The Supper of the Lamb
“Why do we marry, why take friends and lovers? Why give ourselves to music, painting, chemistry or cooking? Out of simple delight in the resident goodness of creation, of course; but out of more than that, too. Half earth’s gorgeousness lies hidden in the glimpsed city it longs to become.”
–Robert Farrar Capon, The Supper of the Lamb
It seemed to fitting to begin this final post in the series with a quote from Capon, who passed away today. The Supper of the Lamb was one among several of his books I have re-read, which I don’t do very often. Capon had a vision of the heavenly banquet that has inspired my own understanding of heaven and earth more than most other authors. An Episcopal priest, his novels were exquisitely populated with the faithful in all their mess. Pick something of his up today, if you haven’t already.
So, today, I am going to wrap up this series I’ve been writing about growing up evangelical and being glad for it. I have loved writing this, and it has all been very sloppy and unedited, so I think you for sticking with me through all of that. One of the questions I have heard over and over again from friends recently has had to do with the question of friendship. “Sure, your family was thoughtful and intelligent,” they’ve said, “and you went to a church that allowed you freedom of thought and doubt. But what about the pressure to be someone you aren’t? What about the need to put on a smile and make people think you have everything together?
I have experienced this pressure, so one of the threads I have had to spend my life unraveling is exactly where that pressure comes from. And over the last decade or so, I’ve come to understand that the pressure to look good and act right and garner admiration comes much, MUCH more from within than from anything external. Much of this has to do with being a 3 on the Enneagram (Check that shit out if you haven’t already), and my own personality and bent toward wanting to look well put-together. But it was rare that I experienced people in the church putting expectations on me of being good or perfect. And when, on certain occasions, those expectations did arise, I learned to develop boundaries. In church or not, there will always be people foisting their expectations on you. Developing a thick skin and a strong sense of self was one of the best things I could do.
Most of the wonderful people at my wedding. All about Bowman, as usual.
The other best thing I did wasn’t something I did at all. It was something that happened to me, and I could write a book about this. The best thing that kept me from becoming a vacuous lemming of a person was enter into this group of friends who would never have let me stay that way. (Not that I was in much danger of becoming a vacuous lemming, but because they offered a corrective to the thoughtlessness of faith that typifies evangelicalism for so many people.)
There were 15-20 of us at any given time, although the core of friends who still remain sits at a number closer to 10. We dated each other and had unrequited crushes, dealt with depression and anxiety, too-strict parents and parents whose marriages were on the rocks, friends who left to be missionaries in Mexico, a friend who came back from Mexico to a host of demons and ended her life on a cold March day in Lake Michigan. We understood and we didn’t understand. We took communion in a basement on worn couches. We had little (if any) understanding of things like the church calendar or how to handle the sacraments, but we revered these things nonetheless because we suspected they contained a special mystery.
A few of the boys
We spent every Sunday evening together throughout high school, and many other weekends beside. They became my family and I theirs, and there wasn’t any topic or doubt off-limits in our conversations. Some of it, in retrospect, sounds very evangelical-teen-cliché; for instance, many of the guys in our group of friends created a group called SPAM. It was couched in secrecy and meetings took them to a table far from ours in the church atrium. After a year or so, we finally figured out the acronym: Stop Pornography and Masturbation. Now, I could write volumes about evangelical sexuality and how it can be both harmful and helpful, but for now, I will say this: These guys were actually talking about this shit and how to honor God with their bodies. They surely experienced undue guilt around sexual desires, and I wish I could go back and take that away. But they also had really intelligent, honest, scary conversations about a sexual ethic. And with one exception, I can’t remember them ever telling us that we needed to dress modestly in order to honor our brothers in Christ. That rhetoric existed, but it was not a loud voice and the onus of lust was assumed to fall on the one who was lusting, not the object of it.
This wasn’t perfect, but it was a sort of Camelot time of youth and friendship. Some of it was totally wrapped up in any suburban teenage experience–sitting on the roof of my parent’s house on warm summer nights, driving aimlessly once we all turned 16, taking road trips to concerts at University of Illinois, long nights in basements. But the feeling of belonging and inclusion that I experienced made me feel remarkably safe.
My questions about God–call them doubts, call them uncertainties–always revolved around whether God was close. I have never had any problem believing that God exists or believing God to be good, but when it comes to questions of proximity, I am often concerned that God enjoys existing far away from me. And these people, more than any book or sermon, helped me to see that God was close and that God’s nearness had almost zero to do with my emotional response to God. We had long discussions about stuff like predestination and the salvific power of baptism, and we also bared our hearts about our deepest fears and the real pain of high school and anxiety and how we weren’t sure if we could ever be good enough.
Steve and me, our friendship tenuous post cigar lesson
Anecdotally, I accidentally crashed a guys’ night one evening when my friend Josiah and I ended up at Steve’s house. There was a bonfire and cigars and nary a teenage girl in sight. After a brief powwow, the guys decided to let me stay, and I picked up a cigar and put my feet on the fire pit. Puffing on the cigar, I noticed my friend Steve looking at me in puzzlement.
“Are you…inhaling?” asked Steve.
I panicked. Was that not okay? I remembered my sister teaching me to smoke a cigarette. “Suck in, hold it, breathe deep. Now talk: ‘Hi, my name is Mallory,’ just say something. There shouldn’t be any smoke. Okay, now exhale.” It was a strange miracle, the holding and releasing, the invasion of my body by something burning inside me. But I could tell from the way Steve asked that I wasn’t supposed to be inhaling.
I’ve gotten a lot better.
“No!” I said, as an enormous cloud of smoke escaped my lips. I smiled sheepishly while Steve dissolved into a fit of laughter. I laughed, too, and then thrilled when he took the cigar from my hand. The back of his hand brushed mine and lingered for a moment, and then he took the cigar and demonstrated the proper way to smoke.
“Puff on it,” he said, “like this.” His mouth formed a perfect O as he took quick exhales against the cigar’s flaky skin. I took the cigar and puffed, my spine tingling while he watched me. Look sexy, I thought to myself, and competent. Look like a guy.
Why would anyone do this, I thought next. This tastes terrible. I smoked it to the nub.
These were my proving grounds, and not so dissimilar from any teenager in the suburbs. But it was singular, too, because in between the cigars and the basement communion there was something else that bound us. The glue that had bound us was clear and straightforward—it was God or, if it was not God, it was at least our church. It was the T-shirts and the songs we knew by heart and the way we loved being with each other.
Now, loving each other is the thing we all have left. We have mostly all remained Christians and in the church, but some of us have not. What matters to my faith now, though, is that it would not be what it is without them. Growing up evangelical is, to me, inseparable from growing up with Steve and Nick, Kaitlin and Randi and Emily, Josiah and Jo and Bowman. Who I am, in my best moments of vulnerability and truth-telling and praise, does not exist apart from who they are. They were the glimpsed city then; they are who I long to be with now. They have believed and prayed for me when I could not believe and pray myself. We have stood up to sing a thousand songs, sat down to pray a thousand prayers, spoken softly and candidly around a hundred tables. Apart from them, I do not exist as I am. Apart from the people who know me and still love me, I don’t know the church. But through them, I know the best that the church has to do in this world. Finally.