Whimsy, Faith, and the Thirty-Something Woman.

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1.

I don’t belong in Icing by Claire’s*. The other shoppers browsing beside me wouldn’t be able to sit legally at a restaurant’s bar. They wouldn’t be able to rent a car at the considerable discount adults over 25 are offered. Their faces are unlined, their hair devoid of even a single silvery strand. They are still girls, really; crow’s feet will not alight on their faces for several years to come.

This is my second trip. The cashier has natural hair. The first time she rang up my purchases, her afro was pushed away from her forehead with a plain black band. Now her hair is a garden of two-strand twists. It looks like the kind of work I don’t yet want. I smile at her and recommit to my TWA. The TWA, after all, is why I’m here. Cutting my hair was one thing; feeling elegant and feminine with this cut will, as it turns out, take quite a bit of accessorizing. I know nothing about accessorizing.

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We are closer in age than the customers around us. When I approach the counter this time, she doesn’t let on that she remembers me. Maybe she doesn’t. Either way, I’m grateful as I empty the mesh shopping basket of its contents. She rings up the molehill of trinkets between us: earrings fashioned of plastic and tin, shaped like peonies and roses; cheap garlands of synthetic florals; gilded Grecian headbands, bound to tarnish if worn more than a few times this summer.

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I took this about ten minutes after leaving Icing the first time. That little smile signifies a style breakthrough.

I am probably too old for this. I am mother to a girl who will be starting pre-K in the fall. In November, I will be closer to 40 than 30. For six years, I have taught college students, every semester widening the chasm between their sartorial sensibility and my own. As someone trying to make her living as a writer, being taken seriously has always felt like an Everest climb, a consumption by quicksand, a swim upstream. I am at an age where it is necessary to pinch the bridge of my nose while hunching over bills, at an age where my elders wonder aloud when the work that I do will afford me a lifestyle commensurate with grown-womanhood. (Whither the mortgage, the marriage, the retirement plan?)

And here I am buying flimsy floral baubles at the very accessory chain that interviewed (but didn’t hire) me for my first job at 17.

The cashier tells me the total.

“That’s almost, to the cent, what I spent here last time.”

She courtesy-smiles, waits silently for the debit system to approve my transaction, then hands me the bag. “Here’s a frequent shopper’s card.”

I accept it with thanks but hope I’ll never make enough purchases to redeem it. Two teen girls compare tubes of glittery fruit-flavored lip gloss as I walk out.

2.

At revival, the visiting evangelist descended from the pulpit into the congregation. He was illustrating a point about the importance of vision by asking children what they wanted to be when they grew up. I was 8 and the third kid he asked.

Self-serious little person that I was, my answer was immediate. “I want to be an author.”

Mine was the first response he’d gotten that wasn’t, “I don’t know.” So he riffed on it for a while. “Will y’all excuse me for a minute,” he said, pulling up a chair near my aisle. “I gotta sit and talk to this young person.”

He began to tell me my future. “You’ll read a lot, write a lot of books. You won’t be like all the other children.” His voice took on a wistful, kindly tone. “You’ll never have a day of lack.”

This is all I remember, but he spoke to me for a good five minutes: a monologue amplified by microphone. In the end, we bowed our heads as he prayed that the things he’d just said would come to pass. I kept the cassette recording of the sermon and listened to it once every few years until college. That was when I lost it.

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My church calls this sort of thing a prophecy and the man delivering it a prophet — even when the foretelling is fairly straightforward (Voracious reading is a requisite for quality writing, for instance). Though mostly taken with a grain of salt, my faith still regards prophetic words as sacred.

We are no strangers to mysticism. We believe that the spirit of God might manifest itself during a church service as an indoor fog, the effect like a supernatural smoke machine. We believe that speaking in tongues communicates something to our God that English can’t. We believe that through mere touch — hand to forehead, hand-to-hand, hand-to-shoulder — a minister can confer the spirit of God upon us in ways that make us swoon, faint, convulse, or sprint. We call this being “slain in the spirit.”

