Always

  
As I drove Highway 128 from Mendocino to Santa Rosa, towering redwoods flanked me for most of the journey. These old, gorgeous, distinguished trees were like nothing I had ever witnessed growing up in Kansas. Otherworldly, maybe even a little sinister.

I had been in Mendocino for a friend’s wedding, and now it was Sunday. More than a little hungover, I headed home. My two dogs, Lucy and Mandy, in the passenger seats, were my docile navigators.

On NPR, I discovered a Julia Sweeney audio cast, what I came to know as her one woman show, Letting Go of God. She spoke of a spiritual quest that she’d embarked upon that ultimately led to her embracing and accepting her own atheism. She talked about Biblical inconsistencies, other religions, Deepak Chopra. For some reason, probably because I was surrounded by the most majestic trees I’d ever seen, her thoughts on Jesus (cruelly? rashly?) condemning that fruitless fig tree  have stuck with me in the decade since that day. I mean, DID that fig tree really have to die?

It might sound strange, but that drive ended up being a sort of spiritual experience. I was surrounded by beauty, my two dogs curled up next to me, it was Sunday morning, and I was listening to this woman’s compelling story about her complicated relationship with faith. It made me feel less alone about my own complicated relationship with faith, and God, and Jesus.

Two Sundays ago, I joined the church that I have been attending for the last few months. Not a rash decision, it was something I had planned. On that Sunday, about 15 of us, old, young and in between, stood in front of the congregation and were introduced as new members.  I tried to stand up straight, look proud, but also humble. I wore a tie. 

That morning, when I woke up, my first thought was, do I really want to do this? Am I ready to do this? Shouldn’t I wait until I’ve become a better person or a better Christian before I join a church again? I really do cuss a lot when I’m driving. And I’m a gossip. Also, I border on self-righteousness. 

But while a part of me said, “Take the day off, gets some donuts and go to the beach.” Another, louder voice, told me to go forward. There would always be questions, weaknesses, doubts, but why not explore those worries within the parameters of church, and church’s membership.

On that Sunday, as I was sitting in the pew, in the second row, cordoned off for the new members, the minister told an anecdote about an atheist who attends our church, who after each Sunday’s service, shakes the minister’s hand and says, “I’m glad you haven’t given up on me.” I thought about that long ago drive, and the Julia Sweeney audio cast. 

As I sat there, listening to the minister’s sermon, reflecting on that memory, it hit me, that all along, even in the decades that I avoided church, felt completely detached from God, that church and God had still been a part of me. Always. 

I loved church when I was little and I loved it as a teenager in youth group and I loved it in Bible college and, certainly, in my short time as a youth minister, I loved trying to help others to love church. 

And then I left the church, and I thought I’d left it permanently.

Of course, I kind of knew that I had this fixation on church and religious themes. I still loved Amy Grant. 

Sometimes I read my old blogs. For three years now, I’ve written so much about God and Christianity and church it seems obvious, in hindsight, that it was all, always, leading up to this return. 

Is it possible to come home to somewhere you’ve missed for decades only to find that you never left at all?  That you only thought you left?

I’ll tell you what the big surprise in all of this is, it feels as if God has been saying to me, “Not only have I been here all along, but you have been here too.” And not that I even know exactly what the “here” is. 

Not that I was always faithful or always pure or always kind, maybe not that I’m even any of those things now. But God and faith and Jesus and Church are still a part of me, of who I am. Always have been, and fight it or not, always will be.

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Oh The Love of God

  

It’s one of my favorite memories and surely, it’s one of the simplest. 1989, sitting in a field on a college campus in Central Pennsylvania.  It was a church camp, I was there with the youth group I’d worked with on my summer internship at a church in Liverpool, New York. It had been a good summer, my senior year of college was weeks away.  

At this camp, part of the evening’s activities was a time allotted for each person, camper or counselor, to spend 30 minutes or so, in quiet time with God, reading their Bible, praying, journaling. While I was generally a person who did my “quiet time with God” in the morning, here we did it around 5:00 pm, when everyone had cleaned up for the evening but we hadn’t eaten yet. To be honest, and I do mean this in the best way possible, it was a little like a pre dinner cocktail. 

