Grace for Amateurs: Field Notes on a Journey Back to Faith

Grace for Amateurs: Field Notes on a Journey Back to Faith

by Lily Burana


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I had tried everything: therapy, medication, meditation. Everything except God.

Lily Burana was in crisis. Desperate for rescue from her depression and anxiety, the punk-rock-girl-turned-writer feared she would die. She was down to her remedy of last resort: faith.

A lapsed believer who had drifted away from the church and into a life on the margins during her young adult years, Lily had long believed that Christianity had nothing to offer her. Then an unmistakable sign from above led to her unexpected decision to let God in—just a little bit. But how could she come to terms with a religion she had dismissed as hostile and intolerant?

In this collection of linked essays that chronicle her spiritual recovery, Lily explores what it means to embrace “a faith of surprisingly Jesus-y shape.” Lily navigates her own unique path toward a trusting relationship with God as she addresses topics as diverse as coming out as Christian to your non-Christian friends, the intersection of faith and motherhood, and what it means to confront your history of mental illness and trauma.

Whether recounting her history as a “baby Goth,” extolling the healing power of glitter, or wrestling with God for control over her life, Lily proves that you don’t need to have a flawless faith in order to experience God’s grace in action.

Grace for Amateurs is that rare Christian book packed with humor, depth, kindness, intelligence, and inclusion. If you yearn to return to the heart of faith—boundless, agenda-less love—sit down with Burana. She’ll make you laugh and restore your hope.”

—Glennon Doyle, New York Times bestselling author of Love Warrior and Carry On, Warrior

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780718095987
Publisher: Nelson, Thomas, Inc.
Publication date: 10/31/2017
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Lily Burana is a punk rocker turned writer and editor. She the author of three books: Strip City: A Stripper's Farewell Journey Across America (Miramax Books, 2001), Try (St. Martins Press, 2006), and I Love a Man in Uniform: A Memoir of Love, War, and Other Battles (Weinstein Books, 2009). Her recent interest in religious and spiritual issues has broadened her audience, with pieces about faith published in The New York Times Sunday Edition, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, and syndicated by the Religion News Service. She has had numerous other articles published in The Washington Post, GQ, Self, Glamour, Entertainment Weekly, Details, The Village Voice, Slate, Salon, and The New York Observer.

Read an Excerpt



The day I almost killed myself was the day my life began anew. This was not as beautiful as it sounds — although the day itself was beautiful, punishingly so, the sky an aching, acetylene flame blue. The mountains outside my car windows rose in a deep summer green from the riverside, and the grassy highway margins were salted with small, white wildflowers. New York's Hudson Valley was staging, as naturalist John Muir would say, the grand show.

I was in the blackest of moods, speeding along the river roadway to meet my friend Lori for lunch at a local Mexican place. By now I was about six months into an outpatient mental health treatment program at Poughkeepsie's Saint Francis Hospital, feeling pretty ripped apart by, well, feeling. I spent every day bobbing in the dark current of depression, too tired to swim, and afraid of going under. Everything seemed impossible. Just walking to the end of the driveway to get the mail required effort. I was miserable and miserable to be around, dragging through the days like Job with a migraine.

Have you ever had a year so terrible the best you can say about it is that you survived? I'd had several in a row by then, a grey-tone stretch of time when the bottom dropped out of my emotional life and I dangled over dark water by a thread. I was faking it but barely making it. Meals were prepared, deadlines were (mostly) met, items on the to-do list checked off one by one.

My resume looked okay: after years of wild living and wandering, I had settled into a house on a hill with a retired Army officer who had two lovely sons, and we paid our bills on time. But there were struggling people in my passable-on-paper family whom I couldn't help no matter what I did, a sense of dread and foreboding that I couldn't outpace no matter how hard I tried, and the question that crossed my mind every time I drove over a bridge: What would it feel like to jump?

Practiced in how to abide depression's deep fog, I kept my obligations to a minimum and took my meds with the religiosity of a true believer. Big Pharma, hear my prayer.

But a terrifying complication arose: my usual, reliable medication stopped working. I needed to do something drastic, and fast. If I didn't, I feared I would die.

Since depression had been a part of my life for years, I'd become shrewd about covering it up. Very few people knew I was struggling, and I blocked almost everyone out. I told myself I was lying for a just cause. As a child I'd been taught to sacrifice emotional truth on the altar of surface harmony. Go along to get along, and get going with the order of the day. The world didn't revolve around you and your problems, even if they were threatening to kill you.

