how (not) to believe in God: just go ahead and Lent, you know you want to.

I really enjoy believing in God, the Christian one to be more specific. 

Aside from the ongoing monetary inducement I get for persisting in this rather ancient practice as a “member of the clergy,” I also find great fulfillment in ascribing a higher meaning to the seemingly random, turbulent, mundane, tragic, and altogether fantastical experiences comprising much of human life. 

At life’s worst, it’s rather comforting to have someone else to blame for things coming off the rails, as well as quietly believing He or She might have a say in fixing it. At life’s best it’s a relief to be able to believe that an expensive meal plan at Disney World or that parking a luxury SUV (currently enjoying the “Salt Life”) in your cul-de-sac 2 car garage isn’t the pinnacle of being alive in 2018. 

“You frequently mention having a nicer car as some sort of metric for success. Do you mean that passive aggressively, it’s hard for me not to read between the lines.”

-My 2001 Honda Civic with 200,000 miles

But then kids are gunned down in-between 3rd and 4th period, and it wasn’t the normal feelings of anger, and fear, and frustration, and catastrophic sadness that left me absently staring up at the heavens, it was that I don’t even tear up anymore at news like this. 

I just keep scrolling and scrolling and scrolling, looking for what, I honestly couldn’t say. 

In my work with therapy clients, I’ve found that sometimes it isn’t the presence of an unwelcome feeling that leaves us burned down from the inside out, but rather, it’s the absence of something you expect to be there, that for a myriad of reasons, no longer is. Like when people talk about “falling out of love” with someone they’ve been in a relationship with for decades, or when people mention an estranged parent, friend, coworker, sibling, or significant other and you intrinsically wince, but quickly realize that once you open your eyes and unclench your fists, that nothing actually hurts anymore. 

It’s terrifying to realize that the organizing principle of your interior life (from love to rage and everything in-between) has suddenly slipped out the backdoor when you were washing dishes, leaving you holding onto a language or vocabulary or set of rituals that now, in the absence of that feeling or principle, seem altogether useless. Which is why some people, in the wake of this experience, immediately return to their previous life, and to the responses that accompanied that feeling, in hopes of being able to — like a boy scout with kindling, a flint rock, and a desperate need for one more merit badge — suddenly ignite the belief that once gave meaning and warmth when the dark seemed oppressive. 

Holding onto something, even if it’s toxic or unsettling or discomforting, can provide a stabilizing force in the wake of social and personal upheaval. 

“There is nothing more difficult to outgrow than anxieties that have become useful to us.”

-Christian Wiman

Which is where believing in God comes into play for me, because when I look back over most of the decisions I’ve made in my life, I realize that I’ve often operated from a baseline idea that even if it feels as if I’m traversing a tightrope from time to time, there’s always a net. 

There’s always a reason.

There’s always a point.

There’s always an answer.

There’s always a “call”. 

There’s always a divine will.

Or, thanks to my mostly-Evangelical Southern Baptist upbringing:

there’s always a “wonderful plan for my life”

Even as I grew up and lost contact with most of the theological reasoning underpinning these kind of thoughts, the net remained, keeping me safe even as I questioned whether or not it actually existed. 

When my best friend from seminary had an inexplicable brain bleed leaving him without the ability to work (both physically and metaphysically) in ways he always hoped he would, I kept thinking the net would use its resources to sort out his path and let the scummy church ladder climbers fend for themselves. 

It hasn’t. 

When I felt "called” to quit my cushy church job, go back to graduate school, and work at a grocery store, I thought the net was going to publish my book about the experience, and welcome me back into the fold with people clamoring to hear me wax poetic into a microphone about stuff none of us know for sure.

It definitely didn’t. 

Even when I’ve had the chance to once again re-enter the world of professional Christianity from time-to-time (with varying degrees of “effectiveness”), I thought the net would provide a renewed belief in the rightness of this “call,” (or at least a clarity to my yearly tax filing). 

It hasn’t yet.  

