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From Ashes : When We Were On Fire Syncroblog

The morning after my 26th birthday, I am standing at the bathroom sink washing my face. I pat my cheeks dry with the towel and examine my reflection in the mirror, the corners of my eyes and the color of my hair. It’s weird to think that ten years ago, I was just sixteen. Who was I then? Am I so different now? What would she think of me? What do I think of her?

I leave the bathroom, but instead of going to my laptop to write I wander over to my closet, where I grab a dusty stack of Mead journals off the shelf. I climb back into bed with them, pulling the bottom from the stack, and open to the first pages.

On my sixteenth birthday my boyfriend made me a cake and wrote me a love poem and gave me a picture in a black frame, of us on a missions trip in South Dakota earlier that summer. In the photo I am sunburnt and smiling; his hand cups my chin possessively and he’s sporting eyeliner and my pink bandana.

We were on again/off again in a pattern that exactly mirrored his relationship status with Jesus. When he was on fire for God again, it rekindled our romance too, it seemed. I thought I could pull him back from the darkness. I thought I was safe as long as he went to church and said he believed like me.

But a week after my birthday, a week after he lit candles on my cake while we stood by his locker at school, our relationship was snuffed out once more and so was his relationship with God, and I was in the dark about all of it.

I’m sitting in my favorite spot on the couch, watching reruns after dinner and homework, when the phone rings.

“Hey, would you mind if I picked you up for a drive?” says a familiar voice. I’m surprised to hear it, and I hesitate. It’s late and cold and I don’t feel like leaving the house, and I also have a sinking feeling that I know what I’m in for. But my house is small and the walls are thin and we have things to say to each other that don’t need to be overheard, so I say yes and wait by the window for the swoop of his headlights to appear in our driveway.

I walk out to meet him and slide into the seat of his parents’ old Buick and he hugs me. I feel the cool leather of his letter jacket against my cheek and I shouldn’t feel this apprehensive but I do. Soon we are driving down back country roads, a mile or two from my house. The stars glimmer and the moon shines mutely over bare corn fields in the November night. The car glides along in silence.

I have been dreading this moment. It’s been weeks since we hung out, let alone since we took a drive to talk. Our late night drives were sacred, filled with big ideas about faith and church and school and friends and family and leadership and God. It felt like the deepest kind of friendship, we were brother and sister in Christ, we could tell each other anything. But he’s been freezing me out lately, probably in hopes that I’ll come to my senses and break up with my boyfriend, with whom I am still on again/off again. We are two children playing with a light switch, and I know it’s driving all of our friends crazy.

Now the moment has come when all the pent up frustration between my friend and I will come tumbling out in the name of “holding one another accountable.” We’re leaders in our youth group at church, this is what we do.

Finally, he sighs and pulls off to the shoulder and cuts the engine. The quiet is deafening. I brace myself.

“I’m worried about you, Bethany,” he begins. “I’m worried about our group and what all of this is doing to our leadership. You’re hurting our cause.”

As iron sharpens iron, so one opinion sparks the reaction of another. We argue, our angry words exploding between us in the darkness. We are shouting and crying and finally I stop cold.

“Take me home,” I demand. He doesn’t move and for a moment I’m scared that he will actually refuse me. “Take me home or I’ll walk there myself.” Finally he turns the key to start the engine again.

Once we’re home I slam the car door and don’t really speak to him again for months. It is the last time we go for a late night drive. It is the first time that I look at him and see him for the teenage boy that he is, human and imperfect and struggling to understand love and relationships and God and faith, just like I am. It is the first time I really understand that neither of us know what these things mean. It is the first time I realize that it is okay that we don’t know what these things mean. I’m beginning to wonder if our belief that we did know was what sent things up in flames in the first place.

Several months later, I break up with my boyfriend over the phone on a hot, lonely summer day when everything we had left to say to each other is gone. But this time, it’s different. I don’t hole up in my room, listening to music and crying. I don’t call up my friends to tell them what happened and repent of this ridiculous relationship yet again.

