Tag Archives: faith

Loyalty and Longing: My March Confession

Every Easter morning I can remember, my father would be singing up from the grave He aroooooossssse! purposefully, mischeviously even, as he poured pancake batter over the griddle and we scrambled to get ready for church. It was a family joke of sorts, sung sometimes on other mornings, tying the resurrection to the daily difficulty of getting out of bed. But I knew he sang the words with a deep reverence too. I knew that being made new was central to his theology.

Easter is almost here again. The bulbs we planted last fall are shooting up out of the ground, the temperature outside is slowly creeping upward, and I’m optimistically packing away the heavier coats and scarves. There is warm rain falling outside, and it smells earthy when I step out of the front door. With these changes come a fresh energy, an ease of work. I’m cleaning, brightening, sorting. This is how things are supposed to be.

It’s been a year of quiet, of going inward, of letting go. The years that led up to this year were louder, angrier, heavier with emotion. But this year–from one Easter Sunday to another– has been mostly, mercifully, quiet. Perhaps, after all this anger and frustration (which is to say, anger) and impatience and sadness and whatever else it has been, comes a longing.

Barbara Brown Taylor writes this of belief and faith:

Religion, faith and belief are not the same thing, he [James Fowler] says, though often we speak of them as if they were. In the sixteenth century, “to believe” meant “to set the heart upon” or “to give the heart to” as in, “I believe in love.” But in the centuries following the Enlightenment, secular use of the words “belief’ and “believe” began to change until they said less about the disposition of one’s heart than the furniture in one’s mind. By the nineteenth century, when knowledge about almost anything consisted chiefly of empirical facts, belief became the opposite of knowledge. A person’s belief in God was reduced to his or her belief system–the unprovable statements of faith that person judged to be true. The great pity of this conflation, Fowler says, is that when faith is reduced to creeds and doctrines, plenty of thoughful people are going to decide they no longer have faith. They might hang on if they heard the word used to describe trust or loyalty in something beyond the self, but when they hear “faith” used to signify belief in a set formula of theological truths, the light in their eyes goes out. When I listen to college students talk about faith, beliefs are what interest them most: Do you believe in the virgin birth? Do you believe that Jesus died for your sins? Do you believe that only Christians go to heaven? No one asks, “On what is your heart set?” No one asks, “What powers do you most rely on? What is the hope that gives meaning to your life?” Those are questions of faith, not belief. The answers to them are not written down in any book, and they have a way of shifting in the dark.

Learning to Walk in the Dark, p. 143-144, emphasis mine

I knew as a child that my parents’ actions–my father’s prayers, my mother’s devotion to reading and reciting scripture, and their focus on passing these things down to us– stemmed from a faith that was larger than they could fully express, though they tried. It truly was something they had “set their hearts upon”. I want to honor their reverence, while making a more open space for my own.

Last Easter I sang Christ the Lord is Risen Today with so much gladness in my heart, after eating breakfast with a kind community of people and sharing in the fun of watching children hunt eggs in their pastel frocks and button ups. I had the glorious luxury of singing the words without dwelling on whether I believed them–I simply sang, loud and happy, because the song is beautiful and because it is familiar. I felt a loyalty to it. I still do. It’s of those homesickness things, Easter.

Right after that beautiful Sunday it all just fell apart. I let it. I didn’t return to any sort of church until late November, using Sunday mornings to try to heal myself instead. It wasn’t because of that welcoming and anciently forward-thinking congregation at all, and it wasn’t because of the genuine outpouring of faith my parents gifted me as a child, or the many beautiful people of faith I’ve known over the years. It was because of other elements of American Christianity I’d observed as I paid more attention–the anti-intellectual attitude, the refusal to see other points of view, the rigid insistence that one interpretation of Scripture is the only one possible, the demand to be served, to maintain rights and status and privilege–all behavior that makes no sense for people who claim to follow the ultimate servant. This was not something I wanted to align myself or my children with, and so I started picking it apart. I think I understand now why people can be so resistant to questioning–once you start it’s nearly impossible to stop.

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My religion of birth, Christianity, was given to me as absolute truth. I do not see it this way. I see it as a useful and beautiful story, one of many that the people of this Earth have assembled over long periods of time. The question inevitably, eventually, must follow: if this is merely a story, useful and beautiful yes, but just a story, is it worthwhile? I say, and choose to believe, that any beautiful story is worthwhile. The beauty I find, in Christianity or elsewhere, informs my daily actions and in turn what my children will find important. This is the hope that gives meaning to my life. It is enough.