Leaving me wondering, is the net still a net if it never actually catches anything? 

Or maybe less playfully: is God still a God if God never does anything “God-like"? 

For much of my religious life, I was taught to ignore moments like these in our individual and collective consciousness. That they represented a brief interruption from our regularly scheduled programming, and that once we get explanations sorted, things will sort of work themselves out from there. The absence of answers, clarity, or feeling was the sign of something wrong, and not the natural progression of life on Earth, or even, dare I say it, a sign of human growth. 

The thing I find most unnerving about these kinds of moments for me isn’t that I’m worried about whether or not I believe in God anymore, but that I’m no longer worried about the “not” part of that sentence. I no longer tear up at the thought of my faith dying, and not because it seems to have lost the plot on that whole “wonderful plan” part of the deal, but because the more I learn (or unlearn) about the way of Jesus (and not his marketers), the more I seem to encounter the death of so many other well-intentioned things. 

Perhaps that’s why Jesus invited the growing crowd following him from town to town on his journey to being executed in Jerusalem to go ahead and head back home if they weren't willing to hate their mothers, fathers, brothers, and sisters, otherwise this religious celebrity was only going to let them down at the end (and NOT by offering them the chance to join him for an exclusive one-on-one in Maui for the entirely reasonable price of $2,500.00). Anything less than the total devastation of everything that had sustained these people up until this point (their family, their faith, their history, their expectations), according to Jesus, was going to keep them from properly navigating the world he was attempting to unmake right under their noses. 

Rather than working to inoculate them against such experiences, it seems Jesus believed that dying and disappointing people are two things God is here to do continually. 

Which is what makes Lent so important for the Church calendar (I guess, I’m terribly non-liturgical), in that it forces all of us (even (or especially) if we don’t feel anything particularly revelatory about the season) to come face-to-face with the idea that there might not be a net underneath any of this for any of us. 

Lent invites us to consider that the God we've (along with our family, friends, and weird uncles) hoped in, ran from, trusted, ignored, prayed to, shouted at, and believed in up until this point might actually be the thing keeping us from meeting who we’re here to be and what we’re here to do.

It wouldn’t be the first time a well-meaning religion kept people from resurrection because of a refusal to let God die. 

Despite what you may or may not believe about the literal death and resurrection of Jesus, the fact that he took all of what it meant to be Jewish, all of what it meant to believe in the Hebrew God, and laid it in the tomb, not to silence it once and for all, but to set it free to be so much more for so many more people who weren’t their mothers, fathers, brothers, or sisters, seems terribly important for the world in which we're now living.

"I thought the sun was going down, but the sun was coming up."

-Josh Ritter

A world characterized by a longstanding commitment to using God-talk as a means to justify (or divert attention away from) what we're all just going to do anyway. An example of this, is our continual use of the word "prayer" for something we could attempt to change, but are unwilling to try because it seems hard, confusing, and would alienate important revenue streams. The injection of the word "prayer" into just these kinds of moments serves as a release valve, decreasing the amount of tension we might normally feel if we ever openly embraced the fact that we aren't (or can't because of complex reasons) going to do anything.

God-talk, in this kind of world, is usually shorthand for existential, political, and relational inaction parading as deep and unquestionable spirituality. As a way of response, Lent (at its best) invites us each year to remember that all things die, including God, and in the wake of that discovery we're encouraged to reflect on who we might be and what we might do if we couldn't continually lay our inaction at the sandals of someone else. 

So may you this Lenten season, if you’re terribly religious or terribly not, meet the death of whatever well-intentioned God has given you meaning (either by addition or subtraction). May you face this unwelcome discovery not as something to ignore or paint-over, but as a way of encountering, maybe for the first time, so many new mothers, fathers, brothers, and sisters on the other side of whatever religious vocabulary kept you from them up until this point. And in meeting them, may you find new language, new rituals, and new ways of putting concrete flesh and blood on the work you were created to do. 

 

 

 

 

*photo credit: Creative Commons