The Act

circus elephant

I went to a circus two weeks ago with my brother and sister-in-law. I’m staying with them while I do a rotation in a city two hours away from home, and I felt that I owed them at least part of my day off in exchange for their hospitality. They felt the need to entertain me, so to the circus we went—“The greatest show on earth.” I hated it. Of course I was gracious and thanked my siblings for the invitation—they had no idea how I felt. Ironically, by not expressing my true feelings, I was acting out the very thing I despised about the circus.

What kind of person hates the circus? It was the clowns that haunted me the most. Yes, I know—clowns haunt many people. I was terrified of them as a child after accidentally walking into the living room one night while my older brothers watched Poltergeist. I’ve outgrown that fear, and these clowns struck me for a different reason. From the second row of the audience, I could see past their makeup. From the second row, I could see the pained expressions behind painted-on smiles. Most of the clowns seemed born to perform. Their talent was remarkable, and they stayed in full character—their true expressions matching the spirit of the circus. The few who did not were the ones I couldn’t tear my eyes from.

Were they bored? Exhausted? Or worse—were they empty? Was this not the life they envisioned? Why do they do this if it’s not who they are? Are they stuck?

My discomfort was not due to an inability to relate. Rather, it was because what I saw before me was all too familiar. So much of my life has been spent as a circus clown—masking my heart with makeup. And my thoughts turned to my daughter, who would really start learning “the act” in two weeks as a kindergartener.

I saw the first glimpses of it today as I took my 5-year-old to her kindergarten classroom for her first day of school. Of course, I contributed to the act. I bought her the new backpack and lunchbox and all the new clothes. I packed her lunch and put a note in her lunchbox, fed her a healthy breakfast, and walked her into her classroom with a gift for her teacher in hand. I felt like a fraud—this is not the mother I am, although it’s the mother I would love to be. The fact is, I left the city right after I dropped her off, and I won’t pack her lunch or take her to school again until November. I won’t even live at home again until October. Our little family that went through all the motions so perfectly today is hurting.

Even my daughter is learning the act. When it was time for her to take her seat, she turned around suddenly and hugged me tightly. When she finally pulled away, I saw big tears in both of her eyes. I knelt down to her level. “Are you going to cry?” I asked. “No, I’m fine,” she said, avoiding my gaze. “I just got something in my eye.” She quickly found her seat and began to color. I was astonished at her façade. She is our emotional child and had never fought tears before. Crying was suddenly off-limits in her mind.

Her teacher introduced her to the morning activity and pointed out the location of the books so she could “practice reading” when she finished it. From another table, a little girl haughtily informed us, “I already know how to read,” and proceeded to name off several other skills she has already mastered. I jokingly muttered the word “gunner” under my breath to my husband—a term frequently used to describe medical students who are overly competitive and ambitious, and might even seek recognition from superiors at the expense of classmates or colleagues. I actually saw myself in that little girl—although failure over the years has humbled me significantly. Her mother later told us that she doesn’t know how to read—she has simply memorized parts of books they have read to her. This child was already part of the act—exerting dominance, seeking praise. My daughter actually does know how to read and said nothing to her classmate in defense of her own skills—keeping peace like her father might do.

I am only just now learning as an adult that I’m better off without the act. This blog and my support network here have helped immensely with that. So why have I been silent for almost two months? I’ll be honest—after a time of intense encouragement that came with my brother’s recovery and my family’s healing, the reality of normal life hit hard:

In response to my own journey, I heard hatred from believers louder than I heard love. Many of you were supportive and encouraging, but it takes ten times as much of that to overcome one hate-filled comment. Even still, thank you for being there.

After my brother became more and more himself again, I realized that he’s still the same person who didn’t acknowledge my marriage or the birth of my children. Yes, we talk on the phone weekly now—something we never did before. No, I don’t enjoy it. I’m still not sure he loves me at all, and the connection we had started to build before he became sick has dwindled to nothing. Still, I persist. This will not fail for lack of effort.