I do not recommend this as a strategy for sane living.

The therapy I was doing at Saint Francis, called dialectical behavioral therapy, had whittled my negative thoughts to a painfully clarified point. Originated by Marsha Linehan as a kind of hands-on, sort-out-that-mess-in-your-head treatment for people with borderline personality disorder, dialectical behavioral therapy is a modality that demands, essentially, a forensic investigation of what triggers outsize emotional reactions — rage, dissociation, destructive impulses, binging, or addictive behavior — in hopes of figuring out how to prevent further episodes. I didn't have BPD; mine was an unremarkable generalized anxiety disorder diagnosis, garnished with depression, a little post-traumatic stress, and occasional suicidal ideation. I was your garden-variety Nervous Nelly with the recurring urge to kill herself, but DBT helped me as much as it helped the other patients in my group: the lovely, chatty, older black woman with the dissociative identity disorder who let me hold her parakeet on my finger when she brought it to group one Wednesday; the temperamental recovering drunk bussed over from her halfway house, whose large statement earrings jangled as she spoke of the anger and pain of her twenty-nine years; the father who looked like an Aryan henchman with a farmboy smile, who had twin toddlers and a bipolar I diagnosis; and the fashionable young blonde who had, she told us as she tapped notes on her pink laptop, jumped from the roof of her apartment building and survived. Each week, we'd analyze the trigger sheets we'd filled in to examine what flawed, negative thinking was behind our acting out — no lying, no faking, no covering up.

It was such a relief. I could show up broken, and for two hours of unfettered honesty, not have to pretend to be okay.

The trigger analysis allowed me to look at how depression worked with, and on, my thinking. Depression is a funhouse, with suicidal ideation the wavy, distorting mirrors that have you trapped and stumbling from corner to corner in that box on the midway. You don't think clearly, and the first thing to disappear is your sense of worth. You believe you don't matter. You believe you'd be better off dead.

When someone dies by their own hand, those left behind spin in wonder: Didn't they know how loved they were? How valued? How much of a smoking crater they left behind by dying?

Well, no, they don't.

When you're in the funhouse of depression, the opposite becomes true. A deep, pervasive sense of worthlessness seeps across everything like a spreading stain. You fixate on the burden of your incapacity, how messed up and heavy you are, and there's no talking yourself out of it. You can't pull yourself up by your bootstraps because you don't have bootstraps. You don't even have boots. You're treading barefoot over broken glass, day after day, exhausted and sick of the pain. You can't seem to get it right, and you imagine how things would go much better, people would do so much better, if you weren't around to drag them down. You'd be doing everyone a favor, really.

That's how dangerous depression can be. Not only do you believe you'd be better off dead, but also that everyone else would be relieved by your absence. Good riddance to bad rubbish.

That day, that pretty day that did nothing to announce its fatefulness, saw me driving along this scenic Hudson Valley road, praying to see, feel, or hear God in any way. What I wanted was a miracle. More than anything, I wanted to know that my life mattered enough to save.

I decided to pray for that miracle. God meets us where we are, I had heard. Well, here I am, I thought, despondent, desperate, and flaming pissed.

It is said that if you want an honest relationship with God, you must relate to God honestly. We're beseeched to be truthful. Be authentic. Okay, then, I'm gonna let it rip. Eat your Wheaties, Jesus, because it's about to get real.

I delivered unto Jesus something less like a prayer and more like a harangue.

"God," I said aloud, "if you're listening, I want you to know that I think you're a fraud and a liar and a holdout. I am going to give you one chance, right now. Today. You're the almighty healer? Show me what you've got. Bring your A-game, big shot."

The bald eagle was making a comeback in the Hudson Valley. Taking the train down to the city in the winter, I'd seen dozens of them perched in the bare trees or diving into the river for fish. Sometimes a half dozen of them in a single trip. Since my ride to meet Lori would have me driving along the river for ten miles or so, I figured it wasn't too much to ask God to send me an eagle. It was simple: all I needed to see, I told myself, was one single bald eagle on this drive to let me know God was listening.

"Surely you can pull that off, Mister Man?" I said. "Sending down one puny eagle? For me?"

I sped along the river road, my eyes cast upward, looking for my eagle. My sign. Any second now, God, I thought. If you don't show up, then I check out:. You are a nonentity, and soon I will be too.