But here I was on this verdant hill, remembered now, even greener in my 27 year memory. Perhaps I was even on a bit of a bluff looking as far as the eyes could see, at the hills and valleys of Pennsylvania. It was 70 degrees, the heat of the day slowly replaced by evening’s relief.

And as I prayed and read and journaled that day, I was struck by just how much God loved me. Not only did he have mercy on me, not only did he forgive me, but he LOVED me. Had I always known that he loved me, yes, of course. But  this was different. Nothing noteworthy had occurred that day, good or bad, but suddenly, maybe it was the stunning vista, but I was overwhelmed by great emotion. God Loves Me.

On Sunday, in church, the minister, who was preaching about the Pentecost, and Acts 2, said that sometimes people are cruel to others because they can’t believe that God actually loves them. In the months since I’ve been back, I’ve thought about God’s love quite a bit.

I know that one could make a case that all songs about God are about His love, most anyway, but my two favorite songs when I was very little were Pass it On and a perhaps forgotten gem called, In My Heart There Rings a Melody. I loved both for different reasons. Pass it On was a song the teenagers in my church sang and, at 6, I really wanted to be a teenager. The other song I loved because the title made me think of my favorite cartoon character, Melody from Josie and the Pussycats. What unconsciously drew me to these songs, though, I suspect, was the reminder of how much God loved me.

It only takes a spark to get a fire going

And soon all those around can warm up to its glowing

That’s how it is with God’s love

Once you’ve experienced it

You spread your love to everyone

You want to pass it on

Also, 

I have a song that Jesus gave me,

It was sent from heav’n above;

There never was a sweeter melody,

‘Tis a melody of love.

And you know the very first song we learn in church, if we grow up in church, is Jesus Loves Me. So the hope is that as we grow up and go through life, this feeling, this assurance of God’s love is supposed to be what sustains us and bolsters and encourages us through the peaks and the valleys that is our life’s journey.

So, I’m just going to say it: I don’t know that I feel loved by God.  And the only reason I even type out such a vulnerable confession is, I think there are a lot of people sitting in pews every Sunday, probably even more spending their Sundays outside of church, who struggle with whether or not they feel loved by God, too. (Maybe I’m wrong.) 

I am so happy to be back in church. I love thinking about God and praying and trying not to cuss at my fellow drivers while I’m driving. I do feel God’s mercy, His forgiveness, His majesty. I just can’t say, at this moment in time that I feel His love. 

I’m such a stereotype, but I still get angry at God when good people suffer from cancer. I don’t understand why life is so hard for some people and just really easy for others. 

If I wanted to look closely at when I stopped feeling God’s love, ask myself when did I leave that mountaintop in Central Pennsylvania, I know it was way back when I first came out of the closet and left the church. 

I believed then that if God truly loved me, he would have made me straight. 

And I think that a few of us, we might go to church every Sunday, but something holds us back from the love of God. Like, why did You let my brother die or my Mom beat me or my Dad leave or my wife divorce me? We sit there in these pews with our broken hearts and maybe we feel like we can’t even admit it because admitting reveals our own faithlessness.

Maybe in a way, I’ll never get back to that mountaintop, maybe those big emotions are mostly emblems of youth. Like I said, I am happy to be in church. And yes, I do know God loves me. I believe God loves me. And I know that feelings can get us into trouble sometimes anyway.

I’m just, you know, putting it out there. Maybe it’s something you struggle with and hearing someone else voice it, might lighten your load. Why shouldn’t we be hungry, aching, and needy in our desire to feel Him whisper in our ear and touch our heart and call us beloved? 

I don’t have the answers. My blogs of late have mostly been a series of questions. If the day comes when I  see my sexuality as a gift from God, is that when I will feel His love again? I don’t know. 

Maybe, though I don’t think it is the case, but maybe, the closest I will ever get to feeling God’s love again is what I feel when I look at the ocean, or a mountain range, or snow, or a star crowded sky. After all, they are from God, clearly gifts, and I just don’t think One would bestow on me such a treasure if He didn’t really love me.