And—this is the hardest thing to write—after all of my words about love winning, I realized last month for the first time how my heart is prone to wander. No, I did not have an Ashley Madison account and never would. Attacks on my heart are less obvious than that—and thus perhaps more dangerous. They are unexpected, not sought. They come in the subtle form of gentle words and thoughtful questions and humble praise of my beauty and confidence and competence. For the first time in nine years, I had strong feelings for someone who wasn’t my husband. We worked together for a month, and nothing happened between us beyond his expression of feelings for me (on my last day of the rotation) that he insisted he would never act on and my confession that I shared them—then the mutual recommitment to protect our hearts for our spouses. He was only in my area of work for a brief time, and we will not work together again. I told my husband everything that same day, and his graciousness to me was overwhelming. My feelings had been present for weeks, but I had refused to acknowledge them until my colleague put them into words—I’m glad he did, because it shook me awake. I finally, finally understand why some people are so cautious with things like this. I have finally seen the danger of what my heart is capable of and been terrified enough to draw the line a mile from the edge of the cliff. The danger will remain and perhaps increase as my confidence and competence grow—but I will be prepared.

In the mean time, I am deeply feeling the distance from my husband while I work here and grieving the way my heart failed him. He is the one who has been there for nine years. He is the one who has done most of the work in raising our two daughters. He is the father of the child that draws flesh inside of me right now. He is the one who has loved me through every blog post I have written and walked my heart through the season that surrounded each one. He knew me—every flaw, every failure—and loved me anyway. He made me into the woman that other men fall in love with. How is that fair? He took me out on two date nights in a row this weekend, and the conversation was precious and healing. Russell, my heart is yours only for the rest of our lives.

So, readers, how is this for wiping off the painted face and ending the act? It’s probably more than you ever wanted to know in explanation for my silence. But I need you. With tears pouring down my face—tears that I will not begin to fight—please understand that I need you. My silence is because of a stunned spirit. The magic of June faded into the reality of July. Many believers rank highly on the list of the meanest people I know. My brother came back from a brush with death, and he is still a narcissistic jerk. And my heart that was so moved by love is capable of the worst imaginable things. I…am…broken. And I feel like God is silent. This is why I haven’t written. I’ve been afraid of what I would write. Afraid of what you would write in response. I am a master of the act, but I’m so sick of performing it.

So this is the kind of person who hates the circus. A disenchanted member of it. And as I dropped my daughter off at kindergarten, I wanted something better for her. I don’t ever want her to wear a mask that fails to synchronize with the status of her heart. I want her to be more concerned about her heart than about her backpack or her clothes or any aspect of her appearance. I want her to be humble and honest about her talents and abilities, but I also want her to be strong enough to defend them. I never want her to hold back tears when she needs others to see them and walk beside her the way I need you right now. I want her to feel the freedom to not be anonymous the way I am—to be wildly who she is instead of captive like an elephant that can stand on its head or balance on a stool. If my kindergartener can walk through the coming years without succumbing to the rigidity of the act—something I didn’t learn until adulthood—she could be so much more thrilling to watch than the greatest show on earth.

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When Storms Collide

Colliding storms

It’s not every day that your breakfast table is in your guest bathroom. Anyone who lives near me knows why ours was today. Actually, it’s very possible that you heard the same sirens, the same “code red,” the same urgent warning to take cover in a small windowless interior room—and still can’t fathom why our breakfast table would be in our bathroom. You must not be married to a boy scout. We were prepared.

We had been at a Memorial Day picnic with friends from our Sunday morning Bible study group. I’m starting to love these people, and that scares me—they know nothing about my doubts. I feel loved and accepted. The line blurs between feeling comfortable enough to bare my soul and feeling so comfortable that I don’t want to ruin things. For two hours, the rain held off, and we just loved and shared together. By the time the line of clouds approached us, it was nap-time for little ones anyway, so we parted ways and made it home before the roads were treacherous.

