When We Were on Fire: A Memoir of Consuming Faith, Tangled Love, and Starting Over

When We Were on Fire: A Memoir of Consuming Faith, Tangled Love, and Starting Over

by Addie Zierman


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In the strange, us-versus-them Christian subculture of the 1990s, a person’s faith was measured by how many WWJD bracelets she wore and whether he had kissed dating goodbye.
Evangelical poster child Addie Zierman wore three bracelets asking what Jesus would do. She also led two Bible studies and listened exclusively to Christian music. She was on fire for God and unaware that the flame was dwindling—until it burned out.
Addie chronicles her journey through church culture and first love, and her entrance—unprepared and angry—into marriage. When she drops out of church and very nearly her marriage as well, it is on a sea of tequila and depression. She isn’t sure if she’ll ever go back.
When We Were on Fire is a funny, heartbreaking story of untangling oneself from what is expected to arrive at faith that is not bound by tradition or current church fashion. Addie looks for what lasts when nothing else seems worth keeping. It’s a story for doubters, cynics, and anyone who has felt alone in church.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781601425454
Publisher: The Crown Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/15/2013
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 1,221,693
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Addie Zierman is a writer, blogger and recovering Jesus freak. She studied creative nonfiction at Hamline University and received her MFA there in 2010. Addie blogs regularly at www.AddieZierman.com where she’s working to redefine her faith one cliché at a time. She lives in Minneapolis with her husband, Andrew, and their two young sons.

Read an Excerpt


So there I was. Alone at the flagpole. In the rain.

Behind me, Buffalo Grove High School loomed large and brown, its walls angling inward so that either way I looked, there was brick and glass, brick and glass. Inside, the school was just starting to flicker to life: a few lockers creaking open, slamming shut, the early students shuffling down the quiet hallways toward a new day.

I was standing outside on a small patch of grass in that netherworld between the school’s entrance and the road. In front of me, the flagpole rose tall from a tiny concrete circle. The September rain fell steady and cold, but instead of a jacket, I was sporting my official See You at the Pole T-shirt: white with a barrage of reds and blues—a prayer-themed Bible verse splashed across in a zany font.

The shirts came in big packets of Christian marketing materials sent to youth pastors across the United States. In turn, they were doled out to students. Students who had promised to pray at their schools’ flagpoles at seven in the morning that fourth Wednesday of September. Students like me.

It was my sophomore year, my second time to the national See You at the Pole event. My first year, I’d stepped out of our minivan and into a group of hundreds of students, all of them circling wide around the BGHS flagpole. They were pressing farther and farther out toward the brick walls, toward the road, toward the whole of the Chicago suburbs in which we lived.

I was innocent, small, white-blond. My body had not yet begun to curve into itself; I slid in and out of size-one jeans. But when I walked toward that burgeoning circle, it opened. It absorbed me. The hands of people I’d never met were grasping mine, while above us, the American flag snapped proudly in the wind. We were fourteen, fifteen, sixteen,
standing up for something Great. We were holding hands, holding together God and country, faith and public education, Jesus and His disenfranchised children—the ones walking unseeing down our high school hallways.

That was the idea, anyway. That is what I imagine the founders of the event had in mind when they started it somewhere deep in Texas in 1990. And maybe in the beginning, it was. Maybe in its grass-roots days, it was honest and humble, a fusing together around the pain of classmates, schools, world.

But by the time I first attended in 1997, See You at the Pole was a trademarked term. It had a paid staff. A marketing team. A website. “You may purchase top-quality SYATP promotional material such as videos, brochures, posters, book covers, banners, wristbands and more at reasonable prices by calling 817.HIS.PLAN,” the website advertised.

By 1997, youth pastors across the country were showing the SYATP video promo, and it was a kind of extended infomercial featuring goodlooking Christian teenagers in fitted Abercrombie sweaters. The teens talked about God and about the wonderful things that had happened to them while standing in front of flagpoles for Jesus. I watched them fade in and out on the screen, these beautiful people I did not know. Their enthusiasm lodged itself somewhere deep inside of me, growing steadily, filling me with hope.