My parents, in their own way, taught me to pay attention, and that’s the same thing I am doing, just in my own way. I believe in ritual and beauty and metaphor. I am trying to be brave enough to let my children believe in some things in a literal sense so that later they can know it was a foundation for something else. I will always protect. I cannot control. They will draw their own conclusions, when they are ready.

Perhaps it is a gift that can’t quite be understood before its right time comes: to lose one thing in order to find another.

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The State of Things: My January Confession

“It’s hard to capture it in one word,” I say, chewing on my lip. This is an ongoing conversation with myself, with my husband, with a few friends who know this terrain well, and with her.

“Instead of one word, can you describe it with a group of words?” she presses, gently.

I try. Every other week, for almost a year now, I am in this room, paying attention to my state of being. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever done. We talk about a lot of things in this room–parenting, childhood, marriage, dreams and goals, grief, my evolution from fundamentalism to evangelicalism to progressive Christianity to whatever it is I’m doing now.

Humanist? Post-Christian? Atheist? Post-Evangelical? Progressive/Emergent? Naturalist? Person of Faith? Believer? Unbeliever? Spiritual? Agnostic? Recovering Fundamentalist?

I’d like to be on a path to greater clarity, if not certainty. To that end, here’s my confession for the month of January. I’ll be back in this space at the end of each month this year, doing my best to honestly evaluate where I am on this journey.

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I still believe that Sundays are for vulnerability and soul-searching. I still believe in sacred spaces, in a regular centering practice, in confession.

I find myself outside of the boundaries of Christianity, and I’m coming to terms with it. The ability to believe many things has simply left me, and this has been a source of both great relief and great pain.

It’s my default right now to view religion in general through a lens of harm caused and ignorance applauded. Christianity–this behemoth of goodness and evil, source of bread and poison, great beauty and so much ugliness–I’ve been so mad at it for so long. It’s been heavy for the better part of ten years. And yet, some of the most gorgeous people I’ve ever known (personally and historically) are/were devout Christians. This thing just isn’t simple. I feel steadier and healthier outside of it all, but it absolutely saves some people; it absolutely has made the world better in some cases.

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My faith was never bland or obligatory for me. It was the frame of reference for everything. I fell head over heels in love with Jesus somewhere around age three, and continued to do so for years and years. What was real? What is real now? I keep saying goodbye and then taking it back.

A Lutheran pastor I’ve spoken with here, who has encouraged me greatly in this journey, makes the point that there are two different Jesuses. There is the historical person, and there is the Christ figure, which is what people constructed (and what we continue to construct) from the historical person. I find some comfort in this idea–that I can continue to appreciate so many things about Jesus, even as my ideas about him have changed, and probably will continue to change. There is so much more to explore there. I can’t face it all at once, but there is this: all of the good things his life has represented to me remain. A lot of good remains. I choose to believe that the Jesus story matters in the greater human story. He remains beautiful to me.

It’s not lost on me that these words will cause pain. That makes me hesitant to share them, but then I think of the private messages I get sometimes, in response to what I post here. Me too. I feel the same way. I haven’t had to do this alone, and I don’t want anyone else to.

I’ve always felt refreshed on a spiritual level when I’ve spent some time alone in nature. Maybe it’s just that stillness is the goal, and nature encourages me to be still in a way that nothing else does. Before I had children, and there were Sundays I just couldn’t stand to go to church (I imagine my cognitive dissonance began many years before I was aware of it) I went out into nature by myself. That is an instinct I’m paying closer attention to now.

So what’s the plan? Now there’s a question. I have a husband with his own mind, on his own journey, and we have three amazing children to raise. Right now, what I want for them are lessons that are easily taught in church: generosity, kindness, humility, elevating The Other. Community, looking out for the needs of others. Love, honesty, self-control.

I want other things for them, too–values they may or may not get from church.  Reason, curiosity, critical thinking skills. The ability to go to their classes and simply listen without an agenda–to love learning for itself.  Open-ended questions, fresh perspectives. Wonder. Gentleness, understanding, joy. I don’t want them to ever think there’s only one source for good things. Good things abound if you don’t have to make everything line up a certain way.

I’ve thought of God in metaphorical terms for something close to a year, desperate to see universal connections. Now? I don’t know. The jury is out. I am still overcome with wonder and gratefulness on pretty much a daily basis. I still say my thank-yous out loud.

So this is the state of things. I’m thinking, more and more, that it’s all going to be okay.

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What I Most Want To Be True: A Tattoo Story

For my twenty-ninth birthday, I wanted a tattoo.

Maybe with my thirties approaching I needed to do something a little reckless, but I also felt the need to pay attention to permanence.

