Testimony

In 2009, without much pomp or circumstance, I made profession of faith. I’m not sure anybody even noticed because I did it in conjunction with Eddie being baptized. It was a requirement for baptism that both Cortney and I were members of our church. Because I had not yet made profession of faith in any church, I needed to do so to be an official member. So we just added that in to all the other “will you…” stuff that is asked before the water is officially sprinkled on the baby. I was thirty-one years old.

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If I am honest, I only did it because I wanted my baby to be baptized and because I was cool with being an official member of our church. I really didn’t have any of my questions answered that had been swirling around since I was in middle school. In fact, I am not sure why it was even important to me to have Eddie baptized other than it was tradition and I knew I didn’t want to deal with what our parents would say if we didn’t do it. Great reasons, I know.

I was brought up in the church. In fact, my childhood church is across the street from the church my family now attends. My town is small and there are somewhere around a million churches in it. The joke is that there is a church on every corner, and it’s based in a bit of reality. Growing up, if we made a new friend, the first question our parents asked was, “who are their parents?” followed by “what church do they go to?”

Church was not a bad experience for me though. I met my best friend through Sunday School when we were very small. She likes to joke that I scared her back then, but she scares me now. The truth is, some of my best memories are from church-related things; I had lots of fun experiences, but I wouldn’t say any of them were life-changing in the spiritual department.

My family was in church ever Sunday morning for the 8:30am service. We sat in the pew in the same order: me all the way to the middle, mom, Mike (my youngest brother), dad, and Chris (my younger brother) on the aisle. There were some years where my dad was a deacon and we sat in the “reserved” bench. We were always there.

We were also always in Sunday School. All of us. Our church offered classes for every single age, so we all went. Most weeks we even went back to church for the evening service.

Wednesday night was also for church. In elementary school, I did choir and catechism class. In middle and high school I had youth group. I participated in skits and other dramas when I was in high school, I went on retreats and mission trips. I did fun nights and scavenger hunts and ice cream socials.

The one thing I didn’t do was follow the rest of my peers and make profession of faith. Church was fun, but the actual religious part of it…the part where I was expected to feel moved by God…didn’t happen for me.

I credit those years for laying a foundation of good morals and the desire to put kindness into the world. I believe my religious upbringing definitely aided in my perception of my self-worth and self-respect.

However I don’t think I ever felt a strong, unflinching belief that I thought I should be feeling. I never felt the same blind faith that my parents seemed to feel. I had way WAY too many questions.

In college I took a history of Christianity class for a gen ed requirement. I came home with fascinating questions and wonderings and the minute I brought them up I thought my dad’s head was going to explode. He absolutely wouldn’t let me talk about it because to him, you didn’t question God or what we are taught in the Bible. You accept it. You believe it. And that is it.

That was a turning point for me. I just couldn’t accept it as the absolute, literal truth, so I assumed I didn’t believe. I thought it was all or nothing, so since I couldn’t give all, I supposed my faith was nothing.

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I spent the rest of college battling with whether or not I believed there was a God. As much as I tried to deny one, I just felt in my bones that there was something bigger than us. That we weren’t here just randomly.

One night circa 2002, I found myself having a discussion with a drunk, but lucid not-even-on-my-radar-as-a-possible-life-partner best friend named Cortney. One thing we talked at length about was our religious beliefs–something I hadn’t even really discussed with my then boyfriend of four years. It turned out that we had similar beliefs after being brought up in very similar ways. We both believed there is a God, but to what extent everything in the Bible is a literal truth threw up lots of doubts and questions. This was a big deal because I had never talked to anyone with my almost exact feelings about Christianity and organized religion before.

Three years after that conversation, Cortney and I said “I do” in his church just six months after his dad was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer.  While the cancer slowly overtook his body, my father-in-law kept a firm grasp on his faith. I felt like he knew something I didn’t. Something I just couldn’t hold onto. And even though I tried hard to see how in the world his faith in God could grow, mine seemed to shrink. Cortney’s seemed to disappear altogether.

Before we were even married two years, I suffered my first miscarriage. I suffered another the following year. When Eddie was three months old, Cortney lost his job. I suffered from postpartum depression and anxiety.