For all this trust in experiences that would seem, to anyone who lives outside them, illogical, loopy, or unsound, it’s hard to believe that pursuing a life in the arts would not be accepted as a natural progression.

But being a writer — particularly of fiction — often felt like an unnatural desire. To write fiction was to lie. To lie was sin. Writing nonfiction, if not self-help or testimonial, also felt like the wrong kind of work, for honesty about one’s deepest flaws or exposure of the cracks in other folks’ facades, was regarded as a very real betrayal.

There is little left to write — and even less to write well — whenever these are the guardrails.

In my teens and early 20s, I sometimes came to church wearing a sarong as a skirt with a macrame brooch of a black, Afro-puffed angel holding it in place at the hip: a tiny reclamation of the fanciful. Sometimes I wanted to wear glittered wings and frolic like a fairy, to create a worship experience that felt like the Mamas and the Papas or Simon and Garfunkel or Angela Bofill music sounds. Otherworldly. But I always suppressed the real questions I wanted to ask in prayer. I wrote trite, implausible stories of Christian conversion. I kept my longing for purple hair and hennaed palms to myself.

What do you want from me? I should’ve asked at a much younger age.

I know now what God would’ve told me: Not this.

3.

I have always had muses — none of whom were acceptable choices for teenage churchgoing me.

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Lisa Bonet
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Shannyn Sossamon
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Angela Bofill
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Vonetta McGee
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Erykah Badu

Wear what you want. Love who you want. Give birth when you want. Find ways to live freely. I am drawn to an artsy woman whose look belies her life’s philosophy, because life philosophies — genuine, personal ones — are not easy to form.

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You cannot take stock of present-day Lisa Bonet and not know with all certainty, you’re beholding a woman who — to borrow from Langston Hughes — stands on top of the mountain free within herself. I don’t think that confidence came at low cost, but we purveyors of pop culture have always been drawn to Bonet because we sensed that she saw no trail ahead yet continued, somehow, to set one ablaze.

That kind of freedom can feel like it’s at odds with a few of my faith’s tenets. For us, submission to God’s word and will are the only real freedoms. As Christians, we do not live to please ourselves — and this runs counter to everything I know of myself as a writer. A writer must create to please herself; it is that very self-assurance that earns her reader’s confidence.

4.

For a few months in college, I tried to grow out my perm. I lived alone and if my hair looked too unruly, I’d wrap fabric around it (usually an old t-shirt) and pretend that it meant something regal. I’d stand taller, jaw set against stares or uninvited comment and, for the first time in life, I felt in control of the image I was projecting to the world.

I still wonder what it should mean for our daily lives that we were made in the image of God with the intent that we should behave as though we are reflections of God.

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But for years, it meant treating my body and whatever adorned it as an afterthought. It meant treating my appearance as inconsequential rather than as a point of particular pride. I wore neutrals: denim, earth tones, cotton tees, department-store, factory-outlet dresses. I am still uncertain which colors best complement my skin. (Am I a winter or what?) And this belief that reflecting God meant being conservative in attire and carriage has also meant decades of long hair. Hair long enough to draw a curtain. Hair that doesn’t out the wildness underneath.

The wildness I wanted then seems more permissible now. Churches have factored arts and entertainment into their Sunday rituals. Spoken word, drama, pantomime, liturgical dance. It’s all there. But I am a different brand of feral these days.

My mother convinced me to perm my hair again in college by insisting I couldn’t attend church back home in a headwrap. “It’s Easter!” she’d said. “Easter!”

It took fourteen years to go natural again. Fourteen years and here I am leaving Icing, eager to embrace the sprightliness I denied myself so often as a teen. Here I am writing about my faith’s messy intersections with my chosen vocation. Here I am being as weird as I’ve always suspected I could be.

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But am I too old for it? At 34, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel like an overgrown child whenever I place a crown of fake flowers on my head. It seems that, by now, I should have my personal aesthetic figured out. If nothing else, I should know what stores don’t make me feel like the old chick at the club.

(When did I become this self-conscious?)

We talk about reinvention as though it’s a very mature and high-brow process. But so much of it is playing dress-up and making yourself okay with prancing around in new personas till  you find the next one that’s a natural fit.

