Tag Archives: faith

on suffering

If you’re trying to resolve the problem of suffering and wrap it up in a neat little package, you’ll only be disappointed by Christianity.

Christianity doesn’t answer that question. It dwells in the suffering. It acknowledges it, laments it, and looks for ways to reduce it, but it doesn’t tell you why.

A friend recently said that what strikes him most about Christianity is the image of the Suffering Christ. When tragedy strikes, Christ suffers. He dies again and again. Immeasurably deep empathy for the human condition.

Christianity doesn’t answer the why; it asks us to turn from our inward need to understand and look out to help alleviate suffering in the world. I can sit here and shout “Why?!” or I can go out and do something to end it, even while I knowing it will not end.

Christianity asks me to sit with the questions, but not alone. I am increasingly convinced that Christianity is a communal religion; it must be done with others; we acknowledge what we do not know, together.

Nothing can be wrapped up in a neat little package.

review: Rachel Held Evans’ Searching for Sunday

searching for sunday review

Rachel Held Evan’s Searching for Sunday is about church: its triumphs and failings, its hypocrisy and grace. Rachel, like me, grew up in a well-intentioned Evangelical community where the Bible is accepted as fact and the “plain truth” is within easy reach. It’s a culture of black and white morality, where spiritual cliches are a dime a dozen, rolling off the tongue the second something happens that doesn’t jive with the accepted worldview. Naturally, it has its limitations. Suffering is not easily alleviated with a dismissive utterance of “it’s all in God’s plan.” Rachel, like me, was encouraged to have a sense of ownership over her personal relationship with Jesus and, when the questions she wrestled with in the quiet started to gain momentum – when she started to ask them out loud – the church was unequipped to answer in anything but cliches.

Rachel, like me, flailed around, trying out new churches and new denominations, but the questions burned unanswered still, and she left.

Searching for Sunday‘s framework, quite fittingly, is the Sacraments: Baptism, Confession, Holy Orders, Communion, Confirmation, Anointing the Sick, and Marriage. These themes, like the Sacraments themselves, act as a jumping off point for a journey of faith. They encourage exploration and mystery; they don’t operate in spiritual cliches. One begins to realize that sometimes, the best answer to our questions is simply the space to wrestle with them. Rachel deals eloquently with this wrestling, acknowledging that the hurt sometimes makes it impossible to be in community, but always seeking the Truth of Christ’s unconditional love. She never gives up on that, and I think that’s the key to learning from the dark times in our spiritual lives. You may feel directionless, but you are moving forward if you are oriented toward love.

Searching for Sunday is memoir, but it is more than that. It’s theology. Steeped in the Gospel narratives, deeply respectful of those first disciples, and appreciative of the long, tumultuous years of violence perpetrated by and against the institutionalized church, it seeks to explore and understand what it looks like to do church now. It reminds us that Christian community was essential from the very beginning, that we don’t get to do Christian life on our own. 

Searching for Sunday gave me closure. I’d been hurt so badly by the church years ago, and I thought I’d moved on. But the truth is that I needed this reassurance that my pain was real, that my concerns were legitimate, and that the dark path I trudged through in the aftermath of leaving was not in vain. I needed someone to say, simply, “me too.”

As I sit here now with the sunshine streaming through the window and the birds singing and a cool spring breeze hitting my legs, I can tell you that I’m no longer searching for Sunday. I have found home in church community again. I am thankful for the path, and the hands that held me in the darkness, nudging me forward. I am thankful for space for the questions. I am thankful that God gave Rachel Held Evans the voice, and the heart, to tell her story, because it is my story, too.

I received an advance copy ofSearching for Sunday Searching for Sunday for review. Searching for Sunday is available for preorder here. It’ll hit store shelves this Tuesday, April 14.

*Artwork: Baptism by Ruth Catherine Meharg; used with permission.

Good Friday

In 2011, God was silent. I didn’t stop believing, but I was numb. Numb like cold fingers in the middle of winter: on the brink of frostbite. I was terrified of losing the religion, the community, and the language of faith that had been central to my life as a child and young adult. The stillness made me feel unhinged.

Perhaps as a way of coping with not knowing what the future of my faith looked like, I found other practices – other rituals – to fill the void. And in retrospect, the quiet cleared the clutter, opening up space for new ways of thinking and being.

I also read Still by Lauren Winner, a book I’d recommend to anyone feeling existentially lost. I realized I’d been waiting for my faith to return or to grow back to just the way it was before the silence when I should have understood this dark period as part of the path.

There is nothing wrong with feeling numb. There is nothing wrong with stillness. Nothing is lost in the process – you are still you, God is still God (much different and much more complicated than we can imagine, I’m sure), a community is waiting somewhere to love you for who you are, not what you profess on any given day.

