Thursday, March 13, 2008

A June Wedding

A good friend of mine is getting married in June. They are getting married in the church that I attended for several years (some of them happily as I “worked out my faith”, others of them miserable and struggling as my faith started to crumble).

I’m anxious about being in that church the day of her wedding. Especially if my (atheist) boyfriend is with me. Because as much as I love my boyfriend, I still struggle with the loss of my faith community and roots.

For many of my adult years, I saw myself getting married in that church, with a clerical blessing and community pledge to support my God-centered marriage. I won’t quite know what to do with the sadness, nostalgia, and worry that I think I’m going to experience once I walk through those doors. To wit: am I making a mistake planning a future with a man who is not spiritually wired and who can’t really relate to my faith background except in an intellectual way? Is my anticipated anxiety really a call from the Holy Spirit to turn back to God (as some will surely argue)?

And what about my envy of my friend? If God had only answered my prayers for a mate sooner, more obviously, more directly, maybe my faith would not have unraveled as it did. My friend’s romance is one of those miraculous-sounding stories where the 30-something “old maid” Christian woman waits on God. For years God appears to be doing nothing. And then one day He delivers, like a lightning bolt, her husband-to-be.

But me? God didn’t answer my prayers. And when I reflected on why he hadn’t answered my prayers, the foundations started to crack. I’ve documented much of that falling apart here on this blog. It has been an excruciating process in which I lost the safety and security of a faith-based world view, I lost the moorings on which my morals and values rested, I lost the “faith-kinship” closeness that had previously marked many of my friendships.

Sometimes I wish I could put the pieces back together. But I don’t think I can. Now that I fundamentally question the whole salvation storyline, there’s no way to simply reverse the clock and settle myself back into a pew comfortably. But I feel like a part of me is missing, or empty, or nostalgic, or scared, or something. I don’t know exactly what it is or what to do with it. Agnosticism or even atheism rings more true to me intellectually, but emotionally, something in me still wants there to be a God.

I know I will go to the wedding, and be joyful for my friend, who has wanted nothing more than to be married for as long as I’ve known her. But the whole thing begs the question: why has God been so seemingly present to her, and so glaringly absent to me?

16 comments:

Jonathan Blake said...

Is my anticipated anxiety really a call from the Holy Spirit to turn back to God (as some will surely argue)?

It sounds like you're afraid to feel any level of attachment to religion. Perhaps you're anxious that perhaps you've made a bad choice and that you'll be proven wrong in the end - a kind of buyer's remorse?

It's OK to feel attached to the ideals and mythologies of religion. They can be very compelling on an instinctual level; that's why people believe them. :) I feel that tug once in a while, and I just let it be what it is. The appeal of religion doesn't have any bearing on how true it is.

It's like how I accept that I'm physically attracted to women other than my wife. If I told myself that I was wrong to feel that way, the situation might spiral out of control: I guilt myself about the attraction, the guilt makes me obsess about my feelings, my obsession causes me to focus on my attraction, my attraction causes me guilt, on and on. Instead, I notice the attraction, tell myself that's normal, shrug my shoulders, and continue living my commitment to my wife.

And what about my envy of my friend? If God had only answered my prayers for a mate sooner, more obviously, more directly, maybe my faith would not have unraveled as it did.

Or your awakening from faith may have been delayed and you would have ended up in a mixed marriage. I'm doing OK with my own mixed marriage, but I think it's better to iron out things like this before making lifelong commitments.

why has God been so seemingly present to her, and so glaringly absent to me?

If there was a God, this disparity would show him to be a respecter of persons, unjust and unloving. Some may blame the person not receiving answers by saying that they haven't been faithful or persistent enough. That still doesn't explain why some people seem born to a belief in God while others are forced to struggle for years with no results. The situation isn't equitable; I would hope for better from a loving God.

Some may say that we can't comprehend God's ways. They'll say there must be a reason for it. This is the last desperate response of someone who doesn't have a good answer. They are tacitly admitting that they don't know why God would do this either.

Slapdash said...

Thanks for responding, Jonathan. I think you hit on some key things.

