An Open Letter To The Church

            Dear Church,

            Where do I even begin?

            Maybe my anger? Let’s start with my anger.

            It started out with discomfort when I was younger. I was irritated but most days I didn’t know why. I just knew sometimes I didn’t like what you did. Sometimes it was just a feeling in the pit of my stomach. Soon it became a hurt that was a burden to me. It was confusing. It felt like betrayal. I guess I just thought that maybe you would be the one who would never hurt me or never let me down. I thought it would be different with you. Because, well, because you’re the Church. I guess I thought you were above that.

            Turns out I was wrong.

            So yeah. I was angry. I had a right to be. I was angry at what I heard on the news about pastor’s sexual assault allegations. I was angry at how you use fear as a coercive method to obtain converts. I was angry at your obsession with purity culture and how much it hurts young women. Angry at your reputation for shunning LGBTQ individuals. I was angry at how you made me feel; sometimes I felt like I wasn’t allowed to disagree with you. You made me feel so small. And when I got angry, you took my anger and threw it back in my face. You questioned my loyalty to you. You made me think that God was angry. Or at the very least, that God’s anger was like mine. No mercy, only judgement. Fierce. Brutal. A hurricane tearing down everything in its path.

            I used to think that when God asked me to forgive, it would be towards “sinners.” I thought it would be easy because I would only need to say “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” But you did know, didn’t you? What was your excuse? Defending tradition? Theology? Were you afraid of the proverbial slippery slope that beckoned every time you dropped the bar for grace a little bit lower?

            I never thought I would need to extend grace to you; I thought Christ had covered you enough. I thought that if you understood who you were then maybe you wouldn’t behave this way.  I thought you would meet me where I was. I expected you to turn away the Pharisees not pick up stones against me. I thought you would see that I’m trying my best. I’m struggling; does my struggle mean nothing to you? Does my pain not matter? Are you listening? Sometimes I don’t think you’re listening. I think you’re forming your counterargument.

            So I continued to hold onto my anger through clenched fists.

            But every day, more anger spilled out through the cracks between my fingers. I found when I held on tighter, it only leaked out faster.

            I have to forgive you because I know I’m not the only one who’s hurting. You’re hurting too, aren’t you? You’re trying your best too, aren’t you? You’re interpreting the Bible to the best of your ability, right? You are this way because of your culture. Your family. Your history. Your fears. But at the end of the day, I know you’re struggling too. We just don’t show it the same way. I find comfort in my rebellion and you find comfort in the routine. We are both afraid to be wrong. We are both grappling with life and theology and we’re trying to make it meaningful.

            I know. You’re trying your hardest.

            I know we hurt each other. I know I acted out when I shouldn't have. I understand that sometimes I'm a handful. Sometimes my questions frighten you. They once frightened me. You stay with your routines because you are afraid to be wrong; you are afraid that I am lost. Believe me, sometimes I worry about that too. I have accused you and blamed you for my suffering. I held onto my rage longer than I should have. I made this all out to be your fault when I know we both threw punches. 

            I’m trying to let go of our history of pain. I’m trying to remember that you are not perfect. You are flawed. When imperfect people gather, things get messy. I’m trying to remember that it wasn’t all bad either. No, of course not.

            You know, people ask me why I keep coming back even after all that’s happened. People question why I even care at all. And the truth is that you made me who I am. And for all the times you hurt me, I know there were twice as many times where you comforted me. You were the one to give me a home when I was a wanderer. You taught me the meaning of compassion and unconditional love. I know you couldn’t love me flawlessly but you tried tirelessly. You were there for every time I was in the hospital and every time I needed food or money or a friend. You showed me how to dig deep and to think.

            And lately, I’ve been thinking about how Church is not a place. It is not what happens on Sunday mornings. Church is not just sermons and hymns. Church is study dates with other Christians. Its late night therapy sessions with friends and too much wine. It's homemade lasagna when money is tight. It’s going rock climbing and cheering each other on with every step. It’s all the group chats that are more a place to share internet memes. It’s the lunch dates. It’s crying together over hamburgers. Its pole classes with my best friend. It’s knowing that people have my back no matter where I go. It's all the people I can have healthy debates with; people who challenge me to think. It is those people who encourage me to grow. Knowing that no matter where in the world I am, there is the Church.

