Tag: Doubt


Sigh No More

One of the first pieces of literature I ever memorized was a Bible verse familiar even to those who have never set foot in a fundamentalist Christian home: “God is love.” It’s a nice sentiment, and it probably sounded adorable in my toddler lisp, but I was already on my way to a very unhappy understanding of the verse’s meaning.

“God is love” meant that he was willing to defile himself by sifting through the filth of humanity and saving a worm like me.

“God is love” meant that he would inflict (or sanction) whatever pain necessary to insure my soul against hell.

“God is love” meant that he would play the gentleman and let people make “unbiased” decisions between Christianity and eternal suffering.

(Alternately, it meant that he had predestined me over less lucky humans for salvation. I experienced my fair share of Calvinism.)

“God is love” meant that he had paid my debt, so I was forever in his.

In practical terms, “God is love” translated into fear. God’s love was conditional, you see, and it wasn’t particularly affectionate to start with. When I was Baptist, any little mistake would put my salvation into question. (You couldn’t lose your salvation per se, but if you messed up… well, Jesus clearly wasn’t alive and well in your heart.) When I was Presbyterian, my soul was secure, but God didn’t love all of my friends and family enough to choose them. From my earliest memories, the unthinkable torment of hell—burning alive forever and ever and ever—dangled over my head  and that of everyone I knew. And this was God’s love.

Which brings me here:

Maybe you’ve heard about this. Maybe you don’t care. Maybe you care so much that you’re brandishing every weapon in your arsenal against heresy. Or maybe you’re like me, wanting to weep for the hope of it all.

Even though “Love Wins” is not yet released, prominent theologians have already consigned the author to hell… simply for suggesting that perhaps God is not torturing the majority of his creation for eternity. A dear friend writes about the divide between real, aching hearts and those “who are more concerned with winning than with loving,” and I want to ask those people, those self-assured theologians and heretic-slayers, Why? Why would you rather follow a God who allows babies to be born knowing that nine out of ten will burn forever… who handpicks some for his utopian afterlife but not all, or who makes our fates dependent on accurate guesswork… who expects us to rejoice while billions die… whose love only concerns itself with right vs. wrong… Why would you rather follow that God than explore the hope that true love doesn’t require us to shut down our hearts?

I was terrified the first time I posted about hell; I expected anger, hatred, and Molotov cocktails (approximately the treatment Rob Bell’s been getting), but it was worth the risk. I couldn’t not share the spacious peace I had found outside of religious tradition. The idea that God actually could be love—kind, unconditional, crazy-about-us love—is worth spreading no matter the cost or the dissenters. In fact, it might be the first piece of truly good news some Christians have ever heard.

Play us out, Marcus:



“It seems funny and horrible to think of Diana’s being married,” sighed Anne, hugging her knees and looking through the gap in the Haunted Wood to the light that was shining in Diana’s room.
“I don’t see what’s horrible about it, when she’s doing so well,” said Mrs. Lynde emphatically. “Fred Wright has a fine farm and he is a model young man.”
“He certainly isn’t the wild, dashing, wicked, young man Diana once wanted to marry,” smiled Anne. “Fred is extremely good.”
“That’s just what he ought to be. Would you want Diana to marry a wicked man? Or marry one yourself?”
“Oh, no. I wouldn’t want to marry anybody who was wicked, but I think I’d like it if he could be wicked and wouldn’t. Now, Fred is hopelessly good.”

(Anne of the Island)


When Dan and I started dating, the only thing I wanted to do more than get swept off into our personal Happily Ever After was to break up with him.

It was for his sake, you see. I was a psychological disasterpiece back then (as opposed to the mere social casualty I am now). Though I no longer lived at home and had faced the pain of my childhood pen-first, my mind was still at the mercy of old dogma. The God I knew required sacrifice, so I worked when I should have been sleeping, skipped breakfast, and stumbled through crowded days feeling as valuable to the world as a wad of overchewed gum. I judged people as I had been judged with a persistent, needling criticism that made me want to rip out my own brain. My heart was deeply pitted, oozing dark secrets like tar, strewn with scar tissue like emotional speed bumps. Romance was the last thing I needed. Romance was the last thing I deserved.

