18Nov

Cherry Tree Creed

I’ve hinted on here before about my rather extreme religious upbringing, but I’m hesitant to say much more about it. One part of me goes a little giddy at Anne Lamott’s quote, “If my family didn’t want me to write about them, they should’ve behaved better.” Yes, yes, yes! I cheer, until it comes to actually putting the ragged parts of my story into words and I inevitably whisper No. I can’t tell whom exactly my people-pleasing brain is trying to protect, but it balks when my honesty tries to reach back more than a decade. Some details are too ugly for the light of day.

Nevertheless, the way I was raised is relevant to who I am today. Painfully relevant. After all, the frequent religious apologetics classes and brainwashing camps were my introduction to doubting God’s existence. The behavior I saw in the churches and cults our family was involved with taught me about the tight-lipped smiling delusion so many people define as Christianity.  The forced hours of Old Testament reading every week took me beyond disbelief in God into the dark territory of hatred. You get the idea, at least in part.

I  spent most of my life under such a heavy religious terror that my sense of logic had to be locked up along with my emotions and honesty. The most redeeming thing that could have happened was when I gave up caring and let my doubts and anger tumble out of hiding. Depression helped, oddly enough. I already felt so low that keeping up my pretense of believing God no longer mattered. Deal with it, I told him. I may have tried punching him a time or two as well.

I see now that it had to be completely destroyed, that old belief system with its blackened stone walls and bloody gouge marks.  I had to lose enough hope to operate the wrecking ball myself. And slowly—slowly enough to be revolutionary in the we-could-die-and-face-judgment-any-minute mindset I had been taught—a new belief system is being reconstructed in my heart. It has floor-to-ceiling windows and an indoor cherry tree, and I suspect it will be some kind of spa once it is finished. There are no longer any shadowy nooks for shame, eternal damnation, party politics, or generational curses to hang out in.

A friend lent me The Shack to read a couple of months ago (the amount of time I’ve spent “forgetting” to return it makes me think I should probably just buy my own copy already). Reading it felt very much like having my rib cage pried open and all of my struggles with God exposed to the operating room lights… and then gently re-formed into such an expansive hope that my body has trouble accommodating it. Between the fresh perspective offered in that book (I can’t tell you how much I love that God reveals herself as an African-American woman) and the radical kindness of Jesus’s words, many of my questions are finally finding their perfect fit in answers — ones that don’t traumatize me or require me to suspend logic or darken my soul atmosphere. I don’t have everything figured out yet—for instance, I’m still searching for an explanation for the contradictory, violent God depicted in the Old Testament—but I am so relieved to finally have a creed that lets my heart breathe deep:

(I refer to God with female pronouns because in that way I  can comprehend her differentness from the patriarchal judge of my childhood.)

I believe that:

The Bible…
is a picture of who God is and what a relationship with her is like,
not a comprehensive encyclopedia for all the facets of existence,
and not a textbook,
and not a list of rules
(as if we could follow the rules anyway).

Free will…
means God values humans enough to give us the freedom of choice
and limits herself by not overriding those choices,
even the bad ones
(which hurt her too),
but always providing opportunities even through the bad choices
for us to clearly see her love.

God…
does not instigate tragedy, only works through and beyond it
as the life-force of the universe,
the energy, the concept of light, the goodness,
merciful enough to do away with justice
because she is love
(and not gender specific ☺).

Jesus…
is God in human form,
not a human with divine superpowers but human-human,
with emotions and needs and frustrations,
whose life flowed from his relationship with God
(who neither orchestrated his death nor abandoned him,
only worked incredible good through it).

The Holy Spirit…
is their divine presence—undiluted love—
landscaping the beautiful mess of our hearts,
the piercing loveliness we feel during a certain song
or a beautiful day or moments of profound peace,
always here and never finished.

Prayer…
is simply the ongoing dialogue
as the four of us live together,
acknowledging that the unseen is real
and that relationship is all that truly matters,
and that God cares…
which could probably be called faith.

Life on earth…
is a process that won’t culminate until all is made new,
blessedly temporary
(which I know when I agonize over the too-few hours each day),
but  a good time for the element of choice to get worked out—
a messy and necessary step for a God who respects us
and who continues to participate in our stories
outside the bounds of time and breath.

Then heaven…
will be all this as it was meant to be
without the violation of a single free will,
every heart finally connected to God’s,
finally capable of channeling her extravagant love
and enjoying complete creativity and fulfillment along with her,
seeing the beautiful face of our planet unscarred—
life on earth, redeemed.

And I…
am not a convert or a heretic
or a warrior or a one-size-fits-all
or a guest of honor on the doorman’s list
or a project to be finished
but one member of a completely unique relationship with the Divine
who values me enough not to impose rules or limitations
and promises  a never-ending process
toward fullest life,
beautiful change accomplished hand-in-hand,
and a love I am just beginning to absorb.

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10 comments

  1. Oh, Bethany…I have no words. This is such a beautiful post. The TRUTH comes shining through. The Shack touched me too. Now I want to re-read it. Thank you.

  2. Thought-provoking as always. I have to say I give thanks (to whom, I’m not sure) that I was raised in a completely OPPOSITE way. I don’t think our religious upbringings (such as mine was, which is to say, not much) could have been any more different. Best part: the kindred spirit I have found in you regardless.

  3. Oh, Bethany. Oh oh oh. Would you be surprised that this made me cry…beautiful, happy tears, just wonderment tears…

    I am always so inspired and humbled to be around those who have patiently, bravely reworked their faith story. It takes so much strength and faith to come to God when you are working from a bad beginning. The bad beginning breaks my heart, you know it does. I am picturing something like Jesus Camp.

    I have the Shack sitting on a bookshelf, so I guess maybe I should read it.

    I just love the way that you describe your new belief system – I could see it – and I want to sit in there with you.

    And yes, the Old Testament God – I don’t get it, either. I seriously don’t get it. But then I read how when God revealed himself to Moses, he called himself “the God of compassion” first and foremost. And I love that.

  4. came here via Sam…this is a beautiful, heart-opening post.

  5. What a lovely post—as someone who has struggled with faith for so many years, this post is exactly what I need to read. Thank you.

  6. Best. Creed. Ever.

    (God job, brave girl!)

  7. I’m here by way of Rachelle. I love this. Thank you for writing it.

  8. Profile photo of Bethany

    Megsie – I’d love to hear what you thought of the book, though I understand it can be a pretty personal reading experience… like, not one you’d want to crack open at your McDonald’s booth or anything.

    Linds – Thanks. :)

    Liz – I’m with you on that, though it completely amazes me we (as in, humans) can find kindred spirits in people with such drastically different backgrounds. Says a lot for the beauty of diversity and not much for the psychology of nurture, huh?

    Sam – I kind of think some part of heaven will have to include hanging out together in the spa eating cherries and wondering over all the beauty we only tried to imagine before. You have an open invitation, you know. :)

    Marilyn – Thank you for your kind words!

    Amy – I’m so glad this meant something to you. As completely sucky as it is to struggle with faith, I know how much it helps to feel like you’re not the only one.

    Rachelle – I wasn’t sure if you meant “good job” or “God job,” but I like it either way. :)

    J – Thanks for stopping by; the encouragement means a lot to me.

  9. I love this…and it inspires me to write one of my own.

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