Instead, I march out to the shed behind our garage and wrangle my old, rusty bicycle from its hanging rack and pedal myself down the driveway. The sun blazes against my bare shoulders but the wind feels nice and I glide down the back roads behind my house alone, and I feel something entirely new. I think it is delight. I think it is God’s love.

I remember all of it so vividly – the missions trips and retreats and romances, the concerts and core groups, the worship sets and weekend bonfires. We had so much zeal. We had so much passion and fire for our faith that at times we were consumed by it, we raged out of control, we hurt each other deeply. Our relationships burned brightly and then faded and when the smoke was gone we wandered in the darkness, wondering where exactly we went wrong.

We didn’t understand then that “Christian” relationships don’t necessarily mean healthy or safe relationships.

We didn’t understand that our attempts to save each other’s souls were destroying our friendships.

We didn’t understand grace.

I really want to forget that girl. I really want to take this whole stack of Mead journals and all the angst and anxiety inside them and toss it in the trash. But oh, a piece of my heart is in there. The girl I was is wrapped up inside of the woman I am. So I keep them as a way of remembering that from the ashes of every burnt out belief rises grace and love and a new way of understanding God.

This post is written in conjunction with the When We Were On Fire Syncroblog for Addie Zierman. I have been following Addie’s blog for a couple of years now and she’s one of my favorite writers. Her book, When We Were On Fire: A Memoir of Consuming Faith, Tangled Love, and Starting Over, just came out this week and I can’t wait to finally get it in the mail in the next couple of days. I haven’t even read it yet, but I can tell you with confidence : Go buy it NOW. You won’t regret it!

Explicit Realities, Explicit Language

Today my friend Grace Biskie and I are doing a co-blog about using strong language to tell authentic stories. A full explanation of why we’re co-blogging this is in the post itself, but I just want to tell you before you keep reading that Grace Biskie is one of my favorite storytellers. She tells it true and she tells it hard and she tells it good, and every time, it wakes me up to something I didn’t understand before. We found each other online about a year ago, but of course, the world is so much smaller than that – we realized not long after we connected online that her husband was raised in the same Baptist church as me, and that I had seen Dave and Grace speak at my church about a decade ago! It’s been an incredible blessing to get to know her through her writing. Click here to read her post of for this co-blog.

Okay so, a little backstory to get us started : Grace wrote a post a couple of weeks ago for A Deeper Story, “Come Hither Young Men for I Have Sex Demons.” Catchy title, eh? Her post chronicles her experience as an abused young girl growing up in Detroit, and how it influenced the ways that she expressed herself sexually. Grace also references this post by a now infamous Mrs. Hall which shames teenage girls for posting “sexy” selfies on social media.

I love this part of Grace’s post,

“Love us, Mrs. Halls. Love us at 8 yrs. old. Love us at 11. Love us at 26. Love us at 36. Give us second, third, fourth, fifth chances. Teach your boys to love us too. Light switch theology doesn’t work here. If I could have flipped the magic switch to un-confuse myself, I would have done it eons ago.”

Like the powerful writer that she is, Grace’s post invites me into her reality. She helps me, a white girl that grew up in a rural Michigan farmtown, better understand what it’s like to be a prematurely sexualized young black girl in Detroit. She invites well-meaning but conservative, naive Christian women like the Mrs. Halls (and Bethany Suckrows) of the world to step outside our privilege long enough to understand why young girls sexualize themselves. And in that context, we no longer have the right to shame young girls for their behavior. The only right response is to love and affirm their inherent worth.

So I share Grace’s post on Facebook, and not long after, I get a private message from a friend from my hometown in Michigan, questioning the language that Grace uses to tell her story of sexual abuse.

“That’s not how A Good Christian Girl talks,” my friend tells me, and I think she means it both in terms of Grace using the explicit language and in terms of my willingness to share it. This isn’t the first time that I’ve been confronted about the language in the posts I’ve shared on social media. In fact, it’s not even the first time someone has confronted me about sharing one of Grace’s posts. Go read her guest blog for Micah Murray and you’ll understand why.

