My best friend Christa and I sit together in the darkness of Chapel, our 6th-grade-awkward bodies shifting in the pleated houndstooth skirts no manufacturer ever guessed would grace hips like ours. We had fast-forwarded past the cool, mean girls whose thighs and arms were straight and long, and seemed to make more sense with blue eyeliner and freshly-crimped hair. I don’t know if this is what made us friends, but it was maybe the beginning of it. We pass notes, giggling as we play matchmaker listing names of classmates in the “weddings” page in the front of my plum leather NIV Bible, like a free-church version of the game MASH, stifling squeals when our crushes appeared on one of the lines.
We are not model students. The headmaster of our school ascends the stairs to the stage and takes the microphone. Without thinking, Christa and I harmonize with him for the first few phrases of his prayer language–hoku madaya madaya–and fall over in embarrassment and laughter when we realize what we have involuntarily done. It’s common knowledge that Mr. Whitmire says the same few phrases into the microphone all the time, but we have called attention to it. It doesn’t seem like the teacher noticed, and crumpled over, heads-to-knees, we could have been praying anyway.
What I really remember about this little private Charismatic school is that prayer languages go a little bit like Spanglish, with native and foreign tongue woven together phrase by phrase, tongue of flame flickering word by word.
“This is an A — B conversation, so you better C your way out of it,” Shekinah said to me over her shoulder before whipping her head back around. She was named for glory, but delivered the worst parts of middle school like badly-written irony.
I wonder often if I had been baptized with fire, or if I was just looking for my own A — B conversation. Regardless, that is what I found.
I was eleven, twelve, thirteen.
hoku madaya madaya….
We’ve been praying for hours.
Now a senior in high school, I have helped to organize this 12-hour pilgrimage by car, to visit the prophets, to go where the prayer never stops, where God pours out heaven’s music on whomever’s at the piano.
And I have met God out here, hundreds of miles away from home.
[I have. I want to make that clear. I heard the Father in the words of the prophets, I found the suffering Christ with my face pressed into the carpet of the prayer room, Holy Ghost taught me to pray the Psalms.]
But here now, in this room, we are prayingprayingprayingpraying and no one has told us what we are praying for, and this 8-year-old kid is supposed to be a match to set you on fire, if you are poor enough to have an unlit tongue. My classmates are wincing and fumbling with the sounds coming out of their mouths and I swear the same Spirit everyone is calling on sidles up to me on the edge of the room, where my lips are parted, but unvoiced, and whispers, you can’t stay here.
Which I know is right, finally. I have been standing on the edges of rooms like that for a while now.
It’s time to go. And it takes me some time to be able to explain all the reasons why.
I don’t feel fire again until communion wine rolls down my throat, three years later.
today, I offer you a small snapshot into (or through?) my own “on fire” days, in keeping with the release of Addie Zierman’s most excellent memoir, When We Were on Fire, which comes out this week. Addie beautifully and painfully and humorously weaves her story about what it meant for her to grow up evangelical. She describes the upswing and the downswing of her faith journey, as it takes your breath away.
This small bit of story above, I will emphatically point out, is quite different from Addie’s–cousin to it, instead. But When We Were on Fire is my story, too, and I keep wanting to hand it out as such. Basically, I cannot recommend this brilliant memoir enough.
Go read it. Your own story may emerge between the lines.