I knew I wanted words, and maybe an image. Jesus’ invitation to the weary and burned out,  learn the unforced rhythms of grace, came to mind. And then, I remembered lyrics from a gospel song that had often caused me to stop and pay attention when I heard them: His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me. It’s a beautiful song that’s often sung at funerals–occasions that merit hope, that call for speaking and singing what we desperately need to hear.

If I’m honest, these words activate my cynicism and faith equally. Like all good poetry, they ask me to wrestle my way to a larger meaning.

I was learning to live with uncertainty. My faith was growing up: out of the chirpy God has a plan! stage and into something a lot more like the dark glass described by the apostle Paul. Someone I loved dearly had slipped quietly away from this life; it was cruel, quick, and strange. I felt I’d seen a righteous man forsaken; his children begging for a certain kind of bread. I could find no purpose in it, and certainly didn’t know how to reconcile the situation with the notion of a loving, personal God, or more specifically, with the God of my childhood who granted good parking spots and lengthened limbs, who filled dental cavities with gold and made suspicious lumps disappear. It was confusing–I thought I had left that particular notion of God behind (keeping other ideas that still made sense) but I can’t deny that I wanted Him to show up and fix things.

In the wake of this loss, there was a choice to be made: pine for the old God who works magic for those He loves, or move forward into the unknown, where God isn’t so easily explained. Like Elijah, I found that God was not in the whirlwind, earthquake, or fire, but in the still small voice. Sometimes, when our pain causes us to be very quiet, we hear that Voice–achingly familiar but missing elements we had in our minds before.

In the absence of easy answers, it was the quiet presence of friends that offered the most healing. I believe a sacred presence saturated those moments, too, that God (or something like God) is with us when we share a friend’s grief. Maybe what we learned in Sunday School–that God is up there and we’re down here–is incomplete. Maybe God is in, around, and through us, not part of us so much as tangled up with us.

The Book of Job, thought to be the oldest chronological book of the Bible, is often cited in times of sadness and loss. I’d heard my share of commentary on this book: that it’s a lesson to praise God in all circumstances, that God rewards the faithful in the long run, that God is God and we are not. I have no doubt that I used these explanations to attempt to comfort friends in the past. None of that was helpful, I discovered, when I was the one hurting. I had no stomach for the text until I learned to read Job as poetry rather than explanation. In Job, we find an ancient wondering about the nature of God. I took comfort in knowing that humans have been asking essentially the same questions about suffering for thousands of years.

Like Job’s friends, it’s in our nature to simply sit with people in their grief for only a short while before we start to offer explanations and solutions. Lest we feel too confident in our understanding of the state of things, it’s good to revisit this book and be reminded that God offers mystery in response to Job’s questions rather than reasons for his undeserved hardship. There’s a tension in the book that’s never truly resolved, much like the tension in my heart whenever I hear the words His eye is on the sparrow.

So I asked my friend, a talented tattoo artist, to design something around these words. He drew an elegant cage with a swung-open door and a bird flying free, I chose a font and gritted my teeth through the pain and made light conversation as the image, and the words, became a permanent part of my body, etched onto my foot. It hurt, but it felt good to be documenting something sacred.

The image serves as a reminder to me that God can live and breathe life through our actions, through our ability to sit with a friend in sorrow without offering explanations or tired promises we may not even believe ourselves. The bird is faith; the cage is certainty.

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With tattoos come questions. Understandably, people want to know what causes another person to do something so permanent. I never quite know how to explain mine in one or two sentences, especially if I’m doing something completely non-serious like getting a pedicure. Still, it’s a gift to be asked. We all need to tell our stories, don’t we?

I look at this message on my foot, and think  this is what I most want to be true. I want to believe that it’s in the nature of God to know of every fallen sparrow, every hair on the head of every abused child. Every hair that falls from the head of a cancer patient. Every vacant look in the eyes of a mother who’s just lost her child. Every person in a pew who attempts quiet bravery, no longer speaking or understanding the language that rolls easily off the tongues around them. The homesick who haven’t left home. I’ll be honest–I have no idea what to think about God right now–but I want to believe that God orchestrates comfort for them, in ways I don’t understand, simple and profound.

If I get to the point where my conscience demands I let go of religion altogether, and I think about that quite a bit these days, I will be left with this mark on my body. But shouldn’t things that matter leave a mark?

As for my questions, and there are many, I find hints of answers, not enough to sustain me for more than a day or so. When Jesus spoke of daily bread, maybe this is what he meant. I try to keep track of the hints. I’ve experienced love in this life–is that to say I’ve experienced God?

Whatever the force behind it all, I’m grateful for the pull of poetry, the healing presence of friends, and life-changing questions: these things have served my faith well–whether it’s a faith that holds on or a faith that ventures out.

