I was challenged a great deal last week by some dear friends. My dear friends are self proclaimed atheists, extreme intellects, well educated as well as compassionate, loving beings.. I am a self proclaimed Christian, a lover and follower of Jesus Christ, intelligent and educated as well as a compassionate, loving being. I believe that despite our great differences, we have more in common than seen at first glance and I believe we have much to learn from one another so it would be tragic to stop at first glance.
Our facebook conversation was interesting...many varying opinions given, thought provoking discussions with some heated emotions thrown in. This is what is to be expected when two opposite sides of the coin are attempting to get the other to see their side. So...before and while engaging in this conversation, it was my hope and prayer to live out the love in my heart. I wanted to find value in what the 'other side' said and at the same time keep in tune with my own values and heart...I wanted to live out what it means to me to be Christlike. And certainly, I hoped they would find value in my views but I do understand the outcome is not up to me...I can only live as I know to live.
One thing written by someone was, "I like your Christ but I don't like your Christians." I certainly understood that. Loud and clear. As I understand, my friends would like me to defend my faith as Paul would have me defend it. While I am very much a thinker and a feeler, I probably am not as geared toward feeling the need to defend my side. Plain truth, I don't know how to define something I feel in my heart as sure as I see the sunlight bouncing off my eyes in the morning to someone who is insistent on hearing the 'defense' or the intellectual side of things. To me, it is a matter of the heart and to intellectualize it places my faith, my God and myself in somebody's box of who I am.. My faith has and continues to be a journey for me. I have been through some hard times with God and have deliberately chosen the path of Christianity....I could write a thousand pages on that but I'm going to try to sum it up so that both the feelers and the intellects can understand my own faith.
I was raised with a half Catholic family and a half Protestant family. My Dad's side Catholic and my Mom's side Protestant. My Mom took me to church on occasion, my Dad never went unless there was a wedding or funeral so usually my Grandparents took me.
My Grandma took me to her Catholic church on Saturday mornings. Sometimes my sisters on my Dad's side would go, usually it was just us. My Papa never, ever went. At that point, I think he didn't at all believe in God. Anyway...she would take me to a little chapel at St. John's hospital sometimes and we'd go eat in the coffee shop afterward. I remember loving the smell of incense burning and being fascinated by the ritualism and tradition of Catholicism. However, it often felt very robotic to me. Kneel....pray....repeat after the Father (who by the way was dressed in the same outfit each week and I thought it was kind of creepy...kids view) The sound of singing of the priest followed by the congregation was almost haunting to me. I didn't really like the priest at my Grandmas church, though he did stop once to purchase the wildflowers I had picked and was selling by the side of the road. He then told my Grandma on me because he was concerned for my safety and I never sold wildflowers by the road again. I recall going to light candles in a small room at church for people who were sick or who had died. My Grandma taught me to say The Lords Prayer, which I still love. She said many prayers with her rosary beads at night, Hail Mary Mother of Grace is the one that lingers in my memory....My Grandma's God was a punishing God. He was watching my every move and whenever I was not a 'good girl' I knew there was a high possibility of my getting a trip to Hell. He was scary and I'm not sure anyone could ever live up to this God's standards. My Grandma wasn't so focused on the Bible...except her huge white Catholic Bible that was always open on her coffee table. I can still feel it's pages, I used to love to flip through and read portions of it...I found them comforting. In addition, my Grandma would put dried up flowers she'd been given along with a note of who gave it, why and when in Ziploc bags. Those could be found amongst the pages. My Grandma was very focused on serving in the church. I often went with her to prepare communion. I always loved doing this. She was kind during those times and I felt proud and so important. She always brought meals to families in need; that is a gift she passed onto me. My Grandma was highly superstitious and made sure I behaved as a good girl should....always. And that if I did not I knew how disappointed God would be in me.
Then there were my Granny and Granddaddy. My Mom would usually drop me off at church with them and this I loved. This was Jenks Church of Christ on Main Street. There were lots of hugs for me from nurturing, motherly women, grandfatherly men with beautiful tenor voices and fun Sunday School classes. I remember that sometimes my big brothers and sisters would do the puppets for those classes. I LOVED it. I loved it until that devil puppet with the horns scared the bajeebies out of me and I ran out. Thankfully, my Momma was there and I know she tried to calm me but I don't think I went back to Sunday school for a good bit. This church felt like home to me. They frequently had pot lucks after church. It smelled like church. It smelled like comfort. I loved the safe feeling here so much that I didn't care about the rules, I didn't care that no instruments were allowed, I only knew I felt God here. I felt loved here and I loved it back. This is maybe where I realized there was a different kind of God and he was a pretty loving guy. After church, if there was not a potluck, my Granny and Grandaddy would take me to Arby's. I would get the same every time...a ham and cheese sandwich, potato cakes and a small jamocha shake. Lots of horsey and arby sauce. My Granny would cut the sandwich into four perfect pieces. Again, for just a while longer I felt so safe. (I see some of my comfort with food patterns emerging...that's a different story). The best was when my Grandaddy would later take me to feed ducks and swans on Riverside Drive. I didn't go often to their home...when I did I remember my Grandaddy softly scolding me for doing somersaults in the living room - he was scared I'd bump my head on the coffee table. I loved him so very much. I think I tied the gentleness and love of my Grandaddy in with the God they taught me about. My Granny continues to live that love at 98 years of age. The problems were that I knew when I went to this church my Grandma was going to act some kind of angry the next several days because she did was horribly jealous of me having a relationship with the 'other grandparents'. I missed out on a lot because of my fear of her anger. So...lots of confusion for a young kid.
