First, I’d like to express deep gratitude to all of you who read my first trio of blog posts. I was so honored to receive so many comments and messages. Already, I feel less alone in this journey, and was reminded of the vast community that exists out there that I can rely on. Thank you.
Secondly, I got the feeling that a few of you are worried about my soul. So, let’s talk about that. Because, honestly, that’s been on my mind, too.
It has never been a secret that I am a Christian. In a family like mine, how could I not be? From an early age, I was committed to a very biblical centered faith without wavering and was willing to go to the nth degree to defend it (I owe a few apologies because of that). The Bible gave me a safe place to be, a comfort in time of need, a rule book to follow.
And so, I grew up repeating all of the ‘right’ answers, making these answers the backbone of my being. I knew who was going to heaven or hell and why, and that I was personally responsible either way. There was a very ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ mentality. At the tender age of seven, I recall having a very serious conversation with my Methodist friend Patricia in our second grade classroom.
“Sarah goes to the Catholic Church, doesn’t she?” Patricia whispered, out of earshot from Sarah.
“Yeah, they don’t believe like we do,” I whispered back with deep sorrow. We shook our heads and pursed our lips.
The Baptists were going to heaven for sure (because we had accepted Jesus Christ as our personal Lord and Savior). Probably the Methodists and Nazarenes (if they had prayed the ‘sinner’s prayer’). There were some non-denominational Bible-believing congregations that had most of it right and were probably going to get past the pearly gates. Lutherans and Catholics were in the same camp: probably going to hell (the Catholics for sure because of the whole worshipping Mary bit). We didn’t even talk about Presbyterians (too hard to spell). Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses were certainly going to hell, and Buddhists, Muslims and Hindus were so far off the charts we talked about them in more of a scientific comparative sort of sense (also, there weren’t many where I lived in North Dakota). We had a whole Sunday school class on satanic signs and how to avoid them. I was not allowed to wear things with a peace symbol on it because it represented a broken cross. The ‘New Age Movement’ seemed to be especially dangerous, as it was so ‘spiritual’ in nature. Clear lines were drawn between the sacred and the secular. We needed to steer clear of anyone and anything that might make us stray from the Truth. I once wished my dad “Happy Solstice!” and he replied, “I don’t believe in that.”
There was such comfort in knowing all of the answers. Even knowing that we could expect to be persecuted for knowing all of the answers brought security. Our Truth was foolishness to those who were perishing. We had God totally figured out. What was our purpose in life and in death? To worship God and glorify him forever. When something bad happened, it meant God was testing us, or that it was to work out for eventual good. When we didn’t get what we wanted, it was because we hadn’t prayed enough, or that our will was not aligned with God’s will and we needed to pray for that. When someone was sick, or dying, it was to show God’s power in healing or that their service to God was over and they were ready to go to heaven. And we would find all the comfort we needed in knowing that they were in heaven, the place where we spend eternity praising God around His throne. These things were not to be questioned, and if they were, we would pray for your soul to repent of your doubt.
When my parents died, and I was faced with real hard truths about life and death, everything shifted. Saying I believed in heaven and hell took on a whole new meaning when the most important people who had taught me about those very things were on the other side. I couldn’t grasp it. I couldn’t find it. I couldn’t access the joy and peace that I was supposed to feel knowing they were there. The real pain of being human and the reality of human bodies having a shelf life was unbearable. My family had received their ‘heavenly reward’ but I was left behind to make sense of the pieces.
I grappled endlessly with a God whose purpose for us was to tell others about Him so that they could go on to eternal life. It sounded like a pyramid scheme. That was the purpose of an almighty, all-knowing, all loving and gracious God? To be worshipped? To be put on a throne? And because we would actually never measure up, that he had to become a man (the Son, Jesus) to die on our behalf so that we could live eternally? This was just not making sense for me. I would lie awake in bed for hours trying to make this make sense, but in the end, I would spiral into fear and panic, feeling like I had been brainwashed, that this was all a hoax that had been created to control people. All of the unconditional love I thought I had been feeling from God, died when my parents died. I was alone in the world and felt like there was no one who could understand my plight. I became afraid to be alive if being alive just meant following all of the rules until you died. And I was afraid to die, because I was unconvinced that there was anything after. No amount of praying, by myself or others on my behalf, seemed to be able to pull me from the mire. I needed new answers. I needed God to be bigger.
