When we are very young children, older humans teach us this game where they cover their eyes and then seem genuinely and pleasantly surprised when they uncover their eyes and discover we, the young child, are very much still there. As infants and toddlers, this is thrilling to us. And, although I possess absolutely zero degrees in childhood development, I wonder if this is what will later cause us to believe if we close our eyes, the world in front of us disappears. I wonder if this is why our early games of hide and seek only consist of the hidden one closing their eyes, delighted to discover upon opening them, the world is right back where it should be.
If you think about it, we carry the belief that we can “disappear the world” even into adulthood. When something becomes too terrible, too scary, too sad, too exciting, in general, too much, what do we do? We close our eyes. We close our eyes the nanosecond before we collide into the bumper of the car in front of us. We close our eyes when the very very stupid girl in the dumb horror movie we swore we would never watch, travels down the staircase alone into the basement that is known to be haunted, armed only with the light of her phone. We close our eyes in moments of sheer glee as we laugh so heartily that tears eek out of our tightly closed lids. We close our eyes to disappear the world.
Which I think begs the question, where do we think the world goes when we close our eyes?
I admit this is an odd way to begin a post intended to tell you all of my thoughts on God (cue Dishwalla). But in this season of my life I seem to be involved in a very long game of peek-a-boo with God. I suppose all of the cool dirty rotten church kids would say I am wandering down the road of deconstructing my faith. I am witnessing the rise and fall of Odyssey and Whit’s Corner and am wondering what is left to the walls of my faith when you pull out all of the bricks that James Dobson and Psalty taught me. (Actually, no. Let me take a stand here and tell you I never learned a lick from Psalty. I went to a tiny little church that definitely couldn’t afford to construct a large blue singing Psalm book costume and so I learned all of my catchy sign-a-long Bible verses from Patch the Pirate. He was awesome and he was definitely a real thing and no one will tell me any differently.)
But the topic of deconstructing spirituality is one fraught with landmines and hurt feelings so let’s get a few things straight right off the bat: Number one, if you grew up in 90s Christian culture and earned all the jewels for your Awana crowns and darkened the door of the church any time it was open and don’t find yourself going down a road of questioning all that you were taught back then, sincerely and wholehearted, good for you! As we always find in Christian culture, we are a people of trends and “likes” and I hate how “cool” this new fangled idea of deconstruction has become, particularly since, I hate to break it to you, 90s kids, we didn’t invent it. People have been questioning their faith since Nicodemus was hanging out on midnight rooftops with Jesus. The only difference between us and Jonah sitting in that whale (that you no longer believed happened) is that we have podcasts and Twitter. Come down off that high horse, find yourself a good therapist and cool your jets a little bit. Not everyone who still likes going to church is deceived. Not everyone is questioning the felt board from Sunday school and that is 1000% fantastic. I made myself a set of ground rules when I decided to start writing publicly again. One of them was to be honest with what I am thinking and feeling without dictating why others should feel the same way. So rest assured, my goal here is not to belittle or poke fun of anyone else’s faith journey. Let’s be cool, ok?
Secondly, I believe with all of my heart that every person in my life who has sought to show me their version of Jesus has done so with incredibly pure intentions. As the leaders of the American megachurch come tumbling down (and rightly so), I think we might have mistakenly decided that every Sunday School teacher and pastor we ever encountered only desired to have us drink the kool-aid. Some of my favorite Sunday school teachers, mentors and pastors have shown me Jesus in ways I still believe in today. Along the way did they also reinforce works based faith and morality for the sake of morality? Of course. Because they were human. Are there indeed leaders of our faith who abuse and misuse the power and authority a pulpit gives them? DEFINITELY. But I truly believe those people are few and far between in our lives and for most of us, usually only encountered on a podcast or blog that is now defunct. Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater, alright? It’s ok to admit the people of your early faith were both well-intentioned and human. It’s bad to throw babies in general. So don’t do it. (Huge caveat here to those of you who did indeed experience physical or emotional abuse at the hands of a spiritual leader. It is a massive travesty that has indeed occurred in our churches and I firmly believe a nice little spot in hell is waiting to accept those monsters.) This post is dedicated to those of us who are now ticked to discover that drinking while underage does not indeed make God cry and that wearing a low cut shirt does not mean you are responsible for little Timmy’s purity journey.
And with those ground rules in place, let’s go:
Here’s an oddity I have noticed in my life over the last 10 years. The more at peace I become with hard emotions, like despair and sadness and fear and anger, the harder it is for me to connect with the God of my youth. The God of my youth was powerful. He was all knowing. He was all of the omni’s. He came roaring in like a lion to save the enslaved and rescue the downtrodden. He was Jesus flinging himself at the feet of a prostitute to save her from certain death. And in the seemingly rare event that He didn’t come charging on the white horse, that too was ok because “His ways are higher than our ways.” And who can even fathom the mind of God? And His plan was always to prosper us and not bring harm. The God of my youth helped me feel safe and secure. The God of my youth made it easy to disregard hard emotions and sweep them under the rug with the sound belief that God was in control no matter what.
