My Faith is Solid…and This Worries Me

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My senior year of college threw me into a major faith crisis. It was the year I took my most challenging classes, heard the most upsetting insights, and asked my hardest questions.

During that time, I began to question everything from my conservative Pentecostal upbringing. And in this case, “everything” is not much of an exaggeration.

I poked holes and made cracks in all aspects of my theology to see what would stay in tact and what would crumble. Unfortunately for me, most of it crumbled. I found out very fast that what I had thought was my rock solid foundation consisted of sand, and I began to sink into its mire.

I pondered predestination and free will, religion and science, the “debates” about same-sex marriage and LGBTQ equality, and the culture wars. I wondered about the legitimacy of doctrinal “facts” like the Trinity, the inerrant word of God, salvation through Christ alone, and whether or not women should pursue leadership roles (I actually wrote my thesis about this topic).

These questions of crisis kept me fearful and skeptical of the Church for many years. Engaging with my home community was too much for me. There was no room for questions, doubts, or even different opinions. Instead of trying to make some change from within, I ran away from the community which had once been my home, and I still have yet to return.

Fortunately, my journey led me to many brothers and sisters of the Christian faith who gave me space to ponder, wonder about, and tinker with my faith. They heard my questions, and when necessary, they offered new insights to consider. They told me I didn’t have to look at things through the black and white, right and wrong lens of my upbringing. They taught me new, life-giving, colorful ways to interpret the Scriptures, live as the Church, and follow Jesus. They taught me about the harsh realities of racism, sexism, and elitism I had been taught were long dead, and they taught me how prayer and protest go hand in hand. They let me create and lead. They swore, did theater, loved books and comics, and prayed. They seemed like authentic human beings, not the carbon-copy perfect Christians to whom I had been accustomed.

I met these people in school and church, in the theater and in the classroom, on the streets, in student apartments, and in cushy homes. They guided me through seminary and the faith communities I joined. They helped me find God and faith anew.

Now, I’m out of the faith crisis and living into a more solid, steady, and real faith. I still have questions, but now I feel more comfortable with some things being unresolved and have a firmer understanding in what I do and don’t believe. I continue to be irreverent while revering the sacred Presence around and within us. My prayers are more consistent, and they are full of joy, lament, and honesty. I feel closer to God and the Church than I have for the better part of 5 years.

And this worries me.

While in faith crisis mode, things were new and uncertain. Everything from whether or not I would remain in the Church to which authors I would revere was under question every day. Now that the ground beneath my feet is firmer, I’m not sure what to do. What do I do when the next step I take meets firm ground instead of sinking sand? What do I do when I’m swimming steadily instead of struggling to stay afloat?

This isn’t foreign territory. I remember when my beliefs were steady, before I knew the true essence of my former foundation. I remember what I was like when I was “right,” in every definition of the word. I distanced myself from those with whom I disagreed and felt the need to correct them when I was around them. I look back at who I was then with some disgust and horror, hoping I will never again be like this.

I don’t want to shut myself off from others, especially those who still struggle to feel welcomed by the Church. I worry that my more solid faith will be appalling to those still struggling and full of doubt. I worry that instead of listening to and hearing them, I will revert back to my old tendencies to correct and give clear-cut answers for chaotic and hurtful circumstances. I worry I will lose my sense to be understanding and be sympathetic to where my brothers and sisters are in their journeys.

I fear I will forget what it felt like to be on the outside looking in. I fear my present comfort will cause me to forget this difficult, wonderful, and necessary part of my journey, a part of my life which I treasure more than my any of my times of certainty.

So to alleviate these concerns, I will need reminders from my community.

There will be times I need to be reminded to do the hard work of listening to others, with whom I agree and disagree, who comfort me and challenge me. I will have to work hard to resist the temptation to either rest in tepidness or continue pursuing fleeing fancies. I will need regular, gentle reminders to hold my ideas with open palms instead of clenched fists.

I will need those younger and older than me to keep me in check, and the wisdom and stories of people of all ages and walks of life. I will need to be reminded I am not the be all and end all of the Church or good theology, and that steadiness in faith does not equate with unyielding certainty. I will need my blind spots pointed out and my slip-ups called out (but graciously, please!). I will need as much help as I can to keep moving forward in this journey.

