When Doubting Hurts

 

lord

when you arrive

we will be light

bread and water

the table is set and the door opened

come and take your place among us

free me of the belief

that you are only faithful from a distance

and speak with me

in the unharried language of animals

who from far off lie in wait for us

with their unadulterated hunger

–Said

 

When I travel for speaking events, one of the first things I’m often asked is if I am an introvert or an extrovert. You’d think that’s a simple question, but for someone who grew up in the Southern Baptist evangelical church, it brings up a lot of difficult emotions.

 

The church spaces I grew up in rewarded people pleasing. They rewarded those who were willing to put on a happy face and go through the motions required of such a religion. We were faithful to prayer, to purity, to reading the bible, to saving souls, and to smiling while we do it.

 

I grew up in a church with beautiful, kind people, but no one taught me to ask questions. No one taught me that things might not be as they seem, that God might be someone who gives room to really difficult questions.

 

So, I brought myself up with extrovert-like actions, a social butterfly who could buzz around with small talk and laughter, but who earnestly longed for quiet conversations with big questions over hot cups of coffee.

 

As an adult, I’ve joined multitudes of others who are deconstructing their faith, and it’s difficult as hell.  The constant work of asking questions, of giving voice to doubts, seeing things that cannot be unseen– it is utterly exhausting, and positively necessary.

 

 

I'm not sure we spend enough time talking about how painful the process of deconstruction is.

 

 

The night before this last Easter Sunday, I watched old Easter videos online, triumphant productions with men’s quartets and choirs proclaiming that Christ is risen. I was laughing at the things I naively believed as a child, but I went to bed with a sense of mourning what was once such a simple faith that I no longer claim to have. I carried that grief into Easter morning, letting all my questions roll around inside me.

 

I didn’t wish people a Happy Easter. I thought about both what deconstruction has given to me and has taken from me. I thought about how my view of Jesus has changed so much throughout the years, and most of the time, I don’t know what to believe. 

 

Some weeks, we cry because things cannot be simple, the way they once were. Grief, doubt, and the realization that faith is complicated– it feels like it ruins everything, for all time, and we will never find peace in faith or religion ever again. It leaves us terrified of what the future terrain of faith looks like, an unknown land we do not understand and are not prepared for.

 

The days, months, years of deconstruction wane on and on, and most of the time, we are not content there. We are tired. We want something to reconstruct that will be better than what once was. 

 

Perhaps in these moments, we need to voice our questions to remember that we are not alone. This has held so much power in social media spaces, where we find friends outside our physical communities who are asking the same questions we are asking. When we say, “I have doubts, and they hurt, and I don’t know the way forward,” someone steps up beside us and says, “I had those questions too, and I’m still here.”

 

It doesn't mean healing is one straight path; on the contrary, we know that healing is a winding road that seems to have no destination. But it helps to know we aren't the only ones on the journey.

 

So my hope is that we talk about how hard deconstruction is, how difficult our questions are, that we can say out loud, “I miss the simplicity of a doubtless faith,” while listening to the poets and prophets of our time remind us that we cannot give up the work.

 

And just maybe what we realize along the way is that “the table is set and the door opened,” as Said says. We realize that both the doubtless, childlike faith and the wandering, weary, questioning faith lead us to a God who takes all of it and responds with fresh wind and rain, with sunsets and a few friends along the way.

And suddenly we realize, all these winding roads, all these roadmaps that seem to lead to nowhere, they actually lead us to the thing that has always been.

Love was always the destination. 

 

I am writing

because sometimes

we are closer to the truth

in our vulnerability

than in our safe certainties.

Rachel Held Evans

 

Deconstructing American Christian Worship

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I’ve been tired during church lately.

If you’re someone attempting to deconstruct or decolonize your faith like I am, you might feel it, too.

As a Potawatomi woman, I am suddenly going over every word of every song, every word of every sermon, asking if those words are inclusive of my own culture within the views of the American church.

And so we show up at church, asking all the questions, making all the critiques we can, because these things matter.

