Hello, friends. I know it’s been a while. You may not have felt my absence, but I certainly have—after all, this is mostly for me. My need to write feels like my need for water. I thirst for this, and I am finding myself with much to say about many things. As promised, I’ll start with week four of recent meetings at a local church based on the book The Questions Christians Hope No One Will Ask by Mark Mittelberg. You can read about the first and second weeks here and the third week in installments: part 1, part 2, and part 3. A small part of the most recent meeting was actually a big step for me. Let me back up a few weeks…
I picked my daughter up early from school one day in April. I had spent the morning studying Spanish, and I was frustrated with Rosetta Stone software until I finally clicked open a new browser window and looked up movie times for the new live-action Cinderella film. Perfect. An early afternoon showing, and $5 tickets all day Tuesday. I brought her home to change into her Cinderella dress and slippers, and off we went. I let her buy popcorn since we had such a deal on the movie tickets. We were the only two in the theater, and she sat in my lap in the midst of a sea of empty seats.
You probably know the story. A happy family devastated by the loss of a young wife and mother. A new stepmother and her daughters who have a different idea of what happiness is. A father’s death that leaves his daughter Ella at the mercy of her cruel step-family. A ball at the castle so the prince may find a bride, and every maiden invited—regardless of social status. A humble dress for Ella (now forced to serve her step-family and renamed Cinderella), reconstructed for the occasion and then ruined by vicious sisters. A fairy godmother who recognizes a kind heart even in despair, and rewards Cinderella by creating the same beauty on the outside that she already holds within. A pumpkin that becomes a coach; mice transformed into horses to pull it; ordinary things becoming extraordinary for one magical night. A captive servant girl disguised as a captivating Princess. A captivated Prince. An enchanted first dance, and an evening of love. Then the stroke of midnight. A glass slipper left behind. A race back to reality as the clock chimes and the spell breaks and the magic dissipates. A King’s death. A Prince’s ascension to the throne. A new King’s search in all the wrong places for the woman who won his heart—the woman who left the glass slipper. A servant girl found by the King’s men. And then the greatest risk of all.
The movie portrayed it powerfully. The servant girl walked downstairs from the attic that held her hostage. As she walked to meet her King, she remembered the disguise she wore the night she won his heart. The narrative beautifully reveals her thoughts. “Would who she really was be enough? She had no magic to help her this time. This is perhaps the greatest risk any of us will ever take: to be seen as we truly are.”
As I held my own Ella in my arms, I knew she didn’t feel the weight of these words. I knew she wouldn’t understand why tears stung my eyes and why this story means so much to me. The shoe fit, the servant girl found love and became a queen, and they all lived happily ever after—that’s all my daughter sees in this story. To one who walks through each day wearing a disguise, this story is so much more. What if they find out? Will who I really am be enough? Can I ever take the greatest risk of all?
The Tuesday night before the Wednesday night discussion, we sat with friends around our table—friends we met here on our blogs. I don’t remember how this came up, but I remember saying that my deepest fear is that I will die without ever being known by more than a few people. I feel that if I die before those closest to me know who I really am, I will die without ever giving them the opportunity to sincerely love me. I realize that it’s my own choice to hide my loss of faith from my family and many of my closest friends—but I haven’t yet found the courage to do otherwise. So this is where I am—fearing that I’ll die before I’m truly known, which might be something like hardly ever living at all.
This brings me to that Wednesday night. The fourth week’s topic was suffering: How can a good and powerful God allow it? I didn’t take heavy notes this time, because I didn’t feel that the conversation was answering that question. They did bring up the effects of “the fall” and its influence on the world. Some did say that they feel that most suffering is inflicted by humans. They also said that suffering produces perseverance and strength—and they acknowledged that these answers won’t resonate with those who do not believe. Then the conversation turned from “Why suffering?” to “What should the church do about suffering?”—a very important question. They answered it well. One person said he thinks the church has failed in this area—that it will picket abortion clinics, but what has it done for social justice? I agree with him. The group gave practical examples of ways the church can ease suffering where they have sometimes caused or worsened it. It was so refreshing to hear this conversation…but it still didn’t answer my question about suffering.
Hell. Not the suffering we know in a lifetime that waxes and wanes or at least escalates only until it ends with death. What breaks my heart is the eternal suffering that seems promised in scripture to those who do not claim Christ as their savior. I had a moment of boldness as I remembered my words the night before with friends and the theme of the movie I had seen with my daughter—the greatest risk of all. I told this group of believers that I am a skeptic, and that I think I can no longer call myself a Christian. I explained that the transition from faith to skepticism had a lot to do with my heartache over hell. The suffering I had known in my lifetime was incomparable to that. I asserted that no one deserves hell—no matter what they’ve done or who they believe in. I told them about my friends of other faiths who live devoted lives and who talk about their gods the way we talk about ours. How could an all-powerful, all-good God create them for an eternity in hell simply because they do not know him?
An answer came from a vocal group member—she told me to focus not on the damnation to hell, but on the love and mercy that offers a way out through Christ. I didn’t have time to respond, because the group leader spoke with words that I treasure. He said that sometimes Jesus stands at the door and knocks and waits to be let in, and sometimes he breaks through closed doors. He said that he has faith in a good and loving God, and that Jesus’ love breaks boundaries. He confessed that he doesn’t hold all the answers, and he warned that any time we are overly confident in one way, we might be trying to barricade doors that Jesus walks through. “The love of Jesus can deliver people,” he said, “and I don’t personally think they have to know his name is Jesus.” Wow.
Why did his answer mean so much to me?—it’s still all about Jesus, right? Yes it is—but this is a Jesus I could follow. Christianity has frustrated me with its boundaries and its “one way.” I’m interested in this boundary-breaking love. How far does it reach after boundaries are obliterated? Could it reach one who calls on the name of another god—even with their dying breath? Could it reach one who faithfully seeks truth but needs evidence and logical reasons to believe—and never finds them? Could it reach one who doesn’t seek the truth at all? They didn’t definitively say that it could. But, for the first time in a church, I didn’t hear them say that it couldn’t. I realize that one Bible study leader’s opinion does not define truth, and I have known that views such as these existed—but I had never personally met anyone who held them. Ever since I started doubting, I had never heard a gospel that included me just as I am.
I was stunned by the humility of this group. And afterward, I was stunned by their acceptance of me. “I’m so glad you’re here,” some offered, or “Thank you for asking that.” “Next time, don’t save the good question until the last three minutes,” the group leader said. I had been honest, and it hadn’t hurt me. Baby steps—in a glass slipper that fits. You thought it would fit a daughter of the King. You thought it would fit a girl who was everything you had hoped for. But the shoe fits me, a disguised skeptic who won’t let go of the questions Christians hope no one will ask—especially the question of eternal suffering allowed by an all-powerful, entirely good God. Will who I truly am be enough? Will you take me as I am and love me anyway?
Perhaps the greatest risk of all is one worth taking.