6.

The Jesus who keeps me Christian roamed and ruminated and attended riotous parties. He heard disembodied voices, battled demons, drank good wine and was led by a calling higher than himself. That Jesus gets me. He gets why I don’t find nudity particularly offensive, since according to our own sacred text, nudity isn’t the sin; shame is. He preferred a complicated story and understood that not every tale worth telling ended with profession of faith in him. He didn’t recoil from the grotesque, and he was irrepressible. The Jesus who cursed fig trees wouldn’t care one wit if I ring my hair in fake foliage. He didn’t conform. And maybe, just maybe, he’d be disgusted with anyone who’d ask me to.

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How I long to be more like him.
*I found out Icing has a shop online option while writing this piece. Guess where I’ll be copping hair garlands instead of in-store now?

Oil and Water (or What Happens in Church Does Not Stay In Church).

The oil clings to everything. It is an intrusion; it follows me home, persists, demands decisions. To be rid of it, scrub the skin. But I do not want to be rid of it; it recalls too many things hallowed. I am not ready to reach up to my forehead and, with one simple swab, remove it.

It has already begun its migration. I’ve touched my face, hugged myself tightly, brushed my fingertips along my daughter’s hair. The oil is omnipresent.

I’ve inhaled this before, as it wafted up from a street vendor’s table, usurping the stalks of Black Love incense and the low-end imitations high-end fragrances. I have seen it in a twist-top vial, its name hastily scrawled and Scotch-taped to the front. Frankincense, it reads, or maybe myrrh.

* * *

In the car, we are three women leaving a service of confirmation: grandmother and mother and child. The windows are rolled against the cool night air, and the fragrance rushes ’round floor and ceiling. It occurs to me then that, like so many things at churches, the oil is decidedly masculine.

I am thinking over what was said, deciding whether I feel betrayed, wondering if everyone’s looks of concern afterward meant that, now, they see me as a danger to myself.

They would not be entirely wrong.

Scent is an association. We are our associations.

The last man I dated smelled of deodorant and fabric softener, which means, for better or worse, I pine for him as often as I pass any clean man in freshly laundered clothes. Before him: a man whose scent recalled potting soil; for eight years, I tried to plant sustainable things. I do not remember the smell of the preceding man — perhaps line kitchen and bar soap; I was rarely with him and, at the six-month-mark, eager to leave. And my first boyfriend, the 24-year-old I dated at 18, always smelled of an oil, something airy, almost unisex, rarely overpowering.

My father smells of aftershave and cologne with aggressive top notes. What he wears is not oil- but alcohol-based. It absorbs, burns off, rarely lingers.

* * *

The five of us who had taken adult bible class for three weeks stand gathered ’round the altar when called. Our regional bishop, having traveled from the Midwest for this purpose, is seated, a pillow at his feet. This is where we are to kneel when it is time. He takes the three on the left first; they are being received, not confirmed. They are already of this denomination and now they are joining this parish. They, like 98 percent of our small congregation, are white.

My mother and I are aloft, on the other side of the aisle. In our 30 years of churchgoing, we have never been part of a denomination. I am here because I like the liturgy. I am here for the parts of this I can comprehend — and also for the marvels we are happy to leave unexplained.

There are four priests in front of us, standing at the seated bishop’s right. On his left is our pastor. He has instructed the four to impart “a word” to each of us, if they feel led.

I know what is coming.

The three people being received kneel when called, and the bishop presses a cross of oil onto their heads. He tells them about their lives: you are hurting; you have a gentle spirit; you’ve overcome something insurmountable; you are going to serve faithfully here. He has lifted a veil on their futures, glimpsed in, and backed away. They are discreetly weeping, but mostly composed.

Prophecy makes me uncomfortable. It has since I was nine and a young visiting minister stopped mid-sermon to ask what I wanted to be when I grew up. I told him: an author, and he told he several things: that I would not be like other children, that I would write many books, that I would never have a day of lack. It was recorded and I kept the cassette till college.

I do not like predictions; they apply an uncomfortable pressure.

