Stories of Faith in the Dark

A person in the water black and white

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Holy Saturday, the day before Resurrection Sunday, represents a time of questioning, of doubt, and of darkness. Hope seems lost by the cruelty of a broken world. Christ lies in a tomb; the light of the world extinguished, abandoning us in darkness and silence.

 

Where are you God?

 

How do I know you are real?

 

~          ~          ~

 

My friend Addie Zierman focuses on these questions in her new memoir Night Driving: A Story of Faith in the Dark. Addie bears the weight of clinical depression, and if you’re familiar with her writing, Addie’s depression tends to follow a seasonal pattern, worsening with the coming of winter’s chilly temperatures and the loss of sunlight. Addie began sharing her story of depression and loneliness in her first memoir When We Were on Fire, opening up about her complicated relationship with alcohol and her craving for attention from men that threatened to destroy her marriage with her husband Andrew.

 

Night Driving A story of faith in the dark

 

Night Driving doesn’t provide readers with tidy answers to the emotional wounds Addie exposed in her previous memoir. Rather, Addie invites us to go deeper into the brokenness of her heart, exploring the cynicism, the loneliness, the escapism, the doubts, the hurts, the need for attention, and the absence of God’s presence. Addie’s suffering is raw, sometimes uncomfortable to process, but so vulnerable.

 

Most days it feels like I’m still dealing with the same old struggles. Some days I feel so frighteningly close to being the most desperate version of myself—drunk-driving toward something that feels like love … but of course, isn’t. Most days I feel like I might—if asked too many questions—find myself curled into the fetal position by some fence, sobbing over all the unhealed places. Like a Believer who is still not really sure what it means to believe.

 

While we trust God is sanctifying us, redeeming us, making us the best version of ourselves, we often default to our brokenness. We gain something from our unhealthy patterns that hinders us from moving forward. We lack the faith to lower our walls and trust God and other people to meet us at the ache and mitigate its sting. We run.

 

And that’s just what Addie did for a few weeks one winter.

 

Night Driving is a travel memoir. Addie packs up some belongings and her two adorable boys Dane and Liam and makes her way south to Florida, visiting family and friends along the way and promoting her first memoir, all in pursuit of the warm rays of sunshine on the Florida coast and an escape from the cold darkness of Minnesota. For Addie, the cold and darkness can be felt deep down into her soul. God feels like he has moved away and she can no longer feel him like the girl on fire for Christ she once knew within herself. There is a void that Addie is learning to live with—sometimes consuming too much alcohol or holding eye contact with an attractive man a little too long to fill the ache in her spirit. And like any human, Addie fails to always be the woman she wants to be.

 

“All sins are attempts to fill voids,” Addie quotes Simone Weil. Sin is one of those complicated words filled with shame-inducing content from our fundamentalist pasts. But one of the ways I’ve come to frame sin is anything that separates me from relationship with God because I have shifted my hope to an inferior substitute. I am hurting myself, denying myself abundant life, because I don’t trust God to meet me at my suffering. And maybe I’m mature enough in my faith to know he probably won’t take the pain away, and I desperately don’t want to feel the pain and lean into it, because I’m afraid it will consume me. Like Addie, I’m running. Like Addie, I’m pursuing cheap replacements to convince myself I’m okay.

 

The darkness Addie writes about resonates with my experience of my first year of graduate school. There has been so much anxiety and depression this year. So many fears of being an imposter, feeling paralyzed with the work, and feeling isolated every time I return home to an empty house and left to wonder if this is all my life has to offer. I’ve discovered over the months that I’ve changed: my theology and politics have become increasingly progressive. At times I realize I don’t recognize myself. I’m a dude learning to become an adult at the end of my twenties and I’m discovering just how broken and yet how strong I am. I’m realizing all my plans for my life are shifting and embracing the uncertainty scares me.

 

I’ve learned over the years to extend grace to those in same-sex relationships or those pursuing them, but I’ve gradually developed the self-compassion to extend that grace to myself. I’ve treated God like he’s holding a gun to my head, commanding me to love him by remaining celibate for life, and always worrying if I gave in, God would pull the trigger. I believed God is loving and gracious, but just in case, I wanted to make sure I was on his good side.

 

It’s hard to feel close to God when you can’t fully trust him. I gradually realized I didn’t want to live out my faith that way. And now I’m walking in the uncertainty of what that means. Maybe that means having a husband and children one day, maybe it doesn’t. My identity, worth, and purpose still centers on Christ. But there is still darkness to journey through, particularly knowing my faith and salvation will be questioned. But ultimately it’s a matter between God and me to process.

 

This decision obviously doesn’t impact my life for a couple of years, seeing I’m a student at a politically conservative evangelical university. But it does invite me to wrestle with these tough questions in an environment where not everyone will agree with me. If my journey has taught me anything, it’s grace amid tension. I will grow from it, and likely my classmates and professors will too. The journey is often dark, but I’m learning that’s not a bad thing. I’m surrendering the idol of black and white certainty and trusting God to lead me through the gray, knowing whether I’m right or wrong he will continue working in me and will not abandon the work of grace he started.

