There’s something about soft, warm lighting that comforts the soul. Perhaps it’s the coziness it welcomes in, but the feeling seems stronger than that. A sense of safety? Who knows, but it ignites a creative force in the woman. She takes to writing at the desk in her bedroom.
This past summer has been the first time in her life she’s felt grounded; the first time she has ever acknowledged her own presence and felt it meant something. Yes, the past months had been some of the most difficult but, more so, they had also been some of the most sensational. The woman had felt a lifetime’s worth of emotions over the course of a single summer. This summer had changed her. This summer had saved her.
At one point, the woman was a girl. The girl grew up in a small conservative town where going to the grocery store doubled as a social outing. It was a “yessir, no ma’am” kind of place and the people seemed so enchanted by the southern hospitality that it was rare for anyone to want to leave. To the girl, her hometown was the entire world.
The girl grew up spending summers at VBS where God was good and the snacks were great. Her knees collected rug-burn scars from playing righteous games like manhunt and 4-square: games that fostered the Father’s earthly family. They’d have to recite scripture as their entry into the day’s lesson, otherwise they’d have to sit in the hallway practicing the Word over and over until they could get it right. The adults were so nice: they let them try and try again, giving them second, third, even fourth chances. Whatever Pastor Dave told them during those times was truth; words to live by. Anything different was of sin and if one was truly a child of God, they’d best turn the other way. The girl was smart and quickly caught on that some things didn’t add up. In fact, some “truth” the adults preached seemed like the exact opposite of what they spoke of minutes earlier. She would get pits in her stomach, but she just attributed it to the fact that she hadn’t tried hard enough to win over God’s love. It was something that would have to be worked through. The discomfort was just the hallowed path to true discipleship.
Early on, anxiety befriended the girl. It’s what greeted her in the morning and kissed her goodnight. Nobody ever talked about feeling uncertain about every waking moment, so she just thought it was normal; a feeling to embrace. Nothing particularly traumatic had happened in her childhood to welcome it, it was just innately wired in her brain. “Best just listen in church and follow my peers”, she thought. “This is how you live life”. So, that’s what the girl did. She didn’t yet know it, but it was a toxic relationship that would try to trap her in lies. It would be years until she caught her first breath.
At sleepovers, she was always the last one to get the joke. She’d look around and see the other girls laugh. So, being the smart girl she was, she took this as a cue to laugh too. “I guess this is what’s actually funny”, she thought. They’d watch rom-coms where the guy would finally see the girl and that was supposed to mean happily ever after. The girl never really understood it herself, but she wanted to feel understood, so she hung posters of Zac Efron and the Jonas Brothers in her room from the latest issue of J-14 thinking they would bestow their sacred wisdom onto her. She had to find a boy to marry at some day, after all that was the ultimate purpose of life. That’s what Pastor Dave had told her.
In high school, the girl went to extreme measures to assess which guys seemed adequate to help her find her worth. Some guys would be so forthcoming and it intimidated the hell out of her. She thought they approached her as a joke, seeing her as an easy target for their not-so innocent games. There was one boy with a nice smile and a sweet approach. She thought, “maybe this is the one who will fix me”. They dated and people seemed supportive of their partnership. He was kind enough and girls would come up to her saying, “you’re so lucky”. “This must be what Pastor Dave was talking about. This is what love is supposed to feel like”.
The girl felt that she owed the boy: she had to show him her gratitude in some way. There were times where he would gently press her on some things: let’s try going a little farther. His hands would get more comfortable with her, acting as though her body were his canvas. Remembering that she owed him, the girl gave herself to him even though she didn’t really want to. She though doing so would make things click for her. It didn’t and they broke up some weeks later.
Senior year rolled around and though nearly everyone was applying to the local community college, the girl decided to check out a school she had heard about in a commercial. To her disbelief, she was accepted. She surprised herself, “everyone I know is staying here, why would I do something different?”. It was so unlike her, veering away from her peers. She hated how it made her feel. Anxiety was hanging out a little too much for her. She was about to resend her application but Pastor Dave told her it was an opportunity to spread the word. She had listened to him her whole life. His word was truth. So, she did as he said and went her way.
College was college. The girl got a taste of the “real world”. She studied hard and got decent grades. She attended football games and stayed up too late. Eventually she met people and found a new form of discipleship, one entirely different than what she had experienced before. One that made her feel something. Her new earthly family took her in and welcomed her. “New patterns and behaviors to learn”, she thought, “just go with it, it’ll be easier”.