I drove and I cursed God until I was breathless. This wasn't like any prayer I had ever prayed and certainly unlike anything I'd ever heard in church. I imagined Jesus himself, holding out a stop-sign hand: "Dude, seriously. Language." This was not my finest moment. But it surely was among my most sincere.

Chip away a certain type of rage, and what lies beneath is wild, desperate fear. My fear was based on the recent realization that my competent adult self was a fraud, and I didn't know who or what lay underneath. If I wasn't cloaked in perfectionism or the performance of a rebel stance, who was I? I was so pulled apart, I sat in a conference room in the mental health wing of a hospital a couple times a week to try to get it back together again. I was a mess.

Was I a mess worth saving? I put the answer in God's hands.

In retrospect, this seems a reckless and foolish thing to do. But reckless and foolish felt like my allies in this dismal, desperate state, and I figured, what did I have to lose besides my life?

As I got to the bend in the road where the Bear Mountain Bridge spans a narrow point in the Hudson, I still hadn't seen an eagle. I looked left to right across the horizon. Zip. Nada. I guess I had my answer. I wasn't worth a miracle.

Thanks for nothing, God.

Oh, and PS: Go screw yourself.

As I sped up the hill on the other side of the river, my energy flagged. I wasn't angry anymore; I was just sad. I wasn't worth it. I knew it.

About two miles away from the river, where the highway winds up a steep slope that would take me into Highland Falls, I looked ahead up the hill and caught the bright blue rim of noon sky framed by the windshield. In the luminous, cloudless sky-space between the canopy of trees on either side of the road flew a bald eagle, the shape of its dark wings and body stark against the blue, the white head and tail unmistakable. The eagle was flying east to west above me, slowly; then it banked around and flew back the other way, never exiting my field of vision. It seemed to be flying an elliptical circuit for my eyes only.

I was seeing exactly what I had prayed for. If I'd read it in a novel, it would strain credibility and fail the test of suspended disbelief. I'd have thrown the book across the room. The hackwork hand of God.

I was uplifted, but I was also furious. Furious because God had let me get so close to killing myself; furious even more because of what had happened, what I had seen: an eagle appearing as if God had willed it. I had worked for years to build skepticism into a fortress to keep myself safe, and it had been kicked over like a sandcastle by a cosmic thug.

The bully God had spoken.

Relief washed through me then — ask and ye shall receive! But that relief was shot through with fear: What did this mean? Was it a miracle? Or was I crazy?

It all came down to one word: maybe.

Maybe was the word that pulled me back, hateful and staggering, from the ledge.

Maybe I was crazy, but then ...

Maybe it was a miracle.

Maybe I could believe.

Maybe God was the rock at rock bottom.

My heart felt positively nuked, my long-held, lone-wolf assumptions blown to bits, but there was a light- footed presence winding through all that smoking wreckage. It wasn't as though I envisioned a white-haired, bearded sky-daddy riding on a cloud, or Jesus hitchhiking at the side of the road; rather I sensed a formless, invisible, companionate energy, cruising slowly and obviously on a draft above my head. I thought about Hamlet: "There are more things in heaven and earth ... than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

Then I thought, Holy crap, holy crap, holy crap.

I pulled up to the restaurant and sat in the car, stunned and staring at the steering wheel for a few minutes. Then I went inside, where the colorful curled streamers hung from the ceiling and piped-in mariachi music brought me back to the present.

Lori sat at a corner table under an elaborate mural of Mayan pyramids. When she stood to hug me, I knew I looked as if I'd seen a ghost — or worse, as if I had seen God.

I have always relied upon Lori to be my official voice of reason, as she offers the impressive professional breadth of being both a licensed therapist and a practicing attorney. For years she's been listening to me amid the slog of depression with the perfect balance of concern and acceptance — urging me to get help while not pushing me at a pace I couldn't match. She is nothing if not steel-belted sane.

As I numbly shoved corn chips into my mouth, I told Lori what had happened, and she considered what I was saying without recoiling, or worse, laughing. Then with her attorney's calm, she said, "Dude, I'm not really a person who believes in signs, but I'd say that's a sign."

We folded up in familiar conversation — her family, mine, work, travel. With our usual retinue of lunch hour topics, I felt I was back in the earthly realm. The tale of the eagle had not derailed us. She didn't think I was a freak for telling her, and I didn't feel like a freak for having told. Martin Buber said, "When two people relate to each other authentically and humanly, God is the electricity that surges between them."

