Your Sins Will Find You Out
– Memoir Excerpt By Amanda E.K. –
I was playing Spoons with Jess and Kara in our hotel suite at the annual Christian youth retreat. Holly was in the shower and Pamela—our youth leader—was at a meeting with the other leaders. As I played my turn, I looked up to find Jess and Kara making eyes at each other like they had a secret.
“What?” I asked, not wanting to feel left out.
Kara nudged Jess and Jess gave in like she’d just lost a coin toss. “Is it true?” Jess asked.
“Is what true?” My heart started to pound in anticipation of what I didn’t know.
“That Holly’s pregnant,” said Jess, with that look on her face she’d get since we were kids—the face that said she knew the exact number of fatalities from the Titanic, just try to prove her wrong.
“What?!” I half-shouted. “Of course not! She’s only seventeen!” I lowered my voice, afraid Holly might overhear from the shower. I couldn’t believe such a terrible rumor was going around about my best friend, or that this was the first I was hearing of it. If it was news to me, it must not be true.
“Well that’s what I heard from my mom,” said Jess, whose mom worked at the same elder care facility where Holly job-shadowed.
“Yeah, I heard that’s why she quit the cheerleading squad,” added Kara.
“No, absolutely not,” I said. Holly was my best friend, and best friends told you things like if they’d had sex for the first time, and if they were going to have a baby.
“If you say so,” mumbled Jess, playing her hand and winning the game.
I stared at the cards on the floor, barely registering what I was seeing.
It suddenly occurred to me that Holly had been wearing a lot of bulky sweatshirts lately, and had been skipping youth group most weeks to drive around with her boyfriend, Mark. But still I didn’t say anything about it to Holly that weekend. I didn’t ask her about the rumor because, I reasoned, I would know.
Less than a week later I found out the truth.
Holly came home with me after school. There was something she wanted to tell me, she said.
We sat side by side on my basement futon. I had a feeling that what she had to tell me had something to do with the rumor. I imagined her saying, “Maybe you’ve heard something about me lately…well, I want you to know it isn’t true. I got in a fight with my sister and she made up the rumor to get back at me.”
“So what’s going on?” I asked, turning awkwardly to face her as the metal bar under the futon cushion jabbed at my thigh.
Out of nowhere, Holly burst into tears. I didn’t know what to say, so I put my arm around her and waited. After a few minutes she looked at me with sheepish eyes, paused for a beat, and then said, “I’m expecting.”
The impact of her words knocked the wind out of me. “You’re really pregnant?” I asked in a mousy whisper.
She nodded, tears streaming down her cheeks.
I wrapped my arms tight around her, both of us crying.
Without hesitation, I said, “I love you and I’m here for you.”
She hugged me tighter. “My parents are making me get married.”
I sat up straight. “What does Mark think?”
“He says that’s fine. We were talking about getting married anyway.”
“Oh,” I said, hit with the reality that this would change our friendship. From this moment, our paths would split. We were about to have a lot less in common.
“We’re planning a wedding for late March,” she said. “I’d like you to be my maid of honor.”
I remarked on how soon that was (less than three months away!) but that I’d be honored to be in the wedding.
She told me she was already in her second trimester and that her parents wanted her married before the baby was due in June.
“Oh…wow…” I let my words trail off. I felt foolish for not noticing that my friend had been going through something so big.
After talking through her wedding plans, I said there was something I was dying to know.
“What’s that?” she said.
“What…is sex like?” I asked, my cheeks flaming red.
Holly smiled, and for a moment she was my boy-crazy, gossip hungry friend from junior high.
“Well, it hurts at first,” she said. “But it’s nice too. Maybe not worth all this, but it doesn’t seem as wrong as people say it is. It’s just a way to have fun.” She shrugged and looked at her hands.
So sex was fun. Not that I couldn’t have guessed that, but this was confirmation from a trusted source.
For weeks I couldn’t stop thinking about how Holly had been having sex. How to her it was “just sex” and she knew she wanted to have it. It didn’t necessarily matter with who. She just knew she was ready. I’d be lucky if I felt ready by my wedding night. I’d built it up too much—put it on a pedestal of oneness with God. How would I ever achieve that? I admired her in a way, just for going for it, for exploring a curiosity. I on the other hand viewed curiosity as obscenity. I wanted it to be as easy a decision for me, without all the shame and anxiety. But part of me believed I was right and better for my embodied sense of shame and my preventative anxiety. As long as I clung to those, I’d have nothing to regret and I wouldn’t ruin God’s perfect plans for my life.
