My grandmother needed to fix me, I was missing something important, I was missing God and she insisted on taking care of it.
She knew she could not leave it to my heathen mother, who had turned her back on her Baptist upbringing years before I came along. What I needed was a Christ-centered life. For the early years of my childhood, I was in the pews with my grandparents every Sunday morning. Upon their retirement, though, they moved back to their farm, over 150 miles away from where my mom and I lived. This meant my religious education was suddenly reduced to my grandmother trying to sneak it in, out of view from my mom, on our infrequent weekend visits. She became like a relentless drug dealer, never ceasing in her efforts to get me hooked: “Hey, kid, want to try Jesus?” By the end of our visits, she would be emboldened enough to shove books and pamphlets into my hand as we made our way out the door. Undoubtedly she thought I would read them on the long ride home, confident that the information would eventually stick.
My grandmother was not the only person who believed I was in need of saving. We lived in Texas, where there is no shortage of Evangelical Christians. These people really wanted me to know Jesus. Growing up, there was nothing so uncomfortable as having to tell one of them that I actually did not have a “church home.” Thankfully, I could at least claim ownership of a Bible. (Of course I had one. My grandmother bought it for me.) It was not that I rejected Christianity. On the contrary, having no reason to believe otherwise, I tended to accept whatever I was told. I was even “saved” with the help of an 80’s sitcom star when my Girl Scout troop went to see a performance by “Facts of Life” star Lisa Whelchel, the finale of which was her persuasive speech on the importance of accepting Jesus Christ.
It was not until high school that I started to question religion, and those questions led me to non-believer status until a few years later, when something changed.
In what remains an inexplicable experience in my life, I came to believe in God again. It happened in an instant, one afternoon while I was visiting with my mother, who had recently been diagnosed with brain cancer. It occurred to me that although we were going through something huge, we were, in fact, quite small. It suddenly seemed absolutely absurd that there wasn’t something more, something beyond human existence. Perhaps it could be called an epiphany, or maybe it was nothing more than a subconscious need. Whatever the case, what remained was a feeling of clarity and comfort, and it is a feeling that has not left me since.
Surprised to find myself a believer again, I had difficulty discerning what that actually meant. Many of the things that led me to atheism still held true, and I did not know how to reconcile that with my newfound faith. I knew I could not believe in a God that delighted in some bizarre rewards system, damning some of us to hell and others to eternal bliss. I couldn’t quite grasp the notion of a God who randomly allowed tragedy and devastation for some, while leaving others safe and unharmed. I never got the urge to pick up a Bible and pore over its contents. I did not feel that I, nor anyone else, was in need of salvation. I wondered if I could still call myself a Christian. Did I even want to?
Eventually I realized that believing again meant I would always have a lot of questions, but rarely answers. I find the mystery of God, and the inability to put into words how I experience the divine, a small part of what makes my faith meaningful. There is something both utterly terrifying and incredibly beautiful in uncertainty. Allowing myself to embrace that uncertainty by surrendering control and giving in to vulnerability is transformative for me. I would not go so far as to say God controls everything, or that every occurrence in my life was predestined, but I know I feel great contentment from God’s presence.
If asked to describe my religious affiliation today, I would have to admit to being a semi-closeted Christian. I am not embarrassed to believe in God; I am afraid of being mistaken as a certain type of Christian. When I confess to being a churchgoer, I often feel the need to follow up with assurances of how “normal” I am. I am aware Jesus’s name has been sullied by some believers, and many terrible acts have been committed in God’s name. I cringe at the thought of being taken for someone who would use the Bible to condemn gays, or someone who believes the remedy for society’s ills is to bring prayer back into school classrooms. I would never be so presumptuous to declare my beliefs as being right and everyone else’s wrong. I know to some this means I am not a “real” Christian, but I dispute that. I believe in following Jesus’s example, which can be summed up in three little rules: love everyone, judge no one, and help whenever and however you can.
Belief in God is not logical, I know. God’s existence cannot be proven. There are no facts to examine, and no way to measure or quantify God’s place in any of our lives. Atheists can claim there is nothing about God that makes any sense, and they are not incorrect in this assertion. We believers can only rely on our feelings and perhaps some anecdotal experiences, which I concede do not make for a compelling argument. But the longer I live, the fewer things make sense in my life. I can’t explain why events unfolded in the ways they did. And I can’t explain how I can feel God. I know that my faith enriches my life by making me feel more connected to humanity, and enabling me to be fearless in the face of the unknown.
Three years ago, I held my grandmother’s hand as she was taking her last breath. During her life, she was not afraid of dying because she believed she would meet Jesus and be reunited with her loved ones in Heaven. Although I do not share this belief, I was deeply comforted that she could rely upon her faith, making her final days easier to face. I don’t know if she ever felt she somehow failed me, since our beliefs about God were never in sync. I do know that, regardless of the differences between us, our love for one another was tremendous. I think of her life now, both how she lived and how she died, and I realize she, more than anyone, taught me what is most important: knowing we are loved and being able to love others. Although she may have wished for my faith to be stronger, and my reverence for the Bible to be purer, I don’t think she would admonish me for coming to this conclusion. Whether we experience it through God or not, our capacity for giving and receiving love is what matters. Even Jesus wouldn’t disagree with that.
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