 

Addie writes,

 

…What the darkness asks of me is different from what the light does. In the darkness I am asked to listen. To wait. To allow myself to be folded close to the heart of God. It is good in a way that terrifies me. It is the other side of hospitality—and I am not the one with anything to offer here.

 

Can darkness and silence be a form of God’s hospitality to his people? There is so much we don’t know, so much we can’t know on this side of time. We fight for answers, for certainty, but in a broken world we’re often left with little resolution. But if the wilderness experience reflects God’s desire for us to pursue him even when he can’t be felt, or when he seems less satisfying than the inferior substitutes of this world, then maybe we can still make meaning out of the darkness. Maybe we can remember he hasn’t left us when he can’t be felt or when he doesn’t make our aches disappear. He walks with us in our dark seasons, when we don’t know what we’re doing anymore.

 

He’s still here, no matter how far we try to run.

 

~          ~          ~

 

Addie ends her second memoir months later as winter approaches again. She sits outside and feels the sharpness of the cold air, but she has been learning to accept the changing seasons. “This time I’m going to let it be winter,” she writes.

 

I don’t have any rituals, rites, escapes, or solutions this time around, except to let my heart become still. I will drive Liam to preschool and go to church and do the dishes. I will get up in the mornings and open my Bible, and if I feel nothing, I’ll stay still anyway.

 

We’re all running from something. We all carry wounds. But God is calling us to be still and be transparent. He may not cure our suffering, but he will heal us, slowly, through his gracious work of redemption. We often feel like we’re moving through life like driving in a thick fog at night. It’s terrifying and uncertain, but God is here. There’s grace here.

 

How do you know God is real? Addie repeatedly asks this question and often recalls a pastor stating, “Because we have felt him.” But like Addie, I haven’t felt God most days of my life. I simply choose to come back to Christ again and again because no story resonates with my spirit quite like the Gospel.

 

The darkness is an invitation to practice faith.

 

Night Driving Addie Zierman

loneliness

When We Were on Fire

photo courtesy of flickr creative commons, user Pierre Guinoiseau

 

It hurts to be alone. Sexual minorities often know this pain throughout seasons of their lives. Growing up, I bore feelings of shame and felt the need to keep secrets from the people I loved. Everything was stuffed away in a crevice of my heart; an attempt to protect people from the terrible truth. I’m a monster. I built walls around my heart so no one would ever see the mess. Alone.

An article in last month’s issue of Monitor on Psychology from the American Psychological Association examined research on how the heartache of loneliness impacts us not only emotionally, but also physically. The findings are fascinating and disturbing. One study found that those with good social connections were fifty percent more likely to continue living over the periods of time studied than those with weak social connections. “A risk comparable to smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day and one double that of obesity.”1 Loneliness has been correlated with an increase in depressive symptoms, increases in blood pressure, and even an antibody associated with the herpes virus (resulting from a weakened immune system).2 Many Christian sexual minorities grew up in families, were part of a church, and had friends. But for many of us, we still felt very much alone. The research backs up our experience. “Feeling isolated is more dangerous than being isolated.”3 Dr. John Cacioppo added, “It’s not being alone or not [that impacts your health]. You can feel terribly isolated when you’re around other people.”4 And all God’s gay people said amen.

Sometimes I’m silly enough to think that heterosexual Christians can’t possibly comprehend the depth of loneliness that I feel as a gay man. Sure, life is hard for us all, but life seems so much clearer for heterosexuals. It’s like God caters towards the straight majority, leaving those of us in the fringes wondering where we belong.

Something recently changed for me emotionally. I read a memoir last month called When We Were on Fire by Addie Zierman. The book opened my heart to the truth that loneliness isn’t a gay problem. It’s a human problem. Addie Zierman wrote about her transition from early fervor for her fundamentalist faith, to doubts and cynicism about evangelicalism, to full-out depression, alcoholism, and anger with the church, and finally a new vision that emerged of God and life in the church. I felt a kindred spirit reading through Addie’s memoir.

When We Were on Fire

By my standards, Addie would seem to have it all. Well, at least what I naturally yearn for and desire: a husband. But Addie experienced what it’s like to live in the outer borders of the church. Her story began as a young woman on fire for Jesus. Praying at flagpoles, going on mission trips, and having a jerk of a missionary boyfriend who set the stage for the rest of the story. Fast-forward to adulthood, married to a business man and not the missionary she’d always envisioned, Addie has changed. Doubts and cynicism emerged and replaced some of Addie’s youthful passion. I began to feel connected to Addie’s story when she expressed the struggle that developed as the Ziermans started attending a house church. Andrew, Addie’s husband, grew spiritually, but Addie felt distant and out of place around the “super Christians.” Loneliness led to depression; alcohol became a coping mechanism. A spiritual gap appeared in Addie and Andrew’s relationship. Addie told her husband that they needed to leave. She couldn’t take it anymore. Andrew visited other churches with Addie, but maintained his house church friendships while Addie’s soul continued to decay from emotional and spiritual isolation.

