I just spent the past half hour rocking and singing nursery school songs and Switchfoot melodies with my two-year old daughter. Stepping out of her room after putting her down for a nap, I feel like I have just come from a spa for my soul.
I've had a rough year, spiritually. There were some struggles that made it more pronounced-- my parents divorce, a friend's struggle with her abusive ex-husband for custody over her autistic son, our own financial stress-- but by and large the tone of this year has been characterized by an ever-increasing and bleak feeling of doubt.
With those that I am closest to, I have admitted to being in the midst of a “crisis of faith” of sorts. And it is, sort of, that, but I hesitate to name it as such to most people because it implies that I am on the cusp of taking all the past decade of belief and spirituality I have built up and throwing it all away. And that's not exactly what is happening. Moreso, I suppose I have been... distracted. There is a saying I have heard echoed over and over again in church circles that we need to focus more on what God does and less on what people who claim his name are doing. And I suppose I have yet to internalize that saying yet, because that is precisely what has been pulling me away.
It sort of started with Darkon, honestly. I've been locked away in the world of Christian social circles for quite a while, probably since a couple years before I was married. I was never opposed to friendships outside my fellow believers, but when you spend three or four nights a week at church and have relatively little time for anything else, your social awareness tends to become restricted, and unless you consciously do something about it, you'll find yourself suddenly locked into a world defined only by the cultural tenets of the American church. But when I decided I had enough interest in LARPing to step outside my comfort zone and try it out, I became very quickly invested in a new social circle, which in many ways is diametrically opposed to my wonted “churchy” world. These people drink. They party. They cuss and smoke and throw around lewd humor with abandon. Many of them are at least indifferent on the subject of religion, if not utterly opposed to it, and embrace all the most “worldly” trends: casual sex, homosexual marriage, abortion, divorce, etc. They are, in a lot of ways (and of course allowing for some exceptions), a “rough” crowd, and I admit, at first I was a bit intimidated by them.
But as I came to know these people, I discovered among them something that I have been in search of since before I even professed Christ at sixteen years old. They are a community. These people care about each other, help each other, encourage each other, support each other. They may show it in odd ways-- at least to my sheltered upbringing-- but they genuinely care about each other, and show that care and support regardless of the circumstances. For example—and fair warning, some people aren't going to like reading this-- being of a rather sheltered lifestyle and suddenly finding myself surrounded by a much more loose environment with very little accountability, I have gotten rather inebriated on at least two separate occasions, while surrounded by people who, to be fair, didn't know me at all, outside of my in-game persona as a cleric, keeper of my country's harem, and sometime private pastry chef to the recently-crowned king. I admit it was naive of me. I admit it wasn't very Christian behavior. I admit, I took a lot of very foolish risks doing so. But rather than take advantage of my impaired judgment in any way, the people I play with rather took care of me, giving me water to rehydrate me, keeping an eye on me, and seeing me safely off to my tent. Furthermore, I haven't heard a word of judgment from them on the subject afterward, short of the occasional gentle joke about me not being able to hold my chocolate cake (Liquor I can handle. It's the cake that does me in!).
Thanks to those experiences, I have learned firsthand why not to drink (Hangovers suck, and alcohol does not promote deep sleep. I definitely am one of those people who NEEDS my forty winks in full.), and in fact will be quite satisfied to limit myself to a two glasses of wine maximum in a night for the rest of my days. You could say I have repented of that particular sin episode, and after all, most people take a lot more repetitions of that transgression before they learn that lesson (all of college, perhaps?).
