One of my pastors said that the best testimony was no testimony. My family attended a small church of five or six families and a man named Art who said he voted for the other party to hasten the end times. Pastor Scott was from Wisconsin but moved out to New York to minister to city kids before returning to Wisconsin with his own young family. It’s odd to have church with just twenty or thirty people, half of them children. If a family skips a Sunday, one side of metal folding chairs is lopsided. Always there were empty rows. Always we could sit one row ahead of our parents, if we wanted. Our worship team was one of two married couples, the wife at the piano and the husband empty handed or holding a tambourine. We had no hymnal so all lyrics were written on transparencies. For a while, the first pastor’s daughter switched the sheets to follow the songs. When I was ten or eleven I got to sit next to a friend and switch between verse and chorus, the next song. While the church suffered rifts I didn’t understand as a child and haven’t asked about as an adult, the families remained attuned to the gospel. I believe the small congregation loved Jesus and one another as best as each could.
There is no hiding in a small church. Now I attend a church that might be fifty or sixty people on Sunday morning. We meet in a hotel conference room in Itaewon. During the first several weeks attending this gathering, I cried at each service, and couldn’t say why. Sometimes in the middle of a question or fear or doubt but sensing the edge of understanding is near, I think of my parents being my age once and suffering their own middles, sensing the dull ache or sharp knife of growth, and I remember they did all of this with a small crowd of witnesses.
What Pastor Scott meant by the best testimony is no testimony is that the best witness of Christ’s love is a life lived faithfully start to finish. I wonder what I have said as a teacher or parent that is now lodged unhelpfully in a mind. I don’t think it’s impossible to live faithfully start to finish. There are men and women I look to as examples of reverent, practiced, consistent gospel living. When I was nine or ten I started reading Drama In Real Life. That Reader’s Digest feature was one of my favorites. And our Christian radio station played a Chuck Colson program every Saturday night about sinners who slopped about in mud before hearing about Jesus and turning their lives around. I was hearing how exciting danger and sin might be, the thrill of near misses. But at church I was hearing how much Jesus wanted me to be holy. I don’t remember Pastor Scott going on and on about why he thought a faithful life was preferable to a radically redeemed life but that idea still chafes me, even as I look at my daughter and son and think, Spare them this mess.
I am submitting work for publication. I go through a list of literary journals, visit the sites, guess if my work might sit alongside what is already there. A couple of weeks ago I wrote a cover letter that included the sentence
because that is what it will take for my work to ever land in a journal or a book. Someone else will have to read my words, decide to help me lift up all these stories and images for you to see too. When I read published work, I catch the couple of lines about the author. So-and-so has an MFA from -, this grant, that award, a fellowship. Her/ his work has appeared in -, -, -, and is forthcoming in – and -. She/ he lives in (usually) Brooklyn (but sometimes somewhere surprising like Tampa or Calgary).
When we moved to Kuwait, we attended a church where I bristled at and yielded to the constant work of God in my heart. We worshipped on Fridays, the Muslim holy day, and I remember one morning a group of Indian men and women performed a dance to music with words I couldn’t understand. I stood swaying with my infant son wrapped to my torso, crying because these men and women danced with joy and I understood I wanted that joy and held that joy. Because I grew up in a nondenominational church, I had no attachment or perception of particular strains of evangelicalism so when a woman from Bethel prayed fervently for my healing, I agreed. I didn’t care that in California, her church body thought God turned people’s teeth to gold. When we joined a largely Filipino service I wasn’t put off by the many prayers for provision and financial blessing because all around me were men and women working long hours to send money home to parents, siblings, spouses, children. I had friends from the South who voted differently than me. I had a friend whose husband stockpiled assault rifles for the apocalypse. I worshipped with a Polish woman who once clasped my hands and said she could see me laughing with such joy, like a child, and a year later I had joy like a child again. During our last years in Kuwait, I loved Shobha and Asha for their gentleness, honesty and faithfulness: they worked without complaint, loved my children with affection, rested and teased and traveled together, prayed with me, blessed me when I couldn’t ask for blessing.
There are so many people who walk the narrowest path.
Sometimes I fear being a Christian precludes me from being a writer. We all have hang ups. This is one of mine. I look at the pieces where I address my faith and think no one wants to read that. I lack the theological depth or bright pep to appeal to the American evangelical (do I really want to appeal to the American evangelical?). I talk about God like he is God, which is uncomfortable. And then I read the author notes of other writers who probably write with more abandon than me because they aren’t afraid of testifying. I read the author notes of other writers who spool out lines, brick paragraphs like I do, but I am envious with a similar envy I have for my Christian brothers and sisters who marry as virgins, bear three or four or five children, take gorgeous family photographs in knee deep grasses: these authors seem to have also gone the prescribed path. I wander far, teach, scrap together work in spare time. I am bitter there are Christians with the most boring, faithful testimony and I am bitter there are writers who publish because they can’t help but publish after the MFA from -, this grant, that award.
Last night I dreamed I gave birth to an infant I couldn’t see or touch. The dream was of two women caring for my body during and after. The dream was fear I would die because my body wasn’t delivering the placenta. The dream was the sensation of labor, the deep turning and undeniable truth the process cannot stop.