(Image from Orchardgirls.blogspot.com)
Belonging and Flannel-grams, Part Two
Read part ONE HERE
So, I was a good little Christian girl. An earnest one. Truly I wanted to know God and serve him. It wasn’t just about performing. Well, maybe it was a little bit. I learned quickly that part of this faith thing meant performing. The right words, the right prayers, the right friends. Faith was sort of fake it til you make it. I don’t think I was faking it, but I was
probably surely not as self-aware as I thought I was at the ripe-old age of 17. In high school I co-founded a Christian group on campus where people who didn’t have anything in common (other than Jesus) would get together at lunch once a week and talk about Spiritual Things, pray very earnestly for the lost, and generally act as if we didn’t really want to be goofing off in the quad with our friends. We were all pretty dorky. At least I had my cool swim team friends. I didn’t quite fit in with them either because I didn’t drink and I wouldn’t date all the “non-Christian” boys who wanted to go out with me.
Fast forward to after graduation. I left to go to Bible School in Europe for a year. It was a humbling experience. Wonderful, fruitful, but humbling. I imagined I would be surrounded by students from all over the world who desired to grow in their knowledge and understanding of who God was. We would have deep talks and grow together in our faith, right? I think within the first three days of bible school being in session I was appalled that a group I was going into town with was going to a pub (gasp!) A pub! We were all underage in the US. Little did I realize at the time that the drinking age in the UK was 18. I don’t think it would have mattered. I equated being righteous with following all the rules. I was so offended that these Bible school students would choose to drink instead of doing something more worthwhile (what did I expect- that we would sit in a park and debate eschatology? Discuss our understanding of the Trinity? Converse about Calvinism?) Are you throwing up a little in your mouth yet? What I didn’t see at the time was how self-righteous I was. All my goodness was tied up in what I did. And if you didn’t follow the same rules I had in my back pocket, well, clearly you weren’t as spiritual as me. Gross. And a little embarrassing.
It all came from a desire to do the right thing. And because of the Christian culture I came out of I had conflated all these Things with being a devout follower of Jesus. I had no vision beyond my cultural lenses, my young, immature, self-righteous and judgemental cultural lenses. But traveling the world has a way of oepning your eyes to things you can’t see at home.
In between semesters I travelled through Italy and Greece with another student. She and I ended up being like oil and water as far as personality goes. She was the kind of person who would bring 8 cotton balls with her for an 8 day adventure, so if you asked her if you could borrow one the answer was clearly NO. She was the one who gave you the lecture about saving your body for your husband while you are lying on a topless beach in Greece after 6 months in the north of England and you casually say “oh, this feels amazing! I almost want to take my top off!” Come to think of it, perhaps she was an exaggerated version of me.
If you’ve ever spent time traveling or hosteling overseas, you know how freeing it is to wake up with no agenda and see what time trains are leaving town and where their going. Meeting fellow travelers form your neck of the woods is instant community. Instead of the first question always being “what do you do?” It’s “Where are you coming from? Where are you going? What did you see?” I wish we could infuse real life with this line of questioning. Imagine being at a dinner party and asking those questions. Occupations pale in comparison to the adventures one has experienced on a midnight train to Rome or an overnight ferry to Brindisi.
On one stretch of our travels, we met a grad student from Colorado. He asked probing questions about Christianity- questions I had never considered before. Questions that for the first time had me questioning my faith. All those youth group nights hadn’t quite prepared me for the wave of pluralism and postmodern thinking that was trickling into every aspect of culture. How DID I know there could be Absolute Truth? How did I know this God was the One True God? If I grew up in India wouldn’t I be Hindu? While I know now these are met with fairly basic arguments defending my faith, at the time these questions rocked me. They haunted me. I returned to my second semester of school, this time in the Austrian Alps. I couldn’t shake the doubt I was wrestling with. And it truly was a wrestle. My faith wasn’t something I took lightly. I sincerely desired to know Truth. Or was it truth?