I was a freshman—insecure and unknown. This was my opportunity to be somebody. “This is your time to stand strong for your faith at the pole,” the kids in the video said.

See. You. There.

In retrospect, that first See You at the Pole event with its bloated circle of students stirs a feeling I can’t quite place. Pity. Compassion. Frustration. Nostalgia. So much has happened since then. I almost can’t remember what it felt like to be that girl—the one with the long blond ponytail streaking down her back. The skinny girl with the See You at the Pole T-shirt billowing in the wind. The shy one. The unsure one. I almost can’t remember what it felt like to be caught in that moment, pulled into something big and important: a firestorm of prayer, a wind system capable of so much power.

What I do remember is that I was supposed to have my head bowed. I was supposed to be concentrating on Jesus, but my head was half raised, my eyes wide. I was counting the ever-growing number of students. I was trying to memorize their faces before they disappeared back into the anonymity of our two-thousand-some student body like rocks thrown back into a rolling sea.

I kept thinking, There are so many of us! And I believed in some deep part of me that if we just prayed hard enough on this one, special day, something big and wild would sweep the locker-lined halls of my high school. Revival.

This is how I saw it: a wooden cross set up in the school foyer. People bringing their drugs and their cigarettes and their water bottles filled with stolen drags of vodka and leaving it all there. Leaving it in the hands of Jesus.

The details of the whole thing weren’t totally clear to me. I’d never actually seen drugs, and though I’d heard rumors about the vodka water bottles, the idea was confusing to me. The word bong was not in my vocabulary. The mechanics of drug and alcohol use, the punch lines of dirty jokes and sexual innuendo—these were not things I understood. But at fourteen, I was aware of the way they separated me from Everyone Else. I was aware of the way they made me invisible while I fumbled with the combination to my locker, the words of my classmates soaring high over my head.

If they came to Jesus, these people in this school, none of that would matter anymore. We would all speak a common language. “Hey, how is your walk with God?” they would say, and they would be asking me and I would be able to tell them. They would want to know how I did it—how I always kept my faith so strong. They would sit with me in the cafeteria, buy me one of those melty chocolate chip cookies from under the heat lamp, ask me about the Bible. I would answer with a knowing smile. My hair would have that glossy, magazine-model look. Everything would be different.

On the wall of my basement bedroom, I had taped a newspaper article from that 1997 See You at the Pole event. The article was about another school in a nearby Chicago suburb—Prospect High School. That was where my sort-of-boyfriend Chris Jacobson went. Where he was a senior, where he led the school Bible study, where he swaggered down the hall, chin up, buoyed by the chemical substance of his faith.

In the article’s accompanying photograph, Chris stood front and center. With one hand, he held his Student Study Bible open, his palm steady. His other hand was caught by the shutter in midgesture, his fingers frozen in midair, forever emphasizing the point.

Around him, there was a circle much like the one I’d been standing in at that very moment at Buffalo Grove High School. But in the picture, the students were blurred beyond recognition. They were gray, fuzzy figures. They belonged to the background.

The flagpole was the point of the picture; Chris, his face intent on some Other World, he was the point. His blond hair parted in the middle and flopped bowl-cut-style on either side of his head. He could almost be mistaken for a young boy if it weren’t for the intensity in his face. I spent many afternoons during my freshman year sitting on my bed,
staring at that article. I memorized the picture so completely that even now, fifteen years later, when I think about Chris, this is the image that comes to mind: the muddy black-and-white photocopy, the open Bible, the floppy hair. Soon after that picture was taken, Chris took a Bic razor to his scalp and spent the rest of the year with a smooth, pink head. I don’t remember why.

But when I conjure him up, I can’t see it, that bald head. I see the boy with the floppy hair, the boy in the picture, the boy who was the point of it all.

It was this newspaper article I was thinking about when I stepped out of our green minivan into that rainy Wednesday morning a year later. My mom leaned her head toward me as I hoisted my violin case and slung my backpack over my shoulder, the rain smacking against the green vinyl. “No one’s here,” she pointed out. I followed her eyes to the empty courtyard, the flag shivering on the metal pole, the puddles gathering in the creases of the concrete.

I shrugged. “I don’t care,” I said. “I’m still going to do it.”

