Sunday, March 14, 2010

I Don't Understand God

I don't understand God. Why it is I am so convinced of the very existence of a God to begin with, I couldn't tell you. Manolis would say I am genetically predisposed to. And I am happy to accept this. But still, the fact remains that I do--unabashedly--believe in God.

And this leaves me abandoned in a desert of despair with more questions than answers, and more fear than consolation.

Many people know several pieces of my story. It's funny because very few (I can count on one hand) understand the journey in its entirety. I don't think that I am special or unique in any way. No, not even in my self-described and utter lack of understanding of God and God's devices do I wander into the possibilities of predetermination or the notion of "chosen ones." However, I do believe that my experiences are somewhat different from the norm, perhaps even rare. Maybe you will disprove me on this. No matter. My experiences are my own and if there is one thing we can all observe about people, it's this: their experiences inform their perceptions. To a fault.

I was brought up in a home that was socially religious. That is, religion, specifically Christianity (more specifically Methodism) was a social entity. It was not personal, it was not pressing. Each and every Sunday morning we would dress in our best (lacy dresses and patent leather shoes for me) and, weather permitting, walk the block down to the little white steepled Methodist church that was pastored by our across-the-street neighbor and my best friend's father. My dad headed the men's group. I looked forward each year to the summer picnic at the Reagal's farm. It was a simple life. It was a better life.

My parents divorced. My mom found Jesus. She and I drifted apart. Less because of her new found love of something beyond this world and more because of my tweenage rebellion. I dabbled in Wicca (for attention sake, nothing more) and headed off to high school, a bonafide outcast.

Then came Young Life, and Chelsea, and Born Again. I made a new best friend in high school. To this day I still cherish the time Chelsea and I spent together. I think she always had a good radar for bullshit, but her quiet, unimposing nature allowed this natural gift to be squandered by her relatively dumb ass, pubescent companions. Still, she played a key role in the Christifying of Miss Dickerson, as she asked me innocently one Friday afternoon if I would accompany her to Fall Weekend, a Christian retreat sponsored by Young Life. I obliged, and that weekend changed me quite literally forever. My high school years were spent immaturely vacillating wildly between the extremes of perfect lamb and sinful doer. I can't completely blame myself. After all, I had friends convincing me that kissing my senior prom date after the dance was selfish behavior which was not "glorifying to God." Then again, I can't claim total innocence. I was always up for whatever was the going trend. Don't get me wrong, I believed what I said, but I didn't really challenge it very much either.

College. It practically came and went. Whereas for most people it is among the highlights of their existence and among the most meaningful instances of personal development, for me it was all kind of an angry blur. This is not to minimize the important people who played a role in my life at this time, nor to discredit their efforts and contributions to my life. But, quite honestly, I look back on my college days as one might reflect on the scheme a con artist has just pulled on them at the moment they stand somewhat shocked and amazed in the steamy dim light of a street lamp, scratching their head and wondering, "What just happened?" I felt as though I had been duped, by religion, by people, and most certainly by God.

I left the college of my dreams that most people only imagine reading an acceptance letter from because I believed God was leading me on another, more worthy path. There are days I still wonder what would have been had I only stuck it out--even as little as another semester--to see what was in store for me. What's done is done. I'm past all that now. But let us not lose sight of the fact that the sacrifices on my part were real and they were great. I was committed. I held up my end of the deal.

I got to Pitt and subsequently joined Joyful Noise. To this day I cannot tell you whether Joyful Noise lands a spot on the best or worst things that have ever transpired in my life. And I say this with the most biting sincerity. I simply don't know.

You see, from day one of my inception I was a struggler with the faith. I was one of those who became accustomed to the concept of stumbling block. That's the catchy term (popular American Christianity has a lot of these) used to describe things that make one "fall" away from or on the path of one's faith. In the early days, they were more tangible. Cute boy, bitchy friend, rated R movie, you get the idea. As time went on, my stumbling blocks became more personal, more real, and more intellectual. I learned that as I began to search for understanding in places that were more of the church of historical fact rather than the house of God, well, the Gospel I had once put all of my faith in was starting to look less iron clad and more like Swiss cheese.

Now, mind you, I still did not take this as a failure on the part of Christianity, but rather chocked it up to my own shortcomings. My lack of faith, my sinful curiosity fueled by none other than Satan, no doubt. So, because of this, I was very influenced by those who I interpreted to be more solid in the faith, namely those Christian companions I acquired in my college extra-curriculars. Little did I know at the time that the successful Christian did not have more faith, merely more ability to hide her lack of faith. Silly me. I was busy going around telling people how I really felt and--more importantly (and probably threateningly)--thought about things. This resulted in letting everyone know who the weak (and, let's be honest, less popular) Christian was, thus giving more power to the personalityless stuffed-shirts who sat tight lipped and all-knowing in the corners. (Yes, there is one specific person I'm referring to here. Yes, this may be a cheap jab. So sue me; I'm bitter.)

