I Am Not In Church

For the second time in a month, I am not in church with my family.

The first time I was pretty horribly sick. I still have that sinus infection, but it’s not what is keeping me home today. I went last week and felt enormously…awkward. It wasn’t the people (although sitting toward the back didn’t help my feeling of disconnect), or the message, or really anything the church or the pastoral staff did or did not do.

I love our church because the familiar ritual of the pattern of the service have always given me a sense of calm in my crazy busy week.

But lately, it hasn’t been enough.

I am home today because, yes, I have tons to do before leaving for St. Louis on Thursday. I have school stuff to work on, writing to do, and between now and then this is the only alone time I will have. I needed these couple hours.

However, there is something else too.

My faith is hurting right now and going to church feels empty.

Whew. That was hard to write.

There is so so so much bad in the world and I do not feel comfort in that hour service like I used to. It feels…empty. It feels hollow. It feels like it’s not doing anything to help.

As we go through the familiar patterns of worship, I see how many people seem to be just “there.” They are not paying attention, on their phones, or more occupied with the drawing their kid is doing than what is being said/done in front of church. So what is the point?

What is the point of showing up if you’re not really there?

What good is sitting in church doing? What good are the words being said, the songs being sung, the bread being broken if we are just…there. How is that helping the the immense pain and suffering in the world?

I don’t know that there is a reason for everything. I don’t think I believe that everything bad eventually will bring a good. I don’t know if shooting up a church or a concert has a “good” to “even it out”. Or that God “has a plan” for shit like that.

I don’t think racism or sexual assault or bullying is part of anyone’s plan, let alone a God that is supposed to be love and goodness.

Yeah, I used the reason of needing to get stuff done to stay home today. And it’s not a total lie, but I definitely don’t want to sit in church and paint a friendly face on when I pass a peace I’m not sure I believe right now.

So I am not in church today.

Searching for Easter

Easter

Sunday was Easter.

I have lovely memories of Easter as a child. They all include family and candy and going to services that had loads of flowers and a big cross.

When Cortney and I got married we became the people who only went to church once in a while and always on Easter. I loved to sing the hymn “Low in the Grave He Lay” because when I belted out “UP FROM THE GRAVE HE AROSE!!” I felt my late Grandma Jo in my whole being. I didn’t really connect with the words on a religious level, but it was a spiritual experience and connection with my grandmother. It was the same at Christmas; I loved to sing the hymns she did. Both holidays hold a lot of significance for me because of my Grandmother, but not necessarily because of my faith.

Which is a problem for a Christian since Christmas and Easter are the two most significant days for the Christian Church. They are the bookends of what our faith is about: God sent his Son via immaculate conception to save the world by being crucified on a cross only to rise again three days later. Immaculate Conception and Resurrection from the Dead–the cornerstone beliefs of what makes a Christian a Christian, right?

But there I was on Sunday, sitting all squeezed into the front row (because as usual, The Sluiter family does not count punctuality as their strength–my fault completely) next to a family I didn’t recognize (because it was Easter and everyone comes on Easter), watching some of the people I love most lead worship with joy and excitement for the celebration that Easter is, and I was feeling…nothing.

Regular Sundays are my jam. I feel fed and nourished by the teachings of Jesus and the community that surrounds and loves me and my family. The familiarity of the pattern of worship renews my soul: The Approach, The Greeting, A Worship Hymn, Confession, Prayer, Assurance, The Passing of the Peace, The Children’s Message, Prayer, The Lectionary, The Sermon, Prayer, Communion, Prayer, Offering, Prayer, Announcements, The Sending of the Children to Children in Worship, The Closing Hymn, The Benediction. Our three pastors–all friends who I cherish–deliver their sermons in their own unique voice and help me to see and learn and feel closer to the teaching and love of Jesus.

I believe in the teachings of Jesus. I believe in the love and acceptance he taught. I believe in taking care of each other and being kind and helpful. I believe in sharing what I have with others–especially if they have less. I believe in using my privilege for good and for positive change. I believe in forgiveness, although it’s often hard for me to put into practice.