“Are you sure?” she asked, her voice rising a little with concern. The feathery ends of her hair were still stuck to her head where the pillow had pressed them overnight.

“I’m sure, Mom,” I said impatiently. I grabbed a pile of green fluorescent fliers off the dash. They announced the start of the school Bible study in loud fonts, big lettering. I’d planned to hand them around the circle to herald the new school year, the new Buffalo Grove High School Bible Study, which would be led by me and my two best friends, Kim and Alissa. I jammed the fliers into my backpack between two textbooks.

“Okay…,” Mom said uncertainly. “Well, have fun.”

I walked alone to the flagpole, stood in front of it with my head bowed so that all I could see was the place where the pole disappeared into the concrete base. I put my violin case on the ground, and the water slid over its black lid and collected along the metal clasps.

And here is my secret: I wanted this.

I wanted the empty courtyard, the chance to be a solitary figure at the pole. To be the only one bold enough, brave enough, passionate enough to stand in the rain for Jesus.

I was fifteen, foggy on the difference between alone and lonely, unaware of how close they were, of how the former could slip so easily into the latter. I was desperate for independence and distinction. I stood tall. I looked down.

I imagined the camera crew from the Daily Herald pulling up alongside me in a van. I saw myself the focus of a camera lens: profile view. Me, head bowed as the water beat down on me, as it trailed down my face. The picture would show the water clinging crystalline to my closed lashes. Behind me, there would be empty space where you’d expect to see others, and their absence would be a tribute to my singularity, my sacrifice: a lone figure, deep in prayer, while the flag slapped wet above. I stood, shifted, waited, the puddles growing deeper under my Payless tennis shoes. The rain pattered against my hair, making my ponytail heavy on my neck.

If I prayed that day, it was in short, unfocused statements—Lord, please do something great in our school—repeated again and again, leaving my mind free to listen to the sound of car doors closing behind me and feet shuffling toward the front entrance. It left me space to wonder about the passing students: who they were, what they were thinking as they noticed me, standing there with rain removing my makeup in streaks. Did they know why I was there? Would they ask me about it? (Lord, please do something great in our school.)

I pictured myself walking sopping wet into my first class, the bottoms of my green, flared jeans darkened by water. I pictured my classmates turning to look at me—the chatter stilled for a moment, the momentum of the morning coming to a full stop. (Lord, please do something great in our school.)

What I did not know then, could not see, was that the entry hall of the high school had filled up with a widening circle of students. They were pressing against the walls, blocking the doors to the stairwell, holding each other’s hands, praying out loud.

It never occurred to me that the location of the event would be changed for the weather, and it wasn’t until five minutes before the bell that Kim came running out, her windbreaker held over her head like an umbrella, to wave me inside.

“We couldn’t figure out where you were!” she told me later as I stood by my locker, dripping, my SYATP shirt clinging formless and uncomfortable to my skin. Kim leaned against a locker while Alissa straightened out the pile of crinkled fliers I’d pulled from my bag. “I couldn’t believe it when I finally looked outside and saw you just standing there.”
The look on her face was not admiration. It was pity. It was as if she understood what I could not. There were two places to stand: a flagpole and a crowded hallway. I could only see one.

I thought I was choosing something extraordinary.

I thought this would all turn out differently.