After returning from Europe I began studying Eastern Philosophy and religion. I was insatiably hungry for answers that would satisfy my desire to be Right. I wasn’t prepared for what I would find. So much of what I was reading, the principles at least, sounded like they fit with Jesus’ teachings. How could I reconcile the idea that there was only One path with the fact that I was seeing all these parallels? Everything I’d ever learned was “Christianity is the only Truth, everything else is 100% false” Or maybe that was simply my interpretation. It was exhausting. I couldn’t stop searching. I read every book of apologetics I could get my hands on. I felt tossed to and fro between belief and doubt, drowning with no land in sight. What could possibly be my golden egg, my philosopher’s stone that would make everything fit into place? What was the one thing that would show me what to believe?
Dear friends cams along side me during this time. They let me ask hard questions. They weren’t afraid of my doubt, my wrestling and restlessness. They were OK with the fact that I didn’t know. everyone should have friends like that. After over a year of wrestling in the dark with a God I couldn’t see and wasn’t even sure existed, it was as if a light switch was turned on again. Only this time I could see that it wasn’t an apologetic, an argument to be made, an answer to be found.
It was a person that I was looking for. Jesus was a person and He was asking me how I was going to respond to him. His hands were outstretched on the cross, and he was waiting for me to respond to him. “Who do you say I am?” That made all the difference.
He pursued me unto death. He has done the same for you. I can debate apologetics all day, I was trained in debate and philosophy and I feel fairly confident that my faith is a rational one, that there is sufficient evidence for trusting the Bible. But that is not the purpose of this post. I certainly don’t have all the answers. Faith is not binary. It’s complicated and supernatural and some days hard to come by. I still struggle with doubt. I wrestle with ambiguities and indifference. But that question anchors me. What do I do with Jesus? He is not an impersonal force that I can choose to acknowledge. He is not the “Universe” that is mysterious and unknowable. He is God made man come to rescue his creation from ourselves. We are broken because we want our own way. But He wants to meet us in our brokenness and in fact, broke himself for us so that we could be made whole. To give us life abundant- life as it was meant to be lived- in communion with our Creator, understanding who He created us to be and how we are made to live.
Once I turned my gaze upon him, it was like I was seeing him for the first time. I had taken off my cultural Christian goggles (as best I could) and I could see the amazing story of the gospel with fresh eyes. I could shed all the stuff I was holding onto to make me good. I could see that there was truth in other beliefs, but that all truth comes from God, and ultimately I imperfectly believe that there really is only one True story and that it begins and ends with Jesus. Almost every other story bears echoes and themes of his narrative. It is beautiful. It is True.
I had begun to shed the identity that I had clung to for so long. The one that defined me from outside. What I didn’t realize at the time was I had miles to go in order to shed the identity I would create for myself on the inside. That is an even more impossible standard to meet. It is a heart journey, a spiral path which He walks with me, retracing our steps as I learn and re-learn that who I am is so much more than how others see me and, even more amazing, how I see myself. As I grow in understanding of my identity in Christ, that being loved by him really changes everything, it frees me to be more fully myself.
But even as I type those words I think, “wait, what will this sound like? I want them to know I’ve changed. I need to protect my image show them how spiritually and socially aware I am, that I’m not that self-righteous Christian girl anymore. Make sure to impress them with my knowledge of the irreducible complexity of systems in design theory arguments. Make sure they know I enjoy great cocktails in real live bars now.” So there’s that. But that’s just me wanting to put on a mask, resolve the story for you and look good doing it. I’m not always comfortable in the church. That feeling of being an outsider never really went away. Not having grown up with faith as my context I have always felt like a spiritual orphan. Good thing for me God loves orphans. He adopts them and makes them a part of his family. You know what else, anyone can be adopted by God. He doesn’t just pick the cutest or sweetest or best behaved among us. Good news indeed.
I realize not everyone of you dear readers shares my views. It’s not my job to change your mind. I’d love to have a conversation about it because we all have something to offer each other. And I don’t want to portray in any fashion that I have it all figured out- I’ve checked the spiritual journey box and now I am sure-footed on this path to wherever it is I’m going. It’s not that simple. God is much bigger than I can comprehend. The more I learn about Him, the longer I walk with Him, sometimes the less I feel I understand. But I do come back to Jesus and who He says he is. That is something to contend with.
I will give you the treasures of darkness and the hoards of secret places, that you may know that it is I, the Lord, the God of Israel, who call you by your name….I call you by your name, I name you, though you do not know me… Isaiah 45:3-4