I have always been hesitant to write about my faith because I am fearful of it coming across as pure criticism of the church and/or Christians. This is not my intention at all. However, when I think about my faith, it mirrors the name of this blog series – more questions than answers – and in the spirit of full disclosure, I am not a huge fan of unanswered questions. However I have chosen this moment to write about my faith and my struggle with it for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is Holy week. And for me if there is one week of the year that feels Holy, it is this one. There is something that feels solemn about it – as if the earth is standing still waiting for something momentous to happen. If there is any time of the year that my faith feels more solid than shaky, it is at this time. The rain almost always falls here on Good Friday, and I feel as if the sound of falling rain is a comfort as I imagine the cross – knowing how painful it must have been but feeling its purpose. Secondly, I really feel that it is time to shed my fear of unanswered questions, and put some of them out there. Hopefully one of you can read it and feel less alone if you are struggling with your faith. Or better still you can reach out to me with an answer!
The truth is – the reason that I continue to ask these questions is because I want to have a meaningful faith. I want to be in a place where my faith can co-exist with my values. Around the time where I felt as if I was losing my faith, I actually felt that the process would be easier if I didn’t believe in God at all. The problem was – I did. And I could not reconcile the view I had of him with what I knew to be true about myself. More on this later. For now, a series of the questions that I have, that remain unanswered, and my thoughts around them. They have led me to step further and further away from the faith I had when I was younger, and I am hoping that in these unanswered questions, I can find a way back to faith. Each question will tell a story in my life, and as I speak of the things that I felt made faith difficult, I will also speak about the things that make me want to return.
1. Is it a sin to commit suicide?
My mother passed away before I turned 10 and I was an older teen when I was told that she had taken her own life. I wasn’t sure how to feel about it – on some level I suspect I had always known, and it was my dad who told me and honestly – we did not have the best relationship at that time either. I was angry that I hadn’t been told sooner, and as an angry teen, it was hard for me to see it from his perspective, and I don’t know that I ever will be able to. For him – his wife and the mother of his children left him alone to raise three girls, and he always told me stories of the fact that they both wanted a family so much had been the very thing that had drawn them together. It was only as I got older, that I started to understand the impact that it had on my wider family. I remember my father’s mother thought that she was lazy and a copout. While there were other family members that could not understand how she tolerated my father, who himself was a character. Of course it is hard as a child to fully know their parents as they would a friend, sibling or peer, so I am speaking as a child born into a situation that I probably will never understand.
In addition, I grew up in the church. A few months ago, I returned to the church I went to in childhood, and someone called me by my last name. Apparently it was the Sunday school supervisor from when I was there (which was over 35 years ago so apparently I haven’t aged much at all!) This first part of my church and faith journey was in an Anglican church, but the most I remembered from it was the incense, singing the eucharist and being too young to take communion. I made myself a promise that I would never voluntarily go to an Anglican Church again – a promise which I have broken times over. More on this later. We left this church when we moved out of the area, and began to go to another one, and that was when I began in the Baptist tradition, one which I would remain in for my pre-teen and teen years. Baptist church was miles away from the Anglican church. The memories that stick with me the most are lively choruses, playing in the church band and singing in a trio, playing the organ (not very well if my memory serves me correctly) and a strong emphasis on “Getting saved”. This was cruicially important – that a person accepted Jesus as their savior, as this was the key to heaven. My pastor and other church leaders were passionate about this, as once you were saved, you could be baptized, and then you could partake in communion. For me getting saved happened when I was about 12, and there was a missionary visit to my school. A group came from the USA, they preached, the children sang, there was an altar call and I was given the book of John. And I was saved! As a sidebar – have you ever read the book of John? In my opinion it was one of the most complicated books to understand, especially since I spent most of my childhood and teen years reading the King James version. I never quite understood why this was the go-to book to be read when I got saved, but I remember reading it at the time, and feeling as if I was trying to join a secret club where I did not speak the language. I wondered why it was so complicated, and after reading most of the new testament, why one of the other gospels wasn’t the go-to text for new Christians. I remember getting baptized as an older teen, and then being able to partake in communion.
I thought that once that happened, I would have a body of knowledge placed upon me - like how the dove was placed over Jesus’ head when he was baptized. But - the next day was like the one before. Apparently, being saved and baptized would not change me, would not instill me with the willpower I needed to reject sinful thoughts and actions, and would not answer the questions that I had. In fact, I had even more questions than I had answers, and I did not feel as if I had a place or person to ask.
