I was in the middle seat of a 1980s minivan with rusty hubcaps along with six other teen girls and two youth leaders. We were headed to an all-girls Christian camp in the coastal redwoods of California.
It was 2000, and I was feeling very stylish with a soft pink handkerchief in my hair. The world appeared ripe and vivid in that intense way it does for a 13-year-old girl en route to her first summer camp.
Earlier that morning, we met in the tiny, gravel church parking lot in my hometown, where the senior pastor sent us off with a warning. He said if we did something rebellious at any point towards God or our God-given leaders – 19-year-old Kelley and 21-year-old Jessica – he would drive to camp himself and take us home.
We then held hands, and he led us in a prayer for the Spirit to meet us.
So despite the morning starting out with a bit of a killjoy, our festive moods were making a comeback with each mile we put behind us. We giggled and played road trip games, and talked about everything but nothing in particular, as adolescent girls do.
About an hour into the drive, the girls began singing a song that was a big hit back then – “I Try” by Macy Gray. It goes like this:
I try to say goodbye and I choke
Try to walk away and I stumble
Though I try to hide it, it’s clear
My world crumbles when you are not near
I recognized the song, but did not know the lyrics, so I just giggled and awkwardly bobbed my head along with them.
From my position in the middle seat, I saw Kelley and Jessica swap a look – a look I had never seen before, but would grow all too accustomed to in the coming years. After they exchanged The Look, Kelley spoke up.
“We need to not sing that song,” she said, eyeing us from the rearview mirror.
“Why?” said Sarah, a perky, insecure girl who had recently been born again.
“Because it is secular,” Kelley said. “Secular things do not honor God.”
This was the first time I heard the word “secular,” and by the way she said it, I thought it was a dirty word.
That was the end of the discussion, and it seemed to be enough of an answer for the other girls in the van – or if it wasn’t, they kept silent like I did, scared to challenge or question the rule.
After all, nobody wanted to be sent home.
When I think back to that day as an adult, I pull out my hair wondering why Kelley didn’t explain why we shouldn’t sing the song. She could have explained that the song is about a desperate woman, considering her world crumbles when she’s alone. We could have had a dialogue about the signs of an unhealthy relationship, or talked about why society tells young women that having a boyfriend will complete our identity. She could have used it as an opportunity to empower adolescent girls, not shame them.
Or God forbid, Kelley could have loosened up a little and joined the fun.
This small moment was the beginning of an era for me, in which I’d be silenced and controlled hundreds more times, in which I’d be asked to follow rules that were never explained.
Now as I approach 30, I’m finally relearning how to approach God free from all that.
I spend a lot of time thinking about ways to teach my daughter about how marvelous God is while protecting her from the voices who try to boil the mysteries of our faith down to a set of behaviors. I am afraid of what innocence might be taken from her, what vividness will be sanded away in the name of making her godly, what parts of herself will be stunted by All The Rules.
I don’t have the answers yet.
That Macy Gray song, now incredibly dated, still comes on the radio from time to time. I hum along – I never did learn all the words – and I think about that van ride to church camp, the first time fear stopped me from asking questions.
A more expository, very different version of this story appeared on Relevant Magazine a few weeks back, in which I argue that all art is sacred. Check it out if you’re interested.
Photo: Mary Jo, Flickr Creative Commons