Cary Umhau, a frequent participant in conferences and workshops through The Allender Center and a fellow in the Leadership in the New Parish Certificate program, has recently published a spiritual memoir, Burning Down the Fireproof Hotel: An Invitation to the Beautiful Life. In this excerpt from the book, Cary reflects on her pursuit of a unique, flexible faith rather than a cookie-cutter Christianity. Read more about Burning Down the Fireproof Hotel here, and check back next week for another excerpt.
“The glory of God is a human being fully alive,” the second-century bishop Irenaeus once said.
I used to think God was looking for respectable people—those who didn’t mix with the wrong crowd, folks whose desires were never too strong, who recognized Jesus as good but weren’t going to get all radical about him. The men simply needed to stay sober, make a lot of money, and drive their wives and kids to church in large vehicles with those window stickers depicting the perfect family. The women would put hearts and bows on everything, keep their opinions to themselves, and certainly never travel alone. The children would stay on the college prep path and never deviate.
And even though I wanted parts of that life, I worried that if I became an all-in, committed Jesus girl I’d stop being me. I’d develop a taste for cheesy art—garden gates and dreamy paths—and have to give up my taste for Howard Finster and Matisse. I’d lose my appetite for margaritas and start craving watered-down, churchy-pink punch. I’d have to leave urban streets for a quiet convent even though I’m kind of scared of nuns.
Instead I found out that the longer we hang out with God and the more we gulp in his love, the more we become ourselves, our own versions of God’s image. It still shocks me that he allows us to represent him. It doesn’t seem wise.
Although I appear confident, I’m often a fragile mess. I love driving in fast-moving traffic and I hear God best on the road. I rescue random handicrafts from thrift stores because I feel sad for whoever made them. I’m probably the only debutante who ever sent her photos to Leavenworth Prison, to a pen pal who shellacked them onto plaques, burnished the edges, and sent them back. And I have a great imagination, which means that whenever anyone I love is late, I immediately assume they’ve been chopped into pieces. God can work with that package.
As I’ve grown into my set-free self, I’ve started to look more and more like the kid I was on my better days. I resemble the girl who took just about any dare, getting stuck in a chimney once, and had imaginary playmates—Mrs. Sivvers, Grock, The Berber, Mother Evilly and another crew, always a unit, named Peter-Wendy-Allen-and-the-baby—all of whose exploits I loved to share.
If God has wooed me with a quirky approach, it may be because “quirky” was my native tongue.
My paternal grandfather was a record-breaking aviator, an oil wildcatter, a novelist, and a rogue. He married a former Mardi Gras queen who largely supported him and who ended each and every day by going to bed with a shot of bourbon, a glass of warm beer and a cup of black coffee.
Their son, my father . . . had his last drink in 1957, plays the ukulele, and never stopped noticing struggling people even as he soared to the upper echelons of the Thoroughbred horseracing world, winning the Preakness and the Belmont, two legs of the famed Triple Crown.
“As I’ve grown into my set-free self, I’ve started to look more and more like the kid I was.”
When I was 11 and was being bullied by a crowd of older girls at the barn where I kept my pony, I confided in my father, knowing that he had the wisdom to know how I should react. He told me, “Next time they bother you, just wheel around and say to them, ‘Go to hell, bitches!’” I did exactly that; the teasing stopped.
My mother came from a well-respected line of Baptist preachers and lived her early years in a grand antebellum Georgia home that General Sherman missed. She had a schizophrenic uncle whom her mother insisted was normal. She has taught Sunday school and Bible studies most of her life, smoked cigars for a while, and recently tap-danced to “It’s Raining Men” for her great-grandchildren.
One of my earliest memories involves my maternal grandmother taking me to see the movie Hell’s Angels on Wheels. I felt exhilarated in the cozy dark seated with my sister, young cousins, and our very proper matriarch with grey curls, church-worthy dress, and high heels in the midst of a crew of black-leather-chapped, muscle-bound motorcycle enthusiasts, watching a movie that was, I now realize, entirely inappropriate for our merry little crew.
When I think of myself as most fully alive, I remember being a teenager enraptured by a perfect day of 68 degrees or so. I picked sprigs and stalks of the azaleas that bloomed profusely in my hometown of Atlanta, Georgia each spring and tucked them behind my ears, in my buttonholes, and in the belt loops of my jeans. I twirled and danced around in circles, dizzy with the joy of being alive . . . until a boy that I liked drove by and honked, and I darted into the side door of the house and put twirling on hold for a few decades.
In my bedroom aerie, with the roar of the air-conditioner as my soundtrack, I would spend hours reading and writing in my journal. I’d stare down at my parents and sister sun-tanning in the backyard and wonder why I was different, the white sheep in a bronzed family.
At summer camp when other teenagers were competing for sports trophies, I won Fastest Typist. It wasn’t that I was a sedentary introvert. I was simply over-awed by all the cool girls who made everything look easy and thought I’d sit out a few rounds. I was also dodging wearing a bathing suit, in which I felt shamefully pale and overweight, even at 100 pounds.
I was the sports mascot in high school, accompanying the cheerleaders and bouncing around in purple high-tops and a fake-fur, full-body suit covered in leopard spots, even though we were the Northside Tigers. My mother hadn’t been able to find tiger fur at the store, so we improvised.
Nonplussed, I danced, frolicked, and even twirled on the gravelly sidelines of our Friday night football games. The smell of hot dogs and Coke wafted through the air as the marching band played “Dancing Queen,” “Shake Your Booty,” and “The Hustle” (the last one seemingly over and over). Boys teased me and children pulled my tail. With giddy joy welling up behind that white fake-fur tiger tummy, I felt bold and free as long as I had on my mask.
Check back in the coming weeks for two more excerpts from Burning Down the Fireproof Hotel.