

I asked myself how I wanted to be remembered. When I was honest with myself I knew it wouldn’t be for winning any games or making people laugh or telling a moving story in front of the whole camp. But maybe I could be remembered for the connections I made with others, for being vulnerable in my cabin, for making others feel safe to share the truth of their own stories.

So that’s how I showed up: a little quiet, a little awkward, a little scared. But I showed up anyway. And the conversations I had with the women who crossed my path were some of the most heartfelt I’ve had in a very long time.

Maybe this is who God created me to be.

Maybe that is enough.

How do you want to show up today? How do you want to be remembered?

This post originally appeared on All In

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.