Addie wrote about one church service they attended,

 I think, I am lonely. The Church People say, “Let God be your Friend.” The piano swells. A guy with long hair strums the guitar while the congregation sings “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” Jesus seems unresponsive. God is a million miles away.5

Reading Addie’s story, I was reminded of a beautiful, symbolic film I watched last year called To The Wonder. The character Marina experienced a similar feeling of isolation as she relocates to the USA from France to be with her lover, Neil. But separated from the setting where their love began, the relationship suffocates and crumbles. Marina is limited by language barriers and the ability to make meaningful relationships with other people besides Neil. What Marina needs, what Addie needs, is community.

In our modern romantic and sex-driven culture, we think that love for one person will solve all our problems. Many LGBTs (and heterosexuals) end up on a relationship treadmill, desperately seeking “the one.” Christians who are lonely are told to find a spouse. But what if you’re like Addie—married, beginning the American dream—but still drowning in loneliness, depression, and alcoholism? Addie’s marriage hits rock bottom. She has an emotional affair with another man. Is it enough to tell the hurting in the church like Addie–like me– “let Jesus be your friend?” How does that work?

Scripture describes us as image bearers of God. John writes, “Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and this love is perfected in us” 1 John 4:11-12. I don’t know what God looks like, yet every day I see God in flesh. I see Him when I love others and others reciprocate love to me. The community that Addie and Marina desperately seek is a taste of Heaven on Earth. They long for a tangible reminder of God’s affection and affirmation that they have worth as human beings. This is what I want from the church. Know me. Love me. See my dark side and don’t run away, to paraphrase a Kelly Clarkson song (don’t judge).

I’ve grown up understanding that the church isn’t where you show your brokenness. Keep your family issues at home. Wear a façade. Smile, shake my hand, worship, go back home to your dysfunctional life. Jesus called the Pharisees white-washed tombs–pretty on the outside but harboring dead people’s bones inside. That’s basically what church has become. It’s funny. People feel sad for LGBTs who choose celibacy, fearing they will live a life of isolation. Yet as units, our families in the church have become exactly that. Hermits. We keep our problems to ourselves. We can take care of it. Alone.

The struggle that Christian LGBTs experience is the tip of the iceberg for the American church. I would guess there are a lot of Addie Ziermans out there, alone and needing a community (not just a spouse) to promote spiritual nourishment and growth. We need to see, feel, and hear God now in meaningful relationships. Plural. Christianity isn’t a personal religion. It’s communal.

So how do we create community? The Civil Wars released a powerful song last year about loneliness. It’s a love song to the isolated. It’s what I think Addie yearned for someone to say.

It’s not your eyes

It’s not what you say

It’s not your laughter

That gives you away

You’re just lonely

You’ve been lonely too long

All your acting

Your thin disguise

All your perfectly delivered lines

They don’t fool me

You’ve been lonely too long

Addie wished she could tell someone in the church “I am falling. I am dead weight, and there is no one to catch me.”6

You’ve held your head up

You’ve fought the fight

You bear the scars

You’ve done your time

Listen to me

You’ve been lonely too long

Like Addie, I’ve wanted someone to see me; to understand how much it hurts sometimes. There aren’t sufficient words to articulate this messy, broken situation. There are no magic words you can say to make it better. But it’s not the words that matter, but your presence and your relationship that makes all the difference as we walk together through this life.

Let me in the walls

You’ve built around

We can light a match

And burn them down

Let me hold your hand and dance ‘round and ‘round the flames

In front of us

Dust to dust

Addie and her husband Andrew began to work on their issues. She reached out to childhood friends. She became a mother. Addie let go of some of her cynicism towards the church and returned with a different, stronger perspective. From what I can see, Addie found a community. Through Addie’s story, I see a bit of my own. We’ve all bought into the lie that no one understands our pain; that we’re experiencing this life alone. While our stories are unique, elements and themes weave throughout all our narratives that bind us together. As we tell our stories, we burn down the walls that have kept us from living–that have held us back from community. As the dust and ashes clear, we discover a home. We’re not alone.

Addie Zierman also blogs at How to Talk Evangelical

P. S. I highly recommend this memoir. Chapter 21: Born Again is especially wonderful. I pretty much highlighted the entire thing.

 

1. Anna Miller, “Friends Wanted,” Monitor on Psychology 45(2014), 56-58. 

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. Addie Zierman, When We Were on Fire (New York: Convergent, 2013), 162

6. Ibid., p. 157