The God I Can't Shake Off
This God Doesn’t Add Up
When I was 5 years old and my mother tucked me in one night, my younger sister Holly already asleep in the twin bed beside mine, she sat down and stroked my hair.
“Rachel, you know how you do bad things sometimes? Like not share with Holly, or not tell me and Daddy the truth?”
I conceded that I had, in fact, done some such things. Recently I’d been to the hospital because I had swallowed a nickel, and it got lodged in my throat. I told my parents that Holly had tossed it in my mouth when I was lying down, but she actually had done no such thing; I just didn’t want to be reprimanded for wondering what money tasted like. I was still carrying the weight of this lie, and of hurling my still-toddling sister under the bus.
“Those bad things are called sins,” she explained. “So you are a sinner. But thankfully, God sent his son Jesus to save you from your sins. And if you ask Jesus into your heart, he will wash you clean of those sins.”
And so I prayed, following the script she gave me, line by line.
She was delighted when my eyes opened following the “Amen.” She was 28, a couple years younger than I am as I write now, and I remember her being even warmer and more glowy than usual, a woman relieved that her eldest daughter now had a relationship with Jesus, a little invisible God in her heart who would save her from hell.
As she kissed me good night, she told me how happy she was and how she was going to tell Dad the good news.
I was still a child when I began to question the God my parents believed in. “Heaven” was almost an instant concern. I was happy to know I was not destined for eternal torture, but the concept of eternity, even a golden-streeted one, terrified me. I did not want to live forever.
“But I’ll get bored in heaven!”
“It won’t be exactly like earth, sweetie. You won’t be able to get bored,” my mother assured me.
I remained skeptical. If heaven was like all the good parts of Earth, I would eat a ton of ice cream, swim a lot in the county pool, and re-watch all of Full House, but surely that would get old eventually. I tried to avoid thinking about heaven, period, but there were other parts to the whole eternity thing that I didn’t get. I didn’t understand why God’s default was to send people to hell. People were being asked to come to the realization that they were sinners, God was God, Jesus was his Son, and they must believe all of that and commit their lives to Jesus/God in order to avoid hell. My parents seemed to think this was quite generous of God, but it didn’t seem fair to me. My mom said the choice was ours, but I couldn’t help sinning. God knew I would sin when I was born. It’s part of being alive. By simply being born, people were destined to hell, and it was their responsibility to turn the ship around. God was asking people, some of whom I already gathered were pretty dumb, to make a decision before they died that would affect their eternity. A whopping 75 years, if you were lucky, to make sure you wouldn’t be on fire for millions, and billions, and zillions of years.
I knew I was just a kid, and things were still beyond my comprehension, but that still didn’t seem like a very fair deal. It actually made God seem like kind of an asshole.
“What about babies who die? Or kids?” I asked my mom. “They don’t even have time to ask for forgiveness.”
“God is a merciful God,” she consoled me. “I don’t think he’ll send little kids to hell. It’s only people who have time to choose whether they want to accept or reject Him.”
But it didn’t seem very merciful to send anyone to hell. The punishment didn’t fit the crime.
When I was in 5th or 6th grade, my parents joined a new church, a young church, one of those non-denominational types that doesn’t meet in a church building not because it realizes that wasting resources on a building used once a week is not practical or ecological but simply because it didn’t have the money yet. It was called Harbor Community Church. It met in the conference room of a hotel in downtown Sheboygan, which sounds much more glamorous than it was. It was a cheap hotel, and the carpet in the conference room was stained, always smelling of old cigarettes. It felt dirty. I preferred the movie theater, where the church met briefly prior, for the popcorn scent was familiar and welcome and more kid-friendly. In the back of the dingy hotel, I knew, even as an eleven-year-old, that the whole operation was pretty pathetic.
Since Harbor wasn’t affiliated with any specific denomination, there were certain theological topics that were up for debate. Some denominations have a base, a headquarters, if you will, telling them their stance on birth control, gay marriage, baptism, evolution, etc. Someone in the congregation asked Pastor Dave what the church believed about women in leadership, and Pastor Dave turned to the leadership team, of which my dad was a member. My dad would attend these leadership team meetings, fill in my mom when he got home, and I would listen in, intrigued. Ultimately, they decided that the Bible was clear: women should not be preachers.
