Apparently about eleven years ago I posted the REM line: “That’s me in the corner, that’s me in the spotlight, losing my religion” as a standalone post and worried some friends who didn’t know what to make of it. Facebook has a way of reminding you of even the most obscure things that you’d never remember on your own. But as I sit here on the anniversary of 9/11, the 20th anniversary as we realized this morning in my writer’s group, I had to ask myself, can you lose your religion? Can you lose your faith?
Or, is it really more accurate to say that the faith, the religion, loses you? I say I’m still a Christian because one day I told God I didn’t want to believe in them anymore, and I thought, “Wait, who am I talking to?” And that’s when I realized I was screwed.
Nadia Bolz-Weber tells a story in Accidental Saints, where a parishioner came to her and said she was having a crisis of faith.
“To which I thought, What the hell does that look like for a unitarian?
“Yeah,” she continued. “I think I believe in Jesus.” Oh. That’s what that looks like.
“I’m so sorry,” I replied, “But sometimes Jesus hunts your ass down and there’s nothing you can do about it.” (Accidental Saints, p. 146)
If I couldn’t stop believing in God, and I really really tried, then I had to figure out what to do with this mess of beliefs I’d been handed. I was so tired of picking through the toxicity trying to find something life-giving. I was tired of feeling alone, like this was my problem that I couldn’t go to church and just participate any more, that the male pronouns for God caused me physical pain. I was obviously the problem. I was being overly dramatic. All these other people seemed to go and say the words with no problems at all.
But while there’s a personal dimension to each crisis of faith, I would say that I didn’t lose my faith nor my religion.
In fact, my religion lost me.
The religion that insisted that I weave toxic patriotism, or, let’s be real, nationalism, into my faith. The religion that insisted I couldn’t care about the environment or the care of nature. The religion that demonized democrats and “unwed” mothers and said nothing about the fathers. The religion that said you couldn’t be a christian and be gay, you couldn’t be a christian and have an abortion, you couldn’t be a christian and swear, you couldn’t be a christian and…
That religion lost me. I can’t have a religion or a faith if it leaves anybody out. And while I believe that I’ve found a faith that puts everyone back in the story, I haven’t found that faith to exist in any one church. I’ve found it in the spaces between church, in conversations, and gatherings, but between people often pulled from multiple places around the country or even the world.
I’ve got no space for a faith that says you are a bad Christian if you are sick because you didn’t have enough faith to be healed. When I was a child, I struggled with horrible eczema that covered both arms and drove me crazy. I also felt very self-conscious about it, and in my child-like faith where I’d been weaned straight into this fundamentalist white evangelical Christianity, I prayed and really believed that God would heal my skin. And nothing happened.
Was this where my deep-seated belief that I was the problem came from? And is this still at the root of my complicated relationship with prayer?
The night before my recent backpacking trip I was unable to sleep, filled with anxiety, tormented really, and I reverted to an old habit and prayed for relief. To my surprise, the anxiety almost immediately abated and I was reminded of the feelings that surfaced each Sunday before I got up to preach. Each week, as the time for the sermon grew near, I’d be convinced that I’d written the wrong sermon, but it was too late, there was nothing I could do about it. And then I’d get up to preach, and I’d be fine. So the analogy seemed to be that even though I was anxious about the trip, I was prepared and I’d felt like it was an important thing to do, and I’d be fine.
And then I lay there thinking, “Did God just answer a prayer?” because if that’s what that was, it’s the first time in years I could point to something that resembled that. And then I promptly got pissed off. I mean, of all the prayers to answer, as glad as I was for the relief, there were a lot more important things I’d prayed for and seemingly got nothing in response. But the Psalms have taught me that prayer is all kinds of communication and so I promptly told God, “Thanks, but seriously?”
I guess I’ve come to a place where if I’m going to stay in the space we call “Christian” then I can only exist here with my doubts, with the chafing, with the fight or flight reaction that comes all too often over various aspects especially of the organized form of Christianity we call the church. But I can only be here if there’s room for everyone else, and while I don’t find this faith exclusive, it seems most traditions try to make it so in various ways. But if God is big enough to hang on to me individually when I was trying to get away, then God is big enough to hold us all, and leave no one out. And then that belief can be the start of a faith for us all, a faith for the common good, a faith where all of us can not just survive, but thrive.
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