As I prepared my toddler for her nap, my husband (the boy scout) consulted the radar and predicted an eventful afternoon. I laid her down and hoped we wouldn’t have to retrieve her mid-nap to take cover. We hooked up our cable television for the sole purpose of being informed about the weather, and we heard of circulating storm systems both west of us and south of us. What happens when storms collide? Will they curtail each other’s strength, or will they combine into a more devastating force? They looked as if they might merge right over us.

I looked at my husband incredulously as he maneuvered the table into the bathroom. Isn’t it enough to just be in the interior room? The weather guy said nothing about retreating to a small windowless interior room that also holds a breakfast table. “In case the ceiling falls in,” he said calmly. “If we wait until we actually need to take cover, we won’t have time for this.” I knew that this was not a battle worth fighting, and it seemed foolish to show annoyance over being too protected. I threw two quilts into the room and cleared out some of the toys my older daughter was “saving” from the storm. I also told him I wouldn’t wake up the baby unless we were officially told to take cover.

Within the half-hour, we were—and for a few minutes my daughters and I were crammed into a bathtub underneath our breakfast table. While we waited, I was thankful that we didn’t live in a mobile home—from the living room television I could hear the meteorologist telling occupants of mobile homes that they would be safer outside. The rotating storm suddenly took a new direction from the south side of my city and headed northeast toward the city we just moved from. The system weakened, and we received the all-clear. After all that preparation—and after waking a napping baby—nothing happened.

“What did you expect?” my husband asked, noticing my annoyance. He reminded me that the vast majority of the time, what we prepare for never comes. Still, we prepare. I knew he was right. And beyond that, I knew that I didn’t want a devastating event that would validate our preparations. It is far better for an inconvenience to be proven unnecessary than to endure a storm so destructive that we actually need our breakfast table over our heads.

I wrote here in February (I think) that I would be writing a letter to my parents to finally be honest. I’m sick of being silent when they say things like what my mom said the other night, and I felt like I couldn’t explain my disagreements with them in many areas without also expressing my doubt about everything they have built their lives upon. That was too terrifying for me, and I found that my fear of their response was so unbearable that I could not even endure the preparation. I turned off the weather report, and there was no table in the bathroom. A healthy amount of fear spurs you to respectful preparation. Too much fear leaves you paralyzed and unable to act. What will happen when the storm hits? After my mom’s comment on Saturday, I again vowed to write a letter—this one specifically about how I do not and cannot share my parents’ views on homosexuality. As of last night, I had not written it.

Late last night I was talking to my college best friend, a gay man named JS. I asked him what I had said when he came out to me. I told him that I couldn’t remember, but that I feel like it was something like, “I love you, but I can’t accept this,” or “God can free you from this” or “You have an incredible opportunity to sacrifice something precious to you in obedience to God.” I offered my apology last night. “I was your best friend, and I wasn’t there when you needed me most. I’m so sorry.”

His reply was gracious. He told me that he came to me then because he felt like he was drowning. “Other than my brother, you were the only person I trusted not to hurt me in my vulnerability. I never felt like my trust was misplaced. I remember that you gave me as much love as you were capable of at the time. I’m grateful for that.” In the middle of our conversation, I received a text from my mom.

“Sorry for my homosexual comment yesterday. I didn’t mean it. I just watched Imitation Game. Hate the way they used to treat homosexual men.”

Thank you, Hollywood.

I wrapped up my conversation with JS. At the end of it, he recommended a documentary called “For the Bible Tells Me So” in response to a question I had asked about maintaining faith while embracing a gay lifestyle—I’m convinced it can be done well, and I wanted the input of this gay man I love. I promised to watch it, and then I turned my attention to my mother’s text message. JS had said that when he came out to me, I had given him as much love as I had been capable of at the time. I’m capable of more now, and it was time to show it. I looked at the words of my mother’s apology. The storm was here, and it had come without warning. I hadn’t prepared, and in fact, my heart was in a mobile home. I could stay inside this weak structure with an “apology accepted” text in response to hers, or I could bring my heart outside of its fragile shelter and dare the storm to do its worst. I chose the latter. While I appreciated her apology, I could not leave it at that. How much do I love JS? I would chase after storms for him.