So as I live into this time of steady faith, please continue to challenge and share with me. Keep telling your stories. Be honest about your beliefs and the joys and struggles of your lives. Continue to ask questions and remind me to keep asking them, too.

Let us remember that faith is never meant to be stagnant and still but ever-moving and ever-changing. Let us journey on together, wherever and as we are.

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Why This Story?

As I’ve shared before, there have been times in which participating in the Church is difficult. There have been times in which I am less engaged due to everything from boredom to fear of being and expressing myself. But through engagement with theater, TV shows, and comic books, I’ve discovered my desire for a connection with God and others through story.

An instrumental story in this process is The Sandman series by Neil Gaiman.

sandman

http://comicsalliance.com/

In September 2014, I began reading The Sandman at the recommendation of a fellow comic lover and survivor of the Bridgewater College Philosophy and Religion department. I bought the first issue online and lost myself in the world of Morpheus, the lord of dreaming.

One of my favorite Sandman stories is in issue 4. After an occult leader imprisons him for 70 years (as depicted in issue #1), Morpheus/Dream escapes and begins searching the world for his lost totems of power. One of these totems is a helmet, which a demon is Hell withholds from him. Dream enters hell and finds the demon, and the demon agrees to hand over the helmet only if Dream defeats him in a battle of wits, or what they call the “oldest game.” They start with small forms (hunter defeats wolf, hunter defeated by horsefly which harms his horse, etc.) and begin building until the demon declares himself as the form Anti-Life, “the dark at the end of everything.”

Everyone in hell thinks Dream is beaten. After all, what can defeat the Beast of Judgment, “the end of universes, gods, worlds…of everything?”

After a brief pause, in which all the demons of hell wait with baited breath, Dream replies, “I am hope.”

And the demon has no retort.

Dream leaves Hell with his helmet and a little more power, and I move on with the flicker of faith within me burning a bit stronger than before.

This small line has saved my faith more times than I can count. I am anxious and pessimistic about the world around me and the Church to which I pledge my allegiance. It is easy for me to look at world and Church and lose hope in them. In these times, I tell myself to look into the Story which I  say I am a part of, but all I see are stories retold so often and in such dry ways that I see little life remaining in them.

Yet this one line, this tiny sentence, written by a man who many in the Body of Christ would claim is not “one of us,” is sometimes the spark which keeps my faith alive.

Why, when I claim to be part of the Greatest Story Ever, is this story the one which keeps me going? What has happened to our Story, and how can it come back to life?

 

My Life as a Doubting Thomas

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http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doubting_Thomas

In one of my first chapels as a seminary student, we discussed how people are dissatisfied with the Church because they no longer find life within it. For some people, Church has become synonymous with dead traditions, lifeless worship, and a series of mundane services.

As a former Pentecostal, I can never say that I ever thought my faith community was “dead.” In fact, I thought we were so alive, everyone else was “dead” in comparison. I thought the same of my first college community, which, though it boasted a non-denominational label, acted more Pentecostal than my home church, complete with healings, tongues, and charismatic, worship-song fueled services that lasted almost two hours.

I never thought of my communities as lacking life. On the contrary, they were chock full of energy, charisma, excitement, passion, dreams, and drive. The most traditional things we did were communion and baptism, and aside from The Sinner’s Prayer, we didn’t have weekly prayers. While we mostly sang contemporary music, any hymns included on Sunday services were sang with a lot more excitement (and a lot more repeated verses for extra effect) and passion than those ‘other churches.’

Everything was exciting. Everything was on fire. Everything was alive.

So why did I leave?

I left because of Thomas.

Let me explain…

I was taking a Senior Seminar class during Fall Semester of my Senior year at Bridgewater, and our topic of the semester was Clashes of Culture. We read books by atheist authors who argued that Christianity was preventing America from advancing culturally, technologically, and intellectually compared to the rest of the world, which was more secular. We debated reading the Bible literally as opposed to metaphorically or in a historical-critical way.

To me, it seemed as if this class was tailor made to completely rip from under my feet the rug that had been my faith, turning everything which I held dear and cherished as the bedrock of my life into worthless, illegitimate, out-dated rags fit for no one.

