On fire, but also drowning

Friday, 18 October 2013

Part of the When We Were On Fire synchroblog hosted by Addie Zierman



Final year of school. I'd completed the Alpha Course, and a follow-up course too. I'd gone along to school Christian Union and felt intrigued by the unfamiliar style of "Yeah, Lord, we just wanna" prayers and people who said "Mmmmm" in agreement as those prayers were being said.

Soul Survivor. I didn't know that thousands of other young people were Christians. It was the most exciting thing that had ever happened to me. I was overjoyed when people made a decision to walk to the front at the end of meetings. My hands were perpetually raised during worship times. On the second night I prayed that I would understand God's presence and couldn't speak until I got back to my tent. Healing happened. I bought beads to string on a bracelet that spelled out S-A-V-E-D.


Fresher's Week. F Floor. We all decided we would make posters for our bedroom doors, displaying a few facts about ourselves. The first statement on my poster, written with a glitter gel pen, was that I was a Christian. Before I departed for university, I'd brought a book about effective evangelism.

I joined the Christian Union. I didn't know that it wasn't really an ecumenical organisation; this confused me for a while. I felt it was a really important thing to be involved in. I went to Friday night meetings every week, initially, taking notes about evangelism and the importance of shining a light, being pioneers, making a difference. I got up at 6am once a week to attend a course about sex and relationships held over breakfast and absorbed everything without questioning. I attended hall cell group and felt intrigued when one friend said that at her church, women couldn't wear trousers on a Sunday, and bemused when no-one knew what my Catholic friend was talking about when he mentioned the stations of the cross, and slightly shamed when it became clear that going on nights out, drinking, was seen as "unhelpful", and condemned by the uncomfortable look I got from someone when I said that my boyfriend was coming to stay for the weekend.

I wanted to get stuck in at a local church, but I was shy. A couple of medical students who were married (married students!) and lived near campus gave me a lift sometimes. They invited me to things. I didn't go. I took notes on a Sunday and prayed that I would receive spiritual gifts.



Mission Week. The week we were going to show our fellow students what we were all about and really make an impact. We had hoodies and t-shirts emblazoned with a Bible verse. We had little paperback copies of one of the gospels - I took a stack, enough for everyone on my corridor plus a few more (I found most of them in a box on top of a cupboard recently). Our Christian Union rep announced the hall's Mission Week events in the dining hall one night and I was upset by the gang of "popular" students who sniggered as he spoke, saying "Praise the Lord!" in mocking voices.

I placed a stack of gospel booklets in the kitchen at the end of the corridor, just in case anyone wanted to take one. The next day, they had disappeared, in much the same way that food from the fridge used to disappear, stolen and thrown away.

One of the Christian Union's student workers was going to come to our hall that week. I asked if she could run a little session in the kitchen on my corridor one evening. She could share her testimony and answer any questions people had; I would invite everyone along. I felt worried about it; so my best friend decided to scope out the situation and mention it to the rest of the corridor.

They weren't impressed.

"If that's what she wants to do, then she's going to be the architect of her own social death," said one of them. That's what she actually said.

The student worker came for her visit that evening - there was me, my best friend, and two more Christian friends from our hall, chatting in the kitchen and hoping someone else might wander in. They didn't.

I would desperately try to reassure myself that I was a changed person, but years of being bullied at school coupled with anxiety and depression had left me enormously contemptuous of others, when things went wrong. I really tried. I wanted to set an example. I made an effort to be friendly. But I couldn't really keep it up for very long. I was still a teenager, with the mood swings and irritations and inability to see nuance that this involves. I prayed hard and cried in my room as I listened to worship songs.


Our hall CU rep let me borrow her copy of I Kissed Dating Goodbye. I thought it was over the top and silly and so American, but it made me worry that I'd done something wrong. I became more distanced from CU culture: I'd tried, but I didn't feel I fit in.