            Some Sunday’s I don’t even know what was preached. I don’t have a take home lesson but I still feel so full. I know that by Saturday when I am worn down and exhausted, I can’t wait for the morning. Never have I been able to find a place, an idea, as beautiful as Church. 

            We are broken people with broken hearts. We ache together. We suffer together. I think I need to let go of the idea that Church is full of healthy people. 

            It's like that quote from Silver Linings Playbook. "The world will break your heart ten ways to Sunday. That's guaranteed. I can't begin to explain that. Or the craziness inside myself and everyone else. But you know what? Sunday's my favorite day again."

            I guess I’m learning to forgive you. I hope you’ll forgive me too.

The Hope Of The Resurrection

            It is the year 2011. My hands grip the porcelain in front of me. My knees hurt from kneeling for so long. For a moment, I stop breathing. I cough. I cough until I feel the bile rising from my stomach. I cough until it’s out. I feel the burning sensation. I can feel it eroding my teeth. Burning my throat. But I throw up the one thing I have eaten in the last 24 hours. The handful of popcorn sits in the toilet water in front of me.

            I stop holding onto the toilet and begin holding onto myself. My hands clutch my stomach fat. My nails dig into my flesh. Deeper. Deeper. Deeper.

            This body that I am in is wrong. This body is drenched in sin. It’s ugly. It’s wrong. One day we will escape here. That is our hope. That is our goal. Get the hell out of here. Everything is wrong. I’m wrong. This body is a mistake. But Jesus died for my soul. Jesus died for my soul that will go to heaven and not be in this body anymore. Someday, I told myself, I will not have this nose or these legs or this stomach fat. Someday I will only be my soul. Maybe if I starve myself enough I will reduce to only a soul.

            “Then He said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”

            It is the year 2015. I am in my room alone, and I cannot breathe. Anxiety has me pinned to a corner. I’m trying to text my friends to tell them I love them, maybe I want to ask them to save me. But I don’t want to be saved. I want to take as many pills as I can shove into my mouth and I want to die. Every day on the news there is another catastrophe. There is another shooting. There is another racist riot. There is more hate filled legislation. There are more attacks of terror. There is more evidence of a sin filled world. There are more reminders that things are wrong.

            I want to leave now. I want God to say enough now. I want pain to cease existing right now. I want what I am supposed to want; justice. I want God to wipe out every racist, rapist, corrupt politician, murderer, and sinner. I want God to take up His beloved and leave this place. Take us Home. Help me escape so maybe I won’t have to. God can end this. Please end this.

            “If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised.”

            It is the year 2016. I am in the ER screaming until my vocal chords shred. There is pain ravaging my body. My legs tighten up; it feels like needles are pressing into them. The monitor is beeping, telling me that my heart rate is far too high. The doctor comes in and tells me I might be about to have a heart attack; that I need to calm down. My blood pressure is too low, my heart rate is too high. They tell me I need to stop screaming. But I can’t. I am in so much pain. They tell me I could die.

            I know this is my body’s fault. My body whose immune system can’t tell the difference between its own organs and bacteria. My body that let cancer fester in my thyroid. My broken body that has developed shingles that have spread all across my legs, in patches of burning skin. My stupid, stupid body. This body that I tried to love. It took me years to realize that no matter how much I tried to love my body, it would only ever hate me.

            But in heaven, they say, I won’t have this body. It will decay like it deserves. This wretched body who hurt me. Who made life a living hell. This body that feels like its falling apart. This body that runs like an old car. I don’t want this flesh anymore. I want to leave.

            “And if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, He who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of His spirit who lives in you.”

            It is the year 2018. Easter Sunday. I sit in the pews at my church and I feel my hands. I feel my own skin. I think of every horrible thing I have ever done to my body, and for all the horrible things I have done with my body. I think about the hope of Easter and what it means for a man to have lived, to die, to live again. What does it mean for my self-hate and my sick body and my sin?

