When We Were On Fire, A Synchroblog : Reflections on Evangelical Christianity and How I Lost the Fire

I’ve gotten saved at least a hundred times.  The first time I remember “asking Jesus into my heart” was when I was three or four years old. Sitting in a church pew with my grandmother at her Assemblies of God church where the average member was 65 years old, fascinated by the woman in the front row who always wore an elaborate hat and whose husband wore outfits that matched hers exactly, and by the woman who left her seat during each worship song to dance in the aisle. When the pastor gave the altar call at the end of his sermon, my grandmother asked me if I wanted to ask Jesus into my heart.  I must have said, yes, though I don’t really remember. Next thing I knew I was down on my knees facing my pew, my grandmother beside me asking me to repeat after her. I was wearing white tights but I could feel the prickly carpet through them, pressing into my knees. I got up halfway through the prayer and sat back down in my seat.

I figured that prayer probably didn’t count, so a few years later when I was six or seven I prayed again, on my own, solemnly and seriously. By that point I knew it was important to have a “moment” you could identify as the time you got saved. I wanted mine to be good, so I waited until we were on a family vacation in Arkansas. We rented a boat and took it out on the lake and I breathed in the clean mountain air and prayed that Jesus would wash my sins away.

Later I would describe my conversion experience saying, “I first prayed the prayer when I was four, but then I recommitted my life to God when I was six and could understand everything better.”  This is obviously an absurd thing to say, and yet, I often think that 6-year-old me probably “understood everything” better than I ever have since.

When I was 11 my family started attending a charismatic non-denominational church that was just starting in our area. The pastor gave an altar call after nearly every service. Often he would ask everyone to pray the prayer aloud together, I assume to make those who were praying for the first time feel more comfortable. I didn’t mind. I figured this was insurance, in case I hadn’t prayed it sincerely enough the time on the boat. Better safe than sorry.

I attended the same small Christian school from Kindergarten through high school. Everyone in this school was a “Christian,” at least nominally. We even had mandatory Bible class as part of our core curriculum and mandatory chapel once a week or so. In elementary school we were all the same. We memorized Bible verses together and went to Vacation Bible School in the summer and participated in Psalty musicals. But even in elementary school there were ways to distinguish yourself. At home I practiced turning the pages of my Bible at lightning speed so that I would be the fastest at Sword drills, I won the end-of-the-year Bible scholar award more than once, and one year I even won the role of Harmony the singing psalm-book and got to wear a huge book costume and paint my face pink. It was the high point of my musical theater career.

Entering high school was a milestone for me. I had always seemed older than my age, or at least, different from everyone else. Whether from any actual maturity or simply from the fact that I wrapped myself in books, living in imaginary worlds that left me completely out of touch with the realities of my peers, I don’t know.  All I knew was that I was finally old enough for Youth Group. I believed with conviction that Youth Group would change everything. This would be the place where I belonged. Upon entering high school at my little Christian school, it became essential to me to separate myself from those who were only nominal Christians. I was more than just a Christian. I was “on fire.” I was the kind of Christian who jumped up and down and stretched my hands into the air in worship. I led the school’s mission team on overseas mission trips and worked myself up into a tearful frenzy at prayer meetings. I didn’t secretly smoke or drink or go to parties like some of my peers. I genuinely believed that my church and youth group were the only ones worth being a part of. There were many other churches, but only mine with its loud music and emotionally overwrought teenagers and jumping worshippers, was full of life. Full of the Spirit. I used the language of my fellow “on fire” believers and signed my letters with phrases like, “Because He Lives,”  or “Washed in the blood.” People in my church were known to answer a causal “How are you?” with something like, “I’m blessed and highly favored.”

