I have been watching my mailbox all week for my copy of “When We Were On Fire” by Addie Zierman to arrive (no luck yet!). I have been reading Addie’s blog for about a year and a half now, and she quickly and easily become a favorite. When she announced that she was coming out with a book, I was thrilled beyond belief. I pre-ordered a copy as soon as I could, and I’m sure that it will be a treasure. Addie slices through the hard stuff of life with a faithful eye, and if you’ve never read any of her work, I encourage you to do so. “When We Were On Fire” is Addie’s story of coming of age within evangelical culture, and teasing out faith from culture once the stilts get knocked out from underneath. To honor the release of her book this week, Addie is hosting a “synchroblog” because in her words “When I started thinking about what it might look like to “Promote My Book,” I knew that I wanted it to be about more than just me and my story. The title is, after all, When We Were On Fire, and, in one way or another, you were there too.” And I was. So here’s my story.
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The thing about fire is that it is hot. It’s bright glow and warmth can be irresistible, but get too close and you are going to get burned. Load that fire on a torch, and in the hands of zealous teens that fire can become a weapon. I never had anything but the best intentions, wanting to share the light of a path I had already found, but when I was on fire, I burned people I loved.
The story of my “on fire” days is one of grace and forgiveness. Just not where I was expecting it.
Like so many of us, I found safety and acceptance during those awkward teen years at church, or more specifically, in youth group. While I was struggling to figure out who I was, and where I belonged, the youth group was there offering solid hugs, good, safe fun, and a moral compass to guide my teen years. The friendships were solid, and the faith was real.
My faith was real. It wasn’t just the songs we sang on Sunday nights, broken down into girl/guy harmonies. It wasn’t just the way my shoulders relaxed when I was with this motley gang, letting pretense go, and feeling free to be me. I love a good game of Capture the Flag as much as the next guy, but it was more than all of these things. I knew that I was broken, and full of holes. And I knew that I was loved, and rescued by a guy named Jesus. A fire was set.
But there was a tug-of-war in my heart. Because I knew of the deep love of Christ for me, I wanted everyone else to know it, too. More specifically, I wanted my friends at school to know it. These were friends who I had grown up with, girls whose basements I had slept in, whose parents drove me to soccer practice. Friends that I had taken vacations with, and who had played Barbies with me (perhaps for longer than we should’ve). I had deep love for these friends. What I saw in clear black and white was that because I loved these friends, I needed to tell them about Jesus.
And with the fire of my faith, I did.
It’s easy to look back on that time, through grown up eyes, and stare down with criticism what I was living in my adolescence, to see how far off the mark I really was. From here, I can see the scope of the bigger picture, and watch as my teenage self tried to put the square pegs into the round holes. The tendency now is to say “If I had only known this, or had only done that.” But that’s the thing about being a teenager. You don’t have the long view, yet. I didn’t know this yet. And I didn’t do that.
What I did do was I wrote a letter. I wrote a letter to a dear friend who was Jewish. I had celebrated her Bat Mitzvah with her, I had been to synagogue with her. I’d eaten latkes at her kitchen table and played dreidel on the floor of her living room. And all I was certain of then was that I loved her, and because I loved her I wanted her to know what I knew. I thought if I could just tell her about Jesus, if I could just explain it the right way, then maybe she too would know Him. That she might know that Jesus loved her, too. I thought maybe she too could feel the fire.
I’m sure I don’t have to tell you how terribly wrong this went. The fire of my torch, unchecked and ungraceful, burned her in places I do not even know.
What I do have to tell you is that, years later as I think back on this, what sticks with me most is grace. And forgiveness. But not mine. Because while I’m fuzzy on the details of our friendship immediately following this drama, I’m confident in our friendship now. This friend offered me forgiveness in this hardest of places, and has lived out what it means to be merciful to each other, merciful to me.
While I was so busy trying to make her see Jesus in me, Jesus made himself visible to me in her.
I’ve been reading a bunch of Peter Pan stories with the kids lately. Renee vacillates between only answering to Peter Pan, and then wanting desperately to be Tinker Bell. She is loving the fantasy of flying, of pirates and sword fights, and good triumphing over evil. There is this part in the story where Peter Pan is trying to teach Wendy how to fly. The famous line, of course, is that all it takes is “faith, trust, and pixie dust.” With a dash of pixie dust Wendy is nudged off the cliff, but lands clumsily on the ground without ever taking flight. The verdict is that she lacks the faith and trust to fly. No amount of pixie dust was going to get her off the ground. For so many years, I thought that if I wasn’t flying, if my prayers weren’t being answered, if my words and actions weren’t changing hearts for the Gospel, it wasn’t because I was lacking pixie dust. I was certain it meant that my faith and trust were not strong enough. And so I tried harder. I believed harder. I burned stronger.
God’s story of redemption has very little to do with me. His fire is magic, and is not mine to hold, but only to worship.
What I know now, that I didn’t then, is that the world is a lot more gray than I could ever imagine. What I know now is that I have a lot more questions than I do answers, and that’s ok. What I know now is that the only answer I’m certain of, the only thing I know I can count on for sure, is Love. And that Love is Jesus. The rest? Those are just details. And I’ll leave that up to God.
“One day Moses was tending the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro, the priest of Midian. He led the flock far into the wilderness and came to Sinai, the mountain of God. There the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a blazing fire from the middle of a bush. Moses stared in amazement. Though the bush was engulfed in flames, it didn’t burn up.” -Exodus 3:1,2
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