Cara Strickland is a graduate of Taylor University, though sadly she graduated before we arrived here, and so I met her not in Indiana but through the beautiful internet. I appreciate her thoughtful, meditative, and vulnerable approach to writing and life - and I think you will too.
I spend this morning crying through church. It’s only my second time back after a long absence, and I can’t keep it together. We read about God parting the Red Sea for the Israelites fleeing the Egyptians and the page in front of me blurs until I no longer try to follow along. The words wash over me like warm water. I make a mental note to bring a handkerchief next week.
I grew up in the warm, cozy nest of evangelical Christianity. My very early roots are charismatic, and I remember how it felt to trust that the Holy Spirit would always move. As I got older, and we moved from California to Washington State, we also moved to another church, this one Presbyterian, like my mother’s roots. This church began my circuit from church to church, every few years, first with my family, then on my own. I began to feel like a nomad.
But I still managed to soak up what was being said and done, as children do. I began to learn the way to God’s heart.
I would rise early in the morning, or stay up late at night, to be sure I got in my daily Bible reading and prayer. I did my best not to think about boys, for fear of hurting Jesus’ feelings. I raised my hands in worship. I volunteered in the nursery.
It’s hard to put my finger on exactly when I left that particular nest. My heart had grown weary of trying to prove that I belonged. Slowly, without fanfare, I simply faded away. I used to say that I didn’t feel that I would be missed if I decided to leave. It was heartbreaking to be proven right.
I might have left the nest, but the nest didn’t leave me. I catch myself saying (and thinking) things without thinking, constantly. In my singleness, I catch my mind scanning for sin or deficiency in my life. In loneliness, I wonder if I am neglecting God and if He is trying to teach me to focus more entirely on Him rather than on friends and neighbors. In busyness, I feel safe and meaningful, and in rest, I am anxious that I am like one of those virgins who didn’t buy her oil ahead of time and will be caught unaware upon the return of the Bridegroom.
As far as I’ve come in untangling the knots of my faith, trying to parse out the true things from the twisted, I sometimes wonder if I will ever arrive at the end. That desire to be right and to have done with the questions is human, perhaps, but it is also a remnant of that nest.
Lately, I’ve been revisiting grace. I’m afraid I’ve never really grasped it’s meaning before. I knew the AWANA definition: “a free gift I don’t deserve.” I memorized it, along with countless verses, until they were word perfect.
Like many Christians, I use the word grace in conversation and writing. When I’m sick, or suffering from the depression that seems to occur in a frustrating cycle, I say that I am “trying to be gracious with myself.” But this is not true. Instead, I am trying with everything in me to pull myself together. I am exercising and hydrating and sleeping, not because these are good things, but because I want to be fine again.
My grace, with myself and others, is limited and conditional, unmotivated by love.
My grace, said another way, is not grace.
For the last few months, as I’ve been “away from church,” the Church has come to me. I’ve been sharing food and drink with a Lutheran pastor, who has been a friend and embodiment of grace. I tell her stories of my time in the nest and she looks at me in wonder. These are dispatches from another world.
As I’ve stopped checking off the boxes in my read the Bible in a year plan, the Bible has been coming to me. Ironically, all of those verses I memorized in Sunday School and AWANA have stuck with me. A story will come to mind and I will sit with it, sometimes for months, seeing new (and old) things.
Still, I have my hackles up about grace.
Today, I sit next to a new friend at church even though I planned (read: had resigned myself) on sitting alone. I cry through all the hymns, the ones where we sing about how much we are loved, how completely we are pardoned, and how much care went into making us. I cry through the Gospel reading, where Jesus tells His disciples to forgive so many times, He might as well have suggested infinity.
“I think I need extreme grace lessons,” I say to my new friend as we walked toward coffee hour.
But, of course, they have already begun.
Cara Strickland is a writer, editor, and food critic in Spokane, Washington. She writes about singleness, food, feminism, and the way faith intersects life (among other things) on her blog Little Did She Know.