[above: To get the full effect of this photo, you’ll need to put on a fancy dress and go sit in a sauna.]

Today I sat on a bench by myself in the middle of the Tennessee woods and watched a lovely girl get married to a kind boy, and I cried. It was a perfectly southern wedding, from the still-summer heat sending sweat rolling down my back, to the ice in a glass of sweet tea that finally cooled me down. Whether that sweat was whore-in-church sweat is entirely debatable – I was, after all, a committed sinner amongst a crowd of the truest kind of Jesus-loving faithful – but the reason I’d come at all was a deeply abiding – and possibly ineffable, although I will try to eff it here – love for the couple of which I’m sure Jesus himself would quite approve.

I first met this girl – M, who would one day be this bride – at a very low point in my life, which also happened to be a high point in hers. After losing a job that most people would have killed for – at a time in our history when someone somewhere might very well have been killing for any job at all – thanks to a vinegary cocktail of mysterious illness and possibly genetic inability to toe the corporate line, I found myself, sitting next to her as we were both started training for a food service job in the suburbs, defeated. M, on the other hand, as I recall, was fresh out of high school, and she carried about her an air of adventure and optimism that at that particular moment I desperately needed to feel. We had very little in common, but from the first day I met her, she commanded a respect and fascination that – lately, at least – seems more and more rare for me to feel towards a stranger.

I may never fully understand my own ability to admire the Christian faith of others while so fully abjuring the belief system myself. As far as I can figure, it is having been born and raised in the hot, teeming petri dish of the deep south, surrounded by a culture that takes the pageantry and passion of Christianity as a daily fact instead of a choice while it also instills in us – women especially, perhaps – a deep and abiding need to put others at ease even when that requires us to completely quash our own convictions. I have a very vivid memory from preschool of another child asking me “Do you believe in Jesus as your lord and savior?”, and replying immediately with “yes,” although at the time I had no understanding of what my reply meant. And we were, after all, children. I’m sure that at that point the other child had no more context than I; it was simply the currency in which our culture dealt, a common script we were reading. “Are you like me? Are you a good person?” “Yes, of course I am like you. Of course I belong.”

M made me feel as though I belonged, despite the fact that I quite obviously did not. The last food service job I’d worked had been for 3 months, 10 years earlier. I’d graduated from a university and occupied a “real” job for 4 years, planned to go to law school, been a good little cog in the system until so many events conspired to free me. My exit from that system was not graceful, and I found myself walking down that street in a strange world. M, on the other hand, had the world before her. She was not afraid of her choices, if she would make them in time or if they would be the right ones. At her center was a peace that I’d never encountered, and it was her light that has helped rekindle my own.

We made coffee and cleaned and cleaned some more together for a little over two years before our paths diverged. We no longer wear the same uniform or occupy the same space, but she still fascinates me. I am still drawn to her light, to the story she is fearlessly telling.

As I watched her today make a choice, witnessing this particularly beautiful chapter of her life begin, something in me looked for some deeper meaning, some further wisdom that she might again be unknowingly sharing with me. Perhaps it was nothing more than a reminder to listen to the stirring of that tentative voice of the writer that I abandoned years ago – which is, of course, everything. Because M has never been afraid of living her own story, nor of telling it, I often wonder if it is my lack of faith that makes me fearful, that makes that voice cower behind the much louder sound of saying what other people want to hear.

Despite the fact that I did not, in any logical way, truly belong at that wedding today, I could not help but feel singularly blessed to witness such tender and youthful exuberance… to watch M’s eyes tilt towards her new husband as they walked away from the altar towards a celebration, filled with delight in her choice and the peace she’s found… to give myself over for a few moments to that familiar heat without having to prove that I belonged.

Despite my persistent lack of faith, I was blessed by her optimism and generosity, blessed to be reminded that it is not necessary to fear the unknown before us as long as we trust that we are perfectly capable of crafting our own narrative simply because it is ours to craft. And, might I add, I was blessed by the sweet tea, too, that smooth and sly unifier of all southern folk. You do not need to have accepted Jesus as your lord and savior to take that communion, and I took it gladly. There is no more fitting glass to raise in celebration of that lovely girl and kind boy and the story they are now telling together. Amen, and hallelujah.