My husband looked on as my thumbs flew. I told my mom that the thought of anyone in the world going to hell breaks my heart. I told her that I don’t believe that being gay is a choice for most people—it isn’t for any that I’ve spoken to, although I acknowledge that I haven’t spoken to nearly enough.

She replied that she feels the same way and that she doesn’t want anyone to go to hell. She believes that “God loves even the gay people,” although she still believes it’s a sin because the Bible says it is. “But we are all sinners,” she continued. “I guess people have to learn to keep their mouths shut about it.”

I confessed that I had become so “liberal” that my dad probably wouldn’t allow me in the house if he knew—but I knew he was sitting right there with her, and I didn’t ask her not to tell him. In response to her comment that it was a sin, I said that I can’t think of a single good reason that gay people shouldn’t be able to love whoever they want, and that even gay Christians just consider the anti-gay references in scripture to be on the same level as other culturally-influenced excerpts we no longer abide by. I won’t copy my entire long paragraph—you’ve all read the content of it already if you’ve been following along with my posts and comments here and on R&P’s blog. My words were gentle and respectful, carefully chosen and covered in prayer. I defended gay people—even gay Christians—without expressing my own struggle with faith. I’m not settled enough into a position with that to be ready to explain it to my parents.

Her next words shocked me.

“Very true and well said. If any of my kids were gay, their partner would be welcome in my home. I’m not the judge. The bottom line is God is in control and I guess we will find out his stance on all this when we get to heaven. It’s not our place to decide who is right and who is wrong. I can get along with people. Hard topic.”

I couldn’t believe it. This was the same woman who had said the night before that gay people and their advocates should “burn up in hell.” This is a Biblical literalist and inerrantist, a right-wing conservative—a Fox News fan-girl. I had expected a phone call in response to my text—and maybe even my dad’s voice joining hers on speaker-phone. I had expected a list of scripture references and a dire warning of God’s impending judgment, heralded by gay people and by liberals like me.

Instead, the storm just blew over. I hadn’t expected to face it that day. I had no time to prepare and even went outside to confront it instead of staying in a counterfeit shelter of silence. Even still, it did no damage. My lack of preparation hadn’t mattered—because as it is with most things we prepare for, the feared outcome did not occur. My passion is a force of its own, and I expressed it in carefully chosen words. When my own force confronted the force of my mother’s dogmatism, the strength of our individual convictions did not combine into something we couldn’t control. My family didn’t implode. I’m still welcome on our cruise this Christmas, and my inbox wasn’t filled this morning with links from my dad about God’s impending judgment. My mother’s words had lost their destructive force. I had loved JS the way I should have loved him six years ago, and after my conversation with my mom, I watched the documentary he recommended and cried through most of an hour and a half.

What happens when storms collide? Their devastating power is actually more likely to weaken than to increase in magnitude, and the storms often take a different course than they would have if they had never interacted.

May we never fear the storm so much that we are too petrified to prepare. May we never seek false shelter in the mobile home of silence when oppressive voices thunder around us. May we always remember that we, too, have power—that we are forces that did not form to be still. May we never avoid conflict in anticipation of terrible consequences.

May our storms collide. May our interactions be such that the destruction is reduced and our courses different than they would have been had we never crossed paths.

[Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, public domain (original source: NASA)]

The Questions Christians Hope No One Will Ask, Week 4: Suffering // My Deepest Fear and the Greatest Risk

glass slipper

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.

