Lighting my own flame

I pre-ordered my friend's book, even though I didn't want to read it. I pre-ordered it right in the middle of losing my own faith, her book about losing her faith...and finding it again. Faith has long since ceased to be a cultural acoutrement of habit, tradition, stand up-sit down formalities. It survived thousands of years that way, by being necessary to people. Necessary because they couldn't read for themselves perhaps, necessary because whole nations grasped desperately at religion as a form of collective salvation from unknowns both here and in eternity. In the performance-driven, every man a minister evangelical movement, we are no longer silent participants in a army of anonymous believers who join us for that hour and stare forward. Then you could hear the rumble of hundreds of hands dropping hundreds of kneelers, the scratch of a thousand shoes tucking under pews, the awe of the silence when every head bowed in confession.

Norms shift and traditions change. We have always lived in a society where questions were welcomed. You get to choose, the Pilgrims said. We have never been Catholic or Protestant solely based on geography here in the new land. Everyone seemed to politely ignore that we are still born into faith, held there by the glue of family and social pressure. Many of us silently protested, our shoes slow to scrape under the pew. Our heads the last to bow.

Evangelicals pull you out of your seat and demand your participation. I suppose that's how I, perpetual doubting Thomas, got brought into the fold finally in my 20s. I had held church and especially church people at a distance since I was raped by one at 7 years old. My acceptance came grudgingly, and really I only laced my fingers into the church's embrace because I wanted to support my beloved little brother.

I lobbed fireballs of religion along with the rest of the church crowd. I did so out of fear. I didn't want to be alone. I didn't want life on earth to be the end. I didn't want to be barred from some place of joy just because I was stubborn and unconvinced.

Does it count to believe if you hold part of your heart back, as afraid of faith as you were of not having it?

Yes, I was on fire once. I turned off parts of my mind and my heart and I jumped right into the flames on purpose. It was my last-ditch attempt to belong. I got 10 years. A decade of wearing the right clothes, keeping a daily prayer list, reading through the Bible according to this plan and that. Wearing the pages out in my search for answers. I walked the walk, I talked the talk. I didn't know what to say to the pain in the eyes of my friends, so I leaned hard on phrases like, "Let go and let God," "Be still and know," "We'll have all the answers in heaven." My girls wore dresses. I wore my hair longer. I tried to smile more. We spanked. We "trained them up in the way they should go" with no regard for who they were, the children gifted into our marriage. I wasn't a steward. I was a matriarch standing proud on the promises. Part of being on fire is knowing the right answers, being so sure of yourself (because it's God telling you how to be) that no one outside the church can question any of it.

Through cancer, grad school, my daughter's brushes with death, losing a son in the midst of the worst of it - the flame of faith stayed lit. It was my only hope in those days. I was clinging with desperation. I consumed whole books of the Bible on sleepless nights praying to get the WHOLE answer, not just little crumbs of it from this passage or that. Some of the tissue-thin pages ripped where tears landed over and over again.

I remember the subtle soul shift that happened the night I was diagnosed with cancer at 28. I was in excruciating pain that God apparently didn't care to relieve. I had begged - everyone I knew was praying, in fact - that it wouldn't be cancer. This couldn't happen to me. But it did...and after I wrestled myself down back into the dark bottle sealed up at my center, I opened my hands and said I accepted it.

I thought trials would be the stepping stones on the way to the top of the mountain. I was numb to the erosion that was happening every time bad news rained down on us. Like a movie-set town in the 1950's, the sets were slowly collapsing in the bad weather. I pushed on them delicately at first, picking parts of my life I hoped I could change on the down-low, without the church noticing.

I quit wearing dresses. I started letting my kids decide what to wear. I started grad school and talked about becoming a nursing professor. For a while I stood still in the stream. Then, I took one brave step against the current.

As I've walked back up the stream, back to where I started when I was just me, the fire slowly went out. There are many reasons. Some of which could be temporary. I'm not a promise-maker at 34. I know how little I know. I am okay with only having answers for today and letting tomorrow arrive, come what may.

There is a little flame flickering again. It's different. It's not blowing over me like wildfire in California and I dry tinder in it's path. That's religion. To say I've lost faith because I ran away from the wildfire is to say I've lost an element of the human experience entirely. I still have faith. I just believe in something other than the church.

I believe every person is beautiful just the way they are.

I believe violence is the product of our blindness to someone else's value and beauty.

I don't believe in predicting the future.

I believe my value and my importance are inherent in my humanity and displayed when I love others. I believe the same thing about every one.

I believe in equality. Freedom to be just who we are.

I can't make myself believe in an entire cosmos unseen, a benevolent creator who is all-powerful, ever-present, interested in each of us to such an extent that we receive daily punishment or grace from this god.

The fire that lights me now is tended by my own two hands. It is my own fire. I built it. Nothing is consuming me from the outside. No more wildfires. Because I am on fire for something new, humane. And fire can't pass over the same ground twice.

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