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Lead Me On

Today’s post is from my delightful friend Erica Pelzel. Erica and I met during our college days, and I’ve admired her ever since for her energy and creativity. She taught me (and many others) to crochet, has the best laugh in the world, and once, when my then four year-old son greeted her at the door (in his underwear, it should be noted) with an ecstatic “I just went poop in the potty!”, she didn’t miss a beat and congratulated him with equal enthusiasm. That’s just the sort of person she is. She’s gracing this space today with some real talk about motherhood, tiredness in its many forms, a hard year, and hope.

I used to be an awesome quiet time haver. I had the perfect spot, my Baby Girl would sleep for hours, I didn’t have a care in the world… but as Baby Girl grew, that disappeared. As I sat with my open Bible this morning I just stared– intimidated by where to start and struggled to work past my terrible reading comprehension until I could get just… there. To the place where all in my mind and heart is calm and my ears are tuned into the frequency of His voice. After reading at least three Psalms and not remembering a single word, it was as if these words jumped straight off the page to me– as if they were raining down in sweet drops to my desperate and hungry soul:

“Send Your light and Your truth; let them lead me.” -Psalm 43:3, HCSB

I am comforted by the word “send” for some reason.  Maybe because it says to me that if He sends something, all I have to do is receive it.

I’ve always been a good girl, a super-passionate Jesus-chaser and churchgoer… until this year slapped me with a weary reality. Over the past year, I’ve felt like I’ve been barely hanging on.  I’m great at acting– superb in fact– I can pretend my way through any situation and put on an “I’m fine” face like nobody’s business.  But that’s the thing– I haven’t let it be anybody’s business that I’ve been drained and tired.  I haven’t let it be anybody’s business that I’m hurting.  I haven’t let it be anybody’s business… not even Jesus’.  And that’s my fault, really, not His.  In the tornado of motherhood, marital issues, sickness, hospitals, bills, more sickness and pretending to have it together I found myself with the open Word this morning, yearning to let my business be His.

If Jesus sent things solely on the basis of how  “good” of a Christian I’ve been… I’m afraid to say that I deserve no such package as His light and His truth.  But today– today I felt a glimmer of hope begin to illuminate my cold, protected heart.  Like the first gleam of dawn, I feel hope that this season will pass and that His joy really will come this morning; He is sending His light and His truth to lead me.

I’m not sure where and I’m not sure how, exactly, but I feel thrilled knowing that He has already sent it.  The more I say it, the more I believe it and the more it washes over my mind, my ears, my thoughts, my heart.  He’s sent me His light in this dark season.  He’s sent me His truth.  And through this confusing time somehow… somehow He’s led me.  I won’t pretend to know how or try to explain something I don’t understand, but here– in the stillness of this moment– I know it is coming.

I know it is here.

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Erica Pelzel is a wife, mother, and creator of beautiful things. Check out her projects and musings at ericapelzel.com.

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Epiphany

There’s a fair amount of second-guessing going on in my head as we settle into our wooden chairs on Epiphany Sunday. I’m preoccupied with thoughts about human stubbornness and the mysterious movement of the Holy Spirit ; how we force things and also how we can be too passive. Our family takes up a whole row, save one seat. We break the ice: we who braved frozen driveways and cold rain now jokingly congratulate ourselves, and when the pastor asks what church season we’re in, Nicky pipes up, “Winter!”  I laugh easily, and leave off the pondering for now.

Managing to remember a few phrases without consulting the printed service, I notice for the first time the closed eyes around me, the words being recited by heart.

I feel like a kid peeking out from under the covers. It’s hard to tell how much I’m super-imposing my own issues, but I sense that I may be in the company of seasoned question-lovers, which helps a great deal with my breathing. Actually, I’m not reminding myself to breathe at all. Huh.

Funny how it works: while I’m busy noticing the space left for the unknown, Belief herself slips in and sits in that extra seat on the end of the row, kind eyes and hair all a mess, and I hear her voice harmonizing with mine as we sing about thorns infesting the ground and wonders of His love.

She stands by my side as I hold my hands in front of me, I daresay eagerly, for bread. Earlier this morning I chose a shower over breakfast; now the generous portion placed in my palm satisfies in more ways than one. Fed by this, warmed by wine, I return to my seat and find my place in the hymnal.

It occurs to me that all of my hunger has met at this one point. I’m not sure I’ve ever allowed it all to exist in the same sphere before. Reverent, ravenous, here I am. Sitting next to Belief in this row of wooden chairs.

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moving mountains

It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so. -Mark Twain

There was a time, not too long ago, when I thought I’d lost my faith.

