The God I Never Knew

It could very well be the opening line of my memoir. It’s certainly the main theme of my life. Learning this thing called belonging.

I have never really belonged anywhere. Or at least felt like I did. This may be the cruel fate of every third culture kid. You don’t fit in where you lived and you don’t fit in where you’re from. You sort of float in another realm.

I don’t fit into a culture or an ethnicity. I am not white. I am not Asian. I am both and neither. Maybe a small part of everyone feels this way. Or maybe they don’t.

Growing up in America, I remembered the red dust earth of my village in Nepal. I remember playing with the village children rolling an old tattered wheel down the dusty hill hitting it with a stick, trying to make it stand. I remember scooping dahl and rice into my mouth with my fingers, the hot lentils squishing into small handfuls, and taking baths in the giant plastic basin, water warmed by the sun, my mom lathering my hair right there beneath the bluest sky in the shadow of the Himalayas.

But we had to leave Nepal.

Had to come home.

And I never really found the right way to stand when we all gathered in youth group. Never knew where to put my hands or what to say.

So I watched.

And I was blessed with the ability to replicate and reproduce what I saw. I was the best kind of character actress, fully immersed and taking notes.

I learned to giggle at the right things and crease my brows together at the right times and look sufficiently concerned over the grave issues of sin and the wages of death. I learned to scribble notes in the margins of my NIV Youth Study Bible and highlight portions at home so when the pastor called us to turn to a passage my fingers would skim the feathery pages while yellow  flashed out like a sign that I was doing it right. I held my bible down low on my lap so others could see that I was one of them.  And I learned to pray hard and earnestly for the lost kids of which I was never sure if I might be one and the same.

And I learned to cry, heavy weighty sobs at the altar. So grieved by my sin and sure that God would never find me anything but dirty. Because He knew the truth about me. And God hates sin.

alone

And I must have gotten saved a hundred times that year because I could never be sure if I was really doing it. If God was really there or if I had just learned to imitate those around me.

And those around me always did it better. They had the white blonde American good looks and their daddy’s drove fancy cars and had important jobs and their moms stayed home and baked cookies and made them after school snacks and their clothes had name brand labels sized much too small for me.

I was ever grasping to be smaller, packaged and tidy, so I could fit easily into the life I craved. They made it look so easy. 

I fell clumsily into this role of project. My parents weren’t going to church anymore, burnt out and bitter about this homogenized placid American christianity, they pledged love to God but couldn’t find it for the church. But I wasn’t deterred.

I was the perfect candidate for my friend’s good Christian mama. She drove across town every Wednesday night and picked me up in her shiny SUV. And sometimes she’d take us out for ice cream afterwards and she’d always treat me because I never had any money. And I was so grateful. Because here I might be forgiven for being born so wrong, so awkward and empty, so hopeless at faith and manners and eye makeup that complemented my squinty slanted eyes.

And I held on so tight. Until it started to unravel.

I really don’t think I even want to go.” Beth said.

“I’m not going if you don’t go.”

Our team had won a weekend trip to a water park in Texas for our hard work memorizing scripture, marking down every quiet time we had, always bringing our bibles, gathering and dragging along the most unbelieving friends to our events, and competing in the kind of youth events that leave you wet or covered in marshmallow cream and Cheeto crumbs.

I had never been on a vacation like that. Never stayed in a fancy hotel or traveled to a huge water park. I wanted desperately to go and had worked so hard to win. But I didn’t want to go without my best friend. It wouldn’t be the same and things were tense. Some weeks she said her mom was running late and couldn’t come all the way over to pick me up. One week, she forgot me completely and I sat on my front porch with my bible on my lap, scanning each car that passed until the sun started to set.

And there was the slumber party lock in at the church where she had rolled out her sleeping bag in a corner of the room with some other girls and told me that there wasn’t room for mine. I had locked myself in the bathroom and cried  until one of the counselors found me there. She was young, early twenties, her family and Beth’s had been in church together for years, she was good friends with Beth’s older brother. I must have seemed so out-of-place to her since I came alone like some youth group orphan.