Image © Paulfleet | Dreamstime.com – Glass Slipper Photo

Questions Christians Hope No One Will Ask, Week 3: Can we trust scripture? (Part 1)

bible on table

Tonight was my turn at the Wednesday night discussion group at church. If you follow my husband’s and our friend’s shared blog, you may have read about it there last week. A church in our area is currently in the middle of a sermon series about the questions Christians hope no one will ask—and they are following some of the topics outlined in Mark Mittelberg’s book by the same title. The weekly Wednesday night discussions are designed to delve deeper into the topic of the previous Sunday’s sermon. I haven’t been able to attend the sermons due to my work schedule the first two weeks of the series and my wedding season schedule since then as a bridesmaid in two of my best friends’ weddings next month—but I have listened to every word of every sermon. My husband attended the second week’s discussion group and posted about it here—I took our daughter to gymnastics that night. We switched this week, and he went to gymnastics while I joined the group. A table sits in the center of the room as a symbol of the kind of discussion and family atmosphere they desire to cultivate. It was a privilege to have a seat at the table this week, even as the black sheep in the church family.

My husband walked me through last Wednesday’s discussion one week ago, and it was clear to both of us that this was not set up for debate. Of all the voices represented, none seemed to share our views. My husband kept silent. When I heard his report of what had been said, I told him that I wouldn’t have been able to. I would have responded—not for the sake of debate, but to provide clarification about the actual arguments that oppose theirs (not the easy-to-dismantle ones that they were presenting). I would have provided clarification when they suggested that Stephen Hawking had made a deathbed confession for Christ—or at least informed them that he is still alive. I would have defended the morality of people I know who do not follow Christ when they suggested that the reason for denying his existence might be to avoid accountability for actions.

At détente last week, I was asked why I would want to go to a discussion like this. To me, the reasons are plenty. I want to support the church’s efforts. I want to make my actual views and questions known (not the ones they assume I have). And I want to demonstrate that I have an intellectual basis for doubt. My friend Pascal didn’t like that last answer at all—he thought it might be insulting to the people in attendance. He felt that surely there were some there who are thoughtful and who understand the intellectual struggle without me having to spell it out. I didn’t get a chance to respond to his words of disapproval, but if I had I would have said this: I am sure there are some who understand—I never said there were not any. I only said that there are some who do not understand, and that was clear in their words the week Russell attended. Russell agrees. Those who do understand, if present, were silent. I attend to break the silence.

So I went this week, and I did break the silence. It wasn’t in a dramatic way or a forceful or malicious way. My words were gentle and honest and only revealed as much as the question required. Perhaps more will be revealed in weeks to come. This week, the topic was the trustworthiness of scripture. Below, I describe the ten-minute opening, and I’ll write about the rest of the discussion in days to come.

The pastor started by relaying to the group some of the feedback from the sermon. After he delivered it on Sunday, he was asked about the relevance of scripture. He opened the same question up to our group: Is scripture relevant today?

“Yes,” one voice responded. “The word is alive.”

“What does that mean?” the pastor probed.

“If you read any scripture, you’re given the exact word you need when you need it.”

Another in the group gave an answer I can relate to—“The people in the Bible remind me of myself…human nature hasn’t changed.”

The next question the pastor opened up was about murder and slavery. How can we believe in a Bible that condones it?

A response came quickly. “It’s not that the Bible condones it—the Bible is just reporting that it happened. It still happens today. If they say it’s condoned, they’re being overly critical.”

I spoke up—“I think they might be referring to the atrocities that God is recorded as having commanded in scripture.”

No one responded to my point immediately. Other answers rolled in.

One voice said, “The Bible didn’t condone it—Paul spoke of a vision of better days to come, and you can tell by reading the accounts of violence and slavery that we just weren’t there yet.”

Another replied, “Non-believers take verses out of context, like ‘Slaves, obey your masters.’ That’s really just telling us that slavery does exist, and that wherever we are in life we should still reflect Christ’s love to the people around us so they can see him.”

