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Whitewash, meet Tomb
Facing ourselves as we are, and not as we wish to be
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This morning I hear of two more deconversions and I try to count the ones I knew from childhood and adolescence and early adulthood who still look to Jesus as author and finisher. I can’t make it to five. I say to Nate that I begrudge no one the crossroads at which those of us raised in church must eventually stand.
The way I see it, there are three choices when we finally come to that crossroads (and come to it we will, sometimes more than once): to deny Jesus, call him lunatic or liar; to choose the church above Jesus, become a conservative or progressive fundamentalist whose God gives or withholds love depending on one’s actions; or to relinquish all of it—the demand to know and understand the intricacies of the God of the universe as well as relinquish the moralistic demands we think God desires of us—and settle in for a long, hard, bumpy road of sometimes flimsy faith in a God we cannot see, but a love that all of us deeply hope is true.
It doesn’t matter who you are, if you’re in the church, if you call yourself a Christian, if you read your Bible and pray every day, this split in the road is coming for you. How do you know if it already has and you’ve chosen the latter? You come to the fork every single day, over and over and over again.
But if there comes a morning you wake up and think, “Do I believe this?” and the answer is “No. I don’t think I do anymore,” well, then I hope there is some relief because now you have come to the crossroads. You probably haven’t yet decided Jesus is liar or lunatic but you probably have decided that the do-gooders and demands of the conservative or progressive fundamentalist ways aren’t working too well for you or the world either.
I remember that night for me clear as day. It was early January, 2009. I lay on the floor of my rental bedroom on the carpet beside my abandoned bed, it was midnight or later. I’d pummeled my steering wheel yelling expletives at God enough times by then, I’d pushed aside the Bible, I’d written hordes of questions in my journals, and listened to a David Bazan song on repeat. My doubt was my secret still; in public I was still trying to do-good and meet demands. In private, I was a tomb. I thought if anyone knew this secret struggle and the years it had been going on, I would be a colossal disappointment to them all. For years I’d wanted nothing more than to please the people around me, to somehow gain their approval and unconditional love. But every single time I felt their disappointment, their disapproval, and watched them give the love I’d earned to someone else, I felt the backhand of God across my face and heart. I don’t blame them for this, they didn't know the cavern in me was so empty it could never be filled by them. In some ways I thank them for this because if they’d filled the cavern, I’d never have denied God. And if I’d never denied God, then I’d never have been found by God.
Anyways, some of you know the rest of the story, but that moment in my rental bedroom, my snot drenching the carpet beneath my nose, my hiccups convulsing my body into exhaustion, that was the realest moment of my life up until then. I dug my fingers into the carpet fibers and said, right out loud, “I don’t believe you exist, and if you exist, I don’t believe you’re good, and if you’re good, I don’t believe you’re good to me, and I wouldn’t want to serve a God who couldn’t be good to me.”
And in that confession I had this overwhelming sense of peace. It was the most peace I’d ever had in my life. It would still be nearly a year until I was able to see the love of Jesus with a fullness I never had, to see the completeness of God in a way I never had, to trust the Holy Spirit in a way I never had, and—more than anything—reconcile the lifetime co-existence of my faith with my doubt. But in that initial moment of telling the truth to the God I didn’t think existed, I felt clean. It felt like starting over. It felt like neutral ground. It felt like, if God existed then God might say something like, “Ah, this? This I can do something with.”
That’s what I’ve been thinking about today. One of the biggest griefs of my recent years is born from the fact that I didn’t invited the ones who knew me then into that wrestle. There are a lot of reasons for that and I’m not entirely convinced that it was wrong for me to not invite them in then, but my lack of transparency then has caused a lot of pain and loss in my life over the past two years. Coming back here, living just a few blocks away from that rental house with the snotty carpet, the people who knew me then are still convinced I was the whitewash then and not the tomb. But I know the truth. And the truth set me free.
Anyway, I guess I just wanted to share that today because almost every day I see another person say something like, “I’m not sure God is real,” or “I’m done with Christianity,” or “I’m done with the church.” Everything in me wants to pull my chair up real close to them if they’d have me, and just sit there with them for a long while, unafraid of their anger, meeting their grief with no anxiety, asking them to tell me the truth about themselves without offering a truth that makes me feel better about myself.
God saved me when I denied him. And he kept on saving me. He keeps on saving me, keeps on keeping me. And because God keeps on keeping me, I believe—with all my mushy mix-up of faith and doubt co-mingling—I’m not the only one being kept.
So I guess if that’s you, hovering on the precipice of denial or wondering if you can keep up the moralistic charade of stringent righteousness or social justice (or that’s someone you know), I hope you also know that there’s someone in the world who believes this part of your story matters too. Someone who believes it might be, maybe, the most important part of your story thus far.
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A la C.S. Lewis