I told her how they said I couldn’t be there with them and she assured me that I was being oversensitive and escorted me back to the mix like a naughty child. The girls looked on with wide-eyed innocence when I was marched back and paraded in front of the group as someone who might be feeling a bit sensitive and could everyone just love on me for a bit?

Then she flounced away happy that she had made things right. The girls cooed that they didn’t mean anything by it and I was free to sleep wherever I wanted. Then they turned back to their conversation and I rolled my sleeping bag out on the periphery, squeezed next to a row of chairs and the bottom of the pulpit. They didn’t speak to me all night.

lock in

Beth apologized the next morning and said she was just in a mood. And I thought we patched things up. She said she just wasn’t feeling into youth group anymore and the whole trip to Texas just wasn’t her thing. I didn’t go. When the permission slip for the trip got sent home with me, I crumpled it up and threw it away along with my first vacation.

 I found out after that she had gone anyway. Without me. 

That is when it became them vs. me. The church girls and the mean girls, one and the same. This is the before, and the after is another story altogether. A long journey of years and broken-hearted longing. A trail of tears and a journey of a thousand steps back to the God I never really knew. 

 

Ok, so I didn’t make the link up for the syncroblog because I got sick and couldn’t write with a head full of snot. I took some decongestant and forced this out with 29 minutes to go until the link closed and just missed it. So I’m adding the link back to where the other posts are anyway because it’s good stuff. I am reading Addie’s book When We Were on Fire: A Memoir of Consuming Faith, Tangled Love, and Starting Over
and it  is so much of my story and so opposite my story at the same time. I love that. And can I just say, some of the posts linked up with this syncroblog will blow you away with their beauty and depth and profound honesty. So check them out. Just click on the picture below. 

synchroblog-photohome_uk

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Comments

  1. says

    Why? Why is this thing of belonging so hard? I think back to my own ‘youth group days’ (or school days) and even though my background was so different to yours (and I didn’t remotely struggle with the sort of assimilation issues that you would have experienced) I felt very much like you described – always on the periphery. And yet I was also the girl to cheerfully approach the new-comer and try and make her feel comfortable. I can see now that to many I must have looked like the one who totally ‘belonged’ and yet I so often felt I didn’t. (And maybe that was my coping mechanism–shifting the focus to someone else–combined with a genuine heart to see people feel they were included? I don’t know.) In some ways that hasn’t changed. I still struggle with the EXACT same things as an adult. On one hand feeling secure and welcoming and ‘let me help you find your place’ while on the other hand feeling like ‘does anyone actually want ME here? do I ACTUALLY belong?’ It’s just too much crazy, and rooted deep in the place of identity that is stronger than the ability to just reason with myself or “wash my brain in truth”. But then I think there’s this flip side to it, too. Because maybe we are rooted in Christ and we do know our identity (I often feel very strong and confident in my identity in Jesus) and yet EVEN STILL there is this place of longing for more – longing for a home that we don’t yet have, a place where there is no shadow of a doubt that we really, truly, absolutely belong without condition and without reservation. I often feel like I belong and yet don’t belong… and then wonder how much of that is because our true home is in heaven. Am I being confusing here? Probably. I can’t wait until the day when I can read your whole memoir. Your writing is rich and your life is richer. More, please.

    • says

      Adriel, YES. Ditto to every. Single. Word. I feel secure, look like I belong, reach out to include others, bring them in. I’m the worship leader, always with the mic yet so often struggle with those thoughts–would they be sad if we left? I just so resonated with what you said–had to bust in and comment. Xo

    • Alia Joy says

      Adriel, not confusing. I totally get it. There’s a C.S. Lewis quote about that.“If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.”
      I sometimes think that as well. Maybe there will always be that ache for more. And maybe that’s the ache that keeps me pushing forward and longing for connection and community and trying to find it or make it or believe in it.
      I think it’s one of the main reasons that Addie’s book has resonated with so many people. It’s because she wanted so fiercely to belong and don’t we all?
      And I totally know what you mean about appearances. People are always shocked when they read things that were going on in my head because I don’t seem like an outcast. I often seem like I fit. But it’s all this internal stuff of do I matter? Do I really belong? It’s my INFJ angst and my third culture kid and my being a woman and so many other things. In the end, it’s just plain hard.

