“I’m having trouble writing about my spiritual journey,” I told my Spiritual Director in our meeting yesterday.
She asked why and I explained, “I’m afraid that speaking openly will turn people away that might otherwise be attracted to my writing.”
“So you’re still trying to make everyone happy?” After two years of meeting together, she knows my penchance to reach every person and desire to fix all of the world’s problems, a tendency that I’ve been struggling to let go of and trust that I only need to worry about my small piece that I’m called to. “And doesn’t that inhibit your writing, which is all about being vulnerable and accepting of every part of you?” Yes. Of course it does.
Then I told her, “And I’m finding it hard to fully open myself to exploring Christianity because I’m afraid that it will mean I can’t be open to other faith traditions that also attract me.” We spoke about Thomas Merton as one example of a Christian writer who also explored Eastern traditions. Sometimes I know the answers to my challenges even before we speak of them. But I need to voice them out loud so she can remind me that this is exactly the kind of thing I can pray about. It’s getting to where I can almost have our conversation by myself, but she still comes out with responses that guide me to new places in my spirituality. She’s one of the reasons I’m getting more open to Christianity. She has never judged me for being exactly where I am on my path.
“The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty,” said Anne Lamott, revising words of Paul Tillich. Her quote speaks to how I view my own faith, whatever may be guiding it. Life and the universe is a huge and beautiful mystery. So many of the greatest lessons of various spiritual traditions overlap that I can’t help but believe in something special about them. More importantly, I personally have found my life enriched by faith, prayer, and meditation. To be clear, I have been enriched by faith, not by certainty of rules that have left me thinking that I am less valuable than I am and often seem to promote hate rather than love. But fear of being associated with a tradition that has historically demanded fierce loyalty has limited my ability to open myself fully to the possibilities of Christianity.
While I’ve been feeling more open to Christianity, especially since discovering the writing of Nadia Bolz-Weber, a Lutheran pastor that I sometimes feel is channeling my heart and has caused me to reconsider the Lutheran Church (at least the ELCA), I’m still scared to let go of my resistance.
One reason is fear of the judgment of my peers. While much of the drive of progressive liberal politics stems from the same desire to help the poor that Jesus preached about, the loudest voices of that movement, and often people in my circle, condemn Christians. I get it. It can seem at times that the loudest voices in Christianity seem to be concerned only with protecting our societal morality around abortion, homosexuality and what they consider hard and fast rules, usually to do with sex. I personally think the sexual focus is because addressing the much bigger problems of society – greed and pride – are much harder to define with black and white rules. But there are far more Christian voices, I believe, that promote progressive liberal values or do not support this seemingly hate based morality, but they do not often get the attention that the more restrictive voices do.
Yet I understand people who feel judged and shamed by Christian teachings; it was a huge driver of my decision to leave Christianity. That said, everyone in the church I grew up in and many Christians that have surrounded me throughout my life have been among the most loving people I know. They have taken to heart Jesus’ teachings around loving. But that doesn’t change the way I internalized many of the teachings and my need to be perfect or how I reacted to those Christians I perceived as judging me. For those reasons, I had to leave Christianity to fully enter this journey of finding out who I really am and love myself.
A number of friends who practice both Native American spiritual practices and Christianity, however, turned me on to the idea that I needed to take a fresh look. Hearing highly regarded Eastern Spiritual teachers venerate Jesus attracted me even more. I wanted to understand what these people saw that I missed while I was so caught up in the rules, the judgment, and the shame. Intellectually, I struggle with many of the premises of Christianity, as I wrote about in Fear of Hell Will Never Lead to More Love, but emotionally I’m starting to become more attracted to it. Yet my fear of being judged for doing so has been holding me back from fully letting myself explore it and talk about it.
The point of my blog writing, though, was to explore what it looks like to learn to accept and love myself. If I can’t speak about this huge piece of my exploration, I’m not being honest about that journey. The most profound shift I have experienced since starting this blog was the moment I realized God/the Creator/the Mystery loved me even when I’m at my worst, as I wrote about in Loving the Kid, Not the Temper Tantrum. Starting to really see how that love has manifested in my life despite how much shame I heap on myself, that I wrote about in How Much Love Must I Receive To Believe I’m Loveable, has been key to moving past each shame struggle that I’ve been through this year.
Which brings me to my last inhibiting fear that I touched on with my Spiritual Director: I deeply desire for everyone to like me and I want my explorations and discoveries to be able to reach as many people as possible. I’m afraid that opening the pandora’s box of my spiritual exploration, including my dive into Christianity, will turn people away instead of them being able to see that what I’m learning has universal implications, regardless of whether one might choose to follow the same faith I do. The problem is, when I talk about the spiritual part of my journey in general and watered-down terms, it loses most of its meaning.
