Do you remember middle school? It was not as terrible for me as it was for many others. My awkward phase was delayed until freshman year of college. Perhaps I’m still in it, and people are too kind to say so. Middle school was better, though. I was liked–even popular. I was cheerleader captain, valedictorian of my 8th grade class, and recipient of the most flowers and chocolates from classmates through the student government fund-raiser on Valentine’s Day. The sad thing is that I actually counted. Even popular middle-schoolers are insecure. Sure, I wasn’t asking “How can I make them like me?”–but I was asking “What happens if they stop?”
Insecurity meant that I read into everything. He brushed my arm in the hallway–was that on purpose? She didn’t sit at my table at lunch–is she mad at me? He picked me first to be on his war ball team in P.E.–does that mean something? What a miserable few years. It’s hard to enjoy anything when you analyze everything.
Not much has changed, except I’m far less boy-crazy. I still read into so many things. I still subconsciously look for subtle signs, for affirmation that I am liked and loved. I am sensitive, and I take any conflict very seriously and very personally. So it’s no wonder that before I stopped believing in God, his silence broke my heart. It’s no wonder that I still imagine that He is real and that he wants me and even pursues me, heartbroken over my silence and longing for my return.
During the earlier leg of my prodigal journey, I kept myself close to home. I was like the three-year-old who packs up tinker-toys and runs away, only to peek in windows from the back yard to make sure her family is looking for her. Ear pressed against the glass, she listens for her name. Do they miss her? Do they care?
What is the grown-up equivalent for me? Listening to Christian internet radio, reading scripture, attending worship services, communicating with Christian friends. Wow, the words of that song–were they divinely appointed at this moment for me? That encouragement from Paul–was that written for me even centuries ago? That overwhelming peace during my turbulent prayer–was that God’s presence? That letter from a friend–did the Holy Spirit inspire those words? Is the love of a friend the love of God? Have I just been missing it all this time?
Things have changed though. That was the beginning, but I have since packed a real bag and stepped away from the window and out of the back yard. I don’t listen to Christian radio. I don’t read a lot of scripture, at least not without a critical mind. I do attend worship services, but I let my mind wander. And I don’t seek out Christians to rescue me from doubt as I once did.
Since I’ve made such an effort to move away from constant exposure to what I might falsely perceive as the voice of God, I’m always caught off guard when something that sounds like that voice manages to find me anyway. I shared an office with a new-to-me supervisor for several days this week and last at work. I came into last week not knowing her at all, but something about her made me confident that she was a Christian. A former version of myself would have figured out a way to find out for sure, but now I honestly didn’t want to know. I thought that if I didn’t bring it up, I wouldn’t have to deal with it. Her faith certainly wouldn’t offend me, but it would stir up longings that I’m not comfortable with. She and I connected on so many levels, and I didn’t want to risk being drawn in to connect on that one. It would be better to not even approach the subject. Unfortunately, “the subject” was somewhat unavoidable around her. We spent several lunch breaks together, and I noticed toward the end of last week that whenever she took a break, she had worship music playing on her phone, which sat on her desk–the desk that we shared. We had never discussed faith. I had purposefully never let on that I ever had any kind of faith, to keep the conversation from going deeper than I intended–I fear that level of vulnerability.
Yet still she played that music, as if it never occurred to her that I might not share her faith–or maybe because it did occur to her that I might not share her faith. And the songs that played–wow. Those words touched me deeply in the beginning of this year-and-a-half of extreme doubt. Suddenly it’s like I’m in middle school again, reading into everything. Were those words today for me? What are the odds that we have the exact same taste in Christian music? Is she playing this music because she feels that we are kindred spirits, or does she sense a void in me? We’re in a secular institution in a secular field, and she is playing Christian music out loud. Did God impress upon her to do this? Wait a minute–I don’t believe in God. But what if I’m wrong? What if he pursues me even now?
It took all my strength to bury that thought. I’m not in middle school anymore, and brushed arms in tight hallways are meaningless. Not everything needs my analysis. I felt so drawn to her, and I wanted to tell her my doubts and be encouraged by her faith. I didn’t say a word about my struggle, though, for many reasons–it wouldn’t be an appropriate relationship with someone who evaluates me, and the emotional risk was too great. After today, I’m assigned to work in another part of our building and will see her rarely, if ever. No more music. No more feeling like my heart was meant to know hers. No more over-thinking things and perceiving what isn’t there.
I feel like in some ways, I’ve graduated–no longer a middle school prodigal. I didn’t grasp desperately at what felt like it might have been God’s pursuit of my heart–that wouldn’t have been consistent for someone who doesn’t believe in God. I also didn’t give in to the intense longing to share my struggle with a Christian who obviously wasn’t afraid to openly share her faith. I’m not desperate for acceptance and encouragement and reassurance. I’m okay with where I am now. Progress.
I have visited the grave of my faith for the past couple of weeks, and the memories have been vivid. Yet I’m able to turn away from its resting place feeling not regret, not remorse, but relief. I have needed what every middle schooler needs: time–and as days and weeks turn to months, I realize more and more that time is healing me.