This is a post to the people who believe and those who lead them. It is also something written in the middle of pain and about people who never had the opportunity to speak for themselves away from their roles on stage or in spiritual leadership. It is hard to walk with someone in pain, help them find a way forward in it too. I am bad at it, though in this post I shriek against those who find it awkward and unbearable to act. It is the one sided view. Have compassion here as I attempt compassion for myself.
I landed in JFK airport at 4pm on Saturday, my first moments in the USA after a year away. The next morning, I went with my mother to church. This church was new in the area, or at least in the last few years. But it felt deeply familiar, frighteningly so. The songs were displayed on screens with accompanying melody lines marked in musical notation. The instruments were traditional and new. Many members were recognizable from my childhood church: the pianist, the keyboardist, the violinist, the pastor leading both worship and preaching. While I had grown up worshiping in an enormous sanctuary, this cast of characters worshiped in an old warehouse, AC units working overtime to keep the congregation cool. Still, the same old ladies, now more widows than wives, marked time with their feet from the front row.
The man who led the four singers had played Jesus in a musical when I was young. He grew older in the intervening years. I remembered him standing in the lobby being sprayed with fake blood for the crucifixion; his muscles would ripple as he reached for his crown of thorns. Sexy Jesus. He prayed a prayer for the sermon.
“Dear Father, we come to you today just in awe of who you are and to give you glory. Just take our minds and our hearts, take them over, let us think your thoughts and see with your eyes. Remove distractions for us, let us be only yours; see only you. Amen.”
My throat constricted. What the hell was that supposed to mean? A year since I had been in a church of English words, a year, and this was being prayed: English words, meaning as lost as Bulgarian in my ears.
The pastor presented his Five Reasons for Unanswered Prayer. Ah. I subject of great familiarity to me. I’ve known God’s Silence. There was one prayer I prayed for years but was not answered the way I thought God was supposed to work things. I know the heaping of pain onto pain that comes after a desperate plea for help goes unanswered. My parents did not stay together; my parents did not love each other.
Now, a pastor with 5 Reasons for the things I lost.
The sermon proceeded as these sermons do. There were five bullet points that appeared at duly appointed moments on the overhead screens. They contained no heresy and were supported by a plethora of verses removed from their place in long passages and granted to us like special amulets. God has a specific plan for our lives. God says No to the things we ask for that are Bad For Us. He says No (or is silent, the difference between the two was not addressed) because we’d Sin with what we were Given. And my favorite: He wants us to be strengthened by pain, and give what we’ve learned to others.
He proceeded with practiced emotional distance, a learned clinical air, a carefully measured presentation style meant to exhort and comfort. It came off badly rehearsed.
Perhaps it was my cynicism. A man sat across the room from me. The pastor noted that this man’s mother had died the day before. He nodded and rocked to the sermon, a smile across this face, mouthing the words to the passages the pastor quoted. He knew each of them by heart. He leaned over his Bible like a magic crystal, for meaning. Comfort. He seemed to be drinking it and it radiated from his body.
The final two songs were a neat conclusion that we all must have obviously reached in our hearts by such a moving sermon. The piano player, his wife, was in cahoots with the sermon message. What E’re my God Ordains is Right. Blessed by the Name of the Lord. The first, deeply elegant hymn now sung sprightly and quickly. The second, a major chord crescendo celebration of surrender.
My mother cried. I refused to sing.
Once, I asked a pastor friend of mine for help in how I counseled friend of mine who was in deep spiritual and mental pain. I shared similarities with this girl. “Comfort her with the comfort with which you have been comforted” he advised me. I looked at him; he noted no irony in his words. He was quoting 2 Corinthians. He assumed I had been comforted. No. I had not known comfort, not then. Did I have nothing to give her if I was not spiritual or Godly or trusting enough to know comfort from Christ? The word comfort carried a connotation as long as language itself and as misleading. What did comfort actually feel like in the bones of my heart?
Words are not themselves only. They are weak and break open with mishandling, meaning lost.