I had so many questions that I was afraid to ask, not because I thought they would be brushed aside, but because I feared cookie-cutter answers and Band-Aids over wounds that needed further medical treatment, maybe even some surgery. I feared asking questions because I feared being treated like a project. I feared asking questions because I didn’t want people to pray that I would have more faith to overcome my doubt so I could conform once again to their proper mold.

Suddenly, the mold that had given me life and purpose left me feeling claustrophobic and fake. I knew if I stayed within this mold, if my questions remained in the dark of my fear and never saw the light of my confession, I would die on the inside.

I knew if I couldn’t ask why there were more sermon series on sexual purity than simplifying our lives, why we donated gobs of money to pay for unnecessary church renovations instead of feeding the hungry, or why God would send countless people to hell because they didn’t believe the “right” things, my faith would have shriveled up within me. The church that had brought me so much life and made other communities pale in comparison would kill my soul if I couldn’t get my greatest fears and questions out.

This was around the time two things happen: I became a big fan of Jesus’ disciple Thomas, and I started going to RISE.

In churches I’ve been to that have mentioned Thomas in any number of their services, Thomas is not portrayed as a role model. In fact, he is portrayed as quite the opposite. When I have heard Thomas’ story spoken of by pastors, he has been portrayed as someone whose example we would be better off not following. Yes, they have told me, you will at times be like Thomas and doubt God and Jesus and all sorts of matters related to the Christian faith, but when you find yourself in those times, try to get out of them as soon as possible.

Don’t sit in doubt. Don’t wrestle with doubt. Don’t try to understand what or why you doubt. Just get out of it. If doubt is a desert of slavery, unquestioning faith is the oasis of the Promised Land. Pray it away. Have more faith. Do anything to just get over it. Doubt is inevitable to the Christian, I was told, but it was also not good to go through. As I interpreted it, it was as bad a sin as any other.

And that’s how I found RISE. I had met Amanda the previous year, soon after RISE had launched, when she came to speak at BC Chapel. As I was finally beginning to question whether or not women really could be leaders when the rest of the Church was saying “No,” I went to Amanda immediately after the service to arrange a meeting with her to further discuss the topic of women in church leadership. We had an excellent conversation, and I could tell from that one meeting that she was someone to whom I could be open about my own struggles and questions. With this meeting in mind, I went to RISE, where they were beginning a series about the Rob Bell book Sex God. I remember Amanda talking about sexuality and spirituality, how we can use both to either acknowledge the sacred humanity in one another or defile and degrade it.

But most of all I remember the band getting back on stage to play the final songs and thinking to myself, “I really need to think about this.”

I’ve been to services that are convicting and have brought up many good points that affected my outlook on life, for better or worse. But I had never heard a message that was so relevant to who I was and how I lived that I needed time to process the implications of the message in my life. It was at this moment that I knew I had found a faith community in which I could grow and learn to be me for the sake of God’s Kingdom.

So back to Thomas, the doubter with the bad rep. I think most people give Thomas a hard time because he’s human like us, and also because they believe he doubted out of apathy, because he couldn’t be bothered with what Jesus’ resurrection would do to his life. But now, I disagree with this assessment. I had a counselor named Randy during this rough period of my life, and we were discussing my doubt when Thomas came up.

And for the first time in my life, someone explained to me how wonderful an example Thomas can be to us.

To Randy, Thomas didn’t doubt because he cared too little about Jesus and the Gospel; he doubted because he cared so much. He doubted because he took Jesus’ life, message, and death seriously, and if people were going around saying that Jesus was back, Thomas wanted to make sure Jesus’ message remained intact and didn’t become another myth or tall tale. Thomas cared SO much, not so little, about the implications of Jesus’ return that he knew better than to take them lightly, and he expresses the importance of his faith in Jesus in doubting.

When I looked at Thomas’ story through this light, I realized that my story was similar. I didn’t start being real with my doubts because my faith wasn’t important; I took my doubts and questions seriously because my faith is the bedrock of my life. Like Thomas, I care too much about my questions and what they mean for my faith to simply discredit them and push them under the rug or let them fester and become infected. In tending to my doubts, I allow God and my community to wash away the things that have become artificial and lifeless to let life-giving Truth rush through my veins. In sitting with my questions, I sit with God, my community, and the cloud of witnesses who have gone before me, from Job to Pope Francis, and have sat with God in the pain and fear of doubt until God shines his light on them.