            To think that the hope we have is not a distant hope, but one that impacts how we live in our day to day lives.

            I believe in total body resurrection. I believe that what happens on this Earth impacts me. I believe one day I will show God my tattoos, the scar on my cheek from when I was born, and the scars on my legs from growing up reckless. And I believe He will show me His hands as proof of the life He lived. The scars on His hands, and maybe the cut on His leg from a carpentry incident, or the mark from a person in a too-pressing crowd.

            I read recently that “half our theology is autobiographical.”

            These musing I have about the resurrection are messy. I’m not a theologian or an expert or even much of an intellectual. But I have lived 21 years in a body I wanted to escape and I can't imagine God thinking that was okay.  I think I was surrounded by people who fed into my escapism idea. I guess I just used belief in God as a coping mechanism to not have to think about my present sufferings. But I don’t think the hope of Easter is about escaping at all. I think it’s about renewing. It’s about fixing. It's about the fact that Jesus was a man who died and then became alive again and bypassed all the laws of the human world. And it's bizarre and crazy to believe but if that was true it would change everything.

            And lately, I’ve been thinking about how that truth would change me.

            Because I didn’t get told enough that my body mattered. That I have a physical form. That these bones were created with an intent. I heard that “my body was a temple” but no one ever told me I was to love it just because it was made. I always thought that my hope was in “becoming new” and replacing this body with one that looked a bit better or didn’t have as much baggage.

            But I think about Jesus and the scars on His hands. I think about Him in heaven with the scars on His hands. And it makes me think that God doesn’t want me to run away anymore. He doesn’t want me to hyper fixate on some distant future where I am not me anymore.

            C.S Lewis famously said, “You do not have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.” And you know what? I disagree. I am a soul and a body. I think both were created and the incredible combination of my soul and my body uniquely make up Faith O’Leary. I think I have a vessel and I don’t think God wants me to ignore it.

            Jesus had scars on His hands.

            Maybe my body is not wrong. Maybe I was created with a purpose. Maybe God is hurting when I hurt. Maybe I need to love this body that doesn’t love me in return, because maybe one day it will be fixed. One day, maybe I will be able to forgive my body and I hope it forgives me too. One day God will see what I have done with my body; my tattoos and my piercings and my haircut and I hope He smiles at how I chose to decorate myself.

            And today?

            Today I want to give it what it deserves. Feed it when it’s hungry. Give it water instead of coffee when it’s thirsty. Don’t hurt it anymore. Know that God never wished this sickness on me. Know that God wants me to live on this Earth because when He came, He lived on this Earth and He beat death on this Earth. That Jesus Christ came to be one of us and show us that one day, when we are alive again, we will carry the scars from this life and they will just be scars and not open wounds. Maybe the hope of Easter is that today matters as much as tomorrow; that the present body is a gift from God that we have right now.

            And some day, some day, this suffering will end.

            But until then, know that today matters too.

The Scapegoat of Armageddon

(a spoken word poem)
 