Holly and I went shopping at the mall for a bridesmaid dress for me, and maternity clothes for her. Among the crowded racks at JC Penney I asked her if she was afraid to get married and have a baby.
“I guess, sometimes,” she said, fanning through some elastic-waist jeans. She never did have much to say about feelings, preferring activities and tasks.
But a few minutes later I heard her sniffling in her dressing room and I tapped on the door.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
She slid the latch to let me in and stood there in her street clothes and bare feet, her eyes watery and her cheeks puffy. “I don’t think I know anymore,” she said.
I stroked her hair out of her wet eyes and squeezed her hand. It felt like the right thing to do. I had no advice to offer, only friendship.
After our shopping trip, I decided to consult Pamela about how to be the best friend I could to Holly. I met with Pamela in the church library after Pastor Jeff’s Sunday sermon, where she placed her hands on my shoulders, looked me straight in the eyes and said cryptically, “Your sins will find you out.”
The phrase slapped me like a crucifix to the back of the hand. It’s a phrase that’s stuck with me all these years—a phrase I would use to condemn myself for mistakes and selfish behaviors. A phrase to confirm that I was indeed bad and wrong for my desire to be sexual. At the time, I believed it meant God was unhappy with Holly’s rebellious behavior and she had to pay the consequences of her actions.
Pamela then told me that Holly was no longer allowed to be an Awana leader.
Awana—an acronym for Approved Workmen Are Not Ashamed, taken from 2 Timothy 2:15—was my church’s Wednesday night program for kids. With my mom as the program director, I’d been attending Awana since I was three years old. Since junior high, Holly and I, along with Kara and Jess, had led the younger kids in games, singing, and Scripture memorization.
Now with Holly’s growing belly, the church elders didn’t think she set a good example.
This bothered me. I knew Holly was a good person at heart, and the Awana kids—many of whom came from broken and neglectful households—adored her. Was it really fair to deprive them of someone who offered nurturing attention? I’d heard that God was a god of second chances, so I didn’t understand why my church family wasn’t willing to offer the same.
I sought God for solace in my diary.
This is so unreal, God. I thought this kind of thing only happened in the movies. In my world, sex before marriage is the devil. I don’t understand how Holly could have been having sex. I guess it really has a lot to do with how close you are in your relationship with Christ. Lord, this changes her whole life! I’ve only witnessed this with co-workers and girls I didn’t know at school. But Holly’s a Christian! This is so unreal. To think, my best friend is having a baby. Lord, just please don’t take Holly away from me! She’s the only earthly friend I have to confide Everything to. I think I’m already learning a lot through this situation. What’s done is done, and it just has to be dealt with. I hope Holly learns from this situation and doesn’t continue to follow her own path. I just want to be there for her, but lately she seems to be avoiding me.
It broke my heart when Holly stopped returning my calls after her wedding. Maybe she thought she might corrupt me. Or maybe she didn’t know how to talk to me since our lives had splintered in such different directions.
To my surprise, my parents didn’t agree that Holly’s parents made her get married. They even told me that if it were me in Holly’s shoes, they wouldn’t allow me to marry the father. They cited adoption as a better alternative.
With the loss of Holly, I threw myself into my last reliable friend: God. I devoted every night to him as though he were a lover—praying, singing, and reading the Bible. I took a hiatus from secular music and immersed myself in the romanticism of praise & worship—a genre of music honed for emotional manipulation, with sweeping chord progressions and romantic (if not Stockholm Syndrome-y) lyrics that get you amped and ready for the Afterlife. I’d bow on my knees to God for up to three-hour sessions a day, singing lyrics like:
“Jesus, Jesus, how I trust You / How I’ve proved you o’er and o’er / All of my life / I’ve been in hiding / wishing there was someone just like You / Now that You’re here / Now that I’ve found You / I know that You’re the One to pull me through” -from Deliver Me by David Crowder Band
Tears would stream down my face as I sang, the fibers of my bedroom carpet embossed in my forehead like some angel’s violent kiss. I’d offer my whole self to God, crying, “I’m Yours, Father! Take me and use me! Deliver me from this sinful world!”
