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Walking out of church was not the end of the journey for me. I hadn’t fully decided that I was finished with Christianity. I wanted to be 100% sure before I finally committed. The next few days I continued to weigh it out.
On the following Wednesday night I wrote to my Christian friend:
Today I was thinking about the place where I find myself. I am keenly aware of the fact that I am completely free to make whatever choice I want in this situation and that I, and only I, will suffer the consequences of said choice. I am to make the choice, based on whatever factors are present to my knowledge, knowing that in the future others factors might present themselves to me that may have affected my choice had I been aware of them now. I am to decide which direction I go, where I stand, what I’m going to make of my existence. I am condemned to be free. Condemned to be responsible.
I can choose if I want to figure this out on my own, if I want to ask for advice, who I want to ask for advice, whether I will listen to that advice. I can choose to ignore/distort certain information in order to produce a certain outcome. I can choose to avoid making a clear decision. I can choose to not to think about it, intoxicate myself if I have to. I can choose to feel sorry for myself and mope about because I don’t know what to do. I can choose to run back to what I’m familiar with because I find solace in it or I can choose to keep prodding, keep searching. I can choose to pretend, to put every effort into forcing myself to believe something. I can choose to just let go. All is choice. Even not choosing is a choice. And I am responsible for every last choice I make and whatever results from it. I am so keenly aware of this that it makes me sick.
I want to fall back to some authority. I want someone to tell me, “You have to choose this.” But I cannot, because even this is a choice. I wish I did not know I was free. I wish I hadn’t realized that I could question whether I believed in God, that I could fully question the authority of what I’ve always taken to be true. I wish I didn’t have to face this challenge. I wish I hadn’t been called on what I stand for, that I hadn’t applied the very thing that I ask of others on myself. But now I have, so I am left to decide, and I see huge ramifications looming on both sides of my decision.
Right now, I would like to believe in God, to go back to what’s familiar. I’m thinking about it, but I know I can’t choose on the basis of what’s easier, because then I would still only be pretending. If you haven’t started praying yet, now would be a good time. I’m all ears. If God wants to get a hold of me, he’s got two days. After that, I do believe that I’m gone. Probably for good.
Thus began my second 2-day ultimatum. Here’s what I wrote to Michael the following day (October 28th):
This morning I headed off to work. I said to the God I don’t believe in, “If you want my attention, you have two days. If I hear nothing, I’m gone.” Of course, I’m not supposed to “test” God, but I figured I can do whatever I want with something I don’t believe in. From there I let my mind wander.
I thought about the decision before me. I thought about the consequences of it, the factors involved in deciding. It struck me how extremely much was at stake. Am I really willing to throw out everything I’ve ever known, completely recreate my world view, cause excruciating sorrow to those I care most about, cause excruciating sorrow to myself as I am alienated from what I’m familiar with, risk losing absolutely everything, left in a ditch all alone? What is this “thing” that I find so compelling, that I’m so completely entranced by that I would even consider putting myself through this for?
There’s a part of your character that I have been intrigued and confused by. It made no sense to me and I simply couldn’t put a finger on what it was. All I knew was that it drove me CRAZY, that I needed to find out what it was and whether it was real. I knew I was on to something, that there was something I was looking for and that I had a lead. So I poked and prodded at it, testing to see whether it was real, whether it stood the test of time.
When we [Michael and I] first started messaging it didn’t take you long to start pointing out my character flaws. You had this obnoxiously frustrating ability to see right through me. It hurt my pride, talking to you. Usually, when things hurt my pride, I run. But I didn’t. I sensed that there was something here that I needed to keep prying at. I was enthralled at how you could see how completely screwed up I was, but still wanted to be my friend. So I assumed ulterior motives, as you know. You tried to tell me your motives were pure, but I didn’t believe you, and I didn’t believe you and I didn’t believe you. Day after day I doubted you, convinced that you would “announce the conditional,” admit that really you were only helping me for your own sake, that you didn’t actually care, that there was something that would make you give up on me, that you would discover that I’m actually way more screwed up than you thought and you don’t want to take the risk. You do not fit in my world view. People like you do not exist and I put a great deal of effort into convincing myself of this. EVERYONE has ulterior motives. NO ONE actually cares. So I kept eyeing you suspiciously, waiting for you to slip, waiting for you to back down. But you didn’t, you NEVER did. EVERY time, you held true to your promises.