But my years in Youth Group were tumultuous at best. During my time in this magical group we went through 6 different youth pastors. Every time I would start to connect with someone, they would leave. The head pastor of my church stressed from the pulpit the importance of discipleship. Asking an older or more mature Christian to mentor you was clear evidence that you were “on fire” and mature. So I asked. I asked four different women if they would disciple me, pour into me, pass this magic fire on to me. The first was deemed an inappropriate choice by church leaders further up in the hierarchy. The second and third both said yes, but never made any effort to be available, even when I called them or tried to set up times to meet. They were always too busy for me. The fourth was an absolute delight of a woman, but unbeknownst to me she was going through her painful journey with the burden of being on-fire and she only had so much to give.

I gradually gave up on the idea of anyone really knowing me or caring about me personally.  I came to understand that my value to the youth group was closely connected to how frequently and obviously I “served” the church. I actually remember scrubbing the toilets in the building that the youth group used with great vigor, convinced that others would see my servant’s heart and be moved by how spiritually mature I was. There was a spiritual hierarchy in the youth group and you were either a leader or a target to be prayed into salvation.  If you fell somewhere in between, you were irrelevant. So I became a leader.

By 16, I was on a team with high school seniors and college students, leading the high school youth group. I was the youngest person on the team and I was proud of it.  Being part of the team I could cover up the pain of nobody knowing me, of nobody caring to know me, with a sense of belonging. I could lay hands on people and pray in my prayer language and advise people to “ask the Lord to reveal himself in this situation” as an answer to any problem they might pose.  I worked as a counselor at church camp and once we’d all sung ourselves hoarse and cried all our tears, I prayed into the ears of my emotionally exhausted peers that they would, “never lose their fire.”

I wasn’t allowed to date in high school, but that was mostly OK with me. After all, I could always cover the fact that no one had ever asked me out with a proud declaration that I had “kissed dating goodbye.” I remember oh-so-solemnly signing a commitment not only to stay abstinent, but not to kiss anyone other than my husband. I can’t remember now whether the commitment was no kissing until marriage or just until engagement (either way, it was a moot point because it was a commitment I didn’t keep). I vividly remember being appalled when hearing about other girls who had boyfriends…some who even kissed their boyfriends. Clearly these girls were not serious about purity.

At some point, I started to see these ways that I was different from my peer as a points of pride, badges of honor. In some unspoken way, I understood that even if no one really knew me, if no one cared about me, I could still belong if I could make this my identity.  I would be pure. I would be spiritual. I would be the godliest, humblest servant of them all. I might not have tons of friends, but people would know that I was a serious and committed Christian. Someday a godly man would be attracted to the beauty of my purity and would sweep me off my feet. (Jonathan has since informed me that my purity ring was shockingly not the thing that attracted him to me).

At 18, I packed my bags and headed off to Wheaton College, alma mater of such spiritual giants as Billy Graham and Jim and Elisabeth Eliot. I wasn’t naïve though. After attending Christian school all of my life I knew there would be people at Wheaton who weren’t “really” Christians. Or even if they were, I would certainly find people who weren’t on fire like I was. I would have to take a stand, refuse to compromise, and show them what it meant to really love Jesus.

At Wheaton I found people from all kinds of backgrounds – some similar to mine, some even more extreme, more “on fire” than I was, and then those “others” I had prepared myself for: the Presbyterians, the Methodists, the Lutherans, the Baptists, the ANGLICANS, and a whole slew of denominations I never knew existed – Evangelical Free and Christian and Missionary Alliance. I was right about Wheaton in some ways. I didn’t find a lot of people who thought true worship meant jumping up and down with your hands in the air in a dark room while the electric guitar screamed at a deafening decibel. But what I did find was grace.

I met people, many people who enveloped me in grace. Who didn’t care what I had done or what I could contribute. Who weren’t judging my actions to rank me on their relative holiness scale. They simply loved me. Wanted to know me. Challenged me to use my mind when it came to my faith. Helped me realize that “on fire” as I understood it was just a construct of a sub-culture that had little to do with Jesus and whom I no longer wanted to be a part of.