There is a high that comes from such faith-drugged worship—a rapturous rising of all the senses, akin to a whole-body orgasm that builds and peaks and slowly fades, then builds again until you collapse in pleasurable, satiated exhaustion.
And as with other addictions, the satisfaction is temporary, and you quickly develop a craving for purer hits of the euphoria.
When I was in the the throws of a worship-high, I’d beg God to set The Rapture into motion. Please, God, take me from this life. I want to be with You.
The more devout I got, the more superior I felt, and I spilled my judgements onto the pages of my diary.
You should be scared of what I think, how I feel, how I view others around me. Because what I see makes me sick. I work with a bunch of “prosecutors” at my fast food job—people who have no problem making fun of those who proclaim they’ve “found the Lord.” All these people are so lost. They don’t even realize why we’re on Earth. There’s only One Truth, and that’s God. I don’t know how to reach these people except through my actions. People don’t care who they’re hurting in the process of hurting themselves. And they never get punished for their actions. “Safe sex is okay” and “If you’ve got it, flaunt it,” they say. No one seems to care about saving themselves for marriage. People only want to please themselves. And if that’s how you live, you should be scared. Scared of fire.
I believed warning others about hell was a way to show them I cared for their souls. It was an act of love.
After losing myself for a few months to this fervor, I was brought back to Earth by an early morning phone call on the second day of June, 2004.
Holly was in the hospital, in labor three weeks early.
Pamela came and picked me up and we arrived outside Holly’s birthing suite as a nurse counted to ten with Holly and instructed her to push several times.
I leaned my ear into the room, my heart in my throat. I’d never been this close to birth.
It struck me that Holly wasn’t screaming or yelling, like women in labor did on TV. Instead she whimpered, like the mewling of a kitten.
After several minutes I heard the first cry of her son through the curtain around her bed. With a gasp, and then a shuffle of feet, a nurse came through the door, her plastic-covered shoes tracking blood across the floor. I caught a glimpse of the baby in her arms—his gray skin crusted like wet construction paper. He would have to be isolated in intensive care, but he was going to be okay.
Not only was Baby Benny going to be okay, he was very, very real.
With permission I went into the room and stood at Holly’s bedside. She looked so weak. Her eyes were fluttery and her skin was damp, her hair clinging to her eyelashes like the day in the JC Penney dressing room. I touched her hand, then kissed her forehead and told her I loved her. She smiled at me with a look of exhausted relief. She was still my same friend. Only now, she was a mom.
On the drive back home, Pamela spoke of Baby Benny as God’s blessing, and recited a prayer of thanks (her eyes focused meditatively on the road) for the health and safety of mother and son. I prayed my thanks along with her, but something felt off.
Pamela’s heart seemed in the right place, but her logic made no sense. How could she thank God for new life, when that new life was a result of sin? Did that mean God could make right anything you did against him? And did that mean it didn’t matter if I sinned, if he could turn that sin into something good?
I’d been born a sinner, after all, as I’d been told countless times throughout my life. Sin was in my nature. Sin was already in Baby Benny’s nature. And if God saw all, he must’ve known in advance that Holly would get pregnant.
When I thought of it this way, it seemed like “sin” and “lessons from God” were one in the same thing. How might God use my next sin as a lesson?
With Holly busy in her roles of wife and mother, I started spending time with a girl named Stacey. Stacey was also a junior but she was already eighteen. She lived in a small house carpeted in cat fur a few blocks from the Fareway that she shared with a 35-year-old convicted sex offender named Clint who’d just gotten out of prison, and a guy named Chip whose pregnant girlfriend had a restraining order against him but came to see him everyday despite.
Stacey had grown up in trailer parks with seven half-siblings and moved out the day she became a legal adult. She looked like a product of her upbringing—with her stringy brown hair, faded clothes and large hanging breasts that boys liked to watch when she ran laps in gym class.
As far as my parents were concerned, Stacey still lived with her family.
I liked hanging out at Stacey’s house. Clint introduced me to The Cars and burned me CDs of songs I’d heard on the college radio station. I’d sit at their sticky card table eating chicken stir-fry off a paper plate while practicing my Spanish to ask Chip’s girlfriend what she planned to name her baby.
