Last week we had a ‘vision day’ at Church; a kind of prolonged period of prayer, presentation and reflection that meant that the building was open for most of Saturday.
Now, the thing I love most about doing this sort of stuff in an architecturally beautiful, historical building is that people do just wander in off the street. Thus, armed with coffee and cake, your friendly local Vicar’s wife managed to have this most excellent conversation with a pair of strangers:
“Hello, what brings you here today?”
“I got married in this Church,” the woman offers, with a whimsical gleam. “All of my children were baptised here, and our parents are buried in the Church yard.”
“We’re not God botherers though!” The man chirps in, gaining a look of reproach from his sister.
“No, God isn’t One to be bothered,” I reply with a slightly wicked gleam to my eye, “He welcomes everyone who seeks Him.”
“Oh here we go!” He laughs and shakes his head. “I love you God botherers, you just can’t let it lie, can you?!”
“With all due respect, you brought it up!” I grin back.
“Well, the thing is…” He charges up to full swing, “I don’t believe in Darwenism and all that big bang nonsense. But then people presume you must believe in God in that case, but I don’t believe in Him either. Riddle me that, hey?!”
“Well…” I shrug, “for a start I don’t think faith and science need to be mutually exclusive?”
“Huh?!” He looks genuinely curve-balled.
That was quick.
This line of conversation goes around the block a little bit, before he delivers what he believes to be his mic drop moment.
“Well, it’s no good anyway. I’ve made up my mind not to believe in God and I’ll tell you why: I love mysteries. I love mysteries and unanswered questions and the unknown. If I decide to believe in God I’ll lose all of that because I’ll have all the answers then, won’t I?!”
And … I’ve not stopped laughing since.
I’ve been a Christian for exactly twenty years this year. Over half of my life has belonged to Jesus and I can tell you honestly: I have more questions and less answers now than I’ve ever had before! This year alone has been a rough ride in that department. But what is new, what is fresh in the last few weeks or so… is that I feel safe in that uncertainty. I feel secure in my faith, despite my doubts. And it is well with my soul.
See, about a year ago I identified that Spiritually, something wasn’t quite right: a missing piece, a misunderstanding, “something has been lost in translation” I think I wrote. And so I embarked upon reading The Bible in a Year, promising to communicate “the hope I find there.”
And it was an excellent endeavour, just about finished this week. And yet… it didn’t deliver exactly what I was imagining. For I realised that what I had imagined was the rediscovery of exactly what I found back in 2001: word for word, feeling for feeling, theology for theology. That I’d somehow dig up and dust off some old truth I’d simply forgotten about and be on my way with an older and wiser version of adolescent certainty.
As if everything that has passed between myself and my God in the last two decades was just mildly relevant filler.
As if I haven’t been moving and learning and growing and enduring; standing and falling, chasing and running; loving and losing and praying and lamenting; doubting and believing and exploring and experiencing; interacting with the active, living, breathing Word of God for all of these years since.
As if God’s Spirit is somehow static and His prism of colour black and white.
As if in all this diverse and vibrant world, within the way, the truth and the life of Christ, there is one particular version of the truth belonging to one very small and specific way of interpreting it, that is the only one I can ever call home. As if, after years of moving out my stuff, I was just going to move right back in there, as soon as I could remember where I left the key.
As if what actually happened was that God tipped me up and poured me out. Dismantled everything I thought I knew and is still piecing it back together.
See, come May time I was still wrestling with disquiet in my soul. I was still wrestling with doubt and confusion and the things that just didn’t translate. So I took to my father-in-law’s bookshelf one holiday and soon wished he had a habit for chick-lit, rather than controversial theology! For it was there on that peaceful beach in Cornwall that Rob Bell finally pushed me over and dislodged my stubborn toes; right before Steve Chalke slung me over a cliff and Rachel Held Evans, God rest her soul, kept my head above the raging waters below.
I bobbed there for quite a while, coughing and spluttering, frantically scanning the horizon and trying to work out if this was sunrise or sundown. I divulged expectantly to Husband and to a few other friends who had read the same books, but it appeared they had barely been moved by them at all. Apparently, it seemed, nothing shocking or irreverent was held within these pages for anyone else- to the point where I questioned if these so-called priests had ever ‘become Christians’ at all?! (Just bear with me…).
“This is what I’ve been trying to tell you for years,” Husband spoke softly, “the way you came to faith was real and valid and very significant for you. But it’s not the only way.”
Thus I began the process of unpicking the things I had come to believe and the ways that I had practised them; analysing and discerning what was actually central to the Gospel and to my faith, and what was perhaps more cultural, denominational, traditional, human.
A somewhat painful and exhausting road to travel, I’ll be honest, but one that I soon found friends traversing too.