In her piece for A Deeper Story, Grace uses explicit language to describe the extreme sexualization and abuse that she experienced. It is as painfully honest as you would expect a post on childhood sexual abuse to be.

She reconstructs the eleven year old girl she used to be,

“This is the one Mrs. Hall would have blocked. This is the little girl who knew how to give a damn good blow job. This is the little girl that says, ‘Come hither boys, because I know what I’m doing.’”

She repeats the things that men have said in their pursuit of her,

“They look with greed and edge and a face that reads, ‘I want to fuck you,’ with an anger that’s frightening and disconcerting.”

But my friends want to know why Grace isn’t using polite language of a “Good Christian Girl.”

They want to know why she’s not using euphemisms to talk about her sexual abuse.

I’ll be honest, I cringed when I read those posts and I cringed when I shared them. True to my white, Baptist background, I’m shocked that young girls just like Grace live this reality every day. I’m uncomfortable because her language has snapped me awake to my own privilege. There’s no question that the language in that post is terrible, but it serves a very important purpose of clarifying what our culture wants to obscure. This is what language is for. This is what a good writer does.

And this is exactly what Grace is calling out in her post:

“The first time a boy came out directly to ask for sex, I was 8. He was 14ish. I believe my face went red and my cheeks hot with embarrassment [...] Truth is, I’d already had a lot of sex by then. My Dad and I had not called it ‘sex,’ and given my age it was not consensual, though – at the time – I believed it was.” (Emphasis mine.)

Euphemisms have no place in telling stories of abuse. Talking about it openly and honestly is what helps many victims heal from the shame and secrecy that kept them captive to their abusers. Not talking about abuse in a realistic way only perpetuates further abuse. My friend Dani Kelley explains this perfectly in her comment on Grace’s post today,

“There simply weren’t Christian words to describe the horror & rage & confusion I felt over so many betrayals, big and small. Profanity gave me the force of language I needed to name the evil, shine light in the darkness that seemed like it was going to devour me whole.” (Emphasis mine.)

This is why I asked, after responding privately to my friend’s questioning, if Grace wanted to co-blog about this with me. I wanted to her to talk about why using explicit language matters to her story, and I want to talk about why readers, no matter their opinion of swearing, should respect stories’ like Grace’s and Dani’s, raw and true and redemptive and messy as they are.

We in evangelical culture were raised to believe that there was such a thing as a “Good Christian Girl” and that we achieved this characterization by avoiding certain topics and certain language for discussing those topics. Explicit language was a sin. Politeness was prized, as was our modest dress and demure countenance. We do this because we think this will protect us from sin. But often times, the things that we believe will protect us are the very things that harm others. We create a culture in which it’s not safe for girls like Grace who don’t fit our mold to tell her story without being criticized for how she tells it.

It’s not bad enough that she lived through hell? Now she has to be polite and make everyone comfortable with her story as she talks about it? We get to criticize how people cope with and heal from abuse? Are we really not smart or wise enough to take language in its context? Can we not really discern the difference between using explicit language to accurately describe stories of abuse and using explicit language to abuse? Is our ability to respect others’ stories really contingent on how they tell them?

The reality is that abuse isn’t polite. It’s not a euphemism. It’s as ugly and filthy and scary as life gets. Explicit language keeps us awake to these explicit realities. Polite language, then, is a tool of the privileged.

Sometimes our discomfort over language use is a signal that the book we’re reading or the movie we’re watching is garbage. But sometimes, our discomfort over language is a signal that our “Good Christian” lives are being wrecked for a radical story of redemption. We need to have better discernment for this, because stories of abuse and sexism (and all the other awful isms) should make us uncomfortable. If our knee-jerk reaction is to clean up someone’s language before they tell us their story, if our goal is to keep ourselves comfortable in the face of childhood sexual abuse, we’re not honoring God.

Our polite language is a means of obscuring our hard-heartedness and apathy towards justice, and God isn’t fooled by it.