    • Alia Joy says

      You and me both. I always leave crazy long comments like I’m in a total conversation with people and they probably only wanted, “hey, nice post.” lol. Oh well.

  2. says

    I cringe at reading the parts of your story about youth group and mean girls. My husband and I lead the youth ministry for our church. I see young hurting hearts seeking to find God desperately with no understanding of why life is difficult and people are mean. It’s heartbreaking.
    I can’t wait to find out more about your journey and am so happy you found Christ with open arms!
    I hope you feel better! See you at Allume!

    • Alia Joy says

      Oh that is so hard. I know I wouldn’t wish those years on anyone. You couldn’t pay me to relive my youth because it was so hard. And you lack perspective and experience but you have all the pain and frustrations still. It’s such a hard age for everyone and it is made so much worse when kids are purposefully cruel. Hoping for wisdom for you and your husband as you serve those kids. And YAY! Allume is right around the corner.

  3. motheremu says

    Alia, this is so beautiful and sad and honest.
    I too had ‘friends’ like you growing up.
    The pain of being excluded haunts me still.
    Thank you and lots of love x

    • Alia Joy says

      I’m so sorry for that pain in you. I know, friend. It still gurgles up in me every time I gather with women, even full grown, I feel fear that this will be the time they’ll hurt me again. Lots of love to you as well.

  4. says

    Alia, wow. Incredible writing and beautiful honesty. Again. Looking at your pictures in this post–you were adorable and I want to rewind time and have you as a friend. So glad Jesus continued to pursue your heart and I want to read more…. :) xo

    • Alia Joy says

      Thanks Dana. I have dreams of writing my memoir but feel pretty strongly this isn’t the season for it. I have 3 kids and homeschool and run my hubby’s painting business and a handful of other craziness and I’m not afraid of hard work but I’m not willing to sacrifice my kids right now and I know for me, that’s what it’d be.

      So I’m keeping my options open until the time is right. Until then, I write bits and pieces of my story (it’s never really finished, is it?) all over this blog. I will say that I don’t even regret those years, even though there isn’t enough money in the world to make me relive them. I don’t think I’d be as empathetic or even be able to write what I write had I not felt so utterly alone and in turn, redeemed.

      • says

        I so get now not being the season to write your memoir. God will honor and bless your heart to go at the pace your life season requires. It’s so important to be able to do that… the rest of faith that it requires is absolute LIFE to our hearts and it’s worship to Him. Ya know what I’m trying to say?

        I love how He has pursued your heart, how you’ve responded to Him, and how He’s brought redemption to cover the painful places and times. I also have seasons of my history I wouldn’t want to relive for ANYthing, but for which I’m thankful. Because the way He shapes our hearts and forms Himself in us through all of it–He births such beauty and we know Him more and become more fully who we are because of how we experience Him, His healing, His comfort, His nearness–in the painful stuff.

        Anyway–just thankful for your depth in Him, the way you know yourself IN Him, and the way you share yourself here. All of it blesses me.

    • Alia Joy says

      Thanks Esther. Yes, we should be friends. I related to so much of what you wrote in your post, because I swear I was you too, in so many ways. So angry and hurt and passionate. There were years of hating the church and Christians and even God. In my late teens, I swore to my father, I’d never be a Christian. And that insider/outsider stuff, yeah, I feel it so much ,but this, this saying me too- it helps. Thank you.

