I was very proficient at doing the overheads at church. After Sunday school I would dutifully go upstairs while the other kids were eating sugar cubes from the coffee table, to the front row in the church auditorium. There I would make sure the plastic pages in the manila folder were oriented in the right direction for the optimum turning pace, and focus the machine and first song just so. During the singing time, the stanzas needed to be moved upward for the late people in the back row, carefully keeping the words centered for minimal adjustment. (Years of curling my bangs in the mirror helped train me for the opposite positioning that confused some lesser-experienced youth.) Sections of the songs may be covered to clearly direct the congregation what verse of the lyrics to sing, especially if we were skipping that pesky third one in a typical 1-2-4 formula of a contemporary evangelical hymn sesh. I embraced the job of overhead flipping and it afforded me the rare childhood experience of being replaced by a machine only a couple years later. Computers, man.
I grew up in this safe environment of teal carpet, overhead projectors, baby showers, casseroles and embossed Bibles. Before becoming a missionary kid overseas at 13, I was a church kid through and through. We kids didn’t play organized sports or go on family vacations; we had Bible study and lock-ins and campouts. My motor skills were not developed on the soccer field or gymnasium but in elaborate song motions and puppeteering and skate nights and overhead arrangements. There are things I’ve had to unlearn and ways I was not loved well in this time, but there are also innumerable gains this environment bestowed upon me. After settling into life in Kenya years later, I often felt grateful that I went through enough years in one place, near cousins and Christian concerts and winter caroling, to both miss it and to recognize the gift of living away. Though painful to leave one place, and then the next, forever misfit, I fully experienced two worlds knowingly before college. I still hold this appreciation.
To the sincere concern of many, I’ve been open about changing. In my quest to write mid-way, I’ve been transparent about some of the mess and process of staying in love with church and recovering from church, simultaneously. I’ve shared about how living overseas, and then living in central Los Angeles, and forming new relationships, have overturned some of the rules and codes into which I was once baptized. Freud wrote “How bold one gets when one is sure of being loved,” and I can see how the boldness can seem like betrayal to the lovers of the beloved.
While raising me to be so beloved, church also oversimplified the world, and the choices, and the boundaries of faith. Now many people my age, under the burning rays of an increasingly dystopian country, and within arm’s reach of an absurdly silent fundamental evangelical pool from which we are still wet, are grappling. We are meeting people who are also rooted in Christianity but believe in evolution, or that July 4th has no place in a worship service. We learn that abortion rates were reaching record lows when Democrats got their way with healthcare. We wonder if our faith has any relevance to our diet or where we choose to live. We are learning that some denominations have ordained women for decades, and some studied Christian pastors wear rainbow shirts…and it’s not about Noah. We were sent to college and learned about the intricacies of genre and midrash and the apocrypha. We have friends who are eager to talk about immigration and college debt and wage disparity and sexual assault but cannot discuss these things with our childhood mentors. We’ve found some wide places, with relief, but also felt the loneliness of our spiritual parents disapproval. We’ve lost some certainty and friends, but we are hoping not to lose church or faith entirely.
As Rachel Held Evans points out in her prologue of the tenderizing and moving Searching for Sunday, “We millennials have been advertised to our entire lives, so we can smell b.s. from a mile away…Millennials aren’t looking for a hipper Christianity…We’re looking for a truer Christianity, a more authentic Christianity… we’re looking for Jesus–the same Jesus who can be found in the strange places he’s always been found: in bread, in wine, in baptism, in the Word, in suffering, in community, and among the least of these.” At the risk of moving from quoting to plagiarism, I echo her vulnerability when she writes, “For me, talking about church in front of a bunch of Christians means approaching a microphone and attempting to explain the most important, complicated, beautiful, and heart-wrenching relationship of my life in thirty minutes or less without yelling or crying or saying any cuss words.”
I am striving to stay connected to those from my past, or members of the evangelical conservative body, because I respect them still and I know they sowed so much belovedness into my identity. I am also begging them (you?) to stay connected with us, to listen to the accounts of the millennials streaming out from the evangelical machine, and to break the silence in response to our hurt and questions and integrity. The risk of losing certainty and changing are real but perhaps the same divine belovedness that emboldens us may steady your footing enough to reach out a hand.
It takes immeasurable guts to tell the truth. To trust the reader with both nuance and specifics, to embrace where I am enough to say what got me here, knowing that in five years, I’m going to be a different writer and person. My friend Carly Gelsinger has demonstrated great courage in writing and publishing her book, Once You Go In. It’s releasing Tuesday and I’m so happy for her.
I invite millennials who have climbed out of the pool of fundamentalism to read it. I urge those who are remaining in the water, cleaning, enjoying, and refilling it, to be brave and read this testimony to improve the product and tactics, to read it as a case study for self-awareness. I ask pastors and grandparents and mentors to read it, and consider our own spiritual journeys and the way we wield influence and the Bible. I recommend it as a person who believes that the belovedness that Jesus offers is not restricted by certain days, titles, categories, or plot lines; love does not require averting our eyes from truth. Love does not require other people’s stories and language to match one’s own preferences.
I guess I’m still trying to straighten out the lyrics, and direct the congregation’s eyes from the pews myself. I’m identifying with the ones in the back row. I’m wondering if my angle is wrong and how to focus. I guess I’m still a church kid, beloved and emboldened, skipping the sugar cubes to look for the songs.