I was not pleased. I knew that women could be just as smart as men, just as wise, just as gifted at speaking. Again, this decision rang as unfair, and specifically unfair to my gender. I probably told my parents. I am sure they responded with a, “It feels unfair, but actually God made men and women different in ways we can’t even understand; he made men uniquely gifted to be speakers and preachers.” I didn’t buy it.
Around this time, my cousins came to visit. My Aunt Karen and Uncle Dan had one boy and five girls, and some of the girls were around my age. Karen and Dan were even more Christian than my parents; they homeschooled their kids and wouldn’t let them watch TV besides old tapes of Andy Griffith. But their kids were still cool, and I looked up to them. I remember hanging out with one of these cousins, talking about the Bible, as good evangelical Christian kids do, and I mentioned to her that our church had come to this ridiculous conclusion that women couldn’t be pastors. I expected her to agree with me, but instead she dug her heels in.
“Well, it’s what the Bible says,” she said.
“But it’s so unfair!” I said.
“Yeah, but the Bible is the Bible,” she said, composed, like a sage. “We have to accept it.”
I did not care if the Bible said it or not. It wasn’t fair, and my pre-teen self wasn’t going to be accepting things that weren’t fair.
But This God is What I Need
I had doubts very early on about God, doubts that, looking back now, could function as signs that I was never going to remain Christian forever, that I simply wasn’t made for it. But starting in middle school, perhaps, the doubts fell away. Christianity was not something I questioned anymore; it was something I needed, something that gave me purpose.
It would be easy to correlate this with the horrors of adolescence: as my acne fired up, as my body retained fat in my face and my back but no growth happened to my breasts, as my hair grew wavy and coarse and yet simultaneously oily, as I became servant to my emotions, I was desperate for a stabilizing force. And God, or much more specifically, fundamentalist Christianity, offered the rules I desired.
I became a deeply religious kid. I read my Bible unprompted. I prayed, on my knees, every night before bed. I fasted once a week during 6th grade. I looked down upon anyone who was mean, anyone who disobeyed, anyone who listened to Britney Spears (she was clearly spawn of the devil). Even at my Christian school, the other kids couldn’t relate to me. I was off the deep end. They were Christian in a normal, chill way; I was Christian in a strict, angry nun way.
At public high school, it was worse. I tried evangelizing to my classmates (one or two of them are still Christians, which I do feel very torn about!). I joined the on-school Bible study (we read The Purpose-Driven Life). I never swore (some kids in my freshman English class offered me five bucks to say “fuck;” I proudly refused). I wrote articles in our student newspaper about how “America was becoming “too tolerant of tolerance” and was “losing all its values” (where did these ideas come from?? My parents didn’t even talk like that). In my junior year, some kids formed a Gay-Straight Alliance club, and I wrote yet another article about how it was inappropriate for kids to be discussing their sexuality on school grounds. I dated a guy who broke up with me because I was too Christian; “People call you Rachel McCooCoo for Christianity, did you know that?” he told me once. I was unbothered. I was proud of my faith.
During these formative years, God made sense to me. The concerns I’d had before - about the unfairness of hell, the frightening nature of eternity, the gender inequality encouraged in the Bible - they grew faint in my mind. They were technical problems, problems that still bothered me if I allowed myself to think about them, but I pushed them out of my mind, believing I’d figure them out later. In the meantime, I had a real, actual relationship with God, who gave me purpose and value. He did not make me popular, but was I ever going to be popular anyway? Clearly not. God wasn’t just what I put my hope in; God structured the way I saw the world. God was so crucial to my identity that I decided to go to a Christian college, where I’d be surrounded by people who believed the same things I did, who would support me in my decision to follow Christ. And yet, despite all this fervor, despite years of devotion, my faith did not last.