I used to think the world was ending / I don't mean this in a passing sense / I mean it was an intrusive thought in my brain / I mean I would be just sitting down having a nice warm breakfast and then the thought would occur to me that everything is going to shit and the bees are dying and the sun is going to devour us and politicians only want money and there are wars happening right now and at any moment a gunman could invade my house and slaughter my family / I expected it/ Because the world was ending / And when I thought the world was ending / My only solace was thinking I could end me before the world ended itself / Like it was me against the world / Who could commit suicide first / And that was a race I was betting I'd win / And so I used to spend what would have been my last days on earth / Plotting ways to make it my last day on earth / I used to picture my funeral because I wondered who would cry and what pictures they would hang on the wall / And if my friends would change their Profile photos to pictures with me / I wondered how good my sisters eulogy would be / When I thought the world was ending / It wasn't a quirk in my personality / It was a compulsion / It was a lie fed by my addiction to torture myself / By reading articles and conspiracy theories and the book of Revelation / And it was nightmares and cold sweats and panic attacks in the middle of church / It was not being able to be in a conversation anymore / It was wanting to die every time I saw the news was playing on a TV at McDonalds / It was thinking of who would find my body / It was digging scars into my flesh with my nails / It was not doing homework / Not getting out of bed / Not eating / Because none of it matters when you're dying / When the world is dying / When I'm not sure if this planet will exist tomorrow let alone my workplace or my school / The day I thought the world was going to end / I prayed and told God to forgive me for committing suicide / Because I made a plan to take all the pills in my cabinet / Once I found the strength to get off my bedroom floor / And I sent texts to friends and told them to pray / And I told them I loved them / And I learned to accept that I would never see another sunrise / I was ready to die because I didn't want to see everything crash and burn / If I died then I would die thinking maybe I was wrong and I could tell myself that life will go on / Because when I thought the world was going to end/ I could tell myself that Suicide was okay / That it made sense / I realized that when I believed the world was going to end/ It gave me a license and a reason to do nothing / I don't have to vote if we are going to die / I don't have to get invested in someone or something if the world is ending / I don't have to give a fuck about racism, poverty, police brutality, or the environment or sex trafficking or world hunger or homelessness or Loving other people / Because it's not my problem/ Because there is nothing I can do about our inevitable, fast approaching fate / If the world is ending, it doesn't matter / It just doesn't matter if I kill myself / And In that one moment I realized that people believe the world is ending so that they don't have to do anything / So they can scroll Facebook without ever feeling guilty / People believe in apocalypse so they are not obligated to get off their ass and make a difference / Because if you accept the world's fate, it doesn't matter how many people donate to hurricane relief/ Because we are doomed anyway / We are a lost cause and therefore I can binge watch Netflix without feeling guilty anymore / And I don't have to give money to the homeless man on the train / Because we will both die the same death / So go ahead and scream Armageddon so that you can sleep without thinking of the reality that people with access to guns kill people / Tell me that the world is ending so you can feel better about your life/ So that you can continue to be comfortable exactly where you are / Just know that some of us never had the luxury of comfort / If I believe that the world will spin on / That means I have an obligation to help those around me / Some of us would just rather not have that obligation/ So no / I don't believe the world is ending anymore / Because even if it is/ You better believe I think we can save it

 

I wrote that poem some time ago and was debating on sharing it. It's incredibly personal and my eschatological views rather unpopular. But today at least 20 people were injured or killed  in a shooting at a Florida high school. Today a 19 year old girl was stabbed and killed. Today people are dying. And today might make me want to disappear, as it has in the past.

Today will make people talk. They will throw out explanations why this happened. They will justify not enacting better gun control. They will post things on Facebook. People will be afraid. They will tell their loved ones they love them. And if they're anything like me, they will wonder why they choose to keep living.

And Christians? Christians will say that Jesus is coming back. They will pray and tell Jesus to end the suffering and pain. They will beg Him to intervene.

And then they will do nothing. And then years go by and God doesn't wipe out the world. People think He does nothing.

I have done nothing.

I have been more like Jonah, sitting from a distance and waiting, longing, for justice and wrath. I want to see bad people obliterated. I want to see people get what they deserve. I am in no mood for mercy or grace. I want victims to be avenged. I wanted God to wipe out the world and just end our suffering and make things right.

But my problem is that when we take tragedy and claim it as a sign of the apocalypse, we relieve our need to do anything because it was "destined to happen." There's nothing we can do about it. We just keep praying and asking God to touch our world, and God is staring back at us and saying "You are my hands!" 

Now is not the time for fear. I do not want you to cower away inside of yourself. I do not want you to surrender and think that this is how things have to be. Don't you ever assume this must happen in order for God's kingdom to come. You can pray, but as Father Ferreira said in the movie Silence, "Pray with your eyes open."

Now is a time to mourn. To cry. To lament. We are called to weep with those who weep, so let us. Allow your heart to break every time you see injustice. But something I was taught by a friend is to seek mercy and do justice. Get up. Get up. Don't accept this anymore. Do not be content to sit and do nothing. We do not need another sermon about how terrible the world is and how God can fix it. We need to start talking about what we are on earth to do. We are the body. Because the truth is, God has done something; God made us. And if we do not move, then we cannot complain about His inaction.