I am 33, unpublished, and I often feel invisible, the very definition of ordinary, even as I know I am not.

Also, I have not been behaving. If obedience is better than sacrifice, my life is often a landscape of lack. I have tried out autonomy, doing as I wish, loving who I want, in whichever ways seem right. I have not followed the letter of the law.

So I know what’s coming.

* * *

In the churches of my youth, prophecy began with “I hear the Lord saying,” and ended with any number of messages, though the most memorable were “rebukes.” No one wanted to be rebuked; it meant someone would have to “pray a spirit off” of you — and there were spirits for everything. Spirit of poverty, spirit of promiscuity, spirit of depression or rebellion.

I had few greater fears while sitting in service than when a minister paced the aisles, pointing out congregants and calling them to stand or walk toward the pulpit for prophecy.

This is, in many measurable, relief-filled ways, a different kind of church.

But I know how I live. The blank after, “I hear the Lord saying…” could fill with flotsam fairly quickly.

I kneel when it is time. The bishop rests his hands on mine, says that what he sees is compassion. This is not what I thought was coming: he says that I have a good heart.

There are other things about hardship, how I’ve seen some, how I’m likely to see more. And then, it becomes about men. Perhaps I’ve been abused; abuse comes in many forms. He says that I do not trust men, that it is hardest to find love in men who have not been fathered. “So many men haven’t been fathered….”

There is more, but I am crying and thinking and wondering where You are. I am wondering if even this can be trusted, when another priest jumps in to say I’ve been searching here and there for comfort — any kind of comfort. The comfort God gives will not leave you, he says.

This is what I expected: to be told, in front of onlookers, that I have unresolved father issues, that I’ve become the classic looking-for-love-in-all-the-wrong-places cliché, that I need, in some fundamental way, to change.

The priests are not wrong.

Yet another chimes in and says that a wall I’ve built is breaking tonight. This, I have also heard in churches before. I have heard about my walls, everywhere, for all my life.

I am no skeptic. But I do not like feeling so exposed. And I do not understand why anyone would want to be told by relative strangers, before a cloud of witnesses, what lies in the reddest, sorest recesses of her heart.

The bishop says he feels led to embrace me and when he does, as all look on, I cry a bit harder into the folds of his crimson and ivory vestments. I am not sure why; I am exactly sure why.

This has been my experience of faith: to remain ever uncertain and to be certainly present.

In this way, I, myself, am the oil, meant to stain and to blur and to stay.

* * *

Lord, You’ve been a long haul, and I’ve been resistant. Your burden has not felt light. To feel as weightless and unyoked as I should, I would need to more of what happens in church demystified. Prophecy has always made that difficult, itself an act that mystifies.

You know better than most that I do not mean to be resistant. Were I a simpler woman, I would float along the water, or better, I would walk upon its surface. I’d let you bear me up. Were I uncomplicated, all the wounds that were reopened would be healed in the rushing current. Instead I am a slick, amorphous; I am moving in ways I can’t control.

And yet again, I’m left asking You: can living water ever commingle with oil?

Holy, Holy, Holy.

There is a sign at the sight of Thee. There is none beside Thee.

This year has been a reckoning, a humbling. Each day and every breath, a reminder of your mercy and our own mortality. This year, we have lived our own Massacre of Innocents. In advance of this holiday, we were informed anew of the cruelty inhabiting Earth and of the compassion it will take to overcome it. In every telling of your origin story, the most improbable point for me has been that a king would slaughter many in an effort to obliterate one, that a man of great might could feel so strangely threatened by children.

I need no longer imagine.

This year, You have been a sickle, gathering unto Yourself those we’ve loved. Though we know there is no better place for them than with you, exulting in this has not been easy. Even as we commemorate God’s infinite love made manifest in You, we, like the parents of Bethlehem, are haunted by loss.

It is our charge, then, as this trying year begins to finally recede, to restore our faith in the Incarnation, to reclaim whatever wonder has slipped from our grasp.

The beauty of your birth must never be blotted by our sorrow. That You have come to us and that You continually pine for the renewal of our faith are gifts whose value cannot be measured. That You are able, morning by morning, to transmute our misery and usher in the kind of love we could no longer imagine, is the reason we rise each year on this holiday and proclaim you holy.