In acknowledging my doubts, I find life. I refuse to let my faith die. It becomes more alive and less stagnant, a living, breathing organism instead of a frigid set of rules and beliefs.

I also identify with Thomas because of his need to touch and see Christ’s physical body. I wonder if so many young people are leaving the church because they no longer see the body of Christ in action. People ask if God is dead. They know Christians by words and beliefs, but not actions and deeds. People hear a lot about Jesus, but they don’t see him moving or doing much. This is not to discredit words (I myself am a huge fan of them). This is simply to remind us that the Church is a body, Christ’s body, and if we’re not being a whole body but just a head or a mouth, people won’t understand what we mean when we say that Christ is risen and alive and in us.

RISE became the body of Christ to me in my doubt. I saw Jesus’ body in the tears of a girl at mentoring sharing the story of her cousin’s deportation. I saw Jesus’ body in Amanda sitting across from me at Mr. J’s bagels as she said, “Me, too” when I told her of my struggles and doubts. I saw Jesus’ body when a young woman in our congregation began to cry while administering communion. I saw Jesus’ body in the thirteen year old boy who was part of a youth group mission week at RISE as he became best friends with a lady named Hope at a retirement community. I see Jesus’ body each Friday night in the midst of the holy chaos that is Sister2Sister, in the connections and bonds the mentors make with our girls, and in how our girls teach us so much about life, love, and the Kingdom of God.

I think this is what I love so much about Communion. It is in Communion that we are reminded of Jesus breaking his body and shedding his blood to meet us in our own brokenness and hurt. Communion is God meeting us exactly where we are, and it is where God begins to heal us. When I saw my friend crying as she gave Communion, I realized how appropriately emotional she was being. Communion was always practiced so solemnly, so quietly, something very uncharacteristic of my otherwise loud and flashy religious upbringing. Before we took communion, we were reminded to check our hearts and see that we were right before God so we could take communion in good conscience and not make God mad. I understand the importance of not viewing communion as another one of those traditions that can become lifeless and meaningless if we simply go through the motions of it. I also understand that there are times when taking communion should be solemn.

But it is also emotional, joyful, hopeful, and inspiring, and I no longer believe that I have to have myself all put together to partake of it. This is further proof that in Jesus and the body of Christ, God meets us where we are. And we as the body of Christ are to meet people where they are, like Jesus met Thomas in his caring doubt and gave him physical evidence of what Thomas loved the most.

Jesus meets us in our doubt. As the Church, we must also meet the world in all of its doubt and brokenness. There are too many lives at stake if we allow the questions to go unanswered. In a way, it really is a matter of life or death. As the Church, what will we choose to do?

God is not a man.

All my life, God has been described as a Father.

Growing up, my religious upbringing taught me men were called to be providers and leaders, and this was because God revealed Himself as Father, as a He. Therefore, men were to model courage, leadership, and provision, while women modeled support, submission, and nurture.

My religious upbringing taught me this. Life showed me something entirely different.

Life provided me with way too many powerful women to simply accept this theology at face value. Life also threw many reasons my way to not trust God as Father.

While most children grew up in homes with a male provider, this title was held solely by my Mama. She was the one who sacrificed for me. She was my caretaker and friend. She was present and loving, but firm and gave me space. Right off the bat, I was exposed to a woman who modeled provision and leadership.

And then there’s my Gammy, the matriarch with subtle but impressive power. She is kind and compassionate and loves us dearly, but she is firm and puts us in our place when we step out of line. She’s the one who will buy me a book on youth ministry just because she saw it at a store, yet will command my cousin Michael to write his graduation thank-you notes instead of putting them off and looking ungrateful. She is the rock of our family, preserver of our memories, the one we all look to for hope and strength. She was also a leader, and as a woman who worked three jobs, helped support a farm alongside my Poppy, and helped to raise six kids, you can be certain she’s one brave and strong lady, too.

