Of T-Shirts, Irony, and Fire

Addie Zierman (who is probably my favorite writer out here on the internets) is celebrating the release of her new book, When We Were on Fire, by inviting other bloggers to link up to a synchroblog and share their stories of being “on fire.” I got really excited when I read that — see, once upon a time I was on fire, too, as many of us were, growing up in the evangelical culture in the ’90s. More than that, I wrote a chapter about it in my manuscript, Torn Wineskins, which will hopefully also become a published book in the near future.

Here is an excerpt from that manuscript, humbly submitted as one of a myriad of stories chronicling a simpler time when the world was black-and-white and we were so sure about everything. When we were on fire.

“Dude, I don’t get that shirt.”

We were standing in the hallway of Central High School, a group of friends chatting between classes or at lunch or sometime when high school students find time to chat about important topics. Topics like girls and music and… okay, pretty much just girls and music.

We were sophomores, and we wanted so badly to be cool. At least I did. I had just recently traded in my coke bottle glasses for contacts and began to exercise some semblance of fashion sense (read: I no longer hiked my pants up past my belly button or wore knee socks with shorts). And, we managed to impress a lot of folks with our empty Mountain Dew can collection inside our locker, arranged with the cans on their sides, stretching from bottom to top in multiple columns. To a high school sophomore boy, it was a thing of beauty.

Outside of the occasional Christmas Eve, I still had yet to attend a church service. I don’t know if I had ever seriously thought about God over the past seven years.

On this particular day, as we were standing by that can-filled locker listening to the latest Bon Jovi CD through mini speakers hooked up to my Discman, I noticed one of my friends had a t-shirt on that read something to the effect of, “Somebody call 911! I’m on fire!”

That’s when I told my friend, “Dude, I don’t get that shirt.”

Turns out the shirt was from a Christian conference he had gone to. He tried to explain to me that a Christian being “on fire” meant they were passionate about God. Really passionate. Like super passionate. I’m sure I must have looked lost, because I was stumped by that metaphor.

I still kind of am, actually. Christians use that phrase “on fire” so much we quickly forget just how strange it is. Ask a young Christian girl what she’s looking for in a future husband and one of her answers is likely to be, “A guy who is on fire for God.” Sermons are written to help people become on fire for God. Entire conferences are staged – and named – around the idea of being on fire for God. But I don’t think there is any other instance where this phraseology works. How weird would I be if I went around talking about being on fire for my wife? Can I be on fire for my favorite sports team? On fire for nacho cheese? As much as I love nacho cheese – and believe me, I love nacho cheese – it just doesn’t work.

At any rate, that conversation was the first time I had really thought about God for any length of time since hitting puberty. And it wasn’t really in any sort of positive way – I remember telling my friend that day that one thing I liked about him was even though he was apparently “on fire,” he didn’t go around talking about God and religion all the time. I appreciated that.

But in that hallway back in tenth grade, I had no idea what my future would hold. I had no idea that one day I would be the one who was on fire for God, wearing the t-shirts and the paraphernalia. That soon, I would be the one listening to only Christian music and smashing that Bon Jovi CD (then buying it again a few years later.) That I would eschew traditional high school life in favor of Bible studies, missions trips, and alternative harvest parties at the end of every October.

But on that day back in tenth grade, we were way more concerned with playing Bon Jovi as loud as we could get away with (it didn’t last too long before a teacher shut down the party) than discussing the finer points of faith in Jesus.

And that was just fine by me.

It was that same period in life, in high school, that I started dating a girl who had about as much interest in church as I did: that is, none. But her best friend was one of those mysterious folks who were “on fire” for God, and she invited us to come with her to church. A lot.

We eventually wore down and finally went, and I was kind of dreading it. Pictures of the Christmas Eve services I used to go to danced through my head – only without getting to hold flaming sticks of wax, which meant one thing: boring. I wanted to hold fire, to play with fire, but not to be on fire.

We finally agreed to go to youth group with her, and when we went, I was shocked. It more or less shook the foundations of what I understood “church” to be — in my admittedly extremely limited contact with the place.

Instead of hymns and organs, they had drums and guitars. Nobody dressed up (except me, nerd that I was and filled with religious assumptions). The youth pastor made fart jokes and burped into his microphone. They played games. They had a snack bar. They had basketball hoops.

I had fun.

I kept going back because I enjoyed it so much. Then we kept getting invited to go to “big church” on Sunday mornings. And so I went there, too. It wasn’t nearly as fun, but it was better than I remember church being and all the kids in the youth group sat together in the front row. It was fun hanging out with new friends. Belonging. That was a feeling that had eluded me for most of my short little life, and so I kept going back.

And one morning, I got saved in that Southern Baptist church.

In other words, it’s where I started following Jesus. At the time, I understood “salvation” as a one-time event — something that reserved my seat in Heaven and separated me from the unclean world I lived in. Something that set me at odds with unbelievers and created clearly demarcated lines between “us” and “them.”

Today, I understand salvation in a remarkably different way: as the beginning of a lifelong journey, something that is occurring over and over again in me every day.

Despite all of their flaws, I owe a lot to that church- especially its pastor. I will always have fond memories of that youth gym and the big church sanctuary, because it is where my crazy journey with Jesus all began. The ministry of that conservative church reached me. God used them.

That part of the story is beautiful.

What happened next was not quite so beautiful.

The story continues in my manuscript, Torn Wineskins. I’m praying for the opportunity to share it with you all soon!