You are what we cannot be.

The Antithesis of Faith.

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. — Hebrews 11:1

Why art thou cast down, O my soul? and why art thou disquieted within me? Hope thou in God: for I shall yet praise him, who is the health of my countenance, and my God. — Psalm 42:11

1.

The grocery cart is an ice floe, every row of overpriced food an isle to be sailed past without much autonomy. To be underemployed is to live without oars; I turn where the tide and the wind allow. Often, I think of You as the Wind: favorable, then fierce, and at times, capricious. This is difficult to admit as my eyes glaze over at the cost of four quarters of butter, as I grip the cart’s handle in abject panic, as I calculate the total in my head. In those moments, I do not want to feel tossed or untethered or tested. I do not want You to be as impossible to grasp as a gale.

For so many other believers, You wouldn’t be. For them, when there is too little left to budget, You become the multiplier of fishes and loaves. Right there, in the long stretch of frozen meals, You fill their hearts with manna. For them, You’d become a testimony bellowed into a microphone, echoing through a revival tent: It was only at my poorest that I learned You own the cattle on a thousand hills! It was only when my own hand was empty that I could accept the provision in Yours.

I am supposed to sing a reassuring song about the physics of faith (when praises go up, blessings come down).

But this is not where I live.

It isn’t that I don’t believe. I do. Of course I do. It is a logical step for those who create to believe that things much larger than themselves have also been created. And it is necessary for those who understand guilt to believe in the work of atonement. I feel ill at ease imagining a life over which I must assume totalitarian control and sicker still at the thought that whenever and wherever we die, our stories end. No, doubt has rarely been the deterrent.

2.

Every once in a while, we went hungry. Those were the lonely years, when we lived in an oversized and underfurnished house, and the congregants of our church considered my family to be spiritual stalwarts: the husband, pious and devoted; the wife, fiery and dynamic; the daughter, creative, aloof. For them, we were emblems, were ministers. For them, we were a comfort, a mirage of peace and safety when, in their own homes, destruction felt imminent.

But they never knew how often our home felt combative, despite the absence of physical aggression, how at the sound of the husband’s ticking engine in the driveway, the daughter crept into in the darkness of her room on the third floor. They wouldn’t have understood the way she stared at the pacing shadows, two dark and darting foot-falls, scuttling like rodents and obscuring the yellow slit of light from the hall. They couldn’t have imagined what it was to feel imprisoned by someone else’s prayer or how it could throw into turmoil the daughter’s concept of who You were.

The husband would leave within a year of those last instances, when he took to praying in tongues outside the daughter’s door as though he was an asylum guard in charge of a girl possessed, and when he called her out of that room once to ask if she was “bringing evil into his house.” These were the last of many years they’d spent locked in an epic battle, each round fought when her mother wasn’t home, each accusation a dagger, a wound, a scar that would, in some small way, shape the woman she would become.

Before he left, from time to time, he would neglect to buy food for three. He ate at home less and so did the mother and daughter. The contents of cupboards would thin; the shelves of the fridge emptied. It was preparation for the months to come, when the daughter would begin to support herself and the mother with the money from her work-study checks and her summer jobs in retail and reception.

The mother would tell the daughter that You sent her home after college to help her through the divorce. And the daughter believed. For four long years, she believed–just as she’d secretly wondered, after hours of listening to her stepfather’s prayers, if she had, inadvertently, brought evil into their home.

They’d each seemed so confident.

This is, I suppose, what happens when some children come to know You through their parents. It begins as a tangential acquaintanceship; we understand that we need to know You but let our parents do most of the talking. We trust their instincts, their judgment. It never gets personal until it needs to, until we need You–but by then, we’re struck by our own uncertainty of who You really are.

Are You a God who believes our enemy when he insinuates that we should be exorcised? Are You a God who plans our purpose and only reveals it to people other than us? Or are You the other things we imagine You are: mind-reader, romantic, redeemer, refuge, lighted path?

3.