It sounds like you're afraid to feel any level of attachment to religion. Perhaps you're anxious that perhaps you've made a bad choice and that you'll be proven wrong in the end - a kind of buyer's remorse?

That is for sure part of it. I especially worry that I will feel this way if/when I have kids: that's what happened to my mom. She was "backslidden" (by her description) when she married my (non-religious) dad. When my oldest sibling was born, she felt God practically grab her by the shoulders to remind her that she's responsible for the spiritual upbringing of her children.

What if this happens to me? That wouldn't be fair to my boyfriend, who thinks the deal he's getting is that I have a history with religion/faith but that I have pretty much left it behind.

Jonathan Blake said...

It wouldn't be fair to your boyfriend, but we can't promise our future spouse that life will be fair for them. That's a promise we can't deliver on. We can promise to be honest, to do our best to avoid hurting them, to follow our conscience, to be our best selves, to work with all our strength to stay together, to adjust when our spouse changes, etc. We can't promise that we won't change. That's not something we have full control over.

If you're worried about this, perhaps stewing in your own juices until June may make things worse. Maybe you should go to a church sooner than that to see how you feel.

I still go to church to support my wife. In a way, I think it's saved me from the kind of worries you're expressing. Every Sunday I get a reminder of exactly why I (mentally) left my church: faulty reasoning, narrow viewpoints, unjustified certainty, etc.

Was your mother a believing backslider or a true non-believer? I think it makes a difference. The first is much more likely to "clean up their act" and get back with the program. They mostly believe the principles, church just isn't for them.

The true non-believer objects to religion on principle. To believe again takes more than just the realization that you're responsible for your children's upbringing: it requires you to fundamentally change your beliefs about the world that the children live in.

When my children were born, I wasn't sure about what exactly I believed. I set out on a quest to get real answers from God. I did my best to draw closer to God as best I knew how. At some point along the way I realized that I really wasn't getting any answers (recognizable answers anyway). So here I stand, an infidel. :) So parental responsibility works in both directions: in and out of church.

jennypo said...

Is my anticipated anxiety really a call from the Holy Spirit to turn back to God (as some will surely argue)?

That depends. What is it, exactly, that you miss? Is it God? Is being a part of a close-knit community? Is it a simpler, more innocent time with less responsibility?

I am shocked and saddened that an apparently broad-minded, accomplished, intelligent girl like you would even contemplate that God is either a) nonexistent or b) ignoring you because he didn't drop a husband in your lap! Are you for real? Has it never occurred to you that maybe to God, the ultimate blessing for every woman is NOT a man?

Excuse me for being so blunt, but I am frankly stunned and appalled. You seem so smart. You have the kind of education that seems like an impossible dream for most people. You have what sounds like a dream job. You travel all over the world. You have a family who loves you. You climb, so I assume you have a pretty healthy body. And God, if he exists, likes your friend better because she's getting MARRIED?

Whoa. Do you really figure God is the one who has his priorities mixed up?

Slapdash said...

Hi jennypo! Thanks for stopping by.

Excuse me for being so blunt, but I am frankly stunned and appalled.

Hey, I like blunt! No worries on that front.

I'm not sure what I wrote in this entry captures the complexity around the "husband" issue for me. I've done my share of struggling with, and reconciling myself to, the idea of never getting married despite the fact that companionship has been a deep desire of mine for decades. There is a vast difference between an intellectual understanding that maybe marriage isn't in the cards for everyone, and an emotional acceptance of the same. And I could say a lot more about how church demographics are increasingly stacked against smart, aging Christian women, yet they are told to remain chaste until God pulls off their miracle. But I'll save that for another time.

To get back, or closer, to the issue at hand, the "man" issues I had while still an active Christian caused me to start questioning broader ideas about God's nature and character. And I've written about it in other entries here. In short, I had a very intensive prayer experience, related to a man, yes, that when it went entirely opposite the way I was sure the Lord was leading, made me step back and say "whoa". Maybe I'd just been involved in a massive self-delusion and attributed it to God. And if so, how could I be sure other "leadings" from the Lord were genuine and really from him? I started to doubt the "truth" of emotional highs and other emotive experiences that people dub as being "from the Lord." Wow, is it from the Lord if I have a feeling of increasing certainty that I am supposed to...quit my job? kill my family?