The fact that we’re more concerned with someone’s language than their story of sexual abuse should be a signal to us that we have completely missed the point.

So love the storytellers. Love us at 8 years. old. Love us at 11. Love us at 26. Love us at 36. Give us second, third, fourth, fifth chances. Love us when we tell it messy. Love us when we tell it clean. Love us when we’re cynical. Love us when we’re filled with hope. Love us when we’re hurting and when we’re healing. Tell our stories with us, too. Polite language doesn’t work here. If we could have picked peaceful, safe stories, we would have done it eons ago.

Please be respectful in the comments. You can have all the opinions you want about explicit language, but any comments that veer into victim-blaming or personal attacks will be moderated. I’ve never had to do that before here, but I’m not afraid to start. This is an invitation to listen to each others’ stories. Thank you.

Guest Post | The Language of Grace

Today I’m over at Emily Miller’s blog sharing a guest post for the final installment in her hospitality series. Hospitality is a favorite subject of mine, because I love to offer my hearth and home to anyone and everyone. This story I share today reveals why.

Everyone is laughing at my cousin’s 18-month-old son, Mason, as he sings la-la-la-la-la-la along with his grandma, my aunt. She has taught him the chorus of this old country tune during afternoons when she sits him in her lap on the big old porch swing. His ears perk at the sound of her singing it as she explains their ritual to us, and his baby voice echoes it back in delight. We laugh, and he sings it again, louder this time, and then we’re all taking turns singing it to him and he cackles at all the attention, clapping his hands, watermelon juice dribbling down his chin.

Can you feel it?

Joy.

(Read on.)

Guest Post | Conversations with Ourselves.

Today I’m over at Preston’s blog, returning the favor for his post a few weeks ago. Subject? Conversations with Ourselves, in which I imagine : if I could go back, what would I tell myself…

“My heart feels heavy and a wave of exhaustion washes over me. I stare at the page, but the words won’t sink in. I yawn and lean back and close my eyes for a moment.

And then my closet door opens, and she is standing there.

I am surprised, jaw open. Harry mid-spell tumbles to the floor with a thud. It takes me a moment, cogs turning wildly at the unfamiliar familiar, but then I see it, like a stereogram, a cosmic optical illusion, a wrinkle in time, Hermione’s time-turner is real : she is me, but I am not yet her.

‘Can I join you?’ she asks.” (Keep Reading)

Guest Post | Preston Yancey

Today’s post is by Preston Yancey, and it is truly a privilege to host his words here in my space. I hope it fills you as deeply as it has for me. 

~

I believe in all that has never yet been spoken.

Rilke, in one of his vagabond turns of verse in the collection of prosody he commended as prayer to God.

It is a line of good faith for me, one I read and know immediately I consider believed, but to tell you the reason behind the trust of the rhyme would be to violate the belief itself. I read it, pray it, and it seems the most true of things I could say. Perhaps this is danger; perhaps this is faith. I think the line hard to discern at times.

When I signed the contract for my first book, a lay-friendly exploration of the Scripture as the foundation for our theological imagination, I did not sign with a degree of presumption. I was aware, to the point of petrification, that at twenty-two it was highly likely that no one much cared what I had to say about God and, moreover, at twenty-two I didn’t have very much worth saying. But I signed the contract as an act of faith in the yet to be spoken while two of my best friends watched and whispered promises that this was meet and right and even bounded duty.

But the contract I signed came with a generous portion of time affixed to it. The book was yet to be written and I had signed for the promise of words before there were words to offer. Again, belief in those things yet to be spoken. The yet was the turning word, the tuning word, the word that was vouchsafe and promise, perhaps even covenant, which I wound like rosary up to the vaulted heavens, up unto the throne of God.

There is a misconception, I have found, by some who stand on the other side of the text. Readers as exclusive beings, taking in for leisure and not for generative work tend to think that the theleological triumph is vested in the book contract itself. The signing. The obligation to be published. This is touted as the great victory. And I concede that it is, to a point. I ordered champagne and bought an icon, updated my blog page and admitted politely when declining an invitation that I needed to work on a chapter. (At first, I did this to the point of nausea, God and my friends forgive me, but I have since abandoned the practice.)