My aunts also modeled this subversive idea of gender roles. They devoted their love and attention to me, along with their wisdom. They taught me how when life becomes most difficult, you have to find the will to keep going. They taught me the importance of family bonds, and how family will never leave you. I called my aunt Leslie at least once a week in middle school when I came home overwhelmed by unexplainable anxiety, knowing she could offer me words of comfort and consolation. I called my aunt Karen after a nasty break-up, knowing she had been through a very similar one when she was my age. I called my aunt Kim when I started Zoloft, because she was on it and had encouraged me to try it long ago. They were some of my earliest cheerleaders and most loving confidants.

My friends gave me a community of fun, laughter, encouragement, and love. Emily stayed by my side beginning in preschool. Beth put a card on my door when my Poppy was in the hospital. My college friends wrote me a book of love, support, and wisdom in the midst of a bad relationship. These women called me out when I was being ridiculous, held me during my struggles, and cracked jokes at me so I wouldn’t take myself so seriously. They showed me community and unconditional love and support.

My teachers and leaders shared their wisdom, attention, inspiration, and empowerment. Ms. Williamson showered me with devotion and care. Mrs. Pitcock continued to draw out my love of English and writing and humor. Mrs. Clouse listened to my stories day after day in her class, and she was the first one to witness me pass out after talking about blood.

These women shaped my life, faith, and future. They inspired, empowered, and encouraged me. They gave me hope, love, and strength.

Now when I hear God described as provider, I think of my mother. When I think of the strong yet subtle voice of God, I hear my Gammy. When I think of God’s Kingdom of community, I think of my friends and family. When I hear stories of the God of empowerment and inspiration, I remember the leaders and teachers who drew out my dreams and destiny.

But the men were a different story for the most part.

My father had been absent for most of my life. He was little more than a memory to me, yet I was supposed to identify God as a Father. And my stepfather aloof and unfaithful, so together, these two did not give me the best idea of God the Father.

If God was Father, could He leave at any given time? Could He deem me unlovable and unworthy just for the sake of my existence? Did this mean I had to impress Him to keep Him around? Would He grow weary of me? Would He just stop caring and go off to someone else whom He deemed “better?”

For so long, I thought that since these men had failed me, all men had failed me. Since I didn’t know love from them, I could not know love from any men. And if God was a man, I certainly couldn’t know love from Him.

But then I looked at my Poppy, the man who was firm and stern but whose eyes lit up whenever his grandkids came to visit. Then I met my father, a man whose compassion for others and open mind and heart inspire me to stretch my arms a little wider to embrace those around me. Then I learned from my high school teachers and college professors. Mr. Tillman, to this day the teacher of the most difficult class I’ve ever taken, encouraged me to keep on going with his class, even though I was almost failing it. I have never been more proud of a final B+ grade, and I still have the first A+ paper I received in his class.  Mr. Belkin and Prof Watson stretched my mind and challenged me to think boldly and for myself. Bryce showed me immense and unconditional love, attention, grace, compassion, and gentleness, first in our friendship and now in our relationship, and they have done glorious wonders for my soul. He was also one of the first people to tell me to pursue ministry, writing, and leadership, even before I was willing to fully admit that I wanted to pursue those fields.

These men showed me love, grace, and strength. They shared with me their wisdom and ideas, but they didn’t impose them on me. They were gentle and compassionate but knew what they stood for and did not give in. They embraced and loved me for who I am, who I was, and who I was becoming.

I began to recognize the image of God in them, the image I had for so long recognized in women. I recognize in them the image of our Creator, who loves me for me, who is always with me and for me, and who abides in infinite love and grace.

If we’re both made in the image of God, God cannot be a man. Or even a woman. God gave us God’s characteristics, both male and female.

God is bigger than gender.

I see God in men and women. I see God in the men who stay at home and the women who provide. I see God in the women who lead and the men who follow. I see God in “traditional gender roles,” and I see God in the “not-so-traditional roles.” I see God in the ones who acknowledge the dignity of others. I see God in those who empower and love others. This isn’t confined to a gender. It can’t be.

I see God in my friend Jess and in Bryce, in my Mom and my Dad, my Gammy and my Poppy, Prof. Watson and Dr. Trupe, Mr. Tillman and Mrs. Pitcock, Mr. Belkin and Ms. Williamson, Kim and Mike, Tracy and Tony.