And I believe Jesus died, because every human dies.

What I struggle with is the Resurrection. I know the Bible says it happened. I know that without the Resurrection Christianity is nothing. The whole idea is that Jesus was made human so he could save us. That by dying on the cross, going to hell, coming back to Earth, and then going to heaven, he saved humanity.

Sitting squished between Cortney and Eddie in that sweaty front row, I couldn’t look my dear friend and pastor in the eye as he preached. I just felt heavy. That this world just doesn’t feel saved.

I don’t read the Old Testament literally. It’s Ok if you do; more power to you. Really. I don’t think that I’m going to hell because I don’t believe Jonah was legit swallowed–and lived in the gut of–a large fish. I read them as allegorical stories. Literature that is meant to teach life lessons and meaning. And I read the New Testament with the idea that the culture it was written in (Greek) and about (Middle East) is very different than our current culture. That not everything is going to align exactly.

Yet as Christians, we are supposed to read the Easter story (and Christmas story) completely literally. THIS STUFF REALLY HAPPENED. Because if it didn’t, what is it all for, right?

So I am wrestling with myself. I want to believe in the Resurrection. I want to believe that because Christ died, we will all live.

Our pastor said Sunday morning that we do not have to fear death. That because of Christ, death loses its power.

I guess that is what my struggle boils down to: I do very much fear death–my own, but also the death of those who I love so deeply. I obsess about it. It’s part of my anxiety disorder. When my intrusive thoughts begin, it always centers on death. I become increasingly agitated and paranoid. I lose sleep. And then I fall into depression.

It always starts with thoughts of death.

Because what if this is it? What if all of this is man-made so we can tell ourselves we are not afraid of death?

I’m ending this post with a picture of Eddie, Charlie, and Alice on Easter morning outside of church. They are still filled with the joy of celebration. It was a special day at church. There were flowers and Alleluias. There was an egg hunt after the services. They wore new clothes (except shoes because I totally forgot they needed shoes). There was excited anticipation for the rest of the day that would be filled with family and candy.

I never want them to be afraid like I am.

Easter

My wonderful friend, The Pastor’s Wife, shared this link with me this week, and I ugly cried when I read it because it was exactly EXACTLY how I felt Sunday morning. If you are also feeling alone with your doubt, I strongly suggest clicking over.

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.

Mary

Before having kids, Cortney and I “shopped” for a church home. Most places we went treated us kindly enough–people shook our hands and said, “welcome”, but that was about it. Even our current church was kind, but not overly so. It had been a long time since we had gone regularly and in those days before kids, we were greeted as if we were new.  This sort of bugged Cortney since he had been a member of our church since childhood.

We found a church we thought could be our church home, but by then I was largely pregnant with Eddie, it was winter, and sleeping in on Sunday rather than driving to a church where we didn’t know anyone seemed exhausting.

We had Eddie and Charlie baptized in our current church, and when Charlie was about 18 months old, we started going back regularly.

This time was different than the first time though. This time we were friends with more people and they welcomed us with open arms.

I figured we would just start going to Sunday services and send Eddie to Sunday School. You know, sort of ease in.

Nope. This was not what God planned for us, apparently. He was maybe sick of us “easing in” for the past eight years, so we were thrown right in.

My friend, The Preacher’s Wife, approached me about “helping” with our Sunday School program: Children in Worship. I figured I would be a helper in one of the rooms occasionally, but I found myself teaching right away.

And that is how I met Mary.

lordshepherd

Mary has been involved with the Children in Worship program for as long as it’s been a part of our church. She knows all the stories, knows what story objects go with every story box, what reflection activities each grade did with most of the stories, and she remembers all the children and loves them all individually. She remembers Cortney being in Children in Worship when he was a wee lad.

She was not just kind and welcoming, she was the epitome of love when she heard I would be joining the team. She held my hand and told me she was so glad. She already loved Eddie from his few times, and looked forward to Charlie joining in as well.

When I told her I was pregnant last summer, her eyes filled with tears and her hands went to her face in excited joy. Then she hugged me.

Before Alice was born, she loved her.