Important disclaimer: In no way were the people (99% of them) of Joyful Noise bad people. No, no, no. To this day many of them I consider to be very close friends, sources of wisdom, and just all around decent men and women. It just turns out that on the hindsight tour of my life Joyful Noise ends up functioning as a single symbolic entity rather than a group of individuals. This disclaimer is my best effort to 1.) ward off any negative feelings that may detract from the overarching purpose of this memo and 2.) keep from any unintended insult that could result. Please try to understand my portrait of the group as a literary device and not an accurate depiction of any one (or several) person (people).

To get us back on track, what I am saying is, I was having an emotional and intellectual crisis of faith. A relationship with a good and non-religious (those terms are independent of each other) man coupled with relocating across the country for graduate school landed me happily in the religious free zone, or at least in the no outward religious practice zone. I balanced this lifestyle with attending church in Boulder, Colorado for the duration of my stay there. I even became a member of the congregation and joined the choir. Still I maintain that, next to personal relationships, First Congregational Church was the best thing to happen to be in my brief stint in the West.

And now, here I am. Nearly a year back home and on my way back to health. I am standing close to the other side of darkness now, full recovery in sight, and I am no closer to understanding life, or God, or meaning, or purpose...I thought milestones like this were supposed to bring clarity. I mean, isn't that the reward for all this suffering? "Well, pain stole a year of my life but hey, at least I figured out the meaning of it!" No, at least not for me. I am still just as lost and confused as ever, perhaps even more so. The only things I can say for myself are these. I have lost some of the drive, at least, to actively search for answers. I am quite content to have them come to me, revealing theirselves as the burning bush did to Moses, but as far as getting more degrees in Religion and Rhetoric, engaging in debates with my devout Christian friends, and spending hours pouring over religious texts and boasted religious texts, I'm good.

Why then write this sophomoric treatise on Shannon and religion? I guess a few reasons. Firstly, I like writing, and not being in school I get little chance or excuse to do so. Second, just because I'm not searching for answers doesn't mean I'm not permanently mulling over the questions. And thridly, because intelligent dialogue is all but absent from my daily life and I welcome the opportunity for such a discussion to take place (hence the public nature of a blog rather than a journal entry).

I will end with this. Although the past 14 months gave me seemingly zero answers in the God department, they did provide me with ample insight into the life department. And though I have trouble separating the two topics, they have most definitely separate identities. So this I will say and say it boldly. I appreciate life and youth with a ferver I had never known before. To wake up without pain, even every other day as it is at this point, is the greatest fortune. I wish for everyone this simple circumstance: to never know the pain I have, and to never be without the appreciation I've been allowed.

Where God fits into that I really may never know. But I know God does fit into that, so really, how far am I from where I began?


The Elliot Girl said...

Wow, how I would like to grab a drink and sit with you and hear you talk more about this in person. As much as blogs and social networking sites betray a glimpse of what preoccupies us, the areas where they fall short from real-life interactions can be crucial.

I just want to say, at this moment, that I really appreciate and have always appreciated your honesty and boldness in being honest. There are those who hide behind eloquent or witty phrases and intellectual posturing from both sides of the conversation so that it's really just a bunch of people taking turns flirting in front of an opaque mirror than genuine struggling together to understand and grasp Truth and Reality, which I do believe exist but are beyond the scope of our understanding in their entirety. You have never been one of those people, and that is inspiring.

And the only other thing I can say, at this point, is that I am less comfortable with people who have everything about God and their relationship with Him completely figured out than "tortured souls" (pardon the phrase, but that's how I feel myself a lot of times despite the theological insistence otherwise) whose only certainty is that we know almost nothing about what He practically wants and plans for our lives. Oh sure, I know the overall scope, I suspect all this emotional hand-wringing and emotional meltdowns I often go through could be self-righteousness or pride as one of my church's pastors claim, but mostly, I just want to know more clearly so I don't waste my life.

Actually, one last note: One of the things that's growing in how it bothers me is the division between being "spiritual" versus being engaged into the matters and even joys of this world. By your writing, I sense this dichotomy may be influencing you more than you realize or want...Or maybe I'm merely projecting.

Btw, sorry again about reacting to your friend Ryan. As conflicted as I am about the church, I just got too irritated by his smugness at the moment. I would still prefer he be honest about his ridicule instead of saying that I misunderstood him. Man, this pregnancy is making me so bitchy.

Amanda said...

Well said, as always. It's too bad organized religion seems to be personified in those stuffed-shirt smugs...they really ruin it for the rest of us.

I am SO glad to hear that you have regular pain-free days now!!!