And we end up leaving exhausted because the church has not yet understood that Jesus really was a poor, brown carpenter and still has something to say to us today. I’m exhausted that I don’t yet understand that in my own skin.

And we end up leaving exhausted because we have to hold our own culture’s truths and tensions with the gospel, and also hold all these cultural, racial, belief-based tensions with one another.

As a worship leader, I pay attention to the room during worship.

I listen to the voices in unison.

I wonder where people are coming from when they sing words like, “The Lord is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love.”

And as I am analyzing these things and trying to worship through my own experiences, I come back to this idea of nakedness.

Theresa ofAvila says it like this:

You find God in yourself and yourself in God.

 

To know the true mirror image of God is to know ourselves fully, as we are fully known.

And that means that while we stay tethered to and learn from and engage with our cultural lenses, we also zoom into our souls, into that naked place, to that deepest part of who we are to embrace Mystery, without analyzing any of it.

We embrace Mystery without analyzing any of it. 

This means that we even have to allow ourselves to step out of the mindset that worship should look, feel and seem a certain way.

To embrace Mystery is to recognize that worship is something fully beyond us that we step into and participate in, and not just in a church building full of people.

One of the most worshipful experiences I had recently was while I was staying at an AirBNB in the Blue Ridge mountains. I took an early evening walk, mittens on and a cup of coffee in my hand. As I turned the corner, I watched  a family of deer run across the street and up into the woods on the other side. Before they disappeared, one of them stopped, turned around, and stared at me for a few seconds.

Sometimes worship happens as a rootedness that we do not expect or even think we deserve.

The mirror image of myself in that deer was nothing but worship, a moment to recognize my own sense of belonging in this world. In the space, beyond my culture, beyond the fact that I am a Potawatomi woman, that I am a mother and wife and worship leader and writer and friend, I was simply one soul looking at the soul of another creature.

We were simply acknowledging one another, and in that, acknowledging Mystery, without analyzing any of it. 

So we erase the lines that make rules to tell us when and how to worship. We expand our thinking outside the walls of the church and realize that “occasionally it is not the open air or the church that we desire, but both” (John Philip Newell).

And this is difficult when you’re on church staff, when you’re trying to figure out how to run a church with various cultures, to honor diversity, to honor the life of Jesus. I get that. But leading others in worship means we lead them out of themselves, and we also lead them out of the mindset that worship must look the way the American church thinks it should look.

And soon we find that deconstructing our worship patterns is actually a return back to that nakedness, to that mirror image between us and God, between us and the world, between my own culture and yours.

And then we find that worship has done its work, because the glory of God happens when this created world is fully alive to beauty, to love, to all of those things that we have such a hard time finding because we are so constantly trying to analyze the questions and critiques as they come to us every week in church.

Because of and despite our questions and critiques, the Mystery is still there, still engaging, still asking us to look and respond, to be present with every aspect of ourselves, to the honor and glory of God.

Amen.

 

IT’S OKAY TO DECONSTRUCT YOUR AMERICAN FAITH

In college, I took a world literature class. We spent some time with famous stories from all over the world, including the literature of the Old Testament. Being a born and raised Christian, I thought that when we’d gotten to that section, I’d be able to share my wisdom, have a bible study right then and there with a classroom full of people.

Instead, when we got to the story of Abraham and Isaac, those who sat around me said things like, “This story is ridiculous! Why would God tell someone to kill their own son and then change his mind? Why do people believe this is a real story?”

I went home that day terrified, eyes open to the reality that the whole world doesn’t view the Bible as this all-righteous book of literal truth I’d been taught to view it as. I was terrified for the people in the room who believed God was different than my own beliefs. Suddenly the world was torn in two, and I was asking who was right and wrong. Because we couldn’t all be.

The problem was, I’d never questioned anything until college. I questioned myself a lot, mostly questions revolving around whether or not I was doing the right thing, if I was considered righteous enough in the eyes of God. My questions were ticks on a list to keep me from going out of line, to keep me in good standing with a God that I was terrified might leave me if I didn’t. It was based on answering the right questions to keep my guilt and shame at bay.