When Alice was set to be baptized, The Preacher’s Wife gave her a vintage baptismal gown, but Mary found the idea of making a hankie into a bonnet with this small poem:

I’m just a dainty hanky,
As square as square can be.
With stitches hands have fashioned
A bonnet out of me.

She’ll wear me home, a newborn,
Or for a special day.
Then I’ll be washed and pressed and
so neatly tucked away.

When Her Wedding Day arrives,
She’ll search about I’m told,
To find an item quite small
Of long ago and old.

And when she spots baby’s cap
No better will she see.
Snip out my stitches, and a
Wedding hanky I’ll be.

by Howard Ray White

She came to visit Alice and me in the hospital and gave me a tiny knit hat meant for a great granddaughter she would never have (she has all great grandsons).

She delivered our family a meal when Alice and I were released from the hospital.

She pats the boys on the heads and always asks them how they are. The boys love “Grandma Mary”. She is one of many “Church Grandmas” my children are blessed to have, but she will always be the very first.

Mary is always there with encouragement and unconditional love. She never expects anything in return, but hold my hand each Sunday and asks how I am–and really wants to know. Love and grace ooze out of her very being.

Without Mary’s genuine love and welcoming for my whole family, we may not have stayed regular church-goers and I know I would not be as involved as I am with our church family.

Mary has been described by many as a saint, but I am sure she would brush that off because all she does is love. But that is so much. In fact, it’s the greatest command, Jesus says.

And Mary does it as best as any human can.

At the end of last week, I received some devastating news about our beloved Mary. Once again I would have to sit my boys down and tell them someone we love is going to make a trip to Heaven soon.

Our hearts are hurting for our Mary. For her family. For our own hearts.

It’s hard to see why God would allow something to happen to the best of the best. We don’t understand. We feel that familiar feeling of being lost in a sea of sorrow and questions.

The image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd has always been a favorite of Mary’s. I can see that she takes it to heart–loving those around her and guiding them to safe places. She certainly guided my heart and family to the safe place that is now our church family.

We hope Mary feels God’s love. We hope Mary feels all of our love and our prayers.

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
forever.

Psalm 23

In His Image

So God created mankind in his own image; in the image of God he created them.
Genesis 1:27

 I have been sick to my stomach every time I turn on the news or open social media. I see article after article and post after post and video clip after video clip discussing and showing how racism is so institutionalized, it’s rooted in our every day lives.  So much so, that people are still still arguing in the comment sections about whether or not the Charleston murders were motivated by race.

HOW IS THIS EVEN DEBATABLE??? HOW CAN PEOPLE STILL NOT SEE THE PROBLEM?

I have not used my words.

I have shared the words of others over and over. I “like” stuff to show my support. But I have not used my words.

I have been reading comments and posts that make me so angry I can’t even see straight. I want to quit. I want to turn it all off. I want to plug my ears and sing LA LA LA to it all. I don’t want to let it affect me.

And you know what? I could do that. I could.

It would be easy to “block” anything with Charleston or racism in it on Facebook so it doesn’t show up in my feed. And then I wouldn’t have to think about it because it doesn’t directly affect my every day life.

Because I am white.

Because I am white, I could easily shut it off.

But I don’t. I make myself read it and hate it and cry over it.

And it’s not enough. All that pain I feel? It’s not even close to that being my life.

Being hated, suspected, judged…it is woven into the fabric of Black America. Of any color America other than white.

We say, “No. Not me.” But that is how institutionalized racism works. You may not consciously think, “man, I hate black people. They are all lesser humans.”  You may even BELIEVE you are not racist at all. But it’s in your brain. Our country has planted that seed down deep.

It’s everywhere. It’s in all of our cultural images. It’s in our socioeconomic system. It’s in business.

Why is the largest group of people in poverty people of color? It’s because since the day the slaves were freed, there has been no easy way to climb out of nothing. The white people were at the top and they stayed there.

“Oh, Katie,” you might say, “but we have a Black president and my neighbor is Black and he is a CEO.” Yes. Of course. But what about the cycle of poverty swirling at the bottom of America?

