Swatches of stand-up comedy burrow into my consciousness like radio songs.
Humming low in the far country of the brain, punchlines and punctuation marks occasionally migrate to the threshold of my lips. Among the greatest hits, Mike Birbiglia’s breathless coda to My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend: “But I believe in her and I’ve given up on the idea of being right.”
Also tucked away: John Mulaney’s musings on quicksand. Two years younger than me, the Chicago comic recalls a common surprise; after hearing—and worrying over—the prevalence of quicksand in stories and TV shows we grew up with, it’s almost nowhere to be found in adult life.
Each age and its people harbor their particular anxieties.
I sang Mulaney’s tune recently while sifting possible meditation apps on my phone. What a strange shift in time and weather, I told my wife, who also grew up within evangelical churches in the ‘90s. Once, any sentence containing the word meditation sounded an alarm: shelter in place, pray to avoid compromise.
Yet here, in the first minutes of a month-long sabbatical, I treated the download as a means of grace.
Soundscapes with names like “Theta Dreams,” “Moon Dreams for Sleep” and “Cabin Retreat—Light Rain on Roof” guide me into something resembling nightly peace. Through trial and error, I lean into compositions revolving around synth beds and strings, not singing bowls or harps. Their golden tones stretch like wheat, like my body, silent beneath midnight watches of the Midwestern moon.
Each age and its people harbor their particular anxieties. Sara Billups’ excellent new book, Orphaned Believers, is so much more than a documentary sweep of church-kid fears. But her writing, ever sound and soulful, underlines elements of the all-too-present dread we knew in the ‘80s and ‘90s—and summoned a few misgivings I evidently suppressed.
Considering crystals, Billups reminded me of a time when even light bending through prisms made me nervous by association. She writes of worrying Jesus might return too soon, sounding a roll call before she crossed milestones from a checklist. I nod along, working back through the ledger I wrapped my fist around.
With near-photographic memory, I return to church bulletin boards. Standing on my tiptoes, I read the dispatches they bear; hand-wringing family groups warn of sex and drugs slipped between frames of my Saturday cartoons. So we all go to look for the evidence, just as our parents wandered backwards through Beatles records, turning up the dial, crossing their fingers to learn whether Paul was dead. Same as it ever was.
What a shame, I told my wife, how we learned to be vigilant at slumber parties—just in case someone brought out a Ouija board—but no one taught us to recognize the signs of white supremacy.
A greater shadow overcomes each fear—that we would inadvertently set our own tripwires and send our souls stumbling. Billups astutely sums my teenage thought process:
“Like an enemy circling in the woods, the idea of evil manifestations waiting to pounce especially frightened me as a child. I believed I had the power to let them in,” she writes. “I wondered, Could I take action, even commit a sin by accident, that would somehow open myself up to the devil? Questions of the authenticity of my salvation were constant.”
These questions made me pray as if I had a fever, whispering different renderings of the same-old sinner’s prayer; kept me rebuking the demons stray thoughts might invite with bold language learned at a youth conference.
“If my heart was not guarded, my soul would not be recoverable,” Billups writes, speaking for thousands of us.
Scrolling through meditation apps, I flipped the coin around and stared at the other side. What a shame, I told my wife, how we learned to be vigilant at slumber parties—just in case someone brought out a Ouija board—but no one taught us to recognize the signs of white supremacy.
As a boy, I figured out how to bend my frame so my eyes arrived around every corner before the rest of me. Assorted temptations were lurking, after all.
Yet us boys never discussed how youth-group culture might distort the ways we viewed girls and their bodies. We lacked the imagination to reckon with theologies of sex and marriage, to see how they might tie our female friends into knots that take decades to untangle. But just the specter of drugs no one was offering us sent our minds spinning.
In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus speaks of the narrow gate along a thorny path leading into his kingdom. The road to ruin is much broader, ending with a gate flung wide open. In my youth, I sat with these words and drew conclusions. He wrote this sermon for other people; my very presence between four sanctuary walls, beneath vaulted ceilings, meant I arrived through the narrow gate.
Wide is wide and narrow is narrow, and this means both paths run through every church. There is quicksand near the altar of God, piled up by people who call themselves his.
As a growing man, I want to whittle words down to the grain of their meaning. Wide is wide and narrow is narrow, and this means both paths run through every church. There is quicksand near the altar of God, piled up by people who call themselves his.
It’s all too easy to draw convenient pictures of the wide gate, spring-break revelers hanging drunk and belligerent from its railings. Poor, pitiful souls darting back and forth, giggling every time they dip a toe into perdition.
But whatever else it might be, the wide gate is also strewn with holy tchotchkes. And its hinges are polished by people who pause to check their religious report cards, liking what they see. Making disciples in fear, they teach them to observe all the culture wars command, even to the end of the age.
Renaming the wide and the narrow is not an attempt to relitigate the Christianity of my childhood, pursuing damages. And I don’t take that sense from books like the one Billups wrote. Some of us chase what Maya Angelou deemed “a hurtful clarity,” understanding seeking freedom no matter the cost.
We have learned a devastating lesson, one that forever changed us. It is possible to live in the perpetual presence of The Point, and miss it entirely.
We have learned a devastating lesson, one that forever changed us. It is possible to live in the perpetual presence of The Point, and miss it entirely. To have the crux of loving God and loving neighbors within reach and trade it for an inheritance of good intentions, wasted opportunities and shrunken souls.
The quicksand we were so afraid of doesn’t exist. Not to the degree we were told. But other pits sit ready to sink and swallow. Telling the two apart is the beginning of wisdom, and wisdom is the beginning of a better love.
On this particular Tuesday night, I will place a period at the end of one last sentence, then turn the volume up on something called “Stella Luna: Music of the Stars.” And, having silenced another sinner’s prayer rising up in me, I will sleep the sleep of someone learning to step around the quicksand of his own making and into his hopes for a truer, more beautiful narrow.