It found me anyway. It came as friendship but quickly unfurled into something more, something sweet and affirming and scary as hell. Dan’s kindness threatened my jagged defenses in a way that nothing had ever done before. I tottered on the verge of a thousand nervous breakdowns the first week and two thousand the second. Holding hands sent me into a panic. I was falling for him, yes… but I still wished he had stayed away. He was so good to me, so good, and I was convinced that my true self would be toxic for him.

I also looked down on him for it. I felt like his reservoir of experience was a puddle compared with my ocean; he had grown up happily whereas I had worshipped the divine bogeyman and dreamt with demons. I, the über-sheltered girl from an extremist conservative home, viewed him as naive. The more I loathed myself, the more I resented him for loving me, and I finally decided to come clean. Scaring him off early in the relationship would be a mercy, after all.

Only he wasn’t scared off. He wasn’t even scandalized. He didn’t crumble under the weight of my baggage, and he didn’t bat an eye when I brought up taboo topics. He was deep, strong, and anything but the “hopelessly good” featherweight I had pinned him as. Even neck-deep in the mess of myself, I wasn’t too much for him.

We will have been married eight years this summer, and when a friend asks about our story, I share the light-hearted details of how we met. However, our real love story started for me the moment I realized the kind, thoughtful, respectable man tenderly holding my hand could be wicked and wouldn’t.

Mommy loves Daddy

The wild and dashing part is just icing on the cake.


The Hope

Part III
(Preface here, Part I here, Part II here)

As I reached my teenage years and my privacy began to be invaded in increasingly traumatic ways, I reached out to friends I had met through our on-again-off-again homeschool group. My parents found out and cut off my contact with them, my lifeline. I plunged into a depression so severe that only my dysfunctional view of God kept me from suicide. I knew that God was on my parents’ side, which meant that he was against me, which meant that I had a one-way ticket to hell waiting for me just on the other side of death. No matter how unbearable my life seemed, it was still preferable to being burned alive for eternity.

Around this time, I started being sent to seminars and camps where I was taught how to debate with anyone who might try to sway me from my parents’ beliefs. My desperate knowitallitude was in danger of growing insufferable, but it was during one of those courses that everything began to change for me. I was fifteen and going through a class that fit the entirety of history into our fundamentalist worldview. I had heard it all before, but something clicked in my head that year and I realized with startling clarity how limited our little group of God’s elect really was. We were so adamant about being the only right ones that we were proudly dooming all other ethnic groups, political opinions, religious affiliations, and even hairstyles throughout all of time to a hell that was already overpopulated with abortionists. It just didn’t make sense anymore, and the most startling thought of my life took hold of my mind: What if God isn’t exactly how we believe?

Within a year, I left home to go away to school. Looking back, I regret that I didn’t do anything to help my siblings at that time, but thinking for myself was still so new that I was feeling my way in complete darkness. There was hope in the darkness, though, and that hope was worth pressing through every doubt and fear to grasp.

Hope that I wasn’t some sort of cosmic mistake.
Hope that God loved me.
Hope that God loved other people too, even people with mohawks.
Hope that the pain I had gone through wasn’t my fault.
Hope that doubts wouldn’t destroy or doom me.
Hope that I would be beautiful one day.
Hope that peace and authentic happiness were waiting in my future.

I’m still finding my way, and I probably will be for the rest of my life; formative years are not easily replaced. However, every one of those hopes has proven itself true—and not just true because an opinionated author said so but because I’m living it.

(To be continued…)


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.

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 ☺).

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.

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.


A Signature Faith

Faith and I have hit a rough patch lately. It’s only the five zillionth time or so that I’ve found myself alternately doubting God and storming against him; my inner teenager is determined to become a proper heathen, I think. In these times when my thoughts about religion smolder and char, the Bible reacts like gasoline, every word going up in an angry blaze. (I’m a joy to have at church, can you tell?) And anyway, I’ve never bought into Sola Scriptura for the same reason that I don’t believe Fox News when it claims to be the only unbiased channel—conflict of interest and all. I just cannot bring myself to blindly trust a source alleging to be the only truth.

So I sift through experience and impressions, listen to my instincts, taste the air for clues. I don’t have God’s character figured out, but I have to trust at least this: that he left his imprint on creation, that some remote corner of me bears his signature. And when I tune out theology altogether, I can almost start to make it out.

