I grew as a child in a church community of dancers and tambourine shakers, clappers and exultations of ‘hallelujah’. This church and faith was exuberance, energy, laughter, clapping, enthusiastic story telling and testimony.There were characters who hugged and applauded and wept openly – celebrating and rejoicing were significant as both rituals and emotions.
As a teen, I was drawn to sexy church with art work, performances, DJ’s, catchy addresses that drew upon relevant pop culture and humour. Stories of persecution, youth leadership, power and profound sacrifice required a response, a demonstration of commitment, something to highlight your passion.
There were religious and ecstatic experiences: moaning, screaming, laughing, fainting, shaking. There was a glint in people’s eyes hearing about or hoping for a ‘zapped’ experience.
There were words; words for healing, words of knowledge, words of prophecy. Words that told your story, that brought tears to your eyes or a lump to your throat.
There was music. Music and words that made you fall down, to your knees, prostrate yourself, throw your hands up, throw your head back, that made you sing clearly, or made your voice catch and your mouth and chin wobble.
I find it hard to write about my ‘on fire’ days because I’m caught between shaking them off, cringing and ridiculing as well as respecting and drawing from them. Between walking away and sticking around.
Charismatic religious experiences taught me to define faith and trust in passion and ‘on fire’ terms, there was a heavy focus on emotion, on ecstasy and experience – what I was told and taught created a heavy sense of dualism despite the expectation of a bodily response.
As an adult I left the cosy community, set of experiences, music choices and the language I was fluent in to join a faith community that spoke an entirely other language. It was a community that described itself so differently and was offended and scared of my arrogant definitions and expectations of certainty and passion. I craved this previoulsy defined passion and initially blamed its absence (and what I thought it looked like) on a suffocating, borgeouis suburban culture. Instead I discovered deep and profound openeness, discipline, trust and commitment regardless of what you were feeling that day.
I discovered fire in the knuckles of the soon to be retired minister as he gripped the lectern, preaching another sermon in a forty plus year career his voice wavering as he talked about impact. I discovered passion in the tears that ran down the face of another minister as he talked about Peter and Jesus and love on the beach, a sermon preached multiple times, that always made him cry. The story of the ordination of the ten female episcopalians before the church would recognise them as priests, the rumble of revolution in the Brazilian indecent theological writings, the persistent showing up for kids with no homes, the place settings for teen boys to meet and eat at a table every week.
Over time the dualism has eroded and the zeal has dulled, I carry wounds, cynicism, sorrow and still some deep anger about the ‘on fire’ days – the pressure to live as if you were about to die, to know truth, to know people and to speak out certainty, to be concrete when love really doesn’t feel like that.
Love feels like you just don’t know. Love feels like some decisions, in your water, your blood and your sinews. Love feels like ritual, routine and the mundane day to day, sweat, skin and dribble of oneself and those you touch. Love feels deep, broad and better. Better to live with than without. It feels like ugly face crying, insecurities and vulnerability. It feels like journey and trust without answers. It feels tentative and sturdy.
These days I try to experience and share the experience of hope instead of truth, faith instead of belief. We’re all just hanging things onto hooks, interpreting ideas and feelings, relating and creating with each other all the time.
I was raised on a theology that dismissed feelings and the body whilst asking you to respond in relationship, with your body to a love that underpinned all of life and was upheld in the image and icon of a bloodied and resurrected body. This theology introduced me to zeal and passion that was weak in its certainty, blind in its vision and wavering in its zeal. Because life went past my seventeenth birthday, people broke my heart and caused me to watch the sky change colour through sleepless nights, faith needed to be hopeful in different languages and traditions, God needed to be more than Western.
I was introduced to God via fireworks but now I think I’ve discovered God among coals and embers, these have been burning for a long time and are just enough to keep warm.
This was a really hard piece to write. It’s a story that is so layered and complex and involves so many players. It’s a chapter if not a book I’d like to write one day. Beautiful people and communities have had me belong and loved me along this journey so far, I think well of you all.
The reading I’ve been thinking about as I wrote this:
Life After God – Douglas Coupland
The Varieties of Religious Experience – William James
Queer Theology: Lisa Isherwood/Elisabeth Stuart
Touching Our Strength – The Erotic as the Love of God – Carter Heyward
A History of God/The Spiral Staircase – Karen Armstrong
Acedia & Me – Kathleen Norris