Today I feel stable, but not always certain. I feel loved, but I’m not always sure it’s unconditional. But what I know is that living with grace and intention will never be the wrong path. See people and love them anyway. Forgive. Work toward justice. Leave yourself vulnerable to the fulfillment and pain of love.

open arms

church

I stopped going to church for nearly a year for a variety of reasons. I didn’t feel that my academic knowledge was appreciated, I was limited by my gender, I wasn’t at all comfortable with opening up about real struggle, I didn’t fit in. I think Daniel and I feared that we would never really feel at home in any church despite wanting to fellowship with other Christians, despite having chosen our majors because of our faith, despite it being a daily topic of conversation and reflection.

When we got to Charlottesville, we went to a few churches and sat in on a few small groups and just didn’t feel it. I grew up in various evangelical churches, so I know the whole rhetoric about not leeching off the church, about how “feeling” it isn’t enough. But, honestly, after struggling so much to fit into a church in college, I think that mentality covers up a real problem. People in the church, very often, are exclusive in their friendships, judgmental, and afraid to engage issues they deem too controversial. Even for two, born-and-raised Christians, the church began to feel foreign.

But we put in the effort to stick it out somewhere. We started going to an Episcopal Church, a denomination neither one of us grew up in. Known for its progressive/liberal (you choose the connotation) policies, we didn’t really consider it until we sort of fell into it. We found a group of young people who are willing to deal with controversy, doubt, and all the complexities of Christian thought head-on. We found thoughtful, compassionate, loving people who welcomed us in. We found community.

I realized last weekend, as a large group of us sat around the table at a local restaurant sipping drinks and talking about theologians, Russian television, feeling accepted, and avoiding cynicism, that I feel unencumbered – accepted – at last. Really, I laugh without inhibition, I listen, I reply, I learn something new, I think about things in a different light. I feel weightless and unimposing. I become a part of the moment instead of an acutely self-aware bystander. I realize that I’m finally fitting in. I’m at home. I don’t have to fight anymore.

The church needs to stop crossing its collective arms and start opening them to embrace all who enter in. I really believe that there is a place for doubt and skepticism in the church, that it’s a part of everyone’s spiritual journey. Without transition and struggle and stagnancy, there is no incentive to push forward and keep developing as a follower of Christ. I’ve found a group of people who know that, who walk with me in that, who lead me forward to hope and faith again.

I encourage you to seek out a community of followers who love without inhibition.

faith and feminism, part 1

I attended college in North Florida, the southernmost point of the true south. As a Religious Studies major, I learned about my Christian faith and its heritage within a much wider scope than my evangelical upbringing had provided. I studied history, literature, ancient languages, and ethics. At some (I suppose, inevitable) point, I found that I possessed more academic knowledge than many pastors who had lead my congregations growing up, and that I was respected for my thoughts and given a voice within academia.

I attended a conservative Protestant denomination affiliated with the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement. They followed the Bible literally, which included not using instruments in the main service and not allowing women to take part, by speaking or leading, in the main service, or assembly. I ignored the obvious tension between my undergraduate expertise and the church’s interpretation of the Biblical text for nearly a year. But when women (and men) within the church began to discuss giving greater leadership privileges to women openly, I could no longer ignore their stance. When the elders ruled that it was best not to forsake tradition and stir up controversy just to let women pass the offering plate, the tectonic plates within my chest began to crunch together, grinding and sparking, forcing words and cries and change out of me. Something had cracked and I couldn’t stay silent.

That being said, I didn’t begin prophesying in the assembly or tearing my garments. I really liked the friends I’d made and the a Capella singing and the fun weekly hangouts. I tried to move past the pain, and the anger, by venting to those within the group who would willingly, and lovingly, provide a listening ear. One night, we invited several people over to our apartment to learn some new hymns. After the worship portion of the evening was done, we began to casually chat. Someone mentioned that “where two or three are gathered” there Christ is also. I remarked that our group, in effect, was an assembly. Yet women were speaking! A few female long-time attendees began to argue that women could speak, lead, and participate within this context, but not within the context of the larger, whole church assembly. I couldn’t face the contradiction, the injustice, the lack of critical thought. I blew up. I shouted that I couldn’t stand the denomination, began to weep, then ran to my room like a small child. Within the week, I had been formally chastised for my behavior on the grounds that it could discourage newcomers’ in their faith.

I couldn’t help thinking that my faith had been manipulated and shattered by the undercurrent of sexism labeled as Biblical adherence, and that no one cared. I mentally disconnected myself from the congregation after that talk. Although I worked to forgive those who believed they had spoken the truth in love, those who had meant me no harm, I could never go back with an open and full heart. Near the end of my attendance there, the worship leader sang the wrong part, and I recalled that there were formally trained female vocalists in the congregation who could have lead with both heart and knowledge. But they weren’t allowed. Implicitly – and there’s no satisfactory way to get around this – women were secondary to men. I got up and ran out of the building, down to a creek on the church property. I cried, and felt at peace, away from the church. I felt God. Away from the church.

I didn’t attend church again for almost a year. And my faith grew.

This is the first part of a series on faith and feminism.