“You really need to blog this,” one friend urged a few months back. “I‘m a generation ahead of you and my fifty-odd year old small group are all asking the same questions out loud, for the very first time. I’ll bet there’s others out there wrestling with these things and thinking they’re alone.”
Isn’t there always?
But at the time I said no. It was too raw, too personal, and far too undone.
At about that time, however, I also found myself shying away from opportunities to pray with people; turning down chances to share the Good News of God because… well… I wasn’t a hundred percent sure what that was anymore?
And that is thankfully when I knew it was time to stop. The moment I was too busy in my head to engage my heart was the moment I knew I’d gone too far. And for what?
After a few weeks battling the waves, it was actually music: a song, an album, a band – Lifehouse– that lead me back to shore.
The lyrics came without prompting:
“Too many voices, it won’t take long, to find which one’s right and which one’s wrong? But Yours is most likely to be misunderstood…. I’m screaming in tongues at the top of my lungs, ’til I find You and You found me, and somehow, I always knew that You would. … For I am contemplating matters of this cling and clatter… and in my head, all You’ve said is ringing, ringing louder. And it’s all good if You could stop the world from making sense? And if I could, just realise it doesn’t really matter … does it really matter?”
Hang on… No?!!
There was something incredibly freeing in this moment. In this cartoonesque, lightbulb moment where I realised that actually, regardless of denominational doctrine, progressive or traditional theology, heaven or hell and all of the nitty gritty issues in between; even if there was absolutely no hope or fear or thoughts about the afterlife… I wouldn’t change a thing. I realised in one liberating moment that if living life for God gave no other reward than living life with God… I’d still do it.
I’d still stand up. I’d still say yes. I’d still go all out and all in.
Because He is Enough.
I love God. It runs deep. I’ve loved Him for twenty years and it’s a love that has little to do with fear and everything to do with a childlike Spirit of adoption. And because of Jesus, because of the cross and the resurrection, because of His Spirit at work within me, because He keeps on showing up and calling out and doing immeasurably more than all I can ask or imagine… I’m pretty sure He loves me too.
And that relationship is all I am called to and all I live for. It’s all I deeply hope to convey to anyone who hungers for more. And so finally, just last week, for the first time in so so long, this divine love brought me to free-flowing tears. It brought me to my knees. It brought me back to me.
And I’m afraid that’s all I’ve got, folks! Turns out, after twenty years, all I actually came to rediscover was that Jesus bought us a relationship, rather than a religion. It’s as simple as that. I’ll be a work in progress until I die and do you know what, that’s alright. I am blessed to reside here: to hang by this moment. I am not a preacher or a pastor or a teacher. There are things too wonderful for me to know; knowledge too lofty for me to attain. And that’s OK. I don’t need to know everything. I’m not God. And to be honest, I quite like the mystery too.
And as for living out and sharing amidst this certain uncertainty? Well, some things are still clear enough:
“He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
Micah 6:8 NIV
In the words of the man Himself:
“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
Matthew 22:37-40 NIV
Over the last few weeks, with every conversational opportunity, I have noticed something. Firstly, that they come with more damaging myths to debunk rather than top up, (“no, your husband will not go to hell for having a blood transfusion”… “no your unbaptised baby isn’t going to hell either”…) and secondly, that they also come with more damaging attitudes about who can and who can’t approach God, too. (“Oh, this is your department… I feel hypocritical if I talk about God,”… “God wouldn’t be interested in me, but you can put in a good word!”.)
This idea that God is only for religious people, with all our wacky traditions and jump-hoops, is most quickly debunked by a ‘God botherer’ who openly admits that she doesn’t know everything. In fact, I find the conversations last longer and go alot deeper when you listen more than you speak.
To quote Lifehouse once more,
“Honesty is a hard attribute to find, when we all wanna feel like, we’ve got it all figured out. But let me be the first to say that I don’t have a clue, I don’t have all the answers. Ain’t gonna pretend like I do…”
And the great thing, as someone somewhere once put it, is that we’ve never been expected to. Jesus calls us to be witnesses, and witnesses are not judge, jury, defense or prosecution. We don’t need to persuade anyone of anything; what they decide is not our responsibility. We just listen, tell the truth, our honest truth: share our experiences and our stories and allow God to do the rest.
(Which, as you may have gathered, is something I kinda like too!)
For my story is about the overwhelming, never-ending, reckless love of God; it chases me down, fights ’til I’m found, leaves the 99. I couldn’t earn it, I don’t deserve it, and yet He gives Himself away…
And, you know, if just one other person gets to experience this love too, I’ll tell my stories all darn day.
God bless you all, thanks for reading. Engage with doubt, ride out the waves. Be free! Amen xx