Much of the path, though, has been about letting go of wanting everyone to like me or agree with me or see me the way I want them to see me. To be fully open to my faith journey I need to let go of these fears. I’ve started seeing the stories I’ve been writing as my personal declaration of independence. Those who are attracted to my writing will be attracted and those who aren’t, won’t be. So be it. But this may be one of my greatest challenges in learning to be vulnerable in my writing.
I suspect my future path will somehow be spiritually related, but I don’t yet know what that path is and it scares me. I want certainty that I will be okay. And yet, if quitting my job and embarking on this writing adventure has taught me anything, it is that I can only focus on this moment and when it is time for the next step, I will know it.
I’m finally, very slowly, and only occasionally understanding what it means to focus on the present. In this moment I have everything I need and want. It is only when I look at the unclear future that I panic. Exercises like focusing on being fully present as I wash dishes have not yet worked for me. Rather, I could only stop looking to the future and focus on the now when I started to trust that somehow God/the Universe/the Mystery really does love me and as long as I keep listening to that little voice inside me, I’m going to be okay.
And now to confess my current dream: immersing myself in the study and experiencing of different faith traditions and writing about it. What this will look like, how I will afford it, or how I will make a living at it, I don’t know because I don’t imagine myself entering a religious order, becoming a minister or theology professor, or any other traditional course. I don’t want my study to be intellectual, but to delve into the space of feeling. The intellectual is important and I love it, but it’s where I go when I get scared, and it can leave me cynical and stuck in the impossibilities if I don’t also incorporate the feeling and experience of faith. It is only when I combine the two that I am finding, accepting, and loving me.
Dreaming this way is new for me as I always thought the only thing I could do of value would be helping “the poor.” Learning to accept myself for who I am and trusting in the voice inside leading me, I am slowly seeing that I might be able to contribute to the world in a different way.
I believed writing about spiritual matters was for other people. Who was I to think I had anything to say? But why not me? The bible is filled with prophets who didn’t believe that they were the person for the job. Moses comes most prominently to mind. I do not mean to compare myself to Moses. I most definitely do not want his job or that of any of the prophets. Yet it seems like there must be some lesser space for me. It will only be me, though, if I can get more open and honest about my spiritual journey. So here goes.
Lovely and true blog. Annie and Nadia are wonderful prophets (if you will) for this age. Truly bringing God’s love and Jesus spirit to all who have felt rejected and hurt. I love Annie paraphrase of Tillach that the opposite of faith is not doubt but certainty. As an HIV provider who cares for immigrants/refugees/LGBTQ and a mother of African American children– judgement/fear and sometimes hate that is cause by the current environment (which was supported by some evangelistic christian churches) has lead to suffering, harassment, fear and physical violence to so many that are not white /straight (including my children and patients) this makes it impossible for me not to get angry and judge against this “evangelistic christian movement”–we need to speak out and act out against this fear mongering. I think this is where many progressives christians are coming from. As a close/dear South African friend and colleague who grew up in apartheid (who is white and more conservative than me–easy to do :)) said to me — “the Christianity of Trump (supporters) is the Christianity of Apartheid.” This is so true and has been so helpful for me to continue to stay strong– Bonhoffer also an amazing inspiration in this environment to focus on God calls us to Love all and to stand and act up to the hate/fear and the manipulations and politicalization of the Christian faith. I do need to constantly remind myself to find it in myself to approach those who oppress so many people who I care about –in the image of God–very hard to do-close to impossible and we know Jesus struggled too (his turning the tables in the synagogue against greed and comments towards the pharisees/sadducees illustrate his struggles too) Peace and hugs
I love this Cindy. Thanks for sharing. And for the reminder about even Jesus losing his temper. One of the things I’ve been really working on is learning to see stories like this in a new light. It used to bug me thinking that Jesus knew when it was okay to lose his temper and when not to, but thinking about it as even he struggled to love everyone is so much more helpful to me in being compassionate toward my humanness as I grapple with all of these questions around the shame I’ve been carrying around. This was one of the most difficult posts for me to write and share and I’ve been petrified how it would be received so I am especially appreciative of your beautifully composed response. Thank you.
I admire your courage.
Thank you Judson!
Enjoyed your post, Jen. I have two books to recommend – Lit by Mary Karr is a great memoir by a poet/writer who struggled with trauma and addiction before eventually finding a God she could believe in. The second book is Holy Cow: An Indian Adventure by Aussie journo and writer, Sarah Macdonald. It came out a long time ago, so not sure how it will survive the test of time, but it was very successful. If you would like to document your spiritual search, perhaps it may offer some ideas that you could apply/adapt to DC or the US?
Thanks Gina. I have read Lit and think and refer to it quite a bit when thinking about writing about spiritual journey, although I’ve wondered if it would have been as successful if she hadn’t already written the Liar’s Club. I will check out Sarah McDonald’s book as well though. I haven’t heard of it.
Jen, I can’t wait to hear more about your exploration of the feeling of different faith traditions. Excited to see how this will take shape for you!