Wednesday, October 16, 2013

All We Like Sheep

{Today I'm writing as a part of a synchroblog celebrating the release of Addie Zierman's book When We Were On Fire.  I haven't had a chance to read the book yet, but I have loved reading Addie's blog How to Talk Evangelical, where she has been writing her way through the often cringe-worthy hallmarks of being raised in the Evangelical tradition while delicately addressing what it feels like to have moved from being "on fire for the Lord" to feeling burned out by that once-bright flame.}



There is an old recording of my older brother around the age of two reciting Isaiah 53:6.  "All we like sheep has gone astray," he lisps in the high voice of a toddler.  "All we like sheep have gone astray," my mother corrects him.  "All we like sheep has gone astray," he announces, catching the emphasis but not the correction it contains.

I don't even know if that recording still exists anywhere outside of my memory, but it remains for me this weighted piece of evidence that explains much about my youth.  From the beginning, it felt like my brothers and I were born to be Christians.  It was inconceivable that we would stray from the good words our parents were stitching on our hearts.

My father is a pastor.  My grandfathers on both sides were pastors.  The world of little plastic communion cups and steeples adorned with peeling paint and hymnals nestled in strange holsters in the backs of pews: that was my world, that was my place.  I can still smell those basement rooms with linoleum floors and folding chairs where we ate casseroles at potluck dinners and the same pastel mints at dozens of baby showers.

It was all part and parcel of my identity, and I knew I would never, could never leave that world. 

See, I was born in the early hours of a Sunday in July.  My father told me once, as we ate at the IHOP in the town where I was born, that he sat in that very same booth and ate pancakes a few hours after my birth before driving an hour back to our little town to lead the music at church.  I understand my mother was back behind the piano the next Sunday.  If I had been obedient enough to show up on a Tuesday, I wonder if she would have missed a week at all.

I used to tell people I might as well have been born under a church pew.  I'm not sure how I expected it to come across to people, but I meant it as a kind of brag.  Despite everything that had been drilled into me about how salvation was supposed to work, I still wanted to claim it as some kind of birthright.  I still felt the need to tell people I was born into it, that I didn't choose it, but it chose me.

And yes, I would have called myself "on fire for the Lord" in those days.  I was fluent in Evangelical, too.  I had a pink leather bible and a prayer journal and a closet full of Christian t-shirts.  I would have seen you at the pole every September, and when I did, I would have invited you to the bible study I helped lead after school in one of the chemistry classrooms.  And if you'd come to the bible study, I could have told you my testimony right there on the spot (somehow making it sound more exciting than "Hey, what can I say? I was born into this!") before nonchalantly throwing out an invitation to our Friday night youth group lock in.

To be honest, it's hard to imagine myself as I was in those days.  The way I tend to remember it, that old costume just came apart at the seams one day. But in truth, it was years of trying to tamp down unanswered questions, singing those praise songs louder and louder to drown out the hum of the uncertainty gaining momentum within me.  It was too many days of feeling like a marionette, just believing I was supposed to wave my arms and walk to stage left according the the script I had been given.  More and more, I felt like being the good Christian soldier meant being a caricature of something, a showman, an act.

I think perhaps the person I am now was birthed in the parking lot of a church in southern California one night just after dusk.  Of course, I was born into the sterile room of a West Texas hospital, so I guess I should say I was reborn into this person one night in the church parking lot.  Which is fitting, of course, since Christianity was always supposed to be my rebirth.

That night at our weekly bible study, I started thinking about all the cruelty and pain in the world.  All the rape, all the murder, all the hunger, all the loneliness.  I started thinking about all the things that never felt like they had lined up for me, all the strange passages in the bible I couldn't make heads or tails of, all the questions that could only be answered with vague platitudes or promises that we would understand more when we got to heaven.  And suddenly, that big youth group room seemed to shrink down around my ears, and I stepped out for some air.  I knew people would think I'd gone to the bathroom, but instead I walked downstairs, across the dark floor of the gym where we had played volleyball an hour before, and out into the parking lot.

There, next to the sidewalk that ran between the gym and the main church, was a broken metal pole that had been cut down but never removed from the dirt.  Probably once it had held a sign about who was allowed to park there or where visitors could find the nursery, but someone had cut the metal pole down to about 18 inches tall and left the base in the dirt like a mangled, iron tree stump.  And for some unknown reason, I started to kick at that old metal stump.

I didn't even know I was angry until I kicked it once, and then it felt so good, I kept kicking it over and over until the sole of my shoe was ripped from the leather and my toe was pouring blood inside my sock. When I was finally done, the old base of that pole had been dislodged from the earth, and everything in me had come unmoored, too.

Afterwards, I sat down on the curb to check out the damage to my foot, and in the silence I could feel the cold place in my chest where the fire had burned right out of me.  That act of defiance, that petty vandalism, was the rending of my character's costume, the snapping of my marionette strings.  Sitting there in the quiet parking lot, I understood instinctively that the pretty facade of faith I had been tediously holding together had finally ruptured.

 "All we like sheep have gone astray," I remembered.  And from the burned out hole in my chest, I felt the biting cold of fear that I would be just another lost sheep.  Gone astray, turning to my own way.  I knew the on fire days were gone, and I thought bitterly that I hadn't asked for any of this.  I was born into this, I said to myself.  I didn't choose it, it chose me.

But I gathered myself up, a clumsy adolescent in broken tennis shoes, with the sole flapping all the way across the gym and back up the stairs to that bible study room.  They were closing in prayer, so I kneeled down, ignored the throbbing of my split open toe and the throbbing of my ruptured identity, and I prayed, "Well, Lord, what now?"  My toe bled into my sock and my leg ached all the way up to my hip, and I knelt there waiting for someone to say amen.  So be it.  So maybe I would wander, maybe I would go my own way.

And maybe, just maybe, I would still find my way home.


5 comments:

  1. such lovely imagery in your words, liz. thank you for sharing :) i think sometimes it takes those raw, open wounds and that fresh blood-red trickle to make us *feel* again - not just blindly, numbly *do*. i know it did for me, anyway, and more than once!

    (found you through the synchroblog - have grand intentions of reading them all, but we'll see! you can read mine at http://failingjoyfully.com/fire/)


    xx
    bree

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  2. This is so beautiful. I love that moment of kicking the post...that anger of trying to be perfect all the time. The "ruptured identity"...which really is the only way we can move forward to a more stable, real faith...isn't it? We can only find the way home when we start walking by ourself on our own (broken, imperfect, beautiful) path. Thanks so much for linking up. This will stay with me.

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  3. Thanks, Bree. I loved yours as well. Such beautiful imagery!

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  4. Thanks, Addie! It has been good (and hard) to read through all the posts.

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  5. Liz (that's my name too)

    When I saw that you participated in Addie’s synchroblog I thought I should invite you to participate in a monthly synchroblog that I am a part of.

    It’s made up of a home-grown group of bloggers who like to write on topics of post-modern faith & life. This group is open to anyone who is interested in participating. We value respectful conversation and dialogue while honoring our differences. We share links & try to learn from each other.

    Some of the people that originally participated in the synchroblog no longer blog and I am trying to reach out to people like you who are currently passionate about blogging in order to keep our monthly synchroblog relevant and vital.

    If you are interested in joining us you can join the facebook group and receive monthly invitations to the synchroblog. Here is that link: https://www.facebook.com/groups/114506961937378/

    And you can find our website (which you can subscribe to if you want to receive an email when we post the monthly theme announcement/invitation) here: http://synchroblog.wordpress.com/

    (You can see all of the themes that we have covered in the past on our website in order to get an idea of what we do)

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