But you can only drink so much champagne and buy so many icons before you actually have to do something about that contract you signed which obligated them to publish you as much as it obligated you to actually write something. Then comes the panic. Then comes the staying up into the wee hours and the frantic calls to best friends in which you rather frankly and ungraciously complain that everything you write is horseshit and you have no idea why anyone, ever, would have considered you a wise investment.

And you worry about revealing that too openly, because you don’t want that call from your publisher or your agent asking, kindly—too kindly—Are you alright?

I’ve wound my way to this, you see: the question of qualification.

At a certain point, we have to believe that if He has put before us a thing that needs doing, it is He who makes us able to do the thing that needs doing. I could turn and churn the frantic fear of not being able to write well for days and weeks and end up with blank, lifeless pages. And I did, for a time. But there came a moment of quiet epiphany, in the rustle whisper revelation of the Scripture.

In his epistle to the Romans, St. Paul speaks the poetics of our faith: and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified.

It turns there, like Rilke’s yet, all on He.

There’s a lot of theological technicality in the wording, of what we call justified and glorified, but if the Scripture can speak to us on the very surface, is it not inviting us to accept this: that He who began a good work—see, we return again to its own words—is in fact seeing it to completion; that He, who called us according to His purpose, is fulfilling the calling in us; that He, not by our works of righteousness but by His sustaining, is bringing about exactly what He would will be done?

So we are left with this, the question of qualification.

It is God who qualifies. It is God who sees through. It is God who can take credit for any good word ever printed on a page. Should I ever say anything of worth about or concerning Him, it is by His scandalous grace. And it is only by that I am able to take up a pen or place fingers to a keyboard.

Such that I believe in all that has never yet been spoken, if I grasp however feebly to trust in Him.

~

Preston Yancey is earning his Master of Letters at the University of St. Andrews in Theology, Imagination, and the Arts from the St. Mary’s School of Divinity. His first book about a reverential approach to Scripture, ‘Tables in the Wilderness,’ is due out with Rhizome in Summer 2013. His second, ‘A Common Faith: A Memoir of God Found, Lost, and Found Again’ is being written now. Follow his writing at SeePrestonBlog.com and on twitter @prestonyancey.

Guest Post | Inspiration and Rough Drafts.

It’s been awhile since I guest posted, but today I’m happy to share a story over at Melissa Tydell’s blog, Inspiration and Rough Drafts. Melissa and I had the pleasure of meeting at Jess Constable’s Business in the City gathering in December, and we love to keep tabs on each other in the blogosphere and our professional writing endeavors. She is a freelance writer with her own business, Melrose Street Custom Content – you should check her out! Thank you Melissa for this opportunity!

“We climb slowly into the conversation we’re here to have, about creativity and literature and art and making it through my twenties. He, in his early 30s, tells me about the penniless dates he and his wife had when they first moved to Chicago a decade ago, when he started grad school at the School of the Art Institute and they had no kids and didn’t know how they were going to make it through their twenties.

He asks me about my freelance work. Oh, yeah…” (Continue Reading)

 

Guest Post | Writing Poetry with Andrea Beltran

This is part 2 in a guest series featuring Andrea Beltran. Yesterday she shared her poem, Finding Baby. Today she shares thoughts on the process of writing poetry. Thanks again, Andrea! 

While in college and really tapping into the world of writing poetry, a few of my professors repeatedly told me,

Read, write, then read some more. The writing will come to you.”

I didn’t listen. I would read a few pages of the books they gave me and classify it as read. I didn’t allow myself to be immersed in poetry the way I should have been, but there is a lesson in everything, and now I know better.

These days, I read, read, write a little, then read some more.

The more I read, the more I find myself sitting in front of a clean sheet of paper with pen in hand.

I don’t have those moments of not knowing what to write as often. I don’t feel myself forcing myself to write something down on the page. I always start and end the day with a poem.