So you see....already I knew two different Gods. There was the one who was going to get me for any minor wrongdoing and the one who loved me just because. Earned grace vs. redeeming grace
Wow! This is longer than I thought. Lots to process. My Momma started taking me to church again after my brother Brent died. I was close to 16. The church was lovely and I knew my Mom had great friends there. Being the shy, guilt ridden person I was (my Grandma did not like me going to church with my Mom either - I think she had aspirations of my being a good Catholic girl one day) - I had a difficult time making friends at church. I was probably awkward and a bit reclusive and I know I was a late bloomer. I liked the conversations, I liked the youth group, I just didn't 'belong'. So...I spent much of my time volunteering in the church nursery and gaining babysitting jobs from the parents I met. I had a much easier time engaging with adults than youth because in hindsight, I'd been a grown up for a very long time. At this time, I also attended a private Christian school. It was there that I 'accepted Christ' into my heart. At fourteen, I had no idea what this meant but it felt right and my friends did it....so.....
My best friends throughout school were Charismatic, Pentecostal, Jewish and Muslim. My Mother trusted God enough to let me explore. I learned about being slain by the spirit, speaking in tongues, Passover, Bat and Bar mitzvah; men and women praying to Mecca in separate directions all in a matter of a few years. I watched many different examples of faith. In college I explored astrology, new age mysticism, out of body experiences and levitation, etc. I searched high and low for the God I so desperately wanted to know. In my heart, I knew all along that my path was Jesus, but I was deeply angry with him. (I would've never acknowledged that...no good Christian girl would).
Add in more life experiences. I cried out to God countless times during my teen years for him to take my life. He did not. As a matter of fact, although I would not acknowledge Him, it is only He that gave me life in the midst of those horrid years. When my brother Brent died, my parents were so out of reach for a while. I was alone again...just like with my Grandma. I felt the same peace I did previously while begging to die and although I didn't name that peace as God, I knew I had a saving grace somewhere, somehow.
I got baptized at 32 (my Momma could not believe her youngest had slidden by without being baptized as a child). I did this because the spirit was moving in my heart and life. I read everything I could get my hands on regarding baptism, I prayed and I knew in the depths of me this is what I wanted. When I heard our pastor, Tracy say that this represented forgiveness for all sins of all time and I spoke my desire to follow Christ, I was overcome with relief and tears. I have never looked back. I have however struggled tremendously to change my view of God as my persecutor and know that he is indeed my savior.
When I met my husband, he wanted to be a youth minister. This is a dream come true for such a 'good girl'. Over the years he decided to hate God, he decided he was an atheist. This wounded me but my precious husband was so deeply wounded my a church and it's members. Deeply. Once I realized this was not my battle to fight, or to make right and I handed him back over to God...things began to change. (It only took me 14 years to get it). When I dealt with crippling panic and anxiety I thought I wasn't good enough, faithful enough, something was missing for God to let me suffer like this. Then I had that stroke and boy was I pissed. Tired of being God's little chess piece to move as he pleased I resigned myself to the fact that if he was out to get me I'd at least be a thankful martyr....I mean really, he only puts the strong through this crap, right?
I didn't even know these were my ingrained views until I went to Step Beyond. When I decided that I am a 'whole and surrendered woman basking in the warmth of God's love' and decided once and for all that this is MY TRUTH - my life turned around. I make choices daily to surrender. Knowing that this doesn't mean I hand myself over so God can punish me and use me as he pleases. It means that I can surrender this life to my heavenly father and crawl up in his lap for a snuggle.
One thing I feel I must address to my precious friends and to anyone who has been deeply hurt at church....church is made up of people. People are not God. People (even well intended) hurt people. People at church are some of the most imperfect ever and thankfully God has grace enough to cover us all. I wonder what it costs someone to shut off all experiences that cannot be explained. It is in things unexplained that I find great beauty. My friend assumes I believe (as a Christian) that he is going to Hell. I believe we can be in a Hell of our own making all through life. I believe God is loving and trust that he works through this in the hearts of people who do not see and feel him. I believe God is there but he is not pushy and will stay right outside your walls until you invite him in. I believe his grace is sufficient and I believe I am not in a position to judge things I cannot comprehend. i.e. I believe God loves the madman who killed these innocent children on Friday as much as he loves the children. I believe evil and mental illness permeate out society. I believe people make choices and the outcomes are between they and God. I cannot fairly fathom this...I do not choose faith as an easy crutch. In these circumstances, faith is far more difficult for me to choose because judgement and hatred are way more comfortable.
So see....if it's intellect one is searching for, I cannot give you a justifiable intellect. If you want my heart, there it is. From deep in my belly to the ocean of my soul - I know my Jesus loves me and I know I love him. I don't know this because someone quoted me a scripture (though I do love my Bible), I know this because I have been loved. Can you see love? You can see it in action, but can you 'see' love? Can you touch love? Probably not. Can love touch you? I hope so. Same for me and my faith. Can I see it? I can see it in action. Can I touch it? nope. Does faith touch me? absolutely. That's all I have and that is more than enough for me.
So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. 2 Corinthians 4:18