The first belief I find inked onto my heart is heaven. Doctrinally, the subject has always made me feel homesick and even miserable—hard golden streets and individual mansions in the sky for God’s groupies. No, no, no, my soul whispers. You were made for trees, whole unscarred forests of trees, and waterfalls and snowcapped mountains at sunrise. You were made to climb inside of symphonies and breathe art. And the puzzle pieces lock together in my mind: the moments I find myself on the cusp of pure creative energy… the healing, cleansing effects of beauty… this drive for more, always more out of life… the profound sensation that this world is broken… These compel me more than decades of sermons could that we were meant for eternity.

The other thing I can’t help believing, no matter how I feel about God, is Jesus. Maybe this makes no sense considering the Bible and I aren’t on speaking terms, but everything he said and did resonates so strongly with me and has so little to do odious churchy representations of him that I feel I must have always known him. I believe in him, not because I was told to (which only makes me want to go vandalize something), but because he wasn’t repulsed by doubt or greed or prostitution or shame or immaturity or nakedness or insanity. Because his commitment to world peace and soul-honesty would have offended many of the uppity religious personas today who profess to follow him. Because he drew people’s perspectives away from materialism and perfectionism toward extravagant generosity and fierce acceptance. Because he was radically different from anyone’s expectations and had love strong enough to forgive the people who butchered him.

The idea of heaven is counterintuitive to our five senses, and a kick-ass Jesus is counterintuitive to our religious traditions, and somehow, this helps convince me that they are true. And if these two things are the shape of God’s signature, then this helps convince me that faith is worth every minute of struggle.


Sweaty Horns, Cracking Voices

I woke up grumpy this morning… not your average, garden-variety grumpy but the truly pernicious grumpy reserved for Sunday mornings with too little sleep. I know myself well enough by now to treat church as a soul-gobbling monster on these mornings—respect it by backing sloooowwwly away. Or run away screaming like the flighty blonde in a B-movie. Unfortunately, neither was an option this morning as my in-laws’ church group met at their house.

The caustic dialogue in my head jump-started with the first song. Why are we singing that? What does this even mean? Am I supposed to get something out of this? That line isn’t even true! And on it went, while I tried to move my unwilling lips along with the lyrics for appearance’s sake.

This disconnect with worship music is a fairly recent development. Church and I have had sundry problems over the years, but music was always my saving grace. When I was a child, a teen, a college student, and a budding world traveler, worship music was the alchemy that transformed divinity into something dear. Through it, I could feel God’s warmth. But now… Honesty, or maybe an earnest kind of cynicism, keeps me unable to sing along with church choruses. The words catch in my throat and slap against my ears. My connection with worship music is gone.

Or at least what most people consider worship music. In collaboration with the lovely Rachelle, a pioneer in soul sincerity, I’d like to share eight songs that connect me to the divine… now.

8 Things *8 Things: [Non-Churchy] Songs for the Soul

1. Cold Water by Damien Rice
 This song has to be first. It is raw and tender and fierce and so perfectly honest. Damien Rice has a gift for reaching deep down into unknown vulnerabilities and coaxing dry emotions into a flood; try making it through the Buddhist chanting at 5:34 or the cello at 7:04 without breaking open just a little bit.

“Cold, cold water surrounds me now,
And all I’ve got is your hand.
Lord, can you hear me now?”

2. Dance ‘Round the Memory Tree by Oren Lavie:
I put this song on repeat nearly every day of this past winter, and on some of the bleakest mornings, it alone kept me turned toward life, future, and the magic of hope.

“Winters have come and gone, you know…”

3. I Gotta Find Peace of Mind by Lauryn Hill 
My friend Q introduced me to Ms. Hill’s “MTV Unplugged No. 2.0” in college, and this song has yet to release its grip on me. At its most simple, it makes me want to love God. And when Lauryn cries while singing “What a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful, merciful God” 8 minutes in… the beauty is almost too real to bear.

“Please come free my mind,
Please come feed my mind.
Can you see my mind, ohhh…
Won’t you come free my mind?
Oh, I know it’s possible…”

4. Doubting Thomas by Nickel Creek
When I haven’t found the courage to pray over the past few years, this song has prayed on my behalf. It has all the gritty candor and fearful longing of those uncharted territories of religion, and I find myself meaning every single word.

“Can I be used to help others find truth
When I’m scared I’ll find proof that it’s a lie?
Can I be led down a trail dropping bread crumbs
That prove I’m not ready to die?”