Our lunch was served, and I ate way too much. As much as seeing the eagle felt weirdly exciting, it also gave me a feeling of being on the edge of dark woods. I'd better fill up for the journey just in case. I'm the type who believes in greeting any possible life change with a clean plate. I liked the idea of being fed with the food of the Spirit, but it paled in comparison to corn chips, which were right in front of me, inarguable in that paper-lined basket. I like my comforts tangible and preferably deep-fried.

In the parking lot, Lori and I hugged and kissed and said I love you as we always do. That's the best thing about old friends, that mooring of easy affection. A red dot pinned to the map of the heart: You are here. I drove away from lunch, overfullness billowing uncomfortably inside of me.

I remember learning as a child the Bible verse saying that we walk by faith, not by sight. And yet, sometimes you have to see to believe. Now I had.

Be careful what you pray for. I had prayed at the top of my lungs for a sign that I was worthy, and I got one.

Well, now what? There wasn't an angel chorus or the clear piercing note of Gideon's trumpet or even a low hippie thrum of om.

The interior of the car was terrifyingly, amazingly quiet. I was slowly accepting that I might have had my life saved by a miracle. But what did it mean?

The answer that arose was the most dangerous I could think of, and it would come to shape my life: I don't know.

I didn't know what the future would hold. I didn't know how my life would be molded by other hands, should I allow that to happen, and I didn't know if I had the patience or fortitude to hang on faithfully while I found out.

Were I to view the appearance of the eagle not as a miracle but an experiment, the result would be this: If I reached out a hand, a hand would reach back. I could ask for help, and help would arrive. It was as simple and as scary as that.

I had something concrete — an actual occurrence with significance assigned. Okay, God, I said to myself — if that is your real nameI'll let you in a little. "'Hope,'" said Emily Dickinson, "is the thing with feathers."

A million questions and fears bubbled in a tremendous roiling pit of doubt. Beneath the churning was a void — a scary, novel stillness. But I sensed that the void was a temporary state, and I drove back home through that bright, sunlit afternoon with a willingness to believe that maybe, just maybe, grace was at work in my life, and that despite the hollowness I felt right then, something would flood in to fill that empty space.



The mystery of grace is hard to comprehend and even harder to believe we deserve. But grace need never be earned, only received. As versatile as duct tape, as useful as helping hands, and as invigorating as a blast of fresh air, when the Holy Spirit wings in to ease the way, doing for us what we cannot — or will not — do for ourselves, that's grace. Grace is God's wild card. Devotion says, "Deal me in."

I wasn't looking for God's grace, explicitly, at first. In fact, given my rebellion against the church in which I was raised, I welcomed God in my life about as eagerly as I'd welcome an alien abduction or a tax audit. But then I was, as a friend put it, hit with the brick of salvation.

"I found Jesus," goes the old joke. "He was behind the couch." I, however, found him someplace equally unlikely — at the bottom of a tarry pit of despair.

Religious awakening, or reawakening, may coincide with recovering from addiction or a need to connect after the lonely agony of loss. For me, it stemmed from the desire to stay alive on this planet we call Earth, to stop maybe — for once — shredding myself with the lash of self-recrimination. I had gotten to a place near the middle of my life where I hated myself even more than usual — my inner voice saying louder than ever: Failure. Fraud. Damaged goods. Everything is pointless.


Excerpted from "Grace for Amateurs"
by .
Copyright © 2017 Lily Burana.
Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

1. Taking Flight, 1,
2. The Positive Sound, 11,
3. Bad Christians and Other Good People, 27,
4. Holy Day, 37,
5. Box of Terrors, 45,
6. Joyful Noise, 57,
7. Self-Improvement for Jerks, 65,
8. The Ned Flanders Effect, 79,
9. The Glitter High, 89,
10. Stepmonster, 97,
11. This Is My Body, 109,
12. The Isle of Mom, 119,
13. This Is My Blood, 133,
14. Letter to My (Possible) Son, 141,
15. Catholic Girls Do It Better, 147,
16. Foxholes, 157,
17. Fruitful, 167,
18. Stuff, 175,
19. Girl Crush, 193,
20. Family Recipes, 203,
21. Sanctuary, 213,
22. Nevertheless, She Persisted, 223,
Prayer for Amy: A Coda, 233,
Acknowledgments, 235,
Notes, 237,
About the Author, 243,

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