But the thing that still astounds me is that community. The love. The acceptance. I was worried at first coming into it that perhaps I would be shunned simply because I am a Christian, and therefore associated in some people's minds with such hateful bigotry as that espoused by groups like Westboro Baptist Church and other hatemongers using the Bible as their justification to tear others down. But even that hasn't posed an obstacle to my full inclusion in this community. And not because I hide it, though I admit my timid nature makes me instinctively want to do so. In fact, the other day I posted an article on Facebook regarding the scriptural argument for and against homosexuality as a sin, and one of the respected leaders in the game actually came and joined in the conversation as easily and friendly as if we were far closer than we unfortunately are at this point (though if ever he wishes to pursue that friendship, he has found a willing soul in me!). There was no judgment, no condemnation, only a willing contribution of his own knowledge regarding original passages from the Torah and the importance of accurate translation in the discussion of such matters. In fact, I could not say for certain which side of the issue he comes down on. But he was so easygoing about the whole thing that I find myself easily able to respect his opinion, whatever it should turn out to be.
And that is something that I find so sadly lacking in the church, at least where I am, at this present time. Maybe-- okay, probably-- it is in large part due to the fact that I tend to isolate myself. I am a bit weird, after all, a Christian wife and mom who would rather sit up all night rolling dice and making up stories in a science fiction universe with the guys than go to a Chris Tomlin concert or a MOPS game night with the girls. I tend to relate more to guys, and that makes me feel more than a little awkward in the rather gender-segregated world of the conservative Baptist church. I find myself getting a little defensive when my friend jokes about me “stealing her husband” on the weekends, or when a message is preached on the importance of a mother's role in the home. Truth be told, I chafe under the perceived impression that as a Christian female, it is my highest calling to serve my husband and pop out and raise babies in a sheltered environment that consists of home-school co-ops and Sunday School socials. (And I say “percieved impression” for a reason-- I am entirely aware that 90% of this concept is due to my own take on the input I receive from the world around me). It's not that I mind being a wife and a mother. Far from it: I could not imagine my life without my best friend turned spouse by my side, and while she drives me nuts sometimes, my daughter has been a light and an instrument of growth in my life in so many ways, and lately I even find myself wanting another one (I know, right?! This is ME we're talking about!). Rather what bothers me is the feeling that these are the ONLY options I and other women like me are being offered. The feeling that babies, and diapers, and midnight feedings, and diets, and hairstyles, and Beth Moore bible studies, and homeschooling, and Christian romance novels, and marriage workshops, and parenting books are the only church-sanctioned interests I may pursue. The feeling that, because I happen to have more interest in motorcycles, Star Trek, and martial arts, I am somehow not right, or broken in some fashion. I know, I know... nobody has come right out and said it. But it's the feeling I get when other women give me strange looks when I speak up about the Doctor Who earrings I made or when they spy the ticky-tie and foam sword-induced bruising on my arms and legs. The way I feel when I try to strike up a conversation about the real-world application of feminism in the lives of our daughters and in the church, and the conversation seems to die away, and then shy back to the latest Twilight movie. I'm weird. I don't belong. At least not the way others do, or seem to.
The thing is, by any normal standard, I am even weirder when surrounded by my Darkon brethren. I am the innocent little churchwife among blue collar working men and women and military vets, staunchly heterosexual and happily married among open marriages, swingers, and people who date each other like they were playing sexual bingo. I am awkward and self-conscious and prone to episodes of severe wardrobe malfunction, not to mention foot-in-mouth disease, and I constantly struggle with the part of myself that wants to just give up the charade of holiness and delve into the whole shebang, coarse language, lewd wordplay and all (and I admit, again, that I have done this all too often, to my own chagrin). But I am accepted. Welcomed, even. Regardless of my background, my beliefs, my awkward character traits and indecision. And why? Maybe because I bake good cookies, or because I made the old guys feel good by coming up with the “Old Man Crush” concept (if he is too old to be within the Rule of Seven for dating age, he has then been relegated to the honored position of candidate for an Old Man Crush). I don't really know. Its hard for me, still, to understand why other people would want me around at all, and I struggle constantly with that adolescent crisis of self-image even now, well beyond high school. But the fact is, they do want me around. I feel welcome and a part of something, fully, and with no strings or stipulations attached, even when they have no idea what the crap this little church girl is talking about. They just roll their eyes and tell me to watch my flank, and then cheer and pat me on the back as I spear some stick-jock on the end of my borrowed foam pole-arm. They're happy to let me be me, and they don't have any expectations or molds for me to fit or fill.