It was never either/or. It was always and/both. It was always meant to be open to all. It was always meant to be all about love.

We all carry God’s image. How we show it is all up to us. Dogma and doctrine can’t control or fence this in. The Spirit moves us, empowers us, inspires us to be who we are made to be: Restorers of Creation. We all do this. We all have our gifts and strengths, hopes and dreams, whether we are man or woman.

Be the image. Restore the world. Share the love.

What Does God Look Like?

In life, change is necessary. If there is no change, there is no progress, and there is no growth. If we were to stay infants forever, we’d never know the joy of childhood, and if we stayed children forever…you know what, as an adult, I’d say being stuck in childhood wouldn’t be that bad.

But seriously, if we never mature from children to adolescents and then adults, we wouldn’t be able to learn to live on our own. We wouldn’t learn to think for ourselves, to problem solve, to make our own choices and live our own lives.

And as life changes, for some who profess religious faith, perspectives on God change. In this season of my journey now, what God looks like, who God is (in short, God’s self), has gone through some dramatic changes.

When I was a child, God looked a lot like a man on a cloud in a big robe with a white beard. He mostly resembled God as depicted in Michelangelo’s painting The Creation of Adam, and I thought of God as someone who was ok with you as long as you were good most of the time, kind of like a divine Santa Claus.

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http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/The-Measure-of-Genius-Michelangelos-Sistine-Chapel-at-500.html

When I reached adolescence, God still kind of looked that way, only I began to struggle with him more. I wanted to know why things I liked, like Harry Potter and other books I read in school, weren’t “OK” by his standards. As my anxiety started to peak and I began to feel more self-conscious and insecure in who I was, I got angry with God. I wanted to know why I was feeling this way, why my family wasn’t perfect like everyone else’s, why I didn’t feel like people loved me the way they loved others. I knew deep inside that God loved me, but I didn’t always feel it. My own fears and insecurities weighed me down to the point that following God by being good all the time didn’t seem worth it anymore. I wanted strong relationships with others, to be the center of attention and be the most loved. I didn’t know if God would want that with me.

When I started college, God was my BFF. I had struggled through insecurities and fear, and finally I felt like I had a real relationship with him. In fact, I felt so secure in my relationship with this God who loved me and was almighty and all-powerful and simply perfect in every way, that I decided I wanted to go into ministry. I studied my Bible to see what God had in store for my life, attended retreats to encounter God in more spiritual ways, and became involved in all types of ministries, from Christian camps to drama teams. I had finally found a God who loved me and wanted to make my life awesome, and I was pretty stoked for the future.

By my senior year, all of that changed.

Our topic for Senior Seminar that year was “Clashes of Culture.” This was basically a less blunt way of saying “Challenging Conservative and Fundamentalist Viewpoints, Especially in Christianity.” That meant reading books by atheists who presented some convincing arguments that made God and “his people” seem like monsters, writing papers that made me challenge my mostly literal interpretation of the Bible, and discuss whether or not religion, even one I loved so much, should be as influential as it had been in the past.

My entire foundation, which had been rooted in the idea of a God who was way beyond our understanding and did things for his glory, crumpled like the walls of Jericho. I was terrified.

Suddenly, the God who had once loved me for who I was now hated everyone who wasn’t on his “team.” The God who was everywhere for me was gone when people were sick, starving, and dying. The God who was just let his people destroy Creation, and all in his name.

Suddenly, it seemed like everything I had ever believed and held dear was all a lie.

That’s the odd thing about doubt, though. I grew up thinking doubt was something everyone inevitably went through at points in their life, but it was something you got over once you had all your answers figured out. However, when I was stuck between staying with my image of God as a lordly old man and actually opening my eyes to the world, when I let the doubt challenge me to think for myself and open my mind to the world around me, God began to look more…human. More vulnerable and even a bit more like me.