I’m not here to talk economics or politics. In fact, there will be those who only focus on my lack of knowing statics and miss my point here entirely.

And my point is: RACISM IS STILL A THING.

I simply cannot understand how people can hear a bowl-cutted runt of a white supremacist say…SAY…he hates black people and felt it was his “mission” to gun them down after praying with them for an HOUR and STILL say, “well, let’s not jump to the conclusion that this was race-related. This country doesn’t have racism like they used to.”

WHAT THE HELL?

Last night I stayed up too late feeling hopeless.

So white and so hopeless to help or be able to do anything ever to help.

Hopelessly helpless.

This morning, I got up, went to church and sat through a powerful sermon about racism. About getting out of our comfort zones–a small, affluent, mostly white mid-western town–and use our voice and words and anything else to break down the racism.

To be uncomfortable and examine our own prejudices which certainly are there because we are a part of the machine that is a broken world, a broken country.

I don’t know what God looks like, but, as it was pointed out this morning, we are all created in his image. Not his white image. Just “his image”.

That means Asian, Native American, White, Black, Muslim, and on and on…ALL…ALL OF US…in his image.

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Galatians 3:28

In Jesus we are all exactly the same. All of us. He created all of us. Not just white people. Not just Christians. ALL OF US.

Stop acting like the racism isn’t there. Stop being comfortable that it’s someone else’s problem and that is just “too bad” for them.

Stop it.

As a member of the Reformed Church of America, I adhere to the beliefs confessed in the Belhar Confession, but the one that I believe applies here is the one brought up this morning:

We believe…that this unity must become visible so that the world may believe that separation, enmity and hatred between people and groups is sin which Christ has already conquered, and accordingly that anything which threatens this unity may have no place in the church and must be resisted (John 17:20-23)

The Belhar Confession stresses unity and was originally drafted in South Africa during Apartheid. The church carefully and prayerfully considered its role in race issues, and the Belhar was born. The Dutch Reformed Mission Church adopted it in 1986.

We must break down the walls of hate. I believe as a Christian I am actually called to break down this hate. It is my job.

Even if it makes me uncomfortable to raise my voice and say so. ESPECIALLY if it makes me uncomfortable. Because if I am uncomfortable saying it, that means it’s there and it scares me.

And it should scare you too.

God Created mankind in His Image; in His image He created them."

Being a Sheep

There is a song that our children sing in church. It goes:

I just wanna be a sheep, baa baa baa baa
I just wanna be a sheep baa baa baa baa
I pray the Lord my soul to keep
I just wanna be a sheep baa baa baa baa*

It’s a cute song and my boys love to sing it, especially because the other verses talk about what we don’t “wanna be”: a hypocrite (they’re just not hip with it), a Pharisee  (‘cuz their not fair, you see), or a Sadducee (because they’re so sad, ya see).

I certainly don’t want to be a hypocrite (although I know I am sometimes) or the other things either, but I don’t know if I can stand up and shout I JUST WANNA BE A SHEEP! either.

Every time the image of Jesus as the Shepard and his followers as the sheep comes up, I cringe a little. I know. That sounds awful, and I feel a little awful writing it.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the pastoral imagery, the connotations that He keeps us safe with love and guidance, and I am even ok with the whole “follow” him thing. I want to follow Jesus and his teachings. I do. I am a big believer in love and kindness.

But I don’t think I want to be a sheep.

sheep

Sheep follow blindly. They don’t question. Sheep are dumb. Sheep are thoughtless.

When I think of people as sheep, I think of that popular insult on the internet: Sheeple. You know, those people who seem to believe (and follow) every “expert” they read on the internet. The ones who blindly follow “data” without following up on it themselves. Those who don’t vaccinate, or do vaccinate, or use baby wraps, or co-sleep, or don’t co-sleep or vote Democrat or Republican, or repost articles without ever doing their own fact-checking. People who jump on bandwagons simply by trusting that what people (and the internet) tell them is true.

I know, I know. Jesus is different.

He’s a different kind of shepard. He cares about us and won’t lead us down the wrong path.