The God I Used to Know
Our friend Randy gets ordained in a UCC Church in La Canada Flintridge, a twenty-thousand person Los Angeles suburb that sits up north, at the foot of the mountains. It’s 3pm on a Sunday in January 2019, and I don’t expect ordinations usually bring in a ton of people, especially when they’re not in conjunction with the normal Sunday morning service, but there’s a fair crowd in the sanctuary when we enter, which actually makes sense, since Randy is an affable guy, easy to like.
The language Randy uses is thoughtful, inclusive. He says that “everybody is welcome at the table” when he prepares communion, and he warns us that since everybody is welcome, “anybody could show up.” If I were to attend a church, I’d want someone like Randy to be the pastor.
But I don’t attend a church. And part of me doesn’t know why Randy does, why he has stayed in the church when his beliefs have diverged, like mine have, from what he grew up believing, and what the church (or most churches) still purport to be true.
I talk to our roommates after the ordination, back at home, about the why behind Randy’s decision to remain in the church. And not just remain, but become ordained, become a leader in the institution.
The roommates say that despite Randy’s theology becoming more liberal and loose than the church tends to uphold, there are myriad reasons for staying faithful to the institution. And I do concede that there are parts of church that I used to like and, in fact, miss. I miss the rhythm, the grounding quality it has, the service ending your week and sending you into a new one, renewed and reflective. I miss taking communion, the idea that one loaf and one cup is shared by so many and that it sustains them all. I miss the church I went to in college, Church of the Resurrection (“Rez” to us college folk), with Father Stewart, the salt-and-peppered father of four who had been a theater major at Wheaton and whose dramatic background was easily perceptible in his sermons and his joyful dancing at the annual, 4-hour-long Easter services. I miss the prayers sent in unison, especially the prayer of confession, that centered me more than anything, that reminded me of myself and my place in the world. “Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you. By what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are truly sorry, and we humbly repent.” I miss this prayer so much that I say it sometimes, still, when I’m in the car, anxious, and needing something resembling truth.
But despite this missing, I can’t go back to church. “Belief doesn’t matter that much,” the roommates say. “You can go to church and disagree about beliefs; they’re pretty inconsequential, actually.”
And maybe they are. Maybe it’s okay that when the pastor talks about God, he and I are picturing very different gods. When people at church say “God,” I can think of the spirit that’s in all of us, a greater life-force, the beauty and humanity that every person possesses. But it’s hard. It’s mental gymnastics. At Randy’s church, they give a prayer of thanksgiving, and part of it says, “Let us go forth in faith in our nonperishable God, who gives us daily what we need to feed our bodies and spirits,” and I pull away. There might be something supernatural that connects all of us, but that supernatural thing isn’t providing for everyone’s needs. People are going hungry. People are depressed. There is no fatherly presence providing for us. We must provide for each other, because we are all God, but we are also failing.
At the ordination, we sing “Come, O Fount of Every Blessing,” which used to be one of my favorite hymns; it often brought me to tears when played in college. But the words don’t add up like they once did. “Jesus sought me when a stranger, wandering from the fold of God” isn’t a prayer of thanksgiving that it might have been when I was twenty. Instead, I think, “Jesus? Who is he supposed to be? Another manifestation of God? Does this still make sense if I don’t believe he was God’s son? Does this make sense if I don’t know what ‘wandering’ means? What have I wandered from?” Finding harmony between this faith tradition and my current beliefs may be possible, but it feels too complicated, too taxing, too much work and not enough payout. For Randy, it’s somehow worth it, and I wonder how this difference came to be, that the walls of church continue to be valuable for him but not for me.
The God Who Persists
For a long time, I called myself a Christian even though I didn’t tick all the boxes a normal Christian would. I didn’t believe Jesus was definitely the son of God, didn’t think people needed to have a “personal relationship” with Christ, didn’t put much stock in an afterlife. But at the same time, I was a person clearly formed by Christianity and by the evangelical Christian subculture specifically. My childhood and adolescence were spent reading Christian books, listening to Christian music, attending youth group, playing on the church worship team, evangelizing to everyone I could. So while you can take the girl out of church, you cannot remove the church from the girl. Some of it I wish I could eradicate, especially the hang-ups about sex, but some of it I still love, still treasure. I’m realizing now, at thirty years old, that God has persisted, and it is time to sort that out.