I had a hard time when I first started going to church back in middle school. I blame my dad. If I learned anything from him, it was to think for myself. Don’t take anyone’s word for anything. If you believe something, BELIEVE it, because at the end of the day you have to answer to yourself, not anyone else.
As a 30-year-old person, that advice makes total sense. It is invaluable. It has helped make me who I am. But as a 14-year-old, those ideas made me crazy, especially when I found myself in Southern Baptist Youth Group Land. (I didn’t know that was A Place when I was there. But, oh, how I can see it now.) Everyone in SBYGL believed the same things and knew all the answers to all the questions. They had it down. I? Did not.
Youth group had a lot of things going for it: my friends were there, we did fun things, there were cute boys. But I zoned out when it got to the serious stuff. I think the biggest problem I had was how cut and dried everything was. The entire Bible was boiled down into a few bullet points that everyone understood and applied to their lives. There was a lot of talk about having a ‘relationship with God’, but I didn’t connect to that at all. I would get so frustrated because it seemed like the God everyone else was in relationship with was ignoring me. And there was a whole mess of stuff in the Bible that didn’t make sense or didn’t align with the bullet points, and I couldn’t figure out why no one was talking about that stuff.
I don’t say all of that to implicate my youth group. They very well could have been addressing all of those things when I wasn’t paying attention. (See above re: cute boys.) Being wrong and looking stupid are two things I am very self-conscious about, and it was even worse as a teenager. I certainly would have never spoken up or asked questions. I didn’t want to be the only one who didn’t get it, so I just rolled with it and played the part and wore the t-shirts. (I wish there hadn’t been t-shirts.)
That environment, coupled with my insecurity, led to a young adult faith that didn’t amount to much. God wasn’t personal to me. I didn’t feel connected to him. He felt like a guy in the sky who was really concerned with my behavior but not so much with who I was. I believed in God, for sure – I knew there was more to life than what I could see. But I didn’t appreciate the fact that he wasn’t all that interested in us knowing each other.
That’s why, when I read this passage in Susan Isaacs’ Angry Conversations With God: A Snarky But Authentic Spiritual Memoir (what a great title), I knew exactly how she felt.
When I think of the people whose character I admire, they’ve all walked through deserts or hells far worse than mine. And when they got to the other side–the ones who did get to the other side–they always said God got them through it. They have a peace and a friendship with God that I want. But the problem is, the man who’s stuck in the desert because God put him there looks exactly like the man who’s stuck in the desert because he’s lost. And I don’t know which one I am. I don’t know if I’m here to find friendship with God or if I’ve been left to die.
My ex used to get angry when I said that. He would say, “God isn’t personal. God isn’t good or bad. God is like science. God just is.” But even with science… Look at the stars. You see such beauty and order, and you sense the Thought that went into their making. But if that thoughtfulness is not extended to me, then all that order and beauty is merely cold and sterile space that mocks me because I’ve been excluded from it.
If God wants to burn up everything useless in my life, amen to that. But I want to know whether or not this sorrow has an end. Do these longings in my heart for love and purpose mean anything? I say yes. Is my need for God just misplaced longing that has no place to be satisfied? I say no. The body thirsts because it needs water and water exists. The soul longs for purpose because it needs it, and because it exists. And I wouldn’t long for God if he didn’t exist. I am taking this personally because I am personal. And I don’t think that an impersonal God could create humans to be personal. So I’m taking this personally from a personal God.
My life and my faith journey have brought me a long way from SBYGL. I do believe that God is a personal God. I don’t think I’ve been left in the desert to die, no matter how much it may seem like I have. I rarely feel it, but I’m learning that it’s not about feeling. I see God in my community, in the books I read, in conversations with junior high girls. The boundaries of my world are bigger, grayer, more forgiving. I believe that the thoughtfulness that brings beauty and order to the stars does the same for my life. And you can’t sum that up in bullet points.