My increasing uncertainty with whether or not I could discern God's voice, combined with other theological underpinnings that were coming loose thanks to my explorations of Catholicism, are what really sent me down a de-conversion path.

So yes, sometimes I hearken back to those prayer-laced months of crying out to God, daily, and feeling what I thought was the comfort and explicit leading of the Holy Spirit. Had the outcome of those anguished months been different, my guess is that it would have halted, or at the least slowed down, what has become a rather thorough de-conversion.

OneSmallStep said...

**is a vast difference between an intellectual understanding that maybe marriage isn't in the cards for everyone, and an emotional acceptance of the same.**

I agree. You have this on top of the idea behind the purity rings, which seem to be aimed towards women. My two evangelical friends have one, and I believe even the Christian singer Rebecca St. James wears one. There's the backlash against feminism that seems to stem from certain conservative Christian corners. The idea that a woman must marry a man seems very big on a lot of those circles.

This is on top of the idea I've heard that if you have a strong desire for something, it's because God put it there and so will fufill that desire. This was directed towards one of my friends who is 26, unmarried, and desperately wants children. ANother friend was assuring her that children would be forthcoming, because the desire for children was granted by God.

So I do understand what Jenny is saying, because I often tell myself the same thing. I'm educated, I'm intelligent, I'm a home-owner, I've got a great job, good friends, freedom -- I don't need another person to complete my life. I don't need to be married.

But is this the same message that society sends? Is this even the same message that conservative Christianity sends to women, or does it send the message that their primary function is to be married and have children?

single/certain said...

i know you probably don't want advice via your post's comments, but here it is anyway.... sorry ;-)

this post makes it seem like you walked away from god and faith because he didn't give you what you wanted when you wanted it. did your whole faith unravel because you didn't get the spouse you wanted when you wanted it?

loving god (and being loved by him) doesn't mean always getting what you want when you want it.

also... god hasn't answered your prayers, yet. you can walk away from him, but he won't walk away from you. maybe what you feel is him still being there, still loving you, still wanting to give you good things...

ps glad you are still writing/sharing about these things!

Slapdash said...

OSS:

"This is on top of the idea I've heard that if you have a strong desire for something, it's because God put it there and so will fufill that desire."

Yes, me too. I think the church does a crap job of addressing issues like marriage for the modern single woman and this is part of it. On the one hand, we're told that singleness is a "gift" and that it's wonderful to be a single person, etc etc, but then look at how crappy adult singles ministries are. The goal still appears to be to marry people off; and the ones who aren't married in such groups are often the walking wounded, or if not, all the "healthy" ones have to choose from are the wounded ones.

On top of THAT, the church (especially the Catholic church) practically idolizes marriage. It is, after all, the archetype relationship between Christ and the church, women were made for men (or we were made for each other, for the more liberal denoms), we were created to procreate, it's the most intimate and God-created relationship we can ever have on earth, etc. So then the church also gives the message that if you deeply desire marriage, you will eventually be married because it's a God-given desire. It's just a lot of mixed messages and frankly, ambivalence for many churches about what to do with a lot of independent women with lives, incomes, careers, and usually a lot more maturity than the Christian guys who are their "peers". These guys are often way behind in developmental and maturity terms and that really fucks up the whole "men are supposed to lead the family" idea because, frankly, a lot of men don't want a woman who's smarter or more capable than them.

*whew* what a rant. Anyway, OSS, thanks for voicing that piece of it (the "God will give you the desires of your heart" part). I hadn't included it in earlier comments/writing and it's an important piece of it.

Slapdash said...

Hi single/certain,

Thanks for your comments. It's hard for me not to feel frustrated about them, because it sounds as though you are reducing everything I have been through down to "you didn't get your way, so you're mad."

If you haven't read my earlier writings, please do. I fully acknowledge that my questions and struggles (wrestling if you will) with God were very connected to relationship issues, at least around 4 years ago. But I have been questioning things since 2000 and, at best, me "not getting my way" was a catalyst, fuel for the broader theological fires that were already burning.