At this point, a woman said, “Can we go back to what she said? What about the times where God commanded evil? How do we respond to that?” The pastor opened my point and her question back up to the group, and responses followed.

One woman said, “God was making sure his people would follow his commands and trust him. His people had to trust that he had a reason, even if they don’t understand. There was a lesson that they needed to learn.”

I longed for winter days that would call for turtleneck sweaters or scarves. My skin flushes when my heart breaks—from my chest all the way up to my cheeks. I was thankful for dim lighting as I answered, “I think the hard thing to accept is that this lesson came at the expense of others. It doesn’t fit with the idea of a God who loves all—not just his chosen people.”

The pastor agreed. “Men, women, and children…you’re right, that’s hard to accept.”

Another in attendance interjected, “You can’t take these pieces of scripture out of context. You have to consider the whole book. When you look at the whole book, you see sin from the very beginning. These things are going to happen in a world that is sinful in nature, whether they’re from God or from man.”

Another said, “The Bible is a mysterious book.” I certainly agree.

One woman said, “People reveal their biases in their questions. You can’t always ask questions about the negative parts of the Bible. What about the miracles? What about salvation? What about Jesus? They pick and choose to discuss the negative things.”

The pastor responded with a question I can relate to—“If there are any lies in the Bible, can any of it be trusted? Do any errors we find negate the positive things?”

I added to his question, saying, “Along those same lines, can we accept any of the God we find in scripture if he is not all good? Some people will not consider the miracles and the beauty of the story because they see these as negated by a God who at times does not seem consistent with himself.”

The woman who had spoken about biases spoke again. “The Bible is something to guide us—it’s not the whole picture. Do you want to rely only on what you can see and know around you, or do you want to put your faith in this book that the God we trust has given to us, whether we agree with it all or not?”

It seemed as if she felt that the answer should be obvious. I agree that it was, but I think that we would choose different answers. I would rather rely on what I can know than on a God whose actions I disagree with. But of course, I’m not coming from a position of trust.

This was the introduction to the conversation. Overall, I felt that the pastor (who knows of my doubts) and perhaps a few others in the group of more than 30 had a sense of understanding about my struggle. For the sake of those who don’t and for the sake of identifying more who do, I break the silence. I’ll write more tomorrow. In the mean time, what are your thoughts? What would you have contributed to the discussion thus far? Do you share the views of any who spoke?—or do you wish to break the silence of the minority view along with me?

Either way, welcome to the table—pull up a chair.

Image courtesy of © Phatthanit | Dreamstime.com – Bible On The Wooden Table Photo

Ink

moleskine

I’ve been sick since Friday morning and have had almost no voice at all since Friday afternoon. I was actually in denial of my own illness until last night, at which point I stopped trying to convince myself it was a severe allergy attack. Unfortunately, I had already exposed my colleagues at work on Friday and several church friends at a chili cook-off last night. After waking twice in the night soaked in sweat from fever breaking, this morning found me weak and exhausted. I fed and dressed the girls, then collapsed back into bed the moment that they left for church. I slept two more hours and was finally on the mend, folding clean laundry when they returned. My precious husband recognized my still-weakened state and offered (without even a hint from me) to give me one of my favorite gifts: time alone. I love that he can sense when I need it, without me having to ask. Even though he can’t always relate to me, he knows me. An hour after they returned home from church, he took our older daughter with him on a bike ride. “We’re leaving,” he said. “The baby is still asleep. Write.”

I wrote in my journal—something I’ve often neglected since I’ve been writing here. It is so hard to maintain both, but both are important in different ways. Today, I felt that what I wrote there needed to also be written here. It follows:

Sunday afternoon. Strong, black coffee and a Moleskine journal. Writing with pen and paper because it forces me to write slowly and with more thought. No backspace here. Mistakes can be covered up, but I cannot hide the fact that they happened. This is me, unedited.