Go protest gun violence. Call your senator about gun control. Send someone a gift card. Listen to the homeless man's story. Donate money to any number of charities. Send money to Florida. Tell your suicidal friend you love them. Open a conversation with a racist family member.. Call people out on sexism. Volunteer somewhere. Help the local food pantry. Start a blog. Start a podcast. Start a support for drug addicted teens. Listen more. Write letters to kids in a hospital. Gather your church together to pray once a week. Talk to your guy friends about the harm of hypermasculinity. Send someone a good morning text. Cry over the news. Let it hurt you. Talk to the kid that sits alone in class. Stop giving excuses and don't let fear cripple you.

Yes, scary things happen in this world. But I'm done blaming them on God. 

False Purity

*Disclaimer* I talk about rape/sexual assault and I mention sex in a way that could be considered graphic.

It started on New Year’s Eve; 2015 going into 2016. I won’t ever forget it.

My friends and I were staying the night at a hotel. We were hyped up on sparkling grape juice and cookies, like the good Christian women we are. We celebrated the New Year at midnight with our wine glasses of juice and cheesy Instagram photos. Like most people, we stayed up way past midnight reminiscing and making goals for the next 365 days.

 We all sat on the same king sized bed and slowly our conversation changed. We had shared every highlight, but we couldn’t ignore the low lights. A lot of things had happened that year. Things we had never told each other, or anyone else.

 Each woman had something to share about how they “went too far” with a man. They told me about sending nudes. About orgasms. About sleeping with them. About being naked around them. About touching them.

And the whole conversation ended with, “But at least I’m still a virgin.”

I sat there and listened. Me, who had never even kissed a guy. Who had only ever liked two guys in the past. I didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t say what I was thinking. I couldn’t tell them I know that most people say you lose your virginity when you are vaginally penetrated, and that Western Christianity teaches not to have sex outside of marriage based on that definition, but the Bible says to be holy as Christ is holy (1 Peter 1:15.) and somehow my friends were able to call themselves virgins even after having oral sex.

And that was when I realized that purity culture makes absolutely no sense.

So you’re allowed to be fingered and still call yourself a virgin? You’re allowed to make out with a guy naked and still be a virgin? You’re allowed to give him a blowjob and still be a virgin? But if his penis goes inside you, then you’re “unclean”? As long as you don't cross that one line, you get to consider yourself pure. 

Right?

So I spent the next year listening to stories of Christian girls who had “done things” with guys. Those conversations were almost always filled with tears and hurt. Almost always the girls said they felt dirty. Almost always they wondered if they were used up pieces of gum now (1). Almost always did they wonder why they couldn’t stay “pure.” Almost always did they say that they felt like a hypocrite in church. 

It was like a veil had been lifted.

I didn’t realize how destructive purity culture really was until that year, and it was a tough pill to swallow. It’s hard to see the ways in which Christian purity culture hurt us. But once you do, you can’t un-see it. It shames women, ignores rape victims, creates a system where virgins are “good girls” and everyone else are “bad girls” (or sluts or whores.) It makes women who have had sex feel like they have nothing to offer their future husbands, because their only value is found in being “pure.” It supports a double standard because women are to be the gatekeepers of purity, while men just get a free pass. It’s disgusting because people of authority in the church have used it to silence those they have assaulted. (Just check out the #ChurchToo.) It’s awful because it makes sex out to be a terrible thing. I’ve heard horror stories of women who feel disgusting after having sex with their husbands, because they have lost a part of themselves. It’s harmful because young Christians are not told about contraceptives, or even much about sex at all, because the only sex ed they need is “don’t have sex.” (Which, spoiler alert, doesn’t work.) It’s dangerous because I have never heard the word “consent” spoken at church; because you shouldn’t be having sex anyway. It’s destructive because not only are women expected to be physically pure, we are also expected to be emotionally pure, which causes us to suppress God given emotions. (2) (Also, just Google the Virgin/Whore Dichotomy.)

