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!