People told us that everything–EVERYTHING–happened for a reason. Cancer, death, lost babies, depression, job loss, all of it…happened for a reason and we just needed to trust that good was coming.

One family member who was a minister told us that everything bad that happened was a result of our faith being too weak.  It was because of something we did or didn’t do.

I had just one question: Where in the world was God?

He’s there was all people could say.

I called bullshit on it.

People said God gives you hard stuff to make you stronger.

I called more bullshit. I still do. I simply cannot believe God purposefully sends death and depression and loss. I just don’t believe that Cortney’s dad was destined by God to get cancer and die at age 49.

I don’t believe that since my toddler years God knew that I would grow up to lose pregnancies and battle depression. That he was knew it and and was all like, “oh yes…”hard stuff”. All according to my plan.”

NO.

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I have so so so many questions. Still.

Three years ago we decided to go back to church because we wanted to raise our kids in the church–to give them the good memories and solid foundation we were brought up with. We also felt like something was missing from our lives., and we found that going to church made us feel better–part of a family.

At the time our church was going through changes in the pastoral staff. In the past few years, all three of the pastors in our church have become our good friends. In fact, I think of them first as my friends, then as the pastors of our church.

On the one hand, the past few years has taught me that my heart for social justice and my idea of putting love and kindness into the world are absolutely what Christianity is supposed to be about. On the other, I have more questions than ever. Our friends-our pastors-are academically intelligent people. Like I said, I think of them all as friends first. I would absolutely hang out with them even if their jobs were not to spread the word of God. We discuss social justice and ideas and books and beer and music and politics. I have a great respect and love for them.

But my heart has so many questions.

 

I think I have more questions than I have faith, if that makes sense.

Cortney was ordained and installed as a deacon in our church last week. We stood and recited the Apostles’ Creed, and I couldn’t help but wonder, “do I believe this?  Does Cort? Are we lying?”

I love baptisms because they are full of faith and love and promise. They are the promise of God’s love for all of us, and I know that if nothing else, I believe in that love.

The rest of the stuff I have no idea, but the love? That I know I believe in.

The Peace that Passes Understanding

I don’t believe in coincidences.

Therefore the timing of us going back to church as regular members one year ago coinciding with the installation of our new minister who just happened to be the husband of a teacher friend I had lost touch with felt incredibly planned…by someone.

Sometime last summer Cortney and I decided to put more effort into getting to church on Sunday mornings. We went on and off for a month or so while there as an interim pastor, then we went on vacation and weren’t in church much for a couple weeks. We knew that our church had called a new pastor because we got the letter, and when I saw the last name I remember thinking “Huh. I wonder if he is somehow related to G?”  G was someone I had taught with back in my early days in my district and with whom I had taken some grad classes–she for her Doctorate and me for my Masters.

After school started, we got back into the habit of going to church again. This is when I realized not only was our new minister related to G, he was married to her.

Since that moment of realization, my life has been very different.

Going to church regularly has changed me.

No, I didn’t suddenly turn in to a praise-singing, hand-clapping, arm-in-the-air-swaying Jesus Freak (not that there’s anything wrong with that; it’s just not me). In fact, my faith and beliefs haven’t changed much at all.

I still wrestle with a lot of the same questions about God and why things happen the way they do and why there is so much pain. I still prefer traditional hymns, pastors in robes, and following the liturgy over drums and smoke machines, jeans on church leaders, and unpredictable  passage selection. I still believe women have a place in leadership roles.

What is different is more internal.

It’s something that almost surpasses words, it’s more of a feeling.

Church is more than sitting in a pew week after week. It is the warm smiles and the “good morning, Sluiter Family!” we are greeted with. It is the question about my job or pregnancy or writing coming from a place of genuine interest. It’s the Peace. It’s the hymns that my grandma and mom used to sing. It’s having Eddie sit in the pew next to me coloring pictures of Jesus and humming to all the hymns. It’s the hugs I get from good friends who are genuinely glad to see me and my family.

Church is knowing all week that someone out there is thinking and praying for you–not because they are your family, but because they are your church family.