We have set virginity on this pedestal, and we cannot keep it there anymore.

I know what you’re thinking.

“But the Bible tells us not to have sex outside of marriage.”

The Bible calls us to be holy, which means “set apart for a purpose.” My sexual activity does not take away or add to my purpose. The Bible talks about marriage, but what was marriage? Some Greco-Roman model where women were the property of men? Assuming marriage was the same thing is an error, and so we can’t even draw proper conclusions. The Bible says to stay away from sexual sin, but the word for that is the Greek “porneia” which means, “illicit sexual intercourse.” Which is pretty vague. (It goes back to my first point, how far is too far? At what point does human contact become sinful? What is “illicit sexual intercourse?) Some writers have come to the conclusion that all of these illusions to sex outside of marriage were about non-consensual sex, sex trafficking, and temple prostitution that were happening at the time. (3) The Bible speaking out against the horrific sexual crimes that have happened and are happening makes a lot more sense in light of Jesus Christ. But the debates are endless. 

Our only clear way of looking at the issue is to read the Bible as a whole, and find the big pictures, such as loving one another and honoring God.

I don’t believe purity culture is either of those things. 

I think it supports false purity. It's about the appearance of purity, not purity itself. Those are two very different things. I know people who have had sex outside of marriage, who are pure individuals; I also know some impure virgins. 

But we can argue back and forth whether it’s okay to have premarital sex all day. You have your stance and I have mine. Let’s throw that argument out the window altogether. Because the real issue isn’t whether or not premarital sex it right or wrong; my point is that setting up a standards that sets some people higher than others is harmful. I believe in absolute truth, yes; but I don't believe in creating a culture that thrives on shaming women. Especially not in the church. Especially if you claim that all believers are saved by grace through faith. For some reason, sexuality has been so hyped up in the church. We don’t judge someone for having anger issues, but if someone has sex or identifies as something other than heterosexual, suddenly our grace has run out.

I have cried with too many rape victims, struggled with too many people sexually assaulted by family members, hurt with too many LGBTQ Christians, mourned with too many girls in Walgreens aisles buying pregnancy tests, heard too many confessions of girls who let boys touch them, and written too many journal entries asking God if I was a slut for wanting to have sex, I’ve been through too much to support an idea that is breaking people I love.

Sexuality is not the most important thing. We get so angry with the hypersexualization in media, but we’re fine with our purity obsession? Because the truth is, it’s the same thing. Mainstream culture is obsessed with who’s having sex, and Christian culture is obsessed with who isn’t. In either case, our sexuality is made to be the most interesting thing about us.

Don’t get me wrong, sex is awesome. But if I have or haven’t had sex is probably most boring, uninteresting thing about me.

So what do we do about it?

We could get educated. Believe me, I did not make up any of this stuff. I learned from countless articles, books, websites, and personal testimonies. It starts with being willing to listen. We need to be able to admit to being wrong. Even Josh Harris, who wrote the most influential books on purity culture, admitted he was wrong (4). We need to change the way we talk about sex in our churches, especially in our youth groups. (In 2014, 41% of surveyed teens said they were having sex. (5) We can’t keep pretending that everyone who comes into church is a virgin. It’s not cutting it.) We can stop making people feel like they are less than other people because of their sexual history, because if we shame people for having sex, we could make the critical error of assuming it was consensual, and now you have crossed a line to victim blaming people who have been raped. You, as an individual, can begin to change the tide in your own communities, your own church. Let’s start talking about these serious issues instead pretending like they aren’t there. Now is the time, in light of everything that is happening with #MeToo, let church be place where it’s okay to talk about these things. After all, we are called to be a refuge for those who are broken and hurting.

Of course, the only way to end this is with my favorite Bible story, found in John 8.

When the Pharisees brought Jesus a women caught in adultery, they said that the law of Moses said to stone her. Yet He replied, “He who is without sin can be the first to throw a stone.” And once everyone had left, it was just Him and the woman. He asked her, “Has no one condemned you?” She shook her head, and He responded, “Then neither do I.”