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When We Were on Fire: A Memoir of Consuming Faith, Tangled Love, and Starting Over 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 7 reviews.
LeighKramer More than 1 year ago
When We Were On Fire is stunningly crafted and full of grace. Our stories aren't exactly the same but Addie Zierman and I both grew up in the evangelical subculture and we've both struggled to find our place in the church since then. Her words were a balm time and again. You could take the same subculture and string together words that wound. Yet there are no bad guys here. There are mistakes- theirs, hers, ours- and there is redemption. There are things that could have been done better. There are root issues and hurts that fester but there's also hope and healing. This is real life and it's reflected throughout the memoir. It's gritty and sometimes the language is salty. (This made me fall in love with Convergent.) Who among us hasn't experienced the power of a well placed curse word? Who hasn't recoiled from a sugar-coated platitude or whitewashed advice? By naming and honoring the dark parts, we let the light in. Addie's writing is nothing but authentic and perhaps that's why it resonated so strongly with me. Addie's writing is beautiful. Her story is stunning. The connections and insights this one book contains amazes me. Easily a favorite read of 2013.
KateUnger More than 1 year ago
I devoured When We Were on Fire in one day – practically one sitting. Before I was an atheist, in my adult life, I was part of a couple of Evangelical Christian churches and youth groups during my high school and college days. In this book, Addie Zierman chronicles her own experiences with Evangelicals. It was like reading a memoir by my high school/college self, or at least someone who went to my youth group. I enjoyed reading her experiences in high school with many of the ministries and events that I attended. While Addie and I ended up in different places with our faiths, I related so deeply to her story. The book follows Addie from age 14, at the beginning of her high school career, to age 29 or 30, when she is a married woman with a new baby. She has both positive and negative things to say about the Evangelical faith, but I think her story is one that anyone who spent any amount of time with “Church People” will relate to easily. Her search for a church later in life if similar to what I have heard many friends go through in their own lives. This book alternates between first person and second person from chapter to chapter, which is a little odd, but I think it aids in getting the reader to relate to the character of Addie. Or perhaps it was written that way to help Addie distance herself from some of the traumas in her past. I’m not entirely sure, but it was unique. The beginning of each chapter also includes a definition of an Evangelical term, which would be helpful for people with less experience in the faith. I found those definitions to be comical but also nostalgic. I had forgotten some of the phrases since I’ve been away from the church for about 15 years. I don’t usually enjoy memoirs, but this one hit close to home, and I couldn’t put it down. It helped that the book was only 231 pages long. http://opinionatedbooklover.com/review-when-we-were-on-fire-by-addie-zierman/
mojo_turbo More than 1 year ago
Addie Zierman is the blogger of "How to Talk Evangelical." Her book "When we were on Fire" was named one of 101 Best Books of 2013 by Publisher’s Weekly Addie has been "speaking evangelical" fluently since she was three years old. Like many Christian leaders, she has been a Bible study leader, prayer group founder, Sunday school teacher, worship band singer, and member of Awana. Plus she still knows all the words to the song “Jesus Freak” by DC Talk (who doesn't?) I am probably just 10 years outside of her target audience with this book, but as a pastor and leader I have seen first hand the struggles that the church has made in recent years. Lots of young people are raised with "fire" all through the young teen and youth group years - Summer camp, sleep-overs, late night rallies after the game, but then as those kids grow older... what happens to their spiritual walk? I think anyone who grew up in this evangelical bubble, during the entire WWJD craze would indentify with this book - especially youth kids and those who worked in the youth ministry. I watched some of my own students drift away, play with alcohol only to slowly find their way back. This is a wonderful story about belonging, falling away, addiction and recovery. Well deserved to be one of the year's best books. Pick it up. I received this book free from WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group as part of their Blogging for Books program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255
ibelonginabook More than 1 year ago
Remember the 90s? Remember the tidal wave of cool that was flooding our churches, our youth groups, our prayers? Most of us do, in a vague, foggy kind of way. In this beautiful memoir, Addie Zierman writes about this era of Christianity with a candidness and a clarity that not only reminds us of what was going on, but puts into words the questions many have had, in hindsight, about what was really going on. Starting off each chapter with a piece of "Christianese" (words Christians use that need to be explained to everyone else) and a definition, Zierman talks about things I haven't thought about in years - things like AWANA, See You At the Pole, Teen Mania, WWJD bracelets. Back then, it seemed like in order to be a good Christian, all you had to do was dress modestly (a Jesus promoting t-shirt for every day of the week), be active at church (short-term mission trips, Bible study, etc.), and pray (fill journals with your girl cursive telling God how great he was and what you were feeling, who you liked, why you wanted