Today I’m honored to host Andrea Palpant Dilley, author of the new memoir, “Faith and Other Flat Tires: searching for God on the Rough Road of Doubt.” I read Andrea’s book last month and it really resonated with me. She writes with courageous vulnerability and bravely stares straight in the face of the twisting roads, mistakes and detours that led her back to faith. I asked Andrea to write a post for my blog and I’m so touched by her transparency. You can find “Faith and Other Flat Tires” on Amazon and be sure to like Andrea on Facebook where she regularly interacts with her followers. EE.
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When I was seventeen, my mom and dad sat me down at the kitchen table and in a very kind, parental spirit told me they wanted to buy me a purity ring. Evangelical Christians across the country were championing the abstinence movement, and every good Christian girl my age was wearing a purity ring as a symbol of chastity.
My parents let me pick out the ring myself. I drove down to the jewelry store with one of my girlfriends and scoured through the glass cases until I found a gold band with a blue sapphire and two small diamonds.
In that moment, I took for granted two things: that I would remain chaste until marriage and that I’d maintain my Christian faith. I was wrong about both.
At age 23, I got intimately involved with a man twice my age going through a divorce. By then, I had left the church and was hanging out in bars with non-Christian friends living the kind of life that we in the evangelical world call “secular.” I experimented with cigarettes, took to hard alcohol, and even consented one night in a fit of drunkenness to a sexless but indulgent ménage e trois.
My wandering, if you want to call it that, was partly spiritual. I grew up as a Quaker missionary kid, spent the rest of my religious childhood in a Presbyterian church, and then went off to college and experienced a major spiritual crisis that was motivated by my frustration with the flawed church, my anger at the problem of evil—why in the world did God allow suffering?—and other profound quandaries of faith.
At the height of my crisis, I fled the church and found myself wandering in the wilderness with a lost and tired heart. That wilderness involved men and drink, among other things.
When I talk about my story, I sometimes get the sense that I’m obligated to apologize for these years of errancy. First, please understand that I view my past mistakes with great sobriety. I hope to God my two daughters never do the things I did, although if they do I’ll love them nonetheless. That said, I can’t apologize for those years per se. The choices I made were spiritually and morally complex. Some of them I categorically regret. Others were healthy and normal. Still others in a strange way were both healthy and unhealthy, in the sense that beauty can emerge from dysfunction.
In the end, I had to experience churchlessness before I could rediscover the church, I had to go through faithlessness to find faith again, and I had to fail and flounder before I could lay claim to some modicum of stability.
In my floundering, I discovered an insight that, although it sounds vaguely postmodern and self-help-y, resonates as gospel truth: failure is somehow essential to being Christian and essential to the experience of grace and the love of God.
When I eventually did come back to the church, I fell in love with the kind of Christian guy I swore I’d never date, the kind of guy who led Bible study, taught Sunday school, and read commentaries on the gospels in his free time. (Really?!) From the outside looking in he appeared to be a clean-cut, law-abiding Christian who wouldn’t fall for a “flawed woman” like me. Once again, I turned out to be wrong.
One night after taking a walk around the moonlit koi ponds of a Japanese garden, we went back to my apartment, sat together on my futon, and stayed up late divulging our pasts.
Steve told me about his parents’ painful divorce and his dysfunctional relationship with his ex-girlfriend, and I told him about the succession of broken hearts, the ménage à trios, the getting drunk and losing myself.
“I made mistakes. Some of them I regret and some I don’t,” I said.
“I’d rather get the passionate and battle-damaged Andrea than an aloof and lily-white Andrea,” he said.
“I’m very human.”
“It’s who you are. It’s what I like about you.”
“This is what I bring with me, all this history.”
Steve looked me in the eye, then, and said something I’ll never forget. He extended to me the most profound gift—not charitable tolerance for my past mistakes, but true, loving, accepting grace:
“Your scars make you beautiful.”