At some point, I got the idea that faith was something that you either had enough of or didn’t. That it was something you had to grasp firmly or it might float away. That it could make God do things, that it made unwanted things disappear.

Poof. Problem solved.

Every time I talk about the big shift in my spiritual life, I must offer this: I don’t know exactly why I had all of the ideas that I did. It had something to do with culture and something to do with specific interpretations of Scripture, and something to do with me. All I can do is try to bathe it all in grace as I seek to tell my story of hope, my wilderness treasure. I do believe that I was astounded by the goodness of God at a young age, and that one thing has informed more of my life than anything else.

Part of my story is this: in the wake of a personal tragedy, I seethed and mourned and went to church, because going to church was what I knew how to do. But pain makes you slow down and take notice, and some things that had once been beautiful and life-giving changed for me. I saw ugly things where I once saw beauty. I shriveled in a system where I once thrived. The dissonance of worship lyrics distracted me, drowning out the melodies that used to soothe. I betrayed myself by trying to choke out the words, until I couldn’t anymore.

His love’s like a hurricane, I am a tree

Not bending. Breaking and breaking and breaking again, under this weight that feels nothing like mercy.

you walk with me through fire, and heal all my disease

Such words caused a searing pain in my chest. I thought maybe I could keep up, and the pain would eventually quiet down and I’d feel all of the good feelings again. But years passed, and it didn’t, and I didn’t. That’s when I thought I’d lost my faith. The goodness of God that I glimpsed as a child seemed gone.

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I’d like to pause for a moment and address the complexity of this issue; I hope you can hear my heart. See, we get a lot of mixed messages about God’s character. That He does cruel things but is a loving being, that His grace covers all except when it doesn’t, that he heals people except when He doesn’t.

Once I went to a dear friend’s church that had declared itself a cancer-free zone, and I wondered what they did with people who already had cancer. Or had lost someone to it. Or who were trying to find God again afterward. I imagine they would embrace such a person with love, but that’s not what was communicated. Our messy stories didn’t seem to fit into their vision statement.

When I was in the thick of trying to sort out all of those messages, I mostly tried to make myself invisible, but there were people who saw me. They noticed my absence and silence, and weren’t fooled by my pasted on Sunday smile. (Confession: I’m still trying to figure out how to stop going into pasted-smile mode on Sunday morning. It’s a weird thing with deep roots. If you relate to that, maybe let’s talk?) I’m horrible at asking for help, and I built myself a fortress of I’m fine, but I’m forever grateful for a few who helped anyway, who gave me permission to not be fine. If I can take anything away from that time, let it be that I see people better.

I’ve heard it said that if you’re looking for a Bible verse to prove a point, you will find it. Similarly, I’ve found that if you start to look for love in God, or peace in God, or a posture of service instead of judgment or violence or terrifying displays of power, you will find those things. But it’s a process, learning to accept that God might be better than you thought.

Can I tell you what I’ve learned? It’s been the best of news for me.

Christianity doesn’t offer answers for a lot of things. But it is beautiful, because it offers a God who weeps.

God is not vindictive, but redemptive. God is Jesus is God is Jesus is God. Whatever Jesus is like, God is like. 

Faith is not certainty, and certainty is not faith.

It’s really hard to live in the tension of what you know and what you don’t know, but if you can stay there, good will come of it.

Jesus told his disciples that if they had faith the size of a mustard seed, they could move a mountain, and nothing would be impossible for them. In my low moments, I’ve felt these words come down like a bludgeon. I have less faith than that tiny amount, I’ve thought. Maybe it’s because I have approached those words from a place of lack. But the point isn’t how much faith you don’t have, it’s how much you do have.

Faith is what made me ask hard questions. It’s what made me shake my head and whisper I don’t think that’s what God is like. That was my starting point.

Faith is what made me stare at my own personal mountain for several years, overwhelmed by its magnitude. Faith kept me there. Faith helped me to walk around it, note its structures, crawl into its caves. Eventually, faith became a pickax, quite useful for hacking away at the damn thing. Maybe there are faster ways to move mountains, but that’s not my story right now.

Thankfully, losing sight of God isn’t the same thing as losing faith. It’s faith that propels us to keep looking when we can’t seem to find His goodness in our current place. When we need to go somewhere we can see better, and hear better, and find our first love again.

Faith frees us to keep working on our own mountain, clearing away the boulders and brush, and looking to see what’s beyond that, and beyond that, and beyond that. It’s a good life’s work.

*Many thanks to Rachel Held Evans for the Mark Twain quote. I saw it on her Twitter feed and it stuck with me.

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