"loving god (and being loved by him) doesn't mean always getting what you want when you want it."

I was a mature enough Christian four years ago to know this. I didn't rebel because I didn't get my way. God's confusing way of dealing with me during that time caused me to wonder more broadly what was going on.

But thanks for posting. I think it is ultimately good to be pushed some on this. It would be a really shitty thing if I walked away from the living and true God for such a shallow and selfish reason.

Traveller said...

Once again I find your writing, and your story very compelling; it grabs my heart in ways I can't quite explain. I still love your honesty, and also the generosity of spirit with which you answer even those who disagree with you.

I'm 38. I'm single. I've had times of being so 'sure' that some amazing man was the one for me, that God was really in it and leading to something really good, but it didn't happen.

But that's not why I'm writing. I wonder if your story now might have been the alternate outcome of a very dark season for me in 1995. It was a time of deeply questioning God about some things (evil in the world, and things I was seeing around me, etc). He was not answering. The quest for answers to the questions became a desperate plea and demand--'Will you EVER answer me?!' The why's, the lack of answers... There was a moment of realizing that I could walk away from God, or maybe that I was in danger of doing so. That freaked me out a little. I also realized that by my persistent questions I could shake (destroy) the faith I had. I've always believed that God could "take" all my questions, but in that season I realized that I couldn't. I don't know how it happened exactly but I walked away from that time with a simple yet profound (I think) concept. "God is God. I am not God." Too simple I guess, but for me it meant truly bowing to the reality of Him being God--if He is God, then He has the right to do anything He chooses. I cannot demand He do anything, or even answer my questions to my satisfaction according to my time frame, for that would be saying that I am God--and I am not God.

As for the things I thought I heard from Him...I don't know exactly what happened. In recent years I think I've been growing into a faith that is less concerned about having to have all the answers anyway. Gee, that sounds so wishy-washy--I don't mean that there are none or that it doesn't make sense. I'm just more captured by the goodness of God and of Jesus, and enjoying living a life that expresses that. I know I have really enjoyed Dallas Willard's book "Hearing God" (the 'through the year' edition). In new and fresh ways it has opened my eyes (and ears I guess (c: ) to the many ways God does speak, and also to the idea of hearing His voice being a learning process.

About being single. For me-- Yeah, it's tough sometimes. Funny the timing of this... I just listened to a CD sermon tonight where something was said that I really have to agree with--that God entrusts each person with a certain amount of adversity. "Entrusts" was an interesting word to choose. What if that's it? What if we're entrusted with different burdens and trials? What if our lives and what they 'should be' is not to be measured by what does or does not happen for those around us? What if somehow there is stuff to learn, and ways to grow that we might never have imagined. What if there is a strength that comes, and joy to boot, as we accept and receive?

It is definitely not the same, but, not being married, not having kids--well, I ended up working with a lot of youth, and quite a few that don't have moms and dads. I'm thankful to be able to add in some care and encouragement...maybe it was part of the plan.

Well, I've run out of stuff to say. :o) I guess I just wanted to 'connect' here with you somehow. And I'm praying for you. I still believe He is the living and true and good God. I wonder...in the years since, have you tried talking to Him again, as in "If you're there, could you show me?" Well, you probably have, or maybe you don't want to go back there. It's just...well it would be a shame to miss out, if He is there...

P.s. Btw, have you read "Searching for God Knows What" by Donald Miller? I wonder if you'd find it to be a good read. I sure did.

OneSmallStep said...

Slapdash,

**So then the church also gives the message that if you deeply desire marriage, you will eventually be married because it's a God-given desire.**

I agree. I don't think churches do very well in terms of helping those who are single and have no marriage desire. As you said, even the singles groups seem designed to help people find mates, rather than helping people find other single people who are all okay being single.

Maybe it ties back into the sacrificial nature that Christianity pushes forward. Jesus sacrified his life for us, so we must be prepared to sacrifice everything we have (which will never even come close to what Jesus' sacrifice was worth). If you are happier being alone, then you're putting yourself first, and thus how can you ever sacrifice?

