The Long Road to the Kingdom, Part 2

(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.

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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.

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Stay tuned Part 3 – the down and dirty story of my engagement and how I finally began to believe in God again.

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The Long Road to the Kingdom, Part 1

I generally do very poorly with open-ended assignments or questions. My counselor asked me on Monday to “tell [her] about relapsing — what does it look like” and I proceeded to stare blankly at her for a solid 30 seconds. I finally managed to speak up and tell her that I am happy to answer questions about what this relapse is entailing, but I, in general, need specific points you want me talk on because I do not do well to prioritize and organize information on my own, especially when my brain is half-starved.

So when Sarah left a comment on my first day’s entry and said she wanted to know more about me, I stared blankly at the computer for a solid 30 seconds. And continued to stare blankly for the next forty minutes or so, until I finally decided I needed to pare the assignment down a little. I knew what I didn’t want to talk about: my eating disorder, my alcohol abuse, my self-injury, my rape. I know that there are probably a lot of unanswered questions around all of these things, and while I do at some point want to give a more complete picture of my struggle, I am really trying to find myself and who I am outside of all that.

Finally, I realized that there is actually something I would very much like to see all of you write about, so this is both a way for me to tell my own story and a challenge for you to write your own. One of the things I love most about our God is the way that cares and seeks after each of us individually. Nobody’s story of faith is the same, so while I know that most of you are believers, I don’t have any idea of how you came to be that way. It’s something I’m genuinely curious about — how you came to know God, how you continue to grow in your knowing Him, and how things have changed since that moment that you decided to take on His yoke. So here is my [abbreviated] story. I can’t wait to hear yours.

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I was raised in the church – literally. I was there at least three times a week and spent as much time in the halls of that old church as I did in my own bedroom. I should be clear and state that I wasn’t always happy about it. More than once, the precious souls in children’s church had to deal with my screaming and crying because I wanted my mother (I actually have memory of this), and there was one Sunday where I was forced to go to church in my pajamas because we were going, dang it, whether you get dressed or not, young lady.

I spent the years from birth to 11 at a very traditional United Methodist Church. And, children’s church and pajama day aside, I really did love it. I sang in the children’s choir, drank lemonade at the covered dish luncheons, earned girl scout badges in the small brown building next to the playground. When I was 11, my parents decided that the church we were attending was too far away – we had moved when I was four, but continued to make the half-hour commute multiple days each week. The commute wasn’t the issue, though. I was just about to start middle school and my mother wanted me to be in youth group with the same people I was in class with. She was very serious about my being able to look around the classroom and know who the other Christians were so I could know that I was not alone in facing peer pressure, etc. (This theory might have gone over better if half the kids in my youth group weren’t drinking, doing drugs, and having sex by ninth grade – but that’s an entirely different story.)

I wasn’t particularly happy about this new, contemporary church. I missed the hymnals, stained glass, and wooden pews of my first church and furthermore, didn’t really fit in with my youth group. The same social strata that existed in my middle school and high school existed in my youth group — I was an outcast at school and in the church. I still believed, fiercely, and tried to find a place – I sang in the adult choir, watched kids in the nursery, ran the prayer club at my school, went on missions trips every year. I “became” a Christian at age 12 – which is to say that I “asked Jesus into my heart,” a phrase which still confuses me to this day.

Not long after that confession of faith, I began to struggle in ways that nobody was primed to look for. The depression, the disordered eating, the self-injury: nobody expected these things from the first chair flautist with straight A’s and plans to go to Harvard. I won the scripture memory contest every week at youth group, thus solidifying my reputation as the “holier-than-thou-goody-two-shoes-know-it-all.” Nobody knew that I was crying out in my journals on youth retreats for God to please kill me, or that I slipped away to the bathroom between conference sessions to use the knife that was ever in my pocket.

I was very good at playing the role — last year I got the opportunity to meet with one of my old youth pastors for the first time since high school and when she heard me talk about those years, she looked at me with a pained expression and apologized. People assumed that I was stressed out over schoolwork, not suicidal. Looking back, I can see that I never felt safe with them – never felt like I had seen or heard anything that made me believe God was big enough to handle what I was feeling. This was the same group of leaders who were shocked and dismayed at my willingness to say a curse word as part of a literature reading and who dealt with my belief in evolution by telling me, simply, that I was wrong and needed to read the Bible.

I went to a boarding school briefly when I was 16 and never got plugged into a church there. When I returned home after a [miserable] semester [where I very nearly killed myself], I never went back to youth group. No, that’s not true – I went once, but the span of six months made the feeling of division between me and the rest of my classmates too great for a girl who was suffering a very severe depression and debilitating social anxiety. I went to church every Sunday morning, sang in the choir, prayed the prayers – and kept hoping God would show up.

When I went off to college, I stopped going to church altogether. By the end of my first semester freshman year, I ceased to call myself a Christian. It wasn’t that I didn’t believe in who God was and what He was doing around the world – I just didn’t think it had any relevance to my life. Where in the Bible did it teach me how to deal with crushing depression that kept me holed up in a dark dorm room for days? Where in the Bible was the parable about self-injury? (Other than the one where Jesus casts demons into pigs, which was wildly irrelevant to an 18-year-old in a city with no pigs.) Where could I find the teachings about genocide and Darfur? Why wasn’t my church involved in boycotting the School of the Americas?

My unwillingness to call myself a Christian became even more pronounced by my sophomore year, when I was aware that I was not living a life at all within God’s will. It amazes me that even then, in some of the darkest days, I knew that I could not shame the name of Christianity — Jesus might not be for me, but He was the Saviour of the world and I wasn’t going to give Him a bad reputation. (I look back on this now as evidence that God was always there – for “no one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit.” – 1 Corinth 12:3).  He could do His thing for other people, but I would continue to drink, starve, run, and flirt.

So you may find it interesting that this was the same year I started to attend Catholic Mass.  I read the Bible.  Both were, in fact, intellectual pursuits.  I was a history and music major at the time and anybody who knows anything about either of those knows that the Catholic Church has played major roles in both arenas.  I also had a terrible fear that my roommate, a devout Catholic, was going to be brutally raped in the winter during her four block walk in the dark to the local Catholic Church.  I agreed to go with her one Sunday evening, as a bodyguard of sorts.

I wish I had words to describe how terrifying my sophomore year of college was – how I couldn’t sleep, didn’t eat, ran a million miles a minute trying to keep up with some goal that I couldn’t articulate, all the while sure that it going to fall apart before I could attain it, that I would kill myself before I ever had a chance to know what I was doing.  The first time I stepped in to the Oratory near our campus, all of that fell away.  It was the first time in months, and perhaps years, that I felt peace.  Everything stopped.  I was confused, an ex-Methodist in a Catholic service, trying to figure out where my hands go, what the order is, when to sit and when to stand – and yet, I was at peace.

The Oratory remains, to this day, a sacred space to me.  I still visit often, especially during Holy Week and Advent.  It is one of the most beautiful, emotional places to me and I place that I can go again and again and know that God is there.  It is the place that God began His slow and loving pursuit of me, began to show me what a fullness of life could be with Him, and began opening my eyes to who He really is.

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Tomorrow:  God as hunter and pursuer.  (This was getting long and the next part is too good to gloss over.)