If 15-year-old me could see 25-year-old me she would judge the hell out of her. After all, 25-year-old me wears spaghetti strap tops, generally dislikes CCM (contemporary Christian music), didn’t kiss dating good-bye, doesn’t speak in tongues, and occasionally drinks margaritas. Twenty-five year old me is married to a Presbyterian! (AKA: barely Christian, possible completely spiritually dead), “believes” in evolution, and has voted Democrat once or twice.  If 15-year-old me saw 25-year-old me she would rank her pretty low on the holiness scale. Probably below “real” Christian. But I don’t care. Because 15-year-old me isn’t someone whose opinion I care about. And the people whose opinions I do care about aren’t interested in how many “Acquire the fire” rallies I’ve been to, whether or not I listen to secular music, or how fast I can find I Thessalonians. These people are interested in knowing me, and more than knowing me, loving me.

When I was on fire, I measured my worth against the depth of my commitment which was indicated by the visible extent of my witness and by how essential a place I held in the hierarchy of the church. Now I am not on fire. But now I love and know that I am loved. Now I find extraordinary grace in ordinary things. I may have lost the fire, but it is now that I am most real and true and alive.

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This blog post is part of a synchroblog project started by Addie Zierman who recently published her first memoir, When We Were on Fire. I did not find out about the synchroblog project in time to officially contribute, but Addie’s words have resonated with me and I wanted to participate. I was also inspired to participate when I read my friend and fellow blogger Briana Meade’s contribution to the synchroblog. For those who read this and relate in a big way or small, I encourage you to check out Addie’s book, her blog, and the other blogs you will find linked on her page. Also, your comments are always appreciated!

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8 comments

  1. So beautiful to hear the words “extraordinary grace.” Before your move, when we last sat on the back porch visiting as two, I noticed something almost tangible. I told Dad, and later you …. that you are the most gracious woman I have ever met in my life. I meant it then … and more so now.

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  2. Lily, this is absolutely beautiful and I could relate on so so many levels, even though our stories are very different.

    I also felt left out of youth group when a new youth pastor came (who happened to be a man) and completely ignored all the girls (most likely because 1) he was afraid of anything being “deemed” inappropriate and 2) because he was like 2 years older than us and very goofy/sports-oriented and unable to connect with anyone except those who played frisbee.)

    This same guy set up a rigid hierarchical system where the “popular” Christian kids were leaders of all of us (who got to go on special ‘retreats’ only for them)–and were often the kids who were popular but not at all necessarily spiritual.

    It was a tough, often-times discouraging place to be. However, I veered off the track and disappeared into the outside secular world with a mixture of despair and uncertainty in who I was. I even made it into a “bad girls” bible study (yes, it was literally called this by our nice woman leader–who was actually really cool) for those who were a “target to be prayed into salvation” as you mentioned. Your story is so interesting. Makes you wonder about other people’s stories doesn’t it?

    You are an incredible writer.

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    1. Thanks, Briana. I was really moved by what you wrote on this topic and it made me realize that some of what I experienced was not simply my specific church’s problems, but a larger problem within this entire strange subculture many of us were raised in. I have so enjoyed reading your thoughts and reflections as well. I never miss a post. 🙂 I have been more and more impressed lately by the power of stories and storytelling and the role that other voices have in our lives. Know that by sharing your story, you are shaping mine, even from across the world.

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  3. So glad you joined in even though the linkup was “over.” (Whatever. They make you put an end-date. So dumb.) Lily — so much of this resonated with me. The female mentors who were always too busy, and most of all the subtle ways I learned that my value was tied to my service… to how good of a Christian I was.

    So glad for the ways we all have grown and changed and learned to embrace a fuller picture of God. Thanks again for writing.

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  4. How beautiful that you found people who showed you what grace is. People who cared enough to KNOW you. Sadly, that is rather rare. Here’s to showering grace on those who have not yet experienced it here on earth, yes? Perhaps we can show them what they’re missing. 🙂

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