I continued to go through the motions of church, pretending that I believed for the sake of my children, but living with so much fear and dread every day. I kept repeating pat answers to my kids about life and death, heaven and hell, not knowing what else to say. “I’m not sure” and “I don’t know” felt like answers that would leave them feeling as afraid as I was.
And then it finally hit me: I wasn’t sure, and I didn’t know, and that’s what faith is actually all about. When I finally cracked open to the possibility that we as Christians and as humans don’t actually know everything, I realized the true meaning of faith. I was trapped in a delusion that there was an answer in the Bible for everything. I had been convinced that being a Christian robot slave to heavy-handed God was going to provide my best results for existence.
I needed more, and I sensed there was more. But I had so many voices from my past warning me to beware of false teachers, the subtle evils of the world, the half-truths and near truths and watered-down truths. I didn’t know where to begin. In my bones, I knew I would always believe in God. That was the one thing I was totally sure about. But I wasn’t totally sure that this was the God of the Bible. And I had to be willing to let that go for a minute to really continue on this journey.
Another thing that I had to let go of was the feeling that God needed me in order to do God’s work. I knew that God was big enough to accomplish his goals without my help. I took a step back and looked at the whole of humanity and suddenly felt so small. I put myself in place with the human race, one small human having one of billions of human experiences, no two exactly alike. I thought back to early humans and what their faith journeys would have looked like. They didn’t have the Bible or the accounts of Jesus coming to be human. How did they find God?
I began to sink into this more. What was God’s true purpose for humanity? The Jesus factor is a piece that continues to bring me back to the Christian faith. The logical side of me likes that Jesus is actually a historically documented figure. I feel like I have the heart of a mystic, and the brain of a scientist. Ok, so here was a starting point for my logic loving brain. So, I started to think about Jesus. I had “asked him into my heart” officially when I was 5, and ‘believed’ in him from the moment my parents told me the stories. So, where did that leave me?
I decided I needed an outside opinion. I had met a woman, Deb, who was the teacher of a grief group I participated in, and a pastor who does spiritual direction. I booked an appointment to see her, and at one point she asked me, “What do you say when you pray to Jesus?”.
I was stunned to hear my own answer, “I’ve never prayed to Jesus.” I pray ‘in Jesus’ name’, I pray to God, I summon the Holy Spirit, but I had never had a conversation with Jesus.
“Ok, well, there’s your homework,” Deb said. “I want you to talk to Jesus. And make time to listen, too.”
Homework, good. I knew how to do homework.
I thought a lot about this in the days that followed. Jesus had been the thing that kept bringing me back to faith. When I would start to doubt all of the rules and theology that had been passed down for countless generations, I would remind myself of the life of Jesus. That he came to earth to teach us the way to live and to ease our fears of death. He healed the sick and cast out demons and raised the dead. He was a friend to the outcast, a prophet to the lost and a rebel against mainstream Jewish thought. He was killed by those he came to help, but then, amazingly, three days later he came back to life. The scientist in me has trouble with that last part, but the mystic in me desperately wants to believe it.
But what if there was more? What if actually knowing Jesus was a totally different thing? All my life I have said I believe in Jesus. “Even the demons believe and tremble,” says the Bible, somewhere. Was just believing in Jesus what it was all about? Those seemed to be the magic words that got you into heaven. There had to be more. God had to be more creative than that.
A couple of weeks went by, and the challenge to talk to Jesus kept echoing in my head. It’s amazing how easy it is to avoid making time to just sit and listen. Maybe there was part of me that was afraid I wouldn’t hear anything, or even worse: that I would hear something and wouldn’t like what I heard. That it would be the same old thing: “try harder, do better, love more”.
On this particular morning, I woke hardly having slept the night before. The wind and rain sounded like artillery fire against our south facing window. The precious minutes of sleep I did have were courtesy of the pillow over my head. But I had a really important job to do on this day: I was going to Ikea.