Because that’s when I started seeing God in the most unlikely places and the most unlikely people. I was finding God in kids who wanted to know they were loved, in refugees in need of shampoo, and students who were also wondering exactly who God is. I started finding God in the news, the good, bad, ugly, and hopeful. I starting seeing God not as some being who did as he pleased for his own glory. No, God started looking like the Love that is with us in all things. I started seeing God in baby showers celebrating life and people bringing casseroles to people who had a death in the family. I started seeing God in the words of professors who challenged me to think critically, in the arms of loved ones as I poured my anxieties out to them and they held me, in hands and feet and love in action.

God wasn’t so frightening as he once was. Now, God just looks like Love to me. In fact, there’s a big part of me that wants to believe God is the force of Love that holds this universe together, that to be made in God’s image is to carry that love inside of us and show it to the world every chance that we can.

I look at Jesus, and the love he embodied, and it looks nothing like this scary god I’ve conjured up in the deep, dark pits of my own pain. Jesus makes God into someone who loves the world, and who loves me for who I am and as I am. And because he was somehow able to understand and embody this deep love of God within him, we are also to imitate his example to release the source of divine love within us.

Still, my human mind wants God to have a shape, even a gender, some type of category I can put him in. Then maybe I could pray more easily because I’ll know what the being on the other end is like. Maybe I could stop questioning so much and start living like I used to, even if I don’t want to backtrack. Maybe I could figure out if God is really some big, divine, Creator being, or a Spirit of Love that dwells within us and somehow also made everything the way it is now, and somehow this Love holds it all together.

So, I still don’t know what God “looks” like in a physical sense, and maybe that doesn’t matter. Being made in God’s image doesn’t mean I carry a physical essence of God; it means I carry what makes God the loving being God is within me.

If that’s not a great mystery, I don’t know what is.

Why I’m Writing (A Sort-of Sequel to Why I’m Not Praying)

http://rosemaryalva.com/2013/02/27/writing-to-heal/

Tuesday was one of my rare days off, so my roomies and I had dinner together and watched This is 40, which is described as the “sort-of sequel to Knocked Up.”

While this post has nothing to do with the movie besides being influenced by the sub-title, I did want to follow up on my last post on prayer. I gave some ground on why I’m not praying anymore, and I heard some amazing responses as a result, so I hope to further the conversation by writing about why I write.

Since I was young, writing has been my niche. It’s been my go-to talent for as long as I can remember, and it’s been a powerful tool at putting into words what my tongue gets too tied to say or my own mind is too twisted by anxiety to express. It’s my way of processing, and, in its own way, it’s been my most consistent form of prayer.

Prayer is about connecting, and writing has connected me to the world around me in one of the deepest ways possible. 

When my mind becomes to anxious to make sense of anything, writing all the anxieties down calms my brain enough to take a step back and find perspective in  my life, and to tell the demons in my head that they are nothing but illusions.

When I’m too nervous to say something to someone when it needs to be said, good or bad, typing or writing it makes my thoughts and sentiments a bit more legible, and a bit more understanding and graceful.

When I have lots of fun ideas and stories brewing in my mind, writing gives them life and release and potential to be something more.

I feel connected to the ones who read my words. I feel connected to my own self, what I’m feeling, thinking, and processing on any given day, and it helps me to process my past experiences that still influence me today. I feel connected to the people whose stories I write, because even the stories of fiction are in some way inspired by my own experiences.

I write to feel connected with the people in my life. I’ve written letters to my mom on Mother’s Day and to my grandmother when her mother was in bad health. I’ve written notes to encourage friends in rough times and to remind them how special they are to me and to so many others. I’ve received so much love in the form of writing through letters sent to me from dear friends and family, asking how I’m doing, to encourage me, to tell me how special I am to them. When I worked at a summer camp in 2010, the most exciting days were the days I received mail from others, including my birthday when I received many cards from my dear loved ones, reminding me that while I was out of sight, I was no where near out of their minds.

I feel a deep connection to others when I write sermons that I speak to inspire and remind them of their worth and the love God has for them. When I wrote poems and stories as a child, I wrote about animals and books and things I loved so dearly; the words I wrote contained my deepest passions. When I read a post by Rachel Held Evans on doubt, or a book by Margot Starbuck about abandonment, I feel connected to these people I barely know because of our shared experiences. When I read the Daily Connections my fellow RISE leaders send to each other, I feel a deeper connection with them as they write about their fears, dreams, and lives. My cousin Emily wrote a beautiful note to my grandfather after he passed away, and when it was read at his funeral, it was another reminder of how much he had impacted our lives and how dearly he would be missed.