I was fascinated by Stacey’s independence, and by the fact that she’d already slept with multiple men. She’d even had a miscarriage the year prior that she described to me in chilling, matter-of-fact detail. I wanted Stacey to be curious why I hadn’t gone all the way with guys—to ask me how I was able to hold back in the face of temptation. But she didn’t seem to care whether I was a virgin or wasn’t. I wasn’t sure what she saw in me as a friend, but she made me feel included in her life.
When she started sleeping with Tony—the older boy I’d had my first kiss with two years prior—I was surprised to find it didn’t bother me. I was more curious than jealous.
“We had sex eight times last night,” Stacey told me after their first week together.
I had no idea that was even possible. Wouldn’t that just be one long sex session? How were the terms of stopping and re-starting defined?
I told myself every time I saw Stacey that I’d invite her to youth group. It made me nauseous to think of her burning in hell for eternity when I could’ve been the one to save her from the flames. I wanted all my friends in Heaven with me when we died. Even though I knew that any given day could be my last chance to introduce Stacey to Christ, I repeatedly chickened out.
Maybe I didn’t want to scare away my only confidant.
When I started liking Brendan, a boy I worked with at Hardee’s, Stacey let us meet up at her place. This made her doubly indispensable.
Brendan was a skater punk who lived with his divorced dad and three siblings in a run-down apartment complex next to the post office. I worked with him and his entire family at the same Hardee’s my mom worked at in high school. Brendan was timid yet flirtatious with his soft smirk while we stood elbow to elbow assembling Thickburgers. He had gingery-blonde hair that fell straight across his eyes in a way that drove me crazy. He had at least a dozen piercings—most in his left ear, one in his tongue, and one in each nipple that he flashed at me one day by his locker. I’d acted shocked when he showed me, but I liked that he was the type to keep me guessing.
My mom saw me talking to him one day when she picked me up from work and had a few things to say about it. She made a comment about his piercings, and that she’d known his dad and uncle growing up. She didn’t say she’d liked them.
“I don’t know how you get to hanging around the people you do,” she said to me with her eyes fixed on the steering wheel, “but it’s going to lead you down a dark path if you’re not careful.”
In an act of prevention, my mom had Pamela invite me over for a chat.
“I just like spending time with people,” I told Pamela as she rocked her adopted daughter in their living room. “Brendan is nice. And so is Stacey.”
“You might think you fit in with them,” said Pamela, “but what do you really have in common? They drink, smoke, have sex, and come from families who don’t care what they do. That’s not you. You have a family that loves you and a Heavenly Father who adores you.”
I looked at the floor. “But I don’t have anyone else to hang out with.”
“Look to God and he will give you comfort about not having friends,” said Pamela, cooing at her daughter. “Don’t forget that loneliness is a gift from God. Not only can it draw us closer to Jesus, it can teach us to cherish a long-awaited marriage relationship. You might be surprised. God likes to bring exciting things into our lives when we make room for them.”
I went home and sat on the swing in my backyard watching the sun set over the cornfield. To the west I could see the apartment complex that Holly, Mark and Benny had just moved into. My spirits rose, thinking how close my friend was. But even though I could practically see her bedroom window, it felt as though she lived in another state.
I pictured myself walking through the rows of corn to visit her. I’d knock at her door and hold Benny while she took a shower and made herself some lunch. She’d be dressed in a tank top and slippers and her hair with its faded roots would be tied up in a knot. I’d bounce Benny on my hip and ask Holly if it was fun to make out with a boy whenever she wanted, and if it was weird to undress in front of Mark.
I imagined myself getting pregnant with Brendan, and how much that would change my life. That would definitely mean I couldn’t fulfill my dreams of going to college or traveling the country. I’d get stuck in small town Iowa, working in fast food for the foreseeable future. I’d turn to sitcoms in the evenings and take over as the Awana director when my mom stepped down.
I couldn’t let that happen. I wanted more than small town life and tradition. I heard Pamela’s voice cooing in my ear, telling me that loneliness was a gift from God. I decided I’d accept the isolation that came from living pure. Losing friends couldn’t be nearly as bad as missing out on the best life God had to offer me.
Amanda E.K. is a queer, polyamorous writing instructor and the editor-in-chief of Suspect Press magazine. She writes about evangelical purity culture, and she’s working on projects for film and TV with her production team Glass Cactus. Follow her on instagram @amanda.ek.writer and read more about her projects at AmandaEKwriter.com.