I also think churches don't do a great job of helping those who will be married, but decide not to have kids, either. But that's another issue.

jennypo said...

Okay, Slapdash, I jumped the gun a bit taking your statements at face value. It appears I owe you a bit more credit than I gave you on this post. And I have to agree with OneSmallStep on the church not being a fun place for singles. However, I have come to expect backwards thinking from modern "christianity" - I did hope for a more liberated view from an agnostic.

First of all, the idea that God gives us all of our desires is completely inconsistent with the Biblical record, the reality we experience, and simple logic. In addition, the Bible is clear that some of our very natural and normal desires are not going to be satisfied. Even Jesus knew unsatisfied desire.

Every desire that God gives us has, at its root, a desire for God himself. Thus, he is the highest satisfaction of our desires - what we think we long for is just a shadow of the real thing - God himself!

I am 32 years old and single. I know the difficulties of the single life. Among many other things, it can get really lonely at times. But let's not fool ourselves - married life is no bowl of cherries either. Some of the loneliest people I know are married.

Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, we've been terribly deceived by the lie that we as women need a healthy bank account and a man to make us happy. The fact that this lie has been to a great extent propagated by people who think they do God service by it doesn't make it true.

I teach a Friday-night Bible class for kids who are learning English. Sometimes the kids are really in the beginning stages of learning English and can't understand a lot of what I am saying. A few weeks ago, we were making a craft and I was handing out stickers. I had a lot of red heart stickers and only two pink ones. There is one little boy (let's call him Juno) who really loves pink - he always chooses the pink paper, the pink beads, etc. Knowing this, and knowing that the girls in the class would all want the same thing as one certain girl who is a bit of a leader unless they saw those pink stickers first, I started handing out the red stickers to the girls. "Juno" began to throw a fit. He thought all the good stickers would be gone. Apparently the red heart he had his eye on had been taken. I went over to him and tried to explain that I had more stickers, but he wouldn't stop crying. He was sure I was being unfair to him. He grabbed the first sticker he saw, and I let him. He went home that night never knowing about the pink stickers I had saved for him.

As I thought about the incident with disappointment, I realized that often, I am just like Juno. I don't know the possibilities. I'm so scared God is going to give me "second best", or something He says is good but isn't what I think is good, that I reach out and grab the first thing I see. The few times I've waited for him have been absolutely worth it. He doesn't always give me what I think I want. But what he gives is actually what I deeply want. Experience is teaching me that I can trust him.

God knows me better than I know myself. And he knows that, deep down, my deepest desires are not going to be satisfied by the things I sometimes THINK I want. When he doesn't give those things, I am initially disappointed. But in the end, I realize that what he is giving me in their place are the things I really want most - the kinds of things I am willing to suffer for. Before I really knew my own desires, God read my deep heart and began to prepare me to receive them.

Slapdash, sometimes I wonder if you blame God for having taken away the warm blanket of faith you wrapped yourself in when you called yourself a Christian. Even if it hurts, it is better to be where you are now than it would have been to have gone on with a faith in something less than Truth, Love and Light. Far, far better to have no God than one you can't trust.

God is only worth worshipping if he is True.

Jonathan Blake said...

Traveller,

It sounds like you went to the brink of changing your beliefs but fear backed you down. I acknowledge that I don't know what was in your heart, but your "I am not God" strategy sounds a lot like my own past excuses for an absentee God. If God loved me, or even if God just wanted me to believe in him, he would have answered my prayers in the darkest times of my life when I needed answers. On those occasions, all I got was silence. Yet I wasn't ready to let go. As this pattern repeated itself, the utter silence broke through my rationalizations and I was ready to stand on my own two feet. I was ready to let my belief in God die. I'm not making excuses for my imaginary friends anymore.

Slapdash said...

So many good thoughts here.

Traveller: I thought about your comment a lot yesterday. In the end I came to a similar conclusion or question as Jonathan's - what made you stop questioning?

