A sanctuary for doubt

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Doubt has an uncomfortable place in faith. We’re not supposed to doubt, not supposed to question the ideas and stories that make up the foundation of our faith. But doubt is one of those sensations that, even as we try to push it down or run away from it, bubbles up until we can’t avoid what is bothering us anymore.

Fortunately for us, writer Rachel Held Evans is comfortable discussing her discomfort. In her third book, Searching for Sunday, Evans writes about feeling out of place in her faith community. The book is not so much about a crisis of faith but a crisis of community. Not of believing you know everything but of wanting to find people you can feel comfortable not knowing everything with.

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As Evans’ faith evolved, from easy acceptance to conflicting doubt, she found that her home church no longer had a place in which she could question freely or live out her faith. She and her husband found themselves staying at home more often than not on Sunday mornings, trying to disengage quietly from the church community in which she had grown up. Using the seven sacraments (baptism, confession, holy orders, communion, confirmation) as guideposts, Evans tells the journey they took from the church home they outgrew, to an experience in church planting, to finding hope and welcome in a new Christian community.

Each section begins with a more prosaic rumination on the sacrament, focusing on something tangible (water, ash, hands, bread, breath, oil, crowns) as a way into the topic. The introductions serve as a reminder of the ways in which we try to comprehend the vastness of God, while the chapters share her personal experiences of those touchstones. Her writing is sprinkled with humour that both informs and disarms, bringing familiarity and reassurance to the lonely experience of doubt.

Reading Searching for Sunday made me feel less alone. Growing up and away from the bedrock community of faith I had been raised in made the whole world seem unsure, and the place I would usually turn to for comfort now felt restricting.

Thankfully, like Evans, I have the support of my husband. Our family is a blended family, by which I mean that my husband and I were raised in different Christian faith environments. I come from a long line of Christian Reformed believers: Dutch, Protestant, reserved. My husband was raised in a Polish Catholic community: ritualistic, traditional, nostalgic.

Growing up, I never really thought about how Christians could be different. I thought that except for a few minor theological divergences, like transubstantiation (the turning of bread and wine in to the body and blood of Christ), the differences were more a matter of style than substance. Never mind that a difference of opinion about transubstantiation would get me burned at the stake during the Reformation, to me, all of that was behind us. You do you, Catholics, and I’ll do me. Christian is Christian.

It wasn’t until I actually had to interact with people of different backgrounds that I saw how profoundly my background impacted my faith. Building a faith life within our family is an ongoing project. When we first met in university, my husband referred to himself as a recovering Catholic and joked that I was a closeted Agnostic. I laughed but the idea that I was not committed to my faith, as I’d always believed in, made me uncomfortable, nervous. I began to notice the ways in which my church community no longer lined up with my thoughts, feelings, and experiences of faith. I began to doubt. And my doubt turned to searching.

We were married in a Christian Reformed church by my family minister, and every moment was perfect, but after the wedding we moved to a different city, and we began to look for a church. We finally settled on the Catholic cathedral downtown. The service started at noon, so we could sleep in, enjoy CBC News: Sunday, and still make it on time. The liturgy took a while for me to get used to, but the sermons always gave me something to think about. I also got to hear the Alleluia Chorus sung by a professional choir for the first time. A perk of having a Bishop preach in your church at Easter, I guess.

Music would play a huge role in choosing our next church home after we moved once again. We spent over a year looking, with many listless Sundays spent at home. We discovered our current church through a rock band we both enjoy (The Low Anthem, in case you were wondering). They were using our church as a venue. We didn’t end up going to the show, but after perusing the church’s website we decided to give it a chance. We haven’t looked back.

Splitting the difference on our religious backgrounds, we started attending an Anglican church in downtown Toronto. The choir is phenomenal, the clergy engaging and challenging, the community supportive. I feel at home in our church for a lot of reasons. In it, we get to live our faith by praising God, welcoming the stranger, feeding the hungry, writing to the imprisoned, and asking questions. There is room for doubt in the pews and chairs of the sanctuary. For confusion and anger and hurt. Without brushing away those emotions, but embracing them. Feeling comfortable being uncomfortable.

I may have doubts when I enter our church, but I always leave with a bit more hope. Perhaps that is what I search for each Sunday – hope.

Since the beginning of the year, our church has sent forth two priests to other ministry opportunities: one, a recently ordained minister; the other, the head priest for the last 15 years. As we wished them well, the whole congregation gathered around them and sang a beautiful song that I have a difficult time finishing without choking up. As anyone who has been part of a choir, or even just sang with the crowd at a concert, can attest, there is something special about joining a group of voices together. In these two lines, I feel unburdened from my fears and doubts and remember there is still hope.

Be not afraid, my love is stronger; my love is stronger than your fear. Be not afraid, my love is stronger, and I have promised to always be near.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Putting the Awe Back in Awesome

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Like a lot of great books I’ve read, I first encountered Pär Lagerkvist’s The Sibyl as part of an English course, in this case a second-year course on myth and symbol. As a young woman from a small, Christian community in a staid, mid-sized city, this course and this book started opening a lot discussion for me about faith, God, and religious experiences. I’ve read it two or three times before, but I reread it for my 50 Book Challenge because the characters’ encounters with god feel so unlike anything I’ve understood or experienced but, as the sibyl remarks, “I think I recognize that god.”

