(Erm, I didn’t really say “tomorrow” did I? Oops. Funny week, long entry, etc. etc. This series is turning out to be a three or four parter. You can find part one HERE.)
God bless all of you who actually read Part One – and even commented! Because I’m wordy, and everything seems important, these are longer than I might have anticipated. On to Part Two, wherein God pursues me with words.
The same year that I began going to Catholic Mass, I also finally shared my story with a long-time friend. She was precious and understanding and never once looked at me like I was insane. She looked at me like a beautiful, broken, daughter of God who was struggling to find her way. That year for Christmas, she gave me Donald Miller’s Searching for God Knows What. It sat on my bookshelf, untouched for months, until one of the many nights that year when I found myself up at four in the morning, with no desire or ability to write my assignments for class.
I was captivated by his writing – he wrote with an urgency and an understanding. He wrote like I thought – in long, muddled sentences that struggled to express exactly the core thing but expressed it nonetheless. By the end of chapter two, Miller tells God that He doesn’t exist. I was floored. Finally, on page 82 there was this:
“War is complicated; it isn’t black and white. That is what the Bible teaches. And I thought about that for a long time and realized it meant all our civilizations, our personalities, our families, our souls, are walking through the wreckage of a war, running from Tokyo, running from Hiroshima, our mouths gaping, the fire burning behind us, our wounds wet with blood and muddied with ash. This is Sarajevo all over again, only this time it’s the walls of our hearts that are littered with bullet holes, it’s our souls that are feeling the aftershock.”
The last sentence of that passage hurts my heart as much today as it did the first time that I read it almost six years ago. “This guy gets it,” I thought. My heart was shattered and broken in a hundred places, but I always assumed I was alone in feeling that. Or, at the very least, assumed I was alone in the church in feeling that. But here was a man who was well-respected in Christian circles, who very much believes in the man and message of Jesus Christ – admitting these feelings. Maybe I wasn’t alone after all – and maybe my struggles weren’t indicative of a lack of faith or trust or anything else on my part. Maybe my struggles were completely normal and human.
I finished the book and put it back on the bookshelf, but that sentence stayed with me. The idea that Miller develops – that maybe the formulas and rituals we are raised to believe lead to God actually do more to separate us – stuck with me as well. Miller talked about relationship with God. I wasn’t sold immediately, but I began to wonder if maybe God did care about my mess and perhaps others might care, too.
My junior year of college, I lived with two girls that I had gone through youth group with. Both were still heavily involved in the church and had a number of Christian friends, who were often coming over. It was a strange year – being surrounded by women who obviously loved the Lord and who knew that I had too, and who loved me in spite of the string of guys who were in and out, in spite of the newly empty bottles of wine each morning, in spite of the giant, terrible mistakes I made. I couldn’t understand how they could love and continue to engage me so freely. They rarely tried to convince me that I needed to go back to the church or find Jesus or anything of the sort, but their actions spoke louder than those words ever could have.
Two nights after the event which I do not call rape because I still maintain it was my fault even though there was no way I could have consented and any cour twould call it rape, they invited me to a youth event. They had watched me lay on the sofa all weekend, doing little else but sleep and drink and more than anything, I think, wanted to get me out and force me into human contact. I, figuring that my weekend could not possibly get any worse, agreed.
I stayed in the back of the church the most of the time, not wanting to even pretend to praise God after what I’d gone through, but fully aware that God could still change these kids’ lives. When the youth pastor took the stage to speak, I settled in and warmed up for plenty of eye rolling. I’d survived six years in youth group and knew all the cheesy “True Love Waits” and “God Loves You” schlock that usually came in youth group teaching. I was not prepared for the message he gave. Actually, I remember very little of the message, as I was choking back tears the entire time. There were piles of luggage on the stage – baggage that he encouraged us to hand over to God. Cliched, perhaps, but the part that shocked me was the names that he gave to the baggage. In the middle of a church, this man stated out loud that his students might be struggling with sexual promiscuity, eating disorders, self-injury, drug abuse, alcohol abuse, and all manner of “junk.”
He gets it, I thought. He. Freaking. Gets it. And then I thought, Wait. If he’s calling it out, then I must not be the only one feeling this way. And he’s saying that God doesn’t care how badly I’ve screwed it up or how badly I hurt. He still wants me.
That idea was new, shocking, and nothing that I’d ever really heard. Before that moment, the only thing I heard when people discussed sin was condemnation. And yes, there is condemnation for those who sin and do not repent and accept the gift of grace – but the kind of condemnation I was accustomed to hearing played right into my all-or-nothing thinking. I had sinned once and now I was marred – I would never be good enough for God and He was tired of cleaning up my messes. But that is not the case at all! Here was a pastor telling this group of students, that even if they were messing up in really big ways, it was okay. It could be redeemed. God still wanted them. Still wanted me.
Again – I heard this message and stuck it on the proverbial bookshelf. I continued to drink, smoke, starve, and do plenty of other sordid things. I got back together with the guy I was dating, then got my heart shattered. I got a little too friendly with a guy who would wind up stalking me. I made an A in a nutrition class by lying about what I ate. I cried for weeks. I met the man who would become my fiance’. I let him feed me and tell me I was beautiful while I struggled with gaining necessary weight. I made plans for my senior year and spent the summer of my 21st birthday drinking, hiking, camping, and letting myself fall in love.
Senior year was full of highs and lows. I got engaged and S did a wonderful job at surprising me with the ring. I completely withdrew from school because my depression was so severe that even weekly counseling and high doses of antidepressants couldn’t drag me from bed. I struggled to maintain a job and pay the bills. I met the fiancé’s family and was immediately accepted as one of theirs.
Small, subtle shifts in my beliefs began to occur. When S and I started talking about having a family, I asked if we would raise them in the church. I asked and if he’d said no, it would have been a deal breaker. When we got engaged, I wanted us to do premarital counseling with a Christian pastor and I wanted us to pray. When I visited his place on weekends, I would visit churches while he worked on Sundays.
We started planning a wedding and a life. I applied and was accepted to graduate school and secured an internship as a grant writer in the city where he lived. I spent the summer preparing to move and begin a life with the man I loved.
Over that summer, I read a book, which I can only assume was given to me by the same friend who gave me the Donald Miller book two years before. I read Velvet Elvis by Rob Bell. It is, to this day, the book that I credit with completely changing my views on God. Bell had two major points:
1. Doctrine is a jumping-off point for understanding God.
2. All Truth and Beauty come from God – the world and God are not mutually exclusive.
And while the first point was big (an acknowledgment that I did not have to buy my childhood church’s theology hook, line, and sinker), it was the second that had the most relevance to me as an academic and critical thinker. God was the author of ALL truth – science was not in opposition to God. Literature was not in opposition to God. Secular nonprofits were not in opposition to God. Fighting for the oppressed was not in opposition to God. I got excited about the possibility of a God so big that He could scatter truth everywhere – a God who was not so tightly boxed in and who might be able to deal with my and my past and present.
I got excited about the idea of finding a church in my new city where my fiance’ and I could explore this God together. We agreed to start looking for a church as soon as I moved.
I moved to Raleigh in July.
By August, it was all falling apart.
Stay tuned Part 3 – the down and dirty story of my engagement and how I finally began to believe in God again.