There was a time in life when 2 hours in the car sounded like torture. But at this point, this point when I was the manager of a busy household and a small creative business, it was near bliss. I could listen to whatever music I want, or not. I could listen to a podcast, I could listen to the news. Or just be quiet, the hum of the road my companion.
I started the trip with Christmas music (‘twas the season), got a little bored. Turned on a podcast cued up on my phone that I had turned off the day before. Nope, still annoying. Nothing worse than people pretending to be wise. So, I settled on the quiet.
Then my mind drifted to that last conversation I had with Deb. I could almost hear Jesus saying, “How about now?”
I wasn’t ready to be alone in my head. I fiddled with my phone to get to a familiar playlist. Singing would feel good on my lungs. But I couldn’t get it to play. An unfamiliar screen came up on our car’s info center: “Phone call in progress”.
What did that mean? I was not on the phone. Had it not hung up from my last call? I hadn’t even made a call that day. I hit the phone app to see if I had inadvertently called someone, but there was no one there. I was feeling a little panicky. Even the annoying podcast would be better than the awkwardness of listening to the thoughts in my own head. But it was no use. My phone was locked.
“Ok. You win, Jesus,” I said out loud. “Talk to me.”
And as if I was talking back to myself, I felt a voice in my head say, “No, you talk. I want YOU just to talk to me.”
“You want me to just talk to you. Like, out loud. Like a crazy person. Ok, yeah. I can actually do that. I will talk out loud,” and suddenly, I was laughing. I was laughing out loud and in my head, wait, or was that Jesus laughing in my head?
“Ok, well, I’m just going to go with this, Jesus. I’m just going to talk out loud and give you some time to talk back to me.” I paused. It was like the pause in any conversation with someone you don’t know very well when you evaluate if it be more awkward to have silence or to fill the space with inane words.
I had been reading some parables lately. That would give us some common ground for discussion. “So, I read the parable about the pearl of great price. You know, the one where the merchant finds a pearl that is so beautiful beyond anything he had ever seen, that he sells everything he owns to buy the pearl.”
“Yep. I know that one.”
“So, really? Everything we own? Is it possible that YOU, that this spiritual life could be so great that we just wouldn’t want anything else? I mean, it just feels impossible to me. I want to want it that badly, but it’s just really hard to imagine.”
“Yep. And Yep.”
“Yeah, I thought you’d say that. But what’s the secret? How can I tap into that?”
I felt like the answer to this question would make or break this whole conversation, that if some kind of new inspiration came, that I might believe that I wasn’t, indeed, just talking to myself.
“You need to connect to the Source.”
“The source, you mean God?”
“Yes, but not the God you’re used to.”
I heard what he was saying. I was having all kinds of struggles trying to figure out what I really believed about God, who he or SHE is, if he/she was the great judge or the great love or both and everything and nothing (and then my mind starts to spin…).
“You need to connect to the land. You are part of creation and you need to find your place in creation and you will find the Source.”
Immediately, I flashed back to being on Lopez Island an early morning a few weeks previous. I had felt more peace and connection sitting on that rocky ledge, watching otters and seals play, then I had ever felt in a church building.
“Yeah, I get it. You’re right. There’s something about being outside in the world that makes me understand God.”
“It’s not just you.”
“Oh, you’re right! So much of the destruction of the Earth is happening because people aren’t connected to the things that are giving their bodies life. They live in their heads, not their bodies. Ah, yes, this is me. This is my big disconnect. Wow, thanks, Jesus.”
“Glad to help.”
“Ok, well, I really need to turn on the GPS pretty soon, so anything else you want to tell me before I’m completely distracted again?”
I felt him roll his eyes. Yes, Jesus rolled his eyes at me.
“It’s been really nice to be with you. I’m always here, just hanging around, so feel free to drop in anytime. But I know it might be awhile, so I want to tell you this one important thing: you can just be who you are.”
“Ha! That’s it? That’s the important thing?” I laughed.