I’ve been blogging for a year this month. On February 20th, 2014, I wrote my first post, “Cruciverb.” Almost one year and 38 posts later, here I am. Seventy-seven followers. One thousand, seven hundred seventy-eight views. One hundred fifty-one comments. Why all the numbers? They matter to me—and I think they matter too much.

Why do I write? What do I hope to accomplish with black type and a white screen that I can’t accomplish with ink in my own cursive handwriting? Why do I share my heart with strangers?

Because I’m lonely. Last night we went to a chili cook-off at our church. We sat at a table with two other couples, and the conversation quickly turned to God’s faithfulness to them in recent weeks. I listened and expressed my happiness for them—but it was difficult to connect. What if they knew of the struggle in my heart? Would they love me anyway—or would they cling tightly to their perception of God’s faithfulness, too concerned with defending it to reach out a hand to me? I’m lonely when I’m surrounded by people, so I find myself compelled to write to others. In writing, even to strangers, I find companionship. Alone, but not lonely.

Seventy-seven followers. Five (aside from my husband) who converse with me regularly: Ruth, Zoe, JJ, Howie, and Toad. Not one of the five (six, if you count my husband Russell) a believer.

Aside from the desire for companionship, I had a major goal for the blog—to soften the hearts of the believer toward the skeptic. Am I succeeding? Not by the looks of things—I have no consistent interlocutors who believe. I have deeply appreciated the friendships I am developing with others around the world who have left faith—but I didn’t want those to be the only relationships that came from this blog.

That brings me to my secret hope for the blog—that someone out there would find me and give me sufficient reasons to believe. That someone would say to me, “I’ve been stuck there too, and there’s a way out. Follow me.” I haven’t found someone like that. I know I can’t be dependent on others for my belief, and I keep trying to generate it within myself—consuming scripture with intense hunger, attending church, blasting worship music through the house while I clean. But at the end of the day, my greatest encouragement comes from those who don’t believe. The occasional believing commenter doesn’t return—my blog doesn’t attract that audience. I am thankful for the five—but is it worth so much vulnerability to try to gain five more in the next year? Is it worth it if my relationships there leave me farther from the secret goal of belief than I was when I started?

I check my blog stats during my first moments of wakefulness and during my last moments before sleep every day. Each time I check them, I’m seeking either affirmation or answers. Most days, I find neither. Most days, I don’t even have a blog hit. The numbers matter too much. My pride is too great, and the numbers are disappointing. I compare my blog to my husband’s, which he writes with his friend. Over 700 followers, acquired over the same amount of time. What am I doing wrong?

I have to decide what the grown-up response is and pursue it. Do I quit the blog altogether so I won’t judge the worth of my writing and the validity of my thoughts by the comments and followers that they generate? That seems too reactive. Do I take a brief hiatus and reevaluate my goals and my ultimate purpose for writing? That sounds a little more productive—but I know myself too well to be hopeful that I’ll ever stop desiring affirmation.

What is my message? Does the world need to hear it? And is it important enough for me to write it even if believers never validate my words? I still have to figure that out. In the mean time, I plan to do more reading than writing, more listening than speaking. There’s something that happens when I put my pen to leather-bound pages—and it needs to happen for a while.

[Image courtesy of Wikimedia commons, photograph by Andrea Pavanello]

Frozen

“Let it Go”

 

 The snow glows white on the mountain tonight

Not a footprint to be seen

A kingdom of isolation,

And it looks like I’m the Queen.