Writing has also been one of my most useful forms of therapy. I practically wrote my way through surviving adolescence, and I jotted down notes to calm me down at work on receipt papers and in the journal pages in the back of my planner. As odd as it may sound, writing helped me find the voice of Love within me, and I like to think this voice belongs to the God who is always with me and for me.

When I write, I don’t know if I feel closer to God as I once viewed him, but I feel closer to the core of who I am, which frees me up to be closer to the people around me, which frees me up to be closer to the world around me, which I believe in some abstract, six-degrees-of-separation way frees me up to be closer to God.

Because now prayer looks a lot like reflecting, with others and with myself. It looks like connecting with others, hearing their dreams, pains, and stories, and loving them authentically for who they are. And it looks like taking the time to know who I am and who I’ve been created to be. Prayer to me has taken on a whole new form, but if it connects me with the lives and pain of others and myself, I believe it is also connecting me with the One who made all of us.

Why I’m Not Praying

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http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/the-lay-scientist/2013/mar/26/1

I used to spend regular time in prayer. At least I tried to. I used to read my Bible more often, talk about God more often, and try to do all the things I “needed” to do to make myself seem like the stereotypical “good Christian.” I even got a Philosophy and Religion degree and applied to seminary so I could keep up the good work.

But now, I’m not praying at all. Not when I’m happy, or sad, or at the end of my rope. I don’t pray the offices, for others when I say I will, at mealtimes, barely even at church.

I’m just not praying.

Why?

Because I feel directionless but fear direction. I feel asleep but don’t want to be woken up just yet. I feel numb but don’t want to feel pain.

I don’t know what I’ll hear, whether I’ll encounter a God of love and mercy or a God who is as hard on me as I am. I don’t know if I’ll hear anything but silence. I don’t know if I can trust the God on the other end, because I’m worried this God will look like one that isn’t with or for me.

Prayer might bring me right up close and personal with the One who could tell me to go places I don’t want to go, tear down the walls I’ve worked so hard to build up, make time for the people that I don’t want to see, and maybe even get out of my own head every once in a while.

I’m scared of transformation. I’m comfortable where I am yet want so desperately to be shaken up.

I don’t even know what I believe about God anymore, and there’s this big part of me that feels like I have to have so many things figured out before I can be that close to God again.

I don’t want to be convicted, corrected, or called out. I don’t want to let someone that big and powerful know my deepest darkest secrets and fears and dreams.

I want so desperately to be in communion with my Creator, but the distance I’ve put between us seems a whole lot safer, not to mention more comfortable to me. But this distance comes at a price.

Because while I’ve been keeping God at a distance, I’ve been keeping my community at a distance. I’m afraid to let God see the real me, and I wonder if it’s because I’m afraid to let other people see the real me. Because I’m realizing more and more that the god I worship the most is how people see me, and I don’t want this god to see everything that makes me who I am, the good or the bad.

Intimacy with others can really scare me. How can I expect intimacy with God to be any less revealing or any less terrifying?

In prayer, whatever form it takes, through singing or dancing or speaking or meditating or being with people, vulnerability is a must. Being my whole self is a must. This involves tearing down walls that I’ve comfortably hidden behind for so long. This involves being honest with myself so I can be honest with others. This involves me getting out of my head long enough to realize that I am not the be all and end all of this world.

All of these seem too much for me to do.

So while I really want to pray, to read my Bible and hear its beautiful stories, to be a seminary student, to be authentically me in a community that adores me, I’m still finding what once seemed so effortless now almost impossible. I don’t completely know what I do and don’t believe about the Bible or God or Christianity. I’m still on this journey of putting one foot in front of the other and hoping that everything works out in the end.

I know I need to tear some walls down, let people in, let the world know me, let God know me and love me. But I don’t know how to convince myself that I have strength, courage, grace, and love enough to do something this big.

If anyone else is on this journey, whether you’re a faithful prayer warrior or are consumed by overwhelming doubts, please share your thoughts. Your story matters, and it should be heard. Thank you.