Good Friday Longings

 

(written early 2015)

On Good Friday of 2014, my mom and I are vacationing during my spring break in a tourist town of northern Michigan, a town where spring doesn’t arrive until May or June, thus planting us in the middle of winter during our April visit. We spend Holy Week, the week leading up to Easter, in a place that isn’t my home, with churches and people I will never see again. But even though I’m losing my religion, something in me is still drawn to celebrating Easter time. So I Google search “Holy Week Anglican” and “Holy Week Episcopal,” trying to find a church that worships in a style with enough “smells and bells” to bring a touch of holy and sacred back to this holiday that is so rapidly losing its meaning for me.

So it is on Good Friday, sitting in a tiny one-room schoolhouse style church, on a hard white pew, listening to half a dozen laypeople stand up and read passages from their Holy Bibles, that I have this stark thought: “I’m not a Christian anymore…”

The words I hear that day from the other worshippers in the one-room church are dry, lifeless, containing no meaning for me. I know I should feel sad and mournful on this sacred holiday. Instead, I am devoid of emotion, thinking about how I wish I could be feeling something. Is it because this is a story I’ve heard too many times and it no longer has any impact on me? In a religion that barely touches me anymore, my hope is maybe this somber Good Friday service will put a spark in me and enliven my dry bones. But it doesn’t. Maybe the room is too light, the stubborn northern Michigan sun refusing to set on this April day to create the mood of darkness I long to feel. Maybe the selected hymns are too unfamiliar, too thin when sung by only 14 people, too shallow when accompanied by an electric piano instead of a resonant organ. Maybe my soul no longer knows how to take this seriously.

I know the real reason I am giving up my Friday evening on vacation with my mom and sitting anonymously in a church with 13 strangers who I will never see again. It is that I long for a magical moment I had almost exactly three years ago. I was living in Boston at the time, traipsing around flower-child style with my Chaco sandals and art supplies, exploring the distinguished city by foot and by the train system known as the T. Back then I knew little about Holy Week, since evangelicals in my tradition don’t celebrate such high holidays that remind us of the Catholicism we broke apart from in the 1600s. But the dignified Trinity Episcopal Church was on the route I regularly walked, and I saw a sign outside it advertising a week’s worth of “Holy Week” services around Easter. I shyly crept in at the beginning of the week, and after that first day, decided to organize the rest of my week around the other services. The church was expansive – such a contrast to this one-room schoolhouse – with dark wooden pews and tall stained glass windows. It had an organ that pounded out songs, making the body hum. It afforded a pleasant sense of anonymity, as the church welcomed tourists every day, and one could enter, pray, or sit in silence without being bothered by anyone else.

Trinity offered three hours of prayer service on Good Friday, and while I didn’t really want to commit to all 3 hours in a row, I greedily sought an emotional experience. I entered a little late and sat somewhere near the back of the room: easy in, easy out. The format of the service repeated a cycle – a Scripture reading, a short homily, a hymn, and silence – seven times. I remember very little about the service except a gradually darkening room, and approximately one line of a poem that still strikes me straight through my heart. My heart drops into my stomach; I ache at the very sight of the words.

And on the cross, he held me, and I was in the nothingness, and he held me…

The other remnants of the poem only exist because I scribbled them in my journal that afternoon, trying to savor them, their meaning, knowing how profound they were and how quickly they were slipping away from me.

Oh Jesus, don’t let your hands be bound

Your body hung taut like an arrow on the cross / your heart pierced / your body entombed

I have to, my beloved

To fling you taut like an arrow into heaven / to bleed so you may drink / to resurrect all those from the dead

I have tried to Google the rest of the poem, but to no avail. The poem is gone forever, lost in the space of time, or the imagination of the listener that day.

All I am left with now is the feeling of that afternoon, the profound images those words create. The poem asks Jesus why these things had to happen, and Jesus responds with the most beautiful yet soul-crushing answers I ever heard. Why did you have to go down into the pit, Jesus? Why did your hands have to be pierced by nails? Your side stabbed so water and blood poured forth? And in the moment I heard those words, I was touched by the answers in a way I never had been in 22 years of hearing the Easter story, over and over again.

Good Friday of 2011. The story that had always remained in my head somehow sunk down into my heart. It seemed I suddenly felt a small measure of his pain; that I could, for one brief moment, understand just how shatteringly painful the crucifixion was, not just physically but spiritually. What if… Jesus died so God could understand what it is like to be separated from God. And through it all, the line of the poem echoed:

And on the cross, he held me, and I was in the nothingness, and he held me…

I am in the nothingness, and he holds me.

I am still in the nothingness, and I know not whether I am held. I am in the nothingness every Good Friday since then, my soul dried up once more, the story that permeated my heart for one flash of a moment again escaped to my head. I seek that religious experience on occasion, hoping to feel stirred once more, wondering what it will take to get me there. But I don’t know if I will get there, and I am slowly coming to terms with that. I have mostly accepted that I can simply reminisce of a time gone by, a time when I believed in my very soul, when Jesus was so real, when the stars aligned and I could feel. That moment is gone now, and I am back in nothingness, holding on to something – nothing – or maybe, somehow, being held.

Religious Refugee: Why I’m not home yet

I was talking with some Quakers recently, and they agreed that “we tend to collect a lot of religious refugees.”

That’s a kind of neat way to say something that is probably true, I thought to myself, not yet thinking that was one of those religious refugees.