And if Jesus didn’t condemn her, than neither do I and neither should you.

 

(Bonus: amazing resources for anyone interested in learning more about this subject:
            Books:
My Story, Elizabeth Smart
Girls & Sex, Peggy Orenstein
The Purity Myth, Jessica Valenti

            Blogs:
“Is It Possible To Be A Sex Positive Christian?” Samantha Fields http://samanthapfield.com/
I Kissed My Humanity Goodbye: how the evangelical purity culture dehumanizes women.” Elizabeth Esther, http://www.elizabethesther.com/
What’s Purity Culture Got To Do With It?” Emily Joy, http://emilyjoypoetry.com

References

1. The Damaging Effects of Shame-Based Sex Education: Lessons From Elizabeth Smart, Huffington Post, Kristen Howerton.
2. "I Kissed My Humanity Goodbye: how the evangelical purity culture dehumanizes women" Elizabeth Esther. 
3. "Is It Possible To Be A Sex Positive Christian?" Samantha Field
4. "Strong Enough To Be Wrong." TED Talk, Josh Harris
5. "Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance." Center for Disease Control and Prevention, June 10, 2016. 

Testimony

         This post was supposed to be well written. Intellectual. Smart. It was supposed to start off with the meaning of the word “testimony.” (The meaning is “a public recounting of a religious conversion or experience.”) I was supposed to write about how I met God in all of the mess that is my life. I was supposed to tell you why I called my blog “lament.” I was supposed to say that testimonies are why I believe things, which is more interesting than the “what I believe.” I wanted to tell you of the million ways God showed up, making it impossible for me to doubt Him. I wanted you to think that I am worthy of writing on this blog platform with Big Words and Theological Concepts.

            But the truth is, I don’t know anything at all. I don’t even know how to say my story.

            I don’t think there is a nice easy way to say any of it either. Believe me, I’ve tried.

            I wanted to tell my story and tie it up in a nice box with a ribbon on top. No loose ends or sad endings, no lingering questions. But my story isn’t satisfying. It’s not linear or easy. Sometimes it doesn’t make sense.

            See, I found God in the back seat of a 1997 Ford Aerostar. I was 8 years old. My brother and my mom were talking about the end of the word and I thought I saw demons in the trees. I prayed with my mom when we got home, through heavy sobs and tears, and I remember when I opened my eyes the fear was gone. I remember that day changed my life.

            By all means, that should have been the end of it. Testimonies usually end when the sinner meets God. God makes all things right and there is no more hurting. Right? But that’s not what happened.

            That fear plagued my life for 18 years. That fear almost made me leave the church. Sunday mornings gave me panic attacks. It made me unable to sleep. And when I was 16, it almost made me kill myself. If you have never been in my shoes, there are not words to explain the world of hurt that anxiety caused me. There aren’t words to express how angry I was that there were days that Christians only twisted the knife even further. The path that fear led me down influenced how I approached God. Fear told me that God was angry and vindictive. When I finally started to heal I realized that I couldn’t believe in that anymore; fear made me come to see that I needed to filter everything I learned through Jesus Christ and the simple fact that God is love. If it doesn’t fit that mold, it has to go.

            But even those 18 years of hell on earth isn’t my testimony.

            My testimony could be every night I spent in the ER screaming in pain. Maybe my testimony is a rare blood disorder diagnosis that turned into a lupus diagnosis which turned into hyperthyroidism which turned into thyroid cancer. Because I found God when I had meningitis and shingles and the nurse wouldn’t give me metal forks because I had been screaming that I wanted it all to end. It was the years of physical suffering that made me realize I couldn’t carry myself and there needed to be a God or else I was a goner.