I begin each morning with some light reading. Taking a cue from Jack Myers, my poetry professor in college, I write something every morning after my reading period. I don’t force a poem out onto a page. If a poem isn’t ready to be written, I write a few notes down about what I’ve read, moments that stood out to me from the day before, or thoughts about certain things or people in my life. Sometimes, it’s only a few lines. Other times, it’s a few pages. No matter the volume, I’m grateful for the words, as I can come back to them later and maybe weave them into a poem. Oh, and there is always a cup of coffee and music involved.

Revision is something I never did, but that’s because I didn’t fully understand poetry. It used to pain me to do massive revisions on a piece. Now, I’ve found that revision is key to writing. One needs to learn to look at their work objectively to make it better. A few close and honest writing friends help.

The writing process for me has become a habit. It’s ingrained in my eyes, my hands, my mind.

Read, write, revise, listen. Repeat.

Focus more on the reading and listening and the rest will find you.

Andrea lives in El Paso, Texas and moonlights as a poet. Her poems have recently appeared in flash quake, Rose & Thorn Journal, and Referential Magazine. She blogs about poetry and writing at andreakristen.blogspot.com.

Above photo taken from Andrea’s Instagram. Don’t forget to follow her on Twitter.

Guest Poem | Andrea Beltran

Today’s guest poem is Part 1 in a 2-part guest series featuring the lovely Andrea Beltran. Folks, she is the real deal – a wonderful wielder of words for both prose and poetry, and I love following her on Twitter for her positivity and kindness. I followed her tweet to this poem she wrote for Pyrta Journal last week, and was captivated by it, so I invited her to share.  Don’t miss tomorrow’s post, where she will share thoughts on the process of writing poetry.

Finding Baby
He’s not in a basket wrapped
in blue and white blankets
at our front door nor in the screen
we glare at during the first ultrasound
unable to translate letters and numbers,
notes the doctor makes without elaboration. He’s not
in the six vials of blood they take from my right arm or the eight
removed from yours. He’s not in
the second ultrasound or your biopsy
nor in the parenting magazines
we never ordered coming in the mail.
He’s not in the silence growing
in between bread loaves
and pot roasts in our poorly lit
home. He’s not here but I can hear him
calling from different rooms,
this unending game of hide-and-seek.

 

Andrea lives in El Paso, Texas and moonlights as a poet. Her poems have recently appeared in flash quake, Rose & Thorn Journal, and Referential Magazine. She blogs about poetry and writing at andreakristen.blogspot.com.

Guest Post | What’s My Middle Step?

You guys, I’m on a roll this week. Today I share a third guest post over on Tim Snyder’s blog, This Blank Page, where I ask the question, “What’s My Middle Step?“ He graciously asked me to share a bit of my story, about what it was like for me after college when I was struggling to find my professional footing as a writer. I needed to figure out my middle step, to go from just working a job to having a career path. And I’m sure that no matter what job you work, you’ve probably asked yourself that same question.

I’m happy to share this story, but I do so with caution. I want everyone who reads this to know that I still work the job I mention, and that while I wanted more for artistic flexibility as a writer than what this job can give me, I do love my job and I am thankful everyday not just to work as a full-time writer, but to do so for an organization that I believe in.Thanks, as always, for reading, and be sure to explore Tim’s site and give him a little comment love.

Guest Post | "When You Can’t Unbreak the Plate."

Today I’m guest posting over on Lore Furgeson’s blog Sayable. Have you gotten to know Lore yet?  She’s a great writer, designer, and all around wonderful and generous soul. She’s doing a brave thing and taking the entire month of May as a vacation away from the internet. Could you, could any of us, go a whole month without it?! I think the only way I could follow through with that is if I were stranded in the middle of nowhere.

Anyway, in her absence she has enlisted a group of her favorite bloggers to share their writing to keep her blog alive, and I am honored to be counted among them. So here’s my brief story on grace, “When You Can’t Unbreak the Plate.”

P.S. My guest post archives, if you’re interested.

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