The Push and Pull of Faith
(From the perspective of an only somewhat convinced but still pretty devout lifelong Christian)
By Sarah Ortner
Part one: The Push (A brief personal history of what got me here)
It’s Sunday morning and I’m sitting in an oaken pew, watching light filter in high above me through the thinly colored glass plates of the Cathedral Windows. Behind me, the organ is playing- thunderous music signifying a feast day, maybe- around me, heads are bent forward, jacket collars turned up against the winter chill that hangs heavy and low to the floor, hands folded on the pew ahead or resting in their laps. Their postures are ones of calmness and devotion, of stillness and attention to the inward things, and it is the desire of those states that I’ve come, and been coming to, this service for the past several months: it’s the absence of them that I feel so keenly this morning. I hold my hands together and squeeze my fingers in time with the underlying march of the organ, and practice yoga breathing- in through the nose, hold at the top, one two three, release in one long even breath- and try not to try to gather together the wild cats and stray rabbits of my mind.
Namaste. Be at peace. Go with God. Blessings on you. Slowly these phrase begin to replace the restless kitchen door scratchings of my brain (When is that report due? What should I buy for dinner? When will I start that book my cousin John gave me? Has it really been a week since I talked to my mom? Should I start looking for a job to be closer to my husband’s medical school? Is my work redemptive or exploitive? Am I doing everything I can with my talents, and I appreciating all there is to appreciate? Should I be worried about that clanging in my car? Can I justify going to the bookstore after this if I *promise* to not buy any books? Or maybe just one book? Or no more than three, and anyway won’t God forgive me if I break that promise, and how important is paying off that credit card bill right now, anyway?) . Slowly I repeat these words to myself, over and over, in time with my breathing (in one two three four five, out one two three four five). Eventually the power of years of communal repetition begins to work its reliable magic. Gloria Gloria Amen.
Going to church is second nature, as is prayer, the bones of faith. The habits and language of the faithful are entwined in my earliest memories- bedtime prayers with my Omma, my mom’s mom, who smelled like spruce sap and lilies and fresh bread and pickled beets, and who would cover me in a thick white eiderdown bed brought from her native Germany, and whisper me to sleep by saying “Thank God who loves your momma, Thank god who loves your papa, Thank god who loves your Uncle Bert…”. Though Catholic, it was this, her most essential personal rosary of love and gratitude that stretched down to my youngest cousins, the barn cats and rascally old goat Randy and backwards through time and space to her own momma and poppa, Oma and Opa, that she taught me, over and over, every night the same until I was quieted and sleeping.
So I grew up wrapped thick in a luxurious web of belonging and gratitude for the God who had put me there. I remember family feasts presided over by uncles who urged us to clasp hands and go around the table and offer up our gratitudes, and running around the back yard with my cousins and neighbors acting out the more dramatic Bible stories- the flood with all the animals marching up solemnly for rescue, the dramatic last minute rescue of Isaac from his father’s thirsty knife by the hand of God. Later I remember the churches of my childhood- Catholic, at first, then later Baptist, briefly church of Christ, and then some nameless non-demonational services held in old churches of prior faiths (Lutheran, Presbyterian) who had made a stand for some decades but then fallen, inevitable as weeds. My parents had a restlessness that drove them from the comfort and strictures of their parent’s faith, urged by uncomfortable questions of justice and commonsense, and they pulled my brother along in their wake, leap frogging from answer to answer in the quest for authentic truth. Regardless of theology, however, these were all country churches, made of wood that was scrubbed and polished each Saturday night, filled with generations of farmers with German, Irish and Polish last names.
The God of those churches was personal and absolute; he hated abortion and communists but loved the poor and the suffering, and favored the hardworking meek above all else. In the world I grew up in, when family farms were being bought out by conglomerates and the factories of the city that beckoned and lured the boys and girls away from their families were falling apart, too, to rust and low wages- in a world where every corner turned to a constant nagging question of “is it enough, will it be enough, do I have enough?-“ for groceries, school supplies, replacement socks and starter belts, braces, doctor’s fees- it was clear that the meek and hardworking were favored by no-one else. There was a fierce pride and possessiveness to being claimed, regardless, by God. Who needs this world anyway, with its injustices and its worries, its false hopes and tv land mockery of homes so much cleaner and brighter and more comfortable than yours will ever be, so very lacking in the very tangible eternal houseguest of want- who needs to even care about *any* of it, if you are promised a seat at the throne in the next? Praise Jesus, His will be done.
I cannot remember a time when I didn’t know to “Take it to the Lord.” Did I need to calm myself down after a fight with my father? I knew to pray to God to ask for strength and patience. Did I need to force myself to get on the bus where the school bully was waiting for another 45 minute round of torment? I knew to for bravery and indifference. I’d pray that God would help me feel love, and not envy, for my little brother who very quickly eclipsed me in terms of cuteness and likeability; I’d pray that God would help me do my homework instead of lapsing into daydreams about the forest that surrounded my home and all the fabulous creatures who might be living there, waiting for me, right now as we speak. And when released to the woods and forests that I spent every day in for hours and hours, I would send quick shouts of praise to God at every turn- the waterfall cascades of ferns dripping down an embankment, the spooky stillness of a morning mist in April, the velvet soft of a moss bed dotted with violets, the wind moving through fields of timothy in silvery, shuddery waves. I was a strange and awkward little girl who grew up a little lonely and a little fearful, enamored of books and daydreams, wanting to be good but also wanting to be very far away. God was my best friend, my confident, the maker of my joy, the answer to my questions, and the assurance to my fears. Amen amen amen.