            But even that isn’t my full testimony. It could be the years of my childhood that my father spent putting me down and making fun of me. Some people call it a sense of humor but after he left I started calling it what it was: emotional and verbal abuse. Because in church they kept telling me that God was my father so I couldn’t stop thinking about how disappointed God was in me. I couldn’t stop thinking about how frustrated He must be with me. I couldn’t stop hating myself because of it. My testimony could be all the times I refused to eat because I didn’t want to get fat because I thought I wasn’t good enough. It could be the nights of squeezing my stomach with my nails in fits of anger because no one ever told me that God cared about my physical body.

             Or maybe my testimony is the fact that I’ve always been the rock of my friend group. I found God every night I got a call from someone saying they were going to commit suicide. Every person I held when they were drunk or high. I found God in every mascara stained sweater from being the shoulder to cry on. These people made me realize that bible verses didn’t magically cure their depression. My testimony is the collection of text messages.

            “Faith, I was raped.”

            “Goodbye Faith, I’m going to kill myself.”

            “Faith, I’m having a panic attack.”

            “Faith, I’m cutting.”

            “Faith, I haven’t eaten in three days.”

They made me realize that God must be far greater than I ever imagined. I found God each time my heart caved in for them because maybe this was what God meant when He said “bear each other’s burdens.” I found that “the church” wasn’t a building. It was all these hurting individuals who weren’t meant to mask their pain on Sunday mornings.

            My testimony could be the past two years of my life that have been filled with nonstop questions and rarely any answers. It is how I stopped calling myself a Christian. My testimony is the dust collecting on my pink bible. It was the day I cried so hard I threw up but I remember that “How He Loves” was playing through my headphones as I clutched the toilet seat and I realized God loved me in that moment just as much as He did when I was mentally healthy. My testimony is the fact that sometimes I can’t pray the way I feel I’m supposed to. Sometimes it’s nothing more than a string of cuss words, sometimes it’s merely saying the name of God, and sometimes it’s just telling God that I don’t know what to do anymore. My testimony is crying after three shots of vodka because I stopped thinking God was listening and He wasn’t alleviating my suffering. It’s the months I started self-medicating my doubts with anything I could get my hands on; sometimes that was alcohol sometimes it was the constant need for attention and sometimes it was letting my depression take over. My testimony is feeling like I have let everyone down and feeling like a failure because I’m not a hero, because I’m not the person my siblings need me to be, I’m not as strong as my older brother or my best friends. My testimony could be my trust issues that have stopped me from believing in anyone or anything.

            But my testimony was the day I realized that I’m doing the best that I can.

            “My love for God is strong, but could that be the same as faith?”*

            Maybe it isn’t, but I will let my love carry me into a place where I can have faith. Because I realize that no matter how much my faith has broken my heart and no matter how many doubts I have, it is the only thing I know for certain. Because sometimes I walk into church and I can’t even hear the sermon because of the loud thoughts in my head, but when I sit among people who love me, I see God in them. In their smiles and in their hugs. I see God in the lake by my school when its beauty takes my breath away. I see Him in the movies I watch and the music I listen to. I see God in the little provisions and small coincidences. It's growing up not having money and some days, barely getting by and having to live paycheck to paycheck but trusting that somehow God would come in clutch.

            Some days I cannot feel God. Some days I have no idea what the hell I’m even doing anymore. Sometimes I question if it’s worth it. Sometimes my daily bread goes stale.

            And the thing is, I cannot convince anyone that God is real. I don’t understand it myself.

            But recently someone told me that God told her something about me. She said “I don’t know what God is doing with you, but He told me He’s doing something new.”

            My testimony is my laments to a God I doubt. It is the thorn in my flesh that God refuses to take out. It is the hot tears I cry. It is the little miracles that show up in my life; those times I catch a glimpse of Him in the passing wind.

            I say all this because if you want to know why I believe the things that I do, this is the reason. Everything I post are the conclusions of this never ending story. This is how I met God. This is how I am searching for God. I don't have many answers but I've been through too much to think this was all for nothing. 

            You know, it's a lot like that quote from The Last Jedi. "Hope is like the sun. If you only believe in it when you can see it, you'll never make it through the night." I think God is like that too. 

            So right now, with my heavy heart and questions and pain, I wonder if this is the start of something new.

 

(*Silence, Shukaku Endo.)