I decided I wanted to be baptised. My parents, who had me baptised as a baby, felt I was dismissing what they had done for me and the way I had been brought up. They wanted to know why I wanted to do it again. They were worried that the type of churches I was now attending were a bit strange, a bit extreme. Arguments followed. Angrily, I parroted little soundbites I'd picked up about some churches being "dead" and infant baptism being "wrong" and people just repeating liturgy week after week "without it meaning anything to them". They continued to feel unsure, but agreed to attend my baptism and support me.

There was an uncomfortable moment during the sermon on that day when our pastor explained that not all churches - and not all Christians - were doing things the "right" way, but we could be confident that we were.

I was consumed by depression and body image issues and anxiety about my relationship. I felt that being a Christian meant I shouldn't have these issues. What was I to do? I had long sobbing talks that were varying degrees of helpful with friends and women at church. There was a youth group weekend away, a night of teaching and prayer where all the girls cried and wrestled with their problems.


I took part in a week-long festival of social action and outreach. I enjoyed it, but still could't bring myself to go and talk to strangers and share my faith. I very much wanted this to be the week that I'd conquer my issues. It didn't happen.

If you just receive prayer for x, y will happen.

If you just focus more on this, that will be solved.

Almost a decade later I come across an article about this festival and see the comments below the line of several attendees who no longer attend church due to disillusion and disappointments.


Momentum. Me, my fiancé, and three other couples. I could hardly bear to be around the other delegates. They all looked so happy and radiant and attractive. I wanted to hide in my tent, and I think I did on at least one occasion, beating myself up for not being more like them. I was a failure who looked disgusting and had dropped out of university and hadn't managed to hold down a job yet and wasn't like other women at church.

I had enormous anxiety about what I was supposed to do for the church. I felt that after several years, I still didn't understand what my gifts were and how I was supposed to contribute to church life. I had a sneaking feeling that I was supposed to deal with all my issues first.

I had prayer ministry, and a lot of things changed, but not all of them.

Into the present

Up and down. Enthusiasm and belonging and excitement vs looking for more and questioning and feeling alone. Biblical womanhood, or not. Disillusionment with the formulaic nights of teaching and retreats and events meant to fire young people up that talked about "pioneers" and "doing big things" and being "history makers" and that were the same time after time after time. Reassurance that other people of my generation were thinking about that too. A word for me about being a "woman of influence". A word for me and Luke about being a "pioneering couple". The disconnection from church that so often comes with motherhood. New networks of friends and encouragement and opportunities. New realisations and new frustrations.

The other posts from this sychroblog have thrown up a major theme: the impact of a certain style of teaching and Christian culture on young people, of easy how-tos and a way to belong when you feel like you don't fit in. A way you feel you can effect change at a time in your life when you're really quite powerless. A culture that sometimes focuses on hyped up experiences and instant results over slow growth and change, and can't always address big problems. The damage that can be done when young people are not mature enough nor supported well enough to deal with things. Youthful follies and empty platitudes and stock phrases.

A sense of moving on and growing up.

I particularly liked this excellent post:

"The problem with fire is that it gives the appearance of being a living thing–it breathes, it grows.  But it isn’t alive, and ultimately, it consumes everything before it burns itself out.  That’s not the kind of faith I want, and it’s not the kind of faith I want my children to have.

Better is a seed.  There’s a reason Jesus doesn’t use fire as a metaphor for faith.  He uses seeds–more than once.  Instead of a pseudo-life, a seed is the infant of a living, growing thing.  Unlike fire, which requires nothing but consumables in order to burn, a seed needs to be nurtured.  Active, not passive.  Something we must do carefully and gently over time.  Not a mad rush to throw more on the fire to keep in burning but a long, slow process of food and water.

I’m still nurturing that seed.  I’m not even sure what kind of tree it is yet.  All I know is that it isn’t burning–it’s growing."


Laura said...

I love this Hannah. I share so many of your experiences, and that feeling of sometimes enthusiastic sometimes looking for more. And then sometimes despairing of my experiences in Christian culture and sometimes a bit grateful for them.

