Tension, Tightropes, Testamints

Dear Joy,

Your last letter grabbed the attention of a whole bunch of us. I've had conversations with mere acquaintances who were moved by your words, and needed to process them. I've had conversations with myself, even, because honestly, does this honesty we're wrestling with border on heresy? Or is this the honest truth? (I need to buy the book and read it for myself. I'm looking forward to it.)

My own trouble with God started back when I never really knew him, but was pretty sure I did.

Oh, he was always there, all right. I sang praise choruses to him on Sunday mornings, standing next to my parents at our local church, royal red carpeting underfoot. I watched my little four-year-old sister sneak a cup of his blood, er, grape juice, from the communion tray, and, in a wry twist of divine justice, accidentally drop the tiny, slippery cup into her lap, dousing her pink ruffle dress in Welches' finest. I've learned to give him a percentage of my money. I've gone from children's bible, to teen devotional bible, to pocket bible, to study bible, to journaling bible, to a shelf of bibles. I've tucked verses from those bibles into my heart, many to the tune of simple melodies ("Do not be overcome by evil -- CLAP! -- but overcome evil with good"). I've heard thousands of sermons, doodled on millions of bulletin inserts. I'm well-versed in hymns, praise songs, and Christian rap, dawg. I'm an evangelical prodigy child, with the Testamints to prove it.

But my faith journey, the one that begins and ends in the heart, is less obvious than anyone would guess from the outside. It's been exactly that: a journey. And as I've walked, my view of God has changed dramatically.

You see, I think that I was unintentionally conditioned to rely on others' opinion of God. (I'd really, really like to hear what, if anything, Frank has to say on this topic, in the first half of the book.) I say that I believe in the "priesthood of all believers," that I have direct access to the God I serve... and yet, so much of what I believe about God has come from other people, rather than directly from God himself. I was saturated in a sub-cultural environment of talks about God, books about God, songs about God, thoughts about God, T-shirts with words about God, bracelets with witty quips about God. But, in the midst of all this God, somehow I lost him.

And so I've found myself, in the last several years, digging myself out of a hole of pseudo-spirituality. My evangelical upbringing was helpful in so many ways. It introduced me to Christianity, and to God, and it gave me a foundation of truth to stand on (bible verses on the brain can't hurt a bit). But it did not save me. And from a faith standpoint, like anything other than the Real Thing, it very nearly killed me.

But then, in my late teens and early twenties, I was pulled in to Him. Not a paper-version, transparency-slide god, but God Himself. Joy, you wrote that somewhere along the line you met "the real, living Jesus," and that's all you can make of it. Yes, exactly. He found me, and won't let me go.

So, I know God partially, imperfectly, but still, I know Him. And would you believe it? He knows me. He loves me. One day I'll tell you all the ways He's shown Himself to me. Some of it is unbelievable, some of it sounds cliché, other parts are miraculous. Like I said, it's been my own journey of coming to know, and love, and actually trust, God.

Still, I wrestle with doubt.

I whisper questions late at night, many centered around the problem of evil. There's so much pain in this world. Why did he create it in the first place? Is this a cosmic chess-game, a divine pastime? I once voiced these questions to someone; it was one of those late-night discussions where both people are too tired to hear what the other person is really saying. I mentioned that God's bigness made me feel so small, so insignificant, so worthless... My fears were dismissed with a quick wave, and a dramatic, "God doesn't CARE! We don't matter. It's all about HIM." I learned, then, what should have been obvious: not everyone has trouble with the same things, and a problem that seems insurmountable in my own brain will get a shrug from someone else. Choose an audience for your questions carefully.

I said earlier that so much of what I believed about God came from other voices -- pastors, authors, teachers, friends. I've learned that different views of God can be really helpful, but that it's also healthy to take a break, try out different modes of thinking. Theology textbooks and sermon podcasts have taught me good, beautiful things about God, but so have cookbooks, an Art Appreciation textbook, and the amazing novels I read in Contemporary Lit. Gerard Manly Hopkins famously wrote that "Christ plays in ten thousand places," and it's true. I find Truth Itself in the Bible (which works great, as long as I'm actually reading it -- more on that some other time), and then I see it played out all over the place.

Some voices are truthful, but not helpful. Other voices seem helpful, but aren't truthful. I'm learning to discern the difference between the two, put the former on hold, and throw out the latter. Regardless of who you're listening to, faith can be such a struggle. I watch others fly, confident in their beliefs and convictions; for me, faith is sometimes like a dance (beautiful, freeing), and other times like walking on a tightrope (counter-intuitive, unnerving). In his book on Preaching, Tim Keller quotes Flannery O'Connor:

"It's hard to believe always but more so in the world we live in now. There are some of us who have to pay for our faith every step of the way and who have to work out dramatically what it would be like without it and if being without it would be ultimately possible or not."

I feel like I can take a deep breath whenever I read that quote, because Flannery O'Connor was a genius (even if her short stories always creeped me out a bit). I always feel like I'm alone with my fears, but now I know the truth, that I'm not alone, and that even great minds wrestle with owning their beliefs. If O'Connor had to pay for her faith every step of the way, then I'm determined to work out that tension in my own life, too.

Solidarity with Flannery, I call it. And solidarity with you too, dear Joy.

I'm off to spend that $25, now.