It began as an atom, a nodule of resistance nestling inside me like a pebble at the base of a well. I didn’t feel it, even after I sensed it growing, never acknowledged it as I scrawled small notes onto church bulletins or wept openly, not over Your goodness but because You were so chatty with others and impossibly silent with me.

When I tell the story of how I became a single mother, I do not start it here, with the atom. But these are the particles inside it: a profession of faith at the age of eight; a number of folks advising me of the various ways I should let You use me; modest clothes and earnest gestures, tepid prayers; a semblance of sound morality; the realization that most of my faith felt merely mimicked, followed by a waning trust in others who insist that they’re speaking on your behalf.

No. Indeed, doubt was never the deterrent. The antithesis of faith, for me, has always been hopelessness.

I felt the least hope when I believed You’d decided You would only tell others what I needed to do with my life. I waited to hear You say that I’d finished fulfilling Your promise to my mother, that I was free to go discover the other things You’d placed me here to do. But with every year that passed, this pardon seemed less plausible. Maybe it wouldn’t be me You told at all, but my mother. Maybe You’d sent the message and I missed because I didn’t know the sound of Your voice. Maybe I’d never know it. Maybe there was no voice, but only the bible, and all this time, I should’ve been decoding that for answers.

It wasn’t even not knowing. It was the fear that I’d never know, that I’d been betrayed or duped or terribly misguided, that I still am. It was when, every time I tried articulating any of this, all I got in return was, “Did you pray about it?”

There’s a desperation, a terror, in the idea that the God of my fathers (and mothers) is all that there is. Who You are to them is not who I need You to be, for me. But for the longest time, who You were to them was all I believed You could be.

And this is how I came to make a few choices of my own: a master’s degree, a teaching career, a well-intentioned courtship turned secular, and several years later, the baby, the hunger, the jobs that pay pennies, the re-turning of my face toward the Wind.

It’s still true I do not like being tossed and that, despite our long history, confidence in Your intent to rescue me isn’t my first response to hardship. I am still working hard to maintain hope, to believe in the unheard as well as the unseen. But if this is who You are, I will not resist the gusts. May they carry me closer to You, may I glimpse Your face in the dust that dances up and stings the eyes. Be the gale, and I will be Your feather. Be my reinvention, and I will teach my daughter to know You for herself.

Get Real, Get Right.

Like Truman, I had walked to the end of a soundstage, expansive and domed, a manmade construct where I’d dwelled since the day I was born. I followed a once-holy script, so weighted with rewrites the original text seemed illegible, and in its appendix, a map of circuitous arrows. This was a province governed by a trumped-up paranoia, a place where God watched like a hawk with the imperative to smite at any time. He sat high and looked low and, though he was love, He was also a wielder of swords; just the threat of one’s wing or the promise of another sword’s knighthood, whole lives could be held in check. Though the God they’d confined to this land necessitated lifelong service to the poor, the men and women who believed themselves His ambassadors amassed wealth at the people’s expense and boasted often of their riches to impoverished congregations.

These leaders were not like John the Baptist, wild-eyed eccentrics momentarily stricken with doubt but ultimately willing to die for their gospel. They were not like Moses, weary and at times uncertain but obedient even after 40 years of wilderness.

They were more akin to Ananais and Sapphira, apportioning unto themselves not just money, but truth and hope, compassion and power, which belonged to an uncompromised God and, in turn, to an underserved people.

At the edge of the world, at the age of 25, I clawed free, broke through an uncharted dimension. On the journey, many people passed by, headed into the land that I’d left.

I didn’t warn them of the sanctimony that would meet them there, did not tell them that though its pew-sprinting, alter-fainting, frothed-mouthing practices may seem the height of religious freedom, they were not headed for liberty but instead a new snare.

Beyond the only world I’d known, I met many obstacles. Uncharted terrain is always treacherous. I stumbled through jungles, nearly missing the garroting vines. I fielded the unbidden questions, the doubts, the stalking of betrayals so intense I longed for amnesia. And eventually, it came.

I forgot the kind of God I used to worship, a deity diluted and delivered on tin trays through the slats of a confined life. I forgot how it felt to be shackled.