It took some time, but the girl adapted. Spending time with her new family became her religion. They took her to parties and introduced her to all things new. She took enough shots to forget some things but not enough to get into any real nonsense. She had relationships and called them off. From the outside, it looked like the girl was just floating through life. After all, that was her goal: to appear like life was effortless. She had spent her life studying those around her and replicated what she saw. It had always been easier that way.
Some years passed. The girl graduated. The girl became a woman. The woman had been in-and-out of jobs. She had a little bit in savings but nothing to swoon over, just enough to pay the bills. She reminded herself, “that’s what everyone else does”.
This past May, the woman decided to give church another try. Honestly, she wasn’t sure what moved her to do so. It’s not like she had been accosted by the disciples of the streets and had a revelation. No, she just felt a push to go. Perhaps it was the loneliness and she just needed a little taste of home.
She walked in and the air was different: not lighter per say, but the impending sense of guilt was not in attendance. She looked over in the pew and there she was. The woman saw her best friend, her entire life, the solution to so much turmoil over the years. They hadn’t yet met, but their connection was already written.
After the service as the congregants mingled, she noticed that the woman who had just changed her life was heading outside to leave. She followed, acting like she too was headed for the parking lot. She brushed by, making sure to make subtle eye contact. The other woman saw, held her glance for an intentional moment, and parted with a gentle nod.
She had noticed her, and that was enough.
“What the hell is going on?” she thought. It was strange to her, this foreign feeling. But it was the strongest thing she had ever felt. And the thing that came with it: confidence.
The woman returned the following week, 5 minutes early (please note that as an experienced anxious individual, walking into any room of strangers is an act of bravery, let alone walking in with time to acknowledge and process the scope of the situation… you might as well be in the trenches. 5 minutes feels like several eternities).
She stood off to the side, pretending to read the plaques on the wall. In truth, she was on a mission to find her. She succeeded and noticed an empty space at her side.
In that moment, the woman did the bravest thing she had ever done: she walked up and filled that space. The other woman looked at her and beamed. After that, communion tasted holier.
It took some time for the woman to recognize what these feelings were. She had never felt them before, how was she to know? It was the single strongest force in her life, yet it happened in a blip of time. She fought it for a bit, thinking of what Pastor Dave would say. “Sometimes we are tempted to taste the fruit of the earth but we mustn’t give in”… In time, the woman had come to the conclusion that perhaps her truth wasn’t necessarily Pastor Dave’s truth.
Her and the woman from church spent time together. They would later realize their hangouts were in actuality dates. They felt a previously missing sense nostalgia at the innocence of it all. There was no pressure to call it a relationship; just two women who became good friends fast.
They say your first love is exciting and gives you butterflies. For her, it was the first time she found ground. Things made sense. Her existence was justified. Anxiety did not greet her every morning and kiss her goodnight… only some days. Her love is not one that Pastor Dave would agree with. It’s nothing her friends in high school would understand. None of this mattered, she finally understood.
She gave herself permission to play the skeptic. “At the end of the day, all is forgiven” she thought. People often fear that doing so will lead one astray. For the woman, it allowed her to see people and understand. It allowed her to support others and in doing so, support herself. It gave “God’s family” a whole new meaning.
This summer has been the first time the woman had ever felt true fear. It’s the first time she’s ever been scared to lose something. It’s also the first time she’s been courageous enough to fight not to lose that something. Fighting has such a bad connotation, but it means something different if it’s fighting for yourself. Perhaps we can see it more as advocacy: advocated for space, advocating for rights, advocating for something that’s bigger than one being.
The woman’s fight has left some people disheartened. Pastor Dave has no words left for her. Her friends from high school don’t say hi anymore when she returns home for a visit. Many people she had known have simply turned the other way: the same people whose knees also have those same rug-burns from righteous games. The same people that sat in the hallway rehearsing deaf scripture just to have a chance to make God proud. The same people that assured the woman she was enough and that she was loved no matter what.
This summer has been a path for the woman to find her own religion. It’s still a challenge for her: actively choosing to be herself every day, the same self that Pastor Dave had told her was made in the image of God. She can’t just flip the script on a lifetime of knowledge overnight: maybe she never can. But by God, she is going to try. She is going to give herself a chance in this life.