The clouded lens of faith

Why is it that my heartrate increases and my breathing become jagged when I come across evidence of a previous version of myself — that is, the one that wholeheartedly committed to the Pentecostal evangelical way of doing faith?

I feel so many things when I hear the jargon, see smiling people worshipping together, come across songs I used to feel a lot. It’s almost a feeling of what I called “conviction” – a little emotional ping that told me that I was temporarily out of bounds and needed to repent, find something wrong that I was doing, and get back in line.

I measured my “success” in my relationship with God in early-morning bleary-eyed Bible study, or a worship service where I was moved to tears (read: every single one), or the feeling that I was being prophesized over, and that that prophecy was for me at that moment.

To be clear: I don’t deny many of my experiences. I don’t deny many of the relationships I built with other people during this time. I don’t deny the musical and spiritual growth I made from playing with worship bands for a decade. But now at this point, I feel a certain grief over the “believer” I was. The beliefs I unequivocally adhered to. The people I hurt over disagreements about theology, intentional or unintentional. The people I excluded because I did not agree with their “lifestyle.” The people I thought I had a right to convert to my way of Christianity when I had no business doing so – in their country, no less. I grieve the power I gave over to others in the name of “accountability.”

There is so much now that I don’t know. I have a lot of doubts. I thought I had come up to the top of the hill already, but recently I think I came just to a plateau, and now I have resumed climbing. There is so much to uncover, so many beliefs to examine. The more I continue in this journey, the more I think that this is part of the human condition.

I had a deep insecurity throughout those years spent in conservative Pentecostal evangelical churches. I was young, married, without a lot of money, spending a lot of time away from my new husband, with whom I “sinned” before marriage. The insecurity also came from experiences where extroversion was valued and even seen as godly. I am not an extroverted person.

Sometimes I can tend towards that end of the spectrum, but in general about my faith (and most of my life in general), I am introverted. I like to turn things over in my mind and heart before I express it to others as my truth. Instead, I was encouraged to just take a leap and the Holy Spirit will catch me. I was encouraged to put myself out there, that the person I was would be made better. Which also infers that the person I was wasn’t good enough. Good enough for God? Or good enough for other people?

My heart hurts. I never could have foreseen a grief over a time in my life related to my faith. I really and truly thought I had it all figured out – about sin, about God, about salvation, about heaven, about hell, about Roman’s Road, about mental illness as a Christian.

It all started to unravel when I learned of emotional abuses committed by pastoral staff, and how they were allowed to be perpetuated mostly because no one else really knew. The victims of this abuse had no power to respond. And not just in one church by a couple people, but in completely different areas of the country to many people. The unraveling continued with our unsuccessful journey to having children and the refusal to pursue parenthood. The latter seems to be a covert affront to American Christian culture.

I do have hope, however. I have hope because of many, many people I know from all over the country who claim to follow Jesus and their actions match. I have hope because I have had some wonderful pastors from different backgrounds and of different ethnicities who attest to the one-ness of God. I have hope because I’ve seen many of my predecessors for whom God and faith were real, and they practiced it.

Through living in different parts of the country and encountering all sorts of Christians, I have hope. The faith I practice is not contained in one type of building with one type of music and one type of preaching in one type of vernacular. It extends far beyond where I can see, beyond time and space and language. It’s in nature, in the air, in the clouds and birds and animals, and especially in domesticated ones. I see it in a shared meal with friends and through created traditions. I see it in fresh food pulled from the oven and in books I read by lamplight. I see it in the compassion and humor of my students, still teenagers trying to figure out their place in the United States, and the world at large.

I want to look forward instead of looking behind. There are new spiritual experiences to be had with new contexts and new interpretations of our shared texts. That there is a “successful” way to practice faith is an American fallacy. Adhering to any faith, no matter what it is, is not about reaching the top of the mountain finally. I think it looks like a constant push-and-pull, sometimes a tug-of-war.

…being people of faith isn’t as much about being right as it is about being part of a community in restored and restorative relationship with God.

In “Inspired” by Rachel Held Evans

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