When asked about my faith tradition, I usually offer a run-on sentence something like, “Well, I was raised in the evangelical nondenominational tradition, but I have wandered from that and my faith has been liberalizing since college, and I usually go to a Quaker church now, but sometimes I go to a UU church” [the last part I may add depending on whether or not I’ve decided if my listener can accept the fact that I have attended a UU church].

And though (again, depending) my listener may not feel too comfortable with that, I do feel fine with the religion, or lack thereof, that I have settled into. I don’t feel any animosity towards the tradition I came out of, and I have made peace inside and out regarding my past. I’m “there,” right? I’m not a refugee. I’m not wandering in the desert wishing I could just go home. I may not be in the promised land, but I’m totally peaceful about where I am.

Wait a minute. Or am I?

Then why am I so defensive if I perceive that someone thinks I don’t take spirituality seriously? Why do I still feel the need, or desire, to qualify that I still do spiritual practices even if my church setting today looks very different from what I came out of?

Why, even though I accept in myself that I cannot speak the “evangelical language” (Jesus as son of God, Lord, or Savior; repenting for my sins; being ‘saved’) with a sense of integrity or wholeness, does my throat constrict and heart beat a little faster when someone speaks it to me? Why do I think that they are somehow trying to proselytize me even when I know that they know me well enough to probably accept me as I am?

Why do I feel such a strong need to “prove myself” with knowledge of biblical scholarship or theological issues (not that I know all that much, but enough to “puff up” dangerously depending on my context!), or become offended when someone thinks I must not know very much about these things because I’m “just” a counseling student or I’m not in a denomination? (and is there something going on besides a general desire / prideful need to feel “smart”?)

Why do I still sometimes cry when I cannot take communion or when I feel I have lost a major point of contact with someone so close to me?

Like many others, I too love reading Rachel Held Evans’ blog. (Here is her latest post about heart-breakingly deciding to leave the evangelical position because she is exhausted of trying to force it to change: http://rachelheldevans.com/blog/what-now-world-vision). I love what Christians who are passionate about Jesus, the Bible, social justice, community, and loving people talk about and do when they are together. So much so that I sometimes pine to be one of them again. But I can’t. I appreciate their outcomes, but I cannot join them. I’ve been told: “You’re more of a Christian than most Christians I know!” But I’m not. I care about God, I deeply want to be in touch with God, I want to be the person God (whoever/whatever God is) created me to be, I care about social justice, I care about doing the right thing. I have some sense of mission and purpose. Those things do not make me a Christian.

Honest, I have found some good, lovely things in the communities I’ve wandered to. Quakers are notorious for being forerunners and prophetic in social justice issues- the earliest activists in the anti-slavery movement, and are now (from what I’ve observed) very vocal and pro-active about saving the earth from human destruction through climate change. They also are raising awareness about the new systematic racism occurring in our criminal justice system (“The New Jim Crow” is a book I’m intending to read). I’ve pitched my tent next to the Quakers, hoping that I can set up a sturdier structure in there one day. Maybe I am waiting for them to clear out some square footage and give me a personal invitation to build. And some UUs that I’ve met are not only socially aware but even manage to get out of their intellectualizing heads and do spiritual practices. (sorry if I’m offending anyone…the pool I have to draw from is limited.)

But considering the ways I still react to encounters I have in the Christian world, maybe I am something of a religious refugee. No one kicked me out of Christendom- I kicked myself out, over a gradual process. I listened to myself, I listened to what I learned, I listened to what makes sense and what my intuition told me may be possible. I did not necessarily listen to what people told me I could or should believe. And I probably won’t go “home” again, if “home” means returning to my roots. “Home” is someplace else, and sometimes I’m still trying to figure out what my new mailing address will be.

I need to reference a book I’ve read at least once per post , so here it is for today: James Fowler wrote about 6 stages of faith in a book aptly named Stages of Faith. Stage 4 is the intellectualizing, doubting stage, where you no longer believe any of the “myths” you once did and you rely on the rationality of your mind. Stage 5, on the other hand, is often a return “home” to a religious tradition (often the one you were raised in, in some form [perhaps with a conservative->liberal shift], but maybe a whole new one), able to see it with new eyes, with symbolization, with an understanding of something universal found in the particularities of your faith- and that somehow, that universalism must be expressed through particularism. By the “particular,” I mean the idea that to be spiritually rooted, we must practice in communities and hold actual beliefs and be accountable to others and God.

I think I’m somewhere in the middle (perhaps we can call it 4.5). I don’t rely only on my intellectual, rational capabilities to figure out faith. I believe in and crave mystical, contemplative experiences of God. I believe in the universalism of the particularity in my head, if not always in my heart. But I haven’t yet figured out how to non-defensively interact with – to be specific – the evangelical tradition from which I came. How to truly, deeply understand the universal aspects of their particularism in a loving, compassionate, humble (HUMBLE!!) way.

So for now, I suppose I am a religious refugee. Who knows when I will truly reach my Canaan. Canaan, for me, is more of a state of mind and heart than an actual location. I will take shelter in the Quaker tradition for the time being, which may include the rest of my life. There, I will wait until my heart softens enough to embrace with lovingkindness all traditions, even that one that I secretly harbor some kind of resentment towards, because I’m not a part of it any longer. In the land of Canaan, I have a soft, humble heart. I hear with open ears and believe beyond what is possible. I see that of God in everyone and everything.

Somewhere, maybe on the horizon and coming into view, my Canaan awaits.