This post is part of Addie Zierman’s synchroblog to celebrate the publication of her memoir When We Were on Fire, which talks about growing up in 90s American evangelical culture. It’s quite different in scale to my experience in France and in the UK but not that different either, and I hope to purchase her book soon.
Its a fire
These dreams they pass me by
This salvation I desire
Keeps getting me down
(It’s a Fire – Portishead)
When I was on fire… I was 15, a new Christian and my local church was not equipped to deal with my hunger to know more of God. For one thing, there was not much youth, there couldn’t have been more than a handful of kids my own age, so there was hardly anything set up for us. There was also a sense that young people were not really full persons. At 15, you were still a child, and it showed in how you were talked to. You did not count yet, you were not wise, you were not learned, you were the generation of tomorrow. So if you were young, and female to boot, what could you possibly bring to the table?
When I was on fire… I was 16 and I pledged I wouldn’t date anyone until I was 18. I can’t remember who instigated it, me or my mum, but it was really a secret between me and her. I did it wholeheartedly but it wasn’t hard, I hadn’t dated anyone before and for the longest time there was only one guy in our youth group anyway. I’d caught glandular fever a few months earlier after kissing a guy at a Christian camp (I know I got it from him, there was an actual trail of illness to follow) and I didn’t want to repeat the experience. The pledge just gave my decision a bit more holiness, a little more weight.
When I was on fire… I was 17, and I asked if I could join the student youth group, because they held Bible studies and I wanted to engage in proper discussions about God, not just attend Sunday school. I was told no by the group leader, and it took the church pastor to speak on my behalf for me to be welcomed. When I say welcomed… I asked why we met only once a fortnight and not every Saturday evening, surely a couple of hours spent talking about God and having fun together couldn’t be that detrimental to studying, and I was shot down and told that I wasn’t a college student, how could I possibly know what I was talking about?
When I was on fire… I was 18 and you could have knocked me over backwards when I realised that the Holy Spirit was real and not just a theoretical idea. I had questions about that, and it was ok to ask them. We didn’t do much teaching from the Bible but that was OK, because people did that in their quiet time, and God turned up in the meetings anyway, didn’t He?
When I was on fire… I almost went to Africa on a small mission and I could have cried in relief when the project was cancelled. I had zero desire to go on missions to the far corners of the earth and I was terrified that because it was the one thing I most feared, it meant that it was probably God’s will that I should go.
When I was on fire… I asked this one guy out and he said he liked me but he felt that God was asking him to dedicate the next year to Him and that he should not date anyone. I respected his desire to be on fire for God and I admired and loved him more for it. A year later I asked again and he turned me down. He didn’t say so, but it’s fairly obvious he just wasn’t that into me in the first place.
When I was on fire… I didn’t say anything when I was told by the people I lived with that my friend was not welcome in their home because of things she had done in the past that were not appropriate. They didn’t think she was a good influence and her presence would affect the spiritual atmosphere of their house. I couldn’t quite believe what I was hearing, but I had literally just moved in, their house, their rules. I had just committed to being accountable to this leader. All this spiritual warfare stuff was new to me and I was too involved to objectively take a step back and see heresy for what it was. I was there to be taught and I knew I had much to learn still; I wanted to be a better Christian and a better person and for that you need to have a teachable spirit. I remained silent, and I didn’t ever invite anyone into my home.
When I was on fire… I didn’t go visit this one friend who lived up north. Because if I had, I would have had to sleep on his sofa, and he lived alone. I knew we would have been absolutely fine and we would have had a great time but I decided not to go anyway because I would have had to lie to those I was accountable to. I didn’t think I could pull it off, and I didn’t want to be questioned about what was and wasn’t appropriate. He was a man and lived alone, and it’s just not done for men and women who aren’t married to sleep in the same house. It might lead to temptation.
When I was on fire… Being passionate meant being involved. Being ‘on fire’ meant being a servant like Jesus so serving the church was the way to go. For a while I led worship almost every Sunday; I led worship for the Saturday morning prayer meeting, 2 hours at a time. I was where it was happening. I was told I was hearing what the Holy Spirit was saying to our church for such a time as this. I thought my level of involvement was right and good. I thought it meant I was on the right path with God, that I was in His will, that I was fulfilling His vision for my life. I look back now and I’m not sure where it was leading me to and what I learnt. One thing I do know: I don’t make much of a Christian where it matters. I don’t have much empathy; I find people exhausting and annoying, especially those who don’t have ‘pick up and go’. I am afraid of being eaten alive by other people’s emotional need. So the thing I needed the most, to be taught about compassion, to be taught how to feel like Jesus, how to act like Jesus, how to care like Jesus, despite all the accountability and the self-examination, I didn’t learn. I didn’t know about the need outside of my church aside for their general need for Jesus. I didn’t make a difference where it matters, with the materially poor, with the mentally broken, with the isolated and the marginalised. I waited for them to come to me whilst I hosted a Holy Spirit party for the grateful few.
When I was on fire… For a long time I didn’t have much interactions with non-Christians outside of work. I didn’t know how to talk about my life and my church. I lived in a Christian bubble that wasn’t seeker-friendly and only had one non-Christian friend. I couldn’t invite her to church because our services were a bit too ‘out-there’ and were really just for us to hear the Spirit. For all our declarations, she wouldn’t have heard much about Jesus there, because there wasn’t much Bible teaching going on. I couldn’t invite her to my home because she was not a Christian and my hosts did not know her. So I went out with her, to her house, to pubs and clubs where I let down my guard a little bit and had fun. I felt a little bit more like myself. I was not double-checking myself all the time, it was liberating. For a while, there was more freedom.
When I was on fire… I was part of the leadership of a house church. I didn’t like the way commitment to God started to become synonym with engagement with everything God we were doing as a group and a community. I didn’t like that it was ok to call people on Sunday morning to ask if they were going to attend the meeting.
When I was on fire… Suddenly I wasn’t leading worship at all. Hard to do in a house with just ten other people when you play the keyboard and not the guitar. I had so many questions and I wasn’t sure what I was doing anymore; if not worship, what was my calling, was this what I wanted to do with my life? Where was it going?
When I was on fire… the flame burnt out. I couldn’t pretend anymore that the things I was doing were for God. I distrusted everybody’s intentions. My faith was hanging by a thread and it took years for it to start growing again from the ashes of my former life. Now it burns again but it doesn’t look the same at all. No striving, just grace and the space to ask questions and be myself without judgement, warts and all. I know a little bit more about myself and where I need to change and it’s about growing, not burning. Fire is only good if it starts within and turns into warmth without, not if it shines without and destroys within.