My faith journey has been a lot of ups and downs, with most of my “ups” being periods of hyper-religiosity and churchiness and my “downs” being periods of spiritual apathy. Even in the lowest points of my faith journey, I never gave up believing in something Higher. I stopped going to church for nearly 10 years. I would identify as “agnostic” in some conversations. But, I always believed that there was a God somewhere, that God was benevolent, all-powerful, all-knowing. That was a Truth that I was never willing to compromise.
That all changed for me in the Summer of 2013. As background: the fourteen months between June of 2012 and August of 2013 were a period of uncertainty for me. I had a brush with suicide in June of 2012, and a follow-up stay in a psychiatric institution. But, I also rediscovered a desire to be involved in the church and the community of faith after 10 years away. I found Jesus again after planning my own death. And, while I had a difficult time (publicly and privately) defining my faith, I knew that I was a Christian in a way that I had never known before.
In August of 2013, our family was touched by tragedy. An infant boy, the child of dear friends whom I had prayed for fiercely and continuously, died. I felt the grief of this child’s death as though he was my own son – I consider his parents, especially his father, to be more family than friends. I was devastated and angry. And I began to seriously consider the idea that God simply didn’t exist.
As a combat veteran (an Army medic), I have seen my share of death. But, the deaths of my fellow Soldiers, while awful and tragic and devastating, never struck me as unfair. After all, these men and women chose to be Soldiers, and they knew that Death was a risk. But, the death of a child – one who fought as hard as he could to be whole and healthy, whose parents loved him dearly and suffered through every hospital visit with hope and optimism – was distinctly unfair.
And, suddenly, everywhere I looked there was evidence of God’s seeming indifference to creation. Friends being diagnosed with cancer. Loved ones dying before their time. Soldiers still dying in wars that seemed more and more senseless.
I searched for answers outside the faith community, and I found the answers that I was looking for. Based on the hard evidence of the world around me, there was no God. The God that I had believed in all my life was imaginary. The Bible was a book of fairy stories, and Christians were living in varying degrees of delusion.
For 3 months – which is not long, but it felt longer – I railed against the kind of Christianity that shut its eyes to the suffering of the world, that insisted that there was a “Divine Plan” (which included kids being blown up in warzones and babies dying of illnesses before they learn to speak). I prided myself on my newly-found intellectual honesty, and had really wonderful conversations with people that I’d never had much in common with before. It allowed me to see the world of the church from the “other side”, and I really didn’t like much of what I saw.
How do you go from being a Christian, to being an atheist, to being a Christian again? Some of my friends outside the faith community think I simply buried my intellect and went with the crowd (and I would be dishonest if I said that, on my more depressed days, I didn’t agree with them.) But, it’s a lot more than that. I had, until that point, always believed that Christianity was a series of True/False propositions – even when I held unorthodox or even heretical ideas, I always thought of myself as finding the right Truth to cling to. Truth was the highest value of my Christian faith, and so when one of the Truths that I had always held about my faith – that God answers prayers in a literal sense, that God is “in control” of how the world behaves day-to-day – when that Truth became invalid, the entire house of cards fell apart.
But, what I had left, even after I had denied the existence of God, was an experience. I had the knowledge that something had happened to me, on numerous occasions, something that had made me stop and acknowledge a Presence that I could neither see nor understand. By denying the existence of God, I was invalidating a part of myself, and a part of a community that I had been a part of for over 20 years. And while I could argue the cold, hard, observable facts, I could not seem to convince either the community or myself that our collective experience was invalid.
And, so, I took a few tentative, stumbling steps back into a community that received me as though I had never left, as though I hadn’t said hurtful things on Facebook walls or challenged their most basic beliefs. They hugged me and loved me. And, through them, I realized that the problem wasn’t with God, the problem was with how I had learned to see God, how I had learned to experience my faith. Through the community I’m a part of, I learned how to build a faith that doesn’t depend on certain things being True or False, but a faith that is built around the relationships of the people who adhere to it, a faith that is less believed and more lived. The authors (and, yes, I wrote that as a plural without a capital A) of the Bible experienced God as events that seemed supernatural – we experience God through the wonders of science, the beauty of nature, and the way we connect to each other as human beings. The authors of the Bible believed that everything bad that ever happened was God’s judgement, and everything good was God’s blessing. We understand that natural disasters are natural, that medicine can’t heal every illness, and that most of the good things that happen are a result of either hard work, the generosity of others, or just coincidence.
The title says that I’m going to tell you how I’m moving forward, so here it is: my belief is in my life. I don’t need a 6-Day Creation, a Great Flood, a Virgin Birth or a literal Resurrection to give to the poor, visit the sick or love my enemies. I want to do those things, even with no religious belief. BUT… Jesus taught His followers to do those things. And, His followers (or, at least, their followers) believed that Jesus was born of a Virgin and rose bodily from the Grave. He was important to them, and I want to follow His teachings. So, I’m going to live like I believe. I’m going to show my belief through what I do.
I’m going to pray – not because I expect anything from God, but because prayer changes me. It brings me close to the person for whom I’m praying, it makes me far more likely to do something for them.
I’m going to go to church, sing the songs (even when I don’t know the words) and listen to the sermons – not because I need to do that, but because community is the most powerful force, for good or for ill, that history has ever seen.
I’m going to serve, especially in areas where the Church has been traditionally afraid to go. I’m going to seek out the “tax collectors and sinners”, the Samaritans of our time, and I’m going to stand in the gap for them. I’m going to pick up their cross and carry it for them. And I’m going to find new ways to love the ones that I’m standing in opposition to – to remember that, even as I’m standing against ideas, people need to be loved and respected.
I’m going to evangelize – but not the kind of evangelism that passes out tracts or asks people if they know where they’re going when they die. I’m bring this Good News: that there is evil in the world, but that good will always overcome it. That there is hatred in the world, but that love will always overwhelm it. That there is darkness in the world, but that Light has shone through it.
And, this Good News needs to be given to more than just “the world”: the Church needs to hear this. So, I commit myself to continuing to be an Evangelist (An Unlikely One?), to the human community. I have found the Good News, and it was different than I thought it was. I always thought the Good News was that Jesus died for me – it turns out, the Good News is that He lived. He loved. And He not only taught us how to do the same, He died to show us.
In short, as I go forward in my human journey, I’ve learned that the highest value of Christianity (or any faith) is not Truth; it’s Love.