 

The wind is howling like this swirling storm inside

Couldn’t keep it in, heaven knows I tried

 

Don’t let them in, don’t let them see

Be the good girl you always have to be

Conceal, don’t feel, don’t let them know

Well, now they know

 

Let it go, let it go

Can’t hold it back anymore

Let it go, let it go

Turn away and slam the door

 

I don’t care

What they’re going to say

Let the storm rage on,

The cold never bothered me anyway

 

It’s funny how some distance

Makes everything seem small

And the fears that once controlled me

Can’t get to me at all

 

It’s time to see what I can do

To test the limits and break through

No right, no wrong, no rules for me

I’m free

 

Let it go, let it go

I am one with the wind and sky

Let it go, let it go

You’ll never see me cry

 

Here I stand

And here I’ll stay

Let the storm rage on

 

My power flurries through the air into the ground

My soul is spiraling in frozen fractals all around

And one thought crystallizes like an icy blast

I’m never going back,

The past is in the past

 

Let it go, let it go

And I’ll rise like the break of dawn

Let it go, let it go

That perfect girl is gone

 

Here I stand

In the light of day

Let the storm rage on,

The cold never bothered me anyway

 

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p style=”text-align:left;”>Unexpected things speak to me. For the past several days, I’ve been watching my older daughter dance around the house belting out the words (above) to the academy award winning song, “Let it Go” from the animated Disney musical Frozen. As adorable as it is, the lyrics move me in an uncomfortable way. The song is praised as an anthem of self-discovery. When my three-year-old sings it, I hear bitterness. I hear rebellion. I hear my own voice, my own heart, but I don’t hear truth.

 Don’t let them in. Conceal. Don’t feel. Don’t let it show. This is what having doubts has required. This is what every Sunday has been like for me. Every holiday with my parents, every public prayer I’ve fumbled through. Rather than continuing to justify belief in spite of what has seemed like insurmountable doubt, I reached a point where I simply stopped believing. I let it go.

 But while I can relate to the first part of the song, the rest of it doesn’t ring true for me. I do still care what others think. I do still have fears–will I ever shake the fear that I’ve got this all wrong? I’ve tried to slam the door on my faith, but I haven’t had the strength. I look over my shoulder sometimes, longing to go back through the small opening I left–but knowing that my mind won’t let me. I’d like to say that the cold air outside of the warmth of the Church doesn’t bother me, but I’m freezing. I wish I could tell you that I’m finding myself, but I’ve really never been more lost.

 In many ways, letting go of a belief I couldn’t justify really has been freeing–but it’s at the sacrifice of so much that I held dear. I still have dreams that God speaks to me, and I have to shake them off. I still find myself praying weakly sometimes, even though I don’t believe in prayer. I prayed and asked for prayer when my baby was sick and almost lifeless in my arms. I pray when I wake up suddenly in the middle of the night and can’t go back to sleep. My prayers are no longer beautiful or eloquent, and I never sense any response to them or any divine presence. Still, it’s a habit I can’t break. I miss fellowship with other believers. My husband is an atheist, and I have friends who are atheists–but I miss connecting with people through something that we do believe in, not through something we disbelieve and even despise. I want encouragement in the form of words like “God hasn’t left you,” not encouragement that tells me that religion was just a means to an evolutionary end, so I don’t need it. While I appreciate justification for my lack of belief, it doesn’t feel good. I also miss worship. I want to lift up someone who is greater than I am. Other people have let me down and aren’t worthy of that, but my imaginary God never did– I could always blame my heartache on a fallen world and on people who disobeyed Him. My walk in faith was always a journey through mountains and valleys, and I’m finding that atheism works the same way for me. I have been on the Frozen mountain of defiance. Right now I’m in the valley of the heart of flesh.

 Most of my followers are Christians, and you’ll relish in my weakness here. My husband will cringe (along with other atheists, especially those who feel emancipated from the harms of religion) but he doesn’t follow my blog and won’t get a notification when I post, so there’s no telling when he’ll see it. I’m completely honest with him, but sometimes it’s easier to say things in this way than face to face. He’ll read it eventually, and he is perfectly gentle with my heart. One thing I know is that I cannot justify belief, and that is unlikely to ever change. I’m still only a counterfeit Christian. But I’m done pretending like this is easy. The beauty of anonymity is that I can be honest here. And honestly, no matter how hard I try and how convincingly I pretend, I can’t just let it go. I have a frozen exterior, but still a molten core.