It’s a sense of peaces that passes all understanding.

It’s a community.

It’s a family.

It’s love.

It’s reconnecting with a friend I had no idea I needed so badly.

I’m still not a hugger or a personal-space invader. I’m still not comfortable publicly praying. I am not handing out Bibles on street corners.

But I am learning more. I am believing harder. And my heart is much, much bigger and filled with more love and people and joy and peace.

I wouldn’t say I have gotten many answers, but I have gotten a feeling of Ok about having the questions and the doubt.

And I think that is what I was searching for–a deeper sense of peace that I can draw from even in my most anxiety-ridden moments. I don’t really understand this sense I have now, but I will take it. Because one thing I know for sure: you don’t have to understand something for it to be Truth.

Coming Down the Mountain

This week begins Lent.

I’ve never much recognized Lent before. I know what it is; I know the meanings and many of the traditions and ceremonies behind Fat Tuesday, Ash Wednesday, the Lent season, and all the Easter-related days.

Yesterday we celebrated Shrove Sunday (the Sunday before Lent) in church with a pancake brunch (sort of a prequel to Fat Tuesday) after the service where I read scripture during the service.  The scriptures I read were from Exodus and 2 Peter about Moses’ mountain top experience with God. The sermon was about how Jesus didn’t stay on top of the mountain, but went down among the people–the hurting, sick, and sinful people to bring them love and forgiveness.

It reminded me yet again that the greatest love we can show in this world is to humble ourselves as servants to each other.

I am also reminded of our (as humans) habit of relying on things and substances to help us cope with our lives.

I do this with food. I eat my feelings so that I don’t have to feel them. I rely Diet Coke and junk food. I figure one more cookie won’t do anymore harm. What is one more handful of Cheetos anyway?

It’s a problem.

It’s an embarrassment.

I hate myself for every soda I drink and every “fat” food I eat.

When I was pregnant and each bite or sip was not just going into me, but into one of my sons, I was so much more careful. Because it wasn’t about me.

Now all the crap I put in me is about me.

Lent is a time of preparation for the coming of Christ. Many fast or give up something to prepare for Easter.

Christ gave his life so to relate lots of people give up chocolate. That always seemed dumb to me. Growing up we never practiced giving up something for Lent, and I think the idea was that in no way could we give up anything that could come close to symbolizing or relating to Jesus giving his life.

This year, though, I have been thinking about my addiction to putting junk in my body in order to try to stuff my feelings down and satiate an emptiness that I feel when I start to feel anxious or discouraged.

I have been thinking about how this body of mine was given to me to put love in the world and how I have grown two people in it. Why am I not taking better care of it?

So this year for Lent, I am giving up Diet Coke.

It sounds just as lame as giving up chocolate, but it’s a really big step for me. I hope to not just give it up until Easter, but forever. I hope that it will help me to remember to put nourishing nutritious food in my body rather than garbage that hikes up my BMI, my cholesterol, and my shame.

Because it’s hard go down the mountain to spread love and healing in a broken world when your own insides are hurt and broken.

help us accept each other

Help us accept each other as Christ accepted us;
teach us as sister, brother, each person to embrace.
Be present, Lord, among us and bring us to believe
we are ourselves accepted and meant to love and live.

I struggled with going to church yesterday.  It was snowy and cold and I was so very tired.  It seemed like it was SO MUCH work getting everyone in the car with all the whining and meltdowns and just…BLAH.  Charlie was going to miss his morning nap and Eddie was going to be, well, Eddie.

We had to go though because we were scheduled to usher.  It’s not like no one would notice if we didn’t come.  I mean, I am sure everyone is smart enough, they could have found their own seat, but our names were in the bulletin, it was our responsibility.

We went, of course, and I am so very glad.

We have a very traditional service.  We have things like “The Prayer of Confession” and “The Assurance of Forgiveness” and “The Anthem”.  We have “liturgists” and we are “commissioned” at the end of the service.

Our church is currently between pastors and so we are in a “transition” phase.  I haven’t been part of the team that meets, but I know this: we are divided on how we want our worship to be, traditional (like it always has been) or contemporary.  The service today was to bring to light and to make the congregation think about this polarizing that is happening.

