As I mentioned in a previous post, I have had a long spiritual journey over the past decade. It is fitting that I should feel like writing this now, at this time. The journey really began almost a decade ago when the husband of one of my closest and dearest friends died tragically in an accident. Today is her second wedding day to another truly wonderful man. It almost feels as if this chapter in my life has been bookended by these two events, and I have learned much during that time, although as I mentioned in yet another previous post, the more I know – the less I know. This is what I would call a personal post. There is no outright/overt lesson to be learned here, and I am quite convinced that while the chapter may be closing, the book is far from over on my spiritual journey. These are just some of my thoughts as I look back at the last 9 years.
In all honesty, I have always had a difficult time with conventional worship. For me church always threw up more questions than answers, and asking such questions always seemed frowned upon. Doubt itself seemed to be the greatest transgression. I grew up in church – switching from Anglican to Baptist when I was quite young. In the spirit of full disclosure, I will say that neither of those words meant anything to me then, nor now – Anglican and Baptist. Even now – having spent several years in each – and in different countries – I still have no idea what the difference is “supposed to be” between the two. The thing I remember most about my childhood growing up in church was the feeling of exclusivity in a place where I felt like there should be inclusivity (if indeed that is a word). I remember wanting to be involved in certain things at church and being told that I need to be Baptised first. I remember long and heated conversations about what to do and what not to do, how to behave, how to dress, and what behavior was appropriate in church, and how persons who did not conform to these standards were not welcome. I remember arguing about really divisive issues such as homosexuality, pre-marital sex, divorce and so on, and that these were wrong, but some more wrong that others. I remember hearing that “such and such a church” baptized children when that was wrong, because you should baptize adults; that they didn’t speak in tongues and that was wrong and so on and so on. Perhaps I am being harsh – I also had good experiences in church too. And in all fairness, I spent most of my life up until my early thirties being entirely devoted to church and its activities, and it wasn't all that bad, and I love the values that I developed through this. But all along, I was struck by the fact that there was more division than unity, and struggled with the differences in doctrine that caused separation between and within churches. In addition, I felt as if I was being told that I wasn’t good enough, that I would never be good enough, despite the messages that God loved me unconditionally.
But none of those things caused me to lose my belief in church. In fact, at the peak of my involvement – I was a Sunday school teacher, church caterer, home-group member, prayer breakfast organizer and all around good Christian girl. When I first walked away was when my friend's husband (also a friend of mine) passed away. It was a completely confusing time for me, and looking back on it, I think I had unrealistic expectations. I doubt that anyone or anything would have been able to console me at the time. But I wanted to be consoled, or at the very least feel cared for. Having been an avid church goer and heavily involved in a number of ministries, I realized that I had developed no relationships in the church community. No-one called me when I didn’t show up for months, and it was then that I realized that I didn’t have anyone’s number either, and I probably wouldn’t have called anyone if roles were reversed. In a place where I felt as if we should be bound together by our common purpose, I realized that it wasn’t the case. When I eventually reached out to a few persons, they were pretty distant and nonchalant about the whole thing. God knows best, we don’t understand his purposes and so on. I was disappointed. In hindsight, I would always have been disappointed based on what had happened.
But one of the bigger issues I had at that time was that my very faith was shaken. Please note – by this point in my life I had lost both parents, and 3 of 4 grandparents, uncles and other family members under various circumstances. But this one caught me completely off guard. My friend and her husband were on a holiday recovering from some very difficult personal circumstances for them and this happened? I guess I couldn’t understand why God didn’t protect them – they who prayed for travelling mercies daily. I actually felt as if I would have been able to accept the entire situation better if I didn’t believe in God. But the problem was – I did. And I actually did. I never questioned then (nor do I question now) the existence of God. I was angry, weary and heartbroken and my questions multiplied, and answers were not forthcoming.