This is what I am drawn to. This is the “thing” that resonates as truth to me, that I’m considering throwing my entire world view out the window for, that I’m considering loosing absolutely everything for. I WANT that. I want to love people like that. I want to believe in that.
My thoughts continued to wander as I chewed on this “thing” that I found so compelling. As I was doing this, it occurred to me that there was something very familiar about all this, like I had already known it all along, but had been refusing to believe.
In the last few months, I’ve had a lot of trouble coming to terms with things I’ve done in the past, relationships I’ve screwed up, mistakes I’ve made, the way I’ve treated people I love unfairly. I thought especially of my mom. I thought about the way that she’s ALWAYS been there for me and how throughout the years I’ve treated her like dirt, figuratively spitting in her face, saying rude and calloused things, taking out my personal frustrations out on her, being ungrateful, etc. In the past while I’ve found myself realizing more and more how completely undeserving I am of her continued care. I know I’ve hurt her immensely and she would have every right to spit in my face and walk away. But she never does and I know she never will. Thinking about it makes me feel sick with guilt and shame. I know there’s nothing I could possibly do to erase all the wrong I’ve done and properly express how much she means to me. I want her to stop caring about me so that I can stop feeling so guilty. I can’t accept her care because I KNOW I don’t deserve it, not even close.
[Love you Mom!]
This guilt and shame (caused by multiple factors) is the cause of my sorrow in the months leading up to today. This is why I don’t believe in God anymore. It’s because I am so ashamed of myself, so aware of how screwed up I am, so aware that of how screwed up I will always be, how I will never be able to truly earn anyone’s love and care.
What you demonstrated to me completely rocked my world. You saw how completely screwed up I am. You weren’t fooled by the facades I offered you. You weren’t dazzled by my intellect, wit, or my pretenses of “put-together-ness.” You saw a terrified, lonely, broken, screwed up wreck. You saw someone trying desperately to figure things out, to make sense of life, to pick up my battered and bruised self and fight through whatever came my way, over and over day after day. You don’t make sense to me. You’re supposed to see my brokenness and walk away. You’re supposed to be afraid of me. You’re supposed to expect something in return.
I thought about this and it occurred to me with a breath-taking force that what you are demonstrating to me is something I’ve long been aware of, but have been unable to accept/believe in. That is, the pure unadulterated message of Christ, stripped of everything religious, every man-made custom, every one of the church’s mistakes, every structure and dogma, every denomination, the Bible itself and all its edits and translations, theology, moral philosophy, word games and semantics. All of that gone. It is the ‘IS’ of Christianity, with NOTHING added, no rules no customs no religion. It is that which separates it from every other world view, every religion, that which makes it incomparable to everything else.
It is the message of Christ that says “I don’t want your good deeds, your ‘turning the other cheek,’ your ‘loving your enemies,’ your brilliant theological debating skills, your perfect church attendance, your money. Don’t try to impress me with stories of how many people you’ve witnessed to, how you’ve been morally upright, how you’ve made great theological break-throughs. I am not impressed. You’re really not all that great. In fact, I think you SUCK. You’re broken and scared, just trying to figure life out, trying to get it right, afraid of failure, crippled by shame and regret. You are forever lapsing in courage, forgetting what you stand for, allowing yourself to forget your worth, forever doubting my promise, forever trying to go it alone, refusing to trust. I see right through you and I see a broken, insecure wreck. BUT I LOVE YOU TO DEATH. I will stop at nothing to show you that this is true. I will stand here, with tears streaming down my face, watching as you walk away from me, convinced that you don’t need me, that you can do it alone. I will let you choose, because I respect and care for you too much to force you. I will wait with outstretched arms though, in case you ever change your mind.”
Tell me about a religion/world view that has this at its core, that says “Stop going to Mecca, stop praying 8 times a day, stop ’emitting loving-kindness’ to everything, stop stacking up brownie points, stop doing your good deeds, stop loving your enemies, stop giving to charities. Throw your ‘holy book’ out the window, throw out your religious rituals and customs. Stop TRYING and TRUST ME.”
Was I ashamed to be walking around downtown this afternoon, nose running and tears flowing? No, I wasn’t.
I haven’t decided anything yet, but I know that this is real, that what I’ve experienced today cannot be denied, that it was not born out of a fear of making the hard decision and loosing what’s familiar. Now I need to decide what I’m going to make of it.
But wait. There’s more.