But then it started to sink in. I had been trying so hard my whole life to win the approval of everyone around me. Including God. My life was about striving. I had never trusted that I had inside of me what it took to be a whole and happy person. My therapist had just told me the same thing: you are trying so hard to make everything right, to figure everything out. Perhaps everything was right as it was, and I just had to quit trying so hard make it better, and then it would somehow all make sense.
I pulled into the Ikea parking lot, and the urge to buy anything but the pearl of great price had suddenly dissipated.
I realized that if I believed that Jesus was, indeed, alive, then I needed to believe that he was an evolving, relational being. That he was not stuck in Bible times, but that he was current, and present, and could meet me where I was.
This blew my mind wide open. My view of the purpose of Jesus also started to shift. The idea of Jesus being a ‘sacrifice’ so that we could live just never rang true to me. I started to explore the notion that God actually became a human to showus how to be human. He actually said, ‘I have come to give life, and to give it more abundantly’. He didn’t say, ‘I’ve come to shackle you with the job of converting everyone else to serving me.’ He came to give us peace that being a human is a beautiful thing. He made the outcasts and marginalized feel seen, and loved and valued, he went to parties, he turned water into wine. He had close friendships with people. And Pharisees watched with disdain while he broke all the rules.
I have begun to see Jesus as a rebel, a revolutionary, a radical. He loved people in unexpected ways. And he met them where they were at. He did not demand that they change their ways. But people’s ways were changed by his love.
I look back on my upbringing, and how I was taught that the most important thing about being a Christian was telling other people about Jesus. And I did, dutifully, for a long time. Until I realized that I was not a true evangelist. I was a false teacher. I was making claims I had no right to make. Jesus had not changed my life. The rules of the church had governed my life. I didn’t even know Jesus. I knew every answer there was to know about the Jesus of the Bible, but I didn’t know him personally. I believed in him, but I didn’t know how to have a relationship with him. I didn’t even know what that would look like.
So, I feel like I am in a new phase of seeking God, Christ, and church in really new and different ways. I am looking for cues from the mystics and the old testament for how to seek God. I feel like the modern Christian church has put God in an ill-fitting box– a very male, domineering, punishment-oriented box. I want to seek a God who is gracious and loving, a nurturing mother, a father who disciplines in love, a God who sees me and wants me to be who he/she created me to be. I am searching for Christ in the world, because I believe that is where the essence of Christ dwells—among us and within us. And I am looking at church as a place of community. Where messy humans gather to try to make sense of their messes, helping one another along. To pretend that any of us have it all figured out is a joke and only builds walls that divide community.
As far as how the Bible fits into all of this, I love the Bible. The stories about Jesus are, by far, my favorite parts. And the Psalms. The rest of it, I take with a grain of salt (because salt is biblical). The Bible is an account of one group of human’s pursuit of God. It was written by men who were devoted to faith in the creator God. Many were stories passed down for generations, used to help scores of humans try to make sense of existence. The biblical canon was assembled by humans (men, to be specific), with much prayer and guidance by the Holy Spirit, but these were still just people. I’m so curious why the church basically doesn’t ever talk about any of the writing that was left out of the canon. Why is there special magic in the books that were chosen? As it is, there are certainly a number of verses that are elevated in ‘importance’ in modern churches, and others we brush to the side.
I am also very interested in the concept of the Word, as in “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God” (John 1). To me the Word of God is alive, creative, expressive. I love to think of the Bible as a record of human experiences of connecting with God. But why should that stop? Why should ancient experiences be any more meaningful or sacred than our own? I was taught more about how others experienced God, and less about how to actually do that on my own.
So where does that leave me? Well, mostly: I don’t know. But, I’m feeling better and better about not knowing. I’m choosing to embrace the mystery. I can sleep at night (mostly). The solid truth is that we don’t know, and that’s part of the beauty of it all. I leave you with the words of Mary Oliver—(is it too late to include her in the biblical canon?)
“I believe I will never quite know.
Though I play at the edges of knowing,
truly I know
our part is not knowing,
but looking, and touching, and loving…”
(excerpt from ‘Bone’)