5. What Child is This Anyway? by Sufjan Stevens
Three Christmases ago, I was frantically busy with a job I hated, and the holiday loomed like a garlanded menace. I put Sufjan’s Christmas CD on, fully expecting to dislike this song as I always had before, and instead found peace.

“This, this is Christ the king,
Whom shepherds guard and angels sing…”

6. Christmas Song by Dave Matthews Band
Yes, another Christmas song… but really an Easter song and a Thanksgiving song and 4th of July song and a Sunday morning song and a 2:00 in the afternoon song and one of the best Bible summaries I’ve ever heard.

“Drinkers and jokers, all soul searchers,
Searching for love, love, love…”

7. Live High by Jason Mraz
Sometimes I need a reminder that spirituality does not need to equal stress; it can be as chill as walking down the streets of France with a guitar and a comfy hat.

“Live high, live mighty,
Live righteously, that’s right—
Just  takin’ it easy…”

8. World Without End by Five Iron Frenzy
This song might be the polar opposite of Damien Rice, but it reaches the part of me that loves concerts and Goodwill t-shirts and too many friends crowded into the booth at Denny’s. Somehow, sweaty horns and cracking voices convey more of the sacred to me than pipe organs ever could.

“In the soundless awe and wonder,
Words fall short to hope again.
How beautiful, how vast your love is,
New forever,
World without an end…”

Play along, won’t you? I’d love to hear what songs feed your soul as well.


Trail Marker

Enough time has passed since I’ve written about religion to revisit it, right? I usually imagine blog readers running for the hills at the first whiff of a controversial subject… but controversy is not what I’m carrying around these days. Instead, I’m wandering through new spiritual territories with a backpack of honesty and little else, and you’re more than welcome to come along.

Church was one of the first topics I wrote about on this blog, and though we’ve changed continents and denominations in the meantime, little has changed. Our current church fits me like a glove… on my ear. A few of the points make actual contact with me—for instance, the friendly people and the bustling social functions—but the rest flops senselessly off the side of my head. Nothing about the services connects with me, not a single song or prayer or message. The only bit of liturgy I find meaningful is the entire congregation sharing a glass of wine and a loaf of bread. I love the unity it symbolizes (and relax, no one that I know has contracted a sanctified strain of mono as a result), though I think the original intent of the Lord’s Supper would translate better to sitting down to a meal together and reminiscing about Christ. (Side note: Dan and I once suggested doing that at our home in the States, which, heresy alert!!! Apparently, bread and Jesus are only compatible within church walls, officiated by an ordained minister. Our bad.)

The thing is, one can’t exactly be picky about churches in a country with extremely limited options. Unless we want to attend a Catholic church, which studies show would turn me into a prune within the month, we’re left with a missionary-run Baptist church (no offense to missionaries or Baptists, but ::shudder::) and ours—part of the Italian Brethren network. It is sincere and brim-full of warm-hearted people I’m thrilled to know… yet my Sunday mornings still trickle down the drain.

Here’s what I don’t need one drop more of: scare tactics, sin management, crucifixion details, calls to repentance, shadows of doubt, words found in the King James Bible, theoretical sermons, fire-and-brimstone, self degradation, righteous anger, controversy, squabbles over which side of the stage the piano is placed, “preacher voice,” hard-backed pews, clichéd sentiments (“God is in control,” anyone?), or legalism.

And here’s what I’m parched for: conversation, open minds, collaborative creativity, practical messages in a practical format, spontaneity, field work, fresh ideas, meaningful-now traditions, questions, answers (or at least journeys toward answers), committed honesty, acceptance without conditions, extravagant generosity, and a tribe of soulsiblings (as Rachelle would say).

Is sitting through three hours of Same Old Religion every week worth the friendships I gain as a result? I think yes, it is… but I sure wish I didn’t have to feign participation to be part of our church group. The role of charlatan doesn’t suit me. I think often about a friend of ours, a former pastor, who caught this strain of religious disconnect and couldn’t keep up the pretense. He publicly announced his doubts about God and left the church under a shower of criticism I can only imagine. I find his choice incredibly courageous, incredibly sad, and incredibly not for me; I’m not ready to cut loose from the church, no matter how it fails to inspire me. But what other options exist for those of us with hearts and minds split down the middle, wide open and raw in the fresh air, unsure where to go from there? If and when I ever figure it out, I’ll be sure to put up a trail marker.

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