I am still Evangelical.
I wanted to be Catholic.
I tried to be Anglican.
I pretended to be Episcopalian for a while.
In my earnest early twenties, I even tried to walk away from the faith altogether for a semester, but that one ended in my world religions professor’s office. He welcomed me in with tears in my eyes and offered me a seat.
“I don’t even know who I am anymore. If all the things you are teaching me about the other religions in the world are historically and factually accurate, how can my simple faith in the Jesus of the Bible be justifiable?”
This practicing Buddhist saved my faith and maybe even my life with a simple question and its simple answer: He asked me if I had experienced Jesus. I thought for a moment and had to respond, “Yes, yes I have experienced him. I have felt Him.” He responded by telling me that I had to be true to what I had experienced. If I had experienced Jesus, if I knew Him, I had to be honest about that.
I exhaled for what felt like the first time in months.
Over the coming days, I truly relaxed into my new paradigm. My experience of Jesus as friend and brother and intercessor was enough. My seemingly never-ending search for all the answers and all the knowledge and all the puzzle pieces butting up nicely just...ended. The road had run out and there was nowhere else worth wandering. I was able to pray again. I was able to sit through a worship service without sneaking away early totally numb or completely gutted.
My brief but painful journey through intense doubt was good for me.
In her book, Learning to Walk in the Dark, Barbara Brown Taylor describes her own spirituality as lunar, as opposed to what she calls full solar spirituality, which focuses on staying in the light of God around the clock, both absorbing and reflecting the sunny side of faith. She describes trying to walk through life with fellow believers who don’t experience doubt and darkness and the absence of the voice of God as often as she does. She says that her walk into the dark frightened them, that they tried to walk close to her, to protect her from the danger they sensed outside the pool of perpetual light they kept neatly surrounding their toes and filling them with a perhaps false, but certainly comforting sense of safety. She says that they went as far as they could with her, but when the darkness all but overtook her, they could go no farther. Her sisters and brothers in the faith stood at the edge of the darkness and yelled for her to come back, return to safety, leave the darkness where danger lives. But she couldn’t. She found herself altogether unable to numb out, stay positive, keep on the sunny side and keep up the façade. I like her.
For the last few years, I have really stumbled around a lot in what has, at times, felt like crushing darkness. The world has always been a harsh place to live; I remind myself of this often. People have been cruel to each other since the garden, why am I still so surprised by cruelty? What I would really like to know is why in the HECK I am still so shocked with my own ability to hand out cruelty. Hate begets hate and so on and so forth, forever and ever, amen.
People are hungry, the earth groans. Women and children are bought and sold. Clean water isn’t guaranteed. Our criminal justice system isn’t just. People are drowning and risking life and limb to escape violence and famine and they are being met by military and militia, handcuffs, cells, and tents. Tear gas at the border finding its way into the brown eyes of babies who can’t outrun the plume. A beautiful young man bleeding out in a shopping mall. Atrocity on atrocity and we are all looking for someone to blame.
For a while, I thought that if my brothers and sisters could just read what I was reading they would see things my way. My outrage at the plight of our sisters and brothers would become theirs, we would storm the capital and set the captives free. The midterms came and went and not much of it went down the way I thought. People voted their consciences and we thanked God for the chance. I was disappointed. I was scared.
I approached the table the next week, just like I have year after year, hungry for a taste of bread and a sip of wine, just enough to hold me over until He comes and makes old things new and wrong things right. I look to my right and I see Jesus in the face of my brother. We both look to the cross. We are both longing for home.
Sometimes I still think it would be much easier to just leave, make my final statement of self-righteous dissatisfaction with the Evangelical church and close the door. Protestantism is, at its core, a rebellion. There is a rebellious streak in every Protestant heart and mine is heavily striped. Plaid, even. A good friend taught me that to be Evangelical is to be engaged with the greater culture. If you want a denomination or a religion that is untouched and unaffected by our culture, you can certainly find it. But it won’t be Evangelicalism. For better or worse, we are disrupted, cobbled together, nomadic, evolving, and crying out in the wilderness for a straight path.
Occasionally, I check my email. Rarely may be a more fitting descriptor, but let’s not split hairs. A few times I have responded to a request made by my friend who is responsible for finding communion servers and making sure the elements are all in place. A few times I have found myself at the front of my little downtown church holding the bread and watching these people, some familiar and many not, stream toward me. I make it pretty well through the first five or six, but after a few rounds of “this is the body of Christ, broken for you, brother” I am barely able to utter a discernible word. These people are lined up and steady streaming toward me. They are carrying almost visible baggage, suitcases of pain, regret, fear, lack, failure. They are pouring out of the rows of chairs and toward the front of the church because while it may be hard to believe a little bread and a little wine is enough to sustain a body in the hard, cruel world, we are pretty damn sure at this point that we don’t have another hope. As they come and keep coming, this refrain pounds a beat in my heart: “The broken and beautiful body of Christ, The broken and beautiful body of Christ.” I have to fight the urge to hand off the bread and start grabbing people, trying to get my shoulder under a corner of the load I’m watching them limp and buckle under.
My pastor said once that if Jesus says his yoke is easy and his burden is light and you find yourself yoked up to something hard and carrying a burden that seems to crush, you are either carrying the wrong burden or carrying the right burden the wrong way. This statement has become my plumb line in the last couple of years as the weight and pain of a suffering world has sometimes been unbearable to me. The Jesus way will be the way of suffering, to be sure. But I have often suffered as one who is without hope, devouring news and commentary and Facebook comment threads until my eyes and heart are bleeding.
I don’t have the answers. I don’t have any more arguments or justifications or well-reasoned, bullet-pointed argument outlines. I’ve exhausted all that, and I have learned that in 2018 if you say things people don’t want to hear they can just...not hear you. All my talking will become striving after wind. At the click of a button we can unfollow each other, disengage and disentangle. I’m not always right, and even when I am, I can’t always make anyone listen.
So, what now?
I don’t know.
I know I’m trying to be slow to speak, quick to listen. I am trying to listen to my shoulders as they inch toward my ears as my anger grows wilder. I am trying to ease my shoulders back down, to talk to my anger before I let it speak, to see things from my brother’s perspective. I’m trying to see my brother. Because I have tried and failed too many times to keep thinking I could ever leave him. I want to live and move in the Jesus way. He flipped tables once, I could flip them hourly.
November is almost over and Advent is coming. I am ready for the waiting more than I can ever remember. Give me the young mother, her beloved, and the humble straw and stable. I need the Holy God become tender flesh. God with us! God entering into the darkness to be one of us, to walk among us and know our secrets. Give me the fleeing holy family, risking everything to give this baby a chance to live and grow. My heart has been hollowed out by the last couple of years on earth; trying to make sense of the senseless. Now there is room for Him here.