And while I knew in my head this was the reason it was being presented to us, I couldn’t help my heart from hearing another message.

Teach us, O Lord, your lessons, as in our daily life
we struggle to be human and search for hope and faith.
Teach us to care for people, for all not just for some,
to love them as we find them or as they may be come.

Recently I have started to dip my toe back into the faith of my childhood.

I have always had some level of faith. Even at the height of my questioning, I somehow always believe there was something bigger than me…bigger than all of us. I can’t explain it…which is weird because I am very much a science and facts kind of person.  I can only say I believe it.

I am still very young in this new me.  I would say I have always been a Christian, but recently–within the last year–I have decided (due to a lot of prodding, I believe, by God) that I need to do more than just say I am, but not attend church, not explore the MILLIONS of questions I have, not talk about it.

I have some serious questions and doubts.  There is no question about that.  Such doubts, that I am sure it would make my mom sad and some of my family very angry that I dare to question certain things.  But I can’t help it.  And I don’t think God is mad about it, either.

With all this new thirst for answers…or at least peace that the questions can’t be answered…people have really felt the need to “minister” to me.  I find it so strange that as someone who knows more Bible stories than the average person, who can pick up more Biblical allusions than most in literature and culture, and who can cite historical facts about Biblical times, people still feel like I need “saving”…even though I have said I am saved.

The truth is, they want me to be saved “correctly”, meaning they want me to be saved the way the believe is right.  Their way.

Let your acceptance change us, so that we may be moved
in living situations to do the truth in love;
to practice your acceptance until we know by heart
the table of forgiveness and laughter’s healing art.

The reading today that our pastor used for the launching pad of her sermon was 1 Corinthians 12: 1-11. The passage is about the spiritual gifts God gives everyone.  I have heard this thousands of times (and it always confirms that God gave me the gift of teaching), but today, I picked up something different.

Today she read and focused on the part that goes like this: “There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit” (4) and the rest of the verses around it that talk about how all praise and gifts come for the Lord.  The diversity of all is God-made.  She was using it to show us that however we worship is from God and it’s not wrong if it’s from God.

I took it a step further. I heard her say this, “The only sin Jesus mentions as being unforgivable is that of blasphemy.  Blasphemy is when you say something from God is wrong.  We come dangerously close to this all the time.”

Again, she was speaking of how we worship.  But I thought broader.  ALL PEOPLE are of God.  To pick and choose who you deem “acceptable” then is blasphemy.

Jesus did not just hang out with the rich, “righteous” people.  Quite the opposite.   He put himself among the “least of these,” the people society wanted to pretend didn’t exist.  He didn’t care about political views or race or ethnicity.  He didn’t care about gender or social status.  All people are God’s children.  ALL OF THEM.

He didn’t just tolerate people who were different than him; he accepted them.

We are told not to just tolerate, but to accept.  Otherwise? We are dancing on the verge of blasphemy.

Just because someone does something differently than you do, doesn’t make it wrong as long as it comes from a place of love and light.

Think about that. I did.  It’s not just how we are “saved” or how we worship. It’s not just about “church stuff”.

It’s about how we choose to parent.  What lifestyle we have.  Where we choose to live.  Who we support politically.  What views and beliefs we hold. Who we call our family. How we spend our money.  How we run our business. Who we choose as friends. How we spend our free time.

The list goes on.

If the choices are made for the right reasons? They are not wrong. Even if they are different than your choices.

Lord, for today’s encounters with all who are in need,
who hunger for acceptance, for righteousness and bread,
we need new eyes for seeing, new hands for holding on:
renew us with your Spirit; Lord, free us, make us one!

I almost stood up and yelled out, “AMEN, SISTA!” when she was done. But instead I smiled because it was exactly what I needed to hear.

It was exactly what has been on my heart.

I know I fail at this, if not out loud, in my head and heart.  I am working on it, and my prayer is that the rest of the world will work on it too.

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*Lyrics from “Help Us Accept Each Other”. which we sang at the close of church. emphasis added by me.

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