I get that. I do. And there probably isn’t other imagery that the writers of the scriptures could have used to adequately describe the idea that Jesus will take care of us if we follow him.

But honestly, that is where my faith gets weak. I have no problem getting behind the teachings of Christ. Love your neighbor? You betcha (even though I fail often, I still believe in this)! Love is the greatest? Yes, sir! Don’t throw a rock unless you are free from sin? Standing ovation.

I even get the whole, “Katie? You have to trust me. I know what I’m doing.” I get that. I don’t always act like it, but I do believe it.

But “act like a sheep and just follow with no questions just blind faith?”  I don’t think I can.

You see, I have lots of questions. If I was to be a sheep, I would be the bad sheep. I would be the one in the back saying, “where are we going? Will there be a snack because I’m hungry. What about a rest? Are we going to get a rest soon? My legs hurt. Hey, that tree is nice. Did you pick this way because of the nice view?  Do you think this wool makes my butt look big? I think I need a shear.”

I would be relentless.

I know there are Christians out there who would tell me, “just be quiet. He will take care of it.”  And I know in the Bible Jesus tells us not to worry. Birds don’t have to worry. Flowers don’t have to worry. And neither do we.

But I have questions. I have doubts. I mean, there have been some pretty terrible leaders who have told people just to trust them because they know what Jesus is all about and then those people drank some Kool-aid and well, let’s just say they didn’t end up in a green pasture.

I’m not comparing Jesus to those leaders. I’m saying those leaders thought they knew what Jesus wanted and they talked a bunch of sheep-like people into believing it too because sheep do as they are told. They think what they are told to think.

I can’t do that. I ask all the questions and have all the opinions.

“Listen, Shepard. Where do we go when we die? Why does it scare me so much? Is there a sheep heaven? Is it really like the book of Revelation says because honestly? That sounds weird. Why do good sheep fall down? Why do good sheep get made into stew and chops? Why are goats bad? Is it Ok if that goat is my friend? Because he plays a wicked guitar solo and I dig his sense of humor.”

Ok, so my questions and doubts are a little heavier that that, but you get the idea.

I can’t shut it off. I can’t stop being me with all my thinking and whatnot.

Sometimes I wish I could. I wish church would give us a little handbook that says, “Here are your opinions on all the things. Go forth and believe them no matter how anyone challenges them. DO NOT THINK ABOUT IT; JUST DO IT.”

But I know I would fail at faith if that was how it worked.

In fact, as a young adult, I thought that was how it worked and I thought I failed.  I’m coming to find out now, that maybe I’m ok the way I am: full of questions, doubts, and opinions.

But is it Ok to not wanna be a sheep?

*************

*lyrics and music for I Just Wanna Be a Sheep

**googling free images of sheep will make you happy because sheep are rather cute, if not totally stupid.

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.

crack the door

I started going to the chiropractor this summer (which is a whole post in and of itself). I’ve got the routine down pat: Go in the exam room, take off clothes from the waist up, put on gown, crack the door so the doctor knows you’re ready. There is even a little sign that reminds us: “Female patients: crack the door about a half inch when you are ready”.

I wondered a little bit what would happen if I forgot to crack the door. Would I just sit there waiting and waiting? Would someone knock? Or would it be up to me to open the door to let the doctor in?

Closed doors are sort of the international sign for “go away,” aren’t they?

When I don’t want anyone disturbing my class, I shut the door.

When Eddie and Charlie are not available to play with the neighbor kids, we shut the garage door.

When we need privacy in the bathroom, we shut the door.

When we want to keep someone out, we shut the door. When we are ready to have visitors, we open it.

door-cracked-open

I don’t think I ever really shut my heart to God, but I did close it far enough that the “crack” was barely visible. At least to human eyes. In all my youthful questioning, the door was never really shut. It was later, when loss seemed to be our new way of life that I started bumping the door to almost shut.

When Cortney lost his job, Eddie was 3 months old and colicky, and I was suffering from depression and anxiety, the door was as good as closed. I hadn’t pushed it all the way to latching, but I wanted nothing to do with a God who would take away so much from me and my family. One who seemed to want nothing but pain and hurt to wave over us.

