Monday, January 17, 2011

The Security of Certainty

I feel really alone on my spiritual journey lately. I have a messy kind of faith; it rests almost entirely on a personal relationship with God. I do look to scripture for guidance and I seek counsel from those around me, but in the end it's between me and my Father. Some days I'm very good at living in His mystery but I just as frequently find myself desperate for the security of certainty. It's very tempting to believe that the answers are all there in black and white but the good book is full of metaphors, parables, vague and contradictory teachings not to mention a wide variety of translations. Who could possibly get it all right? There is no universal Christian belief system even among those who claim they follow Christ by strict adherence to His word as expressed in the Bible. To understand my leeriness it may help to hear a little about my spiritual journey thus far.

The Roman Catholic Church is the world's largest and oldest Christian denomination. It is also the church I attended most often during my formative years. It's where I learned about Jesus and the sacraments, hierarchy, hypocrisy and the abuse of power. I initially believed in the Catholic Church's authority to interpret scripture and share God's word honestly and accurately but as I grew to learn about the Crusades, the burning of heretics, the selling of indulgences, and the rape of children all trust was shattered. Yet, I sought to heal those wounds and repair my relationship with the Church so I left home and moved a thousand miles to Madonna House Apostolate; a very special Catholic lay community in rural Ontario. It was an amazing opportunity to experience a fellowship of men and women living simple, chaste lives focused on prayer and service. I had intended to stay months but after a few weeks it became apparent that I couldn't regain the blind faith I lost. The land, the lifestyle and the people were beautiful but my heart told me that I did not belong in the Catholic Church any longer. 

A few years later, desperate for reconciliation, I once again returned to the Church of my childhood. With a broken spirit and on bended knee I shared a confession that weighed heavily on my heart. The priest informed me that he could not offer me absolution (forgiveness) and I should refrain from sharing in Holy Communion because my marriage is not blessed by the Church and I am therefore in a perpetual state of sin. Ironically, my sin can be forgiven if I divorce my husband and have the marriage annulled. (Our marriage can never be blessed because my husband's first marriage was indeed a valid marriage.) This experience made me hungry for biblical confirmation of the Catholic doctrine. I read and read but could not find much support for many Catholic practices. At this point I officially became a Protestant. 

I say officially because although I continued to consider Catholicism my true home in the Church I did explore different denominations throughout my youth. A friend and coworker introduced me to the Plymouth Brethren  in the late 1990s and it was like entering a whole new world I didn't know existed in my own community. Brothers and sisters in Christ have very distinct roles: the men teach and preach but women are not permitted to address the congregation. Women also cover their heads in church to hide their glory; but men, being in the image and glory of God are not required to cover their heads. I was also surprised to learn there are no clergy among them -no priest, or minister, or pastor. Each of the men teach and preach as the Holy Spirit leads. They don't believe that unconverted people can really participate in church activities and they teach that gifts of the Spirit (such as speaking in tongues, healing and prophecy) were given to help lay the foundation of the church but cease to exist today.

I attended a handful of weekly services with the Brethren and joined my friend on a mission to Romania where we volunteered in an orphanage for three weeks. I couldn't deny that these people had a hunger for God but I wasn't convinced by the scripture they quoted to support their theology. I just couldn't make my square peg fit their round hole.

When I was in my twenties I also attended a few non-denominational services of a much more charismatic flavour. I saw people speaking in tongues and being brought to the floor as they received the Holy Spirit. I was approached and prayed over by a man and woman who were determined to get me to speak in tongues and drop to the floor. They kept trying to coax me to speak and when nothing happened they told me the 'spirit of resistance' was too strong in me. The man put his hands on my head and spoke strong words and pushed hard on my head. I laid down and closed my eyes just so they'd leave me alone. I do believe in miracles but there were no gifts of the Spirit on me that night and it turned me off completely.

I've also attended Presbyterian, United, Baptist, Eastern Orthodox and Anglican services. I've encountered very different groups of people who follow Christ and support their unique theology and practices by quoting the Bible. I'm not saying that any one of them is right or wrong in their beliefs; the truth is I have no idea because I've lost faith in any one, true authority for interpreting scripture. So, I'm at a place right now where I'm doing my best to continue asking questions and trying to keep an open mind about the answers I receive. Some teachings don't sit well with me so I don't adopt them as part of my personal belief system, but I can't close the door either. I'm not ruling out anything except for teachings that promote intolerance and abuse. I don't believe any father would pit his children against one another. It's not easy following Jesus like this. Most Christians don't know what to do with me. I've been told I'm not a real Christian; that I need to repent; that I'm intolerant of their beliefs; that I'm lukewarm; or that I just need to pray and keep at it, and I'll get there one day. ("There" largely meaning their interpretation of the Bible.)

Honestly, I'm starting to lose heart. I keep sharing my journey because I'm desperate for fellowship and the acceptance you feel when you speak honestly and are still accepted. But the truth is I'm not always accepted and it's a lonely path being the odd one out. The security of certainty, of being "one of us" is tempting, but in the end I can't commit to anything other than the truth of my experiences. I wonder sometimes if it would be easier to drop the Christian label, walk away from the institutions and just follow Jesus with no strings attached. I'm frustrated and confused and scared that maybe I'm doing it all wrong.


Sandra said...

Oh, Michelle, your journey sounds so much like mine--only I started out Protestant. But I went through the mission trip, the Plymouth Brethren, the charismatics, the "mainline" churches--all before I deconverted and went into my heathen years. Now that I'm returned to Christianity, I haven't even begun to look for community in real life. My fellowship, such as it is, is all online with people like you. At this point, I can't really imagine feeling comfortable in an institutional church again. I'm holding out hope that I will find a few wacky friends who will be willing to start an organic spiritual fellowship with me. Too bad we are on opposite sides of the continent!

Brianmpei said...

I wonder how many of us in the same community feel the same thing? I think it's possible to be at peace in a community that doesn't require everyone to adhere to a specific or particular belief on every topic of faith. For me it comes down to "moving towards Jesus" and the rest is pretty sketchy. But in any group, those that relentlessly desire and pursue truth and honesty will find themselves on the fringe as most human groups settle rather than continue the pilgrimage. I once knew my days on a particular church staff were over when the pastor told me that U2 couldn't possibly be Christians because they sang, "I still haven't found what I'm looking for..." I asked if he had. He said that indeed he had. Thankfully he didn't ask me the same or I probably would've been fired or put through and exorcism right on the spot!

Michelle said...

Sandra, It's more challenging than I thought it would be to have relationships with other Christians. I'm part of a church that I love and feel very comfortable in, but when you get down to one-on-one, 'this is what I believe' kinds of discussions... well, that's when it gets tricky. I try to focus on what we have in common (a desire to follow Jesus!) without complicating things too much, but I do love to talk about all the insights and challenges I face as I come to understand the basic tenets of Christianity. I'm not finding many people really that interested in this side of things. Yes, too bad we live so far apart. I'm sure we'd have some great chats!

Brian, you continue to encourage me to move forward and simplify what I can make way too complicated. I guess the truth is I may be more accepted than I think, and if I'm not, then it's not really about me anyway... Yes, I'm surprised you haven't had any unsolicited exorcisms yet.