Bulgaria changed words for me. I lived where I could understand nothing. Words were buoys on the surface of oceans of meaning I could not access with my own language. What is behind the words? Compassion? Friendship? Intimidation? Confusion? It hadn’t seemed important before, this invisible track of talking, than now; I grew eyes and ears for unspoken meaning in a year where the words were like the film on the top of heated buttered before clarifying. Words were only surface signs of a deeper whole, flimsy and inconsequential, something to be skimmed off and set aside. In Bulgaria, I hung tight and desperate to the driftwood of nonverbal talk, the hand motion, the slowing down, nod of the head. I distrusted my words each day in Bulgaria. I trusted my body more. And even then, it could betray me. Even my body could not say what it needed. A smile, though, would go far, a humility in my limbs. Please, I’d smile, I can’t understand you. I need help. When the lady came from the water company to check my meter, she would stand in my entry hall without any motion in her face or arms, no gesture with her pen and register. I was adrift without help. I never understood her; even taxi drivers gripping the steering wheels of their chugging, yellow vehicles did not leave me so helpless as she. Words were merely opaque notations and clarified butter was the meaning, the clear yellow and gold gleam, something beyond what words could do.
James Brasfield, a poet and a professor at Penn State, once told me that he admired preaching, that there could be poetry there. “I knew a Presbyterian minister once. He spoke poetry. He would let the words lead him.” James Brasfield had also once told me that religious belief held a suffocating hand over the mouth of Poetry. Yet even he conceded that a preacher, when the words would lead, could birth Poetry. I do not know, though, if it was really words that he was hearing. I think what he heard was not word but Spirit leading the preacher, where the words waited to stand meekly in their required places, the color to tell one thing from the other, yet not being the thing itself. Words did not stand like a whip behind the message, driving it in front, but stood like a sail in the wind. Letting the words lead. The sail out front, the wind giving movement.
It is not enough, then, to “speak truth”. Too often, Truth has been left to the brutal hands of Accuracy. This is not Truth, not in isolation anyway. Theology carries the gift of accuracy and a sermon can carry the specific marks of reliability and correct conclusion.
Correct Conclusion be damned, I now conclude.
Someone’s correct conclusion gives me no comfort, only shame at the impossibility of wrestling my own heart to bow to its accurate measurement of God. The summarizing points of accuracy and detail are not what my heart needs. Tell me the truth, but “tell it slant” as Eugene Peterson said (and I now adopt to my own ends). It is Truth when it is told with some modicum of compassion, when there is silence between the bullet points to admit that words do not suffice. Admit to me that there is darkness and silence from God. Tell me in detail how my own disobedient, prone to wander heart closes my ears to hear. Draw me the consequences in stark detail. But do not give this to me in medical textbook jargon as my spirit stands naked in papery hospital gown, a forgotten patient in some back room. Don’t leave me like that.
Because being left like that, accurate diagnosis aside, is a lie.
I feel bitterness when I think about this. Anger. Distraught fear. Desperation. But this is not entirely true to my experience now. I think it is empathy for the Dana Who Was, the Dana of Unanswered Prayer. I feel her pain intensely, for it is my own. It will still be mine. Yet things are not all the same. I do not hold the same grudge against the God of my Life. I feel, perhaps, a grudge against the ideas that led me to so shame myself into hiding my Unbelief. Faith is sustained by God and God alone. I can weed and garden but I do not grow. I refuse Shame for the places I cannot Believe. Because cannot is a literal place. Someday the change can come. Someday (and even now this has happened), I’ll believe and find comfort. But Belief and Comfort are perhaps not what I thought they were. The surface meaning is not what it experientially feels like to live and breath.
Listen to yourself, Dana-Who-Was (and Will-Be-Again): in the passing seasons, let pain be felt and obliterate belief without fearing for my Soul. Let distrust fill and mark me, let me honor loss by grief so great it eclipses my only light—because an eclipse is temporary; it is not the end or the Apocalypse. It is fear of annihilation but it is not the end itself. There is still a sun and the sun’s gravity is itself the thing that brought the moon to blot out the light. Why, I don’t know.
But please, please be unashamed for fearing when the Light goes out. Leaving God, disillusioned with Him, is not where shelter comes. It is your own heart, your own people, the human race you have been disillusioned with. Faith is not dead. It was never yours to keep alive.