God to make you a missionary). To be a super-Christian, you had to be a missionary. You had to be willing to leave it all and go live somewhere else. Because that's what Jesus did for us, right? Zierman's book certainly doesn't bash missionaries, and neither am I. She simply confesses in an honest and non-judgmental way that the reason she wanted to be a missionary during high school was not because of God, but because of Christianity. I've had a feeling about this for a few years now, and I was delighted to read the story of someone who decided not to be a missionary. (She still spent a year in China with her husband, but she was teaching English, not Bible stories, and it was hard, and they came back.) After painting a picture of how clearly "on fire" for Jesus she was in high school, Zierman describes the experience of going to a small Christian college in a way that shows exactly how it is - for some people (I being one of them). At home she was the Bible study leader, the righteous one. At school, the Christians who had gotten everything right judged her for not having their taste in decorating, listening to non-Christian music, and going on late night walks with a boy. She described this experience not as a backsliding in her relationship with Christ, but as a disillusionment with evangelicalism. It was too stifling, too pigeon-holed, too legalistic. From there, she describes the loneliness she felt, even after her marriage, as for many years she was unable to find within evangelicalism the community and deep understanding and friendship that she craved. She slid into depression, mild alcoholism, and emotional adultery. It took a long time and a lot of counseling to make it back - a lot of forgiveness directed toward things that happened back when she was on fire. But she did make it, and this book is her beautiful story. There were very few things in this book I disagreed with. Usually I take this as a warning sign, that maybe I am not thinking about the book critically enough. But it's a memoir! It's hard to disagree with someone's life. What I did feel was an astounding sense of recognition. That Zieman's story is not just hers. That it belongs to a generation that was duped into believing they were holy if they wore enough Jesus t-shirts, sang enough songs, met every dilemma with WWJD? Anyone can learn from this book. Everyone can respond to it, whether you grew up in, were consumed by, or are struggling to recover from the Christian subculture that led everyone to believe that fires could never go out. I received this book for free from Blogging for Books for this review.
drgg More than 1 year ago
Although years earlier, I lived Addie's life, if not 100% at least 95%. There was no humor in this book for me because it echoed too much of the pain in my real life. This book troubled my sleep and helped me find deeper understanding in the roots of my spiritual journey. I have no idea how I even discovered this book. I just know that I am glad I did. If you did not grow up in this world of intense dedication to religious principles, When We Were On Fire may not resonate with you. For those of us who did, it resonates profoundly and help heal. Thank you, Addie, for writing your story.
Pickle331 More than 1 year ago
Addie Zierman was the perfect evangelical child of the 90s. She was almost obsessively obnoxious about wearing her faith on her sleeve and making sure everyone knew she was a Christian and they should be as well. But as she grew up--as she focused all her energies onto being the Christian she thought she should be--her energy was fading, and it eventually burned out...but not before she fell in (and out of) love with the missionary boys at her college and the romantic idea of being a missionary's wife in some far-off land. She eventually married one of those missionary boys and went with him to China, where she discovered that the reality was far less enchanting than the romance. Her religious energy faded, and when she and her husband returned to the United States, she decided that she was through with religion. The next several years were a struggle of trying to find a place where they could both feel like they belonged--where she could develop an adult loving relationship with God. Several times she thought they maybe had found it, but each time something failed. In the process, her marriage also almost failed, but something kept them connected. Addie gradually came to terms with the imperfections she found in Jesus' followers and slowly found her way back to a solid marriage and to religion. The birth of her son was, in many ways, the epiphany that brought her to understand that she had never really lost her faith; it was there, waiting for her to find it in an adult way. It's a story told with stark honesty and humor, a story of a spiritual journey that comes across as "the real thing"...not what someone thinks the story of a spiritual journey should sound like. It's a story that reminds us that coming to a mature spiritual relationship takes time...and it's an ongoing--and wonderful--process. This book was provided free of charge from WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group in exchange for reviewing it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A girl who can’t figure out what she wants. She knows she should want to serve God but she isn’t so sure she is that devoted. Even as a young girl God didn’t seem all that interested in her. Addie tries to force herself to serve Him but she just can’t. She certainly isn’t going to have a baby in a hut! This is about her journey through life with and without faith by her side. I did enjoy the book but it didn’t have me up until 3 a.m. on a work night. I would recommend it to anyone that loves memoirs. Interesting but not a five star book. This book was provided by Blogging for Books in exchange for an honest review. Everything written above is my opinion only.