Vivienne said...

Thank you for writing this - I suspect it wasn't easy (there are whole notebooks in this house where I've tried to sort out Me and my university CU, and failed. A memoir hurt too much, a novel was too incredible). What a tangle of memories and fears it brings back.

Good isn't really the right word, but there are days when it is good to feel a little less alone, to know that there are others who will believe what happened, because they've seen it too. You've made today one of those days.

Addie Zierman said...

Yes Hannah. That back-and-forth...never sure you're doing it right...always feeling a little bit like you're failing because you can't understand. Yes. That's my journey too. Thanks so much for sharing here.

Anonymous said...

As I said on Twitter, Hannah, you've summed up nicely my increasing but until recently quite unconscious unease with the whole CU/evangelical youth scene, etc., and it has helped me, in that it has reassured me I'm not alone in this. I did much of the same sort of things, from the sounds of it, and I struggle to know what to think about it all now, except feel a bit sad and angry, at myself as well as others.

I think this bit’s very succinct too, about there being a theme in many people’s stories of “the impact of a certain style of teaching and Christian culture on young people, of easy how-tos and a way to belong when you feel like you don't fit in.” There’s almost certainly a strong sense in which young people struggling to find a place and struggling with life and its challenges are drawn to this panacea-style faith. It makes sense, and it makes sense too that perhaps the people fuelling this get excited by the young people’s enthusiasm and in return provide TOO MUCH encouragement to young people.

I also find myself wondering about faith and the nature of youth and wondering (and worrying, too, if I’m honest) about what we/churches/the Church are doing about helping the youth of the present, future (and recent past?) who encounter stuff like this NOT to be burnt or burnt out. "The damage that can be done when young people are not mature enough nor supported well enough to deal with things. Youthful follies and empty platitudes and stock phrases." – Yes. I now tend to think that it's a regular, normal thing for teenagers to tend towards quite extreme or black-and-white attitudes at first, zeal and youthful enthusiasm being heightened by hormones and pressures they are trying to learn to deal with. I'm sure it was the case with me. Growing up inevitably involves making mistakes and these will hurt, I suppose, and I'm not blaming anyone entirely, but I wonder why more older, supposedly wiser people in church or with influence in university churches and CUs etc., did not caution us to be a little more … balanced, I suppose. What can we do to help avoid the extreme highs that a generation of zealots (or simply confused, well-meaning believers) crashing down to extreme lows? Maybe they won’t listen, but it’s got to be worth a try. I am coming to think, more and more, about the importance of a counterinfluence of stable, loving, supportive, ‘moderate’ Christians who help teach these awkward, angry, hurting, confused teenagers (and twentysomethings – I’ve been growing a lot in these post-uni years!) how to live a ‘normal’ life well. Common sense is often underrated in church, I think, but I wonder whether it could be another word for wisdom and discernment.

I hope that makes sense outside of my head. There's so much to unpack. I think I need to go and write a blogpost of my own that’s been a long time coming!

Peace out.


Liz said...


When I saw that you participated in Addie’s synchroblog I thought I should invite you to participate in a monthly synchroblog that I am a part of.

It’s made up of a home-grown group of bloggers who like to write on topics of post-modern faith & life. This group is open to anyone who is interested in participating. We value respectful conversation and dialogue while honoring our differences. We share links & try to learn from each other.

Some of the people that originally participated in the synchroblog no longer blog and I am trying to reach out to people like you who are currently passionate about blogging in order to keep our monthly synchroblog relevant and vital.

If you are interested in joining us you can join the facebook group and receive monthly invitations to the synchroblog. Here is that link: https://www.facebook.com/groups/114506961937378/

And you can find our website (which you can subscribe to if you want to receive an email when we post the monthly theme announcement/invitation) here: http://synchroblog.wordpress.com/

(You can see all of the themes that we have covered in the past on our website in order to get an idea of what we do)


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