When I was around five years old my mom and I went to Disney World with her best friend, whose son was a year younger than I was. Presumably it was before the age of height and age requirements on amusement park rides, because I have a single memory of that trip, and it is of my mother’s arm wrapped around my head like a vice, covering my eyes while she screamed for the entire 3 minute duration of Space Mountain. I cannot tell you where we slept on that trip, how we got there, if we visited relatives or other friends, what we ate, if we rode other rides (surely so?), but I can tell you with precision and clarity how it looked and felt and sounded to plummet into total darkness at a high speed with my mom’s sweaty forearm pressing into my eye sockets. My most vivid recall involves trying to pull her arm down and away from my eyes, which desperately wanted to remain open. The few times I did manage to free myself, I saw one of two things: light so unbearably bright and inconsistent that it was painful and near impossible to focus on it, and palpable darkness that left me feeling dizzy and claustrophobic.
Pure darkness is unsurprisingly consuming. It is predictable. You know when you are plunged into total darkness that your vision and mobility will be compromised. It might suck, but we tend to understand what to do when we find ourselves in dark times: we plant ourselves and wait. But what happens when we are bombarded by too much light, or light that is manufactured and inconsistent? What happens when the “light bearers” are so intent on telling you what light you need and when and how to receive it and what to do with it that you find it easier to just stay in the dark?
I left church as I knew it when I was 22. I watched with horror as the light I’d always felt protected by turned into hellfire before my eyes. I saw people I loved turn against each other. I heard trusted spiritual leaders condone a level of abuse and carelessness that nearly destroyed my family and left me wanting nothing to do with a “relationship with Jesus.” I acknowledged the darkness, and saw that it was as impenetrable inside the church as it was out in the world. I chose the world, because at least I knew what I was getting. Ten years went by. When I was in my mid-thirties I found myself desperately trying to cut myself free from the chains of, for lack of a better term, a “relationship” with a person who sought to shrink me down to nothing. Darkness. I was a single parent by choice with a daughter who deserved a mother who dwelled in the light.
It was Christmas time, Advent season, and I was listening to Over the Rhine’s Snow Angels nonstop, with some Live From Nowhere Volume 2 thrown in for variety. It was on that live album that I first heard “Jesus in New Orleans” and “Failed Christian,” and for the first time in a long time I started to feel a spiritual tug at my sleeve.
I’m a Failed Christian
I’ve got my own church
I pray with my soul
To this great universe
All over the world
The bloods on their hands
I can’t understand
I’m going to meet my maker
A firm believer
Of spirit in music
There’s a prayer in a song*
I started visiting churches and was overwhelmed by the experience, by the subtle sideways judgement and the strident insistence about what I needed to do to get “back into God’s favor.” These good church people meant well, but their light was painful, blinding, hard to take. It didn’t feel like the light of Jesus I was seeking. I read something on Twitter the other day about how God will desert you if you–you know, I don’t even know what the reason for desertion was, because I stopped reading. I don’t believe in a God that deserts His children on the basis of bad behavior. He’s a God of many, many chances (see: Jonah, and also: David). He is a God who knows how much time He can let us be fully in the dark before He starts tugging at our spiritual sleeves. When Jesus was born the darkness had lasted around 400 years. No one alive had ever seen any sort of God light. For me it was a little over a decade, and while the darkness was pretty dark, I had a working knowledge of light. I had glimpsed it in people (yes, church people, and even some non-church people) and I had heard tell of it in music and literature–Anne Lamott and Barbara Kingsolver. Johnny and June. Dolly and Emmylou and Mary Chapin Carpenter. Dar Williams and the Indigo Girls. God made sure I knew what the light looked like, and then He let me wander (Seriously, Christian friends? Don’t you think God is prepared for us to stray at some point? Is it necessary to be so uptight about it?). And then when it was time, He gently pulled me back into the light.
I can’t tell you exactly how it happened, but I know that finding the right church wasn’t the only factor in the metaphorical removal of the arm across my eyes. God knew what He was doing when he placed those other gentle reminders into my life. He knew I’d be watching, listening for signs, and so He gave them to me. He reminded me that Jesus is everywhere–that the light can be found anywhere, not just in a church pew. He played me some good music and left a good book on my nightstand, and then He gave me the light a few rays at a time, until before I knew it, I was surrounded by it, bathed in it, practically glowing with the wonder of it.
I read the Bible almost daily, and God and I talk often. I feel like He probably tires of my calls, actually, but He continues to meet me where I am. He also continues to talk to me through words in books and lines of music, not just because He gets me, but also because He is God, and if He wants to inspire His people with Over the Rhine lyrics, well, who are we to question His methods? I’ve seen a lot of poking and bickering and judging lately from Good Christian People who are annoyed because some of us are not “Jesusing” correctly, not getting our illumination from the right places, not looking up to the right people. Listen, my journey into the light is between God and me, and I can assure you, there isn’t just the one way. God will use whatever methods necessary to get us into His presence, and once He gets us there, don’t you worry, He knows exactly what to do with us.
The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned. Isaiah 9:2
Another Christmas is drifting in softly
Like the ghost of my innocence lost
And the tree in the corner burns brightly
I turned all the other lights off
I think back on my life in this stillness
I consider the days of my youth
And the moments I find myself willing
To surrender and just tell the truth
“Cause I’ve committed every sin
And each one leaves a different scar
It’s just the world I’m living in
And I could use a guiding star
Lyrics by Linford Detweiler, performed by Over the Rhine
Lyrics by Henry McCullough, performed by Over the Rhine