The Sibyl tells the story of two people: first, the story of a man who is cursed by Jesus for preventing him from resting against his house while carrying the cross to Golgotha, commonly known as the Wandering Jew; and second, the main arc of the novel, the story of the former oracle of Delphi, now living a disgraced and outcast life in the hills outside of the city.

Screenshot 2016-01-15 13.38.25My reading of this book then and now isn’t about good or bad. Reading this story is about taking part in something larger than yourself, something not completely understandable, something just meant to be experienced, incomprehensible, greater-than, awesome – in its truest meaning.

Awesome is not just the easy descriptor given to everything from that burger you had for lunch to the new Star Wars movie. Awesome means to inspire awe. It is means, if I may reference the OED, immediate and active fear, dread or terror.

Perhaps this is not the first way most Christians want to think of God, but throughout this past Christmas season, as I read the story of Christ’s birth to my children and attended church services from different denominations, fear was brought up a lot, though rarely honed in on.

The children’s Bible that my family reads pulls together in one Christmas story: the angel’s visit to Mary to tell her of God’s plan, Joseph’s doubts about their marriage and the subsequent dream of an angelic visit, as well as the traditional stable, shepherds with angel chorus, wise men and baby Jesus. Three times we read that the angels said, “Do not be afraid.”

Do not be afraid. I mean beyond the startling experience of seeing an angel, commonly depicted as a glowing, floating figure that only Fox Mulder could believe in, why would meeting an angel be frightening? But three times we read do not be afraid. And this is a creature only next to God. Not God, but a servant of God. If an angel can inspire fear, how much more so could an encounter with God?

Which brings me back to The Sibyl. The man has come to ask the sibyl what his future holds now that he has been condemned to wander for eternity and to find no rest. Her response is her own life story: her childhood; her experience with god as the temple’s pythia; her great love of a neighbour, his death, and her pregnancy and resulting violent expulsion from the city. As they discuss their stories, the sibyl keeps coming back to the idea that an encounter with god is not simple experience.

He is not as we are and we can never understand him. He is incomprehensible, inscrutable. He is god. And so far as I comprehend it he is both evil and good, both light and darkness, both meaningless and full of a meaning which we can never perceive, yet never cease to puzzle over. A riddle which is intended not to be solved but to exist. To exist for us always. To trouble us always.

Her life, tied so closely to the experience of god, was lived in opposites. Life in the temple lifted her up but held her separate. She experienced ecstasy and terror by god’s hand. As a result, she does not deny that she hates god for the destruction in her life but also says she owes god her every happiness. The space created in this story to both doubt and believe, to feel anger and peace, to be part of and separate from God continues to fascinate me. The awe of encountering something incomprehensible, to be touched by God, bound up in him, has a certain pleasure that is irrationally appealing, as the pythia’s story reveals.

In the end, the man leaves her side believing the answer he is seeking may only be found in his endless wandering. The answer cannot be spoken but only lived.

I read and reread books like The Sybil to find more clues to the riddle that is God, to find the edges of my own understanding and belief. I accept that I will not find an answer to my questions or doubts, not for myself or for any others who come and question faith and the existence of God, but in reading and questioning and discussing, I live and search in hope of a truly awesome encounter with the incomprehensible I AM.

#tbt book nerd style

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Some books are like warm hugs. You always feel good when you read them no matter how many times you’ve read the same words. When I was younger, that book was Love Comes Softly by Janette Oke.

Oke is a prolific and beloved author of Christian children’s books. Published in 1979, Love Comes Softly is Oke’s first novel and the first book in a series of eight following the same family. From that one book, Oke launched her career, which now includes over 70 books and several awards.

Set in the 1800s, Love Comes Softly tells the story of Marty and Clark Davis. The two meet under tragic circumstances after Marty’s husband dies in a horse-riding accident. Alone on the frontier, Marty, newly pregnant, has nowhere to turn until Clark, father of a one-year-old daughter, who also recently lost his wife, proposes a marriage of convenience. He even promises that, come spring, if Marty is unhappy, he will pay for her return east if only she brings his daughter with her so she can have a mama.

Christian Children's Books, Janette Oke

Feels like a warm hug

And so begins a year of challenges, frustrations, growth, and, of course, unexpected love.

Love for a little girl, for a new baby, for an unplanned couple and for God.

I grew up in a Christian household, and the rhythms of prayer, reading the Bible, and Sunday rest found in Clark’s home, which are completely foreign to Marty, echoed the atmosphere of my own home.

Over the course of the book, Marty realizes a love for Clark and a love for God. These great loves are the heart of the whole Love Comes Softly series.

Reading Love Comes Softly is like climbing back into the chair in my parents’ living room, when I was small enough to be enveloped in its cushions, feeling secure and sure of the world and my place in it. Perhaps it is time for a reread.

Do you have a book that feels like a warm hug?