If ever I was going to shut my heart’s door, it was then.

But for some reason I didn’t actually give it that last push. I didn’t allow it to latch.

And even though it appeared to everyone–including myself–that my heart was closed to church and God and anything having to do with religion, God knew it wasn’t really closed.

Over the past nine months, I’ve cracked my heart’s door. I’ve allowed some light to pour through. I’ve cautiously opened myself to new relationships with people, church, and Jesus.

That is not to say that I’ve flung my door wide open and am swaying to praise music with my arms in the air. No. I have questions. I have doubts. I wonder how my political and social views fit with the theology of the church.

I remain cautious as I continue to learn and grow in this newish faith. I carefully watch and listen as I am told that the church is called to be one, but to embrace diversity of all kinds. Disagreement doesn’t mean you’re kicked out.

So I have cracked the door to my heart to let the light in a little because I am ready.

*************

Don’t forget to join me tomorrow (Tue, July 15) at 8pm est for a twitter party with Imagine Toys! Follow #ImagineToys and learn about blogging opps, possibly win prizes, and have fun!

I don’t want to

A couple weeks ago I came to this space to write out my anger toward God.

Even though I closed comments on that post, many of you (many) reached out to me to tell me that either you could relate, to tell me your story, or to give me encouragement and prayers.

I want to thank you.

I have been wrestling with God since that post.

Today (Sunday) I sat in church for the first time since spring {we may take the summer off…I know, I KNOW} and guess what the sermon was about?  Yup. Bad stuff happening in the world.

I wish I could tell you that after two weeks of having my prayers sound like arguments, I could tell you that today’s sermon gave me the Ah Ha moment I so badly wanted and lifted my spirit.  But instead, I sat there feeling the old anger burn inside of me.  The tears were hot in my eyes and my heart beat hard against my chest.  For a second, I actually got tunnel vision staring at the visiting pastor that ended in a fight or flight response.

I so badly wanted to run out of that sanctuary, away from the pew I shared with Cortney, and out into the chilly fall air. I wanted to sit in the parking lot and cry.

This wouldn’t have been the first time I ran from this message.

Around Christmas of 2007, Cort and I were at a holiday family retreat with the entire side of his family. I was not yet pregnant with Eddie, but I had had one miscarriage and would have a second that spring.

Over 80 of us all in one building for a cozy weekend. It was glorious.

Cortney has two cousins who are preachers.  They take turns each year preaching the Saturday night “service” to all of us in the Great Room of the Lodge that we rent.  It is cozy and lovely.

That year, the more conservative of the two preacher-cousins gave us our message. Since we were gathering closer to New Year’s than Christmas that year, he chose to center his message on the idea of starting over.  A large part of his message was about how the pain in our lives is caused by sin.

I couldn’t take it.  The miscarriage was too fresh and I lost my mind. I ran from the room, crumpled on the bathroom floor of our room, and sobbed. I refused to believe that I miscarried because I somehow wasn’t good enough.  That Cort or I sinned and God was punishing us with a miscarriage. I seemed so…wrong. And not the loving God I had known my whole life.

When Cortney came to comfort me, he said everyone assumed I was crying because of the absence of his dad.  And then I started crying harder. Did we lose Steve because we sinned?  Did Steve have to get cancer because of something he didn’t do “correctly”?  That went against everything I believe in my heart.

I was so angry, and instead of going and talking to anyone about it, I just ran away.

But today in church I didn’t run. Instead, I fumbled clumsily through my purse hoping I had a pen. I did.  And I began to scribble furiously over my bulletin, wishing I had my Bible with me since I figure writing all over the pew Bible and then stealing it is frowned upon.

Over and over the pastor said, “Pain comes from sin,” but he never said whose sin.

I have always known that the shitty things in this world are because there is sin in the world.  This world we have? Is not what God originally intended. He gave us free will and with that came the invention of Bad Choices. Sin is a CHOICE, says the pastor man.

The problem is someone else’s Bad Choices end up affecting other people…generations of millions of people.

