Faith, Nonfiction, Parenting, Prayer

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.

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Fiction, Maranatha (novel excerpts)

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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Fiction, Maranatha (novel excerpts)

Maranatha: Chapter 9.

to catch yourself up, get into the archives.

– Chapter 9 –

She was distracting. Did she realize how gracefully she walked, how squaring her shoulders once and for all would be all it took to make her formidable? Did she know how closely she resembled an editorial fashion spread with her angular movements, the abstract slope of her arm on her desk as she propped her chin in her hand, and the sharp juts of her jittery legs as she sat? Was he obvious when she strode by his desk in the morning and he quickly inhaled, like someone had just lit incense?

Of all the things Gideon had fantasized about, coming back here—storming the administrative offices and staging a coup or throwing copies of I Kissed Dating Goodbye out of his classroom windows or burning a bottle of Pompeian Extra Virgin in effigy or planning a field trip to a Unitarian church with a lesbian pastor—attraction to a student had never crossed his mind.

For one, church girls weren’t his type. He didn’t like their clothes, the ill-fitting skirt suits with boxy shoulders and overlong hemlines or the unfortunate floral patterns on all their dresses. Even when they wore something normal—a pair of jeans and heels, for instance, or a form-fitting frock—he hated the way they fancied themselves quietly revolutionary for it.

Their conversation also wearied him. They were so much more preoccupied with what other people were into, since they considered so many things sin themselves—so many things, besides gossip, of course. And worst of all was their preoccupation with marriage. When would they realize that, “I’m believing God for a husband” was second-date Kryptonite?

The dating venues were so limited. Restaurants. Bowling alleys. Museums. Movies were an option, but with anything rated R, a church girl might make a show of cringing at all profanity and looking away during any sex scenes or, worse yet, covering her eyes. Then later, when Gideon asked if she liked the film, he’d likely be forced into a lengthy conversation about the uselessness of onscreen nudity, or else she’d clam up and treat the whole outing like some kind of spiritual betrayal. She’d side-eye him, accusingly, like he was trying to coax her away from her salvation or, worse yet, her virginity.

Gideon couldn’t take the constant edge, the endless, dogging worry about shocking a date or knocking her off her evangelistic square.

He preferred women who’d grown up only attending church in passing or irreligious women who conceded belief in God but didn’t need to discuss Him on their dates. His favorite type of all was a woman who’d been devoutly raised with any religion—Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam—but had, for whatever reason simply stopped practicing.

They seemed best able to understand him.

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Fiction, Maranatha (novel excerpts)

Maranatha: Chapter 1.

in the past, when i’ve posted excerpts of longer works of fiction, i haven’t prefaced them with any type of summary. a friend of mine told me this was a problem for him and deterred him from reading. so, in an effort not to deter you, here is yet another excerpt and the summary is as follows:

this is the story of maranatha miller, a lifelong loner at a private, pentecostal school who, at the age of seven, has a chance encounter with a troubled graduating high school senior named gideon. years later, gideon returns to the school as a teacher, when maranatha is a senior herself. forbidden, mostly repressed romance ensues as the two forge undeniable bonds, in spite of themselves.

their story is set against the backdrop of a larger scandal, as parents and former students form a class action suit against the school for unethical policies and abusive practices, and maranatha and gideon–both victimized by these practices over the years, in different ways–are called upon to testify.

the story spans three decades and each chapter represents a different period in time. this first chapter is the chance encounter i was telling you about. enjoy!

– Chapter 1 –

Whenever the primary-schoolers made their way to the Main Building, they were dwarves in a city of giants. The second grade class at Holy Pentecost Academy clasped hands so tightly they dampened and it became trickier to keep their slippery grip on one another. The wanton giants tromped about, jostling them without ever looking down. The tots trembled, inching through the halls of the Big Kid School, where assemblies were held in a massive, musty auditorium.

They should’ve been beside themselves with glee and anticipation. It was Friday, October 30: Hallelujah Day. Every year, the whole school gathered for candy, costumes, and a fantastical filmstrip about druids, witches, and all the satanic trappings of Halloween.

It was one of the most exciting days on their academic calendar.

But first they had to get past their initial ten minutes in Main, all of which they spent in wriggling in taut-eyed, primal fear. Usually, a third of the kindergarten class wet itself in anticipation. Then, slowly, as they made their way toward their candy-paved utopia, everyone settled down and suddenly, sharing space with students three times their size wasn’t such a Herculean feat, after all.

Maranatha smiled at the littler kids. She remembered kindergarten fondly. When she was five, she blended in. The other children shared their pipe cleaners and tissue paper in Arts & Crafts; and no one spread the word that her PB&J was covered in cooties when she tried to lunch-swap.

But now that she was seven, everything sucked. By second grade, all the kids knew what it meant to have a mom and dad who’d never married. Just yesterday, Demetria Simmons leaned over and hissed, “You were conceived in sin,” during story hour. Maranatha’s cheeks had raged, her eyelids hot and wet, as she looked around at the nodding heads and giggling lips. Everyone had heard.

Lately, she’d been learning to keep her head down. She knew the number of stitches in her sneakers. She knew how many Formica tiles stood between her and the cafeteria. It was comforting to focus on her own her footsteps, so comforting that when she really thought about it, the big kids bumping her on their way to the auditorium had never really frightened her at all. Maranatha felt dwarfed, no matter where she was and the size of things couldn’t bother you if you never looked up and noticed them.

*  *  *

The boy was like other boys his age. There was nothing special about him. He was tall and thin and the color of brown M&Ms. His close-shaved hair had been trained by a barber to swirl counter-clockwise at the crown. As a senior, he was immune to the lures of candy and conscience-pricking. He’d stopped caring about Halloween when he was 11. Getting out of class for the assembly didn’t especially excite him, either. He cut class at least once a week, anyway.

That afternoon, he smelled like Gain and Newports. He and his boy, Gerald, were fresh off a smoke break out behind the softball diamond. Now, in the crowded hall, they were tossing a ball of foil back and forth, pretending to be Jordan and Bird. Since they were charming and popular, the other kids and even a couple teachers simply laughed it off when they stumbled into them.

No one ever told them to stop.

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