I was raised to believe. Raised to believe in a church and a gospel that knew all the answers. We used to joke about "Sunday school answers" because it seemed like there were like five things that were the answers to everything.
Read the scriptures.
Go to church.
Obey the rules.
Choose the right.
And if you did those things, everything would make sense and turn out fine. Prosperity gospel at it's finest.
What happens when those answers don't make sense anymore? Why would God bless some people but not others? Why would God allow such horrible things to happen around the world? Why would God allow all manners of horror to happen to people who were doing all the "right" things? Why would God care more about who "makes it" to the afterlife instead of what's going on here? Why would God allow racism and sexism and homophobia and hate crimes and genocide and poverty and abuse and addiction and war? Why on earth weren't churches leading the way in stopping these things? Was God racist? Was God sexist? Was God really only willing to bless a few and leave the rest to wonder if they weren't good enough, righteous enough, favored enough, praying hard enough, or doing enough of the checklist items? Was God really okay watching so many people despair and run harder in an effort to make the "blessed" list? Was it really God who answered a prayer about lost car keys but not the prayer of a parent praying for the safe return of their child?
I don't know.
Sixteen years after I first started to ask these questions, I still don't know the answers.
What I do know is that allowing myself to doubt and allowing myself to ask questions brought....well...more questions. But it also brought peace in the not knowing. I'm okay not knowing. Which is kind of blasphemous to my twenty-something self that thought I had to know. That was taught that I had to know. I had to be able to testify of things that, quite honestly, I simply couldn't. That set out to find answers so that I could know and just found more questions.
But here's the miraculous thing that also brought. It brought ownership in what I did believe. It brought peace in knowing that I could puzzle something out and decide whether it was something to keep, something to toss, or something to set aside. I listened to podcasts. I read books. I listened to preachers. I read historical accounts. I talked to friends and respected leaders. Heck, I even taught a regular Sunday class to women!! I remember calling my mom about a particular lesson I was supposed to teach but didn't agree with at all. She gave me the best advice. My mom, who is one of the most devout believers I know, told me to just find something in the lesson that I could get behind. I led a whole discussion on like two sentences that week. I don't remember what they were, but I remember that guidance.
That kind of guidance holds true everywhere. When we attack a dusty attic or a kid's closet, we have to get a good look at everything that's in it. And maybe we keep everything. But maybe that kid is twenty years older and there's only one small thing in there that still applies. We don't keep it all just because it used to fit. We don't keep it all when it no longer makes sense. We don't keep all the things in the dusty attic because they used to belong to someone who loved them. We keep what works for us. What works for our lives. And it's okay if it's small.
Have you read Rachel Held Evans' "Faith Unraveled?" She describes her journey through similar thinking in ways that are far more eloquent than I ever could. She talks about leaving bible college after being raised a preacher's daughter and discovering that she had been prepared with bible verses and nuance and answers and access to absolute truth and convictions about questions most people never actually ask. Instead, she was stunned to learn that most people weren't walking around in atheism or agnosticism waiting for her to enlighten them. Instead, she was all too often asked why Christians didn't act more like Jesus. This led her down her own pathway to follow a radical rabbi and live a life full of doubt....and love. The world lost an amazing woman when she passed, too young, a few years ago. But she left behind a legacy of writings that make me feel seen. That normalize doubt. That offer more questions than answers. She taught me this radical truth: "the kind of serious doubt that leads to despair begins not when we start asking God questions, but when, out of fear, we stop." As she realized that Christianity didn't prevent anyone from voting democrat, being gay, having questions about the bible, be a feminist, drink, smoke, read the New York Times, support equal marriage, get depressed, or doubt, she realized that it was a whole lot bigger than a list of dos and don'ts.
In my years of exploring multiple churches and belief systems, I came to the same conclusion. I realized that God was bigger than anything I could imagine. That the power of creation is in us all. That the power of love is in us all. That all the visions and near-death accounts and prophetic scriptures and charismatic preachers can never tell us with any certainty what God really is. What really comes next. And that's okay.
Sixteen years ago I set down a path to feel God's love for me, as an individual. Several months later, in a laundry room in Memphis, I realized for the first time that I really did matter. That I was loved. I didn't expect the following years to be filled with a divorce, traumas to my children, a faith crisis, an alcoholic marriage, more trauma, feelings of worthlessness fed by abuse, a spiraling depression, and a second divorce. What I did know was that none of that was because of what I believed or didn't believe about God and religion. I came to see that our lives are built on choices. Choices we make. Choices others make. Choices that came with consequences we never could have seen coming. Choices that came with consequences we ignored red flags about. And we are not stuck. We can move differently in order to change our circumstances. We may have moments of divine intervention. We may have pathways that feel divinely guided. We may have miracles. We may have a lot of miracles or maybe feel like there are none at all. We may believe in God or not. And regardless of any of that, we are worthy. We are worthy of all of the best and brightest---whether or not the best and brightest are in our current circumstances or not!!!
Sixteen years. My faith now boils down to just two things. God is bigger and different than we could ever imagine and probably encompasses a whole lotta things we don't know. And we are here to love. To love ourselves, to love each other.
And to me, love is a verb. It means we get to know ourselves and each other, we show compassion, we ask questions for understanding, we go deep, we feel, we provide, we give, we forgive, we hold boundaries, we try, we learn, we fail, we get back up.