I honestly will be returning to the 1 Peter fiction series soon, but this week I wanted to join with Addie Zierman’s synchroblog to celebrate the release of her book, When We Were On Fire. You can read others’ experiences of evangelical subculture on her link-up. This is mine:
We were at the back of the hall, both of us, huddled up, our backs against the wall. Her coat smelt faintly of the secret cigarette she’d smoked before she came in. I propped up my head, tired, against the cold wall and we watched the rest of the youth group worshipping at the front. It was some Matt Redman song with joy in it, and I could see a wall of hands raised in an ecstasy of worship. One of the youth group led the worship, eyes and hands lifted to heaven, as though they had an open channel to paradise.
I looked at them all at the front and bit my lip, feeling my resentment grow. It had always been me at the front.
At school I got the top grades, but I never felt comfortable to be myself, whereas at church, I felt like I belonged. When I was 9, I was playing the recorder in the worship band at our new church plant; at 10, I started leading Sunday School for the under fives; at the age of 13 I went on conferences on ‘how to grow in your prophetic gifts’ (though I’m not still sure that I ever had any); at 15 I went on my first short-term mission. By the time I was 16, I was leading Bible studies in the youth group, leading worship in church services and city-wide youth mission events, and leading the school CU.
I had been the ultimate keenie Christian, been to all the conferences, done the missions, bought the corny Christian T-shirt. I had been the leader, the one at the front. And then, in my final school year, it had all gone a bit wrong.
I had collapsed under a virus and a mountain of assignments and expectations, swapped Eden Burning and Jars of Clay for Alanis Morrisette and Nirvana, swapped Matt Redman and Mike Pilavachi for Silvia Plath and Sartre. And so here I was, still going to the church youth group, but at the back.
“Do you need me to give you the history notes for Tuesday?” she whispered, while the singing continued.
I was still recovering from a bad bout of glandular fever*. It had been months, now, and I was only just back at school part-time. I was getting so behind.
“Thanks,” I said. “That would be really helpful.” I could catch up on the English Civil War when I was resting in bed later in the week.
I watched the face of one of our friends who was jumping up and down in a frenzy of happiness, bouncing to the beat. And for some reason, I thought of those movies we’d watched as a kid.
The films were called ‘A distant thunder’ and ‘Thief in the night’, and they were a fictional imagining of the End Times, starting with all the Christians being raptured up to heaven, and those that were left behind having to escape helicopter chases and forage in bins for food if they had refused to take the mark of the beast. The second film ended with the sound of the guillotine swishing. It was truly terrifying, and I watched them both when I was eight. When the LaHaye ‘Left Behind’ series of books got popular in the 90s, I gave them a wide berth.
The message of the films was clear: stay close to God, stay on fire, because you don’t want to get left behind.
And that’s how it felt, at the back of the hall, that night, like I had been left behind, and I was watching all my friends get raptured and caught up into heaven. I was the only one struggling and lonely in my doubt, the only one missing months of school from illness.
Why was I the only one not full of the joy of the Lord? Why had God rejected me?
I felt completely alone.
But I wasn’t completely alone. I was sitting next to my best friend.
We could hear one of our youth leaders speaking at the front.
“He has prepared good works for us,” he was saying, “And – if you take out just one letter from ‘good’, you get ‘God’ – he’s prepared God works.”
Some of the others were nodding vigorously. I could feel my stomach tensing in bitterness. God had prepared nothing for me, I was just sitting round all day in my room doing nothing.
I whispered to my best friend, “Hey if you take just one letter out of ‘works’…you get ‘woks’.”
She started giggling, and then I started giggling, and then, because a few people were turning their heads, and we knew we shouldn’t, we giggled all the more.
We giggled because otherwise we would have cried, and we wouldn’t have been able to stop crying. We giggled with the relief of having someone else struggling alongside us.
We are both still Christians, and I think that is at least in part because of what happened at the end of those meetings where we’d sat at the back. Everyone in our Christian youth group, including the leaders milling around at the end, would hug us, and chat to us, and ask us how our week was, with no agenda other than that they were pleased to see us. No one told us to leave, or come to the front with the others, or stop being so darn teenage-angsty and just get over ourselves. We wandered, we wobbled, we wavered, but we were not despised or belittled; we were not left behind.
Our youth leaders loved Jesus, and they loved us, and were completely genuine in both. And that helps. Love helps.
I thought that there was a huge dichotomy between those two states of being: the teenage me leading up at the front, on fire for God; the teenage me sulking at the back, all burnt-out. But looking back I can see there was wasn’t that much difference: both ‘me’s were scared of doing wrong and being wrong, both wanted to belong and succeed. The only thing that changed was the way I masked those failed desires: through zeal when I was at the front, and through cynicism when I was at the back.
God had not left me behind, as though God were a train that had puffed away with the holy kids. God was there, in the places where I was not looking: in the whispers and the silences, in the friendships and the tearful giggles and the hugs.
God is not a train but a shepherd, and He walks with the wanderers.
*glandular fever = infectious mononucleosis, the virus that kicked off my M.E.
Over to you:
- Can you remember feeling like you were ‘left behind’? What helped you?