Recently I went to a church in my neighborhood and was reminded of the apolitical reasons I stopped attending church with any regularity: I don't feel empowered by the message.
This time, the message came from Esther 4, when Queen Esther learns from her uncle Mordecai of a plot by someone in King Xerxes' inner circle to exterminate the Jews. He implores Esther to approach the king and intercede for her people, but this poses a risk to Esther's life. She decides to do it anyway.
The preacher, a beautiful woman a few years younger than I am, said that like Esther, you have to "fight your fear, pick your partners and go with gusto." (This was a Baptist church and it was a back-to-school, children- and youth-focused service.) She didn't say, but implied, that this would result in success. This wasn't "name it and claim it" gospel, a type of preaching rooted in materialism. The preacher emphasized effort, consistency, commitment and the hard work of abandoning friends who don't believe in you, don't support you, or who don't want to achieve anything for themselves. She highlighted concrete steps, even for adults, like meeting with a college admissions counselor to find out, "What will it take for me to finish my degree?"
As the preacher and much of the church -- a congregation of people ranging from babies to the very old -- said "Amen," applauded and cheered, I thought about the logging onto Mint.com and seeing my net worth as negative $43,000 -- a value it calculated without my latest round of student loans. I thought about the window AC insufficiently cooling my one-bedroom apartment in relentless 90-degree heat. I thought about how my hopes to move to a new apartment were eclipsed when I wasn't hired for yet another job I was interviewed for. I thought about how much I would like to plan a quiet writing getaway to the Poconos, but I don't have a car. I thought about being a 36-year-old, full-time graduate student pursuing an MFA in creative writing and who's consistently asked, "What do you plan to do with that?"
I thought about being a straight-A student most of my life, abandoning neighborhood friends for better schools, leaving home for an elite university for my bachelor's degree and finally leaving a job for which I was very well suited to learn my craft, pursue my dreams of writing books that people will buy and pursue my hopes of finding a life partner and having children with him.
I didn't think these things consciously, but I felt them. That's why I couldn't get into the message.
I felt incredibly distant from everyone else, wishing I could feel the confidence in God's plan and hard work that other people feel (or that they're able to fake until they feel it), knowing that I had that certainty at one time but have since seen too much of a prayer-fasting-and-church-infused life not turn out as expected and not enough of the promise (or maybe it's just a church-taught assurance?) holding true that God has something better in store for me.
I have a detailed life vision statement. (On Pinterest, it looks like this.) It includes friendship, marriage, children, health, brunch, home ownership, book sales, speaking engagements, NEA grants and lace-front wigs in the winter. It encompasses prayer, meditation and a belief that I can do and am doing God's work.
My vision currently feels just as far away as it does possible to achieve. I continue to fight my fears, pick my partners and go with gusto. I'm not dropping out of my program and going to back full-time adulthood and regular work. I go to most events I enjoy alone and avoid scenes I don't like. I take out loans and charge credit cards and fundraise and apply for scholarships and jobs despite the potential death to financial security and the volume of applicants looking for the same thing I am. I send my work to contests and journals despite the high rate of rejection.
Unlike Esther, however, I don't fast and pray before going forth, hoping for the best and saying, "If I perish, I perish." At this point in my life, I guess I still think God has a plan and that it unfolds gradually, reveals itself in daydreams and bright sparks, mistakes and Romans 8:28. But I'm no longer sure a prayer-fasting-and-church-infused life influences the plan.
[Mariam Williams is a Kentucky writer living in Philadelphia and pursuing an MFA in creative writing at Rutgers University-Camden. She is a contributor to the anthology Faithfully Feminist and blogs at RedboneAfropuff.com. Follow her on Twitter: @missmariamw.]
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