As we moved into July, I was already suffering a severe bout of atheism.
I generally teeter at the strange intersection of devoutness and agnosticism as is, but occasionally I have these spells where the whole road disappears and it seems there’s no map to lead me back. Sometimes it’s circumstantial, but often it just happens - like that ride at the fair, where the floor drops out and you’re left stuck to the wall, spinning wildly and fighting to keep your stomach where it belongs. Once I’m grounded again, and have a chance to let my body dispel all of the bile that has built up inside, things tend to return to normal, but in the process I fight tooth and nail to keep myself from throwing up – preferring the stability of queasiness to uncontrollable regurgitation.
I can trace a winding history through my life of fidelity fraught with suspicion, with the lengthiest detours trailing after disillusionment with or dissolution from a congregation. The church is what drew me into faith, and it is often what repels me.
I suppose our connections with the Creator would be a whole lot easier if it weren’t for the creation and our own propensity to create: autonomous beings, flaming hoops to jump through, illusions… you name it.
Questions creep into my soul at random times, but particularly during times of transition when my world is unsteady and my vision disoriented.
That was certainly the case at the end of June as I was in the process of an unexpected and awkward moving situation, out of community and back in with my parents. As grateful as I was for the opportunity to move back home and pay off debts, I was also dealing with the pain of a broken commitment and a sudden uprooting.
In the midst of a weekend of packing and moving, I received an email from a friend at my former congregation inviting me to share my story about why I left, and hoping to restore our relationship which had fallen by the wayside. Knowing I could not handle the emotions of moving and the emotions of that conversation simultaneously, I thanked her for the invitation and asked if we could hold off until I was settled.
Regardless of the stay of execution, all the old frustrations and hurt and questions started swirling in my head as it discussed with my heart what exactly I should share and how exactly I should share it. And then, as if trailing the feelings of betrayal like a kite string, the underlying questions began to surface:
What makes our myths any more significant than those others believe?
How can we hold so tightly to some verses, and so loosely to others?
Why did God have to put that tree in the garden, anyway?
The week that followed my move was a haphazard attempt to maintain normalcy while living out of boxes. On Thursday, the 2nd, I published my contribution to the current “death of church” debate and, despite my internal belief struggles, declared the church alive and kicking (though we may not recognize her new look). That evening I knocked off work early to do a final cleaning at the house I had moved out of before joining friends for a book discussion on Intentional Community. By Friday, I was physically and emotionally exhausted and looking forward to spending the Independence Day weekend unpacking boxes and settling into my new space.
Saturday, July 4th, had been a rather productive day of clearing clutter – in my room and in my mind. By late afternoon I had hit a wall and, after a short nap, I knew that my resolve had vanished. I decided to rest and work on my Sunday School lesson for the next day. The curriculum called for teaching the children about important jobs in the church – you know: secretaries to type the bulletins, greeters to hand them out, custodians to pick them up…
This lesson was screaming for a rewrite.
I needed to capture the essence of the Church for them. What does it mean that someone comes early to brew coffee and prepare communion, to edit PowerPoint slides, to sit and talk with a person they haven’t seen in months?
What is it about this entity called the Church that has the power to hold my faith together despite my doubts and disappointments?
How do I distill that into child-size portions?
Lauren Winner talks about liturgy and common prayer being a means for the Holy Spirit to groan on our behalf, when we can not believe or praise or even groan on our own. It’s the connection with the larger body of Christ, in much the same way of worshipping in song or sharing a common pew.
In this space,
We participate in holding each other’s faith intact.
That night, we received a phone call.
My younger cousin had been killed by a bolt of lightning while enjoying an Independence Day celebration with his family.
His wife was severely injured and unresponsive.
Their four children, witnesses to the event, likely orphaned.
I was spent.
It didn’t matter the lesson I had planned to teach, all I could do was receive. I told myself to get up and get to the church –
To get to those people who would worship and believe on my behalf as I stood in the midst of them, bewildered and lost.
Thanks to the holiday, there were far too few children present to warrant a class. Instead I had a friend pray over me the words neither of us knew to speak. I stood among the people I would trust to keep the faith as my own began to crumble. And I gave myself permission to grieve… for my cousin, for my stress, for my doubts and my fears.
I grieved the lack of control we have over our lives or anyone else’s.
I grieved the existence of unexplainable tragedies.
I grieved questions that will never be answered in this world.
I grieved the presence of a tree that stood in the midst of a garden.
And the month became a blur of telling the story and becoming able to cry less with each retelling, of waiting on funeral and travel plans, and finally of a bittersweet week of spending time with family as we laid a family member to rest.
In a week, I have a dear friend arriving in town, and I wrote to inform him that I’m declaring this summer a wash. I know enough not to hope for a do-over, so I am simply acknowledging the season as what it has been, and setting my sights to move forward.
Interestingly, that same friend had written a story recently about a girl he encountered who use to be a Christian, and seemed genuinely saddened by the loss of her faith. He wrote how he longed to speak peace over her, and in the process spoke peace over my bruised soul. He wrote:
In the speaking of peace over someone, we are not describing reality as it is. We are speaking of how it should be. There is simultaneous acknowledgement of the desperate brokenness of a situation, the hope of healing, and our utter powerlessness to bring it about alone. But in speaking peace over someone, we are also saying, “Don’t be afraid. You don’t have to do it alone,” and it is powerful.
This body, the Church, spoke peace over me when there were no other words to speak.
You spoke peace not only over the death of my cousin and my grief, which was seen, but over my faith struggles, which were unseen.
As we shared the bread and the wine,
This time and space,
You held my faith intact with remnants of your own.
This is why Christ formed his Church, and this is why I defend such a beloved community.
Jolie Holland has a lyric that says, “What burns up is torn away, and what remains is a beautiful promise.”
Bulletins burn up.
I don’t care to teach our children their importance.
But the Church,
Is what remains.
It is a beautiful promise.
It is a speaking of peace.
Peace to you.