Inevitably in any Lenten lectionary, in any conversation about scripture passages relating to the crucifixion, this one, Psalm 22, is going to make an appearance. Quite frankly, one reason I appreciate this psalm is its brutal emotional honesty, which feels insanely jumbled and dissonant — kind of like my own brain and heart.
SOMETIMES I THINK IT IS MY MISSION TO BRING FAITH TO THE FAITHLESS, AND DOUBT TO THE FAITHFUL ― PAUL TILLICH
Rambling. I do it when I feel vulnerable. Doubt makes me feel vulnerable. I like people to think I have my shit together, that I know something about something. I like to feel competent and trustworthy. But in the world of chaplaincy, of caring for the spirit in the throes of crisis and loss, it would seem my doubt and disbelief are gifts. It isn't that I disbelieve in a *fill in the blank with a typical, evangelical Christian adjective* God. It's that I don't mind questions. I hate not knowing, but I don't mind the questions that come out of the not knowing.
...if you were to ask me, "Where do you see God working in your life," I might be able to answer you. I might be able to tell you that I've felt God's presence in such and such event, in this conversation or in that encounter. The other day, I started a sentence with, "I felt the Spirit," and I nearly had to stop myself from stopping myself. I don't cringe at words like "salvation" or "God's will" like I did for a while there. Perhaps most importantly, my response to the inquiry of "How are you and God" would be, "We're good. We're okay."
Most often, when people experience a loss, their minds go to one of two places initially: either they start to wrestle with the what-ifs of a situation or they jump right into the details of the what's-next. In the moment of pain, crisis, and loss, it's hard for most of us to sit in that pain and bear it. To do so would be to accept that change is coming, whether we like it or not. It is often the job (and privilege) of those of us on the periphery to help contain the questions that surface. We don't have to offer answers. We just need to show up.
One professor, one I trust as a friend and mentor, noticed this and decided that I needed something different. I needed space: space in which to experience respite from fighting against something. He felt that, in all my efforts of fighting against, I'd been afforded little time to discover what it was I've been fighting for, or more importantly, what I've been standing on.
BUT STILL. STILL BLESS ME ANYWAY. I WANT MORE LIFE. I CAN'T HELP MYSELF. I DO. I'VE LIVED THROUGH SUCH TERRIBLE TIMES AND THERE ARE PEOPLE WHO LIVE THROUGH MUCH WORSE. BUT YOU SEE THEM LIVING ANYWAY. WHEN THEY'RE MORE SPIRIT THAN BODY, MORE SORES THAN SKIN, WHEN THEY'RE BURNED AND IN AGONY, WHEN FLIES LAY EGGS IN THE CORNERS OF THE EYES OF THEIR CHILDREN - THEY LIVE. DEATH USUALLY HAS TO TAKE LIFE AWAY. I DON'T KNOW IF THAT'S JUST THE ANIMAL. I DON'T KNOW IF IT'S NOT BRAVER TO DIE, BUT I RECOGNIZE THE HABIT; THE ADDICTION TO BEING ALIVE. SO WE LIVE PAST HOPE. IF I CAN FIND HOPE ANYWHERE, THAT'S IT, THAT'S THE BEST I CAN DO. IT'S SO MUCH NOT ENOUGH. IT'S SO INADEQUATE. BUT STILL BLESS ME ANYWAY. I WANT MORE LIFE. AND IF HE COMES BACK, TAKE HIM TO COURT. HE WALKED OUT ON US, HE OUGHTA PAY.
I don't know who came up with the idea that questioning God, God's motives, or God's actions (or inactions) is wrong, but I'd like to meet him (just roll with me on the gender assumption). If I had that chance, I'd point out David, Thomas, Job, even Paul. There are probably more biblical characters who dared question God. I'd ask why he thought it was wrong to hold God accountable for the ways in which God does and does not act in the world.
Life does not happen without questions. They're inevitable. Communities that make space for questions are often healthier, more vibrant, and certainly more nurturing than those who stifle them, burying them beneath the surface of our collective consciousness. More important than questions, healthy communities must make room for something else, for a word that has become riddled with connotations of weakness and failure...
Still, I was angry. I was envious. In that lobby, I leaned into my friend for an embrace, but this was different for me. While he wrapped his arms around me, for the first time ever I think, I could not return the gesture. Instead, my arms were straight at my side, fists clenched, body shaking. I was holding back the fury building within me, scared that if I let the door open even remotely, there would be no stopping me. In a similar Steel Magnolias fashion, he offered to let me hit him, to unleash my pain outwardly on him, and while I appreciated the gesture, I wouldn't do it. When you grow up in a family where physical abuse is commonplace like I did, you take no pleasure in releasing it upon anyone else, especially anyone for whom you care deeply.
Recently I finished my first reading of Breaking Up with God by Sarah Sentilles. A friend of mine suggested that I read it given my faith struggles as of late, and so I took her advice. I didn't even need to finish reading the synopsis on Amazon to know that this would be a book I would enjoy and connect with rather quickly.
... I broke up with God...
This is how Sentilles opens her book. Immediately I was hooked. It's not that I'm preparing to do the same. I don't think I will ever be able to lose my faith completely. But like Sentilles says, it's not that I've lost it. I'm walking away from it. In my case, this walking away isn't permanent, but it is necessary. Sometimes in a relationship, in order to gain a better sense of who someone is, we need time away from them to figure it out. In this case, by walking away from God for a while, I'll be better equipped to learn and understand who God is.
...In a lecture I heard in college, Ann Ulanov, a professor of psychiatry and religion, compared people of faith to painters, who must remember that a painting of a thing is not the thing itself. She warned we forget the difference between our image of God and God. Our experience doesn't match the image we've created—a child dies, a levee breaks, a job is lost—and the old image of God will not hold. Enraged, we turn from the image and annihilate the first thing we see...
Sarah talks about this idea often in her book. "Idols are all we ever have," she says. "Maybe the most faithful thing Moses did was smash the tablets." At the end of the day, all we have are our own constructions of God that we build based on our individual experiences with God. Sometimes we need to destroy those constructions and start over because let's be honest, destroying the tablets is not the same thing as destroying God. We err when we think the tablets are God.
...I loved God because I wanted God to love me, because I wanted to be worthy. Love was something I did to make him choose me, see me, love me, something I did to keep myself safe. I didn't believe God would love me exactly as I was, just for being me. I thought I had to become the girl God wanted me to be. I acted my part.
I don't call this love now...
When I read this, I cried. This is how I've always felt because, despite the language of "just as you are" that get's thrown around in church like sawdust in a woodworker's shop, what's really being said is, "Just as you are isn't good enough. You have to be more, to be better, for God to really love you." Ever heard the phrase, "God loves you just as you are, but he loves you too much to let you stay that way." This is dangerous, harmful, damaging theology if I ever heard it, and it leads to the absence of self-worth and self-love that Christ calls us to have.
I realized something recently. Growing up in the environment I did, you always hear about how God loves you. The one thing you rarely ever hear is that God likes you, that God considers precious the time God spends with you. That you make God smile and laugh all the time. That God knows your favorite color, song, smell, not because he's God but because he put the time and effort into building a relationship with you. That's what I want my understanding of God to be. Not some genocidal, tyrannical egomaniac who has to have his honor back or wouldn't dare to let himself be equated with women, the poor, the outcast, people of color, or sexual minorities. The God I want to know and believe in is the one who says, "They hate you and mistreat you because they fear you and don't really know you. But I love you. I like you. I want to know you and I want you to know me." But in order to get to know that God, I must distance myself from the God of my childhood, the God that disdains doubt and can't be subjected to critique and questioning.
... I didn't want to withdraw from the ordination process. I wanted to be kicked out. That would confirm my biggest fear—that I had done something wrong, that I was unlovable—and it would also allow me to avoid the truth: I didn't want to be a priest anymore. It was over...
Since I announced my own departure from the UMC's ordination process, I've had to deal with feelings similar to Sarah's. Leading up to my district meeting, I thought a lot about how I could self-sabotage in a way that would leave the committee no choice but to halt my process. In reality, all I would have had to say was, "I'm a self-avowed practicing homosexual." It would have been that simple. At least, that's what I was told. Who knows? What I do know is that I would have rather forced the committee to make my decision for me.
Friends have asked if I'm going to finish seminary, and if so, why. The answer: yes, I'm going to because it's a chapter in my life and I can't very well move forward to the next one if I skip the pages that contain the rest of this one. Seminary has changed me for the better. Maybe not by the standards by which I was raised, but by my own. Questioning my faith and my beliefs may be painful and difficult, but at least I've been granted some permission to question at all.
Sentilles talks a lot about her time at Harvard working closely with Gordon Kaufman, one of the professors in the Divinity school. For Kaufman, the question of God's existence is the wrong question. Instead we should be asking what kind of God we want to believe in, what kind of world we want to live in.
... For me, at least intellectually, calling God an imaginative construction didn't make God less than God. It let God be God, beyond human words and comprehension, beyond our finitude and biases and small-mindedness and fear. I understood this way of thinking about God to be a useful way to stop religious violence: if you admit your understanding of God is a construction, then you won't be willing to kill anyone over it. You could be wrong. You could be wrong. You could be wrong...
There is a limit to how much we can know about God presuming that God is infinite and we are finite. But unlike those who think this mindset would lead one to not even bother trying to know and understand God, for me, it means that the possibilities are endless. It means I can study those gospels that were excluded from canon and find in them different ways of understanding God. In other words, it makes questioning a good thing.
Sometimes all we need is a little separation to be able to understand someone better, to love them more deeply.