We used to drive home with my pastor and his wife, and I remember heated discussions in the car. One of my questions (which I still have to this day) – if every one of us is a sinner, is one sin worse than the next say – murder vs stealing? Of course not! Everyone can ask forgiveness and have access to grace. What about homosexuals? No… that’s different. But how is it different? You wouldn’t understand… and so on. We argued about clothes. Hair. Conduct. Sex. Sexuality. Everything boiled down to sin, and despite being told that sin was sin and there was no hierarchy, there seemed to be some which were unforgiveable, and some which weren’t. With every answer I had a hundred more questions, until I think they got fed up, and who wouldn’t? I have a four year old nephew now, and even I sigh a little when he is on a questions rampage.
And it was sometime during this series of conversations, that I was told – suicide was the ultimate sin – because the person who did it never had a chance to repent, they were automatically going straight to hell. This news disturbed me greatly. I didn’t want to believe that my mother was in hell, and that if I was going to heaven, that I would never see her again. Something about that bothered me immensely, and honestly still bothers me to this day. Because heaven was supposed to be this fantastic place where I could be in communion with God, singing songs of joy, bathed in light, while hell was where there was a fiery furnace, where she would burn for all eternity.
Something about this didn’t make much sense. I get it - sin is the state that we are born into, and we can only be saved through grace. That part I understand. What I don’t understand - is it a one time thing and we are always covered by grace? Or does that wear off every time we sin? And if we sin and die before we can ask for forgiveness then we end up in hell? Or is it only if it is a willful sin like suicide which is technically murder? These questions swirled around in my mind, and I didn’t feel as if there was anyone I could ask. Many of the people in my life who seemed to be knowledgeable Christians abhorred the idea of suicide - the permanent solution to a temporary problem was what my pastor called it - and I guess he was right. But it just didn’t seem right to me. I imagined then (As I do now) that it must not have been an easy decision to make, and a person who feels that this is their only way out must be so heavily weighed down with worry, with the idea that they world might be better off without them, with thoughts of leaving a family that they wanted and loved and so much more. So I added that question to the long list of questions, and I pressed on. But it nagged me. And eventually, that and the other long list of questions I had led me to decide that when I left home (to go to university) I was going to leave the church behind.
But I didn’t. What happened next was one of the times in my life that I really believed that God had a plan for me. I asked one of my school teachers (someone I admire to this day) to write a reference for my university halls of residence, and when she called one Sunday night to get the details, I was at church. The deadline was fast approaching, so she decided to wing it. Assuming that anyone who went to church on a Sunday night must be a very devoted Christian, she wrote a heartfelt reference stating that my Christianity was so important to me (I found this out when the warden read me the reference a year into my stay in halls) and because of that letter - when I arrived in Bristol on my first day of university, I was greeted by the president of the hall’s Christian fellowship. And to this very day, we are friends. And meeting them would change the trajectory of my life and my faith.
During my time in Bristol, I would learn about mental illness. How it is likely that someone who takes their own life is almost definitely mentally ill, and how I probably was too (more on this later. So many thoughts!) I would re-join an Anglican church and thus my love affair with the Anglican church would begin. I would gain an entirely different view of Christianity and learn the concept of “relationship with God” something I don’t remember hearing about until I was into my twenties. I would meet someone who was openly homosexual for the first time (a few actually). And my philosophy about the church and God would change completely.
In learning these things, I started to question much of what I had learned (directly or indirectly) about the church in my teen years, and my faith broke down and was remodelled. And if I am honest - I still wrestle with the question of whether or not suicide is a sin. It is so hard to know what the true answer to this is, and how our eternal fates are decided. This is just one of my many unanswered questions.
More tomorrow. Today’s photo is one I took as I was out walking this morning. It is times like this when I find it easiest to feel my faith. When I can see the orange rays of the sun creeping across the sky, when the flowers are open with dew drops on them, when the bees are feasting on nectar. It seems as if the entire earth bears the handiwork of being divinely created and in that moment, I feel the possibility of that faith that can move mountains, and I am willing to continue to ask my questions in the hope that I can find the answer I am looking for.
Until tomorrow, I send you big love from a small island.