(And when He does all of that- when he provides love when I do not feel loved, when He provides peace when peace is a blatant chaotic impossibility around me, when He offers me encouragement when all the dark voices around me suggest isn’t it just a little bit presumptuous and selfish and unnecessary for me to go on- when He is my Absolute Anchor- then is it really important for Him to be real? Might that be asking too much? )
Back to church. The choir has come by, wearing dark blue robes over white ones, and the various clergy of this Episcopalian Cathedral, acolytes dressed in pure white robes with thick hewn rope to work as sashes against their weight, then the ministers wearing habits of dark purple embroidered with gold. Someone carries the processional cross, and someone else carries the highly decorated enormous Gospel, and others carry banners and incense. We stand and sing loudly about Christ risen, Christ triumphant, affirming our communal faith in his death and resurrection, his divinity and saving power. I didn’t grow up Episcopalian but this hymn is familiar to me and as I sing it I watch the people around me. Most are middle aged, the women with the kind of haircuts and jackets and slow heeled shoes that would fit in at any professional environment, the men in suits and sweaters of good taste and reasonable means. Do they really mean what they say, this loyalty they profess to an Arabic carpenter who lived and died 2000 years ago, mostly in obscurity until his 30th year when some spark of madness, divine or political, who can say, inspired him to rabble rousing and truth-to-power speaking that led directly to his death at the hands of the powers that be? Do they truly believe in his bodily resurrection, these people in sensible glasses who probably know a great deal more about the stock market and theories of evolution than I do? I sing loudly and evenly and try to keep my face smooth and unrevealing, so that no one who happens to glance my way feels troubled to wonder these questions about me, most particularly not the sharp eyed white bearded priest who walks his processional in socks and hangs out by the holy water after services, eager to approach new comers and bring them into the fold. I come for the peace but I don’t want to stay for it, and already have my exit strategy mapped out. The last thing I want is anyone asking me these questions, my answers are uncomfortably missing.
As an adult, I recognize that my faith is as much a habit of mind as anything else, and that it says much more about me and how my mind works than about any objective reality. After spending the better part of 36 years remembering my loved ones to God each night and sending out my hopes and intentions to act with kindness, steadfastness, generosity and love each morning, I suspect this relationship is as settled as any marriage, and what successful marriage exists without some margin of make believe and some margin of acceptance of the mysterious unknowableness of your beloved? I pray in the morning and at night, I try to love my neighbor as myself, I whisper my gratitude when I see a gorgeous sky and my helplessness when I face yet another client whose tangle of financial woes, historical traumas and dire situations is tangled and strangling and seeming beyond any powers I know of to loosen. I cling to this faith and take it for granted and I don’t understand it at all.
In my family, I’m an anomaly. My parents came out as atheist, accidentally, when I was sixteen: I had come to them, tearful, to let them know I didn’t think gay people were evil and in fact I thought God loved them and wouldn’t send them to hell, andalso I didn’t believe in Hell anyway. I assumed, since my parents had been sending me to a Baptist church (since I was nine) that was particularly energized around the notion of “sodomites” roasting in hell, that my parents would have some concerns about this perspective- I came prepared to tell them I’d come to this decision after long prayer and reflection and searching my heart, and prepared to try to sooth their worries about the state of my immortal soul. Instead, my mom looked at me blankly and said “Well, of course gay people aren’t evil. They just love who they love. And of course they aren’t going to Hell. Hell isn’t real, anyway, it’s just what bored small minded people who have nothing better to do with their time like to think about.” Further conversation revealed that years ago my mom had discarded the notion of hell, along with heaven, the inerrancy of the Bible, the concept of Salvation, and most likely God. Jesus, she said, was a great human who cared about people and got murdered for it, which showed you a lot about how messed up the world was, and while she didn’t personally bet that God existed, she couldn’t make any statements about it for certain. When pushed about why I’d being going to the Baptist Church for so long, she shrugged and pointed out that early on, it was the prospect of free babysitting. My brother and I walked to church with a gaggle of neighborhood kids, stayed for services, Bible school and the weekly potluck and, in good weather, a perpetual game of tackle football in the field across the street. After this we’d walk home, worn out and prone to lollygagging and “short cuts” through the creeks that meandered behind cow fields and maple woods that led back to our home. For my mom, this all added to at least six child free hours every Sunday, a temptation my mother, newly freed from the punishments surrounding temptation, found it impossible to resist. When I pushed her on why this kept up well into my adolescence, when I was old enough to stay home by myself and watch my brother and all the younger neighborhood kids to boot, my mom shrugged and said since I never really complained about it, she never felt like interfering. “I always figured you’d come to your senses sooner or later, Sarah, and realize it’s all just a bunch of silliness. And look, now you have.”
Except, the thing is, I hadn’t. I stopped attending the Baptist church, of course, and once my brother learned about my mom’s years of fraudulent enthusiasm over Biblical inerrancy, he stopped attending too. But not attending church was not the same as giving up God. How could I give up what had been the center of my life, the thing that kept me upright for my entire existence? God made me feel like one of those life size clown balloons, the ones kids might bop with bats and fake hammers, that flop wildly left and right but always somehow right themselves, eternally smiling. God let me do that. God made it possible for me to stand up over and over again. How could I do that without him?