But this is not the way of Christ.

Suddenly, in my third year of college, I wondered if there were some other questions I needed to be asking. Suddenly, the world was older than I thought it was, and I found myself more ignorant than my non-religious fellow students, more aware of my lack of understanding.

It was clearly time to deconstruct, and I didn’t know if I was ready.

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Fast forward six years. I’m walking a famous Southern cemetery in Atlanta with my two sons. We pass trees with acorns still intact, workers picking up the nuts that have fallen to the ground. They are working to care for the graves of Jews, African Americans, and confederate soldiers. My little boys don’t understand war, and neither do I, to be honest, especially when the nation is on fire with fresh-wound arguments that have been aching to come to the surface and finally have again.

This time, deconstructing faith means deconstructing everything, because in America, faith is mixed with empire, whether we want to admit or not.

As humans, we are called to deconstruct. We are called to question and break apart to put back together again. As Christians, we believe it was the way Jesus worked and for too long, we’ve shamed people for following in his footsteps.

It’s gotten people of color, people who are different, people who are “rebellious” kicked out of churches again and again because their questions bring up discomfort and challenge the almightiness of the white evangelical church.

But Jesus was about deconstruction, about re-wiring belief to understand God in new ways, because we will never fully understand the mystery, and so the questions are the important part.

 

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War is a complicated thing.

War takes people and divides them. It takes belief and elevates it to the point that it is a tool used to hurt and kill.

War tears families and friends apart.

War creates chaos to the point that it’s hard to tell who is who and what motives exist on every side.

War is difficult to deconstruct.

But it’s possible. And so, here we are.

If you grew up in the evangelical church, maybe you’re asking yourself what it meant to be a Christian all those years. I know I am.

And as a native Christian, I’m asking what it means today for me to deconstruct and decolonize my faith enough that I can see clearly the trajectory of Jesus’ love from the words of the Bible to my own culture and people.

But institutional church is a complicated thing.

Church takes people and divides them. It takes belief and elevates it to the point that it is a tool used to hurt and kill.

Church tears families and friends apart.

Church creates chaos to the point that it’s hard to tell who is who and what motives exist on every side.

Church is difficult to deconstruct.

But if we do not try, we do not get closer to the gospel. If we do not try, we only sit in what we’ve been told all these years. We only continue the cycle of Christians who go into world literature classes clutching their Bibles so close to the chest the they miss the beauty of a world in which the Bible can be viewed as an important work of art, a tool of metaphor and history that teaches us what humanity means.

It’s to teach us how to navigate a world full of war, not to create it.

And so, we continue to deconstruct.

We’ve got to ask questions if we want to get America and its people back to a healthier place again, because it never should have mixed church and empire to begin with.

And the deconstruction process means churches will hurt. It will stretch everyone. It will be very, very uncomfortable.

It requires lament and repentance. It requires honesty, and probably a whole lot of therapy.

I’m meeting more and more people who are in a kind of post-church PTSD, and many people of color who have been sitting in that tension their whole lives. Even admitting that it’s hard brings a certain level of shame and criticism. We pile shame on ourselves, and the American Evangelical way piles shame on us for trying to ask hard questions.

So to deconstruct things, to turn something upside down so it looks different, to pick apart pieces and try to put them back together again a little differently–well, that’s the work of Jesus over and over again.

So it should be our work, too.

To get to the questions, we have to know that there is no shame in wanting to ask.

And the asking means we ask everyone, all kinds of people, so that the full mosaic of the kingdom of God can be understood in our time and in our spaces.

Maybe if we start with the want, we’ll get to the actual asking, and there will be hope for our country, our faith, our relationships– for shalom to do its work in and through us.

The only way to reconstruct things toward a closer image of kingdom is to deconstruct what once distorted the gospel of Jesus. That’s where we go from here.

Hallelujah and Amen for the Work of Deconstruction.