It’s been years since that night. Those nights. But I still remember them, still turn the memory over in my palm like a small river stone: the bonfire bristling with thick snaps of sparks, soft crackles, insistent heat. The stars glimmering quietly in their shadowy seats up above the glassy black lake, among the silhouettes of towering trees.
There I was on the hill, surrounded by believers, the air laced with cricket song and sweetish smoke, the cold sliding down my throat. In those moments everything felt alive and thrumming, sacred and old. It was easy, then, to look up at the dark summer sky and see God. To feel him moving among us. To love him. Oh, more than anything, to love him.
It was so easy. Easier still to rise when the preacher called, pick my way down the incline and take a stick from one of the servers, stare deep into that flickering fire as I prayed for God to forgive me for not giving him my all, to help me do that now. Easiest of all to throw that stick into the flames, a symbol of my decision to follow God for the rest of my forever. He was my God, and I was his. We were the fire. All else was just smoke.
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I was 10, 11, 12, 13, 14 then. In my life, I’ve thrown a lot of sticks into a lot of bonfires. Walked down a lot of church aisles, knelt on a lot of different spots on my bedroom floor. Growing up Evangelical, pledging my wholehearted servitude to an invisible being every few months was a given.
For little me, it quickly became a sacred and comforting ritual. Sit in a pew and listen to a sermon. “Convicted by the Spirit,” realize in horror and shame that I hadn’t been giving all that I was to God. Immediately come before him, “broken,” lavishing him with passionate apologies, praise, promises. Humbly ask that he “reveal to me his plan” and help me, despite my selfish, weak soul, to “live for him.” No matter the cost.
Vowing my eternal allegiance to the God of the Universe was easy. All I had to do was throw a stick into a fire. I watched it burn. Afterward, when I closed my eyes and sang, all of creation sang with me. What else was worth singing for?
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My knees to my chest, bare feet on the cold hardwood floor, I shifted a little. One of the legs of my bed was digging into my back. I don’t know how old I was – 14, 15, 16? However old, I was small. I felt small.
The words had been there in my head for I don’t know how long. Once, when I was younger, I was brushing my teeth when a centipede slithered out of one of the holes in the bathroom sink and I screamed. This feels like that. Like those words had been hiding, hideous and horrific, just behind the porcelain.
I knew what the words were even though I had never thought them. Now, it was time to think them. I put my hand flat against my bedpost to steady myself. The words spoke themselves. What if, they whispered. What if this relationship with God isn’t working. What if this relationship with God isn’t working because it was never going to work. What if He’s not there. What if heaven is empty. I sat so still. But no bolt of lightning came. No light erupted through the ceiling. No blindness struck. What if heaven is empty.
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I swing my legs gently, letting my heels bump up against the cobblestone ledge of Chapels’ Pond. The sky above me is a melt of blue, fletched with soft-edged clouds. I sigh and rub my eyes. I’m tired. I’m tired.
Behind me is the Christian chapel on my college campus. I just spent three hours sobbing uncontrollably in its sanctuary while my computer grinded out Tyler Glenn’s solo album, EXCOMMUNICATION. I burst out with bitter laughter when I got to “keep on living, keep on living, keep on living.” When I heard “I found myself when I lost my faith,” I lost it.
It’s been 2 years since I started college, leaving my family and church behind. But I haven’t forgotten the summer before I started college, the summer I realized – that God I threw sticks into bonfires for, he was a monster and a myth – and all the rage hate disgust confusion terror and desperation made a lump in my throat I couldn’t swallow. I also haven’t forgotten the summer before this year. Both summers, I stood in front of my bathroom sink with a cup full of chemicals on my lips.
I didn’t expect to last this long. There’s a little person in me who isn’t a fan of tomorrows. Now that God’s gone, for her, there’s no point in living. And even if there is, it won’t last long anyway. In the closet in my dorm room there’s a plaid red backpack. In my head is the length of time it’ll take to walk to the nearest homeless shelter from my parents’ house. After all, once my parents find out I’m a queer nonbeliever, it’ll be over. They’ll disown me. They’ve threatened over less. And once that happens, I’ll either die or finally down that Drano. I don’t want to survive. What purpose is there in living? God and I used to be the fire. Turns out I’m just the stick.
But as I sit at that pond, legs swinging, something begins to ripen inside me. Words swell up from a place I haven’t been in a long time. What if, they whisper. What if you’re right. What if there is no point in living. A bird swoops down to settle among the leaves. What if you don’t need a reason to live, except to just live. A little orange fish nips at a lily pad and the pond puckers with tiny quiet ripples. Would you ask a birch what it’s doing here? Would you ask the rain its purpose? Would you ask Jupiter why it spins?
What if you’re right. Life is meaningless. There’s no point in being here. There’s no plan for your life to be revealed, there’s no one to follow or serve, there’s no single sacred reason to keep breathing. The sky’s blue is deep as a voice now. You’re here because your mom had scientists cook you up in a Petri dish. There are no rules. No expectations. You’re here. You’re now. What are you gonna do with that?
And suddenly the backdrop of death I’ve been carrying around with me for so long falls away, and I see life, I see everything ahead of me. And it is vast and bright and beautiful.
Whatever you want. You don’t have to die. You can plan to survive what your parents will bring you. Save up. Fight for your voice back. Recover from God. Change your name. Get tattoos. Forgive yourself. Wake up early. Sleep late. Skip math class. Go hang gliding. Learn the back handspring. Study Polish. Move countries. Make friends. Lose them. Write blog posts no one might ever read. Kiss a girl. Get drunk. Camp out in a national park. Roast marshmallows over the stove. Let people see you. Let people love you. Let yourself love.
I don’t know how to leave God once and for all. I don’t know how to make him leave me. But I want to learn, I think. I think I can try to learn. No matter how long it takes. How hard it gets. I have lost my God; I have lost myself; I have lost the fire, and the stars, the hill and the lake and the cold. Look at how little I have left to lose. Look at how much I have now to gain. I still have the smell of smoke on my skin. But maybe, just maybe, with time and a whole lot of fresh air, I could make my own sparks.
[ Cover image by ninniane of Flickr ]