Anyway, coming full circle to what I was talking about, the doubt I've been feeling is very much wrapped up in this new-- at least for me-- feeling of community. I became a believer, at least in part, initially because I wanted to be a part of something. In a home torn by divorce at least once, and belonging to a group of friends who seemed to break and reform friendships weekly, I wanted something I could rely on, a community who would stick together, and that was what I thought I saw in the church, at least from the outside. But since that day, all I have seen is a body ripped apart by discord, sin, judgment, pride, and false expectations. I have seen the pastor I first came to Christ under be kicked out of his church for putting politics ahead of the gospel. I have seen the man who led me to Christ abandon his wife without any warning whatsoever and shun and shame every one of his friends who tried to correct him. I have seen friends grow alienated and divorce and leave the church, disillusioned with the silence and unspoken judgments. I have seen over and over again backstabbing and biting words and betrayal that made me more and more nervous to admit my own failings in what I once supposed to be a “safe” environment. I have watched close friends leave the church over the hostility that erupted when they admitted their sins to the leadership and attempted to apologize to the people who had hurt them.
I am not speaking of a specific church body or group of believers here. I've been a member of a handful, and I've experienced through others more of the hurt and pain and loss of trust that have driven us into this limbo of belief. Honestly, I've probably been a part of it too, though the admission pains me. The fact is... the Church doesn't seem to be that community of loving people I once supposed it to be when I walked with childlike wonder through its doors for the first time. And, for a long time, I supposed that was merely because such a community did not, could not exist here on this fallen planet. But now... since finding it in the least likely of places, among a bunch of mostly non-believers... I am left with a lot of questions, and a lot of doubt.
And I have been struggling with that doubt throughout this past year. Simultaneously growing closer to the wonderful people I have been blessed to meet at Darkon and in role-playing, while allowing-- to my own shame-- the divide I feel between myself and the church, and subsequently between myself and God, to grow ever greater. Some days when I sit in church or teach Old Testament stories to my first through fifth grade girls, I feel more like I am pretending to believe all this, pretending to be a part of it, when really, I identify more with the sinner and the tax collector, the married gay couple or the divorced feminist watching from the outside. I want to believe, but the actions I see around me terrify me, and my desire to be identified with them is less and less strong with each passing moment.
But singing with my baby girl today, as we rocked back and forth in her room, I slowly realized the missing element of the equation in all this doubt and fear I've been hiding out in lately. And it's best summed up in something my baby said. “Hannah?” I asked her after singing a few songs. “What do you know about God?” I figured she is still so innocent and young, and Jesus speaks of coming to Him as little children: if anyone could tell me the inside scoop, it was this flaxen-haired toddler curled up on my lap. In reply, she launched into song again. “Jesus loves me, this I know. For the Bible tells me so. Little ones to Him belong. They are weak, but He is strong.”
Nothing about the homosexual political debate. Nothing about sin and salvation. Nothing about how to be a good “Christian whatever”. Just that Jesus loves me. How do I know? The Bible, His word, says He does. I belong to Him, I am one of His precious children. And His strength covers over my weakness. Covers over my doubts.
I have lost focus lately. I forgot what is supposed to be at the center of my faith: Jesus... God, and the Love He has for me. The love that was personified in an innocent man, dying on a cross to prove what lengths He would go to to be in communion with me. And really, what does it matter what people in or out of the church do? They're just people, as lost, as broken, maybe even as full of doubt as I am. What matters is that I belong to a God who is above all that, and it is only Him I need look to for support and approval. Everything else is just on the periphery. Jesus should be at the center. And He is that community for me, the loving arms that welcome me back into his embrace, despite my recently filthy language, my doubts, my drunkenness, my weirdness, my rebellion against others expectations, and my fear of being an outcast. That community I have been seeking has been here all along, in my Heavenly Father. I've just been too distracted to see it.
Thank God for children and their clarity of understanding.