Found, lost, rediscovered: A tale of four memoirs

by Todd Foley

“Memoir” (n): A collection of memories that an individual writes about moments or events, both public or private that took place in the author’s life.

I am discussing three books here. I’ll explain the title later.

Also, this is not a review, as I don’t feel that it’s possible (or fair) to review someone’s experience. It’s their truth, whether or not it’s agreeable, and it’s a sacred privilege to hear another person’s truth.

These are three different stories written by some of my favourite writers, all of which tackle the “Faith discovered, faith lost, faith rediscovered” experience from different perspectives.

Memoir #1: When We Were On Fire by Addie Zierman

Back of the book:In the strange, us-versus-them Christian subculture of the 1990s, a person’s faith was measured by how many WWJD bracelets she wore and whether he had kissed dating goodbye. Evangelical poster child Addie Zierman wore three bracelets asking what Jesus would do. She also led two Bible studies and listened exclusively to Christian music. She was on fire for God and unaware that the flame was dwindling—until it burned out. Addie chronicles her journey through church culture and first love, and her entrance—unprepared and angry—into marriage. When she drops out of church and very nearly her marriage as well, it is on a sea of tequila and depression. She isn’t sure if she’ll ever go back. When We Were on Fire is a funny, heartbreaking story of untangling oneself from what is expected to arrive at faith that is not bound by tradition or current church fashion. Addie looks for what lasts when nothing else seems worth keeping. It’s a story for doubters, cynics, and anyone who has felt alone in church.”

I laughed and cried with this book because I so often could say, “Me too, Addie. Me too.” I grew up in that same Evangelical world of on-fire certainty and undying passion. I did and said everything right. I was “in the world, not of the world.” I am thankful for that chapter of my life as it was foundational and true. Like Addie Zierman, I also experienced the confusing deconstruction of that certainty via academics, questions, doubts and mere existence, and I was terrified to see that fire dwindle away. But here’s the thing I have discovered about faith: it isn’t static like that faith subculture had made it seem. *Horrible metaphor warning* Even with the lessening of that raging fire, the embers continue to glow as they shift, scatter and resettle time after time and season after season. Addie’s story is of a faith formed and reformed over and over – a beautiful story indeed.

“Reform suggests that you have already been solidified into a self. You were not. You were barely fifteen. You learn that the brain is not fully formed until you’re twenty-five years old, and you wonder, then, what becomes of the mind commandeered before it has learned to follow paths of logic. You were soft as clay straight from the earth. You were reformed before you were formed.” ~ Addie Zierman, When We Were On Fire

Memoir #2: Tables In The Wilderness by Preston Yancey

Back of the book: “Preston Yancey arrived at Baylor University in the autumn of 2008 with his life figured out, then slowly each piece of his secure world fell apart: his church, his life of study, his politics, his girlfriend, his best friend, and his God. It was the loss of God in the midst of all the godly things that would change Preston forever. One day he heard God say, “It’s going to be about trust with you,” and then God was silent—and God still hasn’t spoken. At least, not in the ways Preston used to think were the only ways God spoke. Journey with Preston as he navigates becoming a patchwork of Anglican spirituality and Baptist sensibility, of reckoning with a God who is bigger than the one Preston thought he was worshiping: the God of a common faith, who makes tables in the wilderness, who is found in cathedrals and in forests and in the Eucharist, who speaks in fire and in wind, who is so big, that everything must be God’s.”

Preston Yancey’s story met me right where I was in my own quiet wilderness, in that intermission of “it started” and “it is solidified.” I love Preston’s passion for liturgy and common prayer, especially how it brought him to see his relationship with the wider body of believers and that he is a part of that body even during his time his wilderness. It gave me a reaffirming peace that silence from God does not indicate a crisis of faith as I once assumed. In my journey with anxiety and depression, the greatest lesson I’ve learned is that some days are good days, and some days are not as good – but a bad day does not indicate a bad life. The same can be applied to faith: there are days of incredible clarity from God and the beautiful experience of His presence, and there are periods where no direction is sensed and no presence is felt. Does a wilderness mean it’s all for nothing? I don’t believe it does, because I cling to a faith that is big enough for silence and questions.