Now to fill in some blanks – as I mentioned earlier – I always had questions. And I have always been someone who watched and analysed people. A variety of other doubts had been growing in me up until that point where church was concerned , especially regarding what I saw as this exclusivity. I don’t feel as if people in church have the monopoly on God to the exclusion of others. By this point in my life, I’d had a gay best friend, as well as a gay prayer partner – both of whom were (and still are) wonderful phenomenal people – kind generous and good friends. I had a close group of female friends half of whom were Muslim, and one of my closest friends (then and now) was a Jehovah’s witness. I didn't really make any close friends in church (ever) but I had met some pretty unpleasant persons in church, from the bottom to the top. I didn’t feel as if I could have invited most of my friends to my church, and that bothered me, because at the time I felt that it was really important that they began to get an understanding of God. I didn’t even feel as if I could share faith with them, because I wasn’t sure I even understood who God was, and I did not like the version of him that I saw in church.
As you can imagine, when this combined with the death of my friend, the entire thing imploded, and I backed away from church. I started to question who I was, what I believed, and why. Why don’t I believe in drinking alcohol? Why don’t I agree with pre-marital sex? What do I think about evangelism? Am I really on board with turning up to a complete stranger and telling them about God’s love when I can see that they are hungry, thirsty and have bad teeth and then leaving them there to read the book of John? Do I really believe that I will go to heaven and not find beloved friends and family members there because they “weren’t Christian”? Was I just supposed to accept this because I would be up there singing in radiant worship and not notice the absence of the people I love? If that is so, what is the point on being on this earth at all and forming these relationships. And so on. These were the thoughts that swirled around in my head and that kept me up at night.
And so, I decided instead of fighting to be the good Christian girl, that I would just be me. I loved helping people and serving in a practical way. I worked with charities – then and now – and working to improve the lives of others has always been one of my main motivations, as I have been on the receiving end of much kindness and generosity my entire life, so that is what I did, and still do. And I found ways to be comfortable with myself, with my thoughts and my actions. And I didn’t go back to church. I don’t feel as if I ever went back to church – even though when I moved back to Barbados I started going to one and eventually became quite involved – I still never felt comfortable again in that church, or any other.
So now here I am – and here are my current thoughts on the matter. I believe in God. And I don’t necessarily believe that I will find him between the 4 walls of a church, or in the bible. I believe that the writers of the bible had their encounters with God, and they wrote down as they interpreted it, and perhaps I need to have my own encounter and find how I interpret it. Sometimes when I hear about the character of the God that some people believe in, I know within myself that is not the God I believe in. I still think about how people suffer, and anything I can do to work towards helping people, especially young people improve their life and their values in a sustainable way – there you will find me. I aim to be objective, not to judge too harshly (other people or myself) but to empathize and have compassion in everything I do. I have love for people, and try to understand why they may do the things they do instead of judging their actions as much as I can, although it isn’t always easy. And I choose the persons I surround myself with based on how my values correspond to theirs and how they make me feel and others around them. And I try to return the favor and encourage my friends to make wise choices and go from strength to strength, and to be supportive to them always. And I have worked towards loving and accepting myself, and believing that I am good enough. And I no longer believe in church – at least in the conventional sense. I still have many doubts and questions, and am happy to ask them of anyone who is interested, or to sit with them if not (or blog about them if the mood strikes). My faith and my doubt co-exist, and I am open to new answers, different answers, and unconventional ways of viewing this world that we live in, this existence that we have.
I recently started a series of snail mail letters with a friend who told me that when she finally admitted that she didn’t believe in conventional Christianity any more, she felt it was like coming out. I guess that is the best description I can give. I feel that any personal changes that I have made as a result of this have actually made me more patient, more compassionate, and more objective, and so I don’t see it as a bad thing. But who knows what the next decade will bring?
In the meantime – I wish my friend all the best and lots of love on this her wedding day. I feel strongly that her first true love is watching us, and wants nothing but happiness for her, and so do I. Blessings to you and yours my friend.
And I send you all Big love from a small island
Ps - the above photo was taken in beautiful Switzerland some years ago. To me it was straight out of a fairy tale. I always feel close to God when I am out in his beautiful creation.