There were seven years of vertigo. Mostly silence. Neither God nor I seemed angry, but we made little effort to connect.

I emerged with a girl, tiny and worshipful in ways that reignited memory. She sways at the lilt of a hymn, lifts her eyes toward a heaven she recognizes, stretches her lithe little arms at the crooning of cantors, opens a door.

I know that, in order to effectively mother her, I must talk to the God she knows, must engage in a faith like hers, must love without suspicion.

So I take her to–of all places–a VFW hall, where men in robes make the sign of the cross over their hearts and minds. A jazz guitarist and his wife lead songs that initiate conversations with God, rather than discussions with each other about how they should converse with God–or how they should feel while doing so. The holy eucharist is shared every week, and questioning is welcome. It is an entirely unfamiliar place. I approach it as the refugee I am, with guardedness and more than a little fear. But louder than the din of my doubt is the prospect of hope.

I am learning unabashed belief from the little girl, whose eyes grow wide during worship, who ceases her busy tinkering during prayer, who smiles at the priest who crosses her before I partake of the sacrament.

These days, I follow her lead. Later, she will follow mine. And someday, she will walk to the edge of the world and feel confident she knows the God who is beyond it.

Maranatha: Chapter 14.

- Chapter 14 -

Maranatha had heard, years ago, that the Agees lived in a mansion. According to the inter-church gossip circuit, it was a gated twelve-acre estate high on a hill and surrounded with flowering trees that made their home invisible from the road. At Christmas, they hosted Gatsbyesque soirees, opening their house to other area pastors and a few select families of their 5,000-member congregation.

Before Gideon came back to Ridgewood to teach, when Maranatha was around thirteen, her mother and stepfather were invited to one of the Agees’ parties. Anne had been invited to preach at a women’s ministry banquet at their church earlier that year. Children weren’t allowed at the party, so Maranatha was forced to stay home with a sitter, dreaming up tables filled with crab puffs and caviar; a twelve-foot tree trimmed in glitter and gold leaf; a live jazz band playing carols as guests tippled sparkling cider; and Gideon home on holiday, regaling guests with stories of post-college life.

She’d never gotten to tell him that she’d thought of him long before he resurfaced, wondering what he might look like or if he had children or whether she’d ever see him again. Maybe he knew. Maybe he figured it, but didn’t quite care.

As it turned out, the house wasn’t quite as palatial as Maranatha had imagined it all these years. It was stone and brick with beautiful bay windows and a sprawling, impeccably manicured lawn, but it wasn’t exactly a compound with a family crest over the threshold and horse stables in the backyard.

That Maranatha was able to pry her hands from her steering wheel, after working up the nerve to park in the Agees’ graveled driveway, was a marvel, but she managed it. She couldn’t tell if anyone was home. There were no silhouettes of movement behind the sheer, silvery curtains on their front windows, and any cars that may’ve been there were probably parked in their double-garage. What would she do if one of his parents answered? Would their eyes still shoot laser-like contempt and disdain? Would they glare at her through the peephole and yell that she should leave before she inflicted any further damage on their family?

She’d always wanted to apologize to them. On occasion, she still strolled down the greeting card aisle at the grocery store, looking for an appropriately remorseful message. But there was just no way Hallmark could help her adequately express the sentiments, I’m sorry I sued your son. I’m sorry for any insomnia my parents might’ve induced by demanding “justice” from the “crime” of an unassuming kiss. I’m sorry jail time was threatened. I hate that your equity in this house was jeopardized. I’m sorry I wasn’t more convincing, defending him, and that my stepfather remembered the Christmas Eve he spent here and saw dollar signs, recalling your plush white carpet, your baby grand piano, the stainless steel appliances in your kitchen, and your imported leather upholstery. I’m sorry if, afterward, you ever resented your son. I’m sorry I thought I could love him.

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Maranatha: Chapter 11.