The first time I ever remember that firm foundation swaying just the tiniest little inch to the right was when the Oklahoma City bombings took place. I was in middle school and I remembered being glued to the TV. Mostly because there were kids being pulled out of that rubble. And a few of them were still trembling in the arms of the dust covered firefighters but not all of them made it out alive. Where did God go?
And then a few years later my family took a trip to Washington, D.C. and to the Holocaust Museum. And I was just barely tall enough to peer over the walls of the displays intended only for those with a strong enough stomach to face the true evil that had plagued Europe. And again I saw kids, like me, emaciated down to the bone, separated from their parents and barely breathing because, why? I couldn’t find the why, exactly. I closed my eyes.
There is nothing uncommon in those moments from my childhood. It’s how we grow up. It’s how we develop our own worldview. It’s a vital piece of who we will become. But it wasn’t until I started sitting down on a therapist’s couch twice a month that I began to feel the freedom of letting those hard emotions back in and being ok with the fact that they had no good answers to them. That objects with sharp edges can still be held carefully, if you learn how. And I began to really wonder who exactly was this God that I had held so tightly to for all of my life? The God who I had been made to believe smiled down on me with great fondness because I had earned all of the jewels in all of the crowns. Could that God also hold these hard emotions with me? Could He handle my sharp edges and still love me because that was the way He had made me to be?
To be honest, I’m still asking myself those questions. But now the hard moments, the wondering where God has disappeared to aren’t just limited to tragic events happening in another city hundreds of miles away or evil that plagued our world half a century before. As a real life adult, the trauma is closer to home. The tragedy occurs on my street. To people I love. Friends I never thought I would say goodbye to have been lost. “Agree to disagree” doesn’t always patch the wound. The words “global pandemic” are now in my every day vocabulary. It’s not villages in Africa being swept away by currents of plague. It’s my neighbors. It’s my friends. It’s my village.
Here is where I become brutally honest with myself: I desperately want to not believe in God. I look longingly at my atheist friends and wonder with jealousy if life is easier for them that they don’t believe anyone is choosing or allowing us to be put through this mess. Just last week I sat on my counselor’s couch and wept as she helped me realize it is far safer for me to believe the God of my youth is coming as fast He can on His white horse, but is way-laid in the moment by demons and evil than it is to admit He is sitting right next to us as unspeakable harm comes to us. I’d rather lose my grip on the belief that He is all-powerful than have to wrestle with questioning His goodness. The God of my youth was safe. The jury is still out on whether the God of my adulthood is good.
But I can’t actually not believe in God. And I have tried, trust me. On my journey, in my life, I cannot give up the faith completely. As cheesy as it sounds, I can’t look out over the face of a mountain or stand at the edge of the sea and not feel Him, even in the faintest of ways. I can’t look into the face of my son and not believe in God for his sake. Unlike Mulder, I actually don’t want to believe anymore. But I can’t.
And so, instead I am closing my eyes. When life gets too real, too hard, too painful, I shut them tight and ask God where did He go. But let’s be very clear about one thing, right now. My prayers these days never start with “Our Father in heaven.” I can’t write here the words I use these days in speaking to God because they are not words my southern upbringing ever told me were acceptable to use. But they are very real words. And in all of my “deconstructing” of what parts of my early belief system are real and which parts were told to me to keep me safe or small or moral, the one belief I have held on to strongly is that God desires to know and see all of me. And right now I am angry and questioning. I am beyond throwing a toddler-like tantrum where a good, long nap will have me see better times. I am crying bitter tears and hurling accusations in to the wind. All of those Bible verses that earned me the jewels in the crowns that adorned my Awana vest have become arrows in my quiver of weapons I hurtle at Him. “No plans to harm me, huh?” “Even in the depths you are there.” “You are close to the brokenhearted and lift up the downtrodden.” I don’t think so. That God seems to be out to lunch right now.
Where do You go when I shut my eyes?
Right now it doesn’t feel like my prayers go past the ceiling. (Although that might be on account of the number of expletives being used.) I have no good answers. I can’t tell you where He has gone. And to be honest, and in complete humility and with the utmost respect for you, dear reader, I don’t need you to tell me where He might be either. Because faith is a personal journey. It’s a road for one. I met the God of my youth surrounded by people. I am questioning the God of my adulthood at a table for two. And we’re getting to know each other again. One game of peek-a-boo at a time.