Because of Bad Choices there are things like cancer and infertility and diabetes and AIDS.  We have birth defects and brain defects and social defects.  We have hunger and rape and genocide and chemical weapons.

The whole message today was based on Jeremiah. A quick recap for those who are not familiar with my man Jeremiah. He got a crap job.  Even our preacher said no one wants a “Jeremiah Assignment”. It means you have a really, REALLY difficult time ahead of you.  You have to “destroy” and “tear down” in order to make new…in order to bring people to God.

So Jeremiah didn’t want this assignment because who would, honestly?  Being sent into a people who are going to hate your guts and you will have to bring down destruction on them in order to save the rest?  Total short straw, yo.

But God tells him this right before he sends him off to the Worst Assignment Ever: “They will fight against you, but they shall not prevail against you, for I am with you, declares the Lord, to deliver you.” (Jeremiah 1:19)

Jeremiah is sent to a bunch of sinners. To a bunch of Bad Choice Makers.

But here is the thing I want to know…did I lose two pregnancies because of my sins or because of those sins that happened way back in Jeremiah’s day?

God had a Purpose. Send Jeremiah to spread his word, destroy the bad, make new again.  So lots and lots of people suffered for the Good of the Whole.

But what about those of us who are already “with God”?  If pain comes from sin, and God has a purpose in pain…

I’m just going to say it here because I’ve said it straight to God: “WHAT THE HELL?”

I’m going to go all selfish here (and maybe that’s my sin?) there are plenty of people who are sinners who don’t care that they are sinners and they have no intention of following love or anything and they have kids that they beat and kill and rape.  Are my friends and family and I suffering for their sins too? Is that it? Do we lose people or get sick or suffer because of the sins of others?

Am I supposed to be an example of what Godly Suffering looks like? Because like Jeremiah and Job and  Moses and anyone else God has ever asked, “I DON’T  WANT TO.”

Also? It’s not fair.

I am not comparing myself to those prophets and disciples. I’m not. In fact, I am way WAY less than they are. Because right now? If you gave me the choice between saving myself from hell and giving a friend her baby back? Or bring my husband his dad back? I would give them those people and go right to hell for it.

So yea, God and I, we have been talking.  I’ve repeatedly begged him to show me something that made sense.

I still thank him for all the many MANY blessings in my life because…well, my life is a charmed one.  But he and I, we sit at the table over coffee and we have deep, hard discussions. I ask him big questions. I grill him on things my soul hurts over.

And I am still too chicken to let you comment here. So there’s that.

”Blogging

messy faith

I’m no theologian or religion scholar.  Shoot, we don’t even get to church every week due to one thing or another, so I am certain the things I say in this post will probably offend someone somewhere.  Maybe even my own family.  Maybe people will be disappointed in me after this…if I publish it at all.

The thing is, faith and spirituality are very important to Cort and me.  It’s something we have found ourselves discussing a lot lately.  In fact, I remember a conversation he and I had over a decade ago…long before we ever knew we would be anything but friends…about faith.  I was amazed that he “got me” and what I was trying to say without missing my point completely like most people do.  I guess that should have been my first clue.  But that is another post all together.

Anyway, I have been thinking a lot about the power religion has over people and how personal it is.  It amazes me how nothing can tear people apart and cause more hate and war and death than religion.

Even though almost all religions are based on the idea of loving people and serving one another to honor God (or whatever name certain religions call him), people can somehow turn love into the most passionate hate on the planet and wipe out generations of people.

All over a belief.

If you have a belief it means you are confident in something that has no proof (or can’t be proven in the traditional, scientific sense).

Right there.  See? Some of you are feeling a bit huffy and getting on the defense because I said “there is no proof you are right”.

But you feel right, right?  You are SURE of it.  You believe your beliefs.  You have faith that they are the correct way to think and live.

But it’s still a belief.

Religion was created by humans to organize around a set shared beliefs.

I have to be honest. I don’t know what I think about religion.

I don’t feel like all these rules and interpretations and bickering about what God thinks is right is really what it’s all about.  I don’t like the idea of being told a set of stories and passages and told to believe it, without questioning it too much.