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- Chapter 11 -

The Law Offices of Cooper, Willis, and Dunn were in an office park near a shallow manmade lake. Shady elms encircled the lake and ducks flitted back and forth between the brackish water and the long grass. When Maranatha pulled into the labyrinthine parking lot, she angled her car into a spot under one of the trees, even though the building she wanted was much farther back in the complex. She stared out at the water for a while and at a pair of agitated ducks, boxing one another with wildly flapping wings. Then she leaned forward, resting her chin on her steering wheel, and gazed up at the sky.

She couldn’t see the sun, obscured as it was by tufts of cloud, but its beams barreled down in angled rays; and she imagined God holding a scepter refracting the light. Maranatha had always thought of God as air, intangible and shapeless unless He compressed Himself into something small enough for her attempt to fathom—like a white giant in a robe with stone tablets, holding a scepter of sun.

Jesus, on the other hand, was always very human to her. She had no doubt that, if she shuttled back in time two millennia, he’d be there. He’d have rebel eyes and a wry grin and she’d be madly in love with him, so in love that when he died, she’d cut her own wrists and hope to die along with him. But then, as she awaited her end, the gashes she’d opened would seal and her life, so amazingly spared, would be listed among the last of the pre-resurrection miracles.

The Holy Spirit seemed something else entirely. It was what she felt when she made bad decisions, constantly, impartially observing. It was what the “something” whenever she heard the words, “Something told me to…” It was the complicated scriptures that still floated up to her, all these years after she’d memorized them. The Holy Spirit hovered and always felt really close by, too close sometimes, like a person whose slightly stale breath you felt clinging to your barely conscious face, as he checked your vitals.

Maranatha liked the way she imagined the Trinity. It helped her to conceive of each branch in a very personal way. She’d never told anyone of the grand tales she’d spun, dating back to early girlhood, of God as avenger and Jesus as rescuer and Holy Spirit as conscience and key. She feared accusations of blasphemy from people who were part of her old life—Anne and all the old church folks she might meet during the course of the trial. And she feared skepticism and ridicule from the people who were part of her life now—the academics at the colleges where she taught, the few acquaintances she still knew from college, her Tuesday Night Writers Circle.

It was a part of herself she’d learned to fiercely guard. Holy Pentecost Academy had been cruel. Sometimes, it was even vicious. But she’d stopped believing that anyone there represented the God she knew by the time she was ten years old. After that, their behavior stood on its own, apart from what she thought Christianity was or what she hoped it could be.

Holy Pentecost was just a nightmarish Evangelical factory where she’d been trapped until she turned eighteen. She’d been reminding herself of that her whole adult life. The Academy was just something to get over; it didn’t hold the truths of her faith and she shouldn’t allow it to shape her future.

Of course, that was nearly impossible to accept, no matter how many mantras and positive confessions and “forgetting those things which are behind” sermons she heard. This was why she needed to sue the school. She needed sit among people who knew, and talk about how deeply this place scarred its students’ souls.

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Gilded

Days before our annual New Year’s Eve Service, Pastor Robinson absently asked me to pen a poem and plan on reciting it some time after praise and worship and before his sermon. Because I had very little sense of self-preservation, I agreed.

I did not tell him that commissioned art requires ample notice.

I did not tell him that the rapid-fire performance pieces I recited didn’t spring from my head fully formed.

I did not tell him what I believed then—that I couldn’t write poems for church services without spending time praying and hand-wringing and lamenting, without asking God if the often scathing criticism I snuck in by rattling it off too quickly for listeners to immediately process was actually okay to repeat aloud.

I did not tell him that that settled, Yes, I do believe I’m free to write and recite this; No, I don’t need to further edit myself sensation—the one I was so sure then was the presence of God confirming the words He’d given me—simply could not be rushed.

I simply nodded and agreed, then spent the next four or so days panicking and envisioning myself in a room filled with hundreds of sequin-clad onlookers with absolutely nothing to say.

Somehow, I managed to get a poem written. I printed it out and spent the remaining day and a half before deadline desperately trying to commit the piece to memory. I was always terrified to stand in front of the church to share poems. Though all writing is nakedness, poetry is nakedness on a JumboTron; and I always found it comforting to have a page to hide behind. I’d approach the microphone, unable to hear any thought other than, Just get it over with. Just get it over with.

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