“Prodigal”

I do not believe I am prodigal. To proclaim me as such would mean assuming that I left the churches I attended or questioned my beliefs because I thought I knew better. You’d have to believe that I’m arrogant and need desperately to be humbled. You’d have to say that, even though I’ve asked Christ to redeem me, one or more of my actions thereafter have voided that redemption.

Though I adore Jesus’ parable, I cannot say that I relate to the son who demanded an early inheritance and swaggered boastfully off to destroy himself. I am not penniless in a pig’s trough and neither are any of my wandering, currently churchless friends. I’m confused and broken and spent, to be sure, and on occasion, I long for the days of old when the tufts of wool adorning my eyes still felt warm and comforting.

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Phantom Limbs

On occasion, I hear hymns. I hear Hosanna Integrity and Dayspring songs on AM radio. I see an infomercial about purchasing the latest Christian Contemporary compilation CD and watch as seas of tear-streaked faces gaze at ceilings with their arms upstretched and their fingers splayed, while 30-second snippets of Third Day and MercyMe songs play.

Other times, I find myself in a room full of people, and I happen to hear one guest greet the other.

“God is good!” the woman in the knee-length skirt calls.

“All the time,” the lady standing next to her answers.

“And all the time?” a man nearby chimes in.

“God is good!” they happily exclaim in unison.

Recently, I asked a fellow adjunct professor if she was considering the pursuit of a PhD, and she answered, “Only if that’s what God wants for me. I’d have to be intentional about it and make sure it’s His will. Otherwise, I’m not sure how far I’d get, trying to do it on my own.”

These are commonplace occurrences, though every time I hear a hymn or see a commercial full of earnest, tearful worshippers serenading Jesus with the lyrics of Jars of Clay or I try to make small talk with someone who only speaks Christianese, I feel like I’m having an out-of-body experience.

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Them

They’re wondering what happened to us, the youth leaders we left behind, the deacons and prophets who watched us sing solos with the children’s choir or mumble through recitations in Easter pageants. They do not feel that they’ve failed us. They think that we have failed them.

But we remember the day T.J. dropped dope in the men’s bathroom when he was fourteen and fatherless. We remember Eugene and Damont being gunned down before their twentieth birthdays. We remember the Park Heights cats with stony eyes and priors who rushed the stairs leading up to Youth Church, looking to jump Raheem. We remember the succession of girls whose bellies began to swell and recall how naively they loved, despite prophetic words and without prophylactics (because advocating teen birth control meant advocating sin). We still hear your voices hardening as you discussed them, as though all their adolescent missteps reduced them to footnotes in a series of cautionary tales.

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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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