I had been to that brink many times before, and like Jonathan described, I had ultimately stopped my queries and questions with the "God is mysterious, and beyond me to understand" conclusion. I think maybe I was afraid for a long time to let my questions keep going. Are you afraid of discovering God isn't who you believe him to be? That he isn't there at all? I think the only thing that allowed me to keep questioning was believing that God is Truth, and therefore no matter how big my questions get, no matter how scary it feels to explore other explanations for God's silence, if God is real then it ultimately has to be okay to ask the questions and follow them *wherever* they lead.

And now they have led me here, to what is right now an icky, stressful, confusing place where I miss a lot of things about being rooted in a faith community, but where I intellectually don't fit anymore and where God has become an abstract idea, Jesus an appealing but fantastical "companion".

Slapdash said...

Hi jennypo,

I agree with a lot of what you say about women not needing a man. That may sound surprising given what I've been writing about recently, but I have long been an advocate for my girlfriends and women in general living independently, not relying on a man for things or for happiness. My own path in life has largely been marked by that philosophy - I've done a ton of things that a less independently-minded woman simply wouldn't do, and my dating life only started 8 years ago and was marked more by periods of being single than by periods of being in a relationship. AND, I have long wished for a companion to share this life thing with. Along the way I've made incredible friends both male and female, but I also can't deny the fact that I have wanted what a lot of other women want: a companion, support, mate. To be clear, I don't *need* it, but I have wanted it. A lot.

It's a lovely story you tell about the pink and red hearts. I wish I still had the faith to believe that God has been saving a pink heart for me. I guess the problem, for me, is that stories like that now sound stale at best, and inexcusable at worst - especially when I think of victims of violence (individual or societal a la Darfur). It sounds trite to suggest that God is saving a pink heart for if/when that Darfur widow survives the IDP camps. And the "God's ways are not our ways" argument just no longer satisfies me. I don't want a god, actually, who will give me my life mate (that is, if I wait around long enough) but won't intervene in catastrophic life and death matters.

jennypo said...

Slapdash,

I was not, as I think you assumed, suggesting that God's "pink heart" for you is a man. That's just a twist on the philosophy I was complaining about!

What I wanted to say is that it's possible (and I think it's likely) that deep down, what you want is much more than that. I came to realize, after three years of more pain and confusion than I ever want to go through again, that God was giving me - through my pain - what I have deeply wanted and still want MORE than I want all the other things I didn't understand why he wouldn't give me. And those are the things God is giving anyone who will let him, all over the world.

The trouble is, as Confucius pointed out long ago, "good things are very difficult to achieve, and bad things are very easy to get". Such is the nature of our destroyed world. If God could snap his fingers and change that, then what would be the point of putting his son to death? He doesn't stop bringing life out of death, love out of the midst of hatred, beauty out of destruction - but it costs him, and if we want it in our lives we have to realize that it's going to cost us too.

The trouble is, our idea of God leaves him a doddering old grandpa rocking away in his chair and handing out candies to us kids. God has things to do. There is a purpose to everything that he gives us. As much as he loves me, I don't believe God placed me in a free country with loving parents and provided me with an education and food to eat everyday just so he could see me smile. He has a purpose for me that gives me responsibility, and being single is, at least for now and maybe forever, part of that responsibility.

When God told Abraham he was going to bless him, he wasn't just talking about how nice it would be to have a lot of grandkids, or how famous Abraham was going to be someday. Abraham's blessing was that he was going to BE a blessing. God would reveal himself to the world through Abraham's family. God's blessing to us includes great difficulties - it is our purpose, the privilege of working alongside God. If that purpose isn't served by our having the kind of life partner many people dream of having (but few actually have) then that might hurt, but it's PART of the blessing - not a lack of blessing.

Every human being longs to know and be known. The movies tell us that's going to happen when some man steps up with an armload of flowers. I come home at night to an empty apartment, but God has given me deep and satisfying relationships with other people, and at the end of it all, He knows me better than I even know myself. As I come to know him, I am more and more deeply satisfied. I have as many hurts and struggles as anyone else, but God hasn't left me to cry it out alone. I hurt, but I have, and am getting, what I want most in the whole world.