A woman in crisis, Lily Burana had tried everything to cope with the debilitating depression and anxiety that plagued her on a daily basis. Therapy, medication, meditation – you name it, Lily had tried it but nothing was giving her the relief she so desperately needed.
Fearing she was on the verge of death, Lily tried her remedy of last resort: faith. In her latest book, Grace for Amateurs, Lily details 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. We recently had a chance to talk with Lily about her new book and her amazing journey.
Patheos: You talk a lot about outsider communities — the punk scene, the seedy nightclub world, goth culture, the LGBTQ community, recovery groups — and how those in them find comfort there. And you talk about how so many churches you visited seemed like a fine place for other people, with plenty you could gain from, but not a community for you. What do you say to people who haven’t found a church home that fits—and maybe think it doesn’t exist?
Lily: I know how discouraging it is to feel like a church isn’t a good fit. It truly takes all kinds–there are so many different types of churches and faith gatherings, and the search may take a while. But if you can’t find an physical church that suits you–say, you live in a Conservative rural area, but you’re more Progressive and there aren’t many churches to choose from in the area–there are online communities for all types of believers (and skeptics). Sometimes sanctuary is a mere Google search away. Also, I’m a huge, huge booster of The Church of Your Local Library—books can provide tremendous spiritual soothing, especially when there’s no compatible church to be found nearby. Books, as the great Anne Lamott says, are medicine. My favorite spiritual writers—Nadia Bolz Weber, Jen Hatmaker, Rachel Held Evans, Glennon Doyle, Brene Brown, and Anne Lamott herself have ministered to be as faithfully and effectively as anyone in a collar speaking from an altar.
Patheos: And how about the people who are comfortable in conventional church communities? Or lead them? What do you hope they take away from your story?
Lily: I hope they see themselves! That the message of my journey resonates with them: The struggle is real, but so is the hope. The promise of the Resurrection teaches us that “Pain is not the end of the story,” and that’s the same for every single one of us. We all faceplant in our so-called walk with the Lord, but we’re given ample opportunity to dust ourselves off and carry on, with an abundance of grace to guide us.
Patheos: Through all your books, a common thread is blunt confessional honesty. While the prose is often beautiful, the gritty, complex reality is never glossed over. Talk a little about what your insistence on brutal honesty and not looking away from the hard stuff means to you, as a storyteller and in life.Lily: Coming from a family where the truth was often swept under the rug, I came to value honesty as not just a priority but a life-saving force. When the truth is in the room, life becomes bearable, no matter how difficult that truth might be. But delivery matters! Always. My mentor, the singer/songwriter Mary Gauthier, profoundly influenced me with her ability to tell really tough stories with compassion and tenderness. She gave me a little rhyme that helps me wed truth to compassion, for others and for myself: Tell it all, tell it true, let poetry protect the kid in you.
Patheos: Your depression has gone hand in hand with a nihilistic worldview, but you say “diverting focus from the physiological element, which runs generations-deep in my family, seemed downright dangerous.” For that reason, and with a lifetime of relying only of yourself, you resisted seeing faith as part of the solution. So many people with addiction or depression struggle with nihilism, but suggesting spiritual help is taboo in many circles. What do you see as the most helpful approach, for one’s own issues, and for helping others?
Lily: First, stabilize yourself with meds and/or therapy if need be! You can’t get to a place of grace and rest and peace if the car ain’t running right! Then, I’d say, befriend yourself before anything else–seeking a spiritual life, and the comfort of belief, community and hope isn’t some pass/fail project or something that comes with a grade (or even extra credit). I always rely on three little sentences: Start where you are. Do what you can. And, to quote Dory from Finding Nemo: Just keep swimming!
Patheos: A theme in Grace for Amateurs is appearances. “Cleaning before the maid came.” How your mother put on a perfect public front while things were falling apart between your home’s walls. Acting tough and in control when you really feel anything but. How codependents deflect any focus on their issues by focusing on others. And paradoxically, how masks and costumes and play-acting can free people to drop their false selves. What is the role of the church here? How does it hurt, and how can it help?
Lily: My friend Jenne says, “Church is a hospital for sinners, not a gallery for saints.” The performance art of faith isn’t necessary–come as you are! In fact, pretending to be in better shape than you are may be spiritually counterproductive. God loves you exactly as you are–nothing changed, nothing more, nothing less, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Forever and ever, Amen. One of the hardest things I’ve done in this life is to believe that love is real, and to let it in.
Lily is proof that you don’t need a flawless faith in order to experience Gods’ grace in action. If you yearn to return to the heart of faith—boundless, agenda-less love—pick up a copy of Grace for Amateurs. She’ll make you laugh and restore your hope all at the same time.