“In A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge, Empiricist philosopher George Berkeley argues that nothing exists, not really, unless it is perceived. Or rather, to say something IS is to say I PERCEIVE IT. The tree falling in the forest. If no one hears, then does the tree exist in the first place? How can we be certain? How do we know? I’m not sure the Christian faith works that way. It is why it is called faith and not called knowledge. The Creed begins, I BELIEVE, not I KNOW. I learned to sit in the midst of the beauty and ask every question I could come up with but not need to have an answer that was intellectually satisfying. I learned to cultivate a habit of wonder. Tradition commends us that questions lead us not to answers but deeper into mystery, deeper into God, and that we look to those gone before us who have been good enough to do their wondering out loud as guiding forces to help us on the journey ahead.” ~ Preston Yancey, Tables In The Wilderness

Memoir #3: Searching For Sunday by Rachel Held Evans

Back of the book: “Like millions of her millennial peers, Rachel Held Evans didn’t want to go to church anymore. The hypocrisy, the politics, the gargantuan building budgets, the scandals–church culture seemed so far removed from Jesus. Yet, despite her cynicism and misgivings, something kept drawing her back to Church. And so she set out on a journey to understand Church and to find her place in it. Centered around seven sacraments, Evans’ quest takes readers through a liturgical year with stories about baptism, communion, confirmation, confession, marriage, vocation, and death that are funny, heartbreaking, and sharply honest. A memoir about making do and taking risks, about the messiness of community and the power of grace, Searching for Sunday is about overcoming cynicism to find hope and, somewhere in between, Church.”

I have followed Rachel Held Evans’ blog for a couple years now and always enjoyed her commentaries. In continuation with the themes of the above memoirs, I was thrilled to hear that she was releasing her own story for the masses to read. Here’s the summary: I loved this book. It was expectedly critical, but surprisingly hope-filled. I share many of her frustrations and applaud her for voicing them. But I’m so thankful that she did more than just voice them. She inspired me to be part of the change I want to see, and she challenged me to own up to my own contributions to the areas that frustrate me. In a nutshell, she says this:

  • The Christian tradition is a complex faith with great mysteries.
  • For all its flaws, the Christian church is at its heart an incredibly beautiful collection of screwed-up people holding on to the promise of redemption and the hope that, one day, all things broken will one day be restored.
  • There are many missteps in the past and present church, but there certainly are amazing, subtle examples of heaven coming to earth.

Searching For Sunday made me thankful to be part of this complicated story.

“’I’m a Christian,’” I said, ‘because Christianity names and addresses sin. It acknowledges the reality that the evil we observe in the world is also present within ourselves. It tells the truth about the human condition—that we’re not okay.’ ‘Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed,’ instructed James, the brother of Jesus (James 5:16). At its best, the church functions much like a recovery group, a safe place where a bunch of struggling, imperfect people come together to speak difficult truths to one another. Sometimes the truth is we have sinned as individuals. Sometimes the truth is we have sinned corporately, as a people. Sometimes the truth is we’re hurting because of another person’s sin or as a result of forces beyond our control. Sometimes the truth is we’re just hurting, and we’re not even sure why.’ ~ Rachel Held Evans, Searching For Sunday

Memoir #4: Me (to be completed at a later date)

No, I’m not physically writing a physical memoir. I’m not that brave. Or willing. Rather, I’m just living the story each day and seeking to make sense of the seasons, the questions, the certainties, the doubts – especially all the doubts where there used to be so much certainty. But I don’t lament those doubts. I celebrate an evolving faith that is big enough to house these doubts rather than seek to correct and resolve them. We’re all living our own stories, and none are complete.

Which makes me all the more thankful for storytellers like Addie, Preston and Rachel who help me internally interpret my own story. I know it’s more proper to address an author by their last name, but their stories make them people, not elusive authors. Thank you for sharing your stories without filter and for assuring me (and so many others) that I’m part of a beautiful, broken, long-standing hot mess that will one day be restored and reconciled.

“Come, Lord Jesus, Come.” ~ All of us