I don’t even really think I believe that heaven and hell are really places. I mean, I believe there is more to this life than what we see here in front of us. I believe in the soul’s of people; that we are different than other life on earth because of our souls; even that part of us lives on in the ones we love and in the world around us after we are gone.  But I don’t really think, for instance, that my father-in-law is sitting on a cloud with a golden harp.  Nor do I believe that there are people gnashing their teeth or tearing their clothing in hellfire either.

I mean, maybe.  But I don’t know.  I don’t think it’s even my job to have to know.  I mean, how can I know?

Because the Bible tells me?  That’s a whole other can of worms.  The Bible.

I read the Bible every day.  I consider it the center of my faith.  But do I think all the stories in there are historical and/or scientific fact?  No.  Do I think the lessons in the Bible are real.  Heck yes.

I just don’t take it all literally.

But I take it spiritually. I learn how to love from it.

There are some people who are shaking their heads and sure that now I am going to hell because I don’t really believe the way I am supposed to.  But I don’t feel like my relationship with God is less because of my doubts or questions.

Could I be wrong?  Yup.  Could I be right?  Maybe.

But that is my point.  No one can no for sure.  I think it’s human to doubt and question and ebb and flow in our faith and beliefs.  I think that is natural.

I am confident in my belief that whatever doubts or questions I am having, it’s Ok. God is Ok with me just like I am when Eddie comes to me with questions and doubts.  God is a patient Father who listens to my worries and doubts and lets me in on what I need to be in on and nothing further.  Just like I don’t tell Eddie all the details of our budget, I assure him daddy and mommy can provide food and a house for him and his brother.

We communicate.  And that is what I do with God.

I tell God when I don’t get something.  I tell him when something in the Bible contradicts something else in there that I read.  I mean, I know he knows.  While we are told God is the author of the Bible, that isn’t entirely true.  He inspired the humans who wrote the letters and prophesies and pieces that are included.  He inspired millions of other people’s writings that were never included, nor have been included since it was first put together.  Humans put that book together and called it God’s Word.

When something doesn’t make sense to me, like why would God kill all the innocent first born male Egyptian children before he rescued the Jewish people from Pharaoh?  They weren’t the sinners.  I mean, if God killed Eddie to punish me, yes it would horribly punish me. I would want to die too, but isn’t there something he could do to me and not my innocent child?  And then did those Egyptian children get to go to Heaven?  It wasn’t their fault they weren’t Jewish and born before Jesus came to save the world.  Or did they hang out in hell until Jesus died, went to hell, and came back?  And I don’t believe that God does this to people. I don’t believe the bad in the world comes from Him.  So why did it then?

These are the things that I think about when someone posts something in my facebook feed that informs me that Easter is evil because of the pagan beginnings, despite the fact that Christians don’t actually celebrate the pagan stuff.

When someone gets so very wrapped up in rules and “laws” and they seem to lose the idea of love, forgiveness, and salvation.

When someone seems to be living their life worried about what something is called instead of living for the actual thing.

When someone claims they are righteous and able to judge others because that is what “God tells them to do”.

I don’t think I have the right to tell you what I believe about your fate based on what I think your beliefs are, and I sure as heck don’t want people doing that to me.  In fact, I don’t think I have a right to make any judgement call on your fate nor you on mine.

Yet there are still people who will read this and choose to “save” me from all this doubt.

But I am Ok with the doubt.  I am solid in my relationship with Christ.  After 35 years of being around Christianity, for the first time in my life I feel like I’ve got a solid foundation with God.  Even though I have more questions than I ever had before.

I don’t think I’ll ever know the answers to a lot of those questions.  But that is where faith takes over.

Even though it can’t be proven, I just have faith.

I just do.

There are plenty of things I could point to that I can see, “see that?  That is part of why I have this faith,” but I’m not going to.

Not in this post.

This post is far to long as it is, but because the words wouldn’t stop bumping me behind the eyes, they had to come out.

My faith is messy, but it’s my messy faith.

And it makes me happy and gives me hope in this world that is so very full of hurt and hopelessness.

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