I’ve been dreading writing this post, but strangely enough it hasn’t occurred to me not to write it. I guess I have a few things to say even if they’re going to be hella tough to say. So here we are. One year later.
A year ago I received the soul crushing news that my application for ministry was being delayed by a year. I received very little feedback other than vague assurances that it was for my own good – reassurances I honestly had no reason to believe, given how toxic the church environment was. After a lot of soul searching I made the decision to withdraw my application altogether. In the months following, there were a few false starts, a few glimmers of hope – that turned into nothing. I was left each time standing with the dust and ashes of my calling, powerless against the egotism of the church.
I have suspicions about why what happened happened. The pastor involved left their post at the end of 2018, upending plans they’d had to stay at the congregation for at least five years. Everything else is just speculation, and honestly I’m tired of speculating about the whys. Not being deemed good enough by the presbytery you’d been a part of for two years to do what you feel called to do? Not a great feeling. But that’s not the worst part.
The worst part is that for a long time, I agreed with their assessment. I agreed that I must not be good enough and that God must not like me, and that if only I’d tried harder and been an entirely different person, things would have worked out.
(On bad days, a small part of me still believes this, and maybe always will.)
Unsurprisingly, my relationship with God suffered. My first response was a sort of grim denial. I wasn’t going to let this horrible thing crush my relationship with God – no sir. I worked very hard at bottling my grief, despair and anger at God and at the church. I tried to continue on as I normally did. I tried to believe the way I normally did. But these were not normal circumstances, so little surprise that I failed spectacularly.
It’s difficult to describe how rudderless my life became when I finally had to let go of the pretense that everything was just fine, thanks. How do you process feeling that God himself has betrayed you? How do you process the apathy and self-interest that drives so many church communities? How do you reconcile these feelings to praise-God-Hallelujah?
I’m sure some intrepid Christian could interject here with platitudes about how you need to praise God in the hallway of life. I know because until quite recently I was that intrepid Christian. I know how awful and afraid and uncertain we really are, and I completely understand why we feel the need to rub our pseudo-certainty in other people’s faces, all the while telling ourselves we’re doing it from a place of love or obedience when really we’re doing it because we’re afraid someone else’s doubting and questioning may have a point.
Let me tell you friends: I didn’t praise God in the hallway. I tried. I tried to fall back on the coping mechanisms Christian religion teaches its adherents when things are tough and when there isn’t really space for tough conversations or feelings within the system of belief. Mostly this involves using Scripture and religiosity like a tacky gloss over the scratched and scuffed-up surface of our lives – which never works. It doesn’t work because real faith is rarely about covering up and concealing. Real faith is more readily abrasive. In tandem with the Holy Spirit, it scours at denial, hypocrisy, sin, apathy and anger. As I’m discovering, real faith is a messy, messy thing.
Finally, truly defeated, I let go. I let go of trying to keep the faith. I let go of trying to prove to invisible critics that I am worthy, called, and beloved by God. I let go of trying to be anyone else than wholly, imperfectly, waspishly myself. And in my free fall, I’ve fallen straight into the vastness of God and her love, mercy and grace; like a pebble into the ocean.
Those who seek to keep their lives, right?
So here I am. Unbelievably, a year has passed. It’s been – and in some ways continues to be – the hardest time of my life. I have no idea what I’m doing. I have no idea what I’m going to do. I have no idea how what’s happened will impact my calling. I just…don’t know. It drives me crazy. I stress. I lapse. I try again. And each time I find myself afloat in God.
For me, 2018 has freed God from the confines myself and religion tried to put God in. I’m discovering each day how much room there is in God and God’s grace. It’s just…endless. Truly.
When I was part of a church, we seemed to focus on the second part a lot – the second part of the “formula” I mean. The formula ran something like: (God’s love for us) + (our obedience to God) = Faithful life. It makes sense that churches would zero in on the second part: apparent success in this arena is what keeps the church in business after all (I use the term “business” here impishly). What I’m discovering out here in the wilderness is that it’s never about more than the first part of that formula, because there is no formula. There’s just God’s love. It’s the wellspring of everything; it’s even the wellspring of me.
One year and much pain, grief, anger, resentment and doubt later – here I am. I have nothing to show for it, but I also have everything to show for it. Funny how that works.
I haven’t been to church in a year. Early on I tried to watch an online service of a nearby megachurch and I physically couldn’t. It was the worship leader’s “praying voice” that did me in – you know the one. “Oh Lord, we come to you today. Oh Lord, we’re trying our best to appear humble and humbled, and we put our hand in the air because how else will other people see the Holy Spirit working in us?” And so on. It’s not the worship leader’s fault. I’m sure they were trying their best because I’m sure I tried my best.
I read a fascinating post yesterday about the Hebrew verb “radaph”, usually translated as “follow” in Psalm 23:6: “Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.” Apparently “follow” is too mild a term: the better one would be “pursue…chase…put to flight…seek….[or to] press on (for a purpose)”.
If I had to summarise this last year, this Hebrew verb would be the one I choose. Radaph. I’ve been out here in the sticks getting myself chased around by God. If things had worked out the way I’d wanted them to, I might never have ventured outside, and I might never have discovered that God’s house is outside…
Who knows, right?