  5. says

    I am so hugging you right now. I have so been that periphery girl trying to fit that cookie cutter Christianity and feeling like a failure and at the same time wondering if any of us are understanding it or getting it because no one seems to be acting like the Jesus they say they love. This is deep, raw, good reflection.

  6. says

    The honest vulnerability of your writing compels me to read here again and again, and inspires me to try to do the same as I write. I feel your pain as you share, and it resonates with pain I experienced then, and I agree, I would never want to live those years again. Please don’t stop writing. And even if it is not the season to write your memoir, God has given it and you are called, and in His time you will know when to write it. And as a result, the world will be blessed–closer to healing and closer to Him because of your words. I love you so very much. xo

    • Alia Joy says

      Thanks Jacque. I was so blessed to be able to sit with you and talk way past our bedtimes and soak in truth and glory and all the good stuff that comes from being totally myself and knowing that’s just fine with you. I love you so much, friend.

  7. christywillard says

    Have we not all been there, here? The whole fitting in/belonging thing is stamped on my heart and I wish I could be secure in who I am. That it doesn’t matter what others think as long as I know what God thinks. And yet, I still struggle. I am strangely comforted reading your words because it means I am not the only one. I can’t wait to hear more about how God turned things around for you and captured your heart and helped you see how beautiful and valuable you really are.

    Christy @ A Heartening Life
    http://www.ahearteninglife.com

    • Alia Joy says

      Thanks Christy. We all have been there and I’m not going to lie and stay I don’t struggle anymore. I do. But it’s less and less the more I see God mending the broken bits. The more I release it. Tim Keller wrote a book called the Freedom of Self Forgetfulness and I’ve read it several times. It’s the way I long to live. Less of me, always less. I am glad you find comfort, because you are not alone.

  8. says

    This made me cry. So relatable to me too…I never quite fit with the “cool church girls” either and I remember feeling so alone at some of those overnighters. Thank you for sharing such a tender, honest post. So thankful for your voice.

    • Alia Joy says

      Thanks Addie. I really loved your book. I related to so much of the searching and longing even if the lives we’ve lived have been really different. The beauty of memoir (or at least a good one) is that I saw myself in your story even though it’s not my own.

  9. says

    Wow, thank you for sharing this! I think so many of us can relate to the feeling of being left out and not good enough. I certainly can! So glad I found your blog! Love Katie

  10. says

    I do so love your writing and now I am so thankful that I got to spend some time with you! You are beautiful!

    The loneliness resonates with me…I was the stinky farm girl who, as firstborn had responsibilities at home which meant that I had no social life…therefore, I felt alone wherever I went. I blamed a lot of things-my weight, my acne, etc. It wasn’t until I was old(er) that I really understood that.

    I was alone working (driving tractors around in circles all summer, feeding animals, cleaning the barn) and alone at school (who will I sit with at lunch?) Alone on the bus…and when I got to join ski club which was once a week…I skied alone too, because those that would befriend me would go off into the woods to smoke cigarettes and I couldn’t do that, I was too afraid.

    I still seem to end up going alone many places, but God seems to always find me friends. Like meeting you on Wednesday! :)

    Praying for you as you go love on people in Africa. <3

    • Alia Joy says

      It was such a pleasure to meet you! I so enjoyed our dinner and getting to chat. I love the slow moments at those conferences and the conversations and friendships that develop after them.

      Isn’t that interesting? Story. I would never have thought that about you. You seem so confident and assured and I would never have guessed at a past of loneliness or isolation. But God does work in those places.

      I am so thankful for the friendships God has provided through this crazy writing life. So many women with amazing stories and beautiful hearts. I’m still dizzy with the glory of it all.

      Thanks for all your prayers. 4 Days to go!!!

  11. says

    Oh, painful memories that get dredged up–both as someone who desperately wanted to be included and then also as someone who did the excluding; I have stories of both. My deep regret over making others feel like outsiders (especially in middle school and high school) make me more sensitive to people now. Thank you for capturing and expressing this so vulnerably and honestly.

    Deb Weaver
    thewordweaver.com

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