I’ve got to start this post with three confessions. First, Lily Burana, the author of today’s book, is one of my all-time-favorite-authors, and I have a total girl-crush on her. Her first book Strip City: A Stripper’s Farewell Journey Across America is in my top ten list of books that have impacted my life and ministry (I ministered with sex workers for about 15 years). Second, Lily’s publisher provided the book so that I could review it here. And finally, I held this book in one hand with Ada Calhoun’s article “The New Midlife Crisis” ringing in my ear, and reading the stories of #metoo in my Facebook feed.
Lily’s new book is called Grace for Amateurs: Field Notes on a Journey Back to Faith. It reads like field notes, too. Short explanations of the ways that she has returned to God, to Jesus, and to a faith that is layered, complex, innocent, and sometimes even a little jaded. Lily has the kind of faith where all are welcome, and where all are encouraged to be themselves, and maybe even to drop some of the façades that we hold up to protect ourselves.
In “The New Midlife Crisis,” Ada Calhoun says that Gen X women face a “toxic brew of fear, anxiety and anger.” Lily tells the story of finding a way back to God while facing that toxic brew. She didn’t get there through a book, a preacher, a church, or even anyone witnessing to her. She got there from her own depression, from hitting rock bottom, and saying to God, “If you’re there, could you help?” She’s gotten there through being a wife and mother, later in life than our mothers did it. She’s gotten there through friendships. And she hasn’t simply prayed her way back to life. Coming back from a major depressive episode required therapy, medication, exercise, and God.
Lily says, “Waiting to feel good was an elusive proposition, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. In search of comfort beyond the edible realm, I started digging deeper into my quest for some sort of godlike sustenance.” Yoga, books on “snuggly, big-tent, lefty Christianity, Buddhism, radical acceptance, being the in the now.” Nothing felt better. So she accepted an invitation to judge the Miss Exotic World competition, put on a fabulous dress, a “cloud of hairspray, a red rose pinned into my bouffant, and six inch scarlet sequined pump,” and got herself a “glitter high.” Lily’s solution to that toxic brew of fear, anxiety and anger is to follow the advice of Ram Dass, “Treat everyone you meet like God in drag.”
My favorite thing about Lily’s writing is the way she turns a phrase. (And yes, you can bet that some of them will show up in my preaching). Here are some of my favorites:
“I don’t want to be a resident of Trauma Town, but now when a fellow citizen shows up, raw and skittish and battle-scarred, I can pay forward the sacred gift of “Me too.”
“Middlebrow music is my favorite when I’m down, and I have a scale of genres that tracks how bad I’m feeling: there’s ABBA Bad, Patsy Cline Bad, Carpenters Bad, and at the very bottom, when I’m as low as I can go and want to curl up in a ball with a package of Oreos, is the stage known as Manilow Bad.”
“Being restored by grace isn’t some flash-bang magic show miracle, like the wave of a want and a poof of glittery smoke that makes the pretty girl sawn in two become whole again. It’s more like renovating an old house: Peeling off old siding, piece by piece. Replacing rotten planks in the floor. Plugging holes with wood patch. Putting on a ventilator and scraping away the old lead paint of toxic emotional patterns.”
And finally, in homage to Lily’s past as a punk rock young adult scraping her life together, the best way she could:
“There is nothing punk rock about Jesus (although I suppose coming back from the dead after three days is pretty Goth); yet as incongruous as it seems, punk had been my salvation in more ways than one. First, the music saved my life; then the ethos saved my soul. Punk edifies a curious nature that leads you to find an alternative to your given orthodoxies, and a story—and a place—for yourself that feels true.”
In many ways, Grace for Amateurs reminds me of Anne Lamott’s writings, but Lily is a different generation, my generation. Her story is similar to my story, and reading her is like talking with one of my girlfriends. I have to admit, I cried when she wrote about being a stepmother (I’m a stepmother, too). In one day of reading, I cried three times!
And I found myself asking throughout, “How do we be church for Lily?” There are few women my age in my congregation. I wonder if they are finding God in yoga, in reading Ram Dass, in their girlfriends. And if they are, how can the church be that for them? The place where it’s safe to talk about your fears, the place where you can be tough or hard or soft, and we’ll respect you and treat you gently? The place where we can build you up, solve some of your issues, and say, deeply, “Me too?”
Rev. Lia Scholl is not-that-kind-of-Baptist preacher and pastor in Winston-Salem, North Carolina (U.S.) and is the author of I Heart Sex Workers (Chalice Press, 2013).
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