I have struggled to pray. I can’t seem to find the right words to express the maelstrom of emotions and doubts I have swirling within me. I feel constantly torn between giving it all up or launching back into ‘leadership’ with vigour and just faking it until I make it.
I don’t even have a title or name for what I am feeling or going through. It’s been about a year perhaps since I left my home church. And yet the chronological time doesn’t make sense because in my heart, in my head and in my memories, the time is chopped up into huge blocks where I felt so hurt and so stung for what seems like months and months, when in reality it must have only been weeks. Then there are times when it has flown past, and it scared me to think that I could quite easily live a life without a faith community without even realising it, until I wake up one day at 65 and look back on what could have been.
My enrolment at Bible college has been my attempt to keep a link to my old community, to stay attached and connected to some semblance of people who do what I used to do; go to church regularly, pray, ‘connect’, serve, set-up etc.
I miss so many people and I miss that deep sense of belonging that I had for such a long time. I always knew it was special, I compared it to the friendships I saw around me at school and knew that what I had at church was unique, went deeper than common interests or common hobbies; we were a family. It kept We had been accepted into God’s own extended family that spanned thousands of year and hundreds of countries. I felt grafted into a vine, as the Bible says, that was strong and alive and would keep me alive long after I felt dead.
And I had chosen to leave that place, that safe, all-encompassing community for what?
For a sense of deep discontentment. It seems such a waste, to have thrown it all away, but I can’t help but wonder that maybe I was meant to. Maybe it was my fate, my path, my journey. I still don’t know where the hell I am going; I know nothing anymore and I wish I did. It is really hard being so adrift, and being so unsure of who I belong to.
These feelings of loneliness prove to me that all along I had not been grafted into the vine that was Jesus himself, but simply into the vine that was his church. And that was okay for a while, but it is not where I am meant to find meaning and belonging, because the church is made up of broken humans just like me. And I think this would have happened sooner or later; I would have left, I would have been profoundly disappointed, but it would have been more devastating had I not left now, at the young age of 25 without children and with just myself to answer for.
Am I just rationalising away my decisions though? I can’t even confidently say it was the Spirit who prompted me to leave, as I should say, as any good faithful Christian should say. I am very aware of the rationalising that goes on when someone wants to live life without boundaries, without convictions, and maybe that is me. Actually, that is me. I want that. I want freedom from the controlling people and the authoritarianism that ruled my every thought. I was so scared of what the ‘leadership’ would do or say. Terrified that they would disown me, or see me as less than amazing, wonderful, brilliant.
But I don’t want to be free from Christ. He alone is the one that I want to be near always. It is just so hard to separate him from his church, from those who define themselves as his spokespeople.
I have decided to write because I sense that this is the way I make sense of my life. I have avoided doing this for months now, because I haven’t wanted to face what I have to face. I have almost wished that someone else would come along and magically, supernaturally, point out all my flaws and offer a solution, a potion, a chant or prayer that would eliminate them and change me back into who I used to be. But I know that I have to start typing, I have to start living and facing what I am going through and who I am becoming. Otherwise I will end up where I dread to end up; at the end of a life unexamined, lived only shallowly and full of regrets. And I don’t know if I want to go back to who I used to be.
I would serve diligently, oh yes, I would be there on time and ready to work, but always, always on guard and full of resentment at those who wouldn’t serve as hard as I did. Who wouldn’t pack up the chairs as quickly or diligently as I did after youth nights. I found no joy in it. In fact, it would incense me and stir me up to pure rage when I witnessed other ‘leaders’ of our little youth group standing around talking when I, I was sweating and heaving chairs about the auditorium. Oh, what a good little Christian I was. I deserved a reward, I deserved praise and affirmation and nothing would make me angrier than any semblance of unfairness. It’s been the same in my family. Nothing makes my heart pound faster than a sense of unfairness. Justice. I crave justice in an almost unseemly way and I know, I am so very aware, that if I was to receive justice from God, from my family, I would be cast out since I am riddled with sin and flaws like a leper.
Where did this come from? Why am I like this? When others seem to be fine with it?
I am the elder brother when the prodigal son comes home. I don’t want to be that elder brother anymore. Maybe I had to leave my childhood church to discover my true identity, as the prodigal daughter. I want to accept the Father's love and not begrudge it when it is handed out to those I deem 'beneath me'. Even that dichotomy is anathema to who Jesus is and what he came to do.
So, just the other day, I picked up a book from my local library. Philip Yancey’s ‘Soul Survivor’ seemed like just another book I picked up from the library, just another book in my pile of holiday reading. He asks the same questions that writers like Rachel Held Evans asks; where do I belong, when I am too secular for the faithful and too faithful for the secular?
I have rejected the simplistic faith of my youth, as it crumbled like a sandcastle in the face of real life, but I cannot reject the credo and creeds of my faith, which have withstood two thousand years.
People like Paul Brand, Robert Coles, Merton, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Buechner, Annie Dillard, Henri Nouwen are my saints alongside the Pauls, the Peters, the Mary Magdalenes, the Moses', the Deborah's.
Without them, my faith would be poorer and shallower than I can imagine. When prayer fails me, I turn to the words of others who have been on this same journey, as I know God would have me do, even though it seems blasphemous to not simply say ‘praying the Scriptures is enough’.
The words of people like this give me strength to go on;
(In 1965) “I don’t know why I said no to segregation. I’m just another white Southerner, and I wasn’t brought up to love integration! But I was brought up to love Jesus Christ, and when I saw the police of this city use dogs on people, I asked myself what Jesus would have done – and that’s all I know about how I came to be here, on the firing line.”
I read words like this and I realise I have been on the way to undoing and being untrue and unfair to the law of Christ in my classrooms and in front of my students. I have been swayed and tempted and weakened by my struggle and it has resulted in my adopting the attitude that Christianity and Christians themselves have done more damage than good, many a time. And this is true, I have wanted to be true to history and not be just another biased Christian who thinks that all that bear the title are beyond reproach. But I have swung too far the other way and I have neglected to show my students the truth, the beauty, the power of non-violence, of the way of Christ, of those whose lives have changed the world because of Christ. I must change this, now.
Martin Luther King Jnr
“A big danger for us is to follow the people we are opposing. Let us not try to put ourselves into one all-inclusive category – the virtuous ones against the evil ones, or the decent ones against the malicious, prejudiced ones, or the well-educated against the ignorant. You can see that I can go on and on – and there is the danger; the ‘us’ or ‘them’ mentality takes hold and we do, actually, begin to run the risk of joining ranks with the very people we are opposing”
Oh, truer words have never been spoken! This describes me and my crusades against the ignorant of the world. And yet how can I not crusade, when all around me those who hate and fear coloured people or women are the ones in power, the ones with the platform, the money, the attention. And yet how much more reason did MLK Jnr have to do this! He was killed for it! I am guilty of this crime, of joining ranks with those I oppose. My only recourse is to do what Jesus did, and bless them, pray for them. But how can I when I would be praying for and blessing the ones who blame the victim of rape, not the rapist? The ones who justify domestic violence? The ones who call others black dogs in traffic jams?
And yet it is my only option, if I am not to become just like them. Even my use of the word ‘them’ means that I have categorised them. We are the same.
“I belong, with Robert Coles, to a privileged minority. How do we, the privileged ones, act as stewards of the grace we have received? We can begin by ripping off the labels we so thoughtlessly slap on others, we can begin by finding a community that nourishes compassion for the weak, and instinct that privilege tens to suppress. We can begin with humility and gratitude and reverence, and then move on to pray without ceasing for the greater gift of love.”
MLK Jnr “I have begun to realise how hard it is for a lot of people to think of living without someone to look down upon, really look down upon. It is not just that they will feel cheated out of someone to hate; it is that they will be compelled to look more closely at themselves, at what they don’t like in themselves, at what they don’t like in themselves. My heart goes out to people I hear called rednecks; they have little, if anything, and hate is a possession they can still call upon reliably, and it works for them. I have less charity in my heart for well to-do and well-educated people – for their snide comments, cleverly rationalised ones, for the way they mobilise their political and even moral justifications to suit their own purposes. No one calls them into account. Someday all of us will see that when we start going after a race or a religion, a type, a region, a section of the Lord’s humanity – then we’re cutting into His heart and we’re bleeding badly ourselves.”
The power of literature;
“Literature has its own power that takes over; novels pay respect to the mystery and manners of individual human beings. The novelists are not interested in theory, or in turning their brains into godlike pontifical organs. Instead they evoke and render complexity